Saturday, September 23, 2017
In one Herculean, heroic programme, Stravinsky's Firebird, Petroushka and The Rite of Spring, with Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Hall, London. Rattle believes in what he does and he does it extremely well. Rattle offers a vision of what the arts might be in Britain if policies predicated not in dumbing down but smarting up. This is how classical music should be presented, with verve, imagination and flair. And excellence, without which "education" in itself means nothing. Something of Gergiev's tortured genius rubbed off on the LSO, even if his visits were brief and unpredictable. Rattle's been conducting Stravinsky since his youth - many in the audience grew uo with his recordings with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. He's also conducted a lot of Stravinsky with the Berliner Philharmoniker. This saga of a programme was a test of stamina. Rattle and the LSO must have been exhausted by the end. In two and a half hours we traversed the revolution that changed modern music, ballet and modern art forever. This performance was more than a concert. It re-created the exhilaration that Stravinsky and his contemporaries might have felt in those brief years when the Ballets Russe ventured fearlessly into the new and thrilling. The sense of occasion seemed to inspire the LSO, who were playing with greater pizzazz and animation than they've done in a long time. A superb Firebird, in its true colours from 1910. The Suite is all very well but this full version allows the legend to unfold properly, displaying its true glories. All music for dance respects the human body, turning physical limitations into art. In The Firebird, dance literally takes flight, for the Firebird is an immortal with magical powers, who defies the bounds of nature. As orchestral music The Firebird is liberated, the music flying free. A wonderful sense of portent in this performance, low winds moaning, harps and strings sparkling. The finesse of LSO musicianship : every detail defined with crystalline clarity. A virtual jewelbox come alive, colours shining like gems viewed through light. Yet Rattle's instinct for drama enhanced the underlying sadness in the piece: the Prince, like Kaschchey the Immortal, cannot remain unchanged. Thus the seductive oboes and cors anglais and the mournful bassoons. In The Firebird, Stravinsky was also paying tribute to Rimsky-Korakov's Kaschchey The Immortal and even to The Legend of The Invisible City of Kitezh. so the piece is haunted. Please read my piece Lost No More on the connections between Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. Stravinsky's Petrushka tells a story couched in folklore terms, but it's also an allegory of ritual magic. The puppets aren't masters of their fate. They act out a timeless show of love and loss. Thus the stylized sequences, ideally suited for choreography : decidedly non-symphonic. Yet Petrushka also works in oddly concerto-like form, the Petrushka theme on different instruments interacting with the orchestral whole. Petrushka outfoxes the Magician and rises from the dead. Rattle shaped the piece carefully, showing how the "fragmented" structure works as a kind of ritual procession. From Stravinsky to Messaien, more connections than one might expect. Vivid "Russian" images evoked by the colours in the orchestra. And, at last The Rite of Spring. The journey from Kaschchey to the Twentieth Century is reached, through an invocation of primeval earth magic. The future glimpsed through prehistory. Rattle shaped the huge angular blocks of sound so they felt like shifting tectonic plates, the cymbals crashing like lava exploding from the core of the Earth. Yet even more impressive the elusive "vernal" theme that rises, organically, like a miracle from the chaos. Listen again on BBC Radio 3. Please see my pieces on the other major concerts in the LSO's This is Rattle series at the Barbican : National Treasures : British Composers Elgar, Birtwistle, Ades, Knussen and Grimes Blazing Berlioz : the Damnation of Faust
This is the LSO’s principal oboe Olivier Stankiewicz making no drama out of a crisis in Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust. SERIOUSLY cool-headed reaction from Principal Oboe Olivier Stankiewicz last night. #thisisrattle #thisisteamwork pic.twitter.com/bGAho2eDmX — London Symphony Orch (@londonsymphony) September 18, 2017
Blazing Berlioz The Damnation of Faust at the Barbican with Sir Simon Rattle, Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, Gabor Bretz, The London Symphony Orchestra, The London Symphony Chorus directed by Simon Halsey, Rattle's chorus master of choice for nearly 35 years. Towards the end, the Tiffin Boys' Choir, the Tiffin Girl's' Choir and Tiffin Children's Choir (choirmaster James Day) filed into the darkened auditorium to sing The Apotheosis of Marguerite, their voices pure and angelic, their faces shining. An astonishingly theatrical touch, but absolutely right. If Simon Rattle can achieve such excellence in the cramped confines of the Barbican Hall, imagine how Britain's cultural life would be transformed if a world class concert hall with state of the art facilities were built. The arts are central to the nation's economy and prestige. Britain cannot afford to slip.As Rattle has said, the London Symphony Orchestra have the potential to do a lot more repertoire, given the chance. Berlioz The Damnation of Faust is an extravagant work. The stage was crowded with performers, and the volume projected into the shoebox that is the Barbican Hall threatened at times to overwhelm. On the BBC Radio 3 re broadcast and on medici.tv the sound balance might be better, but the live experience was intoxicating, despite the acoustic. Wisely, Rattle held his forces back, emphasizing instead the intricate orchestration and textures that make this piece so exciting. It is a sprawling drama, whose theatrical effects are embedded in the music. In Berlioz's time audiences didn't need literal realism. They paid attention to the music. This performance was so vivid that the Barbican Hall seemed transformed as if by magic, as Berlioz's music came alive. Faust, the old scholar, watches peasants dancing in the countryside. "Tra la la , Haha ha!" sing the chorus. It is Easter. Spring has come. Nature blossoms. Christ has risen. Dare Faust dream of rejuvenation ? Bryan Hymel sang Faust, the rich, ringing warmth in his voice bringing colour to the role. Hymel then injected chill fear."Hélas! doux chants du ciel, pourquoi dans sa poussière Réveiller le maudit?". Faust is no fool : he already senses the immensity of what is to come. A Faust as strong as Hymel needs an equally singular Méphistophélès. Christopher Purves provided an authoritative counterbalance. The expressiveness in Hymel's voice contrasted with the authority in Purves's voice and his purposeful enunciation. The way Purves sang "Ô pure émotion!" showed how Méphistophélès had sized Faust up. A strong Brander, too, in Gabor Bretz. Though the part isn't big, it's important, for Brander is to the students what Méphistophélès is to Faust. The chorus sang lines that swayed from side to side, as drinkers do. But an undercurrent of violence runs through the merriment. Purves sings the Song of the Flea but the drunks think it's funny. In the Voici des roses, Purves suggested the thoughtful side of Méphistophélès.'s character: low winds and strings evoking melancholy. The devil is dangerous because he understands human sensitivity, and uses that to manipulate. Perhaps Méphistophélès. is a kind of Oberon, for Faust is lulled into a dream by a magical flute melody, later taken up by the strings, and the songs of gnomes and sylphs. A magical scene which owes much to Mendelssohn. For Faust, a reverie of love. For the students, mindless delusion as they march off to war.Hymel's aria "Merci, doux crépuscule! " was a star turn, beautifully articulated, glowing with feeling. The phrase "Que j’aime ce silence," glowed beautifully, followed by a deeply felt "et comme je respire Un air pur!" The orchestra responded in kind, with transparently delicate textures. When Méphistophélès. butts in, a violin plucks a banal ditty, like a student with a lute. But Faust is made of far finer stff, as is Marguerite. Karen Cargill sang the Song of the King of Thule .with sincerity. The song is a paean to fidelity, loyalty so stron g it defies death. Garlanded by viola and cellos, it's anothe moment of "silence" where Méphistophélès and the world canot reach. Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust owes as much to Shakespeatre as to Goethe. In the magical Evocation, fireflies dance, piccolos playing bright figures augmented by darker hued winds and strings. Textures as transparent as these need this kind of definition There was humour, too, in the trombones and tuba, which not every orchestra can carry off as well as the LSO. Purves curled his tongue around the final words, with the menace of a snake, for now Faust and Marguerite have their encounter. Hymel's "Ange adoré" glowed resplendently, and his cry "Marguerite est à moi!." scaled the heights. But the world intrudes, After fast paced exchanges, the lovers are torn apart. The cross currents between soloists, choirs and orchestra were very well defined. Then, back to solitude. Cargill's Romance showed her at her finest. matched by evocative clarinet. Although some incarnations of Faust emphasize the God/Devil angles in the legend, Berlioz was very much a Romantic, for whom Nature was an alternative diety. Thus the importance of the Invocation. Hymel sang the aria Nature immense, impénétrable et fière, with such fervour it seemed an act of faith. But Fast is doomed. Méphistophélès and Faust set off on horses that fly through the sky, defying the laws of Nature. Wailing woodwinds, and a frenzied pace in the orchestra, tensely plucked pizzicato. The children's voices scremed "Ah!" and the tubas wailed pounding staccato, Now, Méphistophélès has little need for formal language. "Hop ! Hop!" screamed Purves. My flesh creeped, thinking of the "Hop Hop" at the end of Wozzeck. The men's chorus walked on stage, among the orchestra, singing their demonic chorus : skat lyrics before the term was invented, interspersed with machine-gun staccato. Are the demons the students and soldiers That's one of the joys of non-staging : it makes yo think. "Hosana !" sang the choirs at the back of the stage. Harps sggested angels, and the palpitating, ascending rhythms, the flapping of wings, or the image of water (as opposed to the fires of hell) And then the children's choirs filed into the auditorium, illuminatingb the darkness with their high, pure voices. Like a miracle !
Berlioz The Damnation of Faust - Simon Rattle - Bryan Hymel, Christopher Purves, Karen Cargill, London Symphony Orchestra, Barbican, London . Review to follow. Watch this space and read my other posts on Faust and his many incarnations - not just Berlioz ! (see labels below)
Demon Dalmations ! Simon Rattle on the LSO season opener, The Damnation of Faust. "“Every musician of my generation learnt about Berlioz from the LSO’s recordings with Colin Davis,” he says. “I remember being completely bowled over by their performance of orchestral extracts from Faust when I was about eight, and my sister quietly saying to me, ‘Actually, Simon, it’s the damnation of Faust, not the dalmatian.’ I’d assumed it was a story about a dog.” (from an interview with the Times)
Berlioz The Damnation of Faust with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique, the Monteverdi Choir, the National Youth Choir of Scotland, the Trinity Boys Choir and soloists Michael Spyres, Ann Hallenberg, Laurent Naouri and Ashley Riches. Gardiner's Berlioz is of course not news to anyone, since he's been conducting Berlioz for decades and The Damnation of Faust many times, though his only commercially available recording dates back over 30 years. Thus the joy of hearing it afresh, with new forces at Prom 31. This was Berlioz revealed as a man ahead of his time - wonderfully fresh and alive.Though Goethe's Faust is based on medieval legend, Faust, like Goethe himself, was a prototype of Modern Man, one of the first Romantic heroes, in the sense that he breaks the rules. Significantly, Faust rejects the values of society around him, obsessed by war and mindless destruction. It's Easter, but the townsfolk don't get the irony. Jesus died for their sins, so they have no qualms about sinning again. With the Orchestre Révolutionaire et Romantique, the archaic sound of horns and drums evokes a sense of endless time, as if we were hearing echoes of ancient battle, the past haunting the present. This sense of Time, in Faust, is fundamental. Faust is an old man, who has spent a lifetime learning, in the belief that knowledge is something work seeking. But the world doesn't care, rattling (those fifes and drums) on its merry way to madness. Berlioz emphasizes the time dimension, incorporating children's choruses to emphasize the contrast between youth and old age, knowledge and ignorance. Not that children are ignorant. Adults who scrap like kids are all too ignorant. Thus the punchy briskness of the First Part : the world going merrily to hell, uncaring.It helps that Michael Spyres' voice is young sounding, agile enough to traverse the elaborate flights central to French style. Faust's old on the outside, but his mind is sharper than most. Laurent Naouri is a superb Méphistophélès. In Berlioz, the devil is suave, a sophisticate who dissembles with elegance and charm. Leave brutishness to bassos profundo in other operas, and other composers ! For their first trip together, Méphistophélès take Faust to a tavern in Leipzig, where students carouse, drinking themselves to oblivion, instead of studying. Berlioz writes deliberately crude rhythms, blurry lines for the chorus and flatulent passages for brass. Period instruments are earthy and punchy, expressing humanity in a way more polished instruments can never quite achieve. Gardiner and his players let us hear the drunks swaying, arm in arm from side to side. Brander (Ashley Riches) sings of drunken rats and Méphistophélès's of fleas. Vermin, and vulgarity. So much for "le fatras de la philosophie".On the fields and woods by the Elbe, Gardiner's approach and the personality of his orchestra add to the sense of pristine simplicity. The music becomes vernal, suggesting open meadows and fresh breezes. Spyres singing sparkled, and the choruses of gnomes and sylphs were well parted, with almost hypnotic effect. The ballet music was magic. Then everyone marches off merrily in search of the vision Marguerite. Thus the martial fanfare with which Part 2 begins. For a moment we can luxuriate, such as when Spyres sang the lovely phrase "Que j'aime le silence". Again, Berlioz juggles concepts of time. He doesn't state literally what happens in Marguerite's bedroom. Instead Marguerite (Ann Hallenberg) sings the mock medieval song of the King of Thule. Everlasting love, past, present and future. The Minuet of the Will-o-the-Wisps was particularly vivid, the orchestra creating the sparkling but spikey angles in the music so they felt at once magical and sinister. I swear I could hear a triangle glisten. For the love between Faust and Marguerite is, like a will-o-the wisp, but a momentary flicker of light. Faust has to flee, but Hallenberg gets Marguerite's lovely Romanze "D'amour ardennte flamme", deeper and more intense than the childlike song of the King of Thule. Here, the orchestral melody is specially poignant with antique instruments. Faust and Méphistophélès slug it out in a landscape of forests and mountain peaks: yet again, antique hunting horns evoke a sense of timeless struggle.The children's chorus "Sancta Maria!" in keeping with the mood.From the horror of the Abyss, the even more Gothic Pandemonium with its demonic choruses. Jagged angles and crashing fanfares. Ominously marvellous singing from the men of the Monteverdi Choir, thus throwing the angelic choruses that follow into even higher relief. Limpidly beautiful harps and strings, and the name "Marguerite" called as if from Heaven.
Great composers of classical music