La voix humaine, Kings Place, Sarah Minns Opera Up Close

Francis Poulenc La voix humaine  with Sarah Minns at Kings Place, London, five performances from 2nd July to 20th August. It’s a new production from Opera Up Close.  Booking details HERE.  Podcast HERE.

La voix humaine is a taut psycho drama demanding above average acting skills, and the stamina to hold intensity without respite for over an hour. Not many singers can pull it off well,  but Sarah Minns almost certainly can. She’s an exceptionally good actress, as well as singer, and has made a speciality of operatic one-handers, including two UK premieres: Katarzyna Brochocka’s The Young Wife (read more here) and even better still, Manfred Trojahn’s Rilke song cycle, Insomnia, about Lou Andreas-Salomé, the mysterious woman who captivated Nietzsche, Freud, Rilke and Paul Rée.  Trojahn’s piece is fairly well known in Germany, though not in Britain. It’s a challenge because the action unfolds as a series of scena  based on extracts from letters rather than formal narrative.  Musically and emotionally sophisticated, and rewarding.  Minns didn’t just steal the show: she “was” the show, creating Andreas-Salomé’s mysterious, compelling personality to perfection.  On stage, she “became” the part so convincingly that it was a shock to see her later without costume and makeup, chatting happily like a normal person.  Art and reality!  Poulenc’s La voix humaine is a tour de force, but with Minns, it should be worth experiencing.

Minns was also the star of  John Barber’s Eleanor Vale at Wedmore Opera in Somerset, an opera that’s strong enough on its own terms to be worth reviving. Read more about that HERE. 

Original Source: La voix humaine, Kings Place, Sarah Minns Opera Up Close

Elgar – music for military band SOMM

Elgar and his peers: The Art of the Military Band, new from SOMM.  Brass bands, both concert and military, are ideal for large-scale, open air ceremonies, where sound has to carry over a distance.  These requirements affect instrumentation. Brass  and military bands have huge followings, but listeners used to  mainstream orchestral performance can acquire a taste for the genre, through transcriptions like those on this recording.

Two transcriptions in this colletion, adapting Elgar’s  Pomp and Circumstance op 89, nos 2 and 5, illustrate the art of writing for military band as opposed to concert orchestra.  Both are vigorous, perfectly enjoyable on their own terms.  Also included are two chorales from J S Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which Elgar transcribed for brass band.  Inspired by hearing a  Bavarian brass band playing hymns from a church tower, Elgar arranged two chorales for the Three Choirs festival in 1911. These were played at the top of Worcester Cathedral before the main performance. Novelties, but also educational. 

The more substantial With Proud Thanksgiving was commissioned by the League of Arts for National and Civic Ceremonies to dedicate the unveiling of the Cenotaph in London, on the anniversary of the Armistice, in the presence of King George V and numerous dignitaries, and the choir of Westminster Abbey.  The Worcester Herald, ever loyal to Elgar, reported “It is hoped that on the unveiling every choir in London – both Church and secular – will, take part in the ceremony”.  Things didn’t quite turn out that way.  This new SOMM recording is a world premiere.  Elgar’s original was transcribed for military band by Frank Winterbottom, Professor of Instrumentation at the Royal School for Military Music, who had also made arrangements for Elgar’s The Crown of India and Seviliana   Elgar later made his own version of the hybrid for full orchestra and chorus, which was first heard in the Royal Albert Hall on 7th May, 1921.

Thunderous drum rolls mark the introduction to With Proud Thanksgiving, “Solemn the drums thrill” runs the text, taken from Lawrence Binyon’s For the Fallen, which Elgar had previously used as the third poem set in The Spirit of England.  Thus the same dignified marching pace, as in a funeral procession, the long vocal,lines projected forcefully, “as the stars shall be bright when we are dust”.

In contrast,  the Queen Alexandra Memorial Ode, So Many True Princesses Who Have Gone, to a poem by John Masefield, the Poet Laureate, marking the unveiling, in 1932,  of the memorial sculpture to Queen Alexandra at Marlborough House, not indoors, but on the wall facing the street . “So many true princesses who have gone over the sea…….have given all things, and been ill repaid,”  Alexandra was an immigrant, a Danish princess with German origins. “Hatred has followed them and bitter days” Masefield continued :  But Alexandra  “won our hearts, and lives within them still”.  Masefield describes London as a “day-long multitude, the lighted dark, the night-long wheels, the glaring  in  the sky”. Remarkably modern imagery, and a tenderness not often associated with State occasions.  Elgar’s setting is thus more private tribute than public piety. Though written for large choir and orchestra, it adapts well for smaller forces, as in this transcription by Tom Higgins for wind band, where the basic instrumental colours, such as reeds and flutes prevail in contrast to the brass.

Elgar ‘s Severn Suite, op 87, (1930) was commissioned as a test piece for a brass band competition,  the full score by Elgar himself.  The version heard here is a transcription for military band by Henry Geehl, who lowered the key from C major to B flat, to suit the requirements of military, as opposed to brass band.  Written in five movements played without a break, it’s semi-symphonic and exits also in orchestral form.  Elgar didn’t write the titles describing Worcester landmarks, which were added on publication.

This recording also includes works by Ralph Vaughan Williams: Sea Songs (1923) and Toccata Marziale (1924), the latter a very interesting band version of what might otherwise be a piece for organ,  There’s also a March for Band by Thomas Beecham, as composer, rather than conductor and Three Humoresques by B Walton O’Donnell , the Madras-born son of a military musician in the Indian Army.  O’Donnell joined the army himself, and became a bandmaster before joining the BBC.  Tom Higgins, who helped create the very successful SOMM recording of Elgar’s The Fringes of the Fleet (more here) conducts the London Symphonic Concert Band, a new specialist ensemble, and the well-known Joyful Company of Singers.

Original Source: Elgar – music for military band SOMM

Piano Student: “I don’t know what I want to hear?”

A commonly registered concern among my brood of adult students circumscribes an uncertainty about phrasing and overall musical expression. Many don’t trust their native musical instincts as they might apply to practicing fledgling pieces that are in early stage development. Yet a good sample of these self-doubters often have a natural inclination to shape lines as an outgrowth of choir experiences, or from vocal interactions with family members during growing up years.

In my particular childhood household, the exposure to poetically exemplary musicians came through a perpetual turntable of 78s that spun around, circulating concertos, operas and choirs through the tiny air space of a one-room flat in the Northeast Bronx. A life draped in recordings of Arthur Rubinstein, Leonid Kogan, Michael Rabin, a Russian Orthodox vocal ensemble, and Jan Peerce, among others, was a constant source of inspiration without educational pretension. Beautifully expressed music was organic to the home environment.

My parents (with no formal musical training) also plucked folkloric vinyl disks from sidewalk sales. I heard the South African duo, Marais and Miranda sing emotionally moving songs with tantalizing lyrics about childhood activities, while Burl Ives and Peter Seeger/The Weavers added to a repertoire of soulful melodies with captivating verses. The street singer, Edith Piaf sobbed through La Vie En Rose with impeccable phrasing and a tremulous vibrato. These artists left deeply embedded emotional impressions upon me from my earliest years.


If I tapped into my studio of piano students, I know they could retrieve similar memories of songs, instrumental performances of one kind or another that had a pervasive influence on them, inspiring an echo effect, or a contagious affection for tunes in various genres: pop, classical, semi-classical, folk, rock, jazz, etc.


Drawing upon these early exposures as they apply to the study of piano surely cannot be underestimated.

Yet, there’s always more to consider when examining the ingredients of developing a piece of piano music to a player’s full creative potential.

I realized such complexity in this process when one of my earliest piano teachers failed to mentor me about “how to learn,” despite my abundance of native musical instincts.

While I knew “what I wanted to hear,” I had insufficient knowledge/skills to develop a piece of music from a seedling stage to full blown ripening. At one particular piano lesson, high up in an apartment building on W. 103 and Broadway, my teacher had me copy pages of her fingerings for the Chopin Scherzo in Bb minor in the narrow vestibule of her musty kitchen, while a very advanced student was playing effortlessly though the Chopin Etudes. The disparity in her knowledge as compared to mine was too great to imagine.

And that’s when I broke down and cried at my last lesson, as if I was ready to give up unless rescued by an able mentor who would understand my need to be guided sensitively and with great care to a semblance of graduated independence–to a level where what I wanted to hear could be realized.

This very model of imparting basic musical skills and direction to my own pupils was channeled through life saver, Lillian Freundlich who was the singing tone messiah. She sang over my playing, conducted me with her hands, always responding viscerally to the music. She took me to performances of Richter and Gilels at Carnegie Hall, following the urtext editions, pointing out poetically rendered passages.

What I had innately within me, she was able to draw out and grow to new levels of creative awareness and expression–always in baby steps. It was back to fundamentals to my relief. Her resonating words, “I will teach you how to learn,” was exactly what I needed in my time of despair and frustration.

If I fast forward the clock to the present, I respond to queries that are familiar: “I don’t know what I want to hear.”

It’s then, that I urge my pupils to sing with me, and develop an allied sensitivity to tone production. To create a beautiful sound, one must imagine it at first and then learn to produce fluid physical motions that breathe life into music. (supple wrists, relaxed arms, rotations–these skills must be rehearsed and refined–along with an awareness of the BREATH) Then there’s context given to phrases that involve a harmonic orientation; an attachment of practical and musical fingerings; how to communicate a mood-set; how structural knowledge aids interpretation–voicing, balance, historical period. The list goes on with deep layers of immersion that a teacher should nurture along, acquiring additional insights and epiphanies.

As an example of such a satisfying exploration that incorporated many enumerated ingredients of musical expression, today’s lesson (Debussy Reverie) reassured me that my student felt a bit more confident about what she wanted to hear: Her playing became more expressive during the time we spent together.

Original Source: Piano Student: “I don’t know what I want to hear?”

Monumental Dvořák:Stabat Mater : Bělohlávek Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

The spirit of Jiří Bělohlávek, who died on 1st May, hangs over this new release of Dvořák Stabat Mater, though this recording was made in April 2016.  The piece was one of Bělohlávek’s favourites,  and was played in his honour at the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra’s memorial to him at the Rudolfinium, Prague, last Sunday. Although Bělohlávek made at least three recordings of this cantata, this performance reflects a lifetime’s devotion to Dvořák and to the cause of Czech music.  It is a monument,  profound and greatly moving.  

“Stabat Mater” refers to the image of Mary, contemplating  Jesus, taken from the Cross.  Intense anguish, yet also reverence, for Mary is meditating on life and death. The introduction to the long first movement begins with horns and trumpets, their lines ascending heavenwards. The theme “Stabat Mater” emerges in the orchestra at an early stage, before the voices join in. The pulse suggests the pulse of a human body. Yet, despite the intense anguish of grieving, the movement is serene.Almost from the outset, we have been reminded of resurrection, the triumph of eternal life over death. Thus the repeating ebb and flow in the music suggests a process of gradual movement.  Structurally, the Cantata resembles a kind of sculpture, the long and important first movement providing a foundation for the nine subsequent movements, the last reflecting the first on a smaller scale.  This important first movement provides the foundation for the other nine shorter movements.  Dvořák, who was devout, may also have had in mind the Novena sequences of prayers said in private silence, often devoted to the Virgin Mary Thus the fundamental mood of this piece is devotional, even serene. We all know the Pietà of Michelangelo, and how the cool, pure strength of marble forms a bedrock over which fine details can be carved.  Bělohlávek’s approach was sculptural, in the sense that he showed how form and structure expressed meaning.  Beautiful playing from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, who have this music’s soul.  Monumental, yes, but very personal and moving.

The Rudolfinium, empty after Bělohlávek’s memorial

These firm foundations illuminated the voices. Michael Spyres’s tenor rang like a clarion : “Stabat Mater, dolorosa”, soon joined by the womanly voices of Eri Nakamura and Elisabeth Kulmann.  Jongmin Park’s bass added burnished ballast.  Gradually then the quartet and choir sections give way to more defined sections for choir or choir and soloists. The Prague Philharmonic Choir are excellent – a pity that Bělohlávek could not have brought them to London, though our own BBC Singers and Symphony Chorus are superb.  In the final movement, though, all voices are united, the orchestra with them.  “Quando corpus morietor, Fac, ut animae donetur, Paradisi gloria!”. the chorale “Amen” a garland of glory.  Yet note the ending, where solo instruments again ascend upwards, the last “Amen” glowing with warmth.

Please see my tribute to Bělohlávek here with lots of links. 

Original Source: Monumental Dvořák:Stabat Mater : Bělohlávek Czech Philharmonic Orchestra

Schubert, Wanderer – Florian Boesch Wigmore Hall

A summit reached at the end of a long journey : Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau at the Wigmore Hall, as the two year Complete Schubert Song series draws to a close. Unmistakably a high point  in the whole traverse. A well planned programme, of much loved songs performed exceptionally well, with less well known repertoire presented with intelligent flourish.

Boesch and Martineau began at the peak, with Schubert’s Der Wanderer D493, (1816 Schmidt von Lübeck).  “Ich komme vom Gebirge her”.  A deceptively simple phrase, but delivered by Boesch with great authority, for this song is the quintessential symbol of the whole Romantic revolution.   The song is itself a journey.  The resolute beginning gives way to desolation, then to the short, lyrical rtst “Wo bist du, wo bist du, mein Geliebtes Land”.  As Richard Stokes has written, the song “takes the form of a short cantata”.  Boesch’s flexibility allowed him to mark the transitions clearly without sacrificing the line.   In the last verse, his voice moved from firmness to despair, descending to ghostly whisper, so the last words rang out with anguished finality, connecting the last verse with the first. One of the most rewarding Der Wanderers I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard hundreds.  

With its regular, repetitive lines, Der Pilgerweise D 789 (1823). can sometimes sound undistinguished, but Boesch and Martineau brought out its depths.  The pilgrim is a beggar who struggles on though “Thread after thread is torn from the fabric of his happiness”. So why carry on ? No mention of religious faith in this text, written by Schubert’s raffish friend Franz von Schober.  Perhaps this pilgrim is the epitome of an artist, driven to create.  He’s poor but has the gift of song. Boesch coloured the words with gentleness, suggesting quiet strength.   Rewarded be, those who hear the song so well interpreted.

In  Der Wanderer an den Mond D870 (1826, Seidl), Martineau depicted the steady tramping pace in the piano part, over which the vocal lines floats  with carefree lyricism.  In some ways, this song is the opposite of Der Wanderer.  In the context of this programme, we were looking backwards before moving forward.  I had wondered why Boesch’s body language had become quite jaunty towards the end of Der Wanderer an den Mond.  This fitted the upbeat mood, but was also proved a good introduction to An den Mond (D468 (1816,Hölty)  Provocatively, Boesch spoke a few words before starting. “What’s this song about ? Who,is dead, the girl, or the man ?”  It’s a curious poem, with an unidentified protagonist gazing down from the sky. Who is weeping on who’s grave ?  A stimulating approach. There’s no reason Lieder should be grim and stiff. Perhaps this was a song Schubert played in the company of friends, enjoying themselves for sheer pleasure.  Two more happy songs: Der Zufriedene D320 (!815, Reissig) and Der Weiberfreund D271 (1815, Abraham Cowley, translated Ratschky).  The first concise and pointed, the second second risqué.  From contemporary drawings, we can assume that Liederabend audiences were open minded.  Endless variety: the pious An Die Natur D372 (1815-6, Stolberg-Stolberg), with Bundeslied D258 (1815, Goethe0. Schubert treats this as drinking song, while Beethoven, setting the same text, makes connections to the drinking clubs of then time which fueled political action. Thus Boesch and Martineau ended the set with Lacheln und Weinen D777 (1823, Rückert).  Laughter and tears – the landscape of Lieder is vast and varied.

Der Seig D805, (1824 Mayerhofer) is an anthem, but its brave front is disguised by references to classical antiquity.  The protagonist has slain the Sphinx. The song  resumes in repose (“O unbewölktes Leben !”) but the way Boesch sang the critical linen “Und meine Hand – sie traf” haunted the peace with a sense of horror.  Two songs of Spring, Frühlingsglaube D686 (1820 Uhland) and Im Frühling with An den Schlaf D447 (1816, anon) and Abendstern D 806 (1824 Mayerhofer), beautifully articulated by Boesch and Martineau.

This set of songs was balanced by the final set, with Prometheus D674 (1819 Goethe) and Grenzen der Menschheit D716 (1821 Goethe) , powerful songs which Boesch van sing with authority, all the more moving because his approach can evoke more sensitive feelings. Limitations of mankind, for men are human, not gods.  Thus the unforced elegance of Boesch’s An den Mind D296 (1819, Goethe and the tenderness in then two “motherhood” songs, Grablied für die Mutter D616 (1818 anon) and Die Mutter Erde D788 (1823 Stolberg-Stolberg).  It’s surprising that this song isn’t done more often as it exemplifies many of the themes in this Wanderer journey.  The piano introduction is finely poised, suggesting slow footsteps “schwer und schwül”.  In the moonlight, someone is being buried.  Diminuendos and a minor key, but the mood is “erhellt von sanfter Hoffnungn Schein”  Mother Earth holds us all.  Death ,does not triumph.   This concert was being recorded live. If it’s released, this song will be one of the highlights.  Boesch and Martineau’s encores were An den Mond D296 (Goethe) and Nachtviolen D752 (!824 Mayrhofer).

Original Source: Schubert, Wanderer – Florian Boesch Wigmore Hall

The “full” Edvard Grieg Peer Gynt

From the 1876 premiere of Grieg’s Peer Gynt

 Edvard Grieg’s birthday, a good excuse to listen again to Peer Gynt op the edition by Finn Benestad from 1988, which keeps the order of the composer’s score from the premiere performance in 1876, omitting the cuts made in later performances, but including Grieg’s fuller orchestration from the 1886 performances in Copenhagen.   The original play by Henrik Ibsen was a Lesedrama, a play meant to be read, as opposed to being watched on stage.  The full text apparently takes five hours to act out, plus another hour or so of music – quite tiring, I presume. But in book form, you can savour the ideas without pressure, reading back and forth. Peer Gynt is an allegory that doesn’t exist in real time.  Ibsen was satirizing aspects of Norwegian mentality in the period when the country was a colony of Denmark. Life was hard : the peasants so poor that many did live, like Peer, in rags, scrambling to survive by using their wits. 

Peer uses his imagination to get ahead, but he’s also a rascal who scams other people, especially women, and gets scammed himself, also by women.  Peer goes to North Africa, but at heart, he’s the same local yokel who hangs out with trolls, whose take on reality is defiantly perverse  Whatever the Bøygen is, he doesn’t overcome it so much as scam his way past. In the end, he’s back where he came from.  Solvieg doesn’t have much sense either. She still loves the scoundrel.  No all so different from the Troll King who feasts on cow turds and ox piss, whether bitter or sweet “as long as they’re our cow turds and ox piss”.  Grieg’s music is so wonderful that you can blissfully enjoy fantasies of fjords, mountains and goblins, but knowing the context is even more rewarding.

I first heard the “full” edition with dialogue in 2001 when Manfred Honeck conducted it with the Götenberg Symphony Orchestra, with Bo Skovhus, who stole the show, even from a star like Barbara Bonney.  In 2011, Marc Minkowski conducted the BBC SO at the Barbican Hall with Miah Persson  Johannes Weisser and Anita Hallenberg

There are numerous recordings of Grieg’s Peer Gynt suites but extended versions  with text are few.   In 2005, the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under  Ole-Kristian Ruud recorded the incidental  music with  dialogue in Norwegian. The following year, Guillaume Tournaire conducted the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande  in the world premiere of the Perroux edition, with texts in English translation.  Hearing the music in context is important, but once you’ve got the picture, so to speak, it’s better to hear the words in Norwegian, since the language fits the music so well. 

The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande have much more stylish polish but the Bergeners are nicely down to earth. The Bergen singers and choir are clearly native speakers, which gives their singing natural verve. On the other hand,  the “Swiss” orchestra used a professional Hardanger player, using a traditional fiddle, as opposed to a violin. This electrifies the performance, giving it a wildness and crazy freedom conventional orchestras can’t quite manage.   It shouldn’t be too difficult for Bergen to one day record the piece again with an authentic Hardanger fiddle.  They’re sounding particularly good these days with Edward Gardner, so maybe they should revisit the full Peer Gynt.
Please see my other posts on Grieg, Norway, Norwegian film and Ibsen by following the labels below. 

Original Source: The "full" Edvard Grieg Peer Gynt