Showing posts with label Richard Strauss. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Richard Strauss. Show all posts

Thursday, February 21, 2019

In which all paths lead to Beethoven 7

I've been reading an interesting book, which I'm reviewing for BBC Music Magazine. It's Good Music: What It Is and Who Gets to Decide, by the American academic John J Sheinbaum. Among many things it does is to articulate a shake-up in the deep-seated ways we tend to think about the music we listen to. Is the idea of "greatness" all-encompassing in our musical judgments? If so, why? Does it have to be? Do we listen to music because it is empirically "great" in some way - or because we think it is because others have judged it to be? And not to other things because they are...not? It's a chewy, academic read, but deep within the texts and analyses are some intriguing ideas and a good few home truths. It's got me thinking...


Good Music

WHAT IT IS AND WHO GETS TO DECIDE

Good Music

69
320 pages | 2 halftones, 25 musical examples, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2019
Over the past two centuries Western culture has largely valorized a particular kind of “good” music—highly serious, wondrously deep, stylistically authentic, heroically created, and strikingly original—and, at the same time, has marginalized music that does not live up to those ideals.

In Good Music, John J. Sheinbaum explores these traditional models for valuing music. By engaging examples such as Handel oratorios, Beethoven and Mahler symphonies, jazz improvisations, Bruce Springsteen, and prog rock, he argues that metaphors of perfection do justice to neither the perceived strengths nor the assumed weaknesses of the music in question. Instead, he proposes an alternative model of appreciation where abstract notions of virtue need not dictate our understanding. Good music can, with pride, be playful rather than serious, diverse rather than unified, engaging to both body and mind, in dialogue with manifold styles and genres, and collaborative to the core. We can widen the scope of what music we value and reconsider the conventional rituals surrounding it, while retaining the joys of making music, listening closely, and caring passionately.






























The same could be said of how we listen to performers. Is hero-worship the only way forward? What about collaboration? Do we have to listen to a performer only because he or she is "the best"? Is the whole idea of "greatness" a hangover from 19th-century thought processes in which the god-given gift was a cause for marvel and we had, post-Liszt, to sit in worshipful attendance?

It's good to question things. It's great. It's essential. We should never simply accept a status quo because it's a status quo - it's only by probing interrogation that we can work out what the heck is going on inside our own heads, as well as in the world around us. Then, maybe, just maybe, we can make some progress.

My starting point today, though, is Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, because it's my personal nomination for Greatest Symphony Ever. I adore its every note. And it's thought, by most and sundry, to be great...

There's a paradox to solve, meanwhile. On the one hand, if greatness is not a criterion for listening to someone or something, how do we decide what to hear? We could eliminate all the artists who indulge in individual behaviour we disapprove of. We might look, for example, for dead composers who lived a blameless life, maintaining in the 18th or 19th centuries all the standards we expect in the 21st - no extra-marital affairs, no lying or cheating, donating half your income to charity, adopting as many stray dogs as you can fit into your home, no holidays (or just non-extravagant camping), being a wonderful mum or dad or wanting to be one, supporting mild, centrishly-progressive politics, standing up heroically to extremism and enduring great torment for the sake of the Truth. Er, you get the idea. We would have very, very quiet concert halls. Though actually, we might hear some Beethoven, who had high principles and massive struggles and if he didn't always get things right, it was not for want of trying. We'd hear a lot of... his Symphony No.7 in particular because it has no political connotations and isn't programmatic and always resists any and all attempts to make it hackneyed, because it's an absolutely great piece.

That method is not much of a solution. We'd be very bored very quickly. What about performers? Here it's already not always "greatness" that determines who is heard the most, or applauded the most. Other matters often decide who gets the concerts (but let's not go there just now). If it's up to us to choose, we might pick others to listen to, for other reasons. Some of my favourite memories of piano recitals involve intimate performances of really interesting repertoire by performers known to a niche public, but little further - an all-Fauré recital by the marvellous Grant Johannesen at St John's Smith Square springs to mind, for example. I'd say that was 'great' playing. So it is about greatness, but not always greatness in the widely assumed forms.





But there's no doubt about it when you do hear a really great performance. I heard one last week - Benjamin Grosvenor playing Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 in its chamber form, with the Doric Quartet - reviewed in The Arts Desk. And certain orchestral concerts have stayed with me for decades: Solti's Mahler 5, for instance, back in the late 1980s (mind-blowing to my student self), or Rattle conducting Debussy's La mer with the Berlin Philharmonic. And Andris Nelsons in Birmingham conducting...Beethoven's Symphony No.7.

Sir Georg Solti - mind-blowing Mahler
Once you've heard such a performance, it sets the bar high. Most of us want to seek out "great" performances because of how we find ourselves responding to them. They set our blood afire, our pulse racing, our imagination spinning, our emotions atingle, and they leave us glad to be alive and thrilled that we could experience this. And if, having experienced that, you then hear something that doesn't do it, you might leave thinking "why bother?".

Do we have to apply the "why bother" scenario to repertoire too? If we did, it would be...boring. Wouldn't it? Some pieces of music I've heard so often that I literally don't mind if I don't encounter them again for 20 years (Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony tops the list, even though I adore Tchaikovsky). The notion that "greatness is everything" seems to have struck out, for far too long, composers of a second or even third rank who wrote music that is interesting, moving, worthwhile, but just not quite as good as ...Beethoven 7. Korngold's Violin Concerto wasn't performed in the UK until about 1984 and it's become a concert favourite not because it's as great as Beethoven 7 (not even I would suggest that), but because it is nevertheless beautiful and fun, violinists love playing it and audiences enjoy listening to it. Plain old enjoyment has a place.

Speaking of enjoyment, just have a look at, and listen to, what Kirill Petrenko can do with...Beethoven 7 at the great Berlin Philharmonic.



Back to Korngold for a moment. We had to be familiar with that concerto before it could catch on, not to mention dealing with the Hollywood stereotyping that worked against it for so many years. Familiarity has a huge place in what we think we know, if that doesn't sound too paradoxical - and sadly, so does prejudice ("film music is second rate", "ballet music is piffling", "Mendelssohn is too glib", etc), though few like to admit this.

Moreover, take our friend Mikolajus Čiurlionis. I went to Birmingham last Saturday to hear Mirga conduct The Sea (I haven't reviewed it because the artist Norman Perryman is a very old friend and I have one of his paintings; indeed, the background image on this blog is his doing). But I can't help noticing that apparently part of the puzzled reactions that have drifted around in that concert's wake was the unfamiliarity of this tone poem. Most people there had never heard it before. OK, so it was the UK premiere.

This Čiurlionis piece is not difficult listening, though. It's much of its time: there's a pantheistic, nature-worship side to it, a hint of Strauss in Alpine Symphony mode, a nod towards Scriabinesque grandiloquence, a whisper of Debussy, whose La mer might easily spring to mind. It's one long movement, about 35 minutes, beautifully coloured with clear, ambery orchestration, and it leaves you stirred, rather than shaken. Yet it wasn't wholly unfamiliar to me by the time I hopped on the train to Symphony Hall, because there are at least three versions of it available to listen to freely on Youtube and I'd availed myself of this. It's not impossible that that was why I didn't feel I had to concentrate on every bar, wondering what was coming next and whether or not it was a "great" piece, but instead I could simply enjoy the organic whole made by the music and painting together. I'm fond of ballet, as you know, and this is not so different. If you can watch dancing while enjoying the music, why not painting? The supposedly different mediums create one whole, a gesamtkunstwerk. So really, the notion that you can't concentrate on two things at once doesn't hold all that much sea-water.



And if it's not "great music", so what? It's a window into another corner of the musical world, a voice that is strong and pleasing. It's enjoyable, different and memorable, it broadens our experience and it makes us think. Is that not something worthwhile? Or does it have to be ...Beethoven 7 every single time? Look, you might not want to marry someone, but you can enjoy a conversation with him or her over a coffee, and even if you decide he's not your ideal date and you leave it there, you might hear something, learn something, have a laugh together. Social life would be pretty dull if you never just went for a cuppa with an occasional pal.

by Čiurlionis
The Virtual Reality exhibit in the foyer, incidentally, took things further still. It was essentially an animation of Čiurlionis's own paintings. It was tucked away in the foyer bar and it took me a while to find it, but then I had a go on it and it was gorgeous. You're absorbed into a magical world, a little bit like Nicholas Roerich's paintings, if more evanescent, even ineffable. Roerich, a mystical philosopher as well as artist, was the designer of the original Rite of Spring for Diaghilev and worked on the scenario with (or possibly for) Stravinsky, and I think he and Čiurlionis had much in common - or would have had if the unfortunate Čiurlionis had lived beyond the age of 35. Coming back to the reality of central Birmingham on a Saturday night (don't even ask) from being surrounded by fields of flowers and a boat ride along a glowing shore is a bit of a jolt. I hope this beautiful creation might be more widely available to view soon.

The natural end point of rejecting a piece of music because it's not 100% perfect is that you end up playing "Mornington Crescent" (the spoof game in the radio show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue) with Beethoven 7. It goes like this. The Sea is not Strauss's Alpine Symphony. Why do The Sea when you can do the Alpine Symphony? But then, the Alpine Symphony is not regarded by some as a "great" work, but as an OK one by a composer who arguably did better with other pieces. Why do the Alpine Symphony when you can do Ein Heldenleben...yet again? But why do Strauss, then, when you can do Beethoven, who was greater than Strauss, the greatest of them all? Why do Ein Heldenleben when you can do...Beethoven 7?


The London Underground. Mornington Crescent is on the Northern Line (the black line) just north of the city centre.


Yes, all roads lead to Beethoven 7. And I love Beethoven 7 and I do think it's probably the best symphony ever composed. But I also have soft spots for about 3000 other pieces and would welcome, for instance, the chance to hear contemporary works like John Adams's Harmonielehre more often, let alone an occasional work by César Franck, André Messager or Lowell Liebermann - for any of which, guess where you mostly have to go? The ballet. (This season the Royal Ballet is doing both The Two Pigeons and Frankenstein, so you can hear Messager and Liebermann within a few weeks of each other.)

If you prefer to end every journey at Mornington Crescent, then by all means do - but now and then it really doesn't hurt to get off the train at Kennington instead and explore south of the river. If we only listened to the familiar and the "great", then we'd never hear anything we hadn't heard it before - and without new music, or indeed music that is new to us, the art form would just dry up and die. That Mornington Crescent lark could be fatal.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The day after the day before

Jonas Kaufmann, Jochen Rieder, BBCSO.
Photo: Mark Allen/Barbican
It's possibly some measure of my current distraction - with libretto, deadlines, nephew's wedding the other day and an ongoing situation with a very sick cat - that I completely forgot Jonas Kaufmann was coming to London to do the Strauss Four Last Songs, until the Barbican press office sent me an email saying, in effect, '...but don't you want tickets?'. So after Meghan and Harry had walked up the aisle - and so, in Harrogate, had our nephew and his own American bride, and so, in Cambridge, had Guy Johnston and Ali Digby (huge congratulations to music's loveliest new couple!) - and the sun shone and the Rev Michael Curry had wowed a rather startled congregation with his reminder of the powers of love and fire, off we headed for the City to see what the tenor of this event would be like.

One question that always applies at such concerts is: what else goes into the programme? Kaufmann's friendly conductor, Jochen Rieder, wielded the BBC Symphony Orchestra baton over a selection including Elgar's In the South, the second symphonic interlude from Strauss's Intermezzo and, to open, a work that I frankly thought I would never hear played live: Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Schauspiel Overture, written when he was 14. [Update: I am reminded that the CBSO did it a few years back and I missed it...] The drama in question has never been definitively identified: his adored Shakespeare is likely, and while The Tempest and The Winter's Tale have been suggested, Twelfth Night - as stated by his notorious critic father, Julius - is possibly the most convincing idea, given the bittersweet tone of the music, plus the mix of high spirits and big, generous tunes. But it's possible, too, that it's a non-specific concert overture and as such, it functions jolly nicely.

This Viennese gemütlichkeit, the expansive expression, the Klimt-like glistening of the orchestration, seemed to puzzle the Barbican every bit as much as the gospel choir inside St George's Chapel, Windsor, had earlier struck some churlish online wedding observers as "inappropriate". Of course, it wasn't - the bride is American and it represented her background. In the Barbican, Korngold was a Strauss disciple, so it was perfectly appropriate too. My dream is that one day the English will "get" Korngold. They still don't. It may be a long wait.

Kaufmann presented four Strauss songs in the first half - 'Ruhe, meine Seele', 'Freundliche Vision', 'Befreit' and 'Heimliche Aufforderung' - and the Four Last Songs in the second. I'm preoccupied with Lieder right now because I'm doing a comparative review of a certain song-cycle by Schumann and have been listening to dozens of recordings, day in and day out (Kaufmann has not recorded this cycle, so isn't in the survey). The ideal singer, in my personal view, blends tone, nuances of meaning and diction into one - it's amazing how often the balance between these elements is skewed. In this respect Kaufmann is an absolute master. What we heard last night, essentially, was a supremely intelligent, beautiful and detailed Lieder recital. But whether the orchestra bore responsibility (enough rehearsal? One wonders...), or the loud and muddy acoustic of the hall, or whatever, Kaufmann's tone - never huge in any case - blended into the textures rather than soaring above it.

You shouldn't go to a Kaufmann concert expecting ear-splitting volume, any more than you should go to his Otello expecting him suddenly to morph into Jon Vickers. He likes to sing softly. He goes for colour, nuance, text, intimacy - and these Strauss numbers are mostly not molto con belto-appropriate. Could any listener witness a fine performance of 'Befreit' and emerge unshredded? In this poem by Richard Dehmel, a man speaks to his dying wife of the joys they have experienced together and recognises the time ahead when she will be 'released' and he will see her only in his dreams. So, no, you cannot expect a singer to whack this out at high volume. You need some sensitivity from the orchestra. Or you need Helmut Deutsch at the piano instead.

Here's what Kaufmann said to me about the question of volume when I interviewed him a few years ago for BBC Music Magazine:

"I think you can touch the audience more with a soft sound than you can with any big note. I think you can impress people with big notes, but you can really move them and touch them with the soft ones. You need to have both. Even in the heavy Wagnerian repertory, no big note seems to be big if there isn’t a soft note as well. If everything is just shouted it’s not impressive – after five minutes you’re thinking 'we’ve heard that already'. When people are in misery, when people are suffering, you tell it with a soft voice – there are self-confessions and all these things, it doesn’t get shouted, it comes out naturally."


So, did the Four Last Songs work? In terms of pure artistry, of the mix of line and text and meaning, then yes, absolutely, with 'Im Abendrot' the finest of all: subtle, mystical, transformative. But can you get used to the sound of a baritonal tenor in these songs, instead of a soprano whose tone soars and slices through the textures? Kaufmann's didn't. He blended with the orchestra as if he were another instrument among them. In short, it was beautiful, it was a worthwhile experiment, but sopranos can probably rest assured they won't be losing these songs too often to their male rivals.

And one encore: 'Morgen', in which the orchestra was quiet enough and that soft, shining, intense Straussian beauty could reach everybody. Heaven at last.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Michael Volle: How to keep your head in opera


Even if his characters sometimes lose their heads, the powerhouse German baritone Michael Volle has no intention of imitating them. You'll find he has strong shoulders, feet firmly on the ground and a velvet-lined juggernaut of a voice. I was lucky enough to hear him sing Hans Sachs in Meistersinger at Bayreuth this summer, and this season he is back at the Royal Opera House to sing Guy de Montfort in Verdi's Les vêpres sicilienne and, later, Jokanaan in Strauss's Salome. My interview with him earlier this year originally appeared in the Royal Opera House Magazine and I'm rerunning it below with their kind permission.



Volle as Montfort in Les vêpres siciliennes
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Michael Volle is very proud of his head. The one in the cupboard, that is. “Since 2008 in each Salome performance here, my head is used,” he declares, “because I did the first run with David McVicar.” When Strauss’s searing masterpiece is revived at the Royal Opera House later this season, Volle can reclaim his model cranium: he returns as Jokanaan, aka St John the Baptist, whose decapitation is the febrile princess’s revenge for her failure to seduce him.

For the leonine German baritone, 57, Jokanaan offers a challenge through sheer intensity. “In Strauss’s big, big lines, everything must be perfect. And you must be a prophet,” he says. “I would never have been able in the early years to sing Jokanaan, or the big Wagner roles: you need the experience, you need the breadth, you need to have been on stage playing a very strange character. He is in his madness, he is confronted with this strange young lady and her demands and he loses his security. It’s not a long role, but a very strong: you stay like a rock, but then it takes your energy, the fight with the unknown planet of this young woman.”

Jokanaan, the Flying Dutchman, Hans Sachs, Wotan: the roles that Volle sings are often larger than life, each in its own way, and Volle himself is a gigantic personality, somewhat resembling an imposing yet genial German version of Jack Nicholson. His voice, with its vast capabilities in both quality and magnitude, reflects that strength of presence, yet can also be as meltingly beautiful as it is dramatic. Wagner, Strauss, Verdi and Puccini could eat up all his time. Yet his lasting inspiration is something very different: Bach and Mozart.

BACH TO THE FUTURE

The youngest of eight children of a priest, Volle grew up in Baden-Württemberg, near Stuttgart, steeped in first-rate church music. “In Stuttgart you could visit on one day six or seven church services with six or seven Bach cantatas, because it was part of religious life,” he recalls.

Because of that background, he insists, he cannot do without Mozart and Bach: “But the crazy thing is, nobody offers me Bach any more.” The expectation, he grumbles, is that a Wagner and Strauss voice cannot possibly suit those composers. “It’s ridiculous!” he expostulates. “I’m so fortunate that I did recently with the Akademie für Alte Musik in Berlin the three bass solo cantatas of Bach and we recorded them in concert. I do a lot of Bach because I need it. No Christmas time without a Christmas Oratorio; no Easter without a Passion.”

As for Mozart, he remarks with satisfaction that following a Wagner rescheduling last winter, he found he had the chance to sing one of his favourite roles, Papageno in Die Zauberflöte, in Paris, with his wife, Gabriela Scherer, also in the cast as the First Lady. “What could be better than that?” he beams.


Perhaps having half a million Youtube views could run a close second? Last year Volle was invited by an ear, nose and throat specialist in Stuttgart to be filmed singing inside an MRI scanner, which duly captured astounding images of the physical mechanism of singing. The video went viral (see above). “I don’t do social media, so I knew nothing about it,” he says. “Then my wife told me I’d become an internet sensation.” Wasn’t that a little alarming? “I would not get a job from the way I sang in that video,” he laughs, “but it was fun.”

It’s often said that Volle has had a “slow burn” career, a phrase which also makes him laugh, but is not far off the mark. “Boys always develop more slowly than girls!” he quips. “I only started to study aged 25 and in 1990 I had my first opera contract. I was on fire, wondering why some other people got roles... But 27 years later, I’m very happy it took all that time, because I had the chance to develop and grow up. I believe somehow in a ‘plan’ for your life – fate, if you like. For me it was perfect, because I was never forced to do anything that could have killed my voice. I was able to grow with the right parts at the right time, and I’m very grateful for that.”

As Montfort, with Bryan Hymel as Henri
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Covent Garden audiences might be forgiven for thinking, though, that Volle specialises in characters whose fate is distinctly darker: not least, he is reprising the role of Guy de Montfort in the forthcoming revival of Verdi’s Les Vêpres siciliennes. The opera begins with Montfort as a soldier raping a dancer, who then bears his child – the opera’s hero, Henri. Later, as governor of Sicily, Montfort longs for his grown-up son to accept him, but ultimately he, along with the French occupiers of the island, comes to a sticky end.

"THIS IS AN INCREDIBLE PROFESSION"

As Montfort
Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
Montfort might not seem the easiest character to identify with, but one vital element of the role was uppermost in Volle’s mind when Stefan Herheim’s production was premiered in 2013. “My fourth child was born in 2012,” he says, “so I was very involved in being a father. This is a central conflict in Vêpres, between Montfort the elder statesman and Montfort the father. He wants to be a good father and he meets his child, who rejects him: this big scene at the end of the first act is very intense.

“I am happy that for the past 20-25 years opera singers have had to be actors too,” Volle adds. It so happens that his brother is an actor: “He says often that if you feel close to a role, it must touch you in some inward way. This is the gift of being an acting singer, or a singing actor: you can try to be somebody else, something quite different from your private life you are paid for it, and you can sing!” Volle gives a giant bellow of laughter: “This is an incredible profession – I love it.”

FIVE AT ONE BLOW

This summer one summit of Volle’s repertoire approached in a special form: he sang Hans Sachs in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Barrie Kosky’s new production for Bayreuth [our interview took place before this, in the spring]. “For me Sachs is the one and only role that is above everything,” he says. “The singing is so difficult – but it is so wonderful, because you have not only to sing five characters, but to act them too. Sachs is the wise man, the jealous man, the artist, the shoemaker, the mastersinger, and this is incredible.” He was looking forward to working with Barrie Kosky for the first time, too: “He has incredibly good ideas and I think we will have a great time.” [Author's note: looked good to me.]

And having a good time, he reflects,  is vital. “I am glad to be at a level now at which I can say no to offerings,” Volle reflects. “This can be the least family-friendly job in the world, because if you do an opera you are away for weeks at a time. Family is everything, so I do sometimes say no. Singing so important to me, it is a part of me, but it could be over tomorrow. Then what do you have?”

Les Vêpres siciliennes opens at the Royal Opera House on 12 October. Michael Volle sings Montfort, Bryan Hymel reprises the role of Henri, Malin Byström and later in the run Rachele Stanisci perform Hélène, Erwin Schrott sings Procida and Maurizio Benini conducts. Booking here.


Friday, August 25, 2017

A steamy date in Snape

Spent most of yesterday driving to and from Aldeburgh with the OH to experience a very special night of Strauss and Elgar at the Snape Proms. Renée Fleming sang the Strauss Four Last Songs and the programme was topped and tailed with his Till Eulenspiegel and Elgar's Symphony No.1. On the platform was a familiar presence who's nevertheless unusual in the context of this orchestra. It wasn't his first concert with them by a long chalk, but the first in a little while. So, with apologies to The Guardian's 'Blind Date', here's what happened when Ed Gardner met the LPO.

You'd never think that just behind you is one of the best concert halls in the country

What were they hoping for?
A dynamic partnership of orchestra and conductor in which sympathy is found, sparks can fly and the audience can get really excited about the music. At least, that's usually what they want. 

What did they talk about?
The end of days, intentionally or not. Poor Till is hanged at the end of his Strauss tone poem (I must look up what he's supposed to have done to deserve it - maybe he spoke out about politics...). The Four Last Songs are, well, the four last songs, ending implicitly with the souls of Richard and Pauline rising towards heaven in the form of larks; and Elgar, in his Symphony No.1, takes an eloquent "idée fixe" melody with regular, walking-type accompaniment and then, to use a modern-day trendy word, 'disrupts' it in almost every way conceivable in England in 1908. It was hard not to read the second movement as a macabre, scherzoid battle scene. The final pages, in which the theme returns surrounded by a great musical firework display, seemed simultaneously a celebration and a fearfully pertinent farewell to a vanishing era.

Rehearsal in Snape Maltings
Renée Fleming's performance of the Four Last Songs, and the encores Cäcilie and Morgen, offered a raw revelation of innermost heart, at times almost spoken more than sung; however quiet she goes, her voice still shimmers through the music fabric as only hers can, drawing us in towards her and softly wringing us out. Explaining the encores, she noted that the two they had chosen were early works dating from around the time of Strauss's marriage, and adding: "I just want to say: thank God he married a soprano..."

Any awkward moments?
If so, very few and well masked. 

Good podium manner?
Splendid. Gardner is debonair, extrovert, charismatic, with plenty of audience appeal. For the orchestra, one has the impression he seems clear, positive and cogent, wearing his expertise lightly.

Best things about the meeting?
The freshness of it. Imagine a spouse who is used to - and loves - long, deep, intense conversations, in which each word is controlled with immense precision and the underlying philosophy must be considered at every moment...suddenly taking a walk with someone who laces up his boots, links his arm through hers and points out the dramas among passers by, the green parrots flying about and the sun sparkling on the water and says "great, so what do you want for lunch?"

Gardner is a splendid storyteller, pacing the narrative and sustaining tension over long expanses of music with vivid colour and detail around a rock-solid core. 

In addition, it was a massive treat to hear the home band in the Aldeburgh acoustic, which is warm and flattering, bloomy and gorgeous.

Would you send your friends to hear them?
Heavens, yes.

Describe the meeting in three words.
Energetic, inspiring, promising.

What do you think they made of each other?
Very different from one another, but they seemed keen to adapt, to find common ground and to, er, make beautiful music together.

Might they go on somewhere?
They might. We'll have to see.

And...did they kiss?
Definitely having a good old flirt. 

If you could change one thing about the evening, what would it be?
Distance. It's a long way to Aldeburgh and we didn't get home til nearly 2am. 

Marks out of 10?
Eight.

Might they meet again?
I reckon so.


Friday, June 30, 2017

Soprano flying high under the planes

Lise Davidsen as the Prima Donna, Nicholas Folwell as the Major Domo

Glyndebourne's Ariadne auf Naxos, directed by Katharina Thoma, has taken a lot of flak for its updating to the British 1940s. But it's actually rather good. It's been tightened up since the first run in 2013, the action flowing more slickly and convincingly; the air raid that finishes the first half does not seem incongruous at all. Part 2, in which the house is transformed into a hospital with shell-shocked patients and a suicidal Ariadne, has the aspect of a concussion-dream for the Composer, who does not vanish despite having nothing to sing. He/she appears to learn, watching Ariadne and Bacchus's final duet, that it is love that saves us, not death. This message is very much all right with me.

Moreover, with Cornelius Meister's lively, affectionate conducting, leader Peter Schoemann on great form in the violin solos and a very special cast, the score seemed to take wing and fly. Given the chance to change something about the production, I personally would cut only the straightjacketing of poor Zerbinetta, simply because it's too visually busy while we're trying to listen to all the dazzle.

Yes, that cast: plaudits are more than due to Angela Brower as a heartfelt Composer, Erin Morley as a vivid Zerbinetta, AJ Glueckert as a full-throated Bacchus (an injured daredevil pilot, in case you wondered) and the three nymphs-turned-nurses, along with Björn Bürger as an adorable Harlequin, Nicholas Folwell as the bossy little Major Domo and, of course, Thomas Allen as the Music Master, a role from which he's become indivisible. But there's no way this could be termed that critical favourite, a 'uniformly strong cast' - because there was nothing uniform whatsoever about our Ariadne.

From Norway, aged 30, please welcome the winner of Plácido Domingo's Operalia 2015, the utterly astounding Lise Davidsen. She also won the Queen Sonja Music Competition 2015 and this extract from Tannhäuser was filmed there. Just have a listen...



Vocally megawatted, toweringly tall, expressively direct, Davidsen is blessed with top notes that could ping us all the way to the moon, an eloquent middle range and a dark velvety lower register that virtually says 'Isolde' the moment you hear it. (In this interview with the Observer's Fiona Maddocks, she explains that she started off as a mezzo and wanted to be Joni Mitchell...).

Thinking of the few singers who have made a similar effect on first hearing, at least on me, I can only compare the thrill of disbelief and wild joy that her voice inspires to initial, never-forgotten encounters with the sonic glories of Anja Harteros and Nina Stemme. If she can do this at 30, imagine where she could go from here. Please, dear world, take good care of her.

And I'd appreciate it if good old Autocorrect would stop changing her name to Davidson whenever I type it, because I expect to be writing about her a good deal more in the future.

Ariadne auf Naxos is on through July - find dates, times and tickets here.

A word of warning: Southern Trains is having another work-to-rule and there are many cancellations for those trying to get to Lewes. Check before you set out, and leave plenty of time.


If you enjoy reading JDCMB, please consider making a donation by way of voluntary subscription to its year of development, A Year for JDCMB, here. 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Magic mountains 2: Into the woods, with the Strausses


A double-bass player walks to work in the Taiswald

I started to go to Pontresina with my parents at the age of 12, more years ago than it's seemly to admit. This mountain resort in the Engadin, south-east Switzerland, with its open, sunny aspect and jaw-shattering scenery became their favourite summer haunt; over the decade that followed I must have been there with them for at least six or seven summers. But I hadn't gone back since 1988 and both my parents are long dead.

This being a slightly difficult, landmark, stock-taking sort of year, I had an attack of nostalgia and wanted to visit once more, just to make sure it was still there, still real, and still as good as my romanticised imagination and memory has been making out.

It wasn't. It was far better. And there was no getting away from the music.

Every day, I remembered, there used to be a free concert in the woods, from 11am to 12 noon. The spot is called the Taiswald: a pine glade near the start of the mountain pathways, where the audience can assemble on benches to listen to an hour-long chamber programme of old-style favourites, lollipops, operetta medleys, arrangements, concerto extracts and more. I dreaded walking that way and finding the place had fallen into disuse. Switzerland seems quiet at the moment - the exchange rate could well be decimating  tourism - and after all, people don't go to concerts any more, if the doomsayers are to be believed.

Well, they do here. The Taiswald is flourishing. More than a hundred people came to the Camerata Pontresina's concert on Friday, a programme full of juicy tidbits like Offenbach's Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld (which I haven't heard since, probably, my last visit to the Taiswald), Johann Strauss's Music of the Spheres Waltz and Fischer's delicious South of the Alps Suite. Some things have changed with the years: for instance, there's now a printed booklet displaying the programmes for the whole summer. Similar outdoor series take place in nearby towns and villages, among them St Moritz and Sil Maria. The concerts are organised by an impresario in St Moritz who, I'm told, has a personal library of the arrangements.

The musicians arrive to play here from all over Switzerland - we met a cellist from the Zurich Opera, a fine young clarinettist who's studying in Lucerne, and of course the double bassist above. They must contend with the vagaries of the elements - Friday was blowy, with commensurate effect on the music on the stands, which they dealt with by using clothes-pegs (though if the weather is too awful the concert takes place in the church or cinema instead). And the trains go by, whistling, and the dogs trot past, barking, and occasionally newcomers arrive, open mouthed with surprise at finding such an eccentric pastime taking place in the forest - and sometimes they sit down to enjoy the music. As for the piano: it lives in the pavilion year-round, winter included. It still sounds relatively OK.


Camerata Pontresina preparing to play in the Taiswald

The Taiswald, it turns out, is an old and proud tradition. It has been going since 1909; in 2009 centenary celebrations were duly held. Among those who came across it and sat down to listen many decades ago was Richard Strauss - who was apparently scandalised by hearing an arrangement of a Mozart symphony for quartet and said it should be forbidden!

Strauss. I didn't realise how important Strauss was to me. I just never thought about it. I took him for granted. But the fact remains that the first piece that switched me on to orchestral music in earnest was his Don Juan. I was given a ticket for a Royal Phil matinee at the RFH when I was 12 and it opened with the tone poem, which I'd never heard before. When it flew out at us, the energy lifted me and held me up and I remember falling head over heels in love with the whole thing on the spot. I wanted to be part of it. Don Juan swept me off my feet. Eventually, having not managed to become part of an orchestra myself, I married a violinist who was - and in whose background Strauss features prominently. Tom's great-grandfather was a Berlin businessman with a summer house in Bavaria, not far from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, and he knew the composer well; indeed, was a Skat-playing companion on summer evenings by the lakes.

Last Friday, we went to listen to a talk in the Hotel Saratz by the Swiss singer, musicologist and moderator Claudio Danuser about Strauss's connection with Pontresina. When Strauss's villa in Garmisch was requisitioned by the Americans at the end of the war, Strauss and his famously cantankerous wife Pauline took off for Switzerland. They moved hotels frequently because Pauline, true to form, kept falling out with the staff. But the family-run Saratz in Pontresina was a special favourite. Claudio had interviewed the proprietor about Strauss's stays there and was full of fascinating stories - among them, the Taiswald occasion mentioned above. Another time, the couple walked into the dining room and found musicians accompanying dinner. "Richardl," said Pauline, "play some Johann."

In the hotel garden is a wooden pavilion with a view across to the mountains of the Val Roseg, along which a favourite walk can be taken. It was in this structure in 1948 that Strauss completed the last of the Four Last Songs to be composed - 'Beim schlafengehen', ultimately the third in the set. I've always felt there is nothing in all 20th-century music that can quite compare with the beauty of this song and its violin solo.

The pavilion in the Hotel Saratz garden, where Strauss finished 'Beim schlafengehen'


So the elderly Richard Strauss was looking out at the Val Roseg as he worked on it. You can't really see the view in this photo, as it was very cloudy, but on a good day, when you are walking along it, the valley looks like this:


The Val Roseg, Pontresina

A mere 30 years later, there we were, me and my mum and dad, in the hotel next door. And in its garden, gazing at the same view as Strauss, without knowing it. I remember staying in a garden-floor room that must have been just a few metres away from that pavilion. Aged 14 I felt there was something in the air itself that was galvanising to creativity and I'd sit in the garden scribbling my attempts at novels by day and, by night, having the extraordinary dreams that one has at high altitude after dayfuls of fresh air and mountain walks. With no clue about Strauss - or anyone else, for Hermann Hesse apparently came here too, and Thomas Mann, and so on.......

It sounds matter-of-fact and so-what-anyhow to tell the story; but when something and somewhere and someone and that music have been as much part of you as your own nose for such a long time and you then learn something new about how it all connects, it feels quite another matter.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
 
-- TS ELIOT, 'Little Gidding'


Here's the Strauss - sung by Nina Stemme.





Monday, September 01, 2014

September: some gigs and a song

Hello, it's September. How did that happen?!

Here are a few things I'm doing this month: do come along if you're in the vicinity of any of them!

14 September, 3.30pm:
HAMPSTEAD AND HIGHGATE LITERARY FESTIVAL: JOHN OGDON. I interview Ogdon's biographer Charles Beauclerk about the life and work of the troubled musical genius. LJCC, Ivy House, North End Road, Golders Green, London NW11.

21 September, 4pm:
ALICIA'S GIFT, the Concert of the Novel. Viv McLean (piano), me (narrator). Chopin Society, London, Westminster Cathedral Hall.

24 September, 6.15pm
PANUFNIK CENTENARY Pre-Concert Talk at the CBSO, Symphony Hall, Birmingham. I interview Sir Andrzej Panufnik's daughter, composer Roxanna Panufnik, about the life, legacy and influence of her father and his music. Concert includes A.Panufnik's Piano Concerto (with Peter Donohoe) and Sinfonia Elegiaca. 


September is one of the most beautiful months of the year. Here is its eponymous song by this year's top anniversary man, Richard Strauss, from Four Last Songs. The soprano is Nina Stemme, and it's the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Tony Pappano. 

I am sick as the proverbial parrot about having missed Nina's Salome at the Proms on Saturday night. I was in Salzburg to interview a VIPianist and was travelling back at the time. Apparently it was totally sensational and you can hear it on the iPlayer here: click on Listen Again, even if you haven't listened before.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Strauss's big birthday

It's the big 150th anniversary today, so here is a little something to celebrate, with pics from my visit to Garmisch in 2012. First, the incomparable Fritz Wunderlich in one of the composer's most beautiful and ardently summery songs, 'Heimliche Aufforderung'. And you can watch the whole of Der Rosenkavalier from Glyndebourne free online here, starring Kate Royal, Teodora Gheorghiu and, of course, the fabulous Tara Erraught, whose star shines bright. 







It is often said that behind every great man there is a great woman; but not every great composer can claim to have achieved a long and happy – if somewhat tempestuous – marriage to his muse. The soprano Pauline de Ahna was the powerful presence behind Richard Strauss: his wife, his inspiration and a diva in every sense. Over his many decades he drew on plenty of different spurs to musical action, but none more consistently or more powerfully than the soprano voice.

Strauss’s operas remain arguably his finest achievements and the Royal Opera House has already marked the 150th anniversary of his birth with a new production of Die Frau ohne Schatten (1918), the most complex, symbolic and magical of his collaborations with the playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Despite its baffling fairytale premise, it deals at heart with matters that are human and domestic: the longing for a family.

Strauss was born into the centre of the German operatic world; his father, Franz Joseph Strauss, was the principal horn player at the Munich Court Opera. Loathing the music of Bavaria’s local megastar, Richard Wagner, Franz Strauss was the only member of the orchestra who did not stand up in respect when the composer’s death was announced to them. His son took a different view: “I remember clearly how, at the age of 17 I feverishly devoured the score of Tristan [und Isolde] and fell into a rapturous ecstasy,” he recalled.

In his teens he composed prolifically; and Hans von Bülow (the first husband of Cosima Liszt, who then married Wagner) helped him to secure his first conducting post in Meiningen when he was only 21. Later he held vital posts as conductor in Munich, Weimar and Vienna; film exists of him on the podium in advanced age at the Salzburg Festival.

He announced his engagement to Pauline de Ahna shortly after the soprano – starring in his first (and not very successful) opera, Guntram – had astonished the musicians in rehearsal by throwing a piano score at him. She was, he later wrote, “very complex, very feminine, a little perverse, a little coquettish, never like herself, at every minute different from how she had been a moment before". They settled in 1908 on the outskirts of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where Strauss built a substantial jugendstil villa with the proceeds of Salome’s success; his study housed an Art Deco desk with a specially commissioned matching piano (pictured above).

“My wife is often a little harsh,” he is reported to have said, “but you know, I need that.” Not everybody did. Indeed, her cantankerous personality attracted note from many quarters. In the late 1920s my grandmother-in-law was dining in a restaurant at Kochelsee, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, when she spotted at a nearby table her father’s occasional skat (card game) companion Richard Strauss and his wife. The waiter apologized to Frau Strauss: they were out of the fish she wanted. He offered her, instead, a nice fresh Saibling. “I don’t want that scheisse [shitty] fish!” the great lady expostulated, according to grandma-in-law.

“Strauss would never have become a great man without Pauline,” insisted the composer’s friend Manfred Mautner-Markhof. The pair’s volatile relationship left its mark directly upon Strauss’s music, notably in both the Symphonia Domestica and the tone poem Ein Heldenleben – in the latter she is personified by a solo violin. But above all, her presence is felt in the power and sensuality with which he wrote for the female voice, whether in the frenzied finale scene of Salome, the celebrated trio towards the end of Der Rosenkavalier, or the ecstatic and soaring lines of his solo songs, including his wedding present to Pauline, Cäcilie.

It was another area of Strauss’s life that housed his most difficult moments. In 1933 – by which time he was nearly 70 – he was made head of the Nazi administration’s Reichsmusikkammer, a state music institute that aimed to promote “good German music” by Aryans. Declaring that he had been appointed without being consulted first, Strauss said – perhaps naively – that he hoped he could “do good and prevent greater misfortune”. He was forced to resign, though, in 1935 when a letter he had written to Stefan Zweig, the Jewish librettist of his opera Die Schweigsame Frau, was intercepted by the Gestapo and found to contain cynical words about the regime.

His attitude towards the Nazis in the ensuing years contained loathing, but also bursts of sociability – not idealistic as much as self-interestedly pragmatic. Ultimately both Nazis and anti-Nazis judged Strauss “a total bystander” or, as Goebbels, put it, “unpolitical, like a child”. Nobody could escape the fact that he was by then the greatest living German composer – yet also an intractable soul, uninvolved and caring only for his family and his work.

Nevertheless, he expected too much of the Third Reich. Strauss’s daughter-in-law was Jewish; her mother was imprisoned in the concentration camp at Terezin. The composer drove to its gates believing he could rescue her by pulling rank; but the guards would have none of it. Eventually he was publicly humiliated by Goebbels for having made disparaging remarks about Lehár, Hitler’s favourite composer of operetta. “The art of tomorrow is different from the art of yesterday,” Goebbels said to him. “You, Herr Strauss, are yesterday!”

Strauss’s music, though, had the last word. In 1948, the year before he died, he completed his Four Last Songs for soprano and orchestra. Here the musical language may belong to an earlier age, but its beauty and universality transcend any such concerns. The last song, “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset) describes an elderly couple spending the quiet evening of their lives together. “Is this perhaps death?” asks the soprano, while two flutes evoke a pair of larks rising towards the heavens. It was his last and perhaps most perfect offering to his beloved muse, the soprano voice. On 8 September 1949 he died, aged 85. Pauline outlived him by just eight months.

Pictured right: a statue of Beethoven that stands in Strauss's house. The story goes that when the Americans arrived in the area at the end of the war and turned up at the villa to investigate, one of them asked Strauss who this was. The somewhat unimpressed composer told them it was the Gauleiter of Garmisch.

(This is an adjusted version of my article that appeared in The Independent in January.)