Lieder

Apart from the Matthew Passion and Nina Hagen (yet more unlikely bedfellows), here are further compelling reasons to learn German. While I’ve never been drawn to the mainstream lieder scene, I owe my enchantment by these song cycles, yet again (cf. Mahler’s Rückert lieder, and Ravel’s Shéhérazade), to Boulez:

First Wagner—the Wesendonck lieder. Christa Ludwig, with Klemperer, 1962:

or the wonderful Anne Sofie von Otter:

Then Berg, exploring a path opened up by his mentor Mahler. The Seven early songs (which I got to love at our 1971 NYO Prom):

(or a live version here, with helpful Japanese subtitles);

and the (five, nearly as early) Altenberg lieder—to picture-postcard texts (Ansichtskartentexte, another entry in our lexicon of German mouthfuls. Fin-de-siècle Viennese haiku?):

The third song is haunting:

Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus
Hattest nie Sorge um Hof und Haus
Leben und Traum von Leben—plötzlich ist alles aus!
Über die Grenzen des All blicktest du sinnend hinaus

(After the menacing whisper of “plötzlich ist alles aus!” (plötzlich is officially my favourite word), find me a singer who can diminuendo from pp up to that final top C—Nina Hagen, perhaps?!)

 

Noddy: the art of conducting

A tribute to the great Gennadi Rozhdestvensky (1931–2018)

We musos may be critical of conductors (cf. Norman Lebrecht, The maestro myth: great conductors in pursuit of power), but don’t get me wrong, we deeply admire great ones—such as Boulez, Tennstedt, Gardiner, Rattle (unlikely bedfellows…).

Apart from Boulez, another highlight of depping regularly with the BBC Symphony Orchestra was working for Rozhdestvensky (known in the trade as Noddy).

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky—conductor or conjuror? is a wonderful film:

In a work that otherwise requires little imaginative filming, do watch the wonderful scene from 32.40—the traffic cop Marcel Mehala should take a bow too.

Believing in a kind of spontaneous combustion, and trusting his players to match his own mastery, taking risks together, Noddy was renowned for his aversion to rehearsal—greater still than that of orchestras. Once, turning up for the first of a couple of whole days’ scheduled rehearsals for a fiendishly difficult and unfamiliar modern piece, he conducted the first few bars and then told the band nonchalantly, “Good, see you at the concert”. In a rare reversal of the musos’ philosophy of “It’ll be all right on the night”, the leader took him to one side and asked him if he wouldn’t mind just playing through it once first.

Even on stage, his style doesn’t look like much—inscrutable, even casual, his gestures by turn minimal and flamboyant. But his concerts were electrifying. Doing Petrushka, it was as if we were all composing it, living it, together with him. And the Scriabin piano concerto with Viktoria Postnikova was exquisite too—a YouTube video of them playing it together has disappeared, so here’s another audio recording of them.

The documentary ends with an illuminating sequence where he rehearses and reflects on Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. If only we could see more of the archive footage below—the curious camerawork shows him only briefly, though with characteristic gestures:

For obituaries, see here and here. For more on his solution to conducting the opening of the Symphonie Fantastique, see here.

 

The shock of the new

Rite

“Knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas”, 1913.

Though The Rite of Spring has become standard, a classic, since the 1970s, it remains an overwhelming experience today, whether or not you’re familiar with it. Playing it in 1970 with the National Youth Orchestra, conducted by Boulez, was one of the great experiences of my life. Never mind that it’s the kind of imagining of “pagan rites” that academically I would dispute—it’s a world away from the cultural pundits’ romanticized view of folk culture!

Remember, at the 1913 Paris premiere the ballet was just as shocking as the music—the recreation (from 25.40) following this documentary gives an impression:


Pina Bausch’s version is amazing:

For an intense series of posts on the ballet, see here.

Among endless discussions, try this. And here’s an attractive quandary:

Stravinsky once joked that the dauntingly high-register bassoon solo which opens the piece should be transposed up every year to stop players getting complacent about it. He wanted the effort to register.

But “it’s complicated”—see also here (and note the ritual wind instrument connection). I’m not sure about the dudka, but if it’s really related to the Armenian duduk, then there’s a link to the guanzi of north Chinese ritual bands! There’s a wealth of discussion of that opening solo in bassoon blogs.

Not only do concert-goers “share intimate and personal cultural moments with strangers”, but they have to keep still; the Rite is one of many pieces where this should be an impossible demand. And another where conducting without a score yields fruit:

If Stravinsky really said that Karajan’s version

sounded like someone driving through the jungle in a Mercedes with the windows up,

then good for him.

And then there’s the “original instrument” debate—the “lite Rite”, as Richard Taruskin called it:

This version for organ, far from silly, is just awe-inspiring:

A harpsichord rendition has also appeared on YouTube.

On a lighter note, here I imagine the Danse sacrale as a suitable riposte to the haka.

By the way, Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe, less revolutionary but no less captivating, must have suffered by its proximity.