Rattle 20th Century Masters : Janáček Carter Berg Bartók

One of Simon Rattle’s great strengths is creating musically-intelligent programmes. This latest, with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, brought together the final works of four 20th Century Masters – Janáček, Carter, Berg and Bartók.  A few years ago, he conducted Schoenberg’s Op 16, Webern’s Op 6 and Berg’s Op 6 together, showing the connection between Mahler and the Second Viennese School (horrible misleading term).  Rattle’s programmes are more than the sum of their parts: they make you think.  They also de-mystify modern music  which is important. Every era was/is modern in its own time, and 20th century music has been around longer than almost anyone alive.  Music is constantly evolving and won’t suddenly fossilize.

Sadly, there still are folks who believe that suddenly, overnight, Schoenberg imposed dodecaphony on the world Such folk often think that Berg’s Violin Concerto is a throwback to some ill-defined notion of “romantic” music.  That’s musically illiterate nonsense on so many levels that it’s shameful. Violins have an uncanny capacity to pull on the heart strings and the piece is very deeply felt.  But it’s still modern. Listeners who can’t get past the “Memory of an Angel” starting point aren’t paying attention.  Berg was in the midst of writing Lulu, and was even personally more loyal to Schoenberg than most. The angel in question was Manon Gropius, whose family were very much in the centre of what was modern and up to date. And, like so much else in Berg, there are cryptic hidden messages, with darker, non-angelic subtexts.  Isabelle Faust has played Berg’s Violin Concerto so many times that it’s almost her signature piece.  Her approach is dignified, with the depth that comes with emotional maturity.  Genuine, sincere feeling, not the cheap sentimentality that sometimes surrounds reception.  Faust’s playing has gravity, its poise informed by restraint, creating a tension which gets far closer to the soul of the piece.  The timbres are occluded, as if in shadow, textures disintegrating gently, as reality fades to memory. Tonality hovers on the point of breaking and then dissolves, when no more can be said.  The quote “Es ist genug”, is a reference to Bach.  No more can be said.  Berg, even at his most passionate, uses structure with the clarity of a mathematical mind. Puzzles and patterns are integral.  Faust’s playing is extraordinarily beautiful because she understands the possibilities of expression that come by extended the borders of form.

Rattle prepared us for the modernity of Berg’s Violin Concerto by prefacing it with the Overture from  Janáček’s From the House of the Dead and Elliott Carter’s Instances.  Carter’s Instances was completed in 2012, premiereed in Britain by Oliver Knussen. It was Carter’s last work, written at the age of 103, ad probably wins the prize for “world’s oldest composer composition”. But how lively it is, and how inventive. Carter’s “Late, late style”, as he called it is freewheeling. At his age, he said, he didn’t need to prove anything to anyone. For pragmatic reasons his late works are short and epigrammatic but no less inventive for that. In Instances, one can almost hear Carter grinning. 

Janáček’s music, with its angular rhythms and quirky discords doesn’t fit  into neat little music history stereotypes. Janáček probably didn’t know, or care, what was happening in France, Germany and Austria , but like his contemporaries in the 1920’s,  he was forging his own original and distinctive path.  When Boulez began conducting Janáček some years back, there were howls of rage from some quarters. But Boulez loved the music for its own sake and had, in fact, been studying Janáček since the early 1970’s.   Rattle forged his own career in modern music, bring Szymanowski, for example, to public attention long before most anyone else.  Szymanowski might seem “romantic” to some, but his intense chromaticism connects to Debussy and to Bartók.

And so Rattle and the LSO concluded with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra.  In 1940, Bartók was in a new land, where he hadn’t settled  and became despondent.  Once he began writing, though, his mood lifted as if rejuvenated.  Although there are familiar “Hungarian” themes in the piece, it is not fundamentally nostalgic.  Bartók was looking back on his past, well aware of what was happening in the Europe he’d left behind, and in the  right wing extremism in Hungary, whose government aligned itself with Hitler.  Rattle brought out the granite like inner strength in the piece and the firm lines beneath the nostalgia. Perhaps Bartók was drawing on sources in his psyche that went much deeper than folkloric colour. The ethereal opening theme developed until it emerged with expansive confidence. The music seemed to oscillate, highlighting the more disturbing undercurrents in the work.  Rattle negotiated the constant flux in the work, tempi spiriting along as if propelled by winds of change.

Original Source: Rattle 20th Century Masters : Janáček Carter Berg Bartók


Galina Ustvolskaya and the determined Nun

Galina Ustvolskaya and Reinbert de Leeuw, 2011

 Exclusive,first-person article on Galina Ustvolskaya on Andrew Morris’s blog Devil’s Trill. Please read it here – it’s a significant addition to what we know of the reticent Galina Ustvolskaya and opens out new areas of research.   Ustvolskaya is coming out from under the shadow of Shostakovich. Whatever the nature of their relationship, Ustvolskaya’s music is utterly distinct from his, so original and so uncompromising that it’s unlikley she’ll ever be as popular as he. But what amazing music she wrote !  Read HERE about her Symphony no 3 Jesus Messiah, save us ! from the Berlin Musikfest with Valéry Gergiev and the Münchner Philharmoniker  

hether or not Shostakovich compromised with the Stalinist regime, he managed to balance on the edge. Ustvolskaya wasn’t sent to Siberia, but seems to have struggled on in a kind of external exile.  Perhaps her reputation for being a recluse protected her – she’s not unlike many mystic visionaries in Russian history.  The integrity in her music comes from very deep sources, influenced by Slavic tradition, but also decidedly modern.  Her association with Shostakovich is misleading,  She’s closer to Stravinsky and the “primitivism” of the Rite of Spring,  and to the brief explosion of modernity which flourished in the early years after the Revolution, and produced works like Alexander Mosolov’s The Iron Foundry (1925-6)   Ustvolskaya’s music even connects  to the fierce awkwardness of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, and indeed to Messiaen’s ground-breaking masterpieces like Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. Follow this link HERE to a discussion of  Ustvolskaya, her place in Soviet music and her relation to Shostakovich.  Also, this excellent documentary, made when Ustvolskya was, at last, being valued for her own sake. She was nearly 90 when the film was made but her mind is sharp. She knows who Reinbert de Leeuw is and what he stands for.   

Perhaps someone should folow up on Sister Andre Dullaghan.  For example – what was her order, and which convent did she live in ?  Her manuscript and papers  may remain in the convent library.   Or the nuns might know what happened to he effects,  and put researchers in touch with her family, or someone who might know.  Two fascinating, independent women, who should be remembered.

Original Source: Galina Ustvolskaya and the determined Nun

Theory and Harmonic Analyses serve musical expression

Theoretical analysis has been part of my personal immersion at the piano since I began studies at the New York City High School of Performing Arts. As a student enrolled in the the Music department, I had three years of Sight-singing/Ear training, extensive exposure to harmony and musical structure, all within a performance-centered curriculum. And while I obsessively mapped out my piano pieces for every vestige of primary and secondary dominants, pivot chords leading to modulations, deceptive cadences, first and second themes, variations, points of Development and what characterized every section of a composition, I didn’t fully understand how to synthesize these analytical ingredients into expressive playing. (At that point in my adolescent life, I was more of an “intuitive” player.)

It was after years of study at the Oberlin Conservatory with its enriched courses of Theory, Music history, Eurhythmics, Keyboard Harmony and Piano Literature, that an expressive musical dimension surfaced as a resonating theme in my approach to learning piano works of varied historical periods. I would no longer compartmentalize what I considered to be a unity of elements in pursuit of beauty.

I still inveterately mark up a “new” composition with harmonic tracking, structural annotations, and fingering choices that comport with what I believe serves the best realization of phrases and this unshackled habit is fully fleshed out in the attached score. (Enrique Granados, Valse Poetico No. 1)

In synch with these scribbles, I dared to upload a video on my second day of practicing as I slowly waded through the music, bar-to-bar, separate hands, no less, with in-depth scrutiny of harmonic and interval analysis; symmetries of phrases; what was different?–how certain harmonic progressions created an “emotional response.” The iii chord, for example, known as the “Mediant,” was a heart-wrencher as it was poignantly “unexpected.” And in this cosmos of “affect” linked to harmonic events, expected and unexpected, I’d been taken by the book, Emotion and Meaning in Music by Leonard Meyer.

In a second video posting, which was my reconnection with Burgmuller’s “Barcarolle,” Op. 100, I embraced “Elements of Expressive Playing” that underscored awareness of pivotal harmonic junctures (modulations) that necessitated an emotional and physical synthesis. (i.e. How to “delay” the approach to certain sonorities in modulation; how to use a supple wrist to soften the impact of after beat chords, and to sensitively advance tapered cadences; how Rotation factored into a bridge back to a Recapitulation; how the beginning and end of the Barcarolle must be related, with a sense of reflection, mood connection, etc.) All identified key departures had an embedded affective significance that was bonded to choreography. In this pursuit, labeling a key shift needed translation into the physical playing experience with the “singing tone” as an underpinning.

In summary, a music-learning journey should deeply plant the seeds of cognitive, affective and kinesthetic awareness in the earliest phase of exploration. It must ideally include an array of analyses that serves the highest form of musical expression and shared human emotions.

Original Source: Theory and Harmonic Analyses serve musical expression

Rousseau Le Devin du Village staged at Versailles

Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opera Le Devin du Village, (1753) at the Petit Théâtre de la Reine at Versailles last July, now available on Culturebox.  Listening to opera audio-only is sterile and unnatural.  For Rousseau and his contemporaries the idea that any one aspect of opera could be cut out of context was anathema. Opera was meant to be enjoyed as part of social life, which at Versailles meant the aesthetic of the surroundings. The film begins as the camera pans in on the palace and its vast formal gardens. Versailles was more than a royal residence; it was and is the symbol of audacious vision.  The performance takes place in the theatre at le Petit Trianon, built for Marie Antoinette in 1780 where the opera was performed, capturing its intimate, elegant scale which is absolutely part of meaning. Like Versailles iitself, the opera encompasses in miniature the essence of the world beyond, Nature contained, distilled and civilized.  Yet paradoxically it’s also a reminder that Nature cannot be tamed. The palace is ringed by ancient forests in which the King would hunt. He hardly needed to catch his own dinner : hunting was a ritual monarchs enacted for fun and fresh air, but also to display their dominance. Though Marie Antoinette wasn’t to know what was coming, we do, and that knowledge does affect our appreciation.
It is also significant that Rousseau was a philosopher. Le Devin du Village is more than mindless entertainment in the modern sense.  For audiences of the Age of Reason, art was inextricably part of wider human experience. Without ideas, no art !  While baroque operas can be enjoyed on a very basic level, they are almost always allegorical, with concealed sub texts. At le Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette had a farm but no way was she going to muck in with the peasants. Imagined Nature served a purpose, presenting an ideal that was probably impossible to attain.  The noble savages in Rameau’s Les Indes galantes  weren’t carefree. Theatre is not naturalistic : it is artifice, not reality.  We need to understand the real traditions of opera to detoxify modern notions of  “tradition” based on movies and TV.  The photo above shows a cloud descending from the heavens bearing a crown which Colette accepts, as if such things happened every day : a device that would enrage “traditional” audiences today.

The flats are clearly painted, the stage is empty apart from chairs for the singers to sit in when they’re not in action. Gestures are stylized and the singers, dancers and musicians wear what was normal costume in court circles of the period.  Dance is integral to the whole aesthetic. Like the gardens of Versailles, dance is a formalization of nature, movement organized into patterns.  Baroque dance is structured, like athletics, employing the body into the whole concept.  Thus the large ensemble when most of the cast is on stage, together, carefully choreographed and vocally balanced.  Dance is pulse, and pulse the basis of music.  Separate the two and lose the plot.  It would be impossible and inadvisable to recreate the full baroque experience, but this production is a glimpse into what might have been. For the rest, we use our imaginations, based on what we’ve learned.  Les Nouveaux Caractères are conducted by Sébastien d’Hérin. The dancers are Le Compagnie d’Eloquents, choreograped by Hubert Hazebrocq. Singers are Caroline Mutel (Colette), Cyrille Dubois (Colin), and Frédéric Caton (Le Devin).  Historic staging by Jean-Paul Gousset.  It would be impossible to recreate the full baroque experience,  but in this staging we get a glimpse into what might have been, from which we can learn the foundations of French style.
Please read Reconsidering Rousseau’s Le devin du Village : an opera of surprising and valuable paradox by Edward Green (Ars lyrica, 2007)  for a more detailed analysis of the score and ideas behind it.  Note his final paragraph : “Without exception, every aria in this opera is cast in a dance rhythm. In and of itself, this is evidence of a profound attempt on Rousseau’s part to reconcile individual and collective feeling. An aria is an opportunity for the assertion of individual feeling, and yet community is always implied, since a steady dance beat always implies the need to coordinate community. Thus, with a lovely equipoise of individual and communal singing – Colette alternating with the community as a whole – and in an infectious, swinging 6/8 meter, Le devin du village ends with the call : Allons danser!” 

Original Source: Rousseau Le Devin du Village staged at Versailles

Unfit for New Year’s?

Strange thing I just realized.

The Met Opera celebrated New Year’s Eve with a new production of Tosca. Made sense to me when I first heard about it. An opera people love, some grand singing, if it’s cast well. What’s not to like?

And then it dawned on me. This makes no sense at all, Tosca on New Year’s Eve. Not if you take the opera seriously, and remember what it’s about.

Let’s remind ourselves. (Not that I really need to recount the plot to readers who know classical music, but still).

Blood and torment

A brutal man — torturer, killer, sexual predator, police chief of a tyrannical state — sees an opportunity. Lock up an enemy of his regime. Torture him. Make his lover — a smoldering diva — watch the torture. Tell her he’ll free the man, if she’ll submit to him.

Tito Gobbi as Baron Scarpia, the sexual predator

Helpless, she says yes. And true, she kills him. But the sadist has the last laugh. His order to free the man was bogus, and, thinking she’ll see her lover freed, she sees him shot to death instead. And so she kills herself.

And, sure, all of this is dressed up in operatic grandeur, with sweeping melodies, but still! Torture, death, impending rape, and suicide. When Tito Gobbi, the great Italian baritone, famous for his singing of the villain, recorded the opera for the second time with Maria Callas, he said after (listening to the scene where she kills him), “This isn’t opera. This is a real murder!” Or words to that effect.

And all of us, reading that back in the 1960s, said, “Now that’s a great performance!”

So if it sounds real…

…how is Tosca a celebration, fit for New Year’s Eve? It’s as if classical music really didn’t have any content. Oh, we love opera! We love the singing, love the drama, love the high notes. But does it mean anything? Not really.

Like when I realized that we still perform Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri, an opera that makes fun of Muslims.

Well, maybe you could say that at least in Tosca, the woman kills the predator. But he wins in the end.

Or you could say, oh, lighten up, it’s only opera. So then let’s take away the funding it gets for being high art, presumably with deep meaning.

(And, by the way, thanks for making my point for me. Or more than my point! I only said we treat classical music as if it had no meaning. Not that it truly doesn’t have any.)

What makes this even more uneasy, in the time of #metoo, is not simply that Tosca’s sadistic police chief is a sexual predator. But that the conductor originally set to lead the performance, James Levine, had to be replaced because he’s been credibly exposed as a predator himself.

So the real world really does force its way into opera.

Original Source: Unfit for New Year’s?

Earliest Mahler songs – Winterlied

photo : Roger Thomas

It’s still winter and the skies are overcast. But look to  the trees, where the buds are forming, which will soon unfurl as leaves.  So to Winterlied, one of Mahler’s Drei Lieder (Im Lenz, Winterlied and Maitanz im Grunen) from 27th February 1880. Winterlied is not a Wunderhorn song.  Just as he was to do with Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen, Mahler wrote the text himself and dedicated the song and its companion, Im Lenz, to  Josephine Poisl, who lived in his hometown Iglau. He sent her flowers, but she wasn’t too pleased. Soon after, she married another homeboy.  Mahler went on to Vienna, and to fame.  Though the songs (unpublished in Mahler’s lifetime) aren’t very sophisticated, they aren’t bad for someone so young.  Besides, they were written at the same time as Mahler’s first truly significant work, Das klagende Lied.

manuscript – click to enlarge

Über Berg und Tal
Mit lautem Schall 

Tönet ein Liedchen. 

Durch Schnee und Eis
Dringt es so heiß 

Bis zu dem Hüttchen. 

Wo das Feuer brummt,
Wo das Rädchen summt 

Im traulichen Stübchen. 

Um den Tisch herum
Sitzen sie stumm. 

Hörst du mich, Liebchen? 

Im kalten Schnee,
Sieh! wie ich steh’,

Sing’ zu Dir, Mädchen! 

Hat denn mein Lied
So dich erglüht
Oder das Rädchen? 

O liebliche Zeit
Wie bist du so weit! 

O selige Stunden!
Ach nur ein Blick
War unser Glück.
Ewig verschwunden! 


Original Source: Earliest Mahler songs – Winterlied

Ekho and Narcissist

It takes courage to pair Sibelius Luonnotar and Aare Merikanto’s Ekho, as Sakari Oramo did with the BBC SO at the Barbican on 7/1/18.  Both pieces present fearsome technical challenges but Oramo and the BBCSO had a secret weapon in Anu Komsi, who can handle extremes of range and timbre, while also infusing her singing with warmth and meaning. Though Komsi sings with such assurance that she made the pieces flow with natural grace, they aren’t at all easy; she’s been singing them for a long time.  Experience shows ! This performance of Merikanto’s Ekho was wonderful, much better than Komsi’s recording with  Petri Sakari and the Turku Philharmonic. The BBCSO are a much more sophisticated orchestra, with a richer sound. And of course Sakari Oramo knows the singer and orchestra pretty well.   Since I’ve written about Luonnotar so many times over the years (Please read HERE) this is a good time to think about Ekho

After swimming in primeval oceans for 700 years (think amniotic fluid) Luonnotar called out, in agony to the god Ukko, who answered by sending a bird whose egg Luonnotar nurtured, from which the universe was born.  Ekho was a nymph, blessed with beauty of form and of voice.  But when she called out to Narcissus, he didn’t care about anything but himself.  Although Merikanto’s music seems lush – lots of glossy strings – it is also very much of its time.  Writing in 1922, Merikanto was well aware of the trends in European music around him. Ekho doesn’t even pretend to be folkloric – it’s “modern” music, almost neo-classical, reflecting the clear sighted vision of a new world emerging from war.   Think of the clean lines of 1920’s visual arts, and the gracious stylization of form that engendered.  The poem by Viekko Antero  Koskenniemi  (1885-1962) comes from the collection Elegioja.  In that context, Ekho is almost a New Woman, talented and emancipated   Lots of those in the 1920’s, in Finland and everywhere else. Like many smart women, Ekho thinks she can reach out. But men like Narcissus could not care less.   

The sound of hunting horns and  ominous rumblings – Ekho is a nymph of the forest, but what,is her mission ?  Suddenly the line leaps upward “Narkissos, Narkissos — hu-huu, hu-huu! ”  Almost a war cry. The orchestra rears up. Turbulence, then clearing away to quieter sounds, a pattern of call and non-response that repeats in different forms. Ekho calls again: “Narkissos, ma huudan, hu-huu, hu-huu!“, the last word projected into the voice. Ekho is listening, but Narcissus isn’t. Summer’s ending (ie the end of fertility).  Komsi’s voice lowers seductively , halo’d by strings, harp and melancholy violin, then rises again in a long, soaring arc. Near silence – you count the bars, listening and gradually, sounds return, shimmering like sound waves.  “Se mun kuoltuanikin soi ja soi” (It’s my ringing and playing).  Liike an echo, the first line repeats, in muted form. “Koko yön minä yksin tanssinut oon ja kutsunut armasta karkeloon”  (all night, I danced alone). Dark sustained chords breaks.  Then silence.  Sibelius Luonnotar is grander, and more dramatic.  Merikanto’s Ekho is compact, but just as tightly structured and haunting.  

I don’t know who created the image above, but it’s brilliant !  We do live in an age where reality doesn’t penetrate the minds of folks like Narcissus. 

Original Source: Ekho and Narcissist