Thursday, 10 November 2016

Haruki Murakami and Mahler's Phantom Memoirs

Haruki Murakami is a Japanese novelist best known for his dreamily surreal books and his continued failure to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His friendship with conductor Seiji Ozawa has resulted in a new book, a series of conversations on music. An extract appeared in Saturday’s Guardian, and it left me scratching my head:

HM: Mahler says in his autobiography that being director of the Vienna State Opera was the top position in the musical world. In order to obtain that position, he went so far as to abandon his Jewish faith and convert to Christianity. He felt the position was worth making such a sacrifice. It occurs to me that you were in that very position until quite recently.

SO: He really said that, did he? Do you know how many years he was director of the State Opera?

HM: Ten years, I think.

Mahler’s autobiography, huh? A shelf full of Murakami books and an interest (in case you hadn’t noticed) in classical music will probably lead me to buy this book, but the lengthy extract on Mahler didn’t convince me that any real insight lay within. Particularly as Mahler never wrote an autobiography. 

Monday, 7 November 2016

Back Reviewing Concerts: Nicholas McGegan Conducts the Bournemouth Symphony

Nicholas McGegan © Steve J Sherman
Conductor Nicholas McGegan (Photo: Steve J Sherman)
I haven’t reviewed a concert in quite a while, so it was good to get back in the business, thanks to Bachtrack. Conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra certainly brought sensitivity and vitality to a collection of pieces by Shcubert, Mozart and Beethoven:

"At the other end of the programme, a rather more serious proposition in four movements: Schubert’s reasonably early but oh-so-mature Fifth Symphony. A product of Schubert’s 19th year, the Fifth demonstrates the charms of a composer who never seems to have suffered the stylistic growing pains of a man struggling for a mature voice. It was here that McGegan drew the best from the BSO, letting the music flow, bringing it to life by making the most of dynamic contrasts and pointed accents. He saw no need to tug at the tempi, and the orchestra responded with playing of considerable subtlety, a case in point being the hushed but nuanced sound of the strings giving space to the conversations of wind instruments as the first movement slipped from exposition to development."


Read the whole thing at Bachtrack.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Silent Film Epic Napoleon Finally to be Released on DVD and Blu Ray

 

I let out a little squeal of excitement when I saw that the BFI had announced a DVD/Blu Ray release of Abel Gance’s legendary (how many things so justify that word?) 1927 film Napoleon. It has popped up occasionally at the Royal Festival Hall, accompanied by a compilation score by Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra. Legal wrangling caused many film buffs to gloomily predict it would never be seen on DVD, but here it comes, this November.

The film’s epic proportions don’t stop at its duration. The 5 ½ hour running time is not its most startling dimension; rather, an incredible three-screen panoramic section makes it a very unusual visual spectacle. The extravagant demands imposed by the film on cinemas made it a real rarity for half a century, until film historian and restorer Kevin Brownlow brought it back to life, only to be faced with complicated legal issues that meant his version was not seen in the US until 2012. Brownlow’s version has been coupled with a score compiled from popular classics, replacing the original music by Arthur Honegger (there is a suite), which seems to have been lost in the 90 years since the film’s production.

These sorts of film restoration projects are not at all cheap to produce, so if you want to see this epic slice of cinema history, I’d suggest supporting the BFI by seeing one of their cinema screenings or buying a copy while it’s out there.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Neglected Film Composer: Influential, or Just Really Good?


There’s nothing more exciting, at least in my little corner of the world, than researching something few people have ever bothered to investigate. So it is with film composer Gottfried Huppertz, whose remarkable music brings zest and life to Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis. It amazes me that this music was virtually unknown until the score was revived around 15 years ago, finally putting Giorgio Moroder’s 80s synth pop soundtrack to bed. I’m more amazed, though, that people continue to produce new scores for the film, as though Huppertz’s were anything other than essential.

What frustrates when investigating Huppertz’s life, though, is the tissue of hyperbole and assumption that fills the gaps in what is actually known. Was he really an influence on those film composers, like Korngold and Waxman, who made their way from Europe to Hollywood in the 1920s and 30s? How would we know if he was? In the absence of real tangible connection between their music, or some testimony to the effect that Korngold et al heard and learned from the scores to Metropolis and Die Nibelungen, does this supposition just equate high-quality with influential? The road ahead will certainly involve distilling what is known from what is said, but that’s half the fun, isn’t it.

If you want a taste of Huppertz’s music for Metropolis, try the video above.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Why not follow this blog?


Dear Reader

Either through design or some really inexplicable miscalculation, this blog has been receiving a lot of page views (relatively speaking) for which I would like to thank you. But questions remain – oh the questions! – such as: How did you end up here? Did you like what you read? Might you come back again? And only YOU have the power to answer them, so don’t be shy about commenting, if you read something you like or something that prompts a reaction.

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Blogging can feel a little like shouting at the outside world through the letterbox, so if you saw something you liked, let me know. Let the world know. World domination begins with you.

Thanks.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

All At Sea in the Met's Tristan und Isolde

It is, as shown by all of social media, staggeringly easy to be cynical. As I sat in a West Country multiplex yesterday, though, I felt the snark lift from my eyes and, for a few minutes, basked in the pure technical wonder of the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD screening. That I am able to pop along to my local(ish) cinema and watch a 5 hour Wagner opera live and as it happens is a marvellous, nay, miraculous thing.

Staying with the wondrous, the Met sent us a performance of Tristan und Isolde that will, when broadcast on the radio, surely be one for the ages. Nina Stemme gave a wild eyed and driven Isolde that never dipped in pure emotional and vocal projection. Stuart Skelton’s Tristan was hugely persuasive too, though a little caught in the shadow of Stemme’s brilliance. The other parts (and there really aren’t that many) were universally winning, particularly Rene Pape’s authoritative King Marke. The real man of the hour(s and hours) was Sir Simon Rattle, who has talked about the lucidity he discovered in the myriad of markings written in Mahler’s personal score of the opera. That special knowledge allowed heft and transparency into the music, but the sense of flow was all Rattle’s own – note the great aborted climax which rips the lovers from each other’s gaze as Marke discovers their treachery, half way through Act 2.

But oh, the rest. Tristan begins at sea, which allows for director Mariusz Trelinski’s modern naval setting. Longing, searching, navigating, whatever, is represented from the off by the circular sweep of a radar beam, which also looks like the safety curtain buffering while the set loads. Within the circle, the thrusting prow of a ship pounds the waves like a particularly wet nautical dream. Water and flame are motifs throughout, glimpsed first in flashbacks cut like an amateur homage to Andrei Tarkovsky, for whom they were recurrent and pleasingly baffling symbols. And a great churning projection of the sea reappears whenever things get, you know, a bit choppy. Trelinski seems really uninterested in representing or heightening the emotional state of the characters, setting Act 2 in a massive dingy cargo bay, with Tristan and Isolde bumping into what look like toxic compost bins as they paw at each other. And by Act 3, the visual ideas have dried up almost completely, save for a lighter-wielding 10-year old (some sort of health and safety violation, surely) and a brief episode in a ruined house.

And so while the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera and Sir Simon and a stellar cast carved out a flowing, yearning, exhausting Tristan, the staging returned me to cynicism. Some of what I saw I liked – the big black sun that hovers above the lovers is a really creepy and magnetic image – but if the cinema-inspired Trelisnki is drawing on the symbol-filled films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the images need to suggest an enticing but enigmatic logic in a way that they don’t here. Maybe it’s a production from which more would emerge with repeated viewing, but right now, I just want to hear it on the radio.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Youth of Today

When I started going to the Proms some 15 years ago, there seemed to be a gulf in quality between the playing of some of the regional British ensembles whose appearances were peppered throughout season and the big international orchestras who rolled in at the end. These days, I don’t hear such a gap, and I wonder if the standard of playing hasn’t improved across the board. I recently heard a segment from a recording made in the late 1980s that seemed to confirm this suspicion.

Around 30 years ago, Vladimir Ashkenazy began a series of Shostakovich recordings with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The Fourth Symphony was an early entry in that series: it’s a beast and surely enough to give musicians sleepless nights, but some segments of the recording were so poorly played that I struggle to understand why it was ever issued. Indeed, when Decca collected Ashkenazy’s eventual cycle on CD about a decade ago, the original recording of the Fourth was replaced with a new one with the NHK Symphony Orchestra. (It’s only fair to say that I’ve heard the RPO’s playing match that of any of the world’s great orchestras, so perhaps unfamiliarity with the music or some other factor was to blame)

It is, then, something of a sign of the times that a remarkable youth orchestra, the Portland Youth Philharmonic, gives a really bracing performance on Youtube. There must have been some raised eyebrows when the orchestra programmed the piece, but it’s a great success – just listen to the frenzied fugue at 15:17. Gripping stuff.

Shostakovich - Symphony No 4
1st Movement


2nd Movement


3rd Movement

Friday, 30 September 2016

Tristan und The Director

A lot of air has been expended lamenting the decline in column inches given to arts coverage and criticism, so it’s good to see The Guardian Online giving apparently free reign to New York based critic Seth Colter Walls to pick apart the Met’s new Tristan und Isolde at length. NY’s Metropolitan Opera presents the meisterwerk in a production by Polish director Mariusz Treliński, which has met with a fair deal of opprobrium of the sort he encountered in Wales when his noirish Manon Lescaut was staged by WNO. It was a big ol’ mess but there were some fascinating ideas in it, but Seth goes after the way in which Treliński’s new Tristan trivialises the themes at the heart of opera

“That the director prefers to make his own pictures take precedence over the sounds and words of the opera is, in itself, notable. More important – and more quizzical – is the fact that director has elected to make an opera-wide fetish out of such a minor point in the work. The great length we have to travel for a reveal of such jaw-dropping inconsequence is just one mark of how turgid and unrewarding this staging can feel.”

But what I really like about Seth’s long-form takedown is that it does what I always wished criticism would do when I was a nipper, feeling my way into the critical language. Early in the review, he carefully establishes critical criteria, an approach to the subject, and proceeds from this point. Lack of space (and sloppy thinking) usually precludes this hugely instructive approach, but if criticism is for anything, surely it’s to offer a framework through which performance might be understood.

“Directorial license in the world of opera takes place between two poles of extremity. One one side, there is the lighter touch. This less-controversial style involves activist moves that nevertheless seek to harmonize in some way with opera as it has been historically understood. These directorial interventions might include putting the action in a new century, using modern dress, or adding some “framing device” – not in the interest of revising the drama, but rather to make its poetry more readily approachable in the moment. The opposing approach might be called the “rewrite” style, wherein the historical intention of the work holds no particular authority, and can thus be stretched, tortured or abandoned at will.”

So often, criticism fails to define its own criteria of assessment, as though the means by which we arrive at a conclusion about a thing might be self-evident. Of course, they’re not.

As for Tristan, the Met’s seems to have the fairly common sight of musicians (among them Sir Simon Rattle, Nina Stemme and Stuart Skelton) soldiering on valiantly against the tide of directorial concept. Opera lovers around the world will be able to judge for themselves on Saturday 8th October, when the production is broadcast live in HD to cinemas.

Now go and read the whole review.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Star Trek to the oddly familiar

Image result for britten benjamin stamp
I grew up loving this, so was moderately surprised the first time I heard this.

Where does homage stop and plagiarism begin? Probably here.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

More Oistrakh, More Shostakovich

Fortunately, David Oistrakh’s valuable collaborations with Shostakovich came at a moment able to capture their development in the studio and in the concert hall. In one case, it was even able to capture composer and performer on the phone – more on that later.

The First Concerto is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most frequently listed piece in the Oistrakh discography, but at least three other pieces – the Second Violin Concerto, the Violin Sonata and the Second Piano Trio – received recordings by the great violinist.


Piano Trio No 2 in E minor, Op 67 (1944)

Oistrakh recording with the composer comes pretty early in the Oistrakh-Shostakovich relationship, indeed shortly before the time that Shostakovich began working on the First Violin Concerto and it’s tempting to think we might be hearing part of process that led to the composition of that masterpiece:

1946 – DO with Dmitri Shostakovich and Milos Sadlo (released a number of times on CD; most easily available on the first volume of Doremi’s Oistrakh collection)


Violin Concerto No 2 in C# minor, Op 129 (1967)

The story goes that Shostakovich intended to mark Oistrakh’s 60th birthday with another violin concerto, but was a year premature. Given the piece was written only seven years before Oistrakh’s death, in 1974, we don’t have as many recorded performances, but we have the rather significant recordings of both the official premiere (preceded by a few “unofficial” performances) and the Western premiere from London, a concert under Eugene Ormandy apparently organised at short notice. And for the really keen, it’s worth seeking out Bruno Monsaingeon’s documentary David Oistrakh: Artist of the People?, which includes a remarkable phone conversation following the first performance between Oistrakh and Shostakovich, in which the composer comments “it’s as though I was playing it myself!” 






Violin Sonata in G major, Op 134 (1968)

Oistrakh’s actual 60th birthday was marked with the terse sonata and, remarkably enough, a recording exists of Shostakovich and him playing the piece in the composer’s home. Oistrakh then made the piece a part of the recital repertoire he played with Sviatoslav Richter, another remarkable Soviet musician, but one with a more distant relationship with Shostakovich.