Saturday, 23 September 2017

Darwin depicted - Michael Stimpson Age of Wonder

Michaeel Stimpson Age of Wonders, new from Stone Records, with Maya Iwabuchi, Tom Poster and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Stuart Stratford.  Age of Wonders is a meditation on Charles Darwin, whose boundless thirst for knowledge led him to expand the boundaries of science. Darwin's epic discoveries changed the whole way we view the world.  Darwin's genius lay in his ability to synthesize knowledge  and develop theories based on empirical evidence.  Thus The Age of Wonders is a compendium of music and words, taken from Darwin's writings,  developed into an ambitious panorama which runs nearly 130 minutes. If the BBC still made music documentaries, it could be adapted for film, with visual images. Historic photographs and scenes shot in the present, perhaps the Galapagos, or the Natural History Museum. Intriguing possibilities, and truly in the spirit of Darwin's questing mind.

Age of Wonders begins with The Man who Walked with Henslow, a 20-minute reverie for violin and piano. John Stevens Henslow was a botanist and geologist, who, though a Churchman, believed in fact-based knowledge. He fired Darwin's taste for adventure, arranging his passage on HMS Beagle.  The violin poses questioning phrases, long lines that tantalize seductively. The piano answers, at first tentatively, in single chords, then leaping in excited figures, dancing with the violin.  Although Stimpson writes in his notes that it's based on early 19th century form, I'd venture not so, for the men involved were ahead of their time, and, in any case, swept away the certainties of the past. Darwin, inheritor of the spirit that inspired Goethe's scientific theories and the Romantic's explorations of the human soul.  In musical terms The Man who Walked with Henslow is very  modern though it uses conventional language, and is by the far the keynote piece, from which the rest of the material flows.  Very good it is, too, and would make a good stand alone. Superb playing by Maya Iwabuchi, well supported by Tom Poster.

From this evolves a String Quartet (The Beagle) in two movements, "Outbound" and "Inbound", which describe Darwin;'s journey on the Beagle. The first movement develops ideas from the earlier violin/piano piece, while the second describes a merry sailor's jig.  The section titled An Entangled Bank describes Darwin's home at Down House, Kent, and his work on the Origin of the Species, culminating in publication. Scored for string orchestra, it's brisk and busy, as was Darwin's life, no doubt.  From two instruments to quartet and at last to full orchestra with Transmutations, a four-movement development of previous material, now depicting what might be Darwin's  public life.

How one might depict the controversy into which Darwin was thrust for challenging the Bible, I don't know. Stimpson doesn't venture into dangerous waters, as Darwin did, but writes atmospheric figures that beg visual illustration.  He turns from music back to words with musical interludes. The late Robert Tear reads a passage from Darwin's autobiography.  Ruth Padel reads three of her poems on Darwin . At the end, Tear reads Sam Wilberforce's Lines written on Hearing that Professor Huxley had said that he did not care whether his grandfather was an Ape and Padel reads another of her poems, on Darwin's coffin.

Original Content: Darwin depicted - Michael Stimpson Age of Wonder

Friday, 22 September 2017

Simon Rattle's Stravinsky Saga LSO Barbican

In one Herculean, heroic programme, Stravinsky's Firebird, Petroushka and The Rite of Spring, with Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, London. Rattle  believes in what he does and he does it extremely well.  Rattle offers a vision of what the arts might be in Britain if policies predicated not in dumbing down but smarting up. This is how classical music should be presented, with verve, imagination and flair.  And excellence, without which "education" in itself means nothing. 
Something of Gergiev's tortured genius rubbed off on the LSO, even if his visits were brief and unpredictable. Rattle's been conducting Stravinsky since his youth - many in the audience grew uo with his recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He's also conducted a lot of Stravinsky with the Berliner Philharmoniker.  This saga of a programme was a test of stamina. Rattle and the LSO must have been exhausted by the end.  In two and a half hours we traversed the revolution that changed modern music, ballet and modern art forever.  This performance was more than a concert. It re-created the exhilaration that Stravinsky and his contemporaries might have felt in those brief years when the Ballets Russe ventured fearlessly into the new and thrilling.

The sense of occasion seemed to inspire the LSO, who were playing with greater pizzazz and animation than they've done in a long time.  A superb Firebird, in its true colours from 1910.  The Suite is all very well but this full version allows the legend to unfold properly, displaying its true glories.  All music for dance respects the human body, turning physical limitations into art.  In The Firebird, dance literally takes flight, for the Firebird is an immortal with magical powers, who defies the bounds of nature.  As orchestral music  The Firebird is liberated, the music flying free.  A wonderful sense of portent in this performance, low winds moaning, harps and strings sparkling.  The finesse of LSO musicianship : every detail defined with crystalline clarity. A virtual jewelbox come alive, colours shining like gems viewed through light. Yet Rattle's instinct for drama enhanced the underlying sadness in the piece: the Prince, like Kaschchey the Immortal, cannot remain unchanged. Thus the seductive oboes and cors anglais and the mournful bassoons.  In The Firebird, Stravinsky was also paying tribute to Rimsky-Korakov's Kaschchey The Immortal and even to The Legend of The Invisible City of Kitezh.  so the piece is haunted. Please read my piece Lost No More on the connections between Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. 

Stravinsky's Petrushka tells a story couched in folklore terms, but it's also an allegory of ritual magic. The puppets aren't masters of their fate. They act out a timeless show of love and loss. Thus the stylized sequences, ideally suited for choreography : decidedly non-symphonic.  Yet Petrushka also works in oddly concerto-like form, the Petrushka theme on different instruments interacting with the orchestral whole. Petrushka outfoxes the Magician and rises from the dead.  Rattle shaped the piece carefully, showing how the "fragmented" structure  works as a kind of ritual procession. From Stravinsky to Messaien, more connections than one might expect.   Vivid "Russian" images evoked by the colours in the orchestra.

And, at last The Rite of Spring. The journey from Kaschchey to the Twentieth Century is reached, through an invocation of primeval earth magic. The future glimpsed through prehistory.  Rattle shaped the huge angular blocks of sound so they felt like shifting tectonic plates, the cymbals crashing like lava exploding from the core of the Earth.  Yet even more impressive the elusive "vernal" theme that rises, organically, like a miracle from the chaos.  Listen again on BBC Radio 3.

Please see my pieces on the other major concerts in the LSO's This is Rattle series at the Barbican :
National Treasures : British Composers  Elgar, Birtwistle, Ades, Knussen and Grimes 
Blazing Berlioz : the Damnation of Faust

Original Content: Simon Rattle's Stravinsky Saga LSO Barbican

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Happy Birthday Max Emanuel Cenčić !

Max Emanuel Cenčić  (photo Anna Hoffmann)

Happy Birthday Max Emanuel Cenčić !  And it's also the 35th anniversary of his first stage appearance, when he sang Der Hölle Rache kocht from Die Zauberflöte, aged only 6.  He went on to sing with the Wiener Sängerknaben, where he was a star soloist.  Aged 11 he was the boy soprano in Anton Nanut's cult classic Mahler Symphony no 4. (of which more below). I first heard him live when he was 17 - still a male soprano, his voice intact and unbroken, all the more moving because one knew it couldn't possibly remain so pure forever.  He was singing Schubert. The DOM pianist was salivating, which spoiled the performance.  But thanks to innate musicality, a good "instrument" and flawless technique, Cenčić remained a soprano by training his voice meticulously so it kept its freshness and agility.

Cenčić pioneered the modern Fach of male soprano, of whom there are now quite a few. In his 20's he retrained it again,to countertenor, opening up a much wider range of repertoire.  Now, aged 41, he's at the top of his profession, a megastar in the world of baroque, and perhaps the best Italianate countertenor in the business.  Cenčić's so good, and so charismatic, that he's pioneering the spread of that highly specialized genre. A true groundbreaker !   Congratulations, Max Cenčić, long may you reign !

Back to that Mahler 4  which remains unique to this day. Cenčić recorded it with Anton Nanut and the Ljubljana Radio Symphony back in 1991.  It was an interesting experience, since the final movement of the symphony, normally done by adult soprano, depicts a young child, singing in Heaven of the earthly delights of childhood.  I've written extensively about this symphony and its interpretation - please click on the label below.   In theory, why not cast a kid ?  But it's a difficult part and requires stamina, which is why it is almost always done by an adult. Cenčić struggles, and Nanut holds the orchestra back so it doesn't smother him. Doing M4 with a boy is thus a test, both of singer and of conductor, so it's pretty much given that it's almost impossible to pull off right.  Allowances have to be made. I love this performance because it sounds truly fragile and vulnerable,. The kid is dead, after all, and has suffered, which is why he gets excited about food.  For some people this vulnerability is distressing.  But that's why it's worth seeking out this performance.  We can focus on the sunniness of this symphony, but if we ignore the cruelty and irony behind it, we're missing out.   For that reason, I don't like  Bernstein's recording with a boy treble, because he sounds too "knowing", even a bit smug.  As far as I'ver been able to find out, Bernstein didn't give much in the way of musical justification.  No-one else has done so since, as far as I know.

But I would not dismiss the idea of a treble outright for that reason.    On 27th September, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is conducting Mahler 4 with a boy treble with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, part of a large and ambitious programme.  The British choral tradition is stronger than in  most countries, and  British trebles are its keynote. Kids win scholarships to posh schools and Oxbridge on the basis of their singing, like football players get to college in the US.  If a treble M4 is ever going to work, it needs an unusually good singer and a sensitive conductor.  The CBSO youth choir is way above average,so this sounds promising.  

Original Content: Happy Birthday Max Emanuel Cenčić !

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Blazing Berlioz The Damnation of Faust - Rattle Hymel Purves Cargill LSO

Superb Berlioz Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle's chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boy's Choir, the Tiffin Girl's Choir and Tiffin Children's Choir (choirmaster James Dsy) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining.  An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right.  If Simon Rattle can achieve such excellence in the cramped confines of the Barbican Hall, imagine how a world class concert hall would transform the nation's musical and cultural profile.  We could use a few miracles.

The London Symphony Orchestra were playing as if transformed, too.  There were so many players and singers that they almost overflowed the stage area.  Projecting such sound into a shoebox auditorium can be overwhelming. On BBC Radio 3 and on Medici TV the balance might be better, but the live experience was intoxicating. Wisely, though, Rattle channeled the energy away from volume, towards shaping structure and detail with vivid attention.   Though \The Damnation of Faust lends itself to theatre, the drama lies in the music, its contrasts and imaginative conception.

On the plains of Hungary, the peasants are celebrating the Resurrection, the joyful chorus taken up by the orchestra in a jovial march.  The expansiveness in Bryan Hymel's voice reflected Faust's inward awakening. Spookily atmospheric playing from the LSO, setting the scene for Faust in his lonely garret. Hymel's "Sans regrets j'ai quitté les riantes campagnes" rang with resolve. But  Christ has risen and Nature blossoms. dare Faust dream of new life ? 

A Faust as strong as Hymel, with his richness of tone and emotional depth, needs a Méphistophélès who is equally strong.  Christopher Purves's Méphistophélès proved an ideal counterpoint to Hymel's Faust.  Méphistophélès  senses Faust's weak spot. "Ô pure émotion!". Purves's voice exuded sophistication but the authoritative edge in his voice suggested hidden malevolence.  A well-defined scene at Auerbach's in Leipzig, where Rattle and the LSO  did the drunken vulgarity inn the music with robust humour.  Gabor Bretz (Brander) "conducting" the woozy chorus as he sang.  Though Méphistophélès may be the devil, the tenderness in Purves voice as he sang Voici des roses, suggested that Méphistophélès  might after all, be demonic Oberon, lulling his victims in sleep.  Thus the magical textures in the gnome and sylph choruses : Berlioz's debt to Mendelssohn ?   In disconcerting contrast,  the soldiers and students march off, oblivious to danger. Like Faust himself. Méphistophélès's sly "voice" lies in the wry clarinet melody.

Part Three begins with militarism, but Hymel's sang Faust's Air with exceptional beauty , his voice swelling on the line "Que j'aime ce silence". the silence reiterated in the elusive air in the orchestra that followed.  Nice detail in the orchestration, suggesting a lute, as though Faust were serenading Marguerite, sung by Karen Cargill, her Song of the King of Thule garlanded by viola and celli. The scene where fireflies and will-o-the-wisps dance in the darkness, is so enchanting that even Méphistophélès is taken aback.   Again, Rattle's emphasis on detail and magic paid off well. Fast paced exchanges follow,  between Faust, Margueriter and,Méphistophélès, but gain the moments of calm are even more powerful. Cargill sang Marguerite's Romance with feeling, the melancholy mood taken up by solo clarinet. 

Perhaps the heart of The Damnation of Faust is the scene in which Faust communes with nature.  Although some variants of  the Faust legend emphasize God and the Devil, for Berlioz, a true son of the Romantic Era, Nature was divine.  Thus the significance of the aria Hymel's  Nature immense, impénétrable et fière , which H|ymel delivered with profound authority.  Faust proceeds on his journey to the Abyss.  Hymel and Purves sang their exchange with forceful spirit. Though they wore evening dress, their voices sounded as though they were riding through the sky on dark horses. Now, Méphistophélès doesn't bother being sauve.  Purves's lines are reduced to "Hop, Hop, Hop".  In Hell, the demons sing snatches of Greek and gobbledgook.  Fabulously manic performances all round.  Now Rattle let rip : massive climaxes, crashing cymbals, wailing tubas, waywardly angular lines in the chorus, like the flames of Hell.  he men's choir walked down to the platform, and stood, singing, among the orchestra.

As for Marguerite, the harps rustled and female voices sang "Hosanna". Palpitating rhythms in the orchestral line suggest peace, the fluttering of wings, even the idea of water (in contrast to the fires of hell). Then the children's choirs filtered into the Barbican auditorium . Schoolkids, yes, with uniform style white shirts, but the voices of angels.  


Original Content: Blazing Berlioz The Damnation of Faust - Rattle Hymel Purves Cargill LSO

Sound imagination and tactile, tonal expression at the piano for diverse compositional eras

Often a posted comment about a You Tube video inspires a blog topic that is of interest to pianists and teachers. One such public addition to my Channel quickly streamed into a comparison between two well-known compositions in the piano repertoire.

The commenter was asking about the grade "level" of Debussy's The Girl with the Flaxen Hair as compared to Schumann's Traumerei from Kinderszenen. She asserted that it was "easier" to read through the Romantic era character piece based on her supportive reasons.

"Would you recommend this piece for an Intermediate student (grade 4-5)? I had a very hard time even reading through it! (The Debussy) I learned Schumann's Traumerei pretty quickly to a decent level, so I thought La Fille aux Cheveux de Lin was going to be feasible too, since the difficulties are more musical than technical. But just figuring out the fingering is proving more challenging than I thought."

Initially, I'd planned to underscore my reluctance to comparatively "level" the pieces, having to spell out too many variables bundled into an assessment of each composition from distinctly different eras. (Romantic and Impressionist) In addition, by enlisting a narrow focus, I would pin myself into a rigid pedagogical corner.

Instead, I set out to explore the separate challenges of each work, fleshing out the expressive vocabulary that best realized each individual period of composition in partnership with its composer. My demonstration would incorporate a desired tonal palette that called for an imbued physical approach at the inception of study. It would encompass sound imaging springing from the imagination, reinforced by physical suppleness and weight transfer. Qualitative differences unique to the cosmos of each piece would be a pivotal dimension of my recorded reply.

While teachers can take a circuitous route in their mentoring, drawing on mental prompts to engage an internal representation of sound or tone, they must naturally be equipped to demonstrate what works choreographically, if you will– not proposing fixed motions in musical space, but engaging the student in what physically advances various forms of musical expression. (Naturally, fingering decisions are part and parcel of the journey.)

Mood sets, internal harmonic shifts, and structural considerations unique to each composition, must be at the fore in the developmental learning process regardless of suggested leveling. (And it's a given that a mentor should not recommend pieces that he/she deems significantly out of reach for a particular pupil.)

Finally, in the attached video below, I synthesized in physical and musical terms, what words alone could not amply express.

Original Content: Sound imagination and tactile, tonal expression at the piano for diverse compositional eras

Beefcake ! Berlioz Damnation of Faust Barbican

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

Original Content: Beefcake ! Berlioz Damnation of Faust Barbican

Friday, 15 September 2017

National Treasures : Simon Rattle LSO Elgar Birtwistle Knussen Adès

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original Content: National Treasures : Simon Rattle LSO Elgar Birtwistle Knussen Adès