Worth the wait ! Thielemann Mahler 3, Dresden Staatskapelle

Thielemann, Garanca, Dresden Staatskapelle, photo : Matthias Creutziger, Dresdner Neueste Nachtrichten

Christian Thielemann conducted Mahler Symphony no 3 with the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, broadcast on MDR.de last night.  He hasn’t conducted much Mahler in the past, so this was a big event.  Thielemann is one of the great conductors of core Austro-German repertoire, a specialist in Wagner, Strauss, Bruckner and more, so any perspective he might have on Mahler would be significant.  In many ways, it is a point in his favour that he has not rushed to conduct Mahler because everyone else seems to do so, whether they have anything to say, or not.  A while back, Haitink was attacked for not conducting Shostakovich.  If only more conductors had that kind of integrity. We all do some things better than others, so why shouldn’t conductors do what they believe in, as opposed to pandering to market forces.  So I listened last night to Thielemann on NDR, not knowing what to think. A few minutes in, I realized that this was no routine performance. Thielemann really does have insights.  So I came briefly “up for air” before plunging in to listen as intensively as possible.  I hope NDR has archived this,m since it is a performance definitely worth further listening. 

First, let’s consider what Thielemann has actually said about Mahler.  Significantly, this quote was made during the Mahler anniversary year in 2010, when  there was so much hype – often uninformed – that it’s hardly surprising that someone should steer well clear on jumping on the celebrity bandwagon.   “Mahler’s music lends itself most to those conductors” Thielemann reflects, “who know how to hold back, who are good at understatement. That doesn’t exactly accommodate my conducting style; I’ve not been terribly successful at that yet. The music of Mahler is already so full of effects, if you are tempted to add anything, you only make it worse. I admire those conductors who achieve that certain noblesse—which is what I desire to achieve, eventually. Not always to enhance something. I’m currently trying to wean myself off that in Strauss, actually…” Thielemann thus continues a solid three minutes on his fallibility as a conductor in Mahler, about trying to break habits and improving—a touching, beautifully honest moment. (source HERE) 

Thielemann’s actual words suggest that, far from being anti-Mahler, he had a far more accurate understanding of the composer than most. “Understatement” and “noblesse”, as opposed to the kind of overwrought over-excess that became fashionable in the 60’s and 70’s, and has ever since dominated the way some audiences expect to hear Mahler. “Neurotic Mahler”, shaped in part by Bernstein, Karajan and Ken Russell movies is valid in itself, but it is certainly not the only way to approach the composer.   It’s an audience thing.  Conductors in the past, most of whom knew the background from which Mahler came, didn’t subscribe to this image.  Nowadays, thanks to the research of Professor Henry-Louis de La Grange, we know much more about Mahler’s personality and creative processes, which has an impact on performance practice.  “Understatement” and “noblesse” are a whole lot closer to Mahler than the self-indulgent image created in the 60’s.  If only audiences could learn to hear Mahler from these perspectives ! There is a whole lot more to Mahler than wham and bang. 

Thielemann observed the subtle progressions that give the long first movement structure, and form the bedrock of the whole symphony.  This movement does evolve like a panorama, each vista yielding to another, peak after peak on a vast horizon.  Anyone’s who has ever hiked and biked in the mountains as Mahler did will comprehend the sense of progression, and also the open-air expansiveness that Thielemann brought to it : the sense of freedom and endless possibilities, a purer, more rarified atmosphere, unpolluted by venal concerns.  Strauss’ Alpensinfonie, completed 18 years after Mahler 3 has that sense of adventure, but not quite the almost Brucknerian spirituality which Thielemann finds in Mahler. The previous evening I’d been watching Arnold Fanck’s Der heilige Berg (1926) which merges Bergfilm with esoteric mysticism. The skiers achieve great feats on the snow, while the dancer Diotima (the Eternal Feminine) represents artistic ideals.

The Dresden Staatskapelle is a superlative ensemble, sleek and wonderfully agile. Beautifully judged details, well integated into the whole so the flow felt natural and organic. Big blocks of sound we can hear anytime, but less often this poetic sensibility.  It’s more difficult to achieve this kind of genuine purity than to blast away.  A very authentic post horn, like you hear in the mountains.  Geuine warmth, too, the music moving as though propelled by summer breezes.  Thus the Pan Erwacht moments, when Spring rushes in, bringing change and revitalization, even the hint of wacky, Pan-like disorder.  Thielemann brought out the contrast in moods from the elegance of the minueto to the vigour of the scherzo, reinforcing the sense of flow.  Elīna Garanča’s voice is a little light for the “O Mensch” gravitas, but her singing was moving, nonetheless and fitted well with the Dresdner style.  I had been listening, eyes closed, when the Children’s Choir of the Semperoper Dresden began to sing, and suddenly my screen burst into light and shook me – an uncanny but very appropriate moment ! And perhaps most impressive of all, the final movement, which had grandeur and transcendence. Definitely an intelligent and well-thought-through approach to this symphony, and to Mahler.

Original Source: Worth the wait ! Thielemann Mahler 3, Dresden Staatskapelle


Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV, Versailles : Pygmalion, Pichon

Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV, with Ensemble Pygmalion, conducted by Raphaël Pichon now on DVD/Blu -ray from Harmonia Mundi.  This captures the historic performance at the Chapelle Royale de Versailles in November 2015, on the 300th anniversary of the King’s death.   When Louis took control of his kingdom, he marked the occasion with an extravaganza, Le Concert Royal de la Nuit, a grand statement that was as much political as artistic  (read more about that HERE)   Just as the Sun King announced his arrival at Dawn, dressed as the sun, his funeral was staged in darkness : the Sun having gone down on his world.  Everything Louis XIV did was a form of theatre, from the audacity of his vision for France, to Versailles, and even to his wigs and clothing. Though extremely well played and sung, this performance needs to be experienced visually for maximum impact.  Nightime shrouds the architectural splendours of  the Chapelle Royale, but this is how things should be. In the presence of death, material glory is nothing. In the presence of God, even the Sun King is mortal man.  The original funeral rites took place over a period of 24 hours, with ovations, prayers and lying in state.  Here, instead, we focus on the music, and its liturgical meaning.  Darkness enhances the experience, intensifying the mystery that is life and death.

A single bell tolls. Out of the gloom we hear the Subventi sancti Dei, sung as if by monastic choir.  The voices echo out into the distance, filling the recesses of the chapel.  The echo in this performance space is glorious, more otherworldly and spiritual than can be replicated in modern buildings or studios.  We catch quick glimpses of marble alcoves, lit for a moment before darkness falls again.   Later the spotlight lingers on a soprano/tenor/baritone trio. The black and white starkness is warmed by flashes of golden light, contrasting with blue light through the windows beyond, reinforcing the idea of “eternal light” in the distance.  But the days of wrath are still to come. The “monastic choir” intones, led at times by a bass baritone.  A descent into total darkness, the silence broken by the thud of a single drum.  André Danican Philidor Marche pour le Convoy du roi accompanies the procession of the King’s simple black-draped coffin as it slowly enters the chapel and down the nave.  Even in death, Louis XIV recognized the power of symbolism.  The chapel door closes. The King is no longer “of the world”.  An extended De profundis by Michel-Richard de Lalande, led by the magnificent bass baritone of Christian Immler, reminds us of the achievements of the King’s past.  From a position near the roof, a solo bass voice intones,imploring God to grant mercy. His voice, and the voices of the two small choirs in balconies above the nave, reverberate as if unto the Heavens.  The haute-contre, Samuel Boden sings an unearthly In paradisum.  He isn’t visible, but his voice is heard as we ponder the ornate ceiling fresco which depicts God. A de Lalande Dies Irae follows, Immler singing of the trumpet call that shall awake the dead to the Day of Judgement.  A beautiful passage, where Samuel Boden sings of hope and redemption.  Light is beginning to fill the chapel.  The cameras linger on the singers and players, the mortals Jesus was sent to Earth to save.  “Lord grant him Mercy” : soloists, choirs, and players all together in harmony, as the camera pans on the image of the sun above the altar, painted gold, its rays descending on the ensemble below. Soloists included Céline Scheen, Lucile Richardot, Samuel Boden, Marc Mauillon and Christian Immler. Realisation for film was by Stéphanien Vérité, lighting by Bertrand Coudere. Raphaël Pichon conducted the Ensemble Pygmalion orchestra and choirs.  We’re not supposed to “enjoy” funerals, but Louis XIV must have gone out in style.

Original Source: Les Funérailles Royales de Louis XIV, Versailles : Pygmalion, Pichon

The “Best Interview” with Seymour Bernstein

Seymour’s fan club encompasses a vast array of e-list recipients who feel the pulse of the pianist’s response to a universe of infinite wonders. In a steady stream of emails FROM: see.less (not more–mour), TO: his many cyber-connected admirers, a cascade of attachments might contain a photo display of newborn puppies snuggling with a feline mother surrogate; or e-parcels will capture a tiger befriending a kangaroo. Interspersed among heart-warming animal kingdom posts, Bernstein will sometimes forward a set of eye-catching waterfall slides, giving full credit to a pupil photographer. A plethora of these peak experiences spring rhythmically from photo depictions of nature’s gifts, while they concurrently flow beside student concert updates, wrapped with affection.

Clearly Seymour’s embrace of life, filled with bundles of giving, is as touching as a child who experiences a first sunrise. At 90, Seymour is still agelessly wide-eyed and curious: always evolving and learning with a passion.


If Bernstein’s many past reflective interviews were enough to satisfy those interested in the pianist’s career as teacher, performer, author, composer, this latest posting stands out as unique. (It has acquired Seymour’s signature recommendation)

“Dear friends, I believe that this is one of the best interviews I have ever had.


I agree that it IS the best, based on reminiscences that are priceless and shared with impeccable timing.

“Living the Classical Life” (convened by Zsolt Bognar)

May Seymour continue to impart his gifts, talents, and precious anecdotes to a growing audience of dedicated followers.


NOTE: Seymour’s Vimeo on pedaling is a must see.
Link within blog: https://arioso7.wordpress.com/2018/02/13/piano-teachers-and-pedaling/

Original Source: The “Best Interview” with Seymour Bernstein

Secret Love – Nikolai Medtner

Medtner (right) and Anna (Left) London 1948

Nikolai Medtner’s works for piano are justly famous, his songs, less well known.  Medtner’s work for piano is brilliant, his songs less so, but then I’m a voice person and a song sleuth.  So a little adventure into the secret world behind some of Medtner’s songs.   Medtner’s first group of Goethe songs, Nine Goethe Lieder, op 6 from 1904, were dedicated as a wedding gift for his older brother Emil who was marrying Anna Bratenskaya, a violinist whom Nikolai was in love with. Most of these songs are fairly straightforward settings of famous texts like Wanderers Nachtlied II, Elfenliedchen and Mailied with a particularly lovely interlude before the final, significant verse.  But consider that last line : “Sei ewig glücklich Wie du mich liebst!” The poem isn’t nearly as innocent as it looks. Please read my analysis HERE.

Medtner takes texts from several different Goethe collections.  Was there a reason for his choices ? Who knows, but it’s interesting to speculate. Two of the texts Medtner chose, Inneres Wühlen and Sieh mich, Heil’ger, come from Goethe’s Schauspiel Erwin und Elmire, (1775) which tells the story of lovers who are kept apart by social convention.  The first song speaks of suppressed emotional turmoil, the second of Elmire’s anguish at having rejected Erwin’s youthful passion. These texts have rarely been set by anyone other than Medtner and the Duchess Anna Amalia, Goethe’s patron and object of his veneration.  Until, of course, he went to Italy and discovered sex and sunshine. Anna Amalie, the chaste Moon, was not amused.

In 1907-8, Medtner wrote his Twelve Goethe Songs op 15. An atmosphere of feverish intrigue haunts this collection. In Selbstbetrug, a curtain twitches. Is someone watching something they shouldn’t witness ?  Yet another text from Erwin und Elmira, Sie liebt mich. which rises quickly to emphatic crescendo, repeated over and over, in delighted disbelief.  So tanzet und springst comes from Goethe’s Lila, a play about a married woman who goes insane when her husband’s away. And most scandalous of all, Vor Gericht, where a woman is pregnant but will not denounce the father, whom she loves. Pastor and magistrate, be damned ! “Es ist mein Kind, es bleibt mein Kind,Ihr gebt mir ja nichts dazu !”  Yet again, Medtner is the only male composer to dare set this defiant text.   Do these songs form a cryptic cycle, from the night-time hush of  Wandrers Nachtlied II and Meerestille to the last two songs, Der untreue Knabe and Geistergruss?  The last two songs form a matched pair, just like the first two, but now the mood is triumphant.  In  Der untreue Knabe the errant lover is reunited with the girl he dumped when they’re dead, and in Geistergruss the Knight’s ghost sings, like the King of Thule, pledging eternal love, despite separation . “Mein halbes Leben türmt’ ich fort,Verdehnt’ die Hälft’ in Ruh,Und du, du Menschen-Schifflein dort,Fahr’ immer, immer zu!“.

Is this  cycle wish fulfilment or secret code ?  there’s a touch of wry humour in op 15 which there isn’t in op 6, so beware of too-literal interpretation.  Whatever may be behind the songs, we will never know and probably don’t need to know, but if we did we might better appreciate Medtner as a man.  What we do know is that, in 1918, Medtner and Anna were married, Emil having agreed to a divorce.  They stayed together through over 30 years of exile, ending up in Barnet, North London.  

In 1922, Medtner dedicated his Sonata-Vocalize op 41 1 and 2 to Anna. This is fairly innovative music, closer to Scriabin, than, say, 19th century models. There is no text, but the inspiration was Goethe’s Geweihter Platz. A poet spies on the secret rites of Nymphs silently dancing in the moonlight and all the glories of Heaven and Earth are revealed to him.  “Alles erzählt er den Musen und daß die Götter nicht zürnen,lehren die Musen ihn gleich bescheiden Geheimnisse sprechen” .   This is the Medtner who can now express his love openly, without the guise of text. In the first part, the piano sings, alone. In the second, he’s joined by his muse, singing exotic vocalize.  The voice stretches round the piano part, like partners in embrace.  Chamber music, intimate and personal.

Original Source: Secret Love – Nikolai Medtner

Sparkling Mozart Il sogno di Scipione – Classical Opera

Mozart’s Il sogno di Scipione, K126 from Classical Opera, conducted by Ian Page, with soloists Stuart Jackson, Klara Ek, Soraya Mafi, Krystian Adam, Robert Murray and Chiara Skerath, from Signum. This is very early Mozart, scheduled for performance when the composer was 15, though there’s no evidence that the premiere took place as planned.  Though there are two other recordings, this one is worth hearing for its freshness and spontaneity, values which enliven a piece by a very young composer, and give it particular charm, which amplifies its underlying message, that mortals have more sense than to be fooled by the delusions of dream.

Il sogno di Scipione is what we’d now call a dream sequence : a fantasy stylized as allegory. There is no plot.   While asleep, Scipione is wafted away by Fortune and Constance to some heavenly otherworld.  “You’re not in Massinissa (Africa) any more!” the Fates inform him.  The Fates demand he choose only one of them as his destiny.  Scipione, understandably confused, refuses to take sides. Fortune and Constancy slug it out vocally, with trills and flourishes as weapons, conjuring up the spirits of the dead.  Being fickle, Fortune eventually flounces out, cursing.  Scipione suddenly finds himself back home and awake. You can’t blame Scipione for singing “Stelle, che fia ? Quel sanguinosa luce!”. Constancy has won, because she didn’t desert him.  Basically, you can’t choose your destiny, it finds you.  There is a lot more to Il sogno di Scipione than an excuse for vocal gymnastics.

That’s why I’m so taken with this recording.  Ian Page conducts the orchestra and chorus of Classical Opera with a light, but elegant touch : the colours sparkle, undimmed and pure.  Constancy (Klara Ek) and Fortune (Soraya Mafi) are dream symbols not women.  Ek and Mafi are delightful, singing with great charm.  Krystian Adam and Robert Murray sing Publio and Emilio, representing the visions the Fates conjure up.  Scipione, on the other hand, is a real person, with emotional substance.  By making Scipione feel like a real person, Stuart Jackson fills out the  character with human feelings and conflicts. The mortal triumphs, because he’s created as a sympathetic human being.

No-one, ever, comes close to Peter Schreier, who sang the part in 1979, when he was in his prime.  It would be utterly pointless to compare anyone with him.  But Scipione is, arguably, a young man’s part, which Jackson’s directness and enthusiasm brings out well : listen out for his sudden leaps up the scale and extended decorative legato : the “spirit” of Scipione, a man who dares question deities.  Jackson expresses Scipione’s confusion and fears, but prepares us for his eventual awakening. Schreier, one of my gods, had an ardent challenge to his voice which communicated more deeply than words alone, and Jackson, too, has a distinctive timbre. He’s not an “English tenor”, though I can imagine him a brilliant Peter Grimes : definitely a talent to nurture.  I first heard him sing a few songs at a private recital when he was a student. He was impressive, but you can’t count on hearing students again, even if they’re good.  The next time I heard him – unexpectedly – was at the Wigmore Hall Song Competition in 2011.   Immediately I recognized the voice, though not the name, though it had been nearly a year since I’d first heard him. I nearly shouted aloud “I know that voice!”
Nothing will replace the Schreier recording, with its dream team including Lucia Popp and Edita Gruberova,  but Ian Page and Classical,Opera are brighter and more period-true than Leopold Hager and the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg.  After 40 years, Il sogno di Scipione deserves another outing.  I haven’t heard the other recording on Brilliant Classics but am not worried.  Schreier and Hager and Jackson and Page are plenty rewarding. 


Original Source: Sparkling Mozart Il sogno di Scipione – Classical Opera

Mahler Symphony no 9, Daniel Harding Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Mahler Symphony no 9 in D major, with Daniel Harding conducting the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, new from Harmonia Mundi. A rewarding performance on many levels, not least because it’s thoughtfully sculpted, connecting structure to meaning. 

A graceful first movement, respecting the marking  andante comodo “comfortable pace”. The harp and strings here have a mellow richness which enhances the gentle rhythmic pulse.  For “pulse” this is, suggesting the human body at rest, calmly breathing.  Gradually the palpitations build up towards expansive outbursts, as if invigorated by the flow of life.  When silence descends, marked by timpani ans strident brass, the effect is chilling.  The harp ruminates, and the steady pace resumes.  The music flares up again : tension, alarm and a spiralling descent into darkness, and a wall  of mournful winds and brasses. Yet again, though, steadiness prevails.  Celli and bassoons lead the way ahead. Harding shapes the flow by highlighting the fanfares, so the undertow can be heard without undue exaggeration.  Now, when relative silence returns, the mood is pure and calm: the  high, clear pitch of the woodwinds is exquisite, evoking, perhaps, memories of summer, a typical Mahler touch.

Thus we are prepared for the second movement, marked “Etwas täppisch und sehr derb”.(rustic, simple, earthy). Why Ländler in a symphony some still associate with death ? Ländler are danced by peasants who till the soil, who know that seasons change and that harvests return after fallow times. This movement is much more than folklore : it connects to the theme of change and rebirth that runs through so much of Mahler’s work. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays with gusto, Harding gauging their strengths.  There’s humour here and impish high jinks. The spirit of Pan awakes !  Thus the lively leaps ans swirls, the flow of the first movement returning in exuberant form. The pace whips up, propelled along with force, yet once again, the dance returns, for dance, like Nature, moves in rhythmic cycles. The movement ends with a smile – a deft, piping little figure.

The Rondo in the third movement was vigorously animated. The pace is now near-frenzy, strings and winds flying free, though steady beat can still be heard in the lower voices.  Nonetheless, though the spirit may be wild, Harding doesn’t lose shape. We hear the violin emerge, its way lit by harp.  In the tumult, the swaying palpitations of the first movement revive in burlesque parody.  Indeed, much of this symphony is like dance, motifs returning in guises. Two slow movements at each end, taken slow, encasing two fast-moving inner movements.

If the first movement was comodo, the last is stately, even majestic in its sweep. The strings take charge, lifting above and away from the orchestra, much in the way that birds take flight above the earth.  Their line shimmers, undimmed, though the sound is rich.  Bassoons moan,  suggesting depth, which intensifies the heights the strings are striving towards. The leader plays a keening, soaring line at a tessitura so high it’s almost ethereal. The “pulse” of the first movement is back, now transfigured, no longer bodily but spiritual.  At the end, sounds  become so pure that they dissolve, as if beyond human hearing.

Although this was the last symphony Mahler completed, there is no evidence that he was contemplating his own death. From what we now know about his life, from the events of his life, and also from what we have of what was to be his Tenth Symphony, he wasn’t just looking backward any more than in so many other of his works where death is vanquished by new life.  It is significant that when Harding, aged 20, was Claudio Abbado’s chosen assistant in Berlin, he was given the Tenth to study, at a period when many conductors were still performing only the first movement.  Learning a composer back to front is not a bad thing, especially a composer like Mahler whose work forms  a huge trajectory from beginning to  to end, where an understanding of overall structure makes a huge difference.

Original Source: Mahler Symphony no 9, Daniel Harding Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra