Friday, December 13, 2019

The real battle: truth versus entertainment

It's the morning after the night before. Happy Friday 13th, everyone. What sort of a place will the UK be three years from now? How the blazes did we get here? (And can Beethoven help?) Above: I'm glad to see his study was even messier than mine.
These concerns do have elements in common with IMMORTAL, which is why I'm devoting this week's Friday update to them (dear JDCMB readers, this post is also going out to the subscribers to my book, as I am too knackered to write more than one blogpost this morning.)
One thing that Donald Trump and Boris Johnson share is that both have been on TV shows - Trump as centre of the US's The Apprentice, Johnson as satirical news quiz host on Have I Got News for You. People are used to being entertained by them. (And they are both blond. People seem to like blonds.) 
It's a peculiar quirk of human nature to prefer the utterly monstrous to the vaguely meh, and to value the entertainment value of the former over the latter's earnest, well-meaning anxieties. The question is: what constitutes entertainment?
Once upon a time, back in the frivolous Noughties when music features in national newspapers could be 1200 words long and might be actually read, I had a little flirtation with a rising trend of the time: contrarianism. Having heard Handel's Messiah once too often, I penned a semi-satirical piece about how irritating da capo arias are and how we revere Handel just because he lived in England, when actually Bach was a whole heap better. This caused such a rumpus that I ended up being roasted over an open flame by Sarah Montague on Radio 4's Today programme. Which kind of proved the point I was trying to make, of course...but the thing is, it should never have been taken seriously. It simply made a splash by being controversial and therefore entertaining. It got attention. And I didn't much like it.
There's been a lot of attention-grabbing contrarianism around us in the decade since. In a world where people want fast-food soundbites instead of meaty material for real-life consideration, a one-second thumbs-up rather than a speech about the fact that the UK is heading for 40% child poverty due to Tory policies, the wrong things get noticed. Entertainment should have no place in politics, but it's a bit late for that now.
Truth versus entertainment is, naturally, a problem in historical fiction. Part of the unwritten contract between novelist and reader is that we have to remember that you want to be entertained. If we did not want to entertain, we would write the sort of musicological tracts that I have often ploughed through in the past year or two for the sake of this book. The dessicated text sometimes needs to be decoded with a musical Enigma machine, and ultimately communicates little to our life experience unless we are music faculty PhD students. I can't even use them for programme notes these days. That writing of course has its place - which is not here.
So - yes - entertainment is required for a novel, even if it is about music. Does that mean not letting the truth stand in the way of a good story? 
Here the waters become still muddier, because around the Immortal Beloved, nobody can say with 100 per cent accuracy that they know what the truth is. That's probably because Beethoven on the one hand and the woman's family on the other did an extremely good job of concealing it. This provides some justification for telling her story as fiction - because essentially, barring a remarkable discovery in someone's attic, it always will be.
As for Beethoven, he too has fallen victim to the entertainment of disinformation: it has always been more popular to think of him as a furious grouch than to look at the many facets of his actual personality. I've found him to be a misunderstood, principled individual whose isolation was the result of his debilitating deafness and the fact that he was always an outsider in Vienna. He was kind and generous; his friends were devoted to him; women and young people loved him, and he loved them. Yes, he had one heck of a temper, bore lifelong grudges and drank too much. I can't say I blame him. 
So... there are two contracts to fulfil in IMMORTAL: one with the requirements of a story based on fact, the other with readers wishing for entertainment. This is why I've written, for once, in the first person. I am, dear reader, your classic unreliable narrator. And I have some remarkable stories to tell you... 
A quick PS re the Handel grilling. I feel a teensy bit vindicated. Recently BBC Music Magazine ran a feature in which around 100 contemporary composers ranked the composers through history who have influenced them the most, and the staff then crunched the numbers into a top 50. Bach was number 1. Handel was...not there at all. Brahms was high on the list. Bruckner was...absent. And Beethoven was, if I remember correctly, number 3. 
If you've enjoyed this post, there's still time to get your name into IMMORTAL as a patron: simply visit the book's page at Unbound and click on the pledge level you want to set it in motion.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Shostakovich: a warning from history

Shostakovich in 1950
Photo: Deutsche Fotothek
I'm not sure that listening to a completely terrifying performance of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 was the best way to spend my birthday. Of course there was no way the LPO could have known, when they scheduled it, that there'd be a general election the next day. Suffice it to say that this piece is an hour-long tone poem depicting an eerie silence, a people on the march, a horrifying massacre, its tragic aftermath and a renewal of elemental yet hideous energy beyond.

It is supposedly the Russian revolution of 1905. It was actually written shortly after Russia crushed Hungary in 1956. Shostakovich is living on the edge here - how could anyone have believed his excuse for the piece? - but his warning comes to us loud and clear: it could happen then, it can happen now, it can happen again, anywhere. The impact, as brought to us yesterday by Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO, is more than shattering. Hear it on Radio 3 iPlayer.

Totalitarianism doesn't begin as totalitarianism. It starts with crackpot ideology that speaks to a sect of zealots. It may be idealistically founded, but it bears no relation to helping ordinary people live in peace. Its perpetrators are sometimes elected when ill-informed electorates decide they want a 'strong man' to lead them. Gradually the promulgators face challenges to their power, from the judiciary, the media and more. They start taking control of such organisations to ensure they get rid of those that disagree with them and would stop them. The process continues, small step by small step, and it ends with people on the streets and those to whom ideology is more important than human life (as it will be by then) crushing them. And killing them.

Take a look at the state of Britain today and then consider what will happen if we allow a gigantic drop in GDP, starting from what's already a pretty grim position - a wealthy country that's home to some of the poorest places in Europe.

Yesterday's concert set Shostakovich beside one of the weirder British piano concertos of the last hundred years: John Foulds' Dynamic Triptych, which was brilliantly performed by Peter Donohoe, whose heroic effort for it should really be called upon for more than one outing. It's another piece of the jagged puzzle that is the music of the late twenties and early thirties (written 1929, performed 1931); a craggy, individual voice rooted in the concertos of the past but transformed with a wholly personal take. Each movement is based on a different motivating idea, respectively mode, timbre and rhythm. The result is bizarre, puzzling but also haunting, leaving one wanting to hear it all again to grasp a little more of what is going on within it.

I am mesmerised by Foulds' life story, but suspect that his music will not travel especially well, so far does it sit up in the tree of individual ideology. One would love to think it could have a wider currency, but in terms of realpolitik, sadly I doubt it. (Read more about him here, in an article I wrote for the Independent 12 years ago, in the days when a national newspaper would still take an article this size about a maverick classical composer.) Ahead of his time he may have been; out on a limb, assuredly; but with hindsight he represents another kind of Englishness that is not often acknowledged these days: the eccentric individual, an independent thinker, a person with a different creative outlook that does not tally with any party line in their art. It will never be easy to be a Foulds, or to get to grips with his creations, but we need these people more than ever, and not only in music.

If Shostakovich brings us a warning, Foulds brings us an alternative - but one that may not catch on strongly enough for long enough to prevent the juggernaut heralded by the side-drum and crowned by the demoniac roar of the tam-tam.

Today, Thursday 12 December, please get out there and vote against the mendacious monomaniacs who have taken a wrecking ball of greed, cruelty and lies to Britain and will take a worse one if we give them the chance. If you have a vision of a country that is open-hearted, international, sensible, long-termist and responsible to its people, its partners and its world, today is the day to get the new-look fanatic-Brexit Tories gone forever. It may be our last chance.







Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Alive and dizzying: Die tote Stadt in Munich


We've got a revolve and we're gonna use it...
Marietta (Petersen) and Paul (Kaufmann) hold on for dear life
All photos from the Bavarian State Opera website: https://www.staatsoper.de

I'm just back from an unexpected dash to Munich to see Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Bavarian State Opera. It's always a little daunting when dreams come true; sometimes you imagine they can only disappoint and will be best avoided, which is not the least reason I hadn't got my act together about this sooner. But when a kind friend in the cast wrote to me out of the blue saying she could get me a ticket, I decided to drop everything, use my air miles and run.

Die tote Stadt was the topic of my dissertation at university, which is where my Korngold book really began to germinate. Back then - the 1980s - you'd say the name "Korngold" and nobody had heard of him; worse, though, if they had, they would give a scornful laugh because he wrote, oh dearie dearie dear, film music. I never expected to see this opera on stage at all.

Its remarkable rehabilitation over the past 25-30 years has happened despite the army of nay-sayers, some of whom still like to damn Korngold with entartete Musik terminology that could almost be out of the Goebbels playbook; the fact that the performances are getting better and better and the standing of the artists involved increasing every time suggests those dogs have maybe had their day. (The final frontier is the UK, where it surfaced once at Covent Garden around 08, only to vanish again.)

Marietta (Petersen) drives Paul (Kaufmann) up the wall

Now the opera has been championed by Kirill Petrenko, the extraordinary conductor who has been music director of the Bayerisches Staatsoper for a good while and now has the Berlin Philharmonic as well. The cast is led by Jonas Kaufmann as Paul and Marlis Petersen as Marietta. I remember rejoicing, on hearing Kaufmann's first solo CD of Strauss Lieder in 2006, that here was the perfect German romantic tenor to sing Korngold's leads, if only he would be persuaded. That was 13 years ago - but it seems I wasn't wrong.

A fresh view of an old favourite after a long time is always illuminating - especially when a piece is so expertly performed that you know you are responding to the work itself and not its misapprehension by its performers. This opera functions at such high intensity, right the way through, that you can feel afterwards as if you've been hit by a juggernaut. I can see why I fell madly in love with it when I was 20: emotionally speaking, this music is for young people, reflecting Korngold's own age and stage at the time. He began work on it while serving as musical director of his regiment in World War I; upon its simultaneous premiere in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920, he was 23. Already an established superstar after a meteoric beginning as child prodigy par excellence, he wrote the lead roles for no lesser singers than Richard Tauber and Maria Jeritza, and assumed his orchestra would be so good that they'd be able to do absolutely anything.

Marietta (Petersen) taunts Paul (Kaufmann) with Marie's wig...

What is not young about it, though, is the libretto itself - and here's a whole new strand for me to explore, because when I studied the piece I looked at what the libretto does with its sources (Georges Rodenbach's Bruges la Morte and the play based upon it by Siegfried Trebitsch), but not exactly who did what, or why. "Paul Schott" was a pseudonym for the Korngolds père et fils, Julius and Erich, and of those two, Julius was the one who worked with words. It is easy to think, looking at some of his reviews (he was music critic of the Neue freie Presse, hence the most powerful in Vienna) and his unpleasant and unhinged-sounding letters to his gifted son, that Julius was simply crazy. He was, however, a very fine writer. His German is far from easy reading, but lucid translations in the relevant books, notably by Michael Haas and Brendan Carroll, show that his literary worth ran high and justifies his place and influence - even though he sometimes used these to somewhat malign ends.

Erich was a natural composer, but less so a wordsmith. He penned reams of funny and charming doggerel for his friends and family (the Exil.arte Centre in Vienna has in its collection a recording of him reading one of these verses), but when it comes to long  descriptions of a religious procession through the centre of Bruges, or an all-out "domestic" between Paul and Marietta (has there ever been such a row in any other opera?) or an overtly Freudian psychological process and extended dream driving the action - that has surely to be the hand of Julius. I am now wondering - and do not begin to know - what was driving him.



Here's is the gist of the story. Paul lives in Bruges, surrounded by medieval streets, ancient canals, the atmospheric nunnery named the Beguinerhof - all dark, shadowy repression. His wife, Marie, has died; he can't move on. He has created a shrine to her memory and in his mind the dead city of Bruges fuses with the dead woman into one strange, dominating presence. He is supported by his devoted housekeeper, Brigitta, and his one friend, Frank. Then he meets Marietta: a dancer who is the physical double of Marie, but her polar opposite in personality, all sparkle and sensuality. The virgin/whore complex of the Rodenbach original becomes, in Korngold, the battle for life against death. Paul has a dream - which takes up all of act 2 and most of act 3 - in which he sees calamity ensue when he attempts a relationship with Marietta, and in which he finally strangles her with a lock of Marie's hair. At the end he awakens to realise the danger of his state of mind. Marietta comes back to fetch her umbrella, but he lets her go. Frank persuades him to leave Bruges at last.

Trolleyed: Marietta (Petersen) and Fritz the Pierrot (Filonczyk)
The roles are huge - long, loud, high and very physical - and the orchestral writing is full of complexities and unusual instruments. Some productions have made radical cuts - I saw one that wholly omitted the sole choral scene, the religious procession early in act 3, no doubt saving ££££s - but Petrenko has gone full whack and does every note. This is the three-act version, too: in some, acts 1 and 2 are run straight through, again with the loss of a certain amount of music. I heard passages, notably in Paul's duet with Marie's ghost, that I don't think I've actually encountered before.

The production by Simon Stone was restaged by Maria-Magdalena Kwaschik from its original home in Basel, and it leaves you dizzy. There is a syndrome in opera staging that often ensues when a director is lucky enough to secure the use of a "revolve". This means the stage can spin. This feature is technically very complicated and costs a bomb. Therefore it is put to work at every available second. "We've got a revolve and we're gonna use it!" My spies tell me it's not only the audience that risks seasickness. Nevertheless, it's effective in the dream sequence at creating the bizarre, unpredictable atmosphere Paul's nightmare requires. Doors open startlingly into walls; you're never quite sure where you are; Frank takes an open-air shower on the roof; Fritz, the Pierrot, pushes Marietta around in a shopping trolley (I watched with some anxiety as it rolled free towards the edge of the stage); and in the procession Paul's house is taken over by children (his and Marie's?) helping themselves to cereal and jumping up and down on the bed, before the chorus itself is delivered in a circle on the move.

Paul (Kaufmann) and the pillow fight
More seriously, when everything does keep still, it becomes clear that Marie has died of cancer; she appears in her hospital gown, bald from chemotherapy, weak and fading in Paul's arms. The preserved hair is her wig. This makes act I the most emotionally harrowing section of the opera (certainly for me - both my parents and my sister died of cancer, the latter aged only 45, and she had a wig  - so I found this evening extremely close to the bone). That's difficult, because you need to keep something in reserve for the end; this time it comes almost as relief, rather than catharsis.

Biggest complaint, though, is that in this opera the "dead city" of Bruges is a character itself - we meet it time and again in the orchestral textures and in particular in the extended orchestral sequence that opens act 2, a truly filmic canvas unfurling the glimmering waters, the dark church towers, the tolling bells, the medieval lanes, in sound alone. But as Bruges is a character - fused with Marie - the could-be-anywhere modern apartments of the very detailed design (by Ralph Myers) slightly miss the point, unless it be that the soul of this place is somewhat dead.

The performers' characterisation and dramatic sense is fabulous. As Paul, Kaufmann is haunted and harrowed, but imperious and determined, taken to offloading laundry and cardboard boxes onto Brigitta and Frank by simply tossing them across the room. In act 2 he is straight out of a film noire, in raincoat and angled hat, casting well-placed shadows; in act 3 bewildered, desperate and goaded beyond his limits. Paul is anything but an appealing and likeable character, yet Kaufmann kept us with him through his sheer sense of disorientation and the genuineness of his lost love; when he sings the final Lute Song over a beer while burning Marie's wig and his own tie, we are grateful that Paul will recover at last. (In one other production at least, he shoots himself, which after all that intensity is a really miserable way to end the piece.)

Singing? Kaufmann - often heard elsewhere as if pacing himself and keeping heft in reserve - this time lets rip from the start. There's a Wagnerian, Siegfried-like steely edge to the tone, and a rock-solid technical strength; but tender moments, when they arrive, melt like chocolate fondue. As Marietta and Marie, Marlis Petersen could quite possibly out-Marietta Jeritza herself. She's a vivid actress, switching astoundingly between charismatic dancer and dying cancer victim both in presentation and in vocal tone. Her role is as high and loud as Paul's and her silvery tone matches the glitter of her silver dress; she brings the character a megawatt personality who nevertheless is not above pinging Paul's braces to make her point. When she triumphs in the act 2 showdown, seducing Paul into a submission as wholehearted as his earlier fury, it is no wonder she wins. There's a particularly nice touch at the end when Marietta, having come back for her umbrella, once more forgets to take it with her. Will she come back? Is this story over? We wonder...

Mezzo Jennifer Johnston is an ideal Brigitta, with warm, shining tone and deeply sympathetic characterisation: for once we can take Brigitta at face value as housekeeper and, later, a nun. The story is complicated enough without trying to turn her into something she isn't (as some productions do). Andrzej Filonczyk as Frank and Fritz is a wonderful discovery, a golden-centred baritone whose rendering of the Pierrot lied was a highlight of the performance. Together the four principals make a close-knit and convincing ensemble. Fine supporting performances from Mirjam Mesak and Corinna Scheurle as pole-dancing Lucienne and Juliette, and Manuel Günther and Dean Power as the men in their act 2 lives.

But the ultimate stars of the evening were the orchestra and Petrenko, creating an Aladdin's cave of detail, with supremely intelligent pacing and control, high-stepping élan and excellent balance (it would be easy for the orchestra to overwhelm the singers; they didn't). It is no easy feat to sustain such intensity with such clarity, and to unfurl the drama of this rich-textured orchestral sound without allowing it to be obscured by its own weight. (Watch The Sea Hawk; listen to Korngold's own conducting of his own music on the soundtrack. It's there to be tapped into, if you want to know how he needs to sound.) This music is a cake that has to be baked at a high temperature - the worst thing to do is let it be soggy, and I've heard more soggy Korngold performances in my time than I'd care to count. It totally kills him. He really needs to be performed almost as if he's Beethoven - taken on his own terms, with that degree of nobility, heroism and sincerity - and these qualities are in short supply in our world. Petrenko found the very soul of Die tote Stadt and I'm deeply grateful to him.

Would I fall in love with this opera now, in my fifties, as much as I did at 20? I wonder. I'll never know. But I do know I'll probably never hear it performed as well as this again. A little bird hints that there might be a DVD (at least I saw tell-tale cameras in action on Sunday), which is seriously good news. Several more performances remain before Christmas and it'll be back on stage in the Munich Opera Festival in July.





Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A tribute to Sir Stephen Cleobury (1948-2019)

Sir Stephen Cleobury
Photo: King's College, Cambridge
In September I spent several days in York interviewing Sir Stephen Cleobury in some depth for the collection of National Life Stories at the British Library. He was already terminally ill. It seems gently appropriate that it was on St Cecilia's Day that he finally left us last week.

The BL asked me to write a tribute to him, which is up now at their Sound and Vision blog, together with an audio clip from the interview in which he talks about why the solo choirboy for Carols from King's is always chosen at the very, very last moment.

Monday, November 11, 2019

ODETTE AND TCHAIKOVSKY

Dear all, please come to the Barnes Music Society at the OSO, Barnes Pond, London SW13 this Wednesday, 13 November 2019 (7.30pm) for this:

ODETTE: A CELEBRATION OF SWAN LAKE
A narrated concert

Fenella Humphreys (violin)
Viv McLean (piano)
Jessica Duchen (author/narrator)


“Enthralling…an unpredictable and original voice and a dazzling perceptiveness” -- Joanna Lumley

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet score for Swan Lakecasts a powerful spell over generation after generation. It has had innumerable reimaginings and retellings, balletic and otherwise. The latest is author and music critic Jessica Duchen’s magical-realist novel Odette, in which the enchanted swan princess meets 21st-century Britain. 

This remarkable narrated concert mingles selected readings from the book with the story behind Tchaikovsky’s creation ofSwan Lakeand its passionate, tragic inspirations. Award-winning, ballet-loving British violinist Fenella Humphreys embraces the great violin solos with which Tchaikovsky embroidered his score, as well as the closely related Violin Concerto; pianist Viv McLean evokes the influence of Chopin and Liszt on Tchaikovsky; and there’s plenty of humour, with works by Saint-Saëns and Gershwin. Share the enchantment through this joyous celebration of a beloved ballet, its composer, its fairy tale and what they can mean to us today.




THE MUSIC
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Introduction
Saint-Saëns: Danse macabre
Liszt arr. Achron: Liebestraum No.3
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Odette’s Solo
Gershwin: The Man I Love
Chopin: Polonaise-Fantaisie 
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – White Swan Pas de Deux
Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake – Adagio from the Black Swan Pas de Deux
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major - finale



FENELLA HUMPHREYS - VIOLIN

Winner of the 2018 BBC Music Magazine Instrumental Award, violinist Fenella Humphreys enjoys a busy career combining chamber music and solo work. Her playing has been described in the press as ‘amazing’ (The Scotsman) and ‘a wonder’ (IRR). 

A champion of new and unknown music, a number of eminent British composers have written for Fenella, including a set of 6 new solo violin works by composers including Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Sally Beamish and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. She has been fortunate to record these over 2 critically acclaimed CDs for Champs Hill Records, both chosen by BBC Music Magazine as Instrumental disc of the month with 5 Star reviews, and the second also picked as Editor’s Choice in Gramophone Magazine.  

Described on BBC Radio 3’s Record Review as an ‘absolutely exquisite album’, Fenella’s new CD, ‘So Many Stars’ with Nicola Eimer has just come out on Stone Records. Summer 2019 sees the release of Max Richter’s Four Seasons Recomposed on Rubicon Classics. Her teachers have included Sidney Griller CBE, Itzhak Rashkovsky, Ida Bieler and David Takeno, studying at the Purcell School, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the Robert-Schumann-Hochschule in Düsseldorf graduating with the highest attainable marks. 



VIV MCLEAN - PIANO

Viv McLean won First Prize at the 2002 Maria Canals International Piano Competition in Barcelona and has performed in all the major venues in the UK, as well as throughout Europe, Japan, Australia and the USA. He has performed concertos with orchestras such as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonia Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, English Chamber Orchestra, Halle Orchestra, BBC Concert Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia Viva, Orchestra of the Swan and the Northern Chamber Orchestra under the baton of such conductors as Daniel Harding, Wayne Marshall, Christopher Warren-Green, Owain Arwell Hughes, Carl Davis and Marvin Hamlisch. 

Viv plays regularly with the Adderbury Ensemble and has also collaborated with groups such as the Leopold String Trio, Ensemble 360, the Ysaÿe Quartet, the Sacconi String Quartet and members of the Allegri and Tippett Quartets. Viv has appeared at festivals including the International Beethoven Festival in Bonn, the Festival des Saintes in France, Vinterfestspill i Bergstaden in Norway and the Cheltenham International Festival in the UK. He has recorded for labels such as Sony Classical Japan, Naxos, Nimbus, RPO Records and future releases include a Gershwin cd for ICSM Records. Viv has also recorded regularly for BBC Radio 3 as well as for radio in Germany, France, Australia, Norway and Poland.

“ Viv McLean revealed extraordinary originality, superb simplicity, and muscles of steel hidden by fingers of velvet. He plays with the genius one finds in those who know how to forget themselves, naturally placing themselves at the right point to meet the music, this mystery of the moment.” Le Monde (Paris)


JESSICA DUCHEN - AUTHOR/NARRATOR

Jessica Duchen's novels have gathered a loyal fan-base and wide acclaim. Odette, published by Unbound in November 2018, is her sixth, but has occupied her for over 26 years. Ghost Variations(Unbound, 2016) was Book of the Month in BBC Music Magazine and was John Suchet’s Christmas Choice for the Daily Mail's Best Reads of 2016 ("A thrilling read" - John Suchet). 

Jessica grew up in London, read music at Cambridge and has devoted much of her career to music journalism, with 12 years as music critic for The Independent. Her work has also appeared in BBC Music Magazine, The Sunday Times and The Guardian, among others. She was the librettist of Silver Birchby composer Roxanna Panufnik, commissioned by Garsington Opera and shortlisted for an International Opera Award in 2018, and she works frequently with Panufnik on texts for choral works. 

Her further output includes biographies of the composers Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Gabriel Fauré, her popular classical music blog JDCMB, and the play A Walk through the End of Time