Sunday, July 23, 2017
Beethoven Fidelio at the Proms last night - can I be the only one distinctly underwhelmed? Beethoven in these dark times should be stirring but this Prom, Juanjo Mena conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, seemed a sop to those who'd like Beethoven neutralized, shorn of his dangerous ideas on politics, art and the human condition. Human rights? Down with traitors! Beethoven is an EU infiltrator who must be stopped! After Igor Levit's Ode to Joy on the First Night (more here) and Daniel Barenboim's speech and two Proms (more here) the knives are out. Though the BBC should, in theory, be politically neutral, in practice, things don't quite work out that way: the promotion of Farage, for example. In any large community, there will always be alternate views. That's democracy. Florestan is a symbol of freedom. Most Florestans don't have Leonores, and tyrants aren't overruled by sudden Deus ex machina miracles. What matters above all, even above the politics, is humanity, fairness and basic human decency. Or perhaps this Proms Fidelio flopped for other reasons? Stuart Skelton redeems anything he sings in, and the cast was good enough, though uneven, some very good, others less so and some a mix. But singers alone cannot sustain an opera if the orchestral performance isn't on message. Like all organizations, orchestras go through phases. Juanjo Mena is popular in some repertoire and with some audiences, but this Fidelio wasn't Beethoven's Fidelio. Blaming this pointless playing on politics is kinder than blaming it on the pointlessness in the playing.
Arguments about whether classical music and politics should be mixed are futile. Because the two are irrevocably intertwined. As is shown by yesterday's press release from the City of London Corporation pressing the case for a new concert hall in London's newly designated 'culture mile'. This press release makes much of the Crossrail transport link that will serve the proposed hall. One of Crossrail's non-executive directors is Michael Cassidy. As readers of my previous posts on the subject will know, Michael Cassidy - who, incidentally, is a practicing lawyer - holds a number of influential positions in the City of London Corporation. He is also non-executive chairman of Askonas Holt; this is the management agency that represents both Simon Rattle who is a leading advocate of the new hall, and his new orchestra the London Symphony Orchestra which is expected to be resident there. Daniel Barenboim is also managed by Askonas Holt and he and Simon Rattle have both taken public anti-Brexit stances. Yet another of Michael Cassidy's roles is chairman of the Ebbsfleet Development Corporation, a major commercial and residential development in the south of England. Ebbsfleet International Station is a major gateway for travellers to the EU and plans include a theme park with Europe's largest indoor water park, live music venues and hotels near Ebbsfleet - see header graphic. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the commercial potential of these Ebbsfleet projects may be adversely affected by Brexit. All the foregoing is in the public domain and I am confident it conforms to the relevant corporate governance regulations. There is a cogent argument that London needs a new concert hall. and it can be argued that Britain's exit from the EU has significant downsides. It can also be argued that conductors are entitled to use the podium to air personal political views. But I would also argue that a better understanding of the bigger picture is needed. Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).
The yellow label today signed Kian Soltani, 25, winner of the Schleswig-Holstein Festival’s Leonard Bernstein Award. His debut album Home will include works by Schubert and Schumann, together with the world premiere recording of Reza Vali’s Seven Persian Folk Songs. Born in Bregenz to a family of Persian musicians, Soltani has toured internationally with the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and with Daniel Barenboim and the West-East Diwan orchestra. In March, he played the opening week of Berlin’s Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin, returning two months later to give a concert of traditional Persian music with the Shiraz Ensemble.
During a 1970s Festival Hall concert conducted by Bernard Haitink a serial cougher decided to accompany the posthorn solo in the third movement of Mahler's monumental Third Symphony. Maestro Haitink continued to beat time with his baton while using his left hand to extract a white handkerchief from his pocket and hold it high over his head to encourage the cougher to mute the intrusive noise. Such an action would be unthinkable at the Proms today, because the conductor would spend the whole concert with an arm raised holding a handkerchief. At one time the Proms audience had the enviable reputation of being the best audience in the world, but now it is the noisiest. My most recent visit to a Prom was almost certainly my last. Because not only is the Albert Hall sound poor, the sight lines unacceptable, the ambient temperature too high and the foyer facilities inadequate. But I found myself surrounded by people who made it quite clear that they were not there to appreciate the music, but rather to participate in a mass sonic selfie via persistent coughing, distracting talking, playing with mobile phones and the inevitable politically correct applause between movements. This year a new and important element has been added to this sonic selfie, the conductor's speech. Daniel Barenboim rode his personal hobby horse in his speech at a recent Prom, and next month it is the turn of his fellow Askonas Holt artist Simon Rattle - a shared provenance which, incidentally, I suggest is not insignificant. Let us hope that when Simon Rattle rides his personal hobby horse in his post-Gurrelieder speech he pleads not only for a better London concert hall, but also for a better Proms audience. Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).
Elgar's symphonies have hardly been neglected at the BBC Proms and elsewhere. As an example, the Second Symphony has been played 37 times at the Proms, with two of those performances in the last three years; while the First has been given 51 times, including two performances in the last two years. So it is puzzling as to why the social networks are behaving as though Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin brought two undiscovered masterpieces to the Albert Hall, and it is doubly puzzling because his interpretations were passionate but hardly revelatory. Yes, it is noteworthy that this was Elgar from a foreign orchestra. But in 2008 Roger Norrington and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra brought the First Symphony to the Proms. However it is not surprising that this European band's Elgar has been quietly forgotten, as Norrington's flexible tempo and vibrato free account ranks as one of the worst musical abominations I have ever had the misfortune to hear. If you want your Elgar both revelatory and in foreign hands you should try the Romanian Constantin Silvestri's recording for EMI of In the South (Alassio). Silvestri, who is seen above, was principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) from 1961 until his tragically early death from cancer in 1969 aged 55. EMI planned to record the Elgar symphonies and possibly The Dream of Gerontius with Silvestri in Bournemouth, but his premature death meant only In the South - recorded in 1967 - was made as a commercial studio recording, although there are transcriptions of BBC broadcasts of the First Symphony and Cockaigne with the BSO. Silvestri's In the South is one of those rare performances that combines ultra-high voltage electricity with respect for the score. In a time when classical music has become no more than a made-for-media pseudo-event it is sad but hardly surprising that Constantin Silvestri's revelatory Elgar is all but forgotten. Silvestri photograph comes via Mon Musée Musical. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.
The UK premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Deep Time, at the Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, with Daniel Barenboim who conducted the world premiere at the Philharmonie, Berlin, in May.this year. Just as Barenboim's Elgar pedigree goes back a long way, so does his relationship with Birtwistle. They've known each other since the 60's. Barenboim also gave the premieres of Birtwistle's Exody in 1998 and of The Last Supper in 2000. In an interview for his publishers Boosey & Hawkes, Birtwistle explained the term "Deep Time". "...coined by John McPhee in a 1981 book Basin and Range, which refers to the idea of measuring things on a vast temporal scale beyond human comprehension such as the age of rocks. The concept of Deep Time follows on from the work of the 18th century Scottish geologist James Hutton who proposed that the processes of rock erosion, sedimentation and formation have ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’, a state of perpetual change...." It's an idea which fits in well with the concepts that seem to lie beneath so much of Birtwistle's work: stratas and layers, levels of time parallel and co-existence, puzzles, mysteries and patterns, often evolving as if generated by abstract but organic life forces. Earth Dances, of course, and The Triumph of Time but also mysteries like The Minotaur and Silbury Air. Deep Time seems to evolve out of nothingness. Bars are marked in silence until sound emerges almost imperceptibly. Slow, circular figures dragging forward contarst with sparkling figures comprising short, quick-paced cells. Rhythms build up quickly to an exuberant angular dance, which then morph into flying figures which float above the steady pulse. Crashing metallic percussion, the growl of dark, low brass and woodwinds. Base, middle and top notes like a complex but earthy scent. Large, dense structures and fleeting whips of high-pitched sound, propelling forward thrust. A soprano saxophone calls, marking intervals: wooden blocks are beaten in typically wayward Birtwistle zig-zag patterns. Planes of sound from strings and winds, suggesting boundless vistas. Towards the conclusion, trickling, tiny fragments, quirky changes of direction, and a return to long, slow, rumbles. As the music passes onwards, cymbals clash and long planes stretch until at last the music dissipates into nothingness once more. Not before the brass and metallic percussion assert themselves once more, in quirky farewell. I didn't think so much of inexorably slow forces but of a multiplicity of actions on different levels. Birtwistle is never boring! He turned 83 this weekend, but creatively he's lithe and agile.