Secret Twins – Christoph and Ken

Original Source: Secret Twins – Christoph and Ken

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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

Rameau Maître à danser William Christie

Rameau : Maître à danser with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants in the famed production at Le théâtre de Caen, from 2014,  still (just) available on Culturebox.  Notice, Maître à danser, not master of the dance but a master to be danced to: there’s a difference.  Dance is movement, formalized into art.  Dance encapsulates the values of the baroque, where art meant civilisation, refinement over nature, orderliness over abundance.  Rameau was a music theorist as well as a composer, his music shaped by the values of his time. The pulse of dance invigorates his music, and informs its intricate patterns.  We can hear it animate the music. Now, fortunately, thanks to extensive modern research, we can also watch music being danced to, in stagings that reflect the spirit of the period.

In this performance, Christie presents Daphnis et Églé  (1753), written as a private entertainment for Louis XV and his court at Fontainebleau, after days spent out in the forests hunting for game. Context is relevant. It also commemorates the birth of a royal princes, and dynastic continuity.  The King wanted to be amused, but the show also had to flatter his image of power.  Thus both pieces present Happy Peasants, acting out simple, innocent lives, their peaceful idylls made possible by the benevolence of the King.   

Daphnis et Églé that its basically a masque for dancing,  Daphnis (Reinoud Van Mechelen) and Églé (Élodie Fonnard), shepherd and shepherdess, are friends who gradually fall in love over a sequence of 16 tableaux.  Daphnis flirts with a stranger, singing a lovely air. Églé drags him away.  Cupid appears, with wings and a wooden bow and arrow.  Daphnis presents  Églé  with a bow. Later, heavily “pregnant, they embrace as happy peasants dance around them.  Van Mechelen and Fonnard are familiar names on the French baroque circuit. Fonnard’s particularly pert and dramatic  and Van Mechelen has good stage presence. The first performance of this piece in 1753 flopped, apparently because the singers were duds. Fonnard and Van Mechelen are good. They’re delightfully fresh.  But singing is only part of the dramatic whole, contrary to modern notions about the past.  There isn’t much of a plot, and what narrative there is unfolds in stylized symbols. In the final sequence, Églé carries a doll, representing a new born babe. Louis XV and his Queen, with their infant prince, would have been flattered.Contrary to modern assumptions, the singing, though beautiful, does not take precedence over all else.  Baroque values emphasized balance and natural order, ensemble not diva-ism.  Van Mechelen has a lovely passage “Chantez ! Chantez”, garlanded by woodwinds that sing like birds, bringing “nature” into the proceedings, and the idea of natural purity. The long dance sequences, punctuated by simple percussion, emphasize them orchestra over the singers.  Indeed, the chorus has almost as much to do as the singers.   

Daphnis et Églé works well when its slender charms aren’t overwhelmed by excess opulence.  Daneman’s staging reflects this innocence, A simple cloth is held up on sticks to suggest  peasant theatre.  Alain Blanchot’s costumes (organic dyed fabric?) show the shepherds and shepherdesses in what would have been normal 18th century costume for their class, ie “modern” for the time. Daneman has worked with Christie since their first Hippolyte et Aricie together some 20 years ago. 

This stylized simplicity is of the essence, since The King wanted to portray himself as father of his people, a populace too child like and naive to object.  Little did he know what would happen in 1789!
 Françoise Denieau choreographed. Each of these danced sequences represent a different type of dance. Fans of early dance will enthuse about the finer details, and the names of each type of dance, the arm arm movements and the position of feet.  Baroque dance stemmed from athletics aristocrats practiced to keep fit and to fence. It’s more stylized than 19th century ballet, and, serves the music. It isn’t over-elaborate, since the purpose of the piece was conceptual idealism.  It feels like hearing the score come alive. When the music takes precedence, there are some lovely moments.  The Three Graces appear, in skimpy flesh coloured chemises, their arms held in expansive gestures. A young man dances with them. I’m not sure “who” he represents, but his graceful agility is a joy to watch.  

I first heard Christie’s  Maître à danser  live at the Barbican in 2014, soon after the Caen premiere, together with another miniature, marking the birth of a second young prince, who would become the ill fated Louis XVI.  In London, I think we got a truncated version of the two pieces, but I can’t remember exactly.  Please see my other posts on Rameau’s Zaïs HERE. and on  Pigmalion and Anacréon HERE

Original Source: Rameau Maître à danser William Christie

Jonas Kaufmann Diana Damrau Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch

Add Jonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau, Wolf Italiensiches Liederbuch, Goldner Saale, Musikverein, Vienna

Jonas Kaufmann and Diana Damrau singing Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch with Helmut Deutsch at the Barbican Hall, London.  Despite astronomical prices, tickets will sell.  Not for Hugo Wolf, but for Kaufmann and Damrau, a good team for music like this. Unlike most of the concerts in the Barbican’s Kaufman residency, this one is seriously interesting in musical terms.  Hugo Wolf will always be more specialist taste than populist, but this Liederbuch could be ideally suited to Kaufmann, whose sensually-charged, darker timbre should be pretty much perfect.  Wolf hasn’t enjoyed mega profile celebrity status for decades. Kaufmann and Damrau’s tour takes in twelve European cities, including Berlin, Vienna, London, Paris, Barcelona and Budapest.  Kaufmann and Damrau’s Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch is significant, so chances are that a recording will eventuate. It will be cheaper than shelling out big for tickets/transport ! haha !

For the Italienisches Liederbuch, Wolf used texts by Paul Heyse, whose translations of Italian and Spanish poetry appealed to German language readers, fascinated by “The Dream of the South” a potent theme in Central European aesthetics,  even before Goethe’s life-transforming visits to Italy.  Wolf was born in Windischgrätz in what is now Slovenia. Though the family was German-speaking, Wolf’s mother played the guitar and had Italian connections.  Dreams of the South cast a spell on Wolf, who would later go on to write the Spanisches Liederbuch and the opera Der Corregidor.  Significantly though, Wolf never actually made it to Italy.  When his friend arranged for him to visit during his last, troubled years, he refused to go, aware perhaps that nothing could quite match the Italy of his imagination.  The forty-six songs in Wolf’s Italiensiches Liederbuch form a panorama, each song an individual vignette.  Lovers pine for one another, thwarted by bossy mothers. Serenades, and songs about dirty old men dressed as monks ! Delicate songs of innocence, robust songs of flirtation, and songs of sheer wonder, like Schon streckt’ ich aus im Bett die müden Glieder, where a man jumps out of bed to fill, the streets with song.  But not just to one girl. “So manches Mädchen hat mein Lied gerührt, Indes der Wind schon Sang und Klang entführt.” (many girls hear my song, even when it’s been blown away by wind and noise). Images of sunshine, and of the night, of warmth and a sensibility very different to uptight Northern morality. (and probably not much like strict Catholic behaviour, either.).

Each song is a miniature opera, telling a story, creating a mood. That’s why I think these songs were made for Jonas Kaufmann.  His voice has a smouldering, sexy quality which suits the slightly louche nature of these songs.  His Italianate looks don’t hurt, either !  As an opera singer, creating character with his voice comes naturally. Although these songs are Lieder, they aren’t as inward or as intellectual as many Lieder can be, so they can benefit from a more impersonal approach as long as the touch is elegant enough not to overwhelm.  Although Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau made so many recordings that the Italienisches Liederbuch is almost (not quite) associated with him,  the collection is also tenor territory.  Peter Schreier and Christoph Prégardien performed it many time, Prégardien sometimes adjusting the song order to group the songs into tighter units. So Kaufmann, with his baritonish richness could create the best of both worlds.

Because Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch depends so much on the interplay between the many different components in the collection,  in practical performance it needs singers who are  balanced enough to create a natural flow between their voices. Diana Damrau has done the Italiensiches  
Liederbuch before, so she’s a known quality.  The girlish brightness of her youth has warmed to a  maturity,  better suited to this collection, where so many songs describe a worldly wise woman with such confidence that she can chide her (many) lovers with mocking good humour.  Many of the “female” songs in this set reveal women as stronger personalities than men.  And as for Helmut Deutsch, he’s so familiar to Lieder people that we can “hear” him, just thinking about him.

Original Source: Jonas Kaufmann Diana Damrau Wolf Italienisches Liederbuch

Wunderhorn-haunted Mahler 5 – Jakub Hrůša, Philharmonia

Jakub Hrůša (photo Pavel Heinz, for IMG)

Many have wondered, “How Bohemian was Gustav Mahler?”. Mahler Symphony no 5 with Jakub Hrůša and the Philharmonia Orchestra paired with Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1 in C, op 15, with soloist Piotr Anderszewski at the Royal Festival Hall, London, might shed some light. Mahler grew up in German-speaking communities in what is now Bohemia/Moravia, so the question is valid.  Though German speakers dominated society in those times, and Bohemian received less deference, as a bright, sensitive child Mahler might have absorbed the sounds around him.  Although Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is not a Wunderhorn symphony, it still carries the vigorous vernacular of the folk traditions captured in Brentano and Arnim’s volume Des Knaben Wunderhorn.

Hrůša brought out the robust spirit that animates the symphony. Far from being neurotic, this is a symphony that celebrates life in its variety. It begins with a Trauermarsch, a funeral march, in measured steps.  Growing up in a garrison town, Mahler would often have seen soldiers in drill formation. Hence the marking “wie ein Konduct”.  Thus the baleful trumpet call, followed by trombones and tuba, and the steady pace. But almost immediately, something extra happened.  The fingerings on the basses brought out the “wood” in their instruments. Hollow sounds and very spooky, evoking the sound of skeletons marching through town in Revelge, the dead resurrected in macabre afterlife.  The high winds sounded like cries of anguish. It is also significant that Mahler experienced a dangerous illness before the completion of Symphony no 5.  He, too, had beaten death and could laugh in its face.  Hrůša’s approach is interpretively valid, making connections between this symphony and so much else in Mahler,  even to the quirky, dark humour of Symphony no 7.  A chilling last chord, to press the point.

This symphony was first performed with the Rückert song Um Mitternacht. In the silence of the night the poet hears his heart and realizes its beat separates life from death.The angular phrasing with which the second movement begins, underlined by “heartbeats”of the timpani, suggested the pulse of a body.  The trumpet plays a dual role. It propels forward thrust yet also stands for a single player, and individual in a larger group. A humble soldier, the human face of an army : part of the Wunderhorn ethos. In the fanfare and storm-tossed passages that follow, the trumpet leads on.  Here, an exhilaration reminiscent of Mahler’s Symphony no 1. But an “individual” emerges again in the violin, lyrical but distinctive.  The third movement moves from Scherzo to stillness. There are interlocking dialogues, between trumpet and horn, between horn and flute, solo violin and strings. This dynamic suggests variety : the proliferation of different stories in Des Knaben Wunderhorn, perhaps, but also in life itself.  Now the violin part dominates, leading into more mysterious territory. Winds call, and brass. Dense textures and shadows. The violins sang freely contrasting with angular brass, wooden percussion beating tension.  Are we hearing the sounds of the night, or the sounds in a dense forest? At moments, I felt as though the spirit of the Cunning Little Vixen had infused the symphony, enhancing it with the fertility and freedom which the Vixen symbolizes. 

Perhaps the Vixen lingered, too, in the Adagietto, with its natural, unforced tenderness.  The Vixen is a feminine presence, and “feminine” themes occur quite often in Mahler.  Hrůša placed the celli between the first and second violins and violas, so an almost imperceptible tremble added to the fragility of the moment.  As so often in Mahler, good times don’t last, though as in Nature, new life replaces old.  Thus the vernal freshness with which the Rondo-Finale began, developed with warmth, creating the spacious, summery freedom we encounter so often in Mahler.  Here, the rustling strings and rumbling percussion evoked a sense of dense, healthy undergrowth. It’s not for nothing that so much Central European mythology springs from an aesthetic in which the forest acts as symbol for the psyche.  With this firm foundation, the brass can call heavenwards. Mahler can conclude with vibrant flourish. The journey from death to life once again traversed, vigour refreshed and revived.  

Hrůša’s approach to Mahler is inspired and perceptive. It’s not often that structural connections are so well understood,and performance so earthy and vital.  This concert began with Beethoven  Piano Concerto no 1 op 15 with Piotr Anderszewski, well performed but with no particular relation to Mahler 5.  Beethoven Piano Concerto no 2 will be heard with Mahler Symphony no 1 on April 12th when Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Philharmonia with David Fray as soloist. Will, the connections reveal themselves then ?  .

Original Source: Wunderhorn-haunted Mahler 5 – Jakub Hrůša, Philharmonia

Kung Hei Fat Choy – Donald the Dog

Kung Hei Fat Choy !  Welcome to the Spring festival, start of the Lunar New Year, Friday 16th February, this year.   This is the biggest celebration of the year, when families get together from all over the country and the world. Everyone feasts. To attract good fortune for the New Year, people display flowers and fruit and “lucky” objects like calligraphy and brightly coloured ornaments.  Since this year is the Year of the Dog in the Chinese zodiac, a lot of the ornaments depict dogs. Whole stalls selling toy dogs – soft toys, balloons, dancing toys and stuff for kids. I even saw someone “walking” a toy dinosaur, with wheels in its legs.  Above, a Dog who’s been on the streets in Shanxi province for quite a while.  Political commentary ? Aha ! Although people born in the Year of the Dog are generally loyal and trustworthy, those born as “Fire Dogs” in the more detailed 60-year zodiac have problems.  Like dogs, they obey and are controlled by others. They like money and comforts but don’t manage them well.  And in matters of love, they are, well, like hounds.  Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone, but….. !

Original Source: Kung Hei Fat Choy – Donald the Dog