Classical music has a mindset. Or I might call it an ideology. Two parts of it are:

  • Classical music is a high, refined, deeply serious art.
  • And so scholarship about its history is greatly important, and tells us how our masterworks should be performed.

But what happens when these two points conflict? When scholarship shows us that some of our masterworks — as they were performed in their time — were neither high, serious, nor refined?

I think that then we drop our scholarship, without ever saying that we’re doing that. So we can still perform our music as if it were high art.

Case in point…

…Handel’s operas. One of which, Alcina, I saw reasonably well performed at the Washington National Opera, with supple and spirited conducting by Jane Glover. (Well, most of the singers had no idea how to sing Handel, but later for that.)

Only problem with Glover’s conducting and many other things that were good was that no kind of unified performance concept — involving music or anything else — would have been possible in Handel’s time. Or desirable. Or even appropriate for the music! (Which is true in our time, too. A point I’ll get to later.)

And that’s because Handel’s opera performances (and all Baroque opera) were and were expected to be…


I should first explain that these operas were meant to be entertainment. And not very high entertainment, either. What by far was most important  — what the audience — came to see — was spectacle.

A caricature of a Handel opera performance. But if this is how the caricature looked, the actual performance also must have looked extreme.

The spectacle came in two flavors.

First, scenic spectacle: The stage directions in Alcina call for collapsing mountains, the sea flooding the stage, cages full of wild beasts, and rocks and animals transformed into people. All shown on stage, in Handel’s time, with what we could call 18th century special effects.

And then musical spectacle, which I’ll describe in a moment.

So where was the anarchy?

First in the audience. They didn’t listen quietly. They talked during the performance, listened only when they felt like it, and shouted at the singers, whenever something really pleased or displeased them, or got them going in some other way.

Which, simple common sense suggests, meant that the performers would try to get the audience’s attention, by any means necessary. That contributed to anarchy.

Which also came from Handel himself! He led the performances from the harpsichord. Improvising, well, spectacularly. He was one of the great attractions at his operas. (Meaning that the discreet continuo playing we hear today is, historically, all wrong.)

And you’d think the orchestra would have improvised, too. First because Handel would have set the tone, and then because improvised ornaments were 18th century practice. (There are even reports of all the violinists in 18th century German orchestras improvising — believe it or not — independently. Which meant that they were all playing different versions of their melody.)

And the singers!

They also set a tone of anarchy, which surely affected everyone. (Including journalists writing about the performances, one of whom once speculated, in explicit detail, about the sexual habits of two sopranos who’d gotten into a physical fight on stage.)

The singers, first of all, were exotic, simply because they were Italian, Italians being flamboyant rare birds in Handel’s London.

They dressed extravagantly, wearing costumes (often glamorous or wild) that they brought with them from Italy. (No unified production concept there!)

And they ornamented their music madly. Most of the musical pieces in Baroque operas, Handel’s included, are da capo arias. Meaning that there’s a first section, then something contrasting, and then back to the top (which is what “da capo” means), as singer and orchestra repeat the entire first section.

As aria follows aria, all with that shape, these operas today can seem stately, if not unvaried and dull. But in Handel’s time, the singers didn’t simply repeat those first sections. They transformed them into something new and often wild, by changing, ornamenting, and just about rewriting their music, making the original melody unrecognizable.

So the da capo arias weren’t predictable, as they often seem now. Just the opposite, because you never knew what the singers — extravagant Italian virtuosos — were going to do.

This was the musical spectacle the audience came for. We have no idea today what it was like, because our practice now is to ornament discreetly, true to the classical music mindset, “we’re refined.”

But in the Baroque era, the singers went nuts. That must have pushed the operas over the anarchy edge. Our discretion means that we miss the theatrical point of these operas, and also that we’re unfaithful to them musically. In spite of all our claims to be historically authentic.

I know two recordings that give me some idea of how this was. First, a recording of Handel’s opera Rinaldo,l ed by the extraordinary René Jacobs, in which all kinds of crazy things happen. Including singers singing along with orchestral music, and insane improvisations during secco recitatives. You can stream this on Spotify, or buy the CD on Amazon.

Then there’s a recording of a Rinaldo aria, sung by Ewa Podles, who ornaments almost as wildly as 18th century singers did.

If anyone knows other anarchic performances, I’d love to hear about them!


And finally a word about why I think the Washington singers — most of them, anyway — didn’t understand Handel.

Handel’s music moves in lines. I think that you can see that in the printed score, even if you don’t read music. The singer in each aria sings pretty much continuously, except for introductions, endings, and brief interludes played by the orchestra.

And in this singing, the line is all-important. There are high notes and low notes, but they’re all connected, and — this is what I think you can see, even if you don’t read music — never interrupt the music’s flow.

So now we have (to give just one example) Angela Meade, singing the title role in Alcina. She’s used to another style of music, Italian operas from a later time, by Bellini, Verdi, and Puccini.

In those operas, high notes are much more emphatic. Again, you can (I think) see that easily in the printed score. If there’s a high note, either it stands out on its own, or else it’s the crown of a musical arch, in which it’s built up to and then subsided from.

Meade, singing the title role, would sometimes find some music where a high note briefly sounds like Puccini. And so she’d sing it like Puccini, with extra emphasis, finding notes before it (if she could) that could function as a buildup.

Which spoiled Handel’s line. And sometimes made a lower passage that came afterwards — or even a single lower note — sound as if it had no point. So the music made no sense.

Original Source: Anarchy!


Stockhausen lives ! Barbican Cosmic Pulses

KarlHeinz Stockhausen lives ! Two major Stockhausen events coming up. Cosmic Pulses and Stimmung at the Barbican on 2011 and Trans and Tierkreis with the London Sinfonietta (Pascal Rophé) at the Royal Festival Hall on 6/12.  

Stockhausen needs to be heard live . His music was created to be experienced through all senses, each performances uniue to the place in which it is re-enacted.  That’s why Stockhausen Verlag CD’s cost a fortune !  Fools they be who think he can be possessed like consumer product.  Performances are created anew each time,  for whatever performance space in which it us re-enacted. Re-enactment, because a Stiockhausen event is a kind of group ritual  in which everyone participates, using their minds. Conceptually, Stockhausen means more than ever now, in a era where technology expands consciousness. It is not Stockhausen who ius anomaly, but the idea that music must be trapped on plastic in fixed formats. That’s an aberration of the recording era.  Stockhausen reminds us that in all cultures, at all times, the message means more    than the medium. 

In Cosmic Pulses, Stockhausen dispenses altogether with the idea of orchestra as fixed entity.  The performance space itself becomes “the instrument”. Hence the term “cosmic pulses”, since the sound desk emits pulses projected into space. As sound waves hit a surface, they refract and reverberate.   Stockhausen doesn’t do movements in formal symphonic terms, but movement, in its purest form, is fundamental to his work.  Nothing stays still, except in terms of non-movement : even silences mark passage.  Imagine visualizing the sound waves as they bounce back and forth, often in patterns   At the Barbican, the sound desk will be managed by Kathinka Pasveer, Stockhausen’s  muse and acolyte. What will happen, when she, too, travels to the stars ? New interpreters, new technology, adapting the principles further and further.  

This is the third Cosmic Pulses in London in nine ten years.  The most reecent was at the Roundhouse in 2013. In 2008, the instrument was the Royal Albert Hall, as big and as grandiose as halls can be. An extravaganza for sound desk !  For once, I wished that the blue mushrooms didn’t  stop sound dissipating into the emptiness of the dome. Imagine, sound waves rising up, escaping through  the roof, dissipating into the air outside ! Do sound waves die or do they travel endlessly into space, imperceptible to human hearing   My friend,  Michael Gerzon, who worked on psycho-acoustics , believed that the wonders of the universe have hardly been unlocked by modern science. That’s the kind of creative, conceptual thinking he liked so much in Stockhausen. “In three hundred years”, Michael said “we might come closer”. 300 years before our time, Isaac Newton was still alive. 

Cosmic Pulses is the 13th of the planned 24 hours in Klang, Stockhausen’s visionary epic.  It’s not opera, but definitely a theatrical experience.  At the Royal Albert Hall, darkness descended, the dome lit up by tiny lights, like stars – Royal Albert Hall as planetarium !  That proms season opened with Messaien Dieu parmi nous, when the 9999 pipe RAH organ blasted full force.  For a few moments we could have been in the presence of the divine, or whatever you might call something beyond normal..  Stockhausen was Messiaen’s student.  The Barbican Hall is much smaller, built with wooden floors and walls that absorb sound in a different way. The hall is also fan-shaped, wider than it is deep. For once, the upper galleries might be a good place to be, assuming that sound can travel without being blacked by the overhangs.  The Barbican has hosted other Stockhausen experiences, like Hymnen, (read more here) not quite as large scale as Cosmic Pulses but also thrilling.

Before Cosmic Pulses, Stockhausen’s “greatest hit”, Stimmung, with Singcircle, led by Gregory Rose.  The word “Stimmung” means convergence, the concept of disparate forces coming together through a process of being attuned.  Not for nothing it was conceived in the Summer of Love, 1968 ! It’s a series of 51 segments which can be arranged in different ways and like throwing dice, the sequence can fall in many ways. Within each segment there are some fixed points but also much room for choices made in the course of performance. This isn’t straightforwardly notated music by any means: Stockhausen gives basic templates, but within them, there’s great freedom of invention and the onus remains with the performers, whose artistic responses “create” the piece anew each time. Yet, personal as the artists’ choices may be, the ultimate goal of Stimmung is to rise above ego, and seek a kind of transcendence through interaction.  I’ve heard Stimmung numerous times – it keeps coming round (pun !) , and also with Singcircle.  Should be good.

Original Source: Stockhausen lives ! Barbican Cosmic Pulses

Uralte Wasser : Gesang Weylas Hugo Wolf

Du bist Orplid, mein Land!
Das ferne leuchtet;
Vom Meere dampfet dein besonnter Strand
Den Nebel, so der Götter Wange feuchtet.

Uralte Wasser steigen
Verjüngt um deine Hüften, Kind!
Vor deiner Gottheit beugen
Sich Könige, die deine Wärter sind.
You are Orplid, my land ! Shining in the distance, from the ocean rises your sunlit shores,  mists refreshing the cheeks of the Gods.  Primeval waters rise, rejuvenating around your hips, Child ! Before your Divinity kneel kings, who are your Guard of Honour. 
Gesang Weylas, Eduard Mörike (1804-1875).  In his student days, Mörike and his friends created visions of Orplid, a fantasy island in the South Pacific, rising from the ocean, shrouded in mists, which deposit life-giving moisture. A metaphor for creative renewal.  The island’s remoteness is symbolic, too, for it exists in the imagination, its culture and history artistic invention. What little we know about it comes from fragments Mörike later used in his novel Maler Noten, started in 1830, published but never complete, continuing to inspire the poet to the end of his life.  Boxes within boxes. The Orplid themes occur in a play enacted by Noten the Painter and his friends, some of whom aren’t true friends at all.  The novel deals with dreams, art, wandering, sexuality and betrayal. Everyone ups up mad and/or dead.  These themes connect to real events in Mörike’s life. As a young man, he met a mysterious woman, whom he called Peregrina (a name which means wandering).  Possibly she was a gypsy, and seems also to have had some kind of religious mania.  She disappeared, leaving Mörike enthralled in abject fascination.  Thus the connections with Maler Noten where Noten is haunted by a mysterious curse : love and art, mixed with danger and delusion.

The introduction to Hugo Wolf’s Gesang Weylas (1888) replicates the sounds of a harp, or even possibly a lute, an illusion to Classical Antiquity where gods moved among mortals in pristine landscapes.   The mood is noble : the voice rises on the word “land”as if a halo were glowing round it.  Deopths and richness in the word “Uralte”, the emphasis on “Ur”, so ancient it’s before recorded Time.  But emphasis on “Wasser” too, the life-giving force that continues, eternally.  “Uralte Wasser steigen”. Three words in the phrases, each one significant, to marked carefully.  The last king of Orplid is dead, bu the goddess Weyla, is eternal.  Even kings must kneel before “Deiner Gottheit” for Orplid, land and/or conceptual vision is greatest of all. 

Original Source: Uralte Wasser : Gesang Weylas Hugo Wolf

Celebrating English Song Roderick Williams SOMM

“Celebrating English Song” new from SOMM recordings with Roderick Williams, with Susie Allan, pianist.   George Butterworth’s Six Song from a Shropshire lad, Gerald Finzi’s Let us Garlands Bring and songs by John Ireland, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney, Warlock, Moeran, Quilter and Benjamin Britten.

Roderick Williams transformed English song with his gift for natural, direct communication.   He’s one of the finest champions of the genre, ever.  Yet his legacy hasn’t been preserved on recording at the level that it should be. It’s scattered over many different labels, with varying production standards.  Often, the more specialized the repertoire, the finer the standards.. So thanks to SOMM for this recording, a fine sampler, pitched for listeners new to the genre, as suggested by the rather basic liner notes. Some choices, however, are more esoteric and ought to be flagged up for more attention

Butterworth’s Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad is basic repertoire, which Williams has performed many times. His recording from 2010 with Ian Burnside is one which most fans of English song will already have in their collections.  Gerald Finzi’s Let us Garlands Bring is another Williams staple, which he first recorded some twelve years ago.  It’s good, though, to have recent performances in high-quality sound. The four songs by John Ireland, Great Things, In Boyhood, Youth’s Spring Tribute and the iconic Sea Fever, also appeared on Williams’s recording from 2008, and the Vaughan Williams songs, Silent Noon and The Vagabond, also have earlier incarnations. Nontheless, it is good to hear recent performances, in good sound quality. As Williams’s voice matures, it hasn’t lost its unaffected freshness. In every new performance, the music lives, afresh.

Williams has long been associated with Ian Venables, so the two Venables songs, A Kiss and Flying Crooked, are a very welcome inclusion in this set.  A Kiss, from 1992, when Venables was in his 30’s, is a setting of a Poem by Thomas Hardy that shows the influence of Gerald Finzi in its fidelity to text. Finzi set more Hardy poems than most, and Venables was closely involved in Finzi circles. Flying Crooked, to a poem by Robert Graves, is altogether more individual. It’s a model of concise expressiveness.  In just over one minute, Venables replicates the “honest idiocy of flight” that is the movement of  a butterfly that “lurches here and here by guess/and god and hope and hopelessness”.  Like the butterfly, the music doesn’t fly straight but flips about capriciously. A wonderful sense of  freedom in the dancing notes in the piano part, executed with great delicacy by Susie Allan. The vocal part’s a challenge, too. Williams’s voice soars and flutters playfully on the word “aerobatic”.  Wonderfully cheeky, and refreshing. This recording should have new listeners rushing for Williams’s recording of Venable’s The Song of the Severn, or indeed Williams’s Severn & Somme collection (also with Susie Allan) for SOMM in 2006, so good that it’s still a classic.   

That’s why this SOMM release is so worthwhile. It connects the mainstream of English song to modern development.  Benjamin Britten’s The Salley Gardens is a variant of a very old song indeed, as is The Ploughboy, but listen to how wittily Britten incorporates Schubert into the song.   The  rhythms suggest the ploughboy’s physical energy but also hint at the manic nature of the lad’s ambition.  Ploughboy, politician and crook !  Allan’s top notes fly as the pedal pounds bumptiously.  The song also demonstrates how Williams can inject personality into his singing. As he sings “Whatever’s good for me, sir, I never will oppose”, his voice darkens.  For a brief moment the ploughboy is revealing his true, venal self, behind the mock-merry cheekiness.  In a similar vein, Peter Warlock’s miniature, Jilian of Berry, where jolly melody hides deceit. The barmaid is generous, but her customers are cheats. Given Warlock’s own propensity for drink and mischief , the song has deeper levels.

Three Ivor Gurney songs here, Black Stitchel, Lights Out and Captain Stratton’s Fancy. illustrate a side of Ivor Gurney that has somewhat been obscured by the emphasis on his service in the war and its aftermath.   Edward Thomas’s mud-stained manuscript for his poem Light’s Out lies in the Imperial War Museum, since Thomas was killed at Arras a hundred years ago, but both poem and song are about much more than war.   “I have come to the borders of sleep, …..where all must lose their way, however straight…..” Thomas’s syntax curls  past the lines as they lie on the page, tracing a wayward path which Gurney follows, with great sensitivity.  Something is coming to an end. Thus the minor key. and long, curving lines which Williams defines beautifully.  But where does the future, lie, if it exists? Gurney builds brief pauses after each phrase.  “To go into the unknown, ….I must enter…and leave…alone”. The song ends, hovering, without resolution.   In contrast, Captain Stratton’s Fancy, which connects to the vigorously upbeat mood of Sea Fever (both texts by John Masefield)  to The Vagabond and indeed to the boisterous Jilian of Berry.  The piano part marches, while Williams sings with mock heroism. “like an old bold mate of Henry Morgan”.  Dutch courage?  Another song which displays Williams’s ability to be at once funny and profound. 

Original Source: Celebrating English Song Roderick Williams SOMM

Schumann Liederkreis op 39 Florian Boesch Wigmore Hall

Robert Schumann Liederkreis op 39 ((1840) with Florian Boesch and Justus Zeyen at the Wigmore Hall, London.  In Liederkreis op 39 Schumann sets the poems of Joseph von Eichendorff, so very  very different to Heinrich Heine, whose poems formed the basis of Liederkreis op 24.  Eichendorff was both idealist and pragmatist, an aristocrat who helped create the Prussian public system, the first and most comprehensive government school system, open to all, regardless of wealth or status.  One of the principles of Romanticism, derived from 18th century ideas, was the concept of the purity of Nature and of those who lived in harmony with it.

Joseph, Freiherr von Euchendorff

Though Eichendorff,  Heine and Schumann were contemporaries  – living poets being set by a living composer, “new” works” in every sense – Eichendorff’s aesthetic harked back to earlier ideas of pastoral innocence. Liederkreis op 39 is beautiful because it harks back to an earlier period of innocence,  closer to the naturalism and sense of wonder captured in the folk-like wisdom of Brentano and Arnim’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  Songs  like Waldesgresräch connect to the supernatural enchantment of Das klagende Lied, where the supernatural overlays human experience.  “Du weiss nichts, wer ich bin”, sang Boesch, not imitating the voice of a maiden so much as expressing an innocent’s frustration with mortals who don’t understand.  The Lorelei has lived forever, but  the hunter hasn’t a clue. This wonderful song hovers between two worlds.  Throughout the cycle, there’s always something beyond, glimpsed yet not explicit.  In Auf einer Burg, an old knight has been waiting so long in his mountain fastness that he’s  turned to stone.   Hence the minor key in ths song. Yet meanwhile, in the valley, peasants are getting married : life goes on and renews, though the knight might turn to dust.  The same theme arises in Im Walde, where the happy procession disappears   into darkness. “”und mich schauert’s im Herzengrunde”. Boesch’s voice growled “Herzengrunde” , suggesting unspeakable horror. Though  Eichendorrff’s world evokes the past it doesn’t cling to it.  The cycle ends with Frühlingsnacht .The moon, the stars and the woods tell the poet that change is coming and, with it, new hope.  Whatever the poet may dream of, “Sie ist Deine, sie ist Dein”. 

Like all good Romantics, Eichendorff relished the unknown. Songs of wandering were songs of alienation, a concept earlier periods had few means of articulating. But songs of wandering also remind us that there are worlds we don’t know, which might be beyond our comprehension.   Nothing insular about Eichendorff, whose frontiers were of the mind.  Boesch was at his best in songs like In der Fremde (“Aus der Heimat hinter den Blitzen rot”) and In der Fremde (“Ich hör’ die Bächlein rauschen”) with its haunting refrain “Ich weiss nicht, wo ich bin”, bringing out the internal musical connections in this cycle, offten missed when it’s done like a series of songs,  The refrain “Ich weiss nicht wer ich bin”, for example, connects to the Lorelei’s cry “Du weisst nichts, wer ich bin”.  Though Eichendorff and his peers didn’t use the vocabulary of modern psychology and alienation, they understood the concepts.  It was wonderful hearing Boesch singing Liederkreis op,39, but get the recording, just out on Linn Records. Please read more here. Though I wrote more about the Mahler songs, that’s only because  Boesch has done lots of Schumann, and relatively little Mahler.

Before Schumann’;s Liederkreis op 39 Boesch and Zeyen presented four Schubert songs on themes of wandering, In Walde D708, Auf der Brücke D853, Der Pilgrim D794 and Der Schiffer D536. They also did five Hugo Wolf songs to poems by Eduard Mörike, Begenung, Auf ei altes Bild, Denk’es o Seele!, Schaflendes Jesuskind and Gebet.  One erotic, one supernatural, three ostensibly though not quite religious and one so disturbing that it’s in no category.  Justus Zeyen has played with Boesch before, but his style is loud, more suited to Quasthoff than to the subleties of Boesch. Nonetheless, he showed how the piano part in Liederkreis op39 is more spare than in Liederkreis op24, in keeping with the restrained sensibility of the poems.

Original Source: Schumann Liederkreis op 39 Florian Boesch Wigmore Hall

A Guest Post by Frances Wilson: The Pianist’s Solitude

“The loneliness doesn’t worry me……I spend most of my life alone, even backstage…….I’m there completely alone. I like the time alone….”
– Stephen Hough, concert pianist

The pianist’s life is, by necessity, lonely. One of the main reasons pianists spend so much time alone is that we must practice more than other musicians because we have many more notes and symbols to decode, learn and upkeep. This prolonged solitary process may eventually result in a public performance, at which we exchange the loneliness of the practice room for the solitude of the concert platform.

Most of us do not choose the piano because we are loners – such decisions are usually based on our emotions, motor skills or the aural appeal of the instrument. For me, as a child – and an only child – the piano was a companion and a portal to a world of exploration, fantasy and storytelling. It remains a place to retreat to and time spent with the instrument and its literature can be therapeutic, rebalancing and uplifting. For many of us, being alone is the time when the sense of being at one with the instrument is strongest.

In addition, there is time alone spent listening to recordings – one’s own (for self-evaluation) and by others (for inspiration and ideas on interpretative possibilities, or purely for relaxation) – and time simply recovering from practicing and refocusing in readiness for the next session. Many pianists tend to be loners – the career almost demands it and self-reliance is something one learns early on, as a musician – but that does not necessarily make pianists lonely or unsociable.
The life of the concert soloist is a strange calling, yet many concert pianists accept the loneliness as part of the package, together with the other accessories of the trade. The concert pianist experiences a particular kind of solitude (as noted by Stephen Hough in the quote at the beginning of this article). The solitude of traveling alone – the monotony of airport lounges, the Sisyphean accumulation of air miles, nights spent alone in faceless hotels. Dining alone, sleeping alone, breakfast alone, rising early to practice alone. And there is the concert itself: waiting backstage, alone, in the green room, and then the moment when you cross the stage, entirely alone….. The pianist Martha Argerich has described the “immense” space around the piano that has always made her feel alone on stage. But it is this aloneness, this separation, which the solo pianist exploits for the purpose of captivating and seducing the audience, drawing them into his or her own private world for the duration of the performance.

I suppose being an introvert in a ‘public performance’ profession has been my greatest challenge. It isn’t straightforward, of course – I seem to have a deep need to communicate music to an audience and get their reaction, and I love to be appreciated, but there are many other aspects of being ‘on show’ that don’t come naturally. I’m very interested in people, but I’m quite a private person and need lots of time to myself.
– Susan Tomes, pianist and writer

The traditional positioning of the piano on stage, so that the pianist sits side on to the audience, heightens this sense of separation and aloneness. In a concert, the pianist must navigate a path between private, subjective feelings and public expression in a curious display of both isolation and exhibitionism. The power of performer, and performance, is this separateness from the mass of audience. Some performers may exploit this to create a sense of “us and them”, while others are adept at creating an intensity or intimacy of sound and gesture during which the audience may feel as if they have a private window onto the pianist’s unique world, in that moment.

Up there on the stage, one can feel more alone than anyone would ever care to be, yet it can make one better than one thinks possible because one’s ego is constantly being tested when one plays. To meet a Beethoven sonata head on, for example, it stops being about you – how fast you can play, how technically accomplished you are. Instead it is about getting beyond oneself, becoming ego-less, humble in the face of this great music, developing a sense of one-ness with the composer…..

After the performance, when the greeting of the audience and CD signing is over, the pianist may happily retreat to his or her solitary practice room or studio. Many of us long for this special solitude and actively relish the time spent practicing alone.

Frances Wilson is a UK-based pianist, writer, concert reviewer and blogger on classical music and pianism as The Cross-Eyed Pianist

Original Source: A Guest Post by Frances Wilson: The Pianist’s Solitude