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"We are here for the music and NOT the other way round !"

Updated: 2018-02-21T23:03:38.712+00:00


Secret Twins - Christoph and Ken


Mahler Symphony no 9, Daniel Harding Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra


Mahler Symphony no 9 in D major, with Daniel Harding conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, new from Harmonia Mundi. A rewarding performance on many levels, not least because it's thoughtfully sculpted, connecting structure to meaning.  A graceful first movement, respecting the marking  andante comodo "comfortable pace". The harp and strings here have a mellow richness which enhances the gentle rhythmic pulse.  For "pulse" this is, suggesting the human body at rest, calmly breathing.  Gradually the palpitations build up towards expansive outbursts, as if invigorated by the flow of life.  When silence descends, marked by timpani ans strident brass, the effect is chilling.  The harp ruminates, and the steady pace resumes.  The music flares up again : tension, alarm and a spiralling descent into darkness, and a wall  of mournful winds and brasses. Yet again, though, steadiness prevails.  Celli and bassoons lead the way ahead. Harding shapes the flow by highlighting the fanfares, so the undertow can be heard without undue exaggeration.  Now, when relative silence returns, the mood is pure and calm: the  high, clear pitch of the woodwinds is exquisite, evoking, perhaps, memories of summer, a typical Mahler touch. Thus we are prepared for the second movement, marked "Etwas täppisch und sehr derb".(rustic, simple, earthy). Why Ländler in a symphony some still associate with death ? Ländler are danced by peasants who till the soil, who know that seasons change and that harvests return after fallow times. This movement is much more than folklore : it connects to the theme of change and rebirth that runs through so much of Mahler's work. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays with gusto, Harding gauging their strengths.  There's humour here and impish high jinks. The spirit of Pan awakes !  Thus the lively leaps ans swirls, the flow of the first movement returning in exuberant form. The pace whips up, propelled along with force, yet once again, the dance returns, for dance, like Nature, moves in rhythmic cycles. The movement ends with a smile - a deft, piping little figure.The Rondo in the third movement was vigorously animated. The pace is now near-frenzy, strings and winds flying free, though steady beat can still be heard in the lower voices.  Nonetheless, though the spirit may be wild, Harding doesn't lose shape. We hear the violin emerge, its way lit by harp.  In the tumult, the swaying palpitations of the first movement revive in burlesque parody.  Indeed, much of this symphony is like dance, motifs returning in guises. Two slow movements at each end, taken slow, encasing two fast-moving inner movements.If the first movement was comodo, the last is stately, even majestic in its sweep. The strings take charge, lifting above and away from the orchestra, much in the way that birds take flight above the earth.  Their line shimmers, undimmed, though the sound is rich.  Bassoons moan,  suggesting depth, which intensifies the heights the strings are striving towards. The leader plays a keening, soaring line at a tessitura so high it's almost ethereal. The "pulse" of the first movement is back, now transfigured, no longer bodily but spiritual.  At the end, sounds  become so pure that they dissolve, as if beyond human hearing.Although this was the last symphony Mahler completed, there is no evidence that he was contemplating his own death. From what we now know about his life, from the events of his life, and also from what we have of what was to be his Tenth Symphony, he wasn't just looking backward any more than in so many other of his works where death is vanquished by new life.  It is significant that when Harding, aged 20, was Claudio Abbado's chosen assistant in Berlin, he was given the Tenth to study, at a period when many conductors were still performing only the first movement.  Learning a composer back to front is not a bad thing, especially a composer like Mahler wh[...]

Music for Robots


Not quite Edgard Varese, then

Rameau Maître à danser William Christie


Rameau : Maître à danser with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in the famed production at Le théâtre de Caen, from 2014,  still (just) available on Culturebox.  Notice, Maître à danser, not master of the dance but a master to be danced to: there's a difference.  Dance is movement, formalized into art.  Dance encapsulates the values of the baroque, where art meant civilisation, refinement over nature, orderliness over abundance.  Rameau was a music theorist as well as a composer, his music shaped by the values of his time. The pulse of dance invigorates his music, and informs its intricate patterns.  We can hear it animate the music. Now, fortunately, thanks to extensive modern research, we can also watch music being danced to, in stagings that reflect the spirit of the period.In this performance, Christie presents Daphnis et Églé  (1753), written as a private entertainment for Louis XV and his court at Fontainebleau, after days spent out in the forests hunting for game. Context is relevant. It also commemorates the birth of a royal princes, and dynastic continuity.  The King wanted to be amused, but the show also had to flatter his image of power.  Thus both pieces present Happy Peasants, acting out simple, innocent lives, their peaceful idylls made possible by the benevolence of the King.    Daphnis et Églé is basically a masque for dancing,  Daphnis (Reinoud Van Mechelen) and Églé (Élodie Fonnard), shepherd and shepherdess, are friends who gradually fall in love over a sequence of 16 tableaux.  Daphnis flirts with a stranger, singing a lovely air. Églé drags him away.  Cupid appears, with wings and a wooden bow and arrow.  Daphnis presents  Églé  with a bow. Later, heavily "pregnant, they embrace as happy peasants dance around them.  Van Mechelen and Fonnard are familiar names on the French baroque circuit. Fonnard's particularly pert and dramatic  and Van Mechelen has good stage presence. The first performance of this piece in 1753 flopped, apparently because the singers were duds. Fonnard and Van Mechelen are good. They're delightfully fresh.  But singing is only part of the dramatic whole, contrary to modern notions about the past.  There isn't much of a plot, and what narrative there is unfolds in stylized symbols. In the final sequence, Églé carries a doll, representing a new-born babe. Louis XV and his Queen, with their infant prince, would have been flattered.Contrary to modern assumptions, the singing, though beautiful, does not take precedence over all else.  Baroque values emphasized balance and natural order, ensemble not diva-ism.  Van Mechelen has a lovely passage "Chantez ! Chantez", garlanded by woodwinds that sing like birds, bringing "nature" into the proceedings, and the idea of natural purity. The long dance sequences, punctuated by simple percussion, emphasize the orchestra over the singers.  Indeed, the chorus has almost as much to do as the singers.    Daphnis et Églé works well when its slender charms aren't overwhelmed by excess opulence. Daneman's staging reflects this innocence, A simple cloth is held up on sticks to suggest  peasant theatre.  Alain Blanchot's costumes (organic dyed fabric?) show the shepherds and shepherdesses in what would have been normal 18th century costume for their class, ie "modern" for the time. Daneman has worked with Christie since their first Hippolyte et Aricie together some 20 years ago.  This stylized simplicity is of the essence, since The King wanted to portray himself as father of his people, a populace too childlike and naive to object.  Little did he know what would happen in 1789!  Françoise Denieau choreographed. Each of these danced sequences represent a d[...]

Jonas Kaufmann Diana Damrau Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch


Jonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau, Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch, Goldner Saale, Musikverein, ViennaJonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau singing Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch with Helmut Deutsch at the Barbican Hall, London.  Despite astronomical prices, tickets will sell.  Not for Hugo Wolf, but for Kaufmann and Damrau, a good team for music like this. Unlike most of the concerts in the Barbican's Kaufman residency, this one is seriously interesting in musical terms.  Hugo Wolf will always be more specialist taste than populist, but this Liederbuch could be ideally suited to Kaufmann, whose sensually-charged, darker timbre should be pretty much perfect.  Wolf hasn't enjoyed mega profile celebrity status for decades. Kaufmann and Damrau's tour takes in twelve European cities, including Berlin, Vienna, London, Paris, Barcelona and Budapest.  Kaufmann and Damrau's Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch is significant, so chances are that a recording will eventuate. It will be cheaper than shelling out big for tickets/transport ! haha ! Besides THIS is where I went the night before, still high on it.For the Italienisches Liederbuch, Wolf used texts by Paul Heyse, whose translations of Italian and Spanish poetry appealed to German-language readers, fascinated by "The Dream of the South" a potent theme in Central European aesthetics,  even before Goethe's life-transforming visits to Italy.  Wolf was born in Windischgrätz in what is now Slovenia. Though the family was German-speaking, Wolf's mother played the guitar and had Italian connections.  Dreams of the South cast a spell on Wolf, who would later go on to write the Spanisches Liederbuch and the opera Der Corregidor.  Significantly, though, Wolf never actually made it to Italy.  When his friend arranged for him to visit during his last, troubled years, he refused to go, aware perhaps that nothing could quite match the Italy of his imagination.  The forty-six songs in Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch form a panorama, each song an individual vignette.  Lovers pine for one another, thwarted by bossy mothers. Serenades, and songs about dirty old men dressed as monks ! Delicate songs of innocence, robust songs of flirtation, and songs of sheer wonder, like Schon streckt' ich aus im Bett die müden Glieder, where a man jumps out of bed to fill the streets with song.  But not just to one girl. "So manches Mädchen hat mein Lied gerührt, Indes der Wind schon Sang und Klang entführt." (many girls hear my song, even when it's been blown away by wind and noise). Images of sunshine, and of the night, of warmth and a sensibility very different to uptight Northern morality (and probably not much like strict Catholic behaviour, either.).Each song is a miniature opera, telling a story, creating a mood. That's why I think these songs were made for Jonas Kaufmann.  His voice has a smouldering, sexy quality which suits the slightly louche nature of these songs.  His Italianate looks don't hurt, either !  As an opera singer, creating character with his voice comes naturally. Although these songs are Lieder, they aren't as inward or as intellectual as many Lieder can be, so they can benefit from a more impersonal approach as long as the touch is elegant enough not to overwhelm.  Although Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau made so many recordings that the Italienisches Liederbuch is almost (not quite) associated with him,  the collection is also tenor territory.  Peter Schreier and Christoph Prégardien performed it many time, Prégardien sometimes adjusting the song order to group the songs into tighter units. So Kaufmann, with his baritonish richness could create the best of both worlds.Because Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch depends so much on the interplay between the many different components in the collection,  in practical performance it needs singers who are  balanced enough to create a[...]

Wunderhorn-haunted Mahler 5 - Jakub Hrůša, Philharmonia


Jakub Hrůša (photo Pavel Heinz, for IMG)Many have wondered, "How Bohemian was Gustav Mahler?". Mahler Symphony no 5 with Jakub Hrůša and the Philharmonia Orchestra paired with Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1 in C, op 15, with soloist Piotr Anderszewski at the Royal Festival Hall, London, might shed some light. Mahler grew up in German-speaking communities in what is now Bohemia/Moravia, so the question is valid.  Though German speakers dominated society in those times, and Bohemian received less deference, as a bright, sensitive child Mahler might have absorbed the sounds around him.  Although Mahler's Fifth Symphony is not a Wunderhorn symphony, it still carries the vigorous vernacular of the folk traditions captured in Brentano and Arnim's volume Des Knaben Wunderhorn.Hrůša brought out the robust spirit that animates the symphony. Far from being neurotic, this is a symphony that celebrates life in its variety. It begins with a Trauermarsch, a funeral march, in measured steps.  Growing up in a garrison town, Mahler would often have seen soldiers in drill formation. Hence the marking "wie ein Konduct".  Thus the baleful trumpet call, followed by trombones and tuba, and the steady pace. But almost immediately, something extra happened.  The fingerings on the basses brought out the "wood" in their instruments. Hollow sounds and very spooky, evoking the sound of skeletons marching through town in Revelge, the dead resurrected in macabre afterlife.  The high winds sounded like cries of anguish. It is also significant that Mahler experienced a dangerous illness before the completion of Symphony no 5.  He, too, had beaten death and could laugh in its face.  Hrůša's approach is interpretively valid, making connections between this symphony and so much else in Mahler,  even to the quirky, dark humour of Symphony no 7.  A chilling last chord, to press the point.This symphony was first performed with the Rückert song Um Mitternacht. In the silence of the night the poet hears his heart and realizes its beat separates life from death.The angular phrasing with which the second movement begins, underlined by "heartbeats"of the timpani, suggested the pulse of a body.  The trumpet plays a dual role. It propels forward thrust yet also stands for a single player, and individual in a larger group. A humble soldier, the human face of an army : part of the Wunderhorn ethos. In the fanfare and storm-tossed passages that follow, the trumpet leads on.  Here, an exhilaration reminiscent of Mahler's Symphony no 1. But an "individual" emerges again in the violin, lyrical but distinctive.  The third movement moves from Scherzo to stillness. There are interlocking dialogues, between trumpet and horn, between horn and flute, solo violin and strings. This dynamic suggests variety : the proliferation of different stories in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, perhaps, but also in life itself.  Now the violin part dominates, leading into more mysterious territory. Winds call, and brass. Dense textures and shadows. The violins sang freely contrasting with angular brass, wooden percussion beating tension.  Are we hearing the sounds of the night, or the sounds in a dense forest? At moments, I felt as though the spirit of the Cunning Little Vixen had infused the symphony, enhancing it with the fertility and freedom which the Vixen symbolizes. Perhaps the Vixen lingered, too, in the Adagietto, with its natural, unforced tenderness.  The Vixen is a feminine presence, and "feminine" themes occur quite often in Mahler.  Hrůša placed the celli between the first and second violins and violas, so an almost imperceptible tremble added to the fragility of the moment.  As so often in Mahler, good times don't last, though as in Nature, new life replaces old.  Thus the vernal freshness with which the Rondo-Finale began, develope[...]

Kung Hei Fat Choy - Donald the Dog


Kung Hei Fat Choy !  Welcome to the Spring festival, start of the Lunar New Year, Friday 16th February, this year.   This is the biggest celebration of the year, when families get together from all over the country and the world. Everyone feasts. To attract good fortune for the New Year, people display flowers and fruit and "lucky" objects like calligraphy and brightly coloured ornaments.  Since this year is the Year of the Dog in the Chinese zodiac, a lot of the ornaments depict dogs. Whole stalls selling toy dogs - soft toys, balloons, dancing toys and stuff for kids. I even saw someone "walking" a toy dinosaur, with wheels in its legs.  Above, a Dog who's been on the streets in Shanxi province for quite a while.  Political commentary ? Aha ! Although people born in the Year of the Dog are generally loyal and trustworthy, those born as "Fire Dogs" in the more detailed 60-year zodiac have problems.  Like dogs, they obey and are controlled by others. They like money and comforts but don't manage them well.  And in matters of love, they are, well, like hounds.  Of course this doesn't apply to everyone, but..... !

Hubert Parry Choral Festival, Gloucester


The Gloucester Choral Society host a choral festival honouring Charles Hubert Parry on the 100th anniversary of his death.  Parry was perhaps the finest British composer in the generation before Edward Elgar, and, as Director of the Royal College of Music, helped shape 20th century British music, in particular the music of John Ireland, Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams.  Parry's Jerusalem is almost our National Anthem. But the song, like the poem by William Blake that inspired it, is all too often misunderstood. (Please read my piece on it HERE). Though born to privilege, Parry's sympathies lay closer to Blake's than to the Establishment. It's fitting, then, that the GCS Festival begins with a Come and Sing Workshop  led by Adrian Partington, where singers of all abilities will be welcome to sing Parry's Blest Pair of Sirens, and other pieces like Ireland's Vexilla Regis, Holst's Turn Back O Man and Vaughan Williams’sa Towards the Unknown Region.On Saturday, 5th May,  a gala evening concert will be held at Gloucester Cathedral, where the Gloucester Choral Society will be joined by the Oxford Bach Choir and the Philharmonia Orchestra in a programme that begins  with Parry's I was Glad and ends with Jerusalem. Along the way, Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Tallis, Holst's Hymn of Jesus, Ireland's Greater Love hath no Man and Parry's Ode to the Nativity.  Earlier on, an afternoon recital with Ashley Grote, the noted organist, at St Peter's Catholic Church in Gloucester  with Parry's Chorale Fantasia on O God, our help in ages past, his Fantasia and Fugue in G and his Choral Preludes on Martyrdom and  Eventide plus organ music by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Ireland.  On Sunday,  Eucharist and Evensong at Gloucester  Cathedral will be celebrated with music by Parry,Vaughan Williams, and HowellsPerhaps the most unique event for true Parry devotees  will be the all-day study day on Monday 7th at Highnam, which isn't generally open to the public except by arrangement. Highnam House was built in the 16th century, and extensively restored by Thomas Gambier Parry, the composer's father, who built the Church of the Holy Innocents, a gem of Victorian architectural excellence. (There's a street named after him in Gloucester). Professor Jeremy Dibble , Parry's biographer and an authority on British music, will give a talk on Parry's choral music. There'll also be a recital, and an Evensong in the Church, which will include Parry's Magnificat and Nunc Dimmitus, Vaughan Williams's Antiphon and Parry's Chorale Prelude on Hanover. More details here from the Three Choirs Festival website[...]

Life-affirming Smetana Má vlast : Jiří Bělohlávek


Prague Spring Festivals have always had more than musical significance, since they commemorate Czech nationhood.  In 1948, and again in 1968, they had political meaning.  Smetana's Má vlast , perhaps the most powerful expression of Czech identity in music, has opened the Festival for 65 years. Thus, when Bělohlávek conducted it in 2014, it represented much more than an opening of a new season.  Bělohlávek had returned to the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra after the years of tension when he had been forced to resign. His passionate dedication to Czech repertoire helped restore the orchestra to its glories and to reaffirm the country's unique musical character.  Thus, in honour of Bělohlávek, who died suddenly in May 2017, Decca has released that legendary performance on C D, in pristine sound quality.  Bootlegs do exist, but they don't measure up.  But this release is a major event in terms of performance. It is outstanding, powerfully played and inspired by truly intense passionate commitment.Smetana's  Má vlast has inspired numerous good recordings, so many that comparisons would be invidious.  It is such a remarkable piece that it repays serious listening, over and over again.  Like so many before him, Bělohlávek conducted Má vlast many times during his career, but  only the Supraphon recording from 1990 has beencommercially available. This new recording outclasses that, treasured as it will remain.  But recordings are only snapshots in time, and time moves on.   This recording thus captures an important moment in Bělohlávek's fertile later career, and in the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra's heritage.The Vlatava is landscape, yet also a metaphor for Bohemian history.  The first movement of Má vlast is titled Vyšehrad referring to the ancient castle on an outcrop on the river, reputedly the original Bohemian settlement.  On this recording, the harps are played with particular lustre, beautifully lucid yet also firm and assertive, an important detail, since they represent an ancient bard, who lives on in the spirit of music.  The settlement still exists (Smetana is buried there) but time, like the river, moves onwards. Thus the harps also suggest flowing waters. By the time we reach the second movement Vlatava, the river is in full flow, constantly refreshed from mountain sources, growing in strength and volume as they pass through the land.  Horns are heard, evoking the past, and forests, and suggestions of dance, evoking not only folk tradition but also a sense of circular, swirling movement.  Hence the liquid pace  Bělohlávek achieves, energetic but graceful, and the repeating flourishes, leading to the expansive section, then slowing down then rising again, refreshed, significantly, by the harps.The movement Šárka is mythic and Z českých luhů a hájů (From Bohemia's Woods and Fields) descriptive, but in musical terms these serve to enrich the overall shape of the saga, much in the way that a river is fed from different streams and different sources.  Here the orchestra bristles with character. The triumphant march-like figures capture the defiant, amazon-like  spirit of the  female goddess, who will not be conquered.  Note the moaning bassoons, trombones and winds.  Bělohlávek defines the clean textures of the fourth movement with naturalness and ease, so when the horns announce the expansiveness in the middle section, the affirmation feels vigorous, but without malevolence. This prepares us for the darkness in the next movements,Tábor and Blaník.Tábor was a Hussite fortress, under seige and eventually defeated in violent massacres.  Thus the quiet, tense introduction, developed through brass and timpani, which grows bolder as the hymn [...]

Go to bed, wake up gay !


The Grand Siècle, London Festival of the Baroque 2018


The Treasures of the Grand Siècle come to the London Baroque Festival in May. Curated by Guest Director Sébastien Daucé, this promises to be one of the most exciting events in town this summer. Anyone aware of Daucé's Le Concert Royal de la Nuit with Ensemble Correspondances (Harmonia Mundi) will know what to expect. Le Concert Royal de la Nuit was Louis XIV's  revolutionary manifesto, announcing the dawn of an exuberant new age. It was performed only once, on 23rd February 1653, in the palace of Petit-Bourbon in Paris : an extravaganza where the star was its subject : Louis XIV, the King of France.  It ran for 13 hours solid,  from darkness to dawn, dawn being, of course the return of the sun. Thus Louis revealed himself as the Sun King, his countenance bringing light to the nation.  He appeared, in the costume pictured right,  dressed as the sun, the centre of the solar system, the bringer of light and growth. The Sun King was taking command, not only of the Court but also of France, then the most advanced and sophisticated nation in Europe.The influence of Le Concert Royal de la Nuit can hardly be overestimated : it marks the beginning of "modern" music, opera and ballet.  It is also a metaphor for the baroque spirit, which lives on in French style. Its audacity lies in its extravagant imagination, elegance restraining excess, technical achievement balanced by refinement, agility and energy.  And intelligence - the spectacle was designed by and for minds who understood the value of the mind as a source of civilization.   It evolves in four parts, comprising numerous scena and interludes, depicting the known and unknown world. Gods and Symbolic Deities mix with mortals and (glorified)  peasants, representing the multitudes whom Louis would rule over, in fact as well as in allegory.  Musicians, singers, dancers, acrobats, jugglers : the plethora of styles and skills reflected the diversity of the Empire and the scale of Louis's ambition, the abundance of human experience elegantly ordered into artistic form. No way could the original be matched today. But Daucé and Ensemble Correspondances have produced Le Concert Royal in a semi-staged edition., most recently in Caen last year. What they'll be able to do at St John’s Smith Square, I don't know, but it will certainly be an experience.  We'll have to use our imaginations, as Louis XIV did so long ago.  Before the performance on Saturday 19th May, Daucé will discuss the reconstruction of the 1653 spectacle, which exists in manuscripts and documents of the period.The Spirit of the Baroque encompasses the whole world. Not for nothing it followed on from the Age of Discoveries, when Europeans encountered cultures very different from their own. Consider Les Indes Galantes and Jean Jacques Rousseau, implanting ideas of change and the innate dignity of mankind. At a stretch, the values that led to 1789 and to Napoléan ! The Festival, begins with Le Poème Harmonique on Friday 11th May and an anthology  exploring the influence of exoticism , featuring Le Ballet des Nations from Lully's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme  and works by Cavalli and Mouliniè.  Le Poème Harmonique (director Vincent Dumestre) excel in this genre : a concert not to be missed.  Then, on to Versailles with Fuoco E Cenere and "Paris-Madras"  with Le Concert de L'Hostel-Dieu where the music of Couperin is interleaved with an ancient Râga d'Inde Alaap, Jor et Jhala played on Indian instruments. La Nuova Musica (Director David Bates) present Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice with soloists Iestyn Davies, Sophie Bevan and Rebecca Bottone on Sunday May 13th,  and on Tuesday 15th May, at Westminster Abbey, no less, James O'Donnell leads St James Baroq[...]

Jurowski : Stravinsky Firebird, Rimsky-Korsakov


Young Stravinsky, around the time he met Rimsky-Korsakov in 1902Vladimir Jurowski's Stravinsky Journey with the London Philharmonic Orchestras took flight with The Firebird at the Royal Festival Hall. A spectacular performance, soaring to heights of glory. The Firebird is an immortal with magical powers, who defies the bounds of nature.  Jurowski inspires an explosion so dazzling that it was almost blinding.  Colours shone in myriad shades, sparkling like jewels lit with fire from within.  But beneath the splendour lies an undercurrent of sadness. The Prince, like Kashkey, cannot remain unchanged.  That blaze of resplendent gorgeousness comes at a price. Jurowski's Firebird is much more than a flying jewel box. Bold, bright and savage, it is informed by an awareness that happiness must be savoured to the full while it lasts   Inevitably, life ends. Flames turn to embers and ash.  Folk legends often have a core of moral truth: they are much more than pretty fairy tales.  One of Jurowski's great strengths is that he is a man who thinks. All good conductors think musically, but Jurowski is a philosopher of sorts, too, and spiritual.  He doesn't often conduct dancers, so his Stravinsky isn't as dynamically earthy and physical as, say, Gergiev's, but it has a  psychological integrity, which is just as valid, and just as rewarding.There's also much more to conducting than waving a baton (or waving your arms). Gpood conductors make connections, enriching their programmes  to enhance the music they choose.  The Firebird is an outstanding piece but it didn't spring out of nowhere.  Jurowski conducted Stravinsky's "lost" Funeral Song (Chante funèbre) op 5  at the 2017 Proms when he had to programme it with  Shostakovich Symphony no 11, Britten's Russian Funeral and  Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no 1 in D to fit in with the BBC's theme-based strategy (read more here), so Stravinsky got short shrift. This time,  at the Royal Festival Hall, Jurowski was able to present the piece in proper context.  Musically, much more intelligent, and played with more committment, too.   When Gergiev conducted the modern world premiere at St Petersburg, he programmed it with Rimsky-Korsakov The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya (1907) and Stravinsky's The Firebird, enshrining bthe connections.  Please read my piece about that premiere : Lost no more : Stravinsky' s Funeral Song.  This time round, Jurowski made the same - inescapable - connection, while adding more early Stravinsky Scherzo fantastique and Rimsky-Korsakov's Piano Concerto in C sharp minor, with Alexander Ghindin.Stravinsky's  Scherzo fantastique op 3 is a very early work, written in 1908 before the death of Rimsky-Korsakov in June that year, for whose funeral Stravinsky was to write the Funeral Song.  A neat and erudite connection, but also musically astute, since in the Scherzo fantastique, we can hear ideas in germination which will come to fruit in The Firebird. Stravinsky was already Stravinsky, though he owed his mentor so much.  Rimsky-Korsakov's early Piano Concerto in C sharp minor op 30 (1882) was inspired by and dedicated to Franz Liszt, and first performed with the support of Mily Balakirev. The piece honours both masters, incorporating a folk song theme from Balakirev and adapting it in a Lisztian manner, with "Polish" flourishes.  Ghindin seemed to relish the showcase passages, notes flying freely and vividly. Like a Firebird !.   [...]

Ecce sacerdos magnus - Elgar, SOMM


New from SOMM Recordings, Ecce sacerdos magnus, Edward Elgar music for chorus and orchestra, Barry Wordsworth conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra and the Brighton Festival Chorus.  And so Ecce sacerdos magnus "we behold the great priest who, in his days pleased God" : a short piece for chorus and organ, from 1888, written for St George's, the church in which Elgar had been baptized, and where he followed his father as organist.  Elgar's Te Deum op 34/1  and Benedictus op 34/2 were first heard at Hereford Cathedral at the opening concert of the Three Choirs Festival in 1897.  The energetic introduction to the Te Deum brims with the expansiveness we now associate with the mature Elgar.  Searching chords herald the Benedictus, the voices of the choir building up texture, the higher voices particularly lucid. A stunning finale : "Glory be! Glory Be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost!", and a sudden, emphatic conclusion. Perhaps this confident spirit caused the then Hereford organist G R Sinclair to remark "It is very very modern, but I think it will do".A more contemplative mood for O Hearken Thou op 64 (1911) a short Offertory anthem written for the Coronation of King George V at Westminster Abbey in 1911. Two Psalms, Great is the Lord (Psalm 48) op 74 (1912) and Give unto the Lord (Psalm 29) op 74 (1914), demonstrate Elgar's ability to give an individual touch to conventional form.  Great is the Lord is set with particular vividness.  The Brighton Festival Chorus define the swaying cross-currents in the choral line suggesting the "trembling" excitement that takes hold of the crowds in the vast City of God. No matter that the texts are less clearly articulated, since the chorus provides background for the solo voice that rises above it. "We have thought on thy loving kindness, O God".   Give unto the Lord ends with an almost theatrical climax.Secular adventures, starting with  Spanish Serenade op 23 (1892)  based on a play by Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, The Spanish Student.  Cue for cheerful music, evoking guitars, student songs and gypsy dancing. A nice entree to the ever popular Scenes from the Bavarian Highlands op 27 (1895).  Richard Strauss's home turf, but here heard through the filter of a Victorian Englishman and his wife.  These are Edward and Alice's "holiday snapshots": vignettes of cheerful peasant song and dance with a background of colourful mountain scenery.As a bonus, a short clip from Haydn's Harmoniemesse Hob XXII :14 from an early  radio broadcast by the Munich Cathedral Choir where the Benedictus is taken at a slow pace, illustrating possible connections with Elgar's Ecce sacerdos magnus.  [...]

Mahler 8 Harding Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Berwaldhallen


From the Berwaldhallen, Stockholm, a very interesting Mahler Symphony no 8 with Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (livestream archived here).  The title "Symphony of a Thousand" was dreamed up by promoters trying to sell tickets, creating the myth that quantity matters more than quality.  For many listeners, Mahler 8 is still a hard nut to crack, for many reasons, and the myth is part of the problem.  Mahler 8 is so original that it defies easy categories.  To understand it, we need to listen in terms of Mahler himself, ditching the baggage of preconception that's piled up, blocking closer evaluation.  What is M8 about, and how does it fit in the context of Mahler's work as a whole ?  "Veni Creator spiritus !" and  "Accende lumen sensibus". Come, spirit of creation,  arise, light of sensibility.  Mahler makes it pretty clear that these ideas matter for they are embedded in the music as well as the text.  Throughout Mahler's entire oeuvre, he develops ideas of transformation and creative renewal.  Ignore that and ignore the whole point of his music.  We need to ditch the idea of Mahler as Party Rally bombast. Sure, the orchestra's big, and there are five soloists and four choirs, but that's the irony. As so often in Mahler, it's the quiet moments that are most personal and significant : the moment when the individual comes to terms with the cosmos.Structurally, Mahler's Symphony no 8  throws conventional listening off-balance.  Conceptually, the symphony is radical because it contradicts straightforward assumptions.  The two  parts don't seem to connect, there's no narrative and the voices do not represent "roles" but function as much more abstract extensions of the music and the ideas within it.  And that silence at the beginning of the Second Part gets misunderstood because it is silence, which minds attuned to blast and noise cannot comprehend.  Though I'm a voice person, over the years I've come to realize that the silence,and the quiet introduction that follows, is the true soul of the symphony.  Like the Consecration in a Catholic Mass, the most important part of the ceremony comes when the singing and praying stop, and the mystery of transubstantiation takes place. You don't need to believe that God becomes one with mankind, or even in God, but the idea of miraculous transfiguration is so powerful that it is a metaphor for Creation itself.  "Veni, creator spiritus".Daniel Harding's Mahler 8 with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra is immensely rewarding, particularly if you know Mahler well.   It is also an ideal performance for those who don't "get" Mahler 8 otherwise. Because the Berwaldhallen in Stockholm isn't a great monster of a hall, it favours a much more intimate atmosphere.  Everyone is up close together : it feels as if everyone knows everyone, which is important since music is meant to be heard in the company of other people   On the video, the cameraman pans over the chorus which is annoying if you're following the soloists, but that makes  sense, when you think of the performance as an expression of the community In so many ways, the Eighth is Mahler's secular Mass where a multitude come together for a communal purpose which is fundamentally private.  Thus the significance of the silvery  chord in the beginning of the second part, which almost exactly replicates the bell which announces the beginning of the miracle of Consecration.  As so often in Mahler, details count, like the piccolos, the triangle, the glockenspeil, the celesta and the mandolin, which as in Mahler Symphony no 7 m[...]

From the Heart of a Loafer


Sam Hui and Rebu, his wife. photo : Adam Wright
Sam Hui : From the Heart of a Drifter 許冠傑 - 浪子心聲, one of the great classics of Cantonese pop.  A modern day hit song, but one that makes me think of  Chinese poetry.  The idea that life is transient is deeply embedded into the psyche of Hong Kong people.  Everyone there is a descendant of a descendant of a refugee, or someone escaping bad conditions, dreaming of better. Some make it, some don't. Indeed, some have gone from destitute to millionaire and back. No cushion of privilege for most.  Nowadays people take things for granted, but things in the past were never easy.  Sam Hui  is the epitome of the Hong Kong spirit.  He became a megastar while in his teens, with a western style rock band. Yet he didn't, ever, forget his roots. He's had massive success but his heart is grounded in proper Chinese values.  He was very well educated, and a graduate of HKU whichn in those days was the only university in town and highly elite.  Always aware of the world around him, he has moral integrity.  He had social conscience long before it became safe to do so. He didn't sell out, even when camping up as Elvis !  As long as your heart is pure, bad things cannot bring you down.
It's hard to tell what's real and what's fake,

By nature, people aren't what they seem.

Who will share with you in good times,

But also share when water drips from the roof ?

Like a simple frog deep in a well,

dreaming of fame and fortune,

Full of hope, unaware of difficulty.
Who knows when golden houses can turn to hovels ?

If life destines something for you, it will happen in the end

If life destines it not to happen, there's no point begging otherwise. . 

When thunder roars and lightning strikes,

There's no need to be afraid

As long as your conscience is clear and your heart is just,

We are like the sand in the sea

There's no use in feeling bad

We can see the sunset in the sky above.

Fame and fortune can vanish like the mist
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Schubert's Birthday, Wigmore Hall : Angelika Kirchschlager


At the Wigmore Hall, Schubert's birthday is always celebrated in style. This year, Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake, much loved Wigmore Hall audience favourites, did the honours, with a recital marking the climax of the two-year-long Complete Schubert Songs Series.  The programme began with a birthday song, Namenstaglied, and ended with a farewell, Abschied von der Erde.  Along the way, a traverse through some of Schubert's finest moments, highlighting different aspects of his song output : Schubert's life, in miniature.A beautiful Namenstaglied D695 (1820), where the lines rock gently, almost more lullaby than Lied.  it was written for one of Schubert's friends, Josefine Koller,  who wanted to sing it to please her father.  Not many singers can do artistry without artifice, but that genuine sincerity is one of Angelika Kirchschlager's great strengths.  She can create youthful freshness like no-one else with the agility and purity of her timbre, yet can also warm that sweetness with a promise of innocent sensuality.  In the context of those times, it was accepted that child-like beauties would grow into women, hopefully fulfilled by love. In reality, of course, things don't always work out right, so even happy Lieder can be haunted by a sense of unease. Thus Frühlingsglaube D686b (!820, Johann Ludwig Uhland)  All things change, but, importantly, "Das Blühen will nicht enden". So have faith in Spring, for change is also endless renewal.  In Geheimes D719 (1821, Goethe), a young person learns that love isn't easy, but in Im Frühling D882 (1826) the artist yet again finds solace in hope. Ironically, that song sets a text by Erst Konrad Friedrich Schulze (1789-1817) whose obsessive love for two sisters wasn't romantic, as the love existed only in his mind.  Bei dir allein ! D866 (?1828, Seidl), Lambertine D301 (1815 anon) and Am Bach im Frühling  D361 (?1816, Franz von Schober) combined well, as did the next set Ganymed D544 (1817, Goethe), Wiegenlied D489 (1816 anon). But with In der Mitternacht D464 (1816 Johan Georg Jacobi), a sense of doom intrudes, preparing us for Erlkönig D328 (1815, Goethe) that masterpiece of Gothic horror. Since it sits fairly low, it's usually the preserve of male voices. Kirschschlager, however, made it work, since, for a change, we could hear it from the perspective of the terrified child.Schubert himself blossomed early, reaching peaks early in his youth, dying before autumn set in.  Gesang der Norna D832 (1825, Walter Scott) and Romanze zum Drama Rosamunde D797/3b (1823 Helmina von Chézy) connected to other genres Schubert was interested in,  followed by more classic Lieder.  Songs like Suleika I D720 (1821 Goethe) and Suleika II D717 (1821 Goethe) are Kirchschlager specialities, which suit her ability to create girlish charm tinged with tragedy. Her self confidence renewed, she sang with the warmth and sincerity that is her forte. Wigmore Hall Schubert Birthday concerts are far too high profile to cancel unless you're in extremis, which Kirchschlager was not. But Wigmore Hall audiences know Kirchschlager so well, and have heard her so often over the years, that we appreciate what she does. Singers are not machines. We understand the Liederabend ethos. Singers are singers, not machines. In Schubert's time, people didn't demand CD perfection, they cared about the singers as human beings. It's the Liederabend ethos.  Kirchschlager and Drake rewarded us with  classics like An den Mond D259 (1815 Goethe),  Der Jüngling an der Quelle D300 (?1815 Johan Gaudenz von Salus-Seewiss), and  [...]

Stravinsky's Journey : Jurowski, LPO


Vladimir Jurowski photo: Simon Jay Price, courtesy Albion MediaAfter last year's wonderful journey through Stravinsky, with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra embark on another Stravinsky saga at the Royal Festival Hall.  Salonen and the Philhrmonia focused on Stravinsky in different phases of his career.  Some brilliantly perceptive programmes - please read more HERE,  HERE, and HERE.  In this new series with Jurowski and the LPO, well-known Stravinsky pieces are heard with the music of other composers, some Russian, some with relatively little obvious conections, and not all concerts feature Jurowski. Not quite as musically challenging, but lots of fun, nevertheless.   Saturday 3rd February - The Fairytale begins - Rimsky-Korsakov Fairy Tale, Glazunov Violin Concerto, Tchaikovsky (arr. Glazunov) Meditation from Souvenir d’un lieu cher, Stravinsky Faun and Shepherdess, Stravinsky Symphony No. 1Wednesday 7th February - Flight of the Firebird  - Stravinsky Scherzo fantastique, Stravinsky Funeral Song, Rimsky-Korsakov Piano Concerto, Stravinsky The Firebird (original version)  PLEASE READ MY REVIEW HERESaturday 10th February - Petrushka and friends -  Liadov Baba Yaga, Liadov The Enchanted Lake, Liadov Kikimora, Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2, Stravinsky Petrushka (original version)Wednesday 21st February - The Rite of Spring - Debussy Printemps, Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, Delius Idylle de Printemps, Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (conductor : Juanjo Mena)Friday 23rd February - Once Upon a Time - Stravinsky The Song of the Nightingale, Elgar Cello Concerto, Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade.Saturday 17th March - Daniil Trifonov plays Stravinsky  - Tchaikovsky (arr. Stravinsky) Sleeping Beauty (excerpts), Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1, Stravinsky The Fairy's KissWednesday 21st March - Stravinsky meets the classics -  Stravinsky Apollon musagète, Weber Konzertstück for piano and orchestra, Stravinsky Capriccio for piano and orchestraSchubert Symphony No. 3, (Conductor : Andrés Orozco-Estrada) Saturday 24th March - Symphony of Psalms -  Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Stravinsky Credo, Stravinsky Ave Maria, Stravinsky Pater Noster, Bernstein Chichester Psalms (Conductor : Andrés Orozco-Estrada,  Patricia Kopatchinskaja violin)Wednesday 11th April - Perséphone - Thomas Adès Suite from Powder Her FaceGerald Barry Organ Concerto (Thomas Trotter), Stravinsky Perséphone (Thomas Adès conductor)Friday 13th  April -  Stravinsky Jeu de cartes, Bryce Dessner Concerto for Two Pianos (world premiere),Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 3, (John Storgårds conductor)Wednesday 18th April - Bold and New - Stravinsky Symphony in C, Stravinsky Tango, Debussy Fantaisie, Shostakovich Symphony No. 6 (Leif Ove Andsnes, piano)Saturday 21st April - Ode to Beethoven - Anders Hillborg Homage to Stravinsky (world premiere)Falik Requiem for Igor Stravinsky, Stravinsky Ode, Beethoven Violin Concerto (Vladimir Jurowski conductor, Gil Shaham violin)[...]

Eclectic Gamelan Debussy and Boulez - François-Xavier Roth, Paris


François-Xavier Roth was today awarded the Legion d'Honneur for his services to culture. Congratulations, and well deserved cheers !  Yesterday afternoon, he conducted another brilliantly eclectic programme with Les Siècles, at the Philharmonie de Paris screened live,  bringing out the connections between Javanese gamelan, Debussy and Pierre Boulez.  Unusual, but extremely rewarding, so please  make time to listen (archived on and also on the Philharmonie de Paris website) because this concert has been put together with insight and great musical understanding. The roots of modern music lie deep in the past, and in forms beyond the western European core.The photo at right shows some of the Javanese dancers who appeared at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, a world's fair celebrating modern progress.  Europe was looking outwards, inspired by exotic, alien cultures.. A "new" baroque age, in many ways, full of confidence and adventure.  France,  Belgium and the Netherlands had colonies in Asia and Africa,  and while they weren't any better as rulers than some, they were genuinely fascinated by the diversity and richness of the cultures they encountered.  Debussy visited the Indonesian pavilion, which featured large replica village, so authentic that the buildings were constructed by genuine Javanese builders, using materials they brought with them. For entertainment, there was a large gamelan orchestra, and troupes of dancers, not only Javanese but Balinese and Sumatran.  Debussy responded to their music as a musician would, not for the exoticism so much as for the ideas on pitch, intervals and structure. And so this concert at the Philharmonie began with the Ensemble de Gamelan Sekar-Wangi, sounds building up so gradually that some in the audience didn't realize the show had started.  Unlike western music, a lot of Asian music is ambient sound, part of ordinary life, so you listen in different ways.  This performance included two singers, their lines weaving semi independently of the orchestral line, creating multiple layers of sound.  Gamelan performance is intuitive and semi-improvised, the performers adapting to one another.  The music moves as if in procession, the different components, co-operating, changes marked by gradual, mutually agreed changes of direction. Think ricefields, terraced up sloping hills, teeming with water, bugs and fish, harvested and re-irrigated. a lot of Asian music has spiritual and ritual connections, so this awareness of space does matter.  Eventually, like Debussy, Messiaen and Benjamin Britten would respond to Asian music in their own terms.  One day I hope Roth will conduct Britten's Prince of the Pagodas.  That's a piece that really cries out for someone who understands how the music works, and why.  Please read my analysis of it HERE.  In 1950's Britain,  it was misunderstood, not helped by awkward choreography.  Some years ago there was a much better Japanese production, but its full potential has yet to be tapped.  Go for it, François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles, and use modern dance.  The time for a really good Prince of the Pagodas has come !  With the last echoes of the gamelan began Boulez Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, the artillery of orchestral gongs taking up from the gongs of the gamelan and the beaten metal bonang.  Boulez writes for  eight unequal instrumental groups, moving at different paces and in rhythms,  just as mourners follow a cortege, seemin[...]

Das Rheingold Jurowski, RFH and van Zweden Hong Kong


For sure I would have loved to have gone to Vladimir Jurowski's Wagner Das Rheingold at the Royal Festival Hall with the LPO. Very good cast, good orchestra and a conductor who's done quite a bit of Wagner in chunks over the years.  When I used to go out five times plus a week, I'd have been there in a flash. I drooled over the tickets as late as December when there were good seats available for £60, but  instead booked the whole Debussy series (MORE HERE)  at the Barbican (and a few other pricey things coming up soon).  No way was I spending £300 plus for an unstaged performance !  I'm not bothered about signed programmes and/or dinner with the stars.  Been there, done that, for free.  Fortunately, most of my friends went, which was good.  So what I did instead last night was to listen again to the Jaap Van Zweden Rheingold  in Hong Kong in 2015.  Last week Van Zweden conducted Götterdämmerung  in Hong Kong, which a lot of my friends there attended too, and loved.  How lucky I am to have an international network ! 

The Hong Kong Ring is pretty good, easily equal to many other Rings, and much better than some.  Recommended ! The Rheingold cast was upmarket, and included stars like Michelle DeYoung (also in last week's Götterdämmerung ), Matthias Goerne,  Kwangchul Youn, Oleksander Pushniak, Eri Nakamura, Stephen Milling and others (link here)  And the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra is pretty impressive.  Decades ago I did backstage support for them - wow, am I ever proud. For Hong Kong, this Ring was a coming-of-age statement. The city sits on the edge of a massive hinterland, its potential market not only China but the world. In Asia, people don't sneer at classical music for being elitist. They see it as aspirational : the sign of cultivated minds and souls.  In the west, people don't realize how advanced the Asian market really is, and how long it's been active.  I would have enjoyed Jurowski's Rheingold in London but van Zweden's Rheingold in Hong Kong was more than compensation.  

Essential Debussy : François-Xavier Roth Cédric Tiberghien Jeux Nocturnes


"Essential" Debussy, a tag with a snag, because the programme wasn't cliché "greatest hits" for those who think instant thrills are all that count, but "essential" in the sense of The Essence of Debussy, a much deeper concept, because it examines what makes Debussy so special. With François-Xavier Roth conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, London, you expect, and get, the wisdom that comes from deeper experience.  This concert was the second of three and a half  examining Debussy in terms of his influences and the influence he had on modern music.  A bit more than quick fix "essential"but essential nevertheless. Please read HERE for my piece on Young Debussy and the roots of French modernism.   Definitely one of Debussy's "greatest hits" Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune  led into a programme of other Debussy milestones, including Nocturnes , without which we might not have La Mer, and Jeux from 1913, so innovative that it's a pillar of 20th century music - very much "essential" though not as ubiquitous as a "greatest hit".Other correspondences too within the programme making more subtle connections.  Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune broke new ground in 1889.  Mallarmé used symbolism to express emotions perhaps too tricky to be openly expressed. Modern, yet also in the tradition of allegory that goes back to the Greeks. The flute itself is symbolic, suggesting ancient Arcadia, where the rules of modern society do not apply.  Like the fawn, a creature of the wild who cannot be tamed, the flute line moves and turns in explicit sensuality. The fawn is responding to deep instinctive urges, which may be not be satisfied.  In Vienna, Freud had yet to formulate his ideas on dreams and the subconscious. In the French-speaking world, the symbolists (as early as Baudelaire) were already there.  The LSO provided a luxuriant background, lush strings and resonant winds enfolding the clear, piping purity of the flute. In this performance, the horns were also heard clearly muffled, as if in the distance, but an important reminder that the fawn is an animal which will be hunted down and killed. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is not at all "romantic"  Roth brings out the sexual danger beneath the exotic surface.  Thus to Debussy's Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra (1889-90) with Cédric Tiberghien, a good choice as companion piece.   Here, the piano is the fawn, its notes sparkling against the murkier shadows inn the music. Gradually the piano grows more vigorous and more imaginative.  Darker, quirkier winds (bassoon, oboes, clarinets) and percussion threaten to close in, but the piano breaks free.  In the middle movement, marked lento, the piano holds forth expressively. Tiberghein shows how intellect does not exclude emotion. On the contrary, the technical excellence of his playing intensifies feeling, adding sincerity and depth.  Like the fawn, the music enters a kind of clearing, then finds new direction, the music of the first movement adapted in the last with confidence and sophistication.Hearing Roth and the LSO in Debussy Jeux brought back memories of Boulez, conducting it on his 80th birthday celebration, also at the Barbican, but with the BBC SO.  Obviously different times and orchestras, but that indicates how good Roth is in this repertoire.  In Jeux the game is, ostensibly, tennis.  Or is it ? Two young people are fooling around, but suddenly a ball is thrown onto the court, changin[...]

London Sinfonietta - Happy 50th Birthday !


David AthertonThe London Sinfonietta celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Royal Festival Hall, London. The idealistic visionaries of the past may be older now, but age hasn't dimmed their spirit.  David Atherton conducted, as did George Benjamin : two long-term stalwarts without whom the London Sinfonietta might not be what it is now.  The London Sinfonietta changed things, re-shaping music in Britain and beyond.  May that legacy never be squandered !  In fifty years, new generations have come to new music, and new music itself has grown and flourished.  Was that The Message Sir Harrison Birtwistle alluded to in his fanfare commissioned for this birthday gala ? The piece shines brightly, indeed defiantly, sounds reaching outwards into space.  Harry once relished the image of enfant terrible, and indeed, still does, with his earthy common sense.  Now he is, arguably, Britain's greatest living composer and long may he reign.  He's a true original, and a trailblazer.The London Sinfonietta isn't an orchestra in the usual sense of the word but a collective co-operative.  It adapts to repertoire, covering chamber music and larger-scale ensemble, co-opting other performers, like singers and sound engineers, where needed.  No mega opuses tonight, but smaller works of great importance. Stravinsky's Octet (1923) , winds and brass in sonorous mystery, and Ligeti's Chamber Concerto,  (1970) which the Sinfonietta worked on with the composer himself.  Individual voices for individual instruments, combining. Layers of texture unfold from the woodwind; a slow second movement and a fast fourth movement for contrast. The third movement contains a rubric “preciso e meccanico”, inspired by clocks and machines gradually going wrong. The pianist, has theinstruction, 'hammering like a madman', and the trombone has a strident melody bursting from the delicate sound textures.Over the years, the personnel have changed.  I remember Enno Senft looking like a teenager and John Constable before his hair turned grey.  And Sebastian Bell on a bench outside LSO St Lukes, eating lunch, a short while before he died.  And when Melinda Maxwell commissioned new work in honour of her mother.  I've also heard David Atherton conducting in Hong Kong.  So many memories, the London Sinfonietta feels like family.  That sense of community lives on.  While the ensemble has, in recent years, diverted a lot of effort towards activities other than core music making, it continues to sponsor new work , new composers and new performers.Tonight, Deborah Pritchard's River Above for solo saxophone, (Simon Haram), and Samantha Fernando Formations a promising work I like a lot - listen again on BBC Radio 3  A special thank you to Deborah Pritchard for her innovative diagrams analysing pieces of music.  These are truly innovative.  As I write, I've got her study of Birtwistle's Silbury Air in front of me.  You can "hear" the music by following her maps, each part marked as on a score but condensed in colours and patterns, intuitively.  conventional western notation isn't the only way to read music.  A quick and easy way to communicate with creative minds without formality - this is the way to grow audiences and reach people who might be intimidated by the idea that new music is too difficult.  More effective, I think, than some tedious "education" ventures.Which leads neatly to Hans A[...]

Bayerisches Staatsoper Wagner Ring 2018 : Die Walküre


In Munich, the Bayerische Staatsoper struck gold with its current  revival of the Ring, with an astonishingly good cast in this Die Walküre - Nina Stemme, Anja Kampe, Ekaterina Gubanova, Simon O'Neill, Ain Anger and John Lundgren, and Kirill Petrenko conducting with more intensity than ever before.  A good cast of Valkyries, too, some of them significant names in their own right - Daniela Köhler, Karen Foster, Anna Gabler, Michaela Selinger, Helena Zubanovich, Jennifer Johnston, Okka von Damerau and Rachael Wilson.  Wonderful singing, and playing, so delicious that you savour every moment.   The unique character of O'Neill's voice expresses Siegmund’s tortured soul with psychological insight - extraordinarily moving. Kampe (O’Neill’s other half)  interacted well with him, the pair clearly "twins" with old souls, in contrast Anger’s virile Hunding. Anger sings gloriously, and sounds fresh and full of vigour. But we know what is about to happen. Stemme is a striking Walküre Brünnhilde. The part is very different to Brünnhilde in Siegfried and in Götterdämmerung, so relies on more subtlety, which is Stemme's forte. Lundren is a powerful Wotan.  In the saga of the Ring, he, too, eventually gets sidelined and morally upstaged by his daughter, but for now, like Anger’s Hunding, he's very much a potent force , which makes the interpretation tragic.  Musically, this  Die Walküre is ace, but anyone can write about that, so I'll write about the interrelationship between music and ideas.This Munich Die Walküre proved the value of the production by Andreas Kriegenburg.  An uncluttered, unfussy staging throws focus on the drama, extending the depth of the music, connecting what we see to what we hear.  Staging is a lot more than mere decorative effect.  Dramaturgy connects drama to its wider cultural context. In Wagner's time, that context was taken for granted.  Unfortunately these days some audiences expect opera to be as non-demanding as TV — which is a travesty. Wagner without intellect isn't Wagner.  Superb dramaturgy, by Marion Tiedke and Miron Hakenbeck which addressed Wagner's ideas on society and human interaction.Siegmund battles through a storm.  The storm is psychic, not just physical : effectively he's been battling turbulent forces since childhood, forces beyond the realm of Nature.   Here we see the "storm" in human terms - anonymous warriors pushing Siegmund to and fro until he breaks free.  Hunding's home seems a haven, yet the World Ash Tree grows in its midst. No building can stand long when a tree this size takes root, nurtured from sources deep in the earth.  The tree doesn't sing but its presence dominates the drama. So what does it symbolize ?   Hunding is a bully who controls the people around him.  In these designs, by Harald B. Thor,  the World Ash Tree resembles the Hanging Tree (1633) by Jacques Callot,  that famous symbol of war and mass destruction.  As we look closely, we can see the bodies of warriors hanging from its branches.Who is Hunding ? Is he a small time, small, scale Wotan ?  Sieglinde  (Anja Kampe) stands out from her anonymous handmaidens, but who are they ? Later, we see the Valkyries, identical and conformist.  On the battlefield, scattered with bodies of dead warriors, an orgiastic dance suggests primeval  ritual.  Quite a lot of good ensemble movement[...]

London Sinfonietta Landmarks Revisited !


Fifty years of the London Sinfonietta marked by a programme closely connected to the Sinfnietta's glory days - Xenakis, Birtwistle, Colin Matthews and Wolfgang Rihm.  I was at the live concert last November at St John’s Smith Square,  broadcast at last on BBC Radio 3 (available online, on demand for a month) . Here is what I wrote then. It's  still valid !"A great London Sinfonietta experience with Martyn Brabbins conductingXenakis, Birtwistle, Wolfgang Rihm and Colin Matthews at St John's,Smith Square.  As the London Sinfonietta nears its 50th anniversary,it’s good to hear them presenting landmarks from their core repertoire.  Good music is always "Unfinished Business", revealing  more with eachexperience. Governments want to divest themselves of responsibility foreducation, forcing orchestras to change their focus. But excellence "is" education, and education doesn't just mean people who wouldn't normally listen to music.  Hopefully the London Sinfonietta will return to itspioneering roots and be proud of what they do.Harrison Birtwistle's Silbury Air ( 1977/2003) is a case in point.  It's one of the great classics of the repertoire, inspired by Silbury Hill, a neolithic mound rising steeply above the flat plains of Wiltshire. In foggy conditions, it looms above the mist as if it were a strange alien entity.  It connects to other prehistoric land forms in the area, such as Avebury, Long Barrow and Stonehenge.  Building these  monuments may have taken millennia, constructed as they were without modern tools. Yet no-one knows who built them, or why.  "Unfinished Business", mysteries we may never solve.  Silbury Air is an evocation in musical form of many ideas Birtwistle has been developing over many years: layers of sound like geological strata, cells growing organically into denser blocks,  always moving.  Tiny percussive fragments (including harp and piano - Rolf Hind)  grew into a long seamless drone, with oboe, B flat clarinet and trombone.  Flurries of notes, building up patterns.  Temple blocks and metallic brass : lines swaying in characteristic Birtwistle waywardness.  Could we hear neolithic workmen hammering away ? And echoes of The Rite of Spring ? Textures thinned out : high strings and winds, surprisingly subdued, mysterious brass chords, percussion in various forms beating time.  Ticking sounds, too  - the passage of time - an elusive flute theme rising above.  Single harp chords. Hard to tell when sound merged into silence, but that, I think, is the point.Organic growth, too, in Iannis Xenakis Thalleïn (1984)  The title means "sprouting"  Thus the sudden but sustained chord, exploding like a siren, high-pitched sounds rising upwards, rhythmic cells bubbling along. An exotic glissando that decelerated before rising up again - a tendril, unfurling and swaying. Further loops of sound (winds and brass), sparkling flurries and single notes plucked on piano and percussion.  The music moves through several distinct phases, ideas carried through and developed anew.  Dense textures alternated with stark staccato, evolving into florid glissando multitudes.  Percussion chords anchored wildly rhythmic figures.  Single chords along thekeyboard [...]

Young Debussy Première Suite - F-X Roth the roots of French modernism


young Claude - recognize the forehead?"The Young Debussy", Debussy's Première Suite d'Orchestre (1882-4) with François-Xavier Roth conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, London.  An extremely thoughtful programme placing early Debussy in context, demonstrating his response to the influences around him . The modernist who was to write La Mer and Pelléas et Mélisande had deep roots in French tradition.  Debussy began the Première Suite d'Orchestre while still a student, but it is a fairly substantial piece, which runs almost half an hour in performance, displaying great variety. A showcase for a young composer, displaying his skills, but also very original.  Already, one can sense a creative personality. In 2012, Roth conducted  Les Siècles in the premiere of the performance edition of the piece completed by Philippe Manoury.  This LSO performance was its UK premiere, a different approach, but presented with equal flair and commitment.  Debussy's Première Suite d'Orchestre evolves over four movements, Fête, Ballet, Rêve and Cortège et Bacchanale, each highly individual.  Fête begins briskly, the animated pace giving way to a broader sweep in which other themes might be glimpsed, like a miniature overture, and concluded with affirmative punch. The brisk, confident strides moving on to different dance-like figures : a swaying theme for strings,  a duet for high winds and low, an elegant ballet.  With the LSO, Roth brought the "oriental" touches into sharper focus. These "voices from the East" are significant not simply as exotic decoration but because they serve to open up new horizons. Although Debussy didn't embrace outright orientalism, it informed his appreciation for new modes of thinking and expression.  The richness in the orchestration - lovely parts for violin - suggest the young composer's growing self-confidence. While Ballet is the most striking section, Rêve contains hints of what was to come - interesting textures and details. It ends with a flourish, leading into the fanfare which introduces the final movement.  Again, bright, clearly defined figures underlined by timpani, trumpets and trombones ablaze. Not a funeral march so much as valedictory procession, where pace is employed to shape structure, bounding forward to an affirmative conclusion.Framing Debussy's Première Suite  were Édouard Lalo's Cello Concerto (1876) with Jules Massenet's Le Cid Suite (1885).  Young Debussy preceded by a very young cellist, Edgar Moreau, born in 1994 but already with a good portfolio.  Lalo's Cello Concerto gives the soloist such prominence that it's almost a cello piece with orchestral accompaniment, since the deep voice of a cello holds its own so well.  A good sense of equipose : the balance between soloist and orchestra was carefully judged.  Moreau's line is assured, unfazed by the large forces around him.  Though the part is demanding, it's a concerto where the players are "in concert", respecting each other, almost a pas de deux. Indeed, it concludes like dance, for the allegro vivace resembles a Spanish dance, the soloist and orchestra in step together.  More Spanish music in Massenet's suite from Le Cid (1885), with Massenet using imaginary Spain to add alien, exotic colour, as he did with Le roi de Lahore and Cléopâtre.  Orientali[...]

Thoughtful Debussy series, Roth and LSO, Barbican


The London Symphony Orchestra's Debussy series with Principal Guest Conductor François-Xavier Roth, at the Barbican, London.  PLEASE READ MY REVIEW HERE  The spirit of French style is dance, agility, precision, energy, inventiveness.  Wagner, while well played, seemed almost pre-modern.   Much more than "Debussy's Greatest Hits"  but a series that puts Debussy into context in a thought -provoking manner, typical of Roth's intelligent musical flair.  Tomorrow, 21st January, "The Young Debussy" with Debussy's Première Suite which he wrote  while still a student. The piece exists in manuscript but was was only prepared for performance in 2012 when Philippe Manoury orchestrated the third movement, Rêve.  Roth conducted the premiere with Les Siècles and made the so far only recording. The Première Suite  unfolds in four movements, Fête, Ballet, Rêve and Cortège et Bacchanale. Though the piece is very early Debussy indeed (1882-4) there are passages which suggest how the composer was going to develop.  It will be heard together with the overture to Wagner Tannhäuser, the suite of Massenet Le Cid and Lalo's Cello Concerto with Edgar Moreau, soloist. A big programme, but consider the connections and influences. On Thursday 25th January, four keynote pieces,  Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra (Cédric Tiberghien), Jeux and Three Nocturnes.  More provocatively, on March 25th, “Debussy and Beyond" demonstrating the influence of Debussy on modern music.  Boulez Livre pour cordes, Bartók Violin Concerto No 2 (Renaud Capuçon), Stravinsky Chant du Rossignol and a new work by Ewan Campbell.   Last but certainly not least, not least, on Sunday 28th March,  "Half Six Fix" a one hour concert starting 6.30pm - Debussy La Mer and Stravinsky Chant du Rossignol.  Worth coming in to town for that alone and dinner later. Or, you could stay for the evening concert with the Britten Sinfonia and the Britten Sinfonia Voices, with Stravinsky, Gabrieli, Gesualdo, Mozart, Bruckner and Esa-Pekka Salonen's Concert etude for solo horn.[...]