Adventures in exotic worlds – Cédric Tiberghien, François-Xavier Roth Prom

Adventures in exotic worlds ! A vibrant Prom, with François-Xavier Roth, Cédric Tiberghien, and Les Siècles, in an unusually stimulating programme of music by Saint-Saëns  Délibes, Lalo, and César Franck. The French fascination with exoticism wasn’t mere decoration. By absorbing alien sounds and values, French composers were able to explore new ideas.  developing a genuinely original synthesis which would transform the French aesthetic. From the expansive worldview of Louis XIV to Rameau, to Debussy and beyond  –  limitless exploration of new horizons and ideas

The music of Saint-Saëns is currently enjoying a revival.  François-Xavier Roth is a Saint-Saëns specialist – his father is the organist Daniel Roth – so it was good to hear the overture from Saint-Saëns’ opera La princess Jaune op 30 (1872).  In this opera, a young man called Kornélis is obsessed with things Japanese. He experiments with opium and is transported to a fantasy land with a “Yellow Princess”. Although the piece is entirely western,  Saint-Saëns shows an awareness of alien form quite remarkable in that the opera was written only two years after the World Exposition at Paris sensationally brought Asia to the West.  Recently, Roth conducted Saint-Saëns Le timbre d’argent written at about the same time as La Princess Jaune. a joint production between  l’Opéra-Comique, Paris and Palazetto Bru-Zane. (please read more about Le timbre d’argent HERE).  From Délibes Lakmé,  not The Bell Song which is so famous that it’s even used on TV ads, but some of the ballet music.  It’s possible that Délibes had an inkling of what Indian wind instruments may have sounded like, for the flute solo is decidedly un-western.  It’s significant, too, that this was written for dancers, giving a firm rhythmic structure to the piece.

Roth has conducted Saint-Saëns’ Concerto for piano and orchestra no 5  (The “Eygptian”), numerous times with different orchestras, but hearing it here with Les Siècles and Cédric Tiberghien, also a passionate advocate of the piece, was a special occasion, made even more unique by the use of a period piano, an 1899 Bechstein, with a remarkably agile, almost bell-like voice. As Tiberghien says in the BBC Radio 3 rebroadcast, in this piece a modern concert grand would sound “ugly”.  Certainly, this performance revealed the fragile beauty in the piece which is so  important to interpretation. Although it was written in Luxor, where the composer went on holiday, it is fundamentally an example of Belle Époque syncretism : Fantasy Egypt, not reality, an Egypt where the present is coloured by dreams of the past.  For men of Saint-Saëns’ generation, European civilization was the height of progress, and that civilization encompassed the world.  Napoleon’s conquest of Egypt differed from the British conquest of India, just as French and British colonialism followed different models.  The difference between French and British attitudes to colonialism affected music history : much more integration on many levels between the colonies and metropolitan France.

Ultimately, Saint-Saëns’ Piano concerto no.5 is not picturesque, and not “light music” to be kitsched out with fake palms and camels. It’s a work of  bold musical inventiveness and originality.  Tiberghien faced the fearsome technical challenges : arpeggios flew with faultless confidence and elegance, making the frequent changes of imagery flow naturally, like the Nile Delta, with its confluent tributaries, building up a panorama of great richness and detail.  Vaguely Arabic motifs blend into harmonies that are “modern” and European. Thundering passages suggest constant flux,with swirling diminuendos and passages of flamboyant brilliance. Nothing backward here, though the references may come from things remembered.

This is where the period piano and orchestra proved their value.  Saint-Saëns’ Piano concerto no.5  isn’t “about” Eygpt but about the experience of being in  place where you’re only in temporary sojourn : tourists enjoying luxury, dreaming of a past that colours the present.   Hence the idea of fragility, so beautifully evoked in this lively yet delicate performance. The pyramids are evidence that even great pharoahs aren’t immortal (except in legend). All too soon, the tourist will be gone,  notice the brisk, no nonsense ending!  Back to daily reality.Tiberghien   made the piano sing, almost like an Arabic string instrument, its plaintive voice much more in keeping with the flutes and other winds, and the horns and trumpets.  This piano wasn’t a heavy-handed colonial barking orders at the natives, but one prepared to speak to the orchestra in terms of respect and familiarity.  A truly exquisite performance, spakling with light, but with great depths of insight. 

Tiberghien’s encore solo was the Debussy Prelude for piano La Puerta del Vino L123/3, a reverie on Moorish Spain, nicely hushed and intimate.  Then, making the most of this unique combination of period piano and orchestra, the Prom continued with César Franck Les Djinns inspired by a poem by Victor Hugo about supernatural spirits in an Islamic fantasy.  Elaborate figures in the piano part, matched by inventiveness in the orchestral writing.  A strong sense of movement, the piano moving in and out from the orchestra, suggesting the sound of bells. Are the Djinns flying amongst clouds ? We use our imaginations and wonder.

Namouna (Suites Nos. 1 and 2) (1881) comes from Lalo’s ballet based on a poem by Alfred de Musset.  More supernatural spirits in Near Eastern fantasy !  Here, Roth and Les Siècles demonstrated the variety of their instruments.  Each of the ten sections depicts a scene, coloured by different sounds. Three sets of percussion – the “bass” with large side drum, the “baritone” with  wider, flat drums and the “tenor” beating a tambour whose sound can be adjusted by tightening the strings that hold the leather to the wood.   Timpani are thrilling, but these very individualistic voices sing with a warmer, more subtle tone. Plus they don’t blast away other instruments, At one point the sound of a triangle rang out loud and clear.  Then to the blockbuster : the Bacchanal from Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila   so theatrically exotic and so famous that it’s become synonymous with “oriental” music  in popular culture. What energy and what fun ! Ideally suited to Roth’s sense of humour.

Roth’s a born communicator, who has been known to sing to his audience! (read more here), and often speaks to them.    When the Orchestra of SWR Freiburg Baden Baden was on the point of being disbanded, Roth made an impassioned speech at the 2015 Proms  in support of his players and the orchestra’s traditions. This time he spoke about this Proms programme and the way music can break down walls between cultures. And thus the encore, a French arrangement (by Felix Roth, son of the conductor) of Get Lucky a song about America by Daft Punk with castanets and maracas, sassy and breezy and full of fun.

Original Source: Adventures in exotic worlds – Cédric Tiberghien, François-Xavier Roth Prom

Bubbling brew : Turnage Hibiki, Prom Ravel Debussy Kazushi Ono

Mark-Anthony Turnage Hibiki (2014) at the BBC Proms, with Kazushi Ono and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Sally Matthews, Mihoko Fujimura, the New London Children’s Choir and the Finchley Children’s Music Group, preceded by Debussy and Ravel Piano Concerto in G major with Inon Barnatan, so beautifully played that even someone like me, more into voice and orchestra, could throroughly enjoy.

Ono conducted the premiere of Turnage’s Hibiki in Tokyo in December 2016 with the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra of which he is Music Director.  Hibiki is a substantial work for large orchestra, two soloists and childrens’ choir. According to the publishers Boosey & Hawkes, it “offers consolation after loss – whether from war, earthquake or tsunami”. That’s a tall order, almost impossible to fulfil.  Consolation is trivial band aid in the face of such extreme horror.   It’s meaningless unless we reflect on the causes of catastrophe and resolve that such things should never, as far as possible, happen again.

Numerous Japanese writers, composers, film makers and artists have reflected on and examined the issues arising from war and nuclear annihilation.  Indeed, you probably can’t be an East Asian  intellectual and not ponder 150 years of war and traumatic social change, not only in Japan but in China and the rest of Asia.  Masao Ohki’s Hiroshima Symphony, written only 7 years after the bombs fell, is graphically descriptive (read more here) . Ikuma Dan’s Hiroshima Symphony (1985) is even more sophisticated.  It’s an important piece of world significance. Please read more here)

There’s no reason why western composers shouldn’t engage with these subjects. We’re all part of humanity.  But it’s difficult to approach specifically Japanese aspects without an understanding of the cultural, social and historical background.  Mark-Anthony Turnage is good on music with social conscience. Once I got over the shock value of Anna Nicole, I grew to love its insights into consumer-obsessed society and the degradation of those who buy into the scam. Read more HERE  But Anna Nicole is a western icon, and Turnage likes Americana. That doesn’t necessarily mean he can’t write about other cultures, but I’m not sure how to take Hibiki. Does it penetrate much beneath the surface? Is it enough to address the many long-term implications of Fukushima simply by repeating the name over and over? I’m no composer but I’d rather that the music itself spoke, not the words.  No disrespect to Turnage. Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem had so little to do with Japan that he really should not have compromised himself by taking the money.  It would probably take a Beethoven or Bach to write something truly transcendant. “Consolation” isn’t enough.

Kazushi Ono did Turnage’s Hibiki more than justice. From the BBC SO he drew some very committed playing. They don’t do as much Turnage as they should and this is a bit more than typical Turnage, so all honours to them.  Hibiki unfolds over seven sections, like a postcard book..  But Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t actually lead to Tohoku or the Tsunami or to Fukushima.  Natural disasters aren’t man made or specific to any one country.  Nuclear power on its own isn’t evil, it’s misused and abused. As anyone who’s ever watched Japanese movies should know.  See my piece on Godzilla and the Tsunami,  The seven parts together don’t cohere. This weakens the impact of the whole and undercuts the claim that it’s an act of consolation.  Wisely, Ono marked the breaks with long silences, so each section can be heard alone, without a thread.  Unfortunately, substantial parts of this year’s Proms audiences are obsessed with clapping any chance they get. They don’t care enough about music to pay attention and listen.

The first two sections are named after Iwate and Miyaga, two of the areas hit by the 2011 Tsunami.  Blocks of sound bubble in the first movement, in jerky ostinato with nice jazzy trumpet calls, high pitched winds and swathes of strings. Oddly cheerful! A long ominous wail marks the start of the second section, suggesting perhaps the flow of the waves rolling onto land. No-one will ever forget the footage caught on film or the frightening silence, broken only by crushing debris.  The timpani pound, brasses wail and the orchestra plays a long line of multiple fragments and layers.  Fearsome growls and the sound of a bell.   There certainly is scope for a piece in which music could translate the idea of multiple fragments and layers of density, flowing and churning in different sequence, but Turnage can’t develop the concept in the space of a few minutes.

The third section “Running” represents a poem “Mother Burning” by Sou Sakon which describes the poet running from flames. But the mother, following behind, is engulfed.  Rapid fragments of words and sound, the two soloists singing lines that intersect rather than connect.  Turnage’s thing for percussion and screaming brass is used to good effect, the vocal lines more choppily employed: but that’s what happens when you’re running for your life and can’t take long breaths.  The childrens choirs sing an adaptation of a Japanese children’s song similar to “Twinkle, twinkle Little Star” The English accents of the young singers, singing in Japanese, add a surreal touch, more poignant than if they were singing in a language they’d normally speak.  The melody is taken up by the mezzo, Mihoku Fujimura, a much welcome regular visitor to the UK.

Suntory Dance , the central movement, makes a striking diversion from the threnodies before and after.  It’s also the best section, so good that it could act as a stand-alone concert piece.  Here, Turnage’s facility for strong brass and percussion comes to the fore: quirky, wayward rhythms, angular blocks and more busy, bubbling figures from which the idea of “dance” might come.  I don’t know why “Suntory”, which is the name of the concert hall and of the company that financed it.  They manufacture alcoholic drinks, and one of their big brands is named Hibiki, “Japanese Harmony”. The piece is so lively that it could be an  anthem for the company, used in encores and social occasions. So much for the BBC translation that Hibiki just means  “beautiful sound”.

After this interlude, darkness returns. Brooding timpani and moaning brass, string lines shining with metallic edge. Lovely woodwind passages: Fujimura sings lines from texts from Monzaemon Chikamatsu’s The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, a  Bunraku drama from 1703. It’s such a classic that it’s been adapted for cinema, its tale of doomed love a recurrent meme, though what connection this has to Hiroshima or to the Tsunami, I don’t know.  Much has been made in the publicity material for Turnage’s Hibiki about the Mahler connection, but frankly I cannot hear any resemblance to Das Lied von der Erde,.  But the real subject of Das Lied von der Erde is Mahler himself, and his metaphysics  The orientalism in that piece reflects the original poems Mahler used and adapted for his own purposes. And in any case, they weren’t Japanese but Chinese.  No doubt much will be made of this in the media by those who don’t really know Das Lied von der Erde.  Double-dose cultural appropriation.

The final section, for orchestra and children’s voices, is swirling abstraction, the word “Fukushima” repeated, almost mechanically.  Turnage’s Hibiki is good listening but it  doesn’t really hold together. The parts are greater than the sum, aside from the vivacious Suntory Dance.   That’s excellent, and parts 1, 2 and 4 work well together musically, but parts 3, 4 and6 are weak : No fault of the performers, though.  It’s not nearly near the level of Turnage’s Remembering : in memoriam Evan Scofield, a work of heartfelt sincerity. (Read more about that HERE)

Original Source: Bubbling brew : Turnage Hibiki, Prom Ravel Debussy Kazushi Ono

Mahler 10 Schubert Dausgaard BBCSSO Prom

Thomas Dausgaard (Credit: Thomas Grøndahl)

Thomas Dausgaard, new Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, with two Unfinished symphonies, Schubert Symphony no 8 Unvollende, and Mahler Symphony no 10.  Uncompleted symphonies always fascinate because they open out tantalizing prospects.   This Prom was interesting because it focused on possibilities. Since we’ll never know how the symphonies might have been completed, we listen differently, keeping things open-ended. 

Though neither Dausgaard nor the BBC SSO are new to the Proms, it was their first Prom together in this new season.  Interesting potential, there, too. Dausgaard’s less of a showman than Runnicles was, closer, perhaps to Ilan Volkov who was (and is) a thinker, something to value in these times.
Unfinished symphonies help us focus on the music, and on the composer.  The curse of a review system is that performances are judged by the number of stars they get in a review, rather than by how such judgements are arrived at. We get locked into like/dislike instead of analyzing why we think the way we do.  Most performances have something to offer, pro and con: ultimately what counts is what we’ve learned from the experience.

Deryck Cooke’s third performance version remains the standard because it reflects years of immersion in Mahler’s work and creative processes. Everyone seems to want a shot at “completing” what would have been Mahler’s Tenth symphony, but many aren’t worth the effort.  Better, I think, to listen in depth to Cooke,  which brings out the inventiveness that makes Mahler so challenging. In a way this is a schizophrenic symphony,  the duality in the first movement contradicted in the second two. What it’s not, though, is a death symphony.  If anything, it deals with light and transfiguration, as in nearly all the other symphonies.  When it was written, Mahler was about to embark on a new stage in his career, possibly even more radical than his past. This affects interpretation.  Where was Mahler heading, and what was he taking with him from the past?

Dausgaard and the BBC SSO created an elegant Adagio, the shimmering opening strings enriched by a richer response.  The celli and basses were positioned in the centre of the orchestra, flanked by the winds, brass to one side, percussion on the other.  Interesting, since the lower strings are in many ways the heart of this movement, whatever it might mean. If the duality represents the composer and his “ewiger weiblicher” muse, the lower timbre might represent the composer himself.  The pace picks up and “scream chords” blazed.  The ending (harps, strings and high winds) was drawn out carefully, opening outwards, not closing in.

The brisk figure that opens the first Scherzo breaks tranquility still further. The strings attempt to recreate the poise of the Adagio but the horns blast it away. I’d like to hear Dausgaard take more risks, even making it more grotesque, for Weltlauf loosely translates as “world running”, the world hurtling on its way, mocking the idea that things can never change.  Like Purgatory in theology, the Purgatorio is short but transitional.  On the title page of the second Scherzo, Mahler writes “The Devil is dancing it with me! Madness, seize me … destroy me! Let me forget that I exist, so that I cease to be.” But a careful observer will note that Mahler then adds “dass ich ver ….” (so that I ….) and trails off without completing the idea. It’s a preposition, but this whole work is a kind of preposition, open ended because it isn’t complete.  Dausgaard made more of the dreamy waltz that circulates through this section, though, suggesting that the dialogue in the Adagio continues, though it has changed.   Mahler wrote of the Fireman’s Funeral in the Finale.  “Only you [Alma] knows what it means”.  So it means something, even if we’ll never know exactly what.  Here the funeral march solidity wasn’t strongly defined though the more delicate “footsteps” were nicely done, leading to the drumstrokes and brooding brass and woodwinds. The resolution that follows ascended slowly upwards, the strings shimmering, the horns calling as hunting horns do. Or the trumpets of angels.  Who knows?  But Mahler isn’t standing still.

Every performance teaches you something about the music, and the perspectives from which  it is approached.   Dausgaard’s good on detail, carefully building up textures. The piccolo could be heard, even surrounded by tubas, the flutes best of all.  He’s less strong on destination.  I prefer more incisive M10’s, with stronger forward thrust, where a sense of trauma intensifies the power of the Finale, but this performance was satisfying enough to make me hope for more from Dausgaard and the BBC SSO.

Listening to Mahler’s Unfinished after Schubert’s Unfinished was also rewarding. While Mahler left plenty for Cooke, Goldschmidt and the Matthews brothers to work on, Schubert’s manuscripts leave little trace of what might have been.  For all we know, Schubert might have  had other things to do.    The two movements are fairly similar. but we’re left hanging.  Nonetheless, what  we do have is so lovely, it hardly matters. 

Original Source: Mahler 10 Schubert Dausgaard BBCSSO Prom

Peer Gynt – naked Charlton Heston, aged 17

Long before Ben Hur, Charlton Heston as Peer Gynt ! Charlton Heston, aged 17, in the surprisingly sensitive film based on Ibsen and Grieg’s Peer Gynt.  The film was made in the summer of 1941 as a school project  at New Trier High School in Willamette, where Heston was a student.  It was filmed in the woods in Illinois and Wisconsin, where thousands of Norwegian immigrated during bthe 19th and 20th century.  At one time, there were more Norwegian newspapers in that part of America than there were in Norway.  So the film doesn’t need much in the way of sets, using the landscape as it was.  Real mountains, valleys and forests and rivers that can pass for fjords.

The actors were students, most of whom can’t act, but look healthy and enthusiastic.  Kids then didn’t do dope, TV or computers.  Their faces are so fresh, they don’t look like they’ve ever worn makeup. Although the film is clumsily made, that very naivety suits the story much better than something more sophisticated.

It’s also good that the film was shot without spoken dialogue.  The actors’ mouths move, without sound, like in a silent movie. Evebn this is a plus, because it adds to the sense that the story exists in a strange, eternal world  outside time and place, where trolls live, and from which Peer can escape predicaments as if by magic.  The sound track, a recording of Grieg, was added after filming.  The recording quality is horrible, but I quite like the clumsiness because it fits the gaucheness of the film and the primeval nature of the story.  I have watched with the sound off, while playing a CD, but that doesn’t work.

Enjoy the village wedding, and the march of the trolls, with their crude costumes and lumpy dancing.  The Bøygen though, was made for the movies. A disembodied head appears ,wobbling in front of dark curtains. He speaks – with an American accent !  Heston is, unquestionably, the star. After all, Peer Gynt lives only for himself ! The camera lingers lovingly on his face and body. He’s often seen with his chest oiled up, his features lit so he resembles a  Greek God.  He’s so beautiful that you can see why Peer is so much in love with himself. (Heston has a slight , ironic smile, he knows it’s only a movie).  The crew were amateurs, too, though the director, who also wielded a camera, David Bradley went on to a proper career in Hollywood.  He was also one the cameramen : maybe we can tell, since some angles and frames are very inventive, while others are shot without much imagination.

Nice dressing up games in the Desert scenes, shot on a beach, the women in bikinis, the “Arabs” playing home made instruments.  No sound, of course, leave that to Grieg.  When sound does again intrude, it happens when Peer grows old and hears Solveig’ Song (badly sung, in English).  Please also see my other pieces on Grieg and on Peer Gynt . HERE is a link to my description of the two main recordings of the incidental music with added text. Ole-Kristian Ruud and Guillaume Tournaire. Time for a new one, I hope.

Original Source: Peer Gynt – naked Charlton Heston, aged 17

Lise Davidsen Luonnotar steals whole Prom ! Storgårds BBCPO

At the BBC Proms, Lise Davidsen stole the show with a spectacular Sibelius Luonnotar. op 17 (1913). Luonnotar is a life force exploding with such intensity that its spirit seemed to spring from the depths of Sibelius’s soul, materializing in his score.  At the time it was written, Sibelius was at a crossroads. With his Fourth Symphony he was reaching towards new horizons but hadn’t quite come to terms with their implications. He was approaching uncharted waters and the prospect was daunting. As before, he turned to the ur-source of Finnish mythology for inspiration.

Luonnotar was written for, and premiered by the great Finnish soprano Aino Ackté.  Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was another early champion. When she sang it in Helsinki in 1955, she was moved to say that it was the “best thing she had ever done in her life”. There is a clip of this performance but sound quality is poor. Schwarzkopf had guts: until then, most sopranos steered clear of this piece unless they were Finnish (a beautiful language, but tricky to sing) and weren’t bothered about the strikingly modern savagery in the part.

Lise Davidsen’s Luonnotar was mightily impressive.  Her voice is magnificent, floating the strange modulations in the line with well-judged poise, projecting the keening forward lines so they seek out the furthest corners of space.   Voice as tsunami ! Her Luonnotar is very, very strong, for Luonnotar is the mother of creation itself, forged from struggle.  Davidsen is only 30, so she still has a way to go, but she could well be one of the really great voices of our time, a worthy successor to Söderström, Isokoski and Mattila.  Recently she astonished audiences at Glyndebourne with her Ariadne : definitely a singer to watch. 

Luonnotar is the Spirit of Nature, Mother of the Seas, who existed before creation, floating alone in the universe before the worlds were made “in a solitude of ether”. Descending to earth she swam in its primordial ocean for 700 years. Then a storm blows up and in torment, she calls to the god Ukko for help. Out of the Void, a duck flies,looking for a place to nest. Luonnotar takes pity and raises her knee above the waters so the duck can nest and lay her eggs. But when the eggs hatch they emit great heat and Luonnotar flinches. The eggs are flown upwards and shatter, but the fragments become the skies, the yolk sunlight, the egg white the moon, the mottled bits the stars. This was the creation myth of the Karelians who represented the ancient soul of the Finnish cultural identity.The orchestra may play modern instruments and the soprano may wear an evening gown, but ideally they should convey the power of ancient, shamanistic incantation, as if by recreating by sound they are performing a ritual to release some kind of creative force. The Kalevala was sung in a unique metre, which shaped the runes and gave them character, so even if the words shifted from singer to singer, the impact would be similar. Sibelius does not replicate the metre though his phrases follow a peculiar, rhythmic phrasing that reflects runic chant. Instead we have Sibelius’s unique pulse. In my jogging days, I’d run listening to Night Ride and Sunrise, finding the swift, “driving” passages uncommonly close to heart and breathing rhythms. It felt very organic, as if the music sprang from deep within the body. This pulse underpins Luonnotar too, giving it a dynamism that propels it along. They contrast with the big swirling crescendos, walls of sonority, sometimes with glorious harp passages that evoke the swirling oceans.

The last passages in the piece are brooding, strangely shaped phrases which again seem to reflect runic chanting, as if the magical incantation is building up to fulfilment. And indeed, when the creation of the stars is revealed, the orchestra explodes in a burst of ecstasy. The singer recounts the wonder, with joy and amazement: “Tähiksi taivaale, ne tähiksi taivaale”. (“They became the stars in the heavens!”). I can just imagine a singer’s eyes shining with excitement at this point – and with relief, too, that she’s survived! As Erik Tawaststjerna said, “the soprano line is built on the contrast between …the epic and narrative and the atmospheric and magical”.

In his minimalist text, Sibelius doesn’t tell us that  in the Kalevala, Luonnotar goes on to carve out the oceans, bays and inlets and create the earth as we know it, or tell us that she became pregnant by the storm and gave birth later to the first man. But understanding this piece helps to understand Sibelius’s work and personality. Like the goddess, he was struggling with creative challenges and beset by self-doubt and worry. Perhaps through exploring the ancient symbolism of the Kalevala, he was able in some way to work out some ideas: in Luonnotar, I can hear echoes of the great blocks of sound and movement in the equally concise and to the point Seventh Symphony. The year after Luonnotar, Sibelius was to explore ocean imagery again in The Oceanides, whose Finnish title is Aallottaret, or “Spirit of the Waves”, just as Luonnotar was the Spirit of Nature, tossed by waves. The Oceanides, written for a lucrative commission from the United States, is a more popular work, and beautiful, but doesn’t have quite the unconventional intensity and uniqueness of Luonnotar. One of the things that fascinates me about Sibelius is the way he envisions remarkable new territory, yet pulls back as if overwhelmed by the force of what lies ahead.

Prior to that stunning Luonnotar, John Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic Orchestara in  the suite from Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt (of which i will write more tomorrow because it’s  one of my favourites), where Davidsen sang Solveig’s Song Under Storgårds, the BBCPO sounds thrillingly alive. In Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor op 129, their support for soloist Alban Gerhardt was superb, almost palpable, as if in symbiosis.  To conclude, Paul Hindemith Symphony “Mathis der Maler”.  A garagantuan programme, pretty hard to pull off by any standards. I could write volumes but I’m all wrung out.     

Original Source: Lise Davidsen Luonnotar steals whole Prom ! Storgårds BBCPO

Elgar, Britten, Brian Elias Prom Wigglesworth BBC NOW

Toby Spence, Prom 32 photo : Chris Christoduolou, B|BC

 Four British composers, four different worlds : Britten, Brian Elias, Purcell and Elgar, Ryan Wigglesworth conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Choir, Prom 32 Royal Albert Hall.   Wigglesworth and BBC NOW delivered a very fine Elgar’s Enigma Variations . The Variations are so interesting  that it would only be “news” if it were exceptionally stellar or not done well, so if I don’t write much about this performance, it’s because it was thoroughly satisfying though not “news”. What was unusual about this Prom were the pieces around it.
Benjamin Britten’s Ballad Of Heroes, Op 14, 1939  for example.  It’ runs 15 minutes and is scored for (by Britten standards) a fairly large orchestra and choir, so doesn’t get programmed other than in large-scale concerts where such forces are available.  Please read Paul Spicer’s notes on Ballad of Heroes for Boosey & Hawkes HERE because they’re comprehensive and by far the best, anywhere.   When I first heard the piece six years ago (Ilan Volkov BBCSO, Barbican) I didn’t understand the piece but this time round it made much more sense.  The disparity between the poetry of W H Auden and the doggerel of Randall Swingler is a problem, but Britten uses it with a certain degree of irony.  Though the Spanish Civil War wasn’t quite on the scale of 1914-1918, it was a modern political war, as opposed to a war between nations.  The International Brigades represented the idealism of the left versus the repression of Fascism.  Thus the contradictions in the piece provoke, just as the situation did. The piece is about a lot more than a conflict between pro and anti war.  It should be noted that the Spanish Civil War  ended in April 1939, with the triumph of the fascists and their Nazi allies.  The Ballad of Heroes isn’t a call to war, by any means, but a scream of agony, directly contemporary.  It’s also contemporary with Britten’s Violin Concerto op 15 (1938/9) expressing the composer’s anguish about the fate of Europe. He needed to get away, in order to believe in his ideals. As it happened, his experiences in America made him realize that things there weren’t actually that good. Some still sneer at Britten for going abroad. They don’t realize what strength it took for him to come back to Britain and face what needed to be done.  Through his music, Britten showed that there are other ways to stand up to violence.  Six years ago, Toby Spence sang the tenor solo, as he did for this Prom : in the years between he personally has been through a few struggles, and has come out the stronger for it. Excellent performance ! (Please read my other pieces on Britten, on music about war and Ernst Busch)
Brian Elias’s Cello Concerto, (2015) a BBC commission, received its world premiere with soloist Leonard Elschenbroich, replacing the dedicatee Natalie Clein at short notice.  It’s a brooding piece making the most of the cello’s dark timbre. Frantic bowing suggests movement and speed, through which rip whips of high-pitched winds and lively percussion.  Part way, the orchestra takes over, the cello biding its time with a growl, then returning to the fray.  Pounding brassy flourishes in the orchestra, not just from the brass.   I’ve written about Elias’s Electra Mourns, Geranos and Meet Me in the Green Glen, released on CD through NMC Recordings in April. Read my review HERERyan Wigglesworth is himself a composer  and has always had a good feel for new music.
And from one of the earliest known British composers, Henry Purcell Jehova, quam multi suntm in an arrangement by Edward Elgar for choir, tenor (Toby Spence again) and bass (Henry Waddington) conducted by one of the best conductors of British choral music (and a stalwart of the Three Choirs Festival), Adrian Partington.


Original Source: Elgar, Britten, Brian Elias Prom Wigglesworth BBC NOW

Beyond Leon Fleisher’s riveting words about pianists and vocal modeling

Pianist, Leon Fleisher has given us his notable artistry over decades, while his insights about practicing and teaching have been invaluable for a vast community of mentors and students.

In his latest interview that coincided with the release of a new album, All the Things You Are, Fleisher spoke eloquently about the intrinsic relationship of vocal modeling and beautiful musical expression at the piano:

“I think, possibly … especially for pianists, to think in terms of ‘vocal.’ If you can sing something, and I don’t mean to sing all the notes, because the range of the piano is way beyond one person, but if you can sing the music, articulate it, then you can play it.

“One of the great challenges of a pianist is that every other instrument (I discount mallet instruments), violin to double bass, piccolo down through tuba, they have three things to think about: they have to think about how they attack the note; they have to think about how they support the note; and they have to think about how they stop the note. Most pianists just think of the first of those three, how they are going to attack the note, and not even all of them think about that. If they can expand their approach, new revelations will appear. You would be amazed how seldom one comes upon somebody who thinks in those terms or makes music on the piano in those terms.”


Fleisher has also given us the mantra, “Hear it Before you Play It,” which is an internalization of what the pianist imagines in sound before placing his fingers on the keys. (The opening notes of a composition are not haphazard, but instead, are planned in advance in the psyche.)

While the aforementioned ideas (including vocal modeling) are essential to a well-meaning approach to the piano, a student journeying through the masterworks with the counsel of teacher, needs MORE than a vocal paradigm to make significant progress toward sensitive music-making.

For example, once a pupil can “sing” what he wants to produce at the piano, he needs to know HOW to realize his own model which will encompass a host of ingredients that are included in the following set of questions:

1) What are the physical means to the end? Are there blocks to freedom of expression because of tension in the arms and wrists that need to be identified? What about the breath? Does the vocal model suggest places to breathe in the natural ebb and flow of a phrase? Is the breath short due to tension which inhibits free expression?

What about the nuts and bolts of playing staccato, legato in complex strands of notes? These surely warrant modeling by the teacher at the piano. (How are notes “grouped,”or “spaced?”) What about “Rotation” and its effect on phrasing. etc. A pupil, needs hands-on knowledge that a mentor needs to provide. These encompass issues of traction and weight transfer into the keys, etc.

What role does the pedal play in beautiful phrasing? These require demonstrations as well. (Again, vocal modeling is not enough, but ATTENTIVE LISTENING and harmonic understanding are a must.)

2) Is faulty rhythmic framing blocking the flow of what is internalized? Are legato triplets, for example sounding angular and choppy? If they are, then it follows that a teacher must enlighten a pupil about the “color” and motion of these threads and how they can be liberated in a seamless, horizontal flow. (Teacher demonstrations at the piano can include supple wrist grouping of notes.)

If a fundamental beat is non-existent, or if a true “singing pulse is absent,” a student needs to understand what is causing note crowding, undirected accelerations, or interludes of lagging. Often a teacher will remedy such problems by “conducting” the student, simultaneously instilling a sense of shape and contour to musical lines.

3) Does a pupil comprehend the relationship of harmonic rhythm or flow of harmonies to phrasing? (cadences, modulations, etc.) Even with a well-defined vocal model, a student would still need to realize the dips in phrases that occur with various progressions (like Dominant to Tonic), or to understand the emotional ramifications of Deceptive cadences, parallel minor/or Major transitions.

Decays of notes also factor into phrasing. Is the student keenly aware of how what comes before affects what follows? What about sub-destinations and full destinations in a chain of measures?

How do dynamics, crescendos and decrescendo’s contribute to the sculpting of lines?

4) How does the historic period of a composition influence the whole approach to sound imaging? (Debussy vs. Bach; Mozart vs. Chopin) This opens up a universe of tonal variation and exploration. (Mental imagery contributes to a realization of a sound ideal.)


In truth there are so many ingredients in an artfully sensitive music-making process that just one central focus, like vocal modeling, is clearly not enough.


In exploring my archive of videos, I found two that resonated with a multi-dimensional approach to creating beauty at the piano.

1) Footage from the first sample is derived from my 2014 visit to New York City where I filmed Irina Morozova teaching one of her young students. (Franz Liszt La Leggierezza) The Special Music School/Kaufman Center.


2) Excerpts from an ONLINE lesson to Scotland: Felix Mendelssohn Venetian Book Song Op. 30 No. 6. (The split-screen recording is a valuable playback reference for the student)

Original Source: Beyond Leon Fleisher’s riveting words about pianists and vocal modeling