Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Venus Rising

It was ladies' night at the Proms last night. Finnish conductor Susanna Maelkki took charge of the BBC Symphony Orchestra with a fine-point baton which she held like a slender beak, pecking the sections to release their glowing tone in the opening work Boulez's Notations 1-4 and 7. The vast5 orchestra was crowned by eight percussionists spread out with their batteries along the top shelf. Maelkki balanced Boulez's sound-balls with deft artistry, mesmerised players and audience with the subtle seduction of soft cymbal off-beats, controlled the muted, laughing brasses which can sound like jeers, and propelled with thrilling momentum the Stravinsky rhythms of the finale. She fetched the solo violinist Leila Josefowicz to perform the UK premiere of Luca Francesconi's 2013 concerto Duende: The Dark Notes, a five-section work of fiery flamenco passions and hysterical soprano timbres especially at the beginning when the soloist shoots almost in bat-level ultrasound. The scowl comes in part three when, shadowed by the orchestral strings, she hurls the invective of chest register tone at the bewildered prommers and saws the fast sweeping arpeggios of the cadenza with aggressive, female, and-another-thing rhetoric. Chastened, one bought an ice cream but it had melted in the passionate heat. Maelkki's account of Holst's The Planets made more of the lesser heavenly bodies than any other performance in my long memory. Mars' jack-boot bombardment was easy and Jupiter's singalong profundity moved, but Venus' chords were pregnant with fluid tone against the glistening glockenspiel, Mercury's violin solo played by leader Bradley Creswick, was eloquent above Holst's experimental clusters, Saturn's old age heaviness danced with bus pass enthusiasm and the wordless women's voices of the Elysian Singers rang round the corridors of the Royal Albert Hall as they disappeared into the night. The women here held the balance of power but the master behind the evening's success was the elfin Maelkki who is destined to be a great conductor of any gender.             

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Seventh Heaven

German composer Wolfgang Rihm's Et Lux is a kind of duet for string and vocal quartets. One might say an octet, except that the two ensembles perform mostly as separate blocks, even alternating by crotchet turns twice during the hour-long single movement. No cadence interrupts the music's flow, which, like a river, is sometimes fast, full and frolicsome, other times slow, sparse and halting. The singers, the Huelgas Ensemble's bass, two tenors and soprano sing fragmentary extracts from the Latin Requiem mass, mostly in long notes set syllabically. Phrases are jumbled and often indistinct and it is as if one is straining to overhear a conversation on a busy bus, the engine noise continually interrupting so that meaning emerges spasmodically - dies illa....et lux perpetua perpetua perpetua....omnis caro.  One is reminded here and there of Tavener or Paert in the work's meditative minimalist religiosity, but Rihm's score is also of such harsh, extreme dissonance that contemplative devotion becomes impossible to drift off into. The ear engages with full frontal vocal and instrumental effects, dead tone-scraping, the aggressive pizzicati, constant unresolving dischords. The singers' skills are deeply impressive as they pitch whole segments in seconds and sevenths, unparallel and independent, which ultimately cease to be repellent dissonances demanding resolution. The ear accustoms itself to the sound of voices and instruments constantly tones and semitones apart, delicious abrasions which one comes to love for their own sake. The work begins with a boldly stated theme (doh re soh), which the listener glimpses through the hour, but it resists formal analysis at least initially. It's a mighty work addressing one of society's most solemn texts, the Requiem for the dead, and meets its responsibility with appropriate stature. It would be a brave but admirable church which programmed it on All Soul's Day (2nd Nov), the only official opportunity for such a work. Braver performers, perhaps, although there's a pair of quartets here which, I dare say, would love to repeat their triumph.         

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Showman's Schumann

Schumann's Davidsbuendlertaenze, composed in 1837, is a suite of 18 short piano pieces to represent the different real and imagined personalities of his 'brotherhood of David' who unite to defeat philistinism as the biblical David did. Pianist Cordelia Williams returns to the first edition as evidenced by the lingering note B at the end of the first phrase (actually composed by Clara Wieck), held on after the rest of its chord has been silenced, a silver wire of sound under Williams' glistening touch, transmitting, as it were, the inspiration of the opening into Schumann's effusive dances. The first burbles a chromatic phrase into a three-time dance of lurching first beats. At the end of this opening, Schumann writes F und E for Florestan und Eusebius, the extrovert and introvert in him, which synthesise throughout the work into unsuppressed passion and intense chiaroscuro. The movements are mostly one or the other, the second (E), a gentle waltz, occurring again 'as if in the distance' in the middle of the penultimate dance, the third (F) a lover's joy in laughing thirds.

The sense of distance occurs again in the Fantasie Op17 which contains a quote from a Beethoven song, An die ferne Geliebte, to the distant beloved, a theme personal to Schumann and Clara as they were often kept apart by her father. Williams seems to devour the score, her virtuosity a match for Schumann's demands. She stretches and shapes the phrases with rare insight into the nature of longing and irrepressible love, mixing the expensive tones of the Steinway Concert Grand - the glistening bass, the birdsong treble, the golden middle - into a turbulent love story of redemptive power.    

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Blown Away by Trio

Trio Mediaeval's latest ECM disc traces a journey from Iceland to Italy which St Thorlak might have made in the twelfth century. The title Aquilonis is Latin for 'by the north wind', which is what blew him. The Trio sings in Latin, English, Norwegian and Italian. Their female voices may not have sung much of the music, but they sound at all times a perfect fit, and in any case make no pretence at authentic re-creation, harmonising the plainsong if not with drones, then with folksong inflected modal counterpoint. The result is music of crystal clarity and haunting beauty. One savours in particular the resolutely unresolving dissonances of the hymn Fryd dig du kristi brud, rejoice christian brothers, in an arrangement by Trio member Linn Fuglseth. They include the Mediaeval English piece which established them as a group, Alleluia a newe work, which has a tune like There is no rose of such vertu, also from the fifteenth century. Of the three settings by English composer Andrew Smith, none is catchier than the ostinato Joseph fili David, Joseph descendant of David, with its melancholy toiling theme. They open with the purity of plainsong in a Vespers responsory to St Thorlak which breaks into organum of parallel fifths and octaves half way through. For sheer physical melodic beauty, however, there is nothing to beat the Italian lauda Fammi cantar, let me sing, whose zigzag line and flattened sevenths combines the honed usage of folksong with the sculpted shapeliness of the manuscript composition. Trio Mediaeval perform much of what is on this exquisite disc at a Wigmore Hall, London, concert on 24 July 2015.  

Iceland's patron St Thorlak to the European mainland in the twelfth century. 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Charity at Dawn

Off to the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly to hear about plans for a fifteen-mile night-time 'culture crawl' around London in September, like a pub crawl only with historic buildings instead of Red Lions. It is 'curated' by former director of the National Portrait Gallery Sandy Nairne, who has persuaded employees in the selected buildings to stay up and welcome crawlers even at 3am. The exercise is a fund-raising scheme for the charity Maggie's Centres, which commissions architects including Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Steven Holl to design and build cancer treatment clinics all over the country. Those who sign-up (400 have already done so) must commit to raising £200 for the privilege. The artist Timothy Hyman RA made weekly visits for a year with his sketchbook and framed the results for a Royal Academy exhibition. He captures the warmth. humour and sadness of the yoga classes, prostate groups and incontinence sessions. One of his pictures is The Pensive Musician, the subject a young cellist hovering outside the 'hospital', trying to make up his mind to go in. The Centres have no programme of 'music-as-therapy', although they are conscious of the beneficial effect which fine art and architecture have on patients. The Culture Crawl takes place on the night of Friday 18 September and you can sign up by visiting Maggie's Centres website.   

Monday, 29 June 2015

Apollo's Misfire

Apollo's Fire is sometimes known as the Cleveland Baroque Orchestra, although the music on the Sugarloaf Mountain disc is more folk than anything under the Early Music banner. The title is one of the Appalachian Mountains which formed a barrier to progress west for early migrants. They settled and built communities which shared mostly Celtic musics from home. Instruments are fiddle, flute, penny whistle, harpsichord and dulcimer of two types - long-necked, like a Baroque guitar, and hammered, like a zither. The music is mostly traditional and anonymous, beautifully played modal tunes of Scottish or Irish heritage, like the haunting opener The Mountains of Rhum. Some are multi-purpose, like the Farewell to Ireland / The Highlands, a thrilling instrumental folk dance. The Cruel Sister is in the ballad tradition with a sad choral refrain after each verse, vividly depicting bitter family rivalries when a suitor prefers a younger sister. The familiar is well performed though one senses a little too much effort in de-cultivating the voices for The Fox ballad or Wayfaring Stranger. The flute solo of The Butterfly evokes the deepest sadness in keening tones and Nottamun Town (presumably Nottingham) is a wonderful find, despite the curious image of a stark naked drummer with his hand in his pockets. The religious number Oh Mary don't you weep has the origins of blues and jazz in an excellent finger-clicking rendition, but the disc is spoilt at the last by two cloying items, Just before the battle and the title track Sugarloaf Mountain, which is a concoction by founder Jeanette Sorrell of her own words and the opening Mountain of Rhum melody. She lets sentiment override historical value.                 

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Cuban Missive Crisis

Off to Cuba! Except the plane takes off without me because there is a misprint on my Electronic Ticket Record and the computer refuses to issue me with a boarding card. The desk clerks shrug their impotence and though I steam with frustration all I can do is sit at a public piano in the arrivals hall, improvise a twelve-bar blues and buy a second ticket. I have to because four magazines and newspapers are expecting pieces. £900 it costs me. I send the Guardian their 700-word article. The editor says it's confused and doesn't answer her questions. She won't print it but sends me a kill-fee. Here's the article anyway: 

'Since the USA and Cuba decided to relax the restrictions on trade with each other in December 2014, tourism on the communist island has looked decidedly rosy. In May, the tourist paquet coaches filled the airport car park in the capital La Habana. It is not quite a free-for-all; tourists still have to have a solid ‘people-to-people’ purpose for coming - cultural exchanges good, lying on a beach bad – so it was the right time to hold the twelfth Bienal de La Habana the Havana Biennale, a celebration of the arts throughout the city. Some visitors even made it out to the former golf course, and swelled the local crowds at the three performances of Cubanacan, the first new opera produced in Cuba since the Revolution.

The opera is also about the Revolution and has a role for the young Fidel Castro. This might seem rash, but the languishing 88-year-old dictator comes out of it quite well. It is set in the days of idealism in 1959, when treading in their army boots on the once exclusive turf of El Country Club, golf clubs in hand, surrounded by the abandoned houses of the middle classes who have fled to America, Fidel and his lieutenant Che Guevara, fly-half for the Buenos Aires University rugby fifteen, decide to build a University of Arts on the fairways. An appreciation of art was a principal ingredient in the founding of the nation.

They choose the architect Ricardo Porro, but his curvaceous Gaudi style designs displease the Russians, the project is abandoned, and the relationship with Castro falters, which provides the dramatic tension. The story is by American librettist and producer Charles Koppelman who conceived it twelve years ago after reading Richard Loomis’ Revolution of Forms. The bittersweet conclusion pits the failure of the project (two of the schools are ruins), against the success of the schools as students and teachers moved into the incomplete buildings anyway and over time have created one of the most art rich cities in Latin America. The city becomes a gallery during the Bienal, established after the Russians departed in 1992. Paintings hang in shop fronts in the old town and sculptures line the Malecon, the two-kilometre crescent-shaped sea front, which was pedestrianised on the first weekend with couples dancing to Salsa on every corner. 

The instruments of Salsa are classical, strings and wind. Drums are congas not kits. Those who devote themselves to playing them command huge respect in Cuban life. In a country of unbelievable poverty, where even an academic scientist earns only 50 dollars a month, a career in music is a way out. Salsa is big business. Porro’s music school was one of the ruins, but the music faculty took over the Country Club’s main building. Some of the ceilings have fallen in and the wicker now is shabby, but the rooms resound with scales, arpeggios and technically demanding modern sonatas. As session musicians, they may never play anything as challenging again, but what Salsa the trumpets blaze!

The music of Cubanacan is by 77-year-old composer Roberto Valera, formerly principal of the music faculty of the opera’s plot and therefore responsible for the country’s own sistema, that is, the arts in combination on a single campus, mutual and competitive. Valera studied in Cuba of the 1950s and won a scholarship to Poland after the Revolution. One hears the dissonances of Polish modernism driven by the propulsive energy of Cuban rhythms in the score. The orchestra comprises Camerata Romeu, an all-women string ensemble whose sweet tone and thrilling precision testifies to a music system of Venezuelan effectiveness. Only the oil-wealth is missing. Clarinettist Flavia Perez plays on stage during the finale with smooth, smoky tone. The winds are from the national opera company, Lirico Nacional, whence too the principal singers. Students from the schools make up the robust chorus and take spare seats in the pit making valuable contacts among the professionals.

The opera is staged in front of the School of Plastic Arts, a voluptuous complex of domes and tunnels, inspired by a female spirit of creativity from the local hybrid religion Santaria. Koppelman consulted Porro before he died in 2014, and he insisted this was the source of his inspiration. The spirit tussles with Castro over Porro’s fate. French director Charles Chemin had to compromise with the performers who refused to uninhibit themselves to the extent he wished in the interpretation of el Presidente’s feelings. They are understandably wary. Although Cubanacan had an untroubled passage through the censor’s hands, utopia is still a police state.'

Sunday, 21 June 2015

See a Conquerng Hero

Off to St John's Smith Square to hear Handel's oratorio Joshua, written in 1747 between 19 July and 19 August to a somewhat clumsy libretto by Thomas Morell. Stephen Layton conducts the Brook Street Band, the Holst Singers and a group of top class soloists who enter from a waiting room at the side each time they sing. The orchestra begins in a low gear but as soon as the superlative choir enters with the summons Ye Sons of Every Tribe Attend, we are off, careering smoothly with Layton at the wheel from chorus to recitative to aria as Joshua's tale unfolds. The Holst Singers are bright, alert, finely tuned, precise over the running semiquavers, and clear of diction even through the complexity of the fugues. They seem to have Handelian choruses in their blood with their balanced lines and simple eighteenth century confidence. It doesn't occur to anyone that the heathens of Jericho didn't get exactly what they deserve in the terrifying fire and brimstone chorus Almighty ruler of the skies at the start of Act II. 

Joshua is sung by Nicholas Mulroy who makes his recitatives explicit with hand gestures and facial expressions even for Morell's casual non sequiturs, such as his reminder to spare widow Rahab whom he has not mentioned before. Morell's script is particularly prone to expressions which have changed altered their meaning since he wrote them, like the final chorus Great Jehovah is our awful theme, the 'dreadful sound' of an earlier number, or countertenor Alex Potter's 'blooming maid'. Potter has an impressive presence as the young warrior Othniel and a powerful voice in the Bowman mould, easy over the high notes, rich below and with a metallic fibre in the middle range. He is especially effective in the power-aria Heroes when with Glory burning so that one wonders why it takes Chris Purves' imperious bass Caleb so long to embrace him as a son-in-law. This happens after the chorus's See the Conquering Hero, to the well known hymn tune first used in Judas Maccabeus, but used again in Joshua for its popularity. 

Soprano Rachel Ambrose Evans sings the sensible Achsah, daughter of Caleb and beloved of Othniel, with brilliant tone though she slides rather readily over the runs. She sings Hark tis the Linnet however with sparkling clarity and delicious engagement with the obbligato flute and fiddle. It's the stand-out piece not least because it is one of the few da capo arias in the oratorio, the fashion for them having waned with the demand for fewer hold-ups in the dramatic scheme. Two or three in an evening marks them out as special. Layton is a master of dramatic pacing in these Handelian oratorios and others conducted by him in the series at St John's must be among the capital's highlights over the coming months. 

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Legal High

Some unaccompanied QCs are loitering at the door of Temple Church awaiting their partners. I too am unaccompanied as my date is late. We are in good company as it is the six unaccompanied cello suites by JS Bach we have come to hear performed by the cellist Raphael Wallfisch. Their independence of any duo partner once gave them the appearance of exercises, as if it weren't seemly to appear in public without a keyboard chaperon, but in the age of individualism, few works better represent our existential isolation. The ear interprets the absent harmony, especially in the sparest movement of all, the Sarabande to Suite No5, which snatches single notes from the air and which Wallfisch plays with cowering, humble expression, like a defendant quietly pleading before a judge. He sits on a dais erected between the choirstalls which are packed as if by jurors. He plays the suites in the order 1, 6, 5, interval, 4, 2, 3. No1 relaxes the evening with its fluent familiarity, the phrases pouring from Wallfisch's fingers with unruffled confidence. He switches instruments for the scordatura No6, recalling events from a different angle. The double-stopped Sarabande, rich with emphatic bowed chords for the first time, is an explicit corroboration of the previously hinted harmony. His Gavottes have a spring in their steps, the first with its catchy tune, the second with its musette drone, simple as a folk dance. He plays Nos 5 and 4 from the score, unsure of his memory. This accounts perhaps for a more restrained and deferential performance of these works. The Fifth is also for lutenists, but none could compete with the smooth lightning speed of Wallfisch's Bourree II. His echo effects in the Fourth are the delicate whispers of a conscience. The rest he plays by heart, although he has a lapse in the last, his concentration failing as his marathon nears the finishing line. This fallibility mars the ending a little, but not enough to detract from the overall eloquence and calm persuasion of his account. The jury's verdict is immediate: overwhelming applause.      

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Pop - The Question

Baritone John Potter is behind this ECM project to create a song halfway between pop and classical, neither so crude as to deter trained artists, nor so complex as to deter untrained ones. He chooses the lute song for treatment and, but for its five-four time signature, the first piece, John Paul Jones' Al son de los arroyuelos with lyrics by the 16th century's Lope de Vega, almost fools me. Its prominent bass and strummed lute chords behave like a basso continuo. The performers include two lutenists and two singers, Potter himself in plain, appealing, text-clear tones and Anna Maria Friman who is a good matchwith consistent brightness from head to chest. The newest lyric is Sting's Bury me deep in the greenwood which sounds like the oldest and is full of folk poem cliches. Frustratingly, no song texts are provided. The composer Sting, of course, has experience of lute songs from his Dowland episode, although the music for Bury me falls short of the model, which always has some contrapuntal element. The disc also features the In Nomine by Picforth, Dowland's enigmatic contemporary of whose work only this extraordinary exercise in cross-rhythms survives. It is instrumental and doesn't even pretend to fulfil the brief. The three Thomas Campion songs are performed straight with only a little 'pop' voice production to justify their inclusion while the re-working as lute songs of Warlock's setting of John Fletcher and Moeran's of Housman are the most attractive items on the disc, new uses for the lute song, a form we are becoming more and more used to. Despite Potter's best intentions, the disc still falls firmly in the art music camp, but there's nothing wrong with that.