Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Nina Stemme at the Last Night of the BBC Proms 2017. She was not the only one left open-mouthed by this year's Non-Event LNOP, which was as vision-free as most of the this year's season. Formula works, to some extent. Stemme is is such a megastar that even those who know zilch about music knoiw who she is and that she does Wagner. So nil imagination needed to make her do Brünnhilde while singing Rule Britannia. So no-one really goes to the Last Night for music. But Nina Stemme deserves better ! She's an artist not a cartoon. A few years back, Roderick Williams did it in street clothes. That was infinitely more sincere and moving and more in the spirit of the anthem. Dressing up is all very well, but it needs to be done with genuine flair and humour, the way Juan Diego Florez did last year as Inca Prince and the skit on Paddington Bear as homeless immigrant. (Please read more here). It's not Stemme's fault. It's the marketing philosophy behind the Proms these days that puts commercialism above music. Formula is all very well, and thanks to formula, there were many good Proms this year, scattered around the crass detritus Thanks to good performers who actually like music, not the suits behind formula. How did the Royal Albert Hall get its name ? The vision of a Prince who believed in excellence and learning. Who created the Proms ? A man with vision who loved music and believed that ordinary people could appreciate serious music which wasn't dumbed down. Instead, we're now locked into the "Ten Pieces" mentality, probably the worst case of moronic, musically illiterate goonishness ever. The first year, it was a gimmick but repeated and extended it's become a joke that gone stale. Yet again, formula without vision. Alan Davey claimed "Don't apologise for classical music's complexity. That's its strength". So if he really believes that, why not act on it? For a start, the BBC should scrap the Ten Pieces groupthink and get rid of those behind it. What makes the Last Night of the Proms so much fun is that it's when Prommers party. Party, as in having fun, not party as in Party. As someone interviewed for the broadcast said "We Germans can't do that". They've seen where mass rallies and jingoism can lead. Flag waving wasn't a LNOP tradition til fairly recently, and in principle, there's nothing wrong with it. But there's flag waving because you love your country, and flag waving as a form of passive aggression qnd intimidation. Again, hidden messages. Parry's Jerusalem arranged by Elgar, setting a poem by William Blake whose real meaning has been misappropriated. Read more about that here. What's more, Parry's original version is more questioning than truculent. It might not go down well these days. What also makes the Last Night great is the sense of spontaneity and irreverence. This is why it responds so well to current affairs and social conscience. The Conductor's Speech varies, but the best have been the ones which came from the conductor's heart. That's why conductors need freedom. The job usually falls to the Chief of the BBC SO, the BBC's flagship orchestra, which works so hard all year around. Sakari Oramo's a genial, engaging character, with integrity. No firebrand he. But this year, he was reading a script so banal it sounded like it had been cobbled together by BBC management. All bullet points and mealy mouthed platitudes. Like the bit about women conductors. If the Proms really cared about women, why stick to one token conductor, moulded by Bernstein, whose speeches were self promotion as opposed to the common cause ? Oramo is a good speaker because he's real. Rumour had it that the political powers that be, in whose hands the BBC's fate lies, wanted to control the LNOP speech. And perhaps they did. But if such politicians and those who influence them, (to put it gently) were so secure in their beliefs, why would they feel threatened by Barenboim and Igor Levit ? We don't live in truly democratic times but in a world where those who control the media control minds and use their power to bypass parliamentary process and the very right to dissent. Fact is, most people in the music business, and in the business world in general, have experience dealing with the complexities of the situation. Regular Prommers, the ones who come all season for the music, not just for LNOP, often think on the same lines. So why the fear ? In a democracy, you live with alternatives, you don't suppress them. Nice enough music, though the LNOP isn't really about music. Most memorable apart from Stemme's Liebestod, were Sibelius's Finlandia Hymn in the version made in 1941 witha text relevant to the war between Finland and Russia, and Zoltán Kodály Budavári Te Deum with Christine Rice, Ben Johnson (looking natty in a beard) and John Relyea. Good stuff from the BBC Singers and BBC SO Chorus. Many improvements this year in the physical management of the Proms, like not letting latecomers enter willy nilly, and exceptionally helpful ushers and staff. The people at Door 9 in particular deserve praise, though praise from the public doesn't often get relayed down to the folks on the ground. The presenters are less hyped-up, too, thank goodness, though some of the chat shows were dire.. So many thanks to someone getting things as right as possible., Hopefully those standards of excellence will apply, in future to artistic policy and (dare I say) the Vision Thing.
Publication of the Ultimate Classic FM Chart and a subsequent Guardian article has sparked some useful debate about what Kate Molleson terms in her article 'gateway drugs to classical music'. This debate prompts me to republish an article I wrote back in 2005 titled 'My first classical record' which I have conflated with a relevant extract from an even earlier post about collaborative filtering. Too little attention is paid to how people 'get' classical music. I hope republishing these somewhat discursive pieces from a more innocent time of music blogging may prompt others to usefully share the experience of their first classical record. What was the first classical record you bought? Mine was an LP of Herbert von Karajan conducting Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony, the 'Pathetique', with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon 13892SLPM. I bought it in 1969 from a music shop in Reading where I was at University. The shop had listening booths with acoustic tiles, and it sold sheet music, musical instruments, and classical records. The LP is playing as I write. I have just serviced my Thorens TD125 turntable with SME arm (a capacitor in the motor control circuit blew after 30 years) seen below. The LP sound through my Arcam Alpha 10 amplifier and B & W Nautilus 803 speakers is magnificent, when the planets are aligned beneficially vinyl can still deliver a musicality that surpasses CD. (Thankfully I have kept my LP collection, and the surfaces are immaculate apart from the inevitable pressing blemishes). What overgrown path led me to buy that LP of the 'Pathetique'? Well, I can answer that question quite easily. Some years previously (1961?) I had been taken by my parents, while on holiday, to hear Tchaikovsky 6th played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the Winter Gardens in Bournemouth. The conductor was a dynamic young Singaporean maestro Choo Hoey. (Googling for Choo Hoey pulls up references to a conductor active in the Far East, could this be the same one? - I must have seeen him more than forty years ago). Did that early hearing of Tchaikovsky 6 burn irreversible patterns into my neural networks a la Mozart Effect? Did the B minor key signature programme me towards an near obsession for Masses in minor keys in general, and Bach's masterpiece in particular? Was it that adiogio lamentoso last movement that inclined me towards the melancholic of the Four Temparaments? (Post coming up, time permitting, on a CD called the Four Temparaments - no not Carl Nielsen - it is an excellent new release from the innovative viol consort Phantasm, and it includes a setting for viols of the Byrd Four Part Mass!) Could it have been that brooding Siegfried Lauterwasser cover photograph of Karajan (this link gives an interesting perspective on Lauterwasser, who was HvK's 'court' photographer) that headed me towards a career that took me from the BBC, and then to EMI where I worked on some of Karajan's projects including his recording of Debussy's operatic masterpiece Pelleas et Melisande? That project summed up the Karajan conundrum completely, sublime music making and an odious personality. My favourite Karajan story is about when he was conducting at Bayreuth with Hans Knappertsbusch. There were just two lavatories at the end of a long corridor backstage. Karajan's personal secretary, it is said, put a notice on one, 'For the exclusive use of Herr Karajan'. An hour later a notice appeared on the other one written by Knappertsbusch, 'For all the other arseholes'. I was also involved with others in the Karajan circle. When Walter Legge died in 1979 I created an exhiibition at short notice for the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall in London. Legge's wife Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (below) viewed the exhibition before a Philharmonia Orchestra memorial concert, and complained to me that I had described Legge in the display as an 'entrepreneur.' Now I have often been wrong in my choice of words, but in that instance I am convinced I was dead right. But the path didn't just lead me to Karajan and his circle . My second LP was Bernard Haitink conducting the London Philharmonic in Holst's Planet Suite (A strange choice, the reading with its odd tempi has long since been deleted). Haitink resoundingly disproves the rule that you need an odious personality to be a great conductor. (And also Colin Davis - interesting he has no 'personal' web site, this is a quote from the article I've linked to.. I detest all that charisma stuff. It leads to unmusical things like the pursuit of power. The older I get, the more wary I am of power. It is a beastly ingredient in our society - he said that in 1990!). I lunched once with Haitink in the staff refectory at Glyndebourne to seek approval for the cover design of his recording of the Brahms Double Concerto with Perlman and Rostropovich (approval was given without a hint of the vanity and petulance cultivated by Riccardo Muti and others). In those days conductors had cover approval in their contracts, nowadays they have to start their own record labels to make a recording. While driving down to Glyndebourne I had been listening to Previn's first (and by far the best) recording of Walton's First Symphony on RCA. I suggested that Haitink looked at the score, and he subsequently recorded it for EMI. It wasn't a great commercial success, it was a lesson in leaving A & R planning to the professionals. (But I do remember suggesting that Previn recorded the Korngold Violin Concerto and Symphony in F sharp in the 1980s, only to be told he wouldn't touch film music. It is amazing how principles adapt to economics). Haitink later did go on to record a fine cycle of the Vaughan Williams symphonies for EMI after I left. I am always puzzled as to why this fine conductor never plays or records Sibelius. With his achievements recording Bruckner I have always thought Haitink would be a natural Sibelian. Just recently I've been interested, used, and worked on the peripheries of collaborative filtering. Amazon's recommendations are both maddening and very useful, and I have to say I've bought or borrowed from the library many recommendations. Most of my knowledge of, and passion for classical music has come from the serendipity of switching on BBC's Radio 3 before it was dumbed-down to the commercial benchmark. [This was written in 2004!, hearing a piece of music, and following that thread onwards. Like many I came to Mahler through the serendipidity of Visconti's Death in Venice in the early-70's, a serendipity aided and abetted by the Mahlerian style being digestible by a graduate who had been living with the Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and the Moody Blues for a few years. That's why I'm interested in musicplasma which I mentioned in an early post, it offers spontaneous links from one musician to another. My dream is to be able to work back from a CD and produce a map of every thread that led me to play it, every piece of music on route, and most importantly every fork that I took to reach it, and equally importantly the forks that I didn't take. I selfishly think that recreating even parts of that route may lead readers to similar delights and discoveries to those that fill my days with sunshine. Article first published on April 1, 2005. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Now also on Facebook and Twitter.
Sakari Oramo,BBC SO. photo :BBC Sakari Oramo conducted Elgar Symphony no 3 in the performing edition by Anthony Payne, at Prom 51, with the BBC SO. Big event, because Oramo is one of the great Elgar conductors,. Oramo was Chief Conductor of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra during the 150th anniversary of Elgar's birth. Since Elgar was so closely associated with Birmingham, this was no concert series, but a kind of pilgrimage, attracting the most intense of Elgar devotees. Oramo's performances were outstanding, so much so that he was awarded the first ever Elgar Society Award, despite strong competition. True Elgar fans, whose primary concern is excellence, not the nationality of the conductor. So please, let us have no more from those who keep harping on about the novelty of a Finn conducting Elgar. Elgar was championed in Germany before the First World War. A political, not musical eclipse. Sibelius was championed in Britain very early on in his career, as were Janáček, and Dvořák We need to get over thinking in insular terms. Ten years on from those Birmingham concerts, Oramo is even more impressive, his intuitive grasp of Elgar's idiom enriched by maturity, enhanced by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, playing extremely well, "as if to the manner born", not "manor", for Elgar was someone whom all can relate to. Oramo brings out the warmth and humanity in Elgar, wonderfully life affirming and fresh. Elgar did not write a "cycle" of symphonies, completing only two. The Third is a realization of the sketches he left, elaborated by Anthony Payne, who lived and breathed Elgar so intuitively that this completion is as close as we're ever likely to get to what might have been. A friend messaged me last night after the Prom. "When are they going to "Sir" Anthony Payne?" And so they should. Payne and his wife Jane Manning are venerable presences in British music and deserve recognition. How fortunate we are to have this realization. It flows freely as if Elgar had become rejuvenated again after a long fallow period. The introductory passage surged, full of expansive confidence, strong chords giving way to lighter, brighter passages before a typically "Elgarian" flourish. Oramo brought out the contrasts between turbulence and serenity, suggesting ebullience in the face of despair. The warm-hearted scherzo, an allegretto particularly suited to Oramo's personal style,was well shaped, with an edge of disquiet creeping in, developed further in the third movement. This moved like a waltz, elegantly poised, but veiled,as if being remembered from the past. Particularly lovely,sad strings. with just enough rubato to suggest the palpitations of the heart. From this rose the woodwind theme, soaring upwards to a new,more expansive plane. But the mood darkened, underpinned by ominous timpani. Soulful surges,strings, brass and woodwinds together, leading into a section so refined that it seemed to shimmer in haze. In the Finale, the mood of confidence returns in a march of sorts, with a firm tread, lit by cymbals..Though a sense of unease remains (single chords and a wavering melody) the movement ends affirmatively. Brass figures rise,joined by winds, and "Elgarian" richness in the strings,culminating not in fanfare,but in lingering glow.,with quietly tapping tam tam. This is important, since Elgar didn't live to complete the piece. It should not end in certainity, but in ambiguity, as a mark of respect. Before Elgar, Sibelius: Scènes historiques, Suite No. 1 and Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No.2 in G minor, with Javier Perianes.
El tercer concierto del Festival presentó al Trío formado por Daniel Barenboim (piano), Michael Barenboim (violín) y Kian Soltani (cello) en tres tríos de Beethoven: N1, Op.1 Nº1; Nº4, Op.70 Nº 1. "de los Espíritus" ("Geister"); y Nº6, Op. 97, "Archiduque". El programa de mano tuvo curiosos errores: a) no aclaró si había intervalo (no marcaba Primera y Segunda Parte), pero por supuesto lo hubo; b) no es un error pero no tiene sentido poner en el título Músicos de la WEDO; c) No hubo comentarios sobre las obras; d) el sobrenombre alemán del Nº4 es "Geister", "espíritus" o "de los espíritus", no "Geist" ("Espíritu"), como figuraba; e) y conviene ponerle número a los tríos. Daniel Barenboim especificó en la conferencia de prensa que habían decidido que este trío sea estable. Y esto lleva a un viejo problema de los tríos para piano y cuerdas, y es que el pianista casi siempre queda como "primus inter pares", como ciertamente ocurrió con los famosos tríos Beaux Arts (Menahem Pressler) o de Trieste (Dario de Rosa). Sin embargo, hubo tríos con integrantes parejos y admirables: Cortot-Thibaud-Casals; Rubinstein-Heifetz-Feuermann; Istomin-Stern-Rose. Para que ello ocurra se necesita que los ejecutantes de cuerda tengan un sonido amplio y poderoso y una fuerte personalidad para poder equipararse con el mayor volumen del piano, sobre todo si es un artista de la envergadura de Daniel Barenboim. Y aquí esto no ocurre. El problema se nota menos en Soltani, un profesional de muy buen nivel, con grato timbre y fraseo musical, pero que en los pasajes forte o fortissimo quedó dominado por el piano. Pero Michael Barenboim, siendo correcto y de buen gusto, no tiene la presencia requerida para tomar el mando cuando la música lo requiere ni la intensidad para aquellos momentos donde Beethoven exige mucho. Y sin embargo, el total fue mejor que la suma de las partes, porque las interpretaciones estuvieron claramente dominadas por las ideas del pianista, consumado beethoveniano como bien lo hemos experimentado aquí. Foto: facebook.com/PorSiempreColoneros Daniel Barenboim dijo algo más en la conferencia de prensa: que iban a ejecutar la integral de Beethoven en Europa, y allí harían algo que me parece audaz: combinarlos con tríos de contemporáneos. Y los mencionó: Borovsky, Alexander Goehr, Aribert Reimann. El Op.1 Nº1 no es el mejor de de los tres de ese opus, escritos entre 1793 y 1795, ya en la etapa vienesa de Beethoven. Pero el compositor ya en sus muy tempranos tres cuartetos para piano y cuerdas de 1785 cuando vivía en Bonn (se discute si éstos o los dos de Mozart son los primeros escritos en la historia para esa combinación) había mostrado gérmenes de su particular estilo, y en el ínterin hubo varias otras piezas de cámara sin número de opus, incluso un Trío para piano y cuerdas, un duo y un octeto. De modo que vale la pena escuchar ese Op.1 Nº1 por sus propios valores, ya considerables, y en una versión que tuvo el necesario transparente clasicismo. Por supuesto, hay una enorme diferencia con el Op.70 Nº1 de 1808, en pleno período intermedio marcado por obras como los cuartetos Rasumovsky o la Quinta sinfonía; es una obra maestra en la que un extenso movimiento lento lleno de sombras y misterio (los espíritus) es encuadrado por dos rápidos de inmensa vitalidad. Estuvo en el pianista toda la garra requerida en los dos extremos y la sutileza tímbrica para el intermedio; intentaron seguirlo con buen pero no óptimo resultado los instrumentistas de cuerda. Y naturalmente, el extenso Trío Nº6, "Archiduque", es la culminación de la escritura beethoveniana en este equilibrio de instrumentos opuestos. Algo posterior (1811), y precedido por los cuartetos Nos.10 y 11, la maestría es total. El fraseo del pianista fue desde el principio el que debía ser, con ortodoxia bien entendida, firme estructura, matices exactos y articulación límpida. Sus compañeros fueron muy aplicados pero fue demasiado claro quién mandaba. Y esta vez Daniel Barenboim tenía las obras bien en dedos, sin las vacilaciones que hubo cuando tocó el Trío de Tchaikovsky tiempo atrás. Es que incluso un gran maestro como él no debe confiarse demasiado, el trabajo es siempre necesario. No hubo pieza agregada y estoy de acuerdo: fue un programa extenso y arduo. No me molestó que bajara la tapa del piano tras saludar al público durante varios minutos. CUARTO CONCIERTO El último programa reunió dos partituras extraordinarias escritas con pocos años de diferencia: "Don Quijote" de Richard Strauss (1897) y la Quinta sinfonía de Tchaikovsky (1888). Las dos están entre las obras cumbres del postromanticismo. Se ofreció esta combinación con la Orquesta WEDO dirigida por Barenboim tres veces: como cuarta función del Abono Barenboim y en días consecutivos para los dos abonos del Mozarteum Argentino. Elegí la última función como homenaje mío a la institución que trajo de vuelta al artista hace varias décadas y nunca ha dejado de tenerlo en sus abonos en las numerosas veces que vino desde entonces. Décadas atrás escribí un muy detallado artículo para Ars, esas revistas-libro que Isidor Schlagman editó durante fructíferos años sobre determinados grandes creadores, en este caso Strauss; yo me ocupé de los poemas sinfónicos y no me cupo duda de que fue la figura máxima en este género que había inventado Franz Liszt con una profusa y despareja producción aún mal conocida aquí (ello debería repararse) y que otros como Sibelius o el propio Tchaikovsky también ilustraron. Ya desde "Don Juan" (1888, creado a los 24 años) el dominio de Strauss de lo narrativo y de la orquestación fue asombroso, y siguieron maravillas como "Muerte y Transfiguración", "Las alegres travesuras de Till" y "Así habló Zarathustra" antes de "Don Quijote" y "Una vida de héroe". O sea que antes de ser el más importante operista alemán del siglo XX fue el más gran compositor sinfónico de esa nacionalidad en las postrimerías del XIX. "Don Quijote", la maravilla de Cervantes, fue leída en alemán por Strauss, y el compositor fue influenciado por las sabrosas caricaturas de Daumier. Pensando no sólo en la narración sino en la estructura, el músico agregó: "Variaciones fantásticas sobre un tema de carácter caballeresco". Y así, la obra consta de Introducción, tema, diez Variaciones y Final. Dura unos 45 minutos y son una constante revelación analizando una partitura de enorme riqueza y complejidad. Don Quijote (violoncelo solista), Sancho Panza (viola solista, pero también tuba tenor y clarinete bajo combinados) y brevemente Dulcinea (violín solista) se entremezclan con una orquesta poderosa y variadísima. La manera en la que Strauss refleja la pérdida de la razón de su antihéroe en la Introducción es la de una frondosa trama de contradicciones; luego el noble tema del violoncelo nos da la esencia del personaje; y las variaciones son de un ingenio y una audacia inolvidables: basten la evocación del rebaño de ovejas en la segunda variación, que parece el Penderecki vanguardista, o el viaje por los aires en la séptima (con máquina de viento). Aunque también están los minutos de belleza serena en la tercera y sexta. Y luego el retorno a la razón en el Final y los conmovedores acentos del violoncelo antes de la muerte del Quijote. Foto: facebook.com/PorSiempreColoneros Una pequeña anécdota personal: cuando en 1973 programé el abono de la Filarmónica vino Leonard Rose y le pregunté si aceptaba en vez de un concierto ser solista en "Don Quijote"; respondió entusiasmado que sí, pero el director no conocía la obra y luego canceló por enfermedad; con poco tiempo fue reemplazado por Tauriello, que no la tenía en repertorio, y terminaron ofreciendo una notable versión del concierto de Dvorák… Quiso la casualidad que "Don Quijote" fue presentado por el Mozarteum el año pasado por la Filarmónica de Hamburgo dirigida por Kent Nagano y con el admirable Gautier Capuçon como solista. Me las veo en figurillas para decidirme por esa versión o la más reciente y declaro un empate de muy alto nivel, ya que hubo dos grandes directores, muy buenas orquestas y solistas de notable talento. Fue un constante placer con momentos memorables, y de paso quedó claro que Soltani es ya un solista internacional de primer plano con un sonido de gran belleza y una sensibilidad en el fraseo que nos dio el personaje. También, que la violista Miriam Manasherov es de muy alta calidad. Curiosamente se dio una pieza extra: un arreglo para violoncelo y cuerdas realizado por Lahav Shaní de "El cisne" de Saint-Saëns (de "El Carnaval de los animales"). Otra ocasión para que Soltani (austríaco de familia persa) despliegue su habilidad para el "cantabile". Pocas sinfonías son tan justamente famosas como la Quinta de Tchaikovsky en su fusión ideal de temperamento hiperromántico y de consumado dominio compositivo; en ella el temperamento melancólico es finalmente vencido por la voluntad positiva, a diferencia de lo que ocurre en una obra todavía superior, la Sexta, "Patética". Se han escuchado versiones de calidad superlativa en nuestra ciudad, como las de Mehta con la Filarmónica de Israel, una orquesta permanente de gran nivel, pero Barenboim logró de la WEDO un rendimiento extraordinario, apenas opacado por muy circunstanciales errores. Pensando en el director que uno asocia con estructuras gigantescas como las sinfonías de Bruckner o el que logra dilucidar obras de Berg o Boulez, me asombró su afinidad con una personalidad tan hipersensible como la de Tchaikovsky, pero Barenboim demostró que todo lo que hay que hacer es ser fiel a la partitura sin agregar exageraciones a lo que ya de por sí está al rojo vivo. De ese modo la estructura queda resaltada y se comprende porqué Tchaikovsky fue un gran sinfonista. No está de más comentar que la gestualidad de Barenboim es muy particular: hace muy altos movimientos para dar entradas, en pasajes que tienen una métrica similar apenas marca el compás tras hacerlo al principio del fragmento, y tiene una infalible percepción de cuáles son los momentos que necesitan de una energía total. En cuanto a la WEDO merece mencionarse la intensidad de los violines en el temible final y el bello sonido de la primera trompa en su famosa melodía del movimiento lento. Y vale felicitarlos por llegar al final de su visita tan espontáneos y entusiastas tras días de arduo trabajo. La pieza extra en esta ocasión fue la Polonesa del "Eugen Onegin" de Tchaikovsky, en una espléndida versión (habían tocado el día anterior la obertura de "Ruslan y Ludmila" de Glinka). Lástima que cuando el director se dirigió al público deslució su justo homenaje al Mozarteum con una despectiva alusión al Coliseo comparándolo con el Colón, ello después de decir que siempre se iban tristes por tener que dejar al mejor teatro del mundo. Pero conviene decir que este festival fue realmente bueno, y me intriga mucho el de 2018 sin Argerich cuando todo será Barenboim y su orquesta berlinesa y por primera vez estará en el foso para dirigir una ópera. Pablo Bardin
At the BBC Proms, Lise Davidsen stole the show with a spectacular Sibelius Luonnotar. op 17 (1913). Lounottar is a life force exploding with such intensity that its spirit seemed to spring from the depths of Sibelius soul, materializing in his score. At the time when it was written, Sibelius was Sibelius was at a crossroads. With his Fourth Symphony he was reaching towards new horizons but hadn’t quite come to terms with their implications. He was approaching uncharted waters and the prospect was daunting. As before, he turned to the ur-source of Finnish mythology for inspiration. Luonnotar was written for, and premiered by the great Finnish soprano Aino Ackté. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was another early champion. When she sang it in Helsinki in 1955, she was moved to say that it was the "best thing she had ever done in her life". There is a clip of this performance but sound quality is poor. Schwarzkopf had guts: until then, most sopranos steered clear of this piece unless they were Finnish (a beautiful language, but tricky to sing) and weren't bothered about the strikingly modern savagery in the part Lise Davidsen's Luonnotar was mightily impressive. Her voice is magnificent, floating the strange modulations in the line with well judged poise, projecting the keening forward lines so they seek out the furthest corners of space. Voice as tsunami ! Her Luonnatar is very, very strong, for Luonnotar is the mother of creation itself, forged from struggle. Davidsen is only 30, so she still has a way to go, but she could well be one of the really great voices of our time, a worthy successor to Söderström, Isokoski and Mattila. Recently she astonished audiecnes at Glyndebourne with her Ariadne : definitely a singer to watch. Luonnotar is the Spirit of Nature, Mother of the Seas, who existed before creation, floating alone in the universe before the worlds were made "in a solitude of ether". Descending to earth she swam in its primordial ocean for 700 years. Then a storm blows up and in torment, she calls to the god Ukko for help. Out of the Void, a duck flies, looking for a place to nest. Luonnotar takes pity and raises her knee above the waters so the duck can nest and lay her eggs. But when the eggs hatch they emit great heat and Luonnotar flinches. The eggs are flown upwards and shatter, but the fragments become the skies, the yolk sunlight, the egg white the moon, the mottled bits the stars. This was the creation myth of the Karelians who represented the ancient soul of the Finnish cultural identity.The orchestra may play modern instruments and the soprano may wear an evening gown, but ideally they should convey the power of ancient, shamanistic incantation, as if by recreating by sound they are performing a ritual to release some kind of creative force. The Kalevala was sung in a unique metre, which shaped the runes and gave them character, so even if the words shifted from singer to singer, the impact would be similar. Sibelius does not replicate the metre though his phrases follow a peculiar, rhythmic phrasing that reflects runic chant. Instead we have Sibelius’s unique pulse. In my jogging days, I’d run listening to Night Ride and Sunrise, finding the swift, "driving" passages uncommonly close to heart and breathing rhythms. It felt very organic, as if the music sprang from deep within the body. This pulse underpins Luonnotar too, giving it a dynamism that propels it along. They contrast with the big swirling crescendos, walls of sonority, sometimes with glorious harp passages that evoke the swirling oceans. The last passages in the piece are brooding, strangely shaped phrases which again seem to reflect runic chanting, as if the magical incantation is building up to fulfilment. And indeed, when the creation of the stars is revealed, the orchestra explodes in a burst of ecstasy. The singer recounts the wonder, with joy and amazement: "Tähiksi taivaale, ne tähiksi taivaale". ("They became the stars in the heavens!"). I can just imagine a singer eyes shining with excitement at this point - and with relief, too, that she’s survived! As Erik Tawaststjerna said, "the soprano line is built on the contrast between … the epic and narrative and the atmospheric and magical". In his minimalist text, Sibelius doesn’t tell us that in the Kalevala, Luonnotar goes on to carve out the oceans, bays and inlets and create the earth as we know it, or tell us that she became pregnant by the storm and gave birth later to the first man. But understanding this piece helps to understand Sibelius’s work and personality. Like the goddess, he was struggling with creative challenges and beset by self-doubt and worry. Perhaps through exploring the ancient symbolism of the Kalevala, he was able in some way to work out some ideas: in Luonnotar, I can hear echoes of the great blocks of sound and movement in the equally concise and to the point Seventh Symphony. The year after Luonnotar, Sibelius was to explore ocean imagery again in The Oceanides, whose Finnish title is Aallottaret, or "Spirit of the Waves", just as Luonnotar was the Spirit of Nature, tossed by waves. The Oceanides, written for a lucrative commission from the United States, is a more popular work, and beautiful, but doesn’t have quite the unconventional intensity and uniqueness of Luonnotar. One of the things that fascinates me about Sibelius is the way he envisions remarkable new territory, yet pulls back as if overwhelmed by the force of what lies ahead. Prior to that stunning Luonnotar, John Storgårds conducted the BBC Philharmonic Orchestara in the suite from Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt ( of which i will write more tomorrow because it's one of my favourites), where Davidsen sang Solveig's Song. Under Storgårds, the BBCPO sounds thrillingly alive. In Robert Schumann's Cello Concerto in A minor op 129, their support for soloist Alban Gerhardt was superb, almost palpable, as if in symbiosis. Tpo conclude, Paul Hindemith Symphony "Mathis der Maler". A garagantuan programme, pretty hard to pull off by any standrads. I could write volumes but I'm all wrung out.
Our diarist Anthea Kreston is flummoxed by a violin family tree. One of my students in Philadelphia this week, a young woman from Los Angeles, came in playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto. I knew that she was a student of my oldest sister (Aimee Kreston, a Curtis grad and teacher of a swathe of amazing young violinists at the Colburn School). As I heard her play, it was as if, in many ways, she had been taught exactly like me, or by me, or she was me. She had a distinct personality, to be sure, but one thing and then another popped up. A super-juicy slide in just that spot, beginning page two at a whisper, the way she held her bow arm with the high elbow, the way her fingers on her left hand stood so straight and landed decisively on the tips, her super flexible right wrist which anticipated all bow changes. I learned the Sibelius concerto as a teenager from the amazing husband-and-wife team of Roland and Almita Vamos, and my sister had learned it from them a decade before. A parallel existence. In addition, this young violinist at Curtis had just come from Chautauqua, where she had taken three weeks of intensive lessons with Almita Vamos. Three generations of Sibelius, converged in that one room in Philadelphia. Like history had squashed itself flat and all the bodies and minds worked at the same time – a hive mind. I could feel Almita’s fingers curving over my fingers on the left hand- she was such a hands-on teacher – moulding and shaping our arms and fingers by cupping our hands in hers, becoming our shadows. As I came over to this student and asked if I could touch her hand, bending down at the knees so I could place my entire forearm over hers, curve my fingers over hers to show the arc of the shift, the anticipated swing of the elbow as the impossibly high note is plucked from thin air, I felt as if Almita was just there, then. I decided to give a kind-of boring lesson to that student that day – she was going to be playing the Sibelius in a public masterclass for Ani Kavafian the next day, and I wanted to leave the juicy fun bits for Ani, and to not overwhelm the student with musical ideas. So we did bow math with stickers, distributing and planning the amount, location and angle of the bow per note on the big runs. Things like that. The next day, as I sat in the Masterclass (my teacher after the Vamoses was Ida Kavafian, the younger sister of Ani Kavafian), I was again struck by several comments that Ani made. Specific technical things that I do myself, drill with my students. For example – keeping all fingers down on the top string when you do octaves, instead of having fingers 2 and 3 hover above the fingerboard. Knowing your shifts from measuring always with the first finger. When she demonstrated, it was as if I were listening to Almita or Roland play – a combination of flexible but organic rhythm, a deep warmth, an inclusive story-telling approach. It was also as if her teaching and playing was from the same cloth – but more like a cousin rather than a parent or grandparent. I called Jason that night, and was also in close contact with my sister. What they told me brought it all together. Ida and Ani Kavafian and Almita Vamos all studied with Mischa Michakoff, the great Ukrainian violinist who escaped from Russia in 1921 with his friend Gregor Piatigorsky (whose grandson later seriously dated my oldest sister). Mischakoff studied in St. Petersberg with an assistant of Auer. Also connected, but on a different vein, was the American (of Russian-Jewish heritage) violinist Oscar Shumsky, himself a student of Auer. Both Kavafians (from Armenia) as well as Roland Vamos studied with Shumsky. And Shumsky and Michakoff were together in the NBC Symphony in the late 30’s under the baton of Arturo Toscanini. Now I’m confused. Wait – one more thing. When I was a little girl (around age 10), Roland Vamos (the Vamoses team-teach – you have one hour every week on technique with Roland and an hour on repertoire with Almita), Roland tore a piece of paper from his book and scrawled these little exercises on there. It was super-confusing, very rigorous for the hand (felt like mechanically separated chicken) and all the students had to ask each other advice of how to execute these scrawled notes on bits of paper or napkins from take-out food. He would say something like “oh, these are Korgoyev exercises that I changed up a bit” (between bites of his tuna sandwich) and we were all to do these complex double stop twister-like exercises, in 8 positions and in different keys. But – hold on to your seat – guess who was the teacher of Mischakoff? Sergei Korgoyev, the assistant to Auer. Talk about cross-referencing. So no wonder I had a series of whiplash-inducing Dèjà vu episodes. Yikes. And, to tie it all together, when I was 16 I used to drive a very old Volvo sedan (brown with rust spots and a window that would fall into the door if you lowered it) which belonged to the daughter of Piatigorsky. And one that belonged to Casals’ widow when I lived in Hartford, Connecticut. More later. I have a puzzle to finish. Mischakoff
Jean Sibelius (8 December 1865 - 20 September 1957) was a Finnish composer of the later Romantic period whose music played an important role in the formation of the Finnish national identity. His mastery of the orchestra has been described as "prodigious". The core of Sibelius's oeuvre is his set of seven symphonies. Like Beethoven, Sibelius used each successive work to further develop his own personal compositional style. His works continue to be performed frequently in the concert hall and are often recorded. In addition to the symphonies, Sibelius's best-known compositions include Finlandia, the Karelia Suite, Valse triste, the Violin Concerto in D minor and The Swan of Tuonela (one of the four movements of the Lemminkäinen Suite). Other works include pieces inspired by the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala; over 100 songs for voice and piano; incidental music for 13 plays; the opera Jungfrun i tornet (The Maiden in the Tower); chamber music; piano music; Masonic ritual music; and 21 separate publications of choral music. Sibelius composed prolifically until the mid-1920s. However, after completing his Seventh Symphony (1924), the incidental music to The Tempest (1926), and the tone poem Tapiola (1926), he produced no large scale works for the remaining thirty years of his life.
Great composers of classical music