Friday, 28 October 2016

Cinema glamour in early Hong Kong

The Alhambra Theatre, in Nathan Road, Kowloon, opened in January 1934. It wasn't the oldest cinema in Hong Kong . The Alhambra was built by Shanghainese who were used to the cosmopolitan sophistication of Shanghai. When it opened, a local newspaper described it thus The auditorium is fan-shaped, with seats giving an excellent view of the screen from every part, while at the same time the acoustic properties of the house are beyond cavill. The tastefully decorated lobby at the main entrance in Nathan Road covers an area of 2000 square feet. Seperate exits have been provided, so that the audience leaving the building will not crash with those waiting in the lobby. The dress circle is the largest in the Colony, having a clear span of 110 feet and a depth from back to front of 52 feet. The whole of the reinforced concrete framework passed all tests in May 1932, to the satisfaction of the Building Authority. A feature of the dress circle is that entrance is provided in the centre by a stairway to the front. The architects are Messrs.T.C. Wong and Company." The first film screened weas "Gold Diggers of 1933", straight from Hollywood. 

Below a wonderful compilation of photos of cinemas in Hong Kong.  Some still survive, used as bijou arts venues. Silent shorts were screened in Hong Kong in the 1890's,   the first "building" being a Chinese opera house, which closed down in 1912.  They were also apparently shown in pop up structures, like tents at New Year Fairs, much in the same way as Chinese operas were and still are, shown in temporary structures.  The first Chinese movie was made in 1909, but is lost. The first that survives complete is the Romance of a Fruit Pedlar (1922) about which I've written here.   There's more on Chinese film , written in English, than on most sites anywhere.  

Thank you WE Channel for another wonderful video !

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Maschinist Hopkins : Surrealism in opera

Max Brand's Maschinist Hopkins, which premiered in Duisberg in 1929: an opera where the music functions like a giant machine, an "industrial" opera inspired by the futurist, modernist expressionism of the Zeitgeist of the 1920's. Think of Fritz Lang's film Metropolis (1927) about which I've written here.

The Prelude to Maschinist Hopkins whirrs ominously, at first tentatively, then builds up a head of steam and bursts into life.   We're in the Proletarierviertel of a huge city, in "Bondy's Bar". Jim, a foreman, is with Nell, his wife. Note the vaguely Anglo names,  a typical construct of the period, frequently used by Bertolt Brecht.  Think The Rise and Fall of Mahagonny,  and "psychological" films like Nerven and Dr Caligari.  Next, we're in the Maschinenhalle at night. The machines are still operating but the voices of the choir are strangely unnatural, as if they've been hypnotized in robotic motion. The different parts of the chorus interact, like cogs in a wheel, churning together. Individual voices rise above the murmur "Schweiget ! Wartet!", some voices vocalizing at top pitch, like vapours of steam.  then the music jerks and chunders. Nell can hear the voices of the wheels. "Schwester Welle, schnell, schnell, quelle, quelle".  Jim's silhouette appears in a window: he's upset because Nell isn't at home where she should be. He and Bill, a machinist can't comprehend why Nell is wailing.  Time passes.  Bill the worker has become a capitalist, sitting in a snazzy modern  office, conducting business all over the world.  But all is not well. Maschinist Hopkins warns that the workers will strike. Bill kicks him out, but Nell sympathizes.

Suddenly, bizarrely, we're in a pleasure garden with a jazz band singing skat about "Turkestan". The text and music were by George Antheil,  a bona fide American, though a leading figure in the Paris avant garde at the time. (Lots more on him on this site.)   A long tango, where dancers in eccentric dress strut their stuff.  The shock of the surreal !  "I'll buy that!" says Bill.  The orchestra plays a mysterious, bluesy tune. Are Nell and Bill under a spell?  On the terrace they sing a love duet "Stille, schweigen", the sounds of a saxophone weaving around the strings.  Imagine the love duet from Die tote Stadt, edges blurred and smoky.

Just as we drift off in reverie, the machine intrudes. We're back in the Maschinenhall, all systems in motion. Wild, circular lines, suggesting mad frenzy, interpolating with violent stark chords, then a wild climax with sirens, wind machines and cymbals. Almost  Edgard Varèse.  the choirs sing sotto voce, with menace. Tension builds up again: jagged percussion. Hopkins cries "Die Maschinen sollen stehen"! Ellipses of brass, crashing cymbals.  Another sudden, disconcerting change. Nell is putting on makeup in the dressing room of a theatre. "Mirrors are mysterious things" she muses.  Hopkins materializes behind her. She offers him money to get out. He won't be bought: he thinks she's killed Jim (who hasn't appeared for a while). They tussle.  Chords like the "curtains" in  Wozzeck.  Outside, the Kappellmeister and Regisseur remain busily unaware. "Hahahahaha...." Nell turns up, arms full of flowers   But is all well ? Hopkins knifes Bill in the darkness. Bill's final cries include the word "Nell!" In an empty street by a long, forbidding wall, a scene straight out of the movies.  Nell meets Hopkins.  "Why, why" she cries. But Hopkins knows  "Es kann nichts sein".

Switch! Back to Bondy's bar, packed with workers on a night out. Bill, in grubby clothes, sits with a glass of schnapps, looking forlorn. The orchestra strikes up a manic, whirling dance.  Young girl sings a ditty about youth. An out-of-tune electric piano plays a foxtrot. Men pour into the bar, teasing Bill, mocking Nell.  Bill can take no more and leaves, but, outside in the alley, he hears Nell, telling him she's nearly home.  Is it a dream? the music builds to a frenzy. There's a scream and repeated blows are heard. Cut back to the Maschinenhalle at night, where the machines churn and the workers' voices chant, drone-like. Who can Bill turn to?   He goes to the switch which powers the machine. It sings, with the voice of Nell "In my womb, you will be reborn", which makes sense if you remember the Female Figure in Metropolis.  Screams all round, "Stop him ! Stop him". Hopkins appears and knocks Bill out.  But dawn is breaking, and the machines rev up once again. "Ein neuen Tag der Arbeit jetzt an!" he sings. The workers join in, chanting mechanistically "Arbeit ! Arbeit ! Arbeit !"

If ever an opera begged to be remade as film, it's Maschinist Hopkins where scene changes are so sudden and drastic, angles so skewed and awry that  they'd probably need to be shot in black and white.  Great chorus scenes, lines of workers, dancers, robots moving en masse and in formation.   Musically, Maschinist Hopkins captures the frantic spirit of the Jazz Age as defined in a grim, industrial, Middle European context.  Just as Max Brand's later experiments in electronic music and synthesizers came - just - after the pioneers in the field, so does his opera connect to other operas and films of its time. But a jolly romp it is and fun.  And it's much better to look ahead than to be clueless.  I've been listening to the recording from ORF where Peter Keuchsnig conducted the Radiosymphonie-Orchester Wien, the ORF-Chor, Cynthia Makris, Günther Neumann and Bodo Brinkmann, recorded in the Musikverein in 1988.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Brahms exults ! Vier ernste Gesänge Goerne Eschenbach

Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach , Brahms Vier ernste Gesänge and other Lieder, from Harmonia Mundi, is an extremely welcome release, since Goerne has.been singing these songs in recital for 20 years, so distinctively that they have become his emblem, so to speak.  Now, at last a performance has been preserved for posterity.

"Brahms free of the thick veneer of varnish", I wrote about Goerne's first Vier ernste Gesänge at the Wigmore Hall. When he wrote these last songs, Brahms was facing death but  looking back on the North German tradition that he had left behind decades before, but also by extension to the defiant spirit of the Reformation. Like Ein deutsches Requiem, that in itself, in pious, obedient Catholic Austria, suggests rugged independence of spirit.  There is no heavenly afterlife in Vier ernste Gesänge.  These aren't last songs, either, but specifically "serious".  Thus the significance of the piano part in Vier ernste Gesänge :  two performers alone against the world.  Brahms and Clara Schumann, perhaps, both pianists looking back and fearlessly ahead.  Christoph Eschenbach and Goerne are an ideal partnership. They've worked together for years and both approach the work with uncompromising emotional directness.

Eschenbach's introduction is firm, and resolute. "Den es gehet dem Menschen wie dem Vieh, wie dies stirbt, so stirbt er auch". Eschenbach shapes the lines around "Es fährt alles am einen Ort", so they fly turbulently upwards, as if propelled by wind: for we are dust, returning to dust.  No Biedermeier sentimentality, but quiet dignity.  A strident chord cuts the song off abruptly. You don't mess with Death.  Then a softer, more reflective mood. "Ich wandte mich und sah an alle", reflecting on suffering  and the bitterness of life.  Goerne sings with such compassion that his voice conveys both sympathy and protest. For what is the human condition if the dead are better off than those yet to experience the evils of the world?  "O Tod, o Tod, wie bitter bitter, wie bitter bist du" sings Goerne, as if he were addressing Death man to man, each "wie bitter" beautiful shaped, like a genuine, personal rebuke.  Eschenbach plays the transition firmly, but sensitively, emphasizing the growing resolve in Goerne';s voice. This is a transit.  "O Tod, o Tod " sings Goerne, breathing warmth into the "wie wohl" which follows. "Wie wohl tust du".

Thus the affirmative resolution of the last song and its vigorous mood. The gifts of many tongues, of prophecy and even of faith, are nothing without love.  Then the glorious line "Wir sehen jetzt durch einen Speigel", when Goerne's voice rises, extraordinarily clearly and bright for a baritone happiest in the lower range, as if lit from within with inner strength.  Eschenbach's piano sings along.  "Nun aber bleibet Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe, diese drei: aber ist die Liebe ist die größte unter ihnen"  Not the glories of the world, nor status, but love, to which all can aspire.  Goerne's non-strident, purposeful  expressiveness is, like love, both simple and extremely perceptive. Hugo Wolf, who eked a subsistence from music journalism, detested Brahms. "The true test of a composer", he wrote, "is this : Can he exult? Wagner can exult, Brahms cannot". What a pity Wolf hadn't heard Goerne and Eschenbach, who demonstrate that pietist purity is a form of exultation, and that Brahms can exult very well, without shouting.

These Vier ernste Gesänge will make this recording a must, but so too will the superb performances of Brahms' nine Lieder und Gesänge op 32 (1864) to texts by Karl August Graf von Platen and Georg Freidrich Daumer, poets with whom Brahms had great affinity, Excellent booklet notes, by Roman Hinke, which explain how the Platen and Daumer songs "mark nothing less than the entry into a new, surprisingly cryptic and conflict-ridden world ....what might have led Brahms to turn to Platen's poetic existentialism, to take his dark fantasies of the other side as the starting point of a disturbing sequence of songs".  In  "Wie rafft' ich mich auf", the poet leaps up in the middle of the night, wandering through the silent city. The lines "in die Nacht" repeat, obsessively, The stars look down, accusingly : "how have you spent your life?" they seem to ask.  The following six songs reiterate this question.  Brahms chose his texts well and his settings give further coherence to the set.  A river flows past, swiftly, love ends.  From  trauma to tenderness: the three Daumer songs are gentler, closer to cosy, popular misconceptions of Brahms. Lovely piano melodies, but the last song Wie bist du, meine Königen" reaches an altogether more refined level of sophistication. Goerne sings the refrain "Wonnevoll, wonnervoll" (blissful, blissful) with such grace that it feels like a moment of rapture, pulling the whole group of songs together as an integrated cycle. Again, Goerne and Eschenbach prove that Brahms exults!

Heinrich Heine, with his acidic irony, might not seem natural Brahms territory, but the Lieder nach Gedicten von Heinrich Heine op 85 (1878) are lovely.  Sommerabend and Mondenschein make an exquisite pair.  Not many concert pianists (or conductors) have the ability to accompany song with the sensitive support a singer needs. With Eschenbach, the goal is music, not showmanship, art, not ego.  Goerne can therefore sing with pointed understatement, knowing that he and Eschenbach are on the same page, literally.  The Heine set ends with Meerfahrt,  in which the lovers drift in a little boat, past a ghostly island, from which sweet music resounds. They float past "Trostlos auf weitem Meer". Are they lost, or have they escaped what might be hidden in the mists?  Brahms isn't letting on, but we don't mind as we drift on, to the sound of oars and waves. 

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Semyon Bychkov Tchaikovsky Project Beloved Friend Barbican

Semyon Bychkov's Tchaikovsky Project "Beloved Friend" continues this week at the Barbican Centre, London. It's an ambitious series connected to a series of recordings with the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, with concerts taking place in London with the BBC SO and in New York with the New York Philharmonic, next year. The concerts (at least in London) were augmented with a play by Ronald Harwood on the relationship between Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck, the "beloved friend" in question. Major publicity, too: flyers were distributed at the Royal Albert Hall during the Proms, almost guaranteed to get attention.  So, why are so many tickets still unsold, even for Monday's concert at the Barbican? Tchaikovsky should sell out, particularly with upmarket stars like Bychkov and Kirill Gerstein, and interesting programmes which feature lesser known but important choices like the original 1879 version of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no 2.  Although the London music scene is unusually quiet at the moment there doesn't seem to have been much public reaction.   Even Friday's concert with the Symphony Pathétique and Rachmaninov The Bells hasn't sold out.  It doesn't make much sense, since the first concert, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 was pretty good.

Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony op 58 is a huge beast, nearly an hour long, and full of dynamic extremes. Inspired by Byron's poem Manfred it tells of a hero confronting supernatural demonic forces in a cosmic struggle that takes place in the Alps. In Byron's time, the Alps symbolized danger, the vastness of nature dwarfing humankind. Schumann's Manfred is Romantic in the true, wild Germanic sense. Tchaikovsky, however. was Russian and a man of the theatre, so Bychkov's approach emphasized the expansiveness that gives the piece context.  Bychkov's a great opera conductor, he knows how music can "speak"on its own terms.  He created the panoramic backdrop to the drama vividly: generous, sweeping lines suggesting limitless horizons.   As the tempo quickened, the orchestra soared upward: searching lines contrasting well with the sudden crashing climax with which the first movement ends.  Perhaps this is the moment when Manfred meets his mysterious half sister Astarte. What is the nature of their relationship (bearing in mind Byron's unnatural relationship with his own half sister) ? And, why the mountains?  The second movement, marked vivace con spirito, describes a mountain spirit, one of the elementals who haunt Alpine lore. They are fairies, but also signify danger, their elusiveness defying human control.  Thus the high violin melody that flies above, and away, from the main orchestral foundation.

The third movement describes the mountain folk, who carve out marginal lives in harsh conditions, yet seem happy as they dance, presumably in pure, open air festivals. They're tough folk and down to earth, while Manfred, though a hero, is rather more quixotic. Like Byron himself, maybe, a towering figure but one with dark complexes. Tolling bells suggest danger. The music descends into a stranger mood, sounds crashing against each other as if the earth itself was imploding,"fire" pouring forth from the rapid rivulets of sound.  Manfred fights off the evil spirits who tempt him, but chooses to die on his own terms. What might Tchaikovsky have made of this? The finale was grand, the pace brisk, craggy peaks and descents sharply defined, dizzying figures suggesting turbulence. Not mountain breezes, but perhaps something more demonic.  The organ underlined the cosmological nature of Manfred's predicament.  Bychkov recently conducted a magnificent Strauss Alpine Symphony. Read my review here - Mordwand !   Bychkov's Manfred Symphony, like his Alpine Symphony  were definitely not "tourist trail".  Although the drama dissipates at the end of the symphony, textures are more refined, more esoteric, one feels that perhaps Manfred is entering a new frontier, beyond the ken of mankind. Hence details, like the horn calling the hero on, and the dizzying upwards rush towards a serene conclusion that might suggest spiritual sublimation.

This programme began with Kirill Gerstein and the Piano Concerto no 2, in the much longer original  version, like Manfred,  monumental in its traverse.  Maybe audiences take Tchaikovsky - and Bychkov and the BBC SO - for granted and don't realize how much goes into performance at this level of excellence; things like this don't just "happen".  So get to Monday's concert if you can, which features "Three faces of Tchaikovsky: the graceful, elegant Serenade with its stunning melodies; the single finished movement of the unfinished Third Piano Concerto, the composer’s last work; and the Dante-inspired tone-poem Francesca de Rimini with its portrayal of a forbidden love" to quote the Barbican ad, and Taneyev's Overture to Oresteia.  Perhaps the most intriguing of all three concerts in Bychkov's Beloved Friends Tchaikovsky Project.  

Friday, 21 October 2016

Eunuch Shostakovich The Nose, Royal Opera House

In  DmitriyShostakovich The Nose at the Royal Opera House, London, it wasn't just Kovalov's nose that got cut.  This production was a mutilation, The Nose as Eunuch, the opera stripped of its vital, creative essence.  In Gogol's original story, Kovalov is a "collegiate assessor", a petty bureaucrat who passes judgement, based on surface values. His Nose, however, has other ideas and runs away, taking on a life of its own, more adventurously led than its supposed owner's.   The nose of a person's face defines their outward appearance.  Kovalov's nose shows him up for what he is, or isn't.  And, by extension, the whole social order.  The Nose is not comedy, it's savage satire. Miss that and miss its fundamental, pungent purpose. No excuses. Shostakovich is hardly an unknown composer. Moreover, The Nose,was created at a time of exceptional artistic freedom in the early years of the Revolution, when the Soviet dream represented ideals and progressive change. Futurism, expressionism, modernity, Eisenstein, Bulgakov, Mayakovsky.  Shostakovich was only 20 when the piece was written, still full of courage and hope. But even those who don't know the background have only to pay attention to the music to get it.

Shostakovich's score explodes with inventiveness and zany experiment.  It begins with a fanfare and the roll of drums, like Grand Opera, but opens onto mundane scenes in mundane lives.  David Pountney's translation respects the image of smell. Something's off , rotting perhaps, even though we can't see it.  Despite the exuberant scoring  deliberately more circus than High Art, The Nose parodies the rich tradition of Russian opera. There's relatively little singing, and what there is is shrill and distorted, closer to Sprechstimme than to aria.  Significantly, some of the best music for voice lies in the choruses, who represent the "ordinary" masses, and in the vignettes for subsidiary characters, all of them characterized with great gusto.  The Nose may also be the Royal Opera House's tribute to John Tomlinson, who will never sing again but can still hold an audience spellbound by his incisive acting in multiple roles, a good foil for Martin Winkler's Kovalov, whose  identity remains constant throughout proceedings. Part of this story is about Kovalov's supine personality, in contrast to the vivacious spontaneity of his Nose, who doesn't give a stuff about propriety and the right way to do things.  Winkler's a good singer, which made his performance piquant.  The innate authority in Winkler's voice suggested that there might, somehow, be depth in Kovalov, if only he wasn't so repressed.  The vignettes were also well performed : honours to the ever popular Wolfgang Ablingrer-Sperrhacke, but also to the sturdy regulars of the ROH company, without whom the ROH would not be what is is.  The choruses, needless to say, were superb.

The extremes in Shostakovich's score should also alert any listener to the true nature of the piece.  The famous Percussion interlude pounded violently: it might suggest Kovalov's approaching nightmare, or perhaps the tension the Nose feels as it's about to break way.  Words would be superfluous. This isn't "comfort listening". Ingo Metzmacher's conducting was idiomatic and utterly expressive. The angular, jagged edges in this music are absolutely part of the meaning of this opera, as are the bluesy distortions, especially in the brass, where the lines of convention are eroded. Horns  and trumpets blowing raspberries, just as The Nose treats Kovalov with jaunty irreverence.  Wonderful playing from the Royal Opera House orchestra, who sounded as though they were having a wonderful time, escaping, like The Nose, from standard repertoire.  Shostakovich's instrumentation is deliberately bizarre. Famously, he employed a Flexatone, a kind of whirring saw whose wailing timbre suits the craziness in the plot. He also uses a xylophone, a balalaika, a whistle and castanets, and weaves these in well with the rest of the orchestra. The high woodwinds, for example, chuckle and chatter in frantic staccato, the strings scream. This manic instrumentation reflects the plot, too, in its depiction of the variety and diversity of life beyond Kovalov's narrow horizons.

Wild as the music is, it would be a mistake to assume that undisciplined playing would be in order. Quite the contrary.  Metzmacher pulls the wildness together so the colours stay vivid, and the players operate in relationship to each other. Again, this precision reflects the dance element in the opera, so very much a fundamental to its meaning.  The Nose was created for the Mariinsky and its excellent corps de ballet.  Dancers can't do free for all, or they'd collapse in an unco-ordinated heap. The tightness of Metzmacher's conducting gave them firm support so they could do their artistic thing, knowing they could rely on the pulse in the orchestra. Absolutely fabulous choreography (Otto Pichler) and wonderfully executed dancing from the members of the Royal Ballet.  Who can forget the chorus line of high-kicking Noses. The Nose itself was Ilan Galkoff.  For me, the high point was the ensemble of Eunuchs, a flamboyant drag act.  I loved their physicality: the animal energy in those limbs expressing the freedom the Nose represents!

Wonderful performances all round: the Royal Opera House at its best.  The disappointment, though, was the banality of the staging,directed by Barry Kosky. Presenting Shostakovich, and especially The Nose as feelgood West End Song and Dance Act is a travesty, a total denial of everything the piece stands for.  Kosky is popular because he gives punters what they want, nice things to look at without engaging their minds.  Obviously there's a market for that, but it's a betrayal of The Nose and everything it stands for.  The Nose isn't specifically Russian or Soviet, though those elements are relevant, but its primary focus is on the way society operates through group think , based on shallow surface appearances.  So what do we get ? A Nose dedicated to unquestioning superficiality.  All those wonderful individual performances but built on the dead heart of a clueless concept.  Audiences  assume Regie means costumes, and updating, but what it really means is whether the visuals contribute to the expression of meaning. Kosky's The Nose is bad Regie because it ignores the basic ideas behind the opera, its music and its composer.  We live in times when artistic integrity doesn't count for much and mob populism rules.  So a lot more is at stake than just opera.  All directors have their signatures, just like conductors and singers make an individual stamp.  Kosky's reminds me of Tracey Emin's unmade bed.  Wildly popular, but who needs the whiff of stale emissions and sordid self obsession?  We've all "been there" but most of us grow up and  do other things. But the punters like it, so it must be art.  That is why, for me, Eunuch The Nose was a deal breaker.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

No and Not ! The Nose ! Shostakovich

Shostakovich The Nose at the Royal Opera House tonight, conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, who is the reason why I want to go.  Please read my review HERE.  Metzmacher once did a series called "Who's afraid of modern music?" confronting the notion that modern music is somehow "difficult".  No ! and not The Nose ! A man wakes up to find his nose has disappeared. He's the kind of guy for whom appearance means status, but the nose has different ideas.  It takes on its own life, running around town as a civic official. But even that’s not clear – sometimes it’s a body in a stretchy white shroud, sometimes it’s a piece of droopy rubber, and sometimes it’s not visible at all, and only spoken about.The Nose is funny, but it's also farce. The libretto's based on Gogol.  Laughs, yes, but no smiles. Sharp teeth and eyes constantly alert for danger.  Metzmacher will give the music bite.

Valery Gergiev brought The Nose to London with the Mariinsky Theatre more than ten years ago, in a season of Shostakovich operas and ballets.  Those were early days when the Mariinsky was still refered to by its old Soviet name the Kirov, and not funded and supported as well as it is now.   The Mariinsky also did The Golden Years,which was heard no less than four times in different forms that same year. José Serebrier's recording was electrifying, the Mariinsky's live performance marred by poor staging.  At that same time London also saw productions of The Bright Stream and The Bolt, another of my favourites.  With at least three major productions of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in recent years, and the bizarre, unfinished Orango, which Salonen brought to maniac life  (read more HERE),  we haven't done badly. Besides, there's been so much 20th century Russian music and theatre in London  (The Gambler, A Dog's Heart, etc) that The Nose at the Royal Opera House should be a cinch.  I'm definitely not an admirer of Barrie Kosky, but hope that this new Nose will be up to scratch.

And back to memories of the Mariinsky Nose, the best of the crop that golden year 2006.  The Mariinsky Nose didn't rub away the very important political aspects of the piece, so even though the punch of the Russian text was lost on English speakers, the imagery was clear.  It cocked a snoot at bureaucracy and conformity.  When Kovalov tried to put an advertisement in the newspaper “lost and found” it’s refused on circuitous grounds.  Vignettes flew at a hectic pace: the bagel seller who gets raped, the twins, the old dowager announcing her own death to a bunch of twitching, neurotic spinsters : a panorama of crazy life . Nothing’s explained: logic means little in this fertile procession of observations. At the end a Prince on a stuffed camel proclaimed everything’s sorted, but by then we were in the heart of mayhem, complete with banners of newsprint proclaiming HOC and COH, which were wordplays on the Cyrillic for “nose”.

Like the Royal Opera House, the Mariinsky is also a ballet house.   Thus the Mariinsky Nose blew the dance sub themes up well. For example, numerous cab drivers whirl about in frantic circles, each with a fascinating passenger within, yet the maelstrom is executed with such precision that it suggested the clockwork order of a society controlled by expectations. When the cab drivers lifted people above their shoulders – the dancers at the fringe of the group didn't touch, but moved in tune with other bodies as if they were all one single organism. The nose was played by a superbly athletic dancer who could do backflips and twist round the singer who sang Kovalov. Effectively, a pas de deux, but the dancer obviously the master.  The point, exactly !

It was striking, too, how much the Mariinsky Nose owed to the Russian circus tradition. Of course there were clowns, but the real influence is deeper. Circus works because there’s so much happening, so fast, that the illusion is even more spectacular than what’s actually happening. Hence the highly coloured costumes, and the almost acrobatic physicality of the performers’ movements on stage. Even the massive metal tunnel (vaguely resembling a nose) created a vast new dimension to the set, further blurring the boundaries of linear perspective. At one point an angel vocalised wordlessly from the rafters, while a sinister dark angel flitted out from behind her. Circus extends the limits of what the human body can do – just as the errant nose amply demonstrates. Circus and opera both have the same goal: the creation of illusion.

Watch this space.  Friday I'll write up the new Shostakovich Nose. 

Monday, 17 October 2016

Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 2 Hansjörg Albrecht

Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs, Vol. 2, with Hansjörg Albrecht, this time conducting the Konzerthausorchester  Berlin, with soloists Camilla Nylund, Genia Kühmeier and Ricarda Merbeth, an excellent companion to the outstanding Braunfels Orchestral Songs vol 1  (reviewed here). Honours yet again to Oehms Classics who understand the importance of excellence. A composer as good, and as individual, as Walter Braunfels deserves nothing less.

Braunfels' Drei chinesiche Gesänge op 19 (1914) sets texts by Hans Bethge whose loose translations of Chinese poetry, Die chinesische Flöte (1907) had a huge influence, building on the mid-European fascination with the East, which dates back at least to Goethe.  The East represented an alien aesthetic, something possibly purer and more mysterious. Hence the appeal to Jugendstil tastes and the new century's quest for new ideas and forms of expression.  Braunfels's  songs are not specifically"oriental", but evoke an attractive ambiguity, as if the forms of 19th century tonality were being gradually evoked from within. Ein Jungling denkt an die Geliebte, in particular, seems to float in timeless space, evoking the moonlit night beside a pool where "ein feiner Windhauch küsst den blanken Speigel des Teiches" : a mood which Braunfels captures with great poise. The image will be familiar to anyone who knows Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde - the last line even refers to "der dunkeln Erde" - but Braunfels's treatment is very individual.  The high tessitura of Camilla Nylund's voice complements the long, searching lines for the strings. Extremely refined.  In Die Geliebte des Kreigers, dying diminuendos suggest the despair of the maiden as she thinks of her soldier, far away. The horns evoke the sound of a (European) battle and the rhythms the sound of galloping horses.  Somewhat reminiscent of Mahler, though the rest of the song is more turbulent, culminating in several climaxes, the final "dem mein Herz gehört!" a shout of anguish.

Braunfels' Romantisches Gesänge op 58 were completed by 1942, but some date back to 1918.  The first, Abendständchen, to a text by Clemens Brentano bears resemblance to the Bethge songs, but Der Kranke, to a text by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, is altogether more individual.  In Ist der lebens Band mit scherz gelöset (Brentano) the searching woodwinds and sliding vocal ellipses are echt Braunfels.  Der Pilot (Eichendorff), with its rousing trumpet calls and choppy rhythms, is heroic, the second strophe swelling magnificently. "Liebe schwellet sanft die Segel" - the wind in the sails, propelling the boat forward.  Nylund emphasizes the word "Morgen!", which Braunfels marks with a short pause.

With Die Gott minnende Seele op 53 (1935-6), we are firmly in Braunfels's characteristic territory, medievalism employed as disguise for dangerous modern thoughts, beating the Nazis at their own game. The poems are by Mechthilde von Magdeburg, a 13th century mystic. As so often in Braunfels, background matters.  Mechthilde's writings, collected together as Das fließende Licht der Gottheit, were controversial because she criticized the Church hierarchy practices that didn't tally with the purity of faith.  Had she lived 300 years later, she might have been a protestant, in every sense of the word.  For  Braunfels, living under the Third Reich, Mechthilde would have had more than mystical appeal.  She could have been a prototype for Jeanne d’Arc – Szenen aus dem Leben der Heiligen Johanna op. 57. Please read my piece on Braunfels Jeanne d' Arc HERE 

The magnificent introduction to Die Gott minnende Seele, with its haunting horn melody, prepares us for the dark richness of the vocal line to come. It feels like slipping through a time tunnel, for the text isn't poetry so much as prayer.  In the first song, the same phrase repeats with pointed variation "O du giessender Gott in deiner Gabe, O du fliessendern Gott in deiner Minne!", the pattern recreated in the orchestration.  Utter simplicity, yet great depth and sincerity.  Gradually the pace quickens: sudden flashes in strings suggesting rapture, then a quiet humble ending "ohne dich mag ich nicht sein".  An even lovelier melody sets the tone for the second song, where Genia Kühmeier sings the sprightly lines so they suggest excited palpitation.  The song ends with the melody, this time on low winds and brass.  There's something vernal and innocent in the "medievalism" in this cycle, where voice and orchestra interact, as if Mechthilde is singing to invisible voices: not a bad thing in a hostile world, and very Joan of Arc. When  Kühmeier sings "Herre, Herre, wo soll ich hinlegen?" her voice flutters and the flute answers. A duet between birds, another Braunfels signature.  This delicate fluttering is even more prominent in the last song Eia, fröliche Anshauung which begins with quasi-medieval pipes and develops into a merry dance. Mecthilde may be isolated, but she's happy.  This wonderful, tightly constructed song cycle is a miniature masterpiece.

From a nun to an Egyptian queen: Braunfels's Der Tod der Kleopatra op 59 (1944).  The harp suggests a lyre, and there are suggestions of bells but Braunfels know what's more important to Cleopatra: the man without whom she'd rather be dead. Braunfels marks this moment with an orchestral interlude, suggesting that Kleopatra is thinking about what really matters in life, not the trappings of wealth.  This song runs nearly 10 minutes but proceeds in carefully marked stages, the point at which Kleopatra takes hold of the snake also highlighted by the orchestra.
Back to Bethge with Braunfels' Vier Japanische Gesänge op. 62 (1944–45) based on Bethge's Von der Liebe süß’ und bittrer Frucht  In these songs, Braunfels doesn't even bother with fake japonisme, but treats each song on its own merits. Whatever the culture, human emotions remain the same.  All four songs are dramatic art pieces, the third, Trennung und Klage, particularly interesting, with the lovely dialogue between instruments in the orchestra, the strings suggesting night breezes "the Dämmerung den Mond". The singer here is Ricarda Merbeth.  It's worth noting that Bethge, despite his interest in exotic cultures died only in 1946 and was a contemporary of Braunfels.

On this second recording of Braunfels's Orchestral Songs, Hansjörg Albrecht conducts the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, which doesn't have an ancient pedigree like the Staatskappelle Weimar on the first recording, but does have Braunfels connections. The orchestra, set up by the DDR to counterbalance the Berliner Philharmoniker, was conducted for many years by Kurt Sanderling, like Braunfels no friend of the Nazis, and by Lothar Zagrosek whose recording of Braunfels Die Vögel is outstanding. Quite frankly, unless you know Zagrosek you don't know BraunfelsDDR musical traditions weren't as dominated by commercial pressure as in the west,  so they represent much deeper traditions.

In recent years there seems to have been an attempt to pigeonhole Braunfels as a "romantic" . When  his Berlioz Variations were done at the Proms. the most interesting variations were cut so the piece came over like Hollywood pap. That might please some audiences but it's unfaithful to what Braunfels really stands for.  In any case what passes for"romantic" bears no resemblance to Romanticism as the cultural revolution which reshaped European history and aesthetics.  Although Sensucht was a typical Romantic meme, Romanticism as a movement was progressive, radical and very political. Although the notes for this recording are more focused than in the previous volume, they are too concerned with fitting Braunfels into a category, which is not the author's fault since she clearly knows Braunfels and his music, but may be marketing imperative.  But what is so wrong with evaluating a composer on his own grounds, without having to force him into the straitjacket of categories? Why not listen to his music, as music, without preconditions?  Braunfels is a good composer because he was himself, whatever the Reich around him might have wanted.  The Nazis liked "romantic", backward-looking music, so re-branding Braunfels would be ironic. All the more we can thank Oehms Classics and Hansjörg Albrecht for bringing us Braunfels as Braunfels, revealing his true originality.

Please also see my other pieces on Braunfels and on music and culture of this period.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Superb Samson et Dalila Saint-Saëns Rachvelishvili Antonenko, Paris

Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns Samson et Dalila op 47 (1877) with Anita Rachvelishvili and  Aleksandrs Antonenko,conducted by Philippe Jordan at the Opéra Nationale de Paris, in a new production by Damiano Michieletto: beautiful and very moving, but best of all, doing justice to the score by enriching the personalities of Samson and Delilah themselves. Saint-Saëns pared down the narrative,  safe in the knowledge that, since audiences would be sufficiently familiar with the biblical original, he could concentrate on the innate emotional drama within. Yes, there are exotic touches, like the pseudo-Levantine tambourine dance, but even that is a clue, since Dalila's performing for show. Her true feelings are hidden.  Instead,  Saint-Saëns wrote music which was in many ways ahead of his era, to the extent that Parisian audiences couldn't really appreciate its merits at first.  Although orientalism had been a part of the French aesthetic since Napoleon, the opera wasn't an immediate hit.  Despite his disavowal of Wagner, Saint-Saëns could hardly escape some influence.  In Samson et Dalila, we can detect Tristan und Isolde in the surging heroic motifs and grand doomed passions  The choruses are particularly rousing.

The Overture begins with a faint suggestion of Hebrew horns, but soon  expands into more abstract sonorities, contrasted with an elusive high string melody. Samson (Aleksandrs Antonenko) sits alone. The chorus, still hidden, intone an ancient chant. On Samson hangs the survival of his nation: he's strong, but is he strong enough? As he looks at his hands, the grille behind him lifts and we see the Hebrews, calling for help.  "Arretez, O mes freres!" Antonenko sings forcefully, but he knows that salvation comes from God not man. The Governor of the Philistines, Abimélech (Nicolas Testé) declares the superiority of his own god. Samson strikes him dead and the High Priest (Egils Silins) orders a massacre. Bodies lie crumpled on the ground, yet the chorus continues singing solemn prayers. Samson, for all his strength, is gentle. With simple white linen, he covers the faces of the dying to protect their modesty and dignity. 

Meanwhile, Dalila (Anita Rachvelishvili) watches, unobserved from inside the Temple. This isn't in the stage directions, but is utterly true to the portayal of her character. She's moved by Samson's kindness.  Rachvelishvili sings lusciously, because it's her job to seduce. Nothing personal.  Even in the palace, surrounded by her handmaidens, she's an object to be pawed and fawned on, guarded by armed men, but  necessarily loved. She's a prisoner of her own situation, which is perhaps why she's touched by Samson's kindness to the dead.  An extremely sympathetic, finely nuanced characterization, for the music suggests  that she's a very complex personality.  Of course she's dangerous, as the Old Hebrew (Nicolas Cavillier) warns.  But she's no automaton. The richness in  Rachvelishvili's singing suggests opulence, yet tinged with half hidden sadness.  Magnificent leaps up the scale to demonstrate power, but  the voice resonates profoundly at the lowest point of her register, Dalila sings of Spring, but the orchestra reminds us of the fundamental chill around her.  In her retreat, Sorek, Dalila is surrounded with luxury, but the High Priest is clearly boss. Silin's body language suggests he's a manipulative abuser rather than a holy man. He paws her, too. Rachvelishvili sings along, but again the tense flurries in the orchestra suggest fear, the tightly controlled vibrato in her voice implying suppressed fear.  Whirring, menacing diminuendos in the orchestra evoke her mental state as she awaits her mission.

Blue shadows cover the golden hues in the bedroom : the "colours" of the Hebrew Chorus invading the Philistine sanctuary, as Samson enters.  There is a frisson, not only in the orchestra but in the way Antonenko and Rachvelishvili interact with each other.  Exceptionally detailed acting is important, because it amplifies meaning, and enhances what is being sung.  Good acting isn't exaggerated semaphore. One of the great benefits of modern opera staging and film is the way singers can extend the impact of their singing through fine detail. Tiny movements in the face and hands flow naturally from the emotion put into singing, placing much less pressure on singers than crude park and bark. In the love scene - for that is what it is - between Samson and Dalila, the music swoons tenderly, the diminuendos now evoke the fluttering of heartbeats. Intimacy not display. Nonetheless, Dalila has to do her duty. As the timpani crash, we hear the "cut" coming. When Rachvelishvili sings that last "Adieu" it's a scream of pain, not triumph.

In prison, Antonenko sings Samson's agony, his guilt increased by the sounds of the Hebrew chorus.  Dalila materializes, as if in a dream.  Bachvelishvili doesn't sing, but she moves to the swirling figures in the music, clearly as tortured with guilt as Samson is: a  daring touch on the part of director Michieletto, but extremely perceptive because it shines light on Dalila's personality, and colours the Bacchanale to follow. Now, the Philistines are celebrating; the orchestra breaks into heady rhythms. There are exotic "arabic" flavours but the palette here is much more sophisticated.  Langorous lines suggest drunken dancing - the lines suggest langorous, drunken waltz, cut by violent energetic angles. Plenty of colour, especially gold.  The High Priest throws money to the cheering crowd.  Bachvelishvili wears the golden wig the High Priest gives her, but stands aside, her face acting out what Dalila might be thinking: not pride but disgust.  Samson is beaten up by the mob.  The music gets wilder, then, in a flash, Rachvelishvili pushes through the mob to Antonenko, her face livid. The music changes, the beating stops.   Bachvelishvili dances but her body language suggests that her heart's not in it. Although there's a lot of wine being poured about, at the end  ravaged and guilt ridden, Rachvelishvili pours another fluid: petroleum.  Antonenko calls for God, and Pow! the stage goes up in flames, or rather lurid, sulphuric, blinding light.  A dazzling stroke of theatre!  No need to see columns crashing down.  The invisible God of the Hebrews has spoken.  In any case the music concludes so fiercely that there wouldn't be time.  Brilliant stagecraft from Michieletto, absolutely true to the spirit of  the music and to the meaning of the opera. 

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Boris Blacher, Manchuria and Flüchtlinge

Boris Blacher (1903-75), the highly influential composer, and father of Kolja Blacher the violinist, was born in Newchwang, now part of the city of Yingkou on the Gulf of Bohai, in Liaoning Province in China. He lived there until he was sixteen, remaining in Manchuria for three more years before going to Germany in 1922.  The photo at left is Blacher's passport photo taken when he left China.  Being a modernist, "degenerate" in  Nazi eyes, he couldn't teach, but continued to write. His opera Romeo und Julia dates from 1943.  After the war his career flourished. He knew Berthold Goldschmidt, his almost exact contemporary, and taught Aribert Reimann, Isang Yun, Kalevi Aho and many others. Blacher was one of the millions of Germans who lived outside Germany, some communities being established for hundreds of years throughout Eastern Europe. After 1918, and more severely after 1945, when borders were re-drawn, these communities were effectively stateless. Many were ethnic cleansed, millions became refugees. Not all that different from the upheavals that happened in the century of war that ripped China apart after the Opium Wars, when China was invaded by western military force, and Unequal Treaties were imposed which granted foreign powers exemption from Chinese law and granted exclusive rights over trade, a situation which ultimately led to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese occupation, civil war and communism.  Hundreds of millions were dislocated over a long period. In the 1931-45 war alone tens of millions trekked from the coast to the Himalayas.  A century of chaos all over the world. 

Newchwang was a Treaty Port created in 1858. In Blacher's time, Newchwang was a godforsaken little town on a river that froze up all winter. Sometimes the sea froze too. In summer, it's extremely hot, not at all an easy climate.  Bear this in mind when considering the film Flüchtlinge  (Refugees) made in 1933, based on a novel by Gerhard Menzel (1894-1965). Menzel was a Nazi so the nationalism in the film is tainted, even though the film itself isn't much more jingoistic than a lot that was happening at this early stage in the Reich.  The star, Hans Albers, the biggest star of his time, was not a party follower and in any case had a Jewish partner, who had to flee to Switzerland, though they reunited after the war.  The director was  Gustav Ucicky (1899-1961) the half-Czech illegitimate son of Gustav Klimt.

In any case. the situation the movie depicts was so extreme that it would have merited similarly nationalistic sentiment had it happened elsewhere.  The photo at right shows Newchwang a year after Blacher's birth.  Click to enlarge - it's very detailed. "Abandoned Newchwang", conquered by crack Russian troops, fighting Manchu bannerman. No contest.  The Russians had already seized northern Manchuria,  and had built a railway line through the province, to extract its mineral wealth.  Soon after, Russia and Japan went to war, and the devastation spread, culminating in huge naval battles and the siege of Port Arthur, itself the site of a massacre ten years before when the Japanese wiped out the Chinese population. Thus, the background to the Japanese invasion of China 25 years later and the War in the Pacific.  Matters were compounded with the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, when millions of "White" (ie not Red) Russians fled across Siberia to Manchuria, from part of which the Japanese had evicted the Russians.

The film Flüchtlinge  begins in August 1928. Everyone's fleeing the return of the Russians - Chinese, Russians, Jews and Volga Deutsch, the German population on the Volga that the Reds wanted rid of. Some of the cast are East Asian of some sort : one of them speaks proper Mandarin and rattles off his German text as if he's memorized it off paper.  Yingkou (Newchwang) is mentioned specifically, but most are trying to get to Harbin, further north, where the Russian-built railway can take them away.  That was the city from which young Blacher left for Germany six years before, when this branch of the railway was run by Whites, Japanese and Chinese.

The refugees are caught in machine-gun fire, and some of the men are dragged away screaming by Bolshevik soldiers. They're also dying of thirst, so break the pipes on the trains to get the water that runs the steam engines. Without water, though, the trains won't run.  Hans Albers plays Arneth, who at first appears as a sadistic Englishman, but turns out to be a German, who felt betrayed by the 1918 revolution in Germany and by what happened after.  As many did. Whence Hitler.  Will Arneth betray the refugees or help them ? He chooses the latter.  Eventually the train gets going, though the tracks are twisted and a grain silo gets holed by grenades.  It would be easy to dismiss Flüchtlinge as propaganda, but such events did take place and to real people all over the world in some form or other.  Please also see my piece Art Song that became an Icon : On the Songhua River, which some might sneer at because it's communist, while  Flüchtlinge is early Nazi.  Incidentally, they're  both about the same part of Manchuria.  What matters isn't nationality but human beings, whether they are on "our side" or not. Did Blacher see these movies ? Chances are he would have known about Flüchtlinge through the China-returned German community. On the Songhua River was heavily promoted in East Berlin. and the DDR. Chances are he did. Did he realize he was seeing them through different perspectives ? 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Sex and Nuns : Hindemith Sancta Susanna

Paul Hindemith's opera Sancta Susanna still has the power to scandalize. Nearly 100 years after it was written, (January/February 1921) it's still a shocker in many ways. It's a psycho-drama, where the emotions of the protagonists are thrown into extreme focus, the music emphasizing psychic trauma.  Sancta Susanna bends musical form, pushing the borders of tonality, just as the narrative pushes the boundaries of convention. Sister Susanna is praying in a convent chapel, as nuns are supposed to do. But it's May, it's warm, and the open windows let in the perfume of lilac blossom.  Then, strange other sounds. "It's the organ" says Sister Klementia, and we do hear an organ  exhaling. But why is an organ being played at midnight ?

Hindemith's music is ambiguous. Though tonal, it's fundamentally untamed, like the breathing of a wild animal  that might turn savage if roused.  Which is very much what the opera is dealing with : the explosion of sub-conscious instinct in circumstances of repressive order. The Zeitgeist of the early 20th century, to which early psychology gave vocabulary, but which has, of course, existed since the beginning of mankind.  And thus we hear a melody on solo flute, as lovely and as lyrical as something the Greeks would have played in a mythical Arcadia.  Is it the voice of the Nightingale, another age-old symbol ?  Against this loveliness, angular blocks of sound and increasing dissonance.   John Fulljames's production, with designs by Johan Engels,  lets the music speak. The stage is dark - as in a chapel at midnight - crucial details spotlighted as if by moonlight. We see the crucifix towering above, shining white, as if it were porcelain, hard and impermeable, yet easily broken.  Below, the altar, a simple grey plinth that could be a tombstone as much as a table for offerings.  Or a bed.

For the sounds Susanna hears come from a young couple copulating outside a window.  Fulljames depicts this by using acrobats who hang, suspended from the ceiling, their bodies naked, yet held in by black straps.  Not bondage gear, but a reminder that society holds sexuality in check  through moral bonds and ropes. The acrobats move like dancers, writhing in frenzy.  I thought about Renaissance sculpture, where voluptuous bodies contort, yet are held frozen in stone.  Like statues of Jesus, whose agonies are not sexual, but stylized in art.  And nuns, who contemplate religious intensity but are restrained by vows of chastity. Sister  Susanna doesn't know what sex is, but she knows it has an effect on her.  What happens when a nun's love turns to physical lust ?  Naked bodies, blood and upturned eyes, the sensuality of flowers and incense, the singing of angels real or unreal : It's hardly surprising that some can get carried away. Sister Beate was entombed for her sin. That doesn't stop Sister Susana , who rips off her white garment, revealing a body built for the enjoyment of pleasure. She's covered in arcane writings and drawings, as if some ancient curse was embedded onto her skin.  Other nuns appear, in black shrouds like niqab.  they hold their hands up in horror, like denizens of a Greek tragedy. But they, too, have arcane inscriptions on their hands and faces.  Sister Susanna mounts the altar. She doesn't rip the loincloth off the image of Jesus, as the original stage instructions suggested.  Nor do we need to see a spider crawling over her - the ensemble of nuns move like a monstrous spider. It's enough that she lies with he legs apart as the statue on the crucifix miraculously, blasphemously, moves down towards her. 

Bernhard Kontarsky conducted the Orchestra de l'Opéra de Lyon. The soloists were Agnes Selma Weiland - Susanna,  and Magdalena Anna Hofmann - Klementia.  Hindemith's vocal lines are impressionistic, phrases cut off hardly completed, ominous rumbles and flights up the register which  are nothing now but were something in 1921/2.   Superlatively detailed acting helps a lot. Fulljames inspires the singers so their body language expresses what their words can barely articulate. Wonderful close ups, tiny gestures, for this is very much "inner drama".

Sancta Susanna  was one of a triptych of operas Hindemith write based on the plays of August Stamm (1878-1915)  the other two being Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen op. 12 (1921), and Das Nusch-Nuschi op. 20 (1921) . The common thread: a fascination with morbid psychopathology, ofetn with exotic, erotic connotations. Absolutely the Spirit of the Age,  manifesting in the paintings of the Munich Secession, in literature, film and music. Santa Susanna's cousins are Salome, Elektra, Ewartung, the operas of Franz Schreker and Rudi Stephan's bizarre Die ersten Menchen, which like Sancta Susanna premiered in Frankfort, but a year earlier.  Cinema can depict things that can't be done on stage. Thus the masterpiece movies of the early 1920's like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,   Der Vampyr and a host of other films some of which I've written about here (see the labels Weimar and movies silent)