Tuesday, October 25, 2016
Walter Braunfels Orchestral Soings, Vol. 2 with Hansjörg Albrecht, this time conducting the Konzerthausorchesdter Berlin, with soloists Camilla Nylund, Genia Kühmeier and Ricarda Merbeth, an excellent companion to the outsanding 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' characteristic territory, medievalism employed as disguise for dangerous modern thoughts, beating the Nazis at their own game. The poems are by Mechthilde von Madgeburg, 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 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 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' 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 Braunfels. DDR 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.
Anna Prohaska (soprano), Il Giardino Armonico/Antonini (Alpha Classics)Another stunner from soprano Anna Prohaska. Following her wonderful disc of war-related music, she now turns her attention to two tragic heroines, Dido and Cleopatra. Both have inspired great music across the centuries, but Prohaska resists the attention to go as far as Berlioz, and frames this baroque collection with the start and finish of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. There are well-known Cleopatra arias – a devastating, piercing Se pietà di me non senti from Handel’s Giulio Cesare – and very little-known ones by Castrovillari, Sartorio, Cavalli and Graupner (a bizarre bilingual scene). It’s all beautifully planned and paced, with riveting instrumental interludes from Il Giardino Armonico, including Matthew Locke’s astonishingly modern Curtain Tune. Continue reading...
Katherine Broderick (soprano), James Baillieu (piano), Heath Quartet, Adam Walker (flute), Tim Lowe (cello) (Champs Hill)Capable of big Wagnerian roles (she has sung Brünnhilde) as well as Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky, Katherine Broderick here turns her attention to intimate French songs with string quartet, flute or cello as well as piano. Her powers of expression, so vivid and telling on stage, communicate well in this rewarding recital disc of Gaubert, Berlioz, Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Chausson and Caplet. Ravel’s Chansons madécasses – songs of Madagascan life, with flute, cello and piano, burst with exotic drama, and contrast beautifully with the strange inventions of his animal poem settings, Histoires naturelles. Broderick turns every song into a miniature drama, delivered with elegance of line, sensuality and sharp wit, well supported by her excellent colleagues. Continue reading...
We have received sad news of the death of Anne Pashley, who sang soprano roles at Glundebourne, Covent Garden and across Europe. Anne died of cancer in a south of England nursing home, aged 80. Before she took up singing, she won a silver medal in the 4 x 100 relay in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Among many roles, she sang a beautiful second niece in the epic Colin Davis recording of Peter Grimes and was soloist in one of his seminal Berlioz sets. Anne was married to the tenor Jack Irons, who died in 2005. She is survived by a son and a daughter.
Our series arrives in the eternal city – but which Rome is it? City of vanished power? Chic energy? Indomitable beauty? Or as Berlioz put it – ‘the most stupid and prosaic city I know’ One of the contributors I have relied upon most during this series is @abkquan, and I am a little disturbed by his reaction to my choice of Rome as our next musical city. “Tosca, set there, has three real Roman locations for its three acts – Sant’ Andrea della Valle, Palazzo Farnese, Castel Sant’ Angelo,” he begins promisingly. “Respighi’s trilogy Pines of Rome, Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals also feature distinctive Roman landmarks, including Villa Borghese, the Trevi and Triton fountains, and the Piazza Navona.” So far, so good. “Unfortunately, Tosca has been described as a ‘shabby little shocker’, and the Respighi trilogy dismissed as ‘picture postcard’ music. The reader will decide for themselves whether the eternal city deserves greater musical representations. Arguably, Rome is more successfully represented in films. Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Roma both have music by Nino Rota.” Continue reading...
Florent Schmitt's Antony and Cleopatra (Suites no 1 and 2, Op 69, 1920) with Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with movements re-ordered and interspersed with excerpts from Shakespeare, adapted by Bill Barclay of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, at the Barbican Hall, London. Lurid colours lit the stage, saturated washes of red and gold. Aquamarine lights shone on the platform floor, spotlights glowed on the sheets the musicians were playing from. The music was equally lurid, beginning with a wildly exuberant fanfare Not a military display so much as statecraft as theatre. Perhaps Cleopatra, like many rulers since, knew you can dazzle others even if you don't have much in the way of firepower. So spoke Enobarbus, describing Cleopatra to his fellow Romans : "The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne, Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold " No wonder Ida Rubinstein - another extravagant diva - wanted to portray her and asked André Gide to create a spectacular showcase. Stravinsky was asked to provide the incidental music since he, Diaghilev and Rubinstein has worked together since the early days of the Ballets Russe, For various reasons he demurred. Florent Schmitt's Antony and Cleopatra quotes so explicitly from The Rite of Spring that one wonders what Stravinsky might have thought, particularly as the angular "primitivism" of the Rite is overlaid with elaborate decorative ornamentation. Barely seven years before, the Rite of Spring had scandalized Paris, causing a near riot. In Schmitt's Antony and Cleopatra, the fierce chords depict the Battle of Actium so graphically that you can almost visualize ships battling on the open ocean. Swashbuckling stuff! Consider Erich Korngold's infinitely more original Die tote Stadt which also premiered in 1920, with great success, pretty much inventing a new musical genre. In the 1920's movies were silent, but spectacular. Consider Jacques Feyder's L'Atlantide (1921) where the Queen of Atlantis lives in North Africa. But what we now call film music had its roots in popular music for the stage. Orientalism in France has a long pedigree, dating back to Napoleon's campaigns in Egypt , bearing fruit in an enduring fascination with different exotic locales, which manifested itself in painting, literature and music. Berlioz La mort de Cléopatre, and Les Troyens, Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, Délibes Lakmé. Massenet Le roi de Lahore, and the songs of Maurce Delage and Jaubert. Ida Rubinstein's Cleopatra was part of a huge surge of public interest in things Egyptian which influenced fashion, decorative arts and popular culture, which still prevails today. The French Shakespeare tradition goes back to Charles Kemble, and carried no cultural baggage. Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette, for example, is very much an original work, not a setting of the play Thus Rubinstein's Cleopatra, via Gide, is part of a much wider cultural theme. This Antony and Cleopatra was part of a year-long celebration of Shakespeare all over Britain. Hence the high-profile production, with the BBC SO, the flagship of the BBC stable of orchestras. Schmitt probably doesn't get luxury performances like this too often. Sakari Oramo conducted with panache, he and his orchestra clearly enjoying the big brass effects and theatricality. At one point, the actors "spoke" to Oramo, who is noted for his good-natured geniality. He beamed and acknowledged them without missing a beat. "Purple the sails, and so perfumèd that The winds were lovesick with them. The oars were silver, Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made The water which they beat to follow faster, As amorous of their strokes" The actors were Janie Dee (Cleopatra), Simon Paisley Day (Antony), Brendan O'Hea , Cassie Layton and Tom Kanji. The Director was Iqbal Khan. Shakepeare's Globe isn't Stratford but earthier. there's not much you can do about staging at the Barbican, but then Shakespeare's own productions seem to have been closer to Greek ideas than to Hollywood. The concert was recorded for broadcast at a later date, but I'm glad I saw it live.
Great composers of classical music