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.

Here’s the link (available for the next month):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p0575mbl/bbc-proms-2017-richard-strauss-metamorphosen-prom-10

(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 1979. 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 synphony 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:

Cinema paradiso

As a change from the Rite of Gran visits York and Li Manshan, I do hope you know Cinema paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988), and its soundtrack. Morricone’s* music comes into its own in the overwhelming final sequence—not merely sentimental but a triumph over prurient censorship. You really have to watch the film all the way through—but hey, here goes:

Even in concert, the Big Tune is irresistible—all the more so with violin playing like this, from a 2011 Prom:

In the right hands, it would sound great on the erhu too.

 

* Actually, it being a father–son collaboration, I should perhaps write Morricones’—hmm.

NYO Prom: The Rite

47 years after playing The Rite of Spring with the National Youth Orchestra (“Yeah, I KNOW…”), I just heard them doing it at the Proms. You can find the TV broadcast here for the next 30 days.

Like the NYO’s other Proms in recent years (TurangalîlaMahler 9), there’s something special for the audience in experiencing young performers relishing challenging modern masterpieces, sizzling with energy and commitment. The Rite may have become more of a repertoire piece than it was even in 1970, but it never fails to amaze. Even if I missed Boulez—who relished the sensuality as well as the violence of the piece (“Not A Lot of People Know That”—I grew up with his Mahler and Ravel too).

(The complete BBC4 broadcast includes a feature before The Rite with lovely paeans to the band from some of the great conductors who have worked with them, including Boulez and Rattle—the latter himself an alumnus. Our 1970 Rite with Boulez wasn’t at the Proms, but our 1971 Prom with him included more Gran visits York (sorry, I mean Igor Stravinsky), as well as Bartok, Berg, Webern, and Debussy. Wow, how awesome is that—as we hadn’t yet learned to say...)

Alex Ross (The rest is noise, p.57) nicely (sic) compares the “riot” at the 1913 première with the release of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK. The NYO website led me to Gertrude Stein’s curiously detailed account of the event:

We could hear nothing. One literally could not, throughout the whole performance, hear the sound of music.

As the site observes, this is hardly surprising, as she wasn’t actually there.

Supposing that she had lived long enough not to actually attend the premiere of The sound of music either, she might have said, “One literally could not hear the rite of spring.”

I recently cited Richard Taruskin’s fine expression “lite Rite”—“Is nothing Sacred?”, as Keats and Chapman might say. In his stimulating article on Bartok and Stravinsky (The danger of music, pp.133–7; see also 421–4), he observes Bartok’s identification of The Rite’s “folk” elements that Stravinsky later disowned.

Even the origin of the rough-grained, brittle and jerky musical structure backed by ostinatos, which is so completely different from any structural proceeding of the past, may be sought in in the short-breathed Russian peasant motives.

Alex Ross is also very much on The Rite’s case. In a crowded field (more crowded, for instance, than analysis and reception history of the suites of Yanggao shawm bands since the Ming dynasty—funny, that), his comments in The rest is noise are very fine, with vivid context in his chapter “Dance of the earth” (pp.80–129), citing Taruskin’s definitive 1996 book Stravinsky and the Russian traditions.

I take Taruskin’s point that the darker energies of The Rite have been “resisted, rejected, repressed”, but even in the most polished performance it’s both exhilarating and disturbing. The ballet, of course, is even more unsettling—here’s an amazing sequence of clips, from a reconstruction of Nijinsky’s own choreography (full version here) to more recent versions:

Swan Lake it ain’t.

The Proms: more Ravel

I always admire Esa-Pekka Salonen in concert—and not merely because of the fine story (about his interview for the LA Phil) that I love to relay, illustrating establishment mindsets in both WAM and Daoist studies.

And I can never resist a live performance of Ravel’s Shéhérazade.

At the Prom yesterday it was just magical. The venue itself creates a remarkable intimacy—the special communication between performers and Prommers, rapt attention, unique silences. Marianne Crebassa’s singing was exquisite: embodying Ravel’s intimate parlando style, she was always a vehicle for the nuance and drama of the text, deftly avoiding the diva trap. And Salonen conducts with suitably detached clarity. (For L’indifférent, see also here.)

Reluctant as I was to break the spell, John Adams’s grand Naïve and sentimental music eventually won me over.

Hot on the heels of my implausible link from Bach to Stravinsky, the concert began with a more convincing one, Stravinsky’s Variations on Vom himmel hoch. Reading Richard Taruskin as I am just now, I was more in the mood for it than usual.

Not quite the same on radio, but here’s the concert, available for the next month (intro to Ravel with the singer’s thoughts from 15.24).