Mahler 3 at the Proms

After attending some memorable Proms this seasonMahler 10, Turangalîla, Ravel, Mahler 5, The Rite of Spring (post updated!)—I went out on a legal high with Mahler 3—a kind of  fin-de-siècle middle-European equivalent of the cosmic visualization of the Daoist jiao Offering ritual.

By now I must know what I’m in for when I go to hear a Mahler symphony, but it’s always overwhelming. And Prom-goers get to hear some great orchestras, but the Boston Symphony Orchestra with Andris Nelsons sounds incredible. Nelsons’ balletic conducting style reminds me of Otto Böhler’s 1899 silhouettes of Mahler.

Now that I have the time and inclination to attend concerts rather than earn a living of sorts by taking part in them, I experience a certain schizophrenia. I’ve been coming to the Proms since the 60s and playing in them since the 70s: this is my cultural background, my home base, so up to a point I might just sink into familiarity.

But with my perspective broadened by attending rituals in rural China and sessions in flamenco bars, and trained by reading books like Musicking and Professional music-making in London, I can’t entirely banish ethnographic thoughts—the genteel behaviour of performers and audience, with the latter scrupulously avoiding any bodily movements, sounds, or signs of emotion; the dress-codes; the complicated pieces of equipment like music-stands containing funny black dots on pieces of paper, on which the performers depend. And all the historical information at the audience’s disposal, like programme booklets (studiously consulted even during the concert), and the radio announcer’s suave comments—while the audience at a soul gig, or a Chinese funeral, may be still more steeped in contextual background, the WAM audience comes expecting to be educated with literate props. And tiny features contribute to the different sounds of European and American orchestras, like their different habits—even down to the way the latter come on stage early to take their places.

Youthful enthusiasm can easily be ground down by the mundane realities of professional orchestral life—a tension well observed by Alan Bennett (here, and here). But then, suddenly, one can be transported—like hearing Wu Mei decorating the funerary hymns of the Daoists (again, notwithstanding ethnography).

So while I value the informed discrimination of the insider, I now wonder if the outsider’s experience, free of such worldly distractions, is just as valid. Even jaded orchestral players cherish those rare moments when they somehow merge into a magical organism.

And apart from all that, it might seem surprising that I’m so taken with the glossy streamlined sound of an orchestra like this. Sure, you can just hear the sponsors rattling their jewellery (to quote John Lennon)—the limousines, the champagne, the alimony payments. But the pain and transcendence of Mahler’s music doesn’t get drowned under the gorgeous sumptuous sound: it’s an irresistible experience, totally immersive, all the more in the intense atmosphere of the Proms.

For all the bravado of the brass-playing fraternity, there’s no shortage of deeply musical playing there (there’s much thoughtful discussion online, like this). Apart from the solos and the blazing tuttis, it’s the perfect blending of timbre that impresses—and that too (as with the Li family Daoists) is a result of a long accumulation of experience throughout the orchestra. I love the utterly implausible idea that Miles Davis, a reluctant pupil at Juilliard, might have ended up in such an orchestra; hearing the subtly calibrated vibrato of the Boston brass reminds me of his comments (for a wide selection of posts on trumpet-playing, see here).

So among all the varied, immersive ways of musicking that give meaning to the lives of sub-communities around the world—orchestral playing is one of them! “It doesn’t get much better than that—or does it?”

And while we’re on the Boston Symphony—on a lighter note, don’t miss the Eric Leinsdorf story.

 

 

Ravel: an enchanted Prom

Rattle’s Ravel, or Ravel’s rattle

Ravel prom

After Boléro as a pulsating early overture the previous week, S-S-Simon‘s Ravel Prom was a delight from start to finish.

Even the opening Ma mère l’Oyein the expanded ballet version (1912), less often heard than the suite—was charming, chiming with the childlike world of L’enfant et les sortilèges after the interval. Here too there’s a magic garden, a princess, and birdsong. Ravel’s orientalism, like that of Debussy, was inspired by hearing gamelan at the 1889 Exposition universelle. Indeed, the organum of the oboes at the beginning and end of L’enfant reminds me of the sheng mouth-organ.

Chinoiserie is prominent in Shéhérazade too. Last year at the Proms Marianne Crebassa sang it exquisitely; in a week when we rejoiced in Aretha Franklin and Madonna, Magdalena Kožená’s singing was further cause for celebration of the wonders of the human voice.

L’enfant et les sortilèges (first performed in 1925, but not heard in Britain until 1958!) is an enchanted, enchanting lyric fantasy. In the story the protagonist is 6 or 7 years old—the same age as the girls for whom Ravel wrote the original piano pieces of Ma mère l’Oye. 

Whereas Colette wrote the text in eight days, Ravel worked on it over several years—she was in awe of the way he brought her libretto to life. Full of variety, the piece blends the comic drôlerie of the furniture, with ragtime and foxtrot, and the astounding fire aria, with the moving scene of shepherds and shepherdesses from the wallpaper leading into the boy’s poignant duet with the storybook princess.

The cat duet leads into a magical evocation of the garden. Here Ravel’s music anticipates Messiaen‘s use of birdsong and the ondes martenot, with evocative use of a slide whistle (Sachs-Hornbostel 421.221.312!—the cheese grater escapes me, though). Now it’s the turn of the animals and birds to indict the boy’s casual cruelties.

Amidst all the quirky virtuosic pastiche, and ravishing orchestration, the moments of tendresse register all the deeper, as he reflects on his errors; redeeming himself at last, the final chorus is a moving atonement.

If only a certain other public figure in the news could be converted from infantile petulant tantrums…

* * *

Both as player and concert-goer, I do admire conductors who trust to memory, dispensing with a distracting score, as S-Simon did for the first half.

Here’s the audio link to the concert—and do watch it on BBC4 while you can!

 

 

This season’s Proms

Mahler 10 scream

Notwithstanding my admiration for Christopher Small‘s critique of the curious behaviour that is concert-going, as opposed to more communal kinds of musicking (see e.g. here), I’m enjoying visits to this year’s Proms.

So far, among the feast (nay, “veritable smorgasbord“) of musicking on offer, I’ve basked in Turangalîlaalways an overwhelming experience, as well as the NYO Prom.

The latter included Debussy’s La mer (which I played with the NYO at the Proms under Boulez in 1971!) and the Ravel Piano Concerto for the left hand (for ways of occupying the other hand, see here). Now I’m looking forward to Les enfants et les sortilèges with S-S-Simon.

Meanwhile it was wonderful to hear the Philharmonia with the great maestro Salonen (the drôle story of whose interview encapsulates Some People’s attitude to WAM!). Effectively, from the spartan pointillism of Webern he segued directly into the desolate viola line the opens the first movement of Mahler 10, before its devastating prophetic catclysm (see my fantasy timeline here; lots more under Mahler tag). Salonen conducted this first half of the concert without a baton, recalling Boulez with his expressive hand gestures and the insights of a composer. I can’t wait to hear him conduct the complete symphony live.

For Salonen’s Mahler 9, see here.

 

Mahler 6 at the Proms

There’s nothing to beat the atmosphere of a Mahler symphony at the Proms. Following the first, second, fourth, and tenth symphonies this season, I just went to hear the sixth, with the amazing Vienna Philharmonic under Daniel Harding.

Hot on the heels of the equally fine Concertgebouw orchestra in the fourth symphony, the Vienna Phil sounds like an enormous marshmallow cake, with individual personalities smothered in Schlagrahm—apart from the cowbells, evidently from a large herd. Notwithstanding changes in performance practice over the past century, standing beside recent early-music versions of such repertoire, venerable orchestras like this convey a tangible feeling of direct continuity with tradition.

And the Vienna Phil is even belatedly allowing a handful of women into its ranks—whatever next?*

Here’s Barbirolli’s 1967 version with the New Philharmonia (as the old Philharmonia was then known):

There’s the usual lengthy debate about the position of the exquisite slow movement (unfairly eclipsed by those of the fourth and fifth symphonies, I feel). In line with Mahler’s own rethink, Harding put it second, but I side with those who overrule the composer’s revision of the order—not so much for the argument of the tonal scheme, but rather so that the Scherzo can continue the demonic power of the first movement (as in the fifth symphony), the slow movement then making its full impact before the devastation of the finale. Christoph Eschenbach makes this argument in an interesting page where various conductors reflect on all the symphonies.

God, how I’d love to get stuck into passages like this again (from 1.10.39 on the Barbirolli version, responding desperately to the hammer-blow):M6 1

M6 2

M6 3
Let’s return to the Vienna Phil, with Mahler in more meditative vein—the divine slow movement of the fourth symphony under Bernstein, followed by the final song:

 

* “I dunno, where’s it all going to end, eh? They’ll be demanding control over their own bodies next. PC gone mad if you ask me.”

Passion at the Proms

Of course the Bach Passions are a regular subject of imaginative modern re-creations (Jonathan Miller, ENO, Sellars–Rattle, and so on); but the climax of the Proms Reformation day on Sunday, John Butt’s version of the John Passion, in a certain liturgical context, was special.

The “concert” is here for the next 27 days:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0927l0v/bbc-proms-2017-bachs-st-john-passion

Like Daoist ritual (see many posts on this blog, including my Bach page!), Passions in Thuringia for Good Friday vespers varied regionally, and evolved. Of course we now attend them in “concerts”. The Albert Hall in 2017 is clearly not the Nikolaikirche in 1739—although the audience/congregation was apparently of a similar size. But having read Taruskin, and Butt’s own astute views on the HIP movement, surely we can welcome such renditions; it’s a stimulating way for us (“miserable sinners”) to experience the work anew.

Bach revised the John Passion several times; Butt recreated an “ideal” sequence based on the 1739 version (which was never actually performed!), directing with an unaffected schoolmasterly air that indeed evoked Bach the Cantor himself (cf. Robert Levin’s incarnation of Mozart).

As in Bach’s Leipzig, both parts of the Passion opened and closed with organ music and sung chorales. By contrast with the concert version (finely evoked by John Eliot Gardiner, Music in the castle of heaven, p.343), when the orchestra plunged into the anguished dissonances of the first chorus of Bach’s music, it makes you think how a congregation still unaccustomed to their new Cantor’s style, yet unprepared (though not quite—see Gardiner, pp.347–9) for the constant flow of extraordinary creativity that they were to enjoy for the next twenty-seven years, must have thought (in 18th-century Thuringian), “WTF?!”

The focal point of the Good Friday Vespers in Leipzig was actually the long sermon in between the two parts of the Passion music, which at the Albert Hall was thankfully replaced by an interval (glass of wine, ice-cream…). I wonder if a talk by someone like Malala might be a suitable further exploration—since many in the audience will experience the Passion deeply despite being less than devout religiously.

Do listen to John Butt’s remarks in the interval of the TV broadcast too (from 53.10)—and I like the analogy of Richard Coles (nay, “the Reverend Richard Coles”—clever choice of presenter, BBC!) with the mass singing at Cardiff Arms Park (more ritual and sport).

Given the rowdy behaviour of Leipzig congregations in Bach’s day, perhaps the Prom audience should have been a tad less attentive?! After we had all joined in singing the chorale O lamb of God, applause at the interval felt a bit weird, but it was entirely natural as a novel response to the life-affirming ending—after the beautiful motet Ecce quomodo moritur by Jacobus Handl (1550–91!), a blessing and response, Bach’s own organ chorale prelude Nun danket alle Gott, and a final rousing rendition of Now thank we all our God from the whole hall (a tune, suitably, that most members of the “audience” would know), accompanied by organ at exhilarating full throttle—all confirming joy at atonement.

By comparison, the great Passion performances of recent decades may seem more immaculate and micro-managed (“Chanel No.5″), but they remain deeply moving—like Gardiner’s version, with the superlative Mark Padmore (here). But this performance had a Lutheran simplicity that was differently moving.

Butt also notes “the different levels of singing cultivated in the church and school environments of Bach’s time,” from basic to more advanced pupils and indeed the congregation (again, cf. Butt’s interval remarks), so that the liturgy accommodated the whole community:

What we hear in concert performance is only the tip of a much larger iceberg, a culture of singing and participation that can only be fleetingly evoked in a modern performance.

This reminds me of the different levels of accomplishment within (you guessed it) a Daoist ritual group:

This dilution of personnel is a recent change, but before 1949 too, Daoist groups might recruit some extra percussionists who would gradually pick up the basic of the vocal liturgy. The substantial group of Li Qing’s senior colleagues from the 1930s didn’t come from his own family, but they had all trained from young with his uncles, and went on to become fine Daoists. In Beijing before 1949 some Daoist and Buddhist priests specialized more in the vocal liturgy, others mainly in the melodic instruments, and some village men spent time serving the temples there mainly as instrumentalists. Thus there have long been different levels of expertise, both between groups and within a single group. In the imperial era one imagines that some groups in larger towns, serving wealthy patrons regularly, might have more abstruse knowledge than poor village bands. But even within a single group—in the courts and elite temples as well as rural household groups like the Li family—there would have been a variety of accomplishments. Both temple and household groups often included a young boy just starting out on the gong, still unfamiliar with the ritual texts. (my book, pp.324–5).

Again like a Daoist ritual, the recreated Passion also features different styles of old and new music, not such an evident feature of the usual concert version. And it reminds me rather of the Li family Daoists’ concert performances of excerpts from their lengthy funeral rituals, uprooted from their liturgical context—remember, the Li band gave wonderful performances in Leipzig in 2013.

In John Butt’s John Passion at least we get an impression, in a secular concert setting, of the power of Bach’s contribution to Good Friday Vespers.

Further to “performative tears”, for anyone who doesn’t know the John Passion equivalent of the Matthew setting of “und ging hinaus und weinete bitterlich” (from 39.15; or Mark Padmore from 33.47) then listen and weep, along with Peter and the Evangelist.

Metamorphosen

The Aurora orchestra recently performed Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen at the Proms—where, like the John Wilson orchestra, it has made an invigorating recent addition to their house bands. The piece is always a moving experience, not least thanks to its intimate chamber form, with eloquent elegiac solo strings.

(I wasn’t even going to mention their Eroica in the second half. But with the band standing, now playing from memory before a rapt Prom audience, it had all the electrifying directness of involvement that you get from a live jazz big band. As with the orchestra’s other memorized renditions, however inauthentic such a practice may be, this is the 21st century, and this is one way of communicating now.)

***

Strauss composed Metamorphosen during the closing months of World War Two, from August 1944 to April 1945—just as Nazi panic at imminent disaster was leading to ever-more inhuman violence. It was commissioned by Paul Sacher, to whom Strauss dedicated it.

Much I as love many of Richard Strauss’s works, in that simplistic binary trap of ours I find myself siding firmly with Mahler.

Alex Ross devotes the first chapter of The rest is noise to “The golden age: Strauss, Mahler, and the fin de siècle”. Both composers “released images of fragmentation and collapse”, yet whereas Strauss (“earthy, self-satisfied, more than a little cynical”) often seems sumptuous and glossy, Mahler was always heartfelt. Sure, I found it overwhelming to play Elektra (composed in 1909! Just as Mahler was being fêted in New York) in Dresden in 1980. And everyone knows the opening of Also sprach Zarathustrabut how many of us bask in the passage that immediately follows it, some of the most sumptuous string writing ever? Metamorphosen is among rather few of Strauss’s works where I can detect true sincerity.

***

Reading through endless discussions of Strauss’s relationship with Nazism, I’m little the wiser. (For context, see Ross, pp.333–70).

Both Nazi official and anti-Nazi émigrés made the same complaint about Strauss—that he acted like “a total bystander”.

As Michael White observes,

As for Furtwängler and the others who performed under the swastika, there was an undoubted mixture of foolishness, delusion, opportunism and cowardice. You can say of all these people that they should have had more courage, more integrity, and been prepared to sacrifice careers, futures and maybe lives. But that’s a big ask. What would you or I have done? I like to think I’d have been brave, but I can only thank God that I’ve never had to find out.”

Strauss was four years younger than Mahler, but outlived him by thirty-eight years. Who knows how, or if, Mahler would have adapted to Nazism—having already been welcomed to New York from 1908, one imagines him seeking refuge there. He (rather than a host of imitators, or his estate) might have profited from the film-music boom for which he was too early, but it’s intriguing to wonder how his work might have developed over a further three decades or more.

***

In 1947, the year after the first performance of Metamorphosen, with Europe in ruins, the Berlin Phil recorded the threnody (“authentically”) under Furtwängler (just imagine):

For me it was another formative experience to perform it at Cambridge in 1974 under Charles Groves—in the same concert where we played the summery Mozart C major piano concerto.

As a late flowering of depth and intimacy, Metamorphosen belongs with The four last songs. Here’s Kirsten Flagstad with Furtwängler and the Philharmonia in London in 1950—when the world, however deeply scarred, was being transfigured again:

More Rachmaninoff

I’ve already posted a wonderful performance of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd symphony, but the recent Prom included another moving version, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. I Like the Cut of his Jib, as Adrian Chiles observed prophetically about Guus Hiddink’s managing of the South Korean football team in 2002. Nor is the BBC Scottish to be sniffed at. I loved their Mahler 5 at the 2015 Proms, with Donald Runnicles.

With typical Prom flair, the concerto and symphony were introduced by concert versions of Orthodox liturgy sung by the Latvian radio choir. You can find the whole concert here for the next month.

After the 3rd piano concerto, the encore of Vocalise led me to Rachmaninoff’s 1929 studio recording of his orchestral version:

Of all versions, you can’t beat it on theremin: