Thursday, 18 January 2018

Haunted Winterreise : Mark Padmore, Kristian Bezuidenhout

Schubert's Winterreise is almost certainly the most performed Lieder cycle in the repertoire.  Thousands of performances and hundreds of recordings ! But Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout's recording for Harmonia Mundi is proof of concept that the better the music the more it lends itself to re-discovery and endless revelation.  Padmore and Bezuidenhout present a very thoughtful Winterreise which, in its pristine lucidity, connects extraordinarily well to the spirit of the cycle. In a winter landscape, and in darkness, you may lose your path but snow reflects what light there is. Background sounds are muffled, but what you do hear is accentuated.  You may be cut off from the world, but you are enclosed within yourself.  Serious listeners know every note of Winterreise  but rarely experience it like this. This is an unusual Winterreise but so perceptive that it enhances our appreciation of the most familiar of all song cyles.

The only real comparison is the iconic Christoph Prégardien's recording with Andreas Staier, released in 1997, still a classic. Winterreise devotees will need them both. Staier, one of the great fortepianists of our time, noted that, in Schubert's time, pianos were very different from  modern concert grands. Staier and Prégardien performed a great deal of Schubert together, developing an approach more sympathetic to the intimate, personal Liederabend aesthetic.  Schubert was himself a tenor, though of course the songs are performed in many different ways.  The main thing is to be receptive to interpretation and non-dogmatic. Since the timbre of the pianoforte  is more delicate,  the voice part needs to connect.   Like Prégardien, Padmore came from a choral background.  The English tenor style favours purity and clarity, yet also lends itself well to a kind of rarefied spirituality. Not all English tenors are "English tenors"; it's a particular style.  Like Ian Bostridge, Padmore can sing with an edge that intensifies darker undercurrents in meaning. In Winterreise, this is of the essence, for Winterreise is an inner psychological journey, expressed through stages describing physical landscape in almost allegorical terms. Even the destination remains a mystery. Thus the value of approaches which allude to levels in the music beyond text alone.

Fortepiano gives the introductory bars a tremble which suggests the nature of the chill that is to descend. The lower notes stride with purposeful definition.  Padmore's voice curves. "Fremd!", he sings, rolling the "r" so it flies forth.  The sharpness of his consonants in contrast with the ring of the vowels creates a tension which works well with meaning. The protagonist is entering unknown territory, suppressing his fears to journey on. For a moment, in "Der Lindenbaum", he can rest and reflect, and Padmore's voice grows more tender, and the fortepiano rocks gently.  But falling asleep under the supposedly narcotic scent of  linden blossom means death. In "Wasserflut", the vocal line rises and drops. Good phrasing , like "Fühlst du meine Tränen glühen, da ist meiner Liebsten Haus", Bezuidenhuit's fortepiano maintaining a steady pace.  In "Irrlicht", the  brightness of fortepiano and high tenor suggest the character of the will o' the wisp, flickering elusively, luring the unwary astray. In lines like "fühlst in der Still' erst deinen Wurm, mit heißem Stich sich regen!" (in "Rast!"),  the word "Wurm" here, feels satanic, diverting the protagonist from his mission.

In "Der greise Kopf", Padmore sings the first lines with a lyricism that rings with flute-like grace,  emphasizing the deathly near-whisper of "Doch bald ist er hinweggetaut".  We are being prepared for the songs that follow, where the landscape becomes increasingly surreal, reflecting perhaps the psychic trauma the protagonist is facing.  This is where the unique quality of the English tenor style pays off, its archness suggesting anguish.  In "Die Krähe", a crow stalks the protagonist like a Doppelgänger : is it friend or foe ? In "Der stümische Morgen", Bezuidenhout's fortepiano growls ferociously, evoking the storm, both external and internal.  Padmore's voice rises defiantly, but the protagonist is up against almost supernatural forces.  Thus the turbulence in "Der Wegweiser" , pulling in different directions.  Even the graveyard offers no solace. In "Mut!",  notice the way Padmore marks the tremble in the word "herunter", while  Bezuidenhouit pounds as fiercely as a fortepiano can.  Now the protagonist challenges God himself. "Will kein Gott auf Erden sein, sind wir selber Götter!"  In early 19th century terms, this is almost blasphemy.  He looks up and sees three suns, a natural phenomenom that exists in certain climatic conditions, but he thinks they resemble three staring eyes.  Is the protagonist mad or visionary ? The hushed horror in Padmore's singing suggest both possibilities.

And thus to "Der Leiermann" the climax of the whole journey.  Bezuidenhout's fortepiano creates a sense of fragility, the notes sparkling the way light shines off heavy snow. Is this brightness an illusion, like the will o' the wisp ?  A large, strong piano might suggest an element of hope, but a fortepiano emphasizes vulnerability.  The colours in Padmore's voice turn pallid,  his tone dropping as if he's watching a ghost.  There are moments of light, where the voice rises like a flute, as opposed to the drone of a hurdy-gurdy. But note the steady deliberation, as if the protagonist was falling into step with the Leiermann's death march.  The last word "dreh'n?"  rings out like one last call into the void, and the fortepiano's last notes shuffle, deflated.  Padmore and Bezuidenhout don't present an ordinary Winterreise, and some won't get it because it's different. But it does offers good insights, even in a market teeming with excellent performances.   

Original Content: Haunted Winterreise : Mark Padmore, Kristian Bezuidenhout

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

On (Daniel) Land.

Daniel Land

One of the things I've always cherished about Brian Eno's 1982 album Ambient 4: On Land is the sense it gives of occupying a space that's somewhere and nowhere at once. Like Ambient 1: Music for Airports, its better known predecessor, On Land is part of Eno's classic sequence of four albums denoted with the word "ambient," signifying music intended to be as well suited to not-listening as to listening. (The other two volumes – Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, by Eno and Harold Budd, and Ambient 3: Day of Radiance, by Laraaji – are more instrument-focused and personable, to my mind, and thus considerably harder to relegate to a background condition.)

But where Music for Airports conjures (for me) a pleasant sensation of agreeable disembodiment, what I love most about On Land is its sense of place—in particular its evocation of places lost to time. Eno made the album by "composting" recordings, previously unused and otherwise: "…not only recordings of rooks, frogs and insects, but also the complete body of my own earlier work," he stated in a 1986 liner-note essay. What results is a sequence of weightless vignettes in which curious noises frequently surface through murmuring surfaces, like unidentifiable shapes floating in a sluggish, squelchy swamp.

<a href="" data-mce-href="">Lilliput by riverrun</a>

That same sensation is what I'm responding to most in Lilliput, newly issued in digital formats by riverrun, the ambient alter ego of the British composer, songwriter, and performer Daniel Land. Throughout the 57:50 length of the version of Lilliput posted on Bandcamp, you get a feeling of weightlessness and disembodied drift. At the same time, though, there's always something bubbling underneath. The sensation reminds me quite a lot of what I love about Eno's On Land, which made Lilliput a compulsory purchase in mere minutes.

Looking at the notes on Land's website, I notice that he refers explicitly to Eno's mode of generative music. Elsewhere on the site, he cites that same curious notion of creating riverrun music by "composting" previous recordings:

The riverrun project is a series of heavily composted landscape recordings that I have been working on for nearly two decades in parallel to my songs. In the process of recording, I often become sidetracked by a new sound I have made - some peculiar, unrepeatable combination of instruments and effects - and spend a while exploring the ramifications of it. These experiments hardly ever end up on a "band" record, but over the course of nearly twenty years, I have build up a large library of sounds and textures. The riverrun pieces are what happens when I try to blend these little fragments together, a painstaking process that involves slowing down tapes, matching key signatures, and looking for interesting contrasts and juxtapositions.

One more thing about Lilliput: evidently the complete piece is 50 hours long. In addition to the "standard" 57:50 version of the piece now available on Bandcamp, Land is offering a limited-edition run of 50 CDs, each of which will feature an individual "slice" of the 50-hour whole. That, too, is an enchanting prospect: when my CD arrives, I'll have a unique, exclusive piece by Land. I'm eager to hear how it might differ from the version of Lilliput that drew me in so quickly in the first place.

Original Content: On (Daniel) Land.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Rattle 20th Century Masters : Janáček Carter Berg Bartók

One of Simon Rattle's great strengths is creating musically-intelligent programmes. This latest, with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, brought together the final works of four 20th Century Masters - Janáček, Carter, Berg and Bartók.  A few years ago, he conducted Schoenberg's Op 16, Webern's Op 6 and Berg's Op 6 together, showing the connection between Mahler and the Second Viennese School (horrible misleading term).  Rattle's programmes are more than the sum of their parts: they make you think.  They also de-mystify modern music  which is important. Every era was/is modern in its own time, and 20th century music has been around longer than almost anyone alive.  Music is constantly evolving and won't suddenly fossilize.

Sadly, there still are folks who believe that suddenly, overnight, Schoenberg imposed dodecaphony on the world Such folk often think that Berg's Violin Concerto is a throwback to some ill-defined notion of "romantic" music.  That's musically illiterate nonsense on so many levels that it's shameful. Violins have an uncanny capacity to pull on the heart strings and the piece is very deeply felt.  But it's still modern. Listeners who can't get past the "Memory of an Angel" starting point aren't paying attention.  Berg was in the midst of writing Lulu, and was even personally more loyal to Schoenberg than most. The angel in question was Manon Gropius, whose family were very much in the centre of what was modern and up to date. And, like so much else in Berg, there are cryptic hidden messages, with darker, non-angelic subtexts.  Isabelle Faust has played Berg's Violin Concerto so many times that it's almost her signature piece.  Her approach is dignified, with the depth that comes with emotional maturity.  Genuine, sincere feeling, not the cheap sentimentality that sometimes surrounds reception.  Faust's playing has gravity, its poise informed by restraint, creating a tension which gets far closer to the soul of the piece.  The timbres are occluded, as if in shadow, textures disintegrating gently, as reality fades to memory. Tonality hovers on the point of breaking and then dissolves, when no more can be said.  The quote "Es ist genug", is a reference to Bach.  No more can be said.  Berg, even at his most passionate, uses structure with the clarity of a mathematical mind. Puzzles and patterns are integral.  Faust's playing is extraordinarily beautiful because she understands the possibilities of expression that come by extended the borders of form.

Rattle prepared us for the modernity of Berg's Violin Concerto by prefacing it with the Overture from  Janáček's From the House of the Dead and Elliott Carter's Instances.  Carter's Instances was completed in 2012, premiereed in Britain by Oliver Knussen. It was Carter's last work, written at the age of 103, ad probably wins the prize for "world's oldest composer composition". But how lively it is, and how inventive. Carter's "Late, late style", as he called it is freewheeling. At his age, he said, he didn't need to prove anything to anyone. For pragmatic reasons his late works are short and epigrammatic but no less inventive for that. In Instances, one can almost hear Carter grinning. 

Janáček's music, with its angular rhythms and quirky discords doesn't fit  into neat little music history stereotypes. Janáček probably didn't know, or care, what was happening in France, Germany and Austria , but like his contemporaries in the 1920's,  he was forging his own original and distinctive path.  When Boulez began conducting Janáček some years back, there were howls of rage from some quarters. But Boulez loved the music for its own sake and had, in fact, been studying Janáček since the early 1970's.   Rattle forged his own career in modern music, bring Szymanowski, for example, to public attention long before most anyone else.  Szymanowski might seem "romantic" to some, but his intense chromaticism connects to Debussy and to Bartók.

And so Rattle and the LSO concluded with Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra.  In 1940, Bartók was in a new land, where he hadn't settled  and became despondent.  Once he began writing, though, his mood lifted as if rejuvenated.  Although there are familiar "Hungarian" themes in the piece, it is not fundamentally nostalgic.  Bartók was looking back on his past, well aware of what was happening in the Europe he'd left behind, and in the  right wing extremism in Hungary, whose government aligned itself with Hitler.  Rattle brought out the granite like inner strength in the piece and the firm lines beneath the nostalgia. Perhaps Bartók was drawing on sources in his psyche that went much deeper than folkloric colour. The ethereal opening theme developed until it emerged with expansive confidence. The music seemed to oscillate, highlighting the more disturbing undercurrents in the work.  Rattle negotiated the constant flux in the work, tempi spiriting along as if propelled by winds of change.

Original Content: Rattle 20th Century Masters : Janáček Carter Berg Bartók

Monday, 15 January 2018

Galina Ustvolskaya and the determined Nun

Galina Ustvolskaya and Reinbert de Leeuw, 2011
 Exclusive,first-person article on Galina Ustvolskaya on Andrew Morris's blog Devil's Trill. Please read it here - it's a significant addition to what we know of the reticent Galina Ustvolskaya and opens out new areas of research.   Ustvolskaya is coming out from under the shadow of Shostakovich. Whatever the nature of their relationship, Ustvolskaya's music is utterly distinct from his, so original and so uncompromising that it's unlikley she'll ever be as popular as he. But what amazing music she wrote !  Read HERE about her Symphony no 3 Jesus Messiah, save us ! from the Berlin Musikfest with Valéry Gergiev and the Münchner Philharmoniker  

hether or not Shostakovich compromised with the Stalinist regime, he managed to balance on the edge. Ustvolskaya wasn't sent to Siberia, but seems to have struggled on in a kind of external exile.  Perhaps her reputation for being a recluse protected her - she's not unlike many mystic visionaries in Russian history.  The integrity in her music comes from very deep sources, influenced by Slavic tradition, but also decidedly modern.  Her association with Shostakovich is misleading,  She's closer to Stravinsky and the "primitivism" of the Rite of Spring,  and to the brief explosion of modernity which flourished in the early years after the Revolution, and produced works like Alexander Mosolov's The Iron Foundry (1925-6)   Ustvolskaya's music even connects  to the fierce awkwardness of Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, and indeed to Messiaen's ground-breaking masterpieces like Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Follow this link HERE to a discussion of  Ustvolskaya, her place in Soviet music and her relation to Shostakovich.  Also, this excellent documentary, made when Ustvolskya was, at last, being valued for her own sake. She was nearly 90 when the film was made but her mind is sharp. She knows who Reinbert de Leeuw is and what he stands for.   

Perhaps someone should folow up on Sister Andre Dullaghan.  For example - what was her order, and which convent did she live in ?  Her manuscript and papers  may remain in the convent library.   Or the nuns might know what happened to he effects,  and put researchers in touch with her family, or someone who might know.  Two fascinating, independent women, who should be remembered.

Original Content: Galina Ustvolskaya and the determined Nun

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Theory and Harmonic Analyses serve musical expression

Theoretical analysis has been part of my personal immersion at the piano since I began studies at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. As a student enrolled in the the Music department, I had three years of Sight-singing/Ear training, extensive exposure to harmony and musical structure, all within a performance-centered curriculum. And while I obsessively mapped out my piano pieces for every vestige of primary and secondary dominants, pivot chords leading to modulations, deceptive cadences, first and second themes, variations, points of Development and what characterized every section of a composition, I didn't fully understand how to synthesize these analytical ingredients into expressive playing. (At that point in my adolescent life, I was more of an "intuitive" player.)

It was after years of study at the Oberlin Conservatory with its enriched courses of Theory, Music history, Eurhythmics, Keyboard Harmony and Piano Literature, that an expressive musical dimension surfaced as a resonating theme in my approach to learning piano works of varied historical periods. I would no longer compartmentalize what I considered to be a unity of elements in pursuit of beauty.

I still inveterately mark up a "new" composition with harmonic tracking, structural annotations, and fingering choices that comport with what I believe serves the best realization of phrases and this unshackled habit is fully fleshed out in the attached score. (Enrique Granados, Valse Poetico No. 1)

In synch with these scribbles, I dared to upload a video on my second day of practicing as I slowly waded through the music, bar-to-bar, separate hands, no less, with in-depth scrutiny of harmonic and interval analysis; symmetries of phrases; what was different?–how certain harmonic progressions created an "emotional response." The iii chord, for example, known as the "Mediant," was a heart-wrencher as it was poignantly "unexpected." And in this cosmos of "affect" linked to harmonic events, expected and unexpected, I'd been taken by the book, Emotion and Meaning in Music by Leonard Meyer.

In a second video posting, which was my reconnection with Burgmuller's "Barcarolle," Op. 100, I embraced "Elements of Expressive Playing" that underscored awareness of pivotal harmonic junctures (modulations) that necessitated an emotional and physical synthesis. (i.e. How to "delay" the approach to certain sonorities in modulation; how to use a supple wrist to soften the impact of after beat chords, and to sensitively advance tapered cadences; how Rotation factored into a bridge back to a Recapitulation; how the beginning and end of the Barcarolle must be related, with a sense of reflection, mood connection, etc.) All identified key departures had an embedded affective significance that was bonded to choreography. In this pursuit, labeling a key shift needed translation into the physical playing experience with the "singing tone" as an underpinning.

In summary, a music-learning journey should deeply plant the seeds of cognitive, affective and kinesthetic awareness in the earliest phase of exploration. It must ideally include an array of analyses that serves the highest form of musical expression and shared human emotions.

Original Content: Theory and Harmonic Analyses serve musical expression

Rousseau Le Devin du Village staged at Versailles

Jean-Jacques Rousseau's opera Le Devin du Village, (1753) at the Petit Théâtre de la Reine at Versailles last July, now available on Culturebox.  Listening to opera audio-only is sterile and unnatural.  For Rousseau and his contemporaries the idea that any one aspect of opera could be cut out of context was anathema. Opera was meant to be enjoyed as part of social life, which at Versailles meant the aesthetic of the surroundings. The film begins as the camera pans in on the palace and its vast formal gardens. Versailles was more than a royal residence; it was and is the symbol of audacious vision.  The performance takes place in the theatre at le Petit Trianon, built for Marie Antoinette in 1780 where the opera was performed, capturing its intimate, elegant scale which is absolutely part of meaning. Like Versailles iitself, the opera encompasses in miniature the essence of the world beyond, Nature contained, distilled and civilized.  Yet paradoxically it's also a reminder that Nature cannot be tamed. The palace is ringed by ancient forests in which the King would hunt. He hardly needed to catch his own dinner : hunting was a ritual monarchs enacted for fun and fresh air, but also to display their dominance. Though Marie Antoinette wasn't to know what was coming, we do, and that knowledge does affect our appreciation.
It is also significant that Rousseau was a philosopher. Le Devin du Village is more than mindless entertainment in the modern sense.  For audiences of the Age of Reason, art was inextricably part of wider human experience. Without ideas, no art !  While baroque operas can be enjoyed on a very basic level, they are almost always allegorical, with concealed sub texts. At le Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette had a farm but no way was she going to muck in with the peasants. Imagined Nature served a purpose, presenting an ideal that was probably impossible to attain.  The noble savages in Rameau's Les Indes galantes  weren't carefree. Theatre is not naturalistic : it is artifice, not reality.  We need to understand the real traditions of opera to detoxify modern notions of  "tradition" based on movies and TV.  The photo above shows a cloud descending from the heavens bearing a crown which Colette accepts, as if such things happened every day : a device that would enrage "traditional" audiences today.
The flats are clearly painted, the stage is empty apart from chairs for the singers to sit in when they're not in action. Gestures are stylized and the singers, dancers and musicians wear what was normal costume in court circles of the period.  Dance is integral to the whole aesthetic. Like the gardens of Versailles, dance is a formalization of nature, movement organized into patterns.  Baroque dance is structured, like athletics, employing the body into the whole concept.  Thus the large ensemble when most of the cast is on stage, together, carefully choreographed and vocally balanced.  Dance is pulse, and pulse the basis of music.  Separate the two and lose the plot.  It would be impossible and inadvisable to recreate the full baroque experience, but this production is a glimpse into what might have been. For the rest, we use our imaginations, based on what we've learned.  Les Nouveaux Caractères are conducted by Sébastien d'Hérin. The dancers are Le Compagnie d'Eloquents, choreograped by Hubert Hazebrocq. Singers are Caroline Mutel (Colette), Cyrille Dubois (Colin), and Frédéric Caton (Le Devin).  Historic staging by Jean-Paul Gousset.  It would be impossible to recreate the full baroque experience,  but in this staging we get a glimpse into what might have been, from which we can learn the foundations of French style.
Please read Reconsidering Rousseau's Le devin du Village : an opera of surprising and valuable paradox by Edward Green (Ars lyrica, 2007)  for a more detailed analysis of the score and ideas behind it.  Note his final paragraph : "Without exception, every aria in this opera is cast in a dance rhythm. In and of itself, this is evidence of a profound attempt on Rousseau's part to reconcile individual and collective feeling. An aria is an opportunity for the assertion of individual feeling, and yet community is always implied, since a steady dance beat always implies the need to coordinate community. Thus, with a lovely equipoise of individual and communal singing – Colette alternating with the community as a whole – and in an infectious, swinging 6/8 meter, Le devin du village ends with the call : Allons danser!

Original Content: Rousseau Le Devin du Village staged at Versailles

Friday, 12 January 2018

Unfit for New Year’s?

Strange thing I just realized.

The Met Opera celebrated New Year's Eve with a new production of Tosca. Made sense to me when I first heard about it. An opera people love, some grand singing, if it's cast well. What's not to like?

And then it dawned on me. This makes no sense at all, Tosca on New Year's Eve. Not if you take the opera seriously, and remember what it's about.

Let's remind ourselves. (Not that I really need to recount the plot to readers who know classical music, but still).

Blood and torment

A brutal man — torturer, killer, sexual predator, police chief of a tyrannical state — sees an opportunity. Lock up an enemy of his regime. Torture him. Make his lover — a smoldering diva — watch the torture. Tell her he'll free the man, if she'll submit to him.

Tito Gobbi as Baron Scarpia, the sexual predator

Helpless, she says yes. And true, she kills him. But the sadist has the last laugh. His order to free the man was bogus, and, thinking she'll see her lover freed, she sees him shot to death instead. And so she kills herself.

And, sure, all of this is dressed up in operatic grandeur, with sweeping melodies, but still! Torture, death, impending rape, and suicide. When Tito Gobbi, the great Italian baritone, famous for his singing of the villain, recorded the opera for the second time with Maria Callas, he said after (listening to the scene where she kills him), "This isn't opera. This is a real murder!" Or words to that effect.

And all of us, reading that back in the 1960s, said, "Now that's a great performance!"

So if it sounds real…

…how is Tosca a celebration, fit for New Year's Eve? It's as if classical music really didn't have any content. Oh, we love opera! We love the singing, love the drama, love the high notes. But does it mean anything? Not really.

Like when I realized that we still perform Rossini's L'italiana in Algeri, an opera that makes fun of Muslims.

Well, maybe you could say that at least in Tosca, the woman kills the predator. But he wins in the end.

Or you could say, oh, lighten up, it's only opera. So then let's take away the funding it gets for being high art, presumably with deep meaning.

(And, by the way, thanks for making my point for me. Or more than my point! I only said we treat classical music as if it had no meaning. Not that it truly doesn't have any.)

What makes this even more uneasy, in the time of #metoo, is not simply that Tosca's sadistic police chief is a sexual predator. But that the conductor originally set to lead the performance, James Levine, had to be replaced because he's been credibly exposed as a predator himself.

So the real world really does force its way into opera.

Original Content: Unfit for New Year's?