Sublime Polish melodies @ Royal Festival Hall

To the Royal Festival Hall for one of the 12 landmark concerts they’ve scheduled as part of the Rest Is Noise festival, two major pieces by post-war Polish composers, the evening package marketed as Sublime Polish melodies.

Pieces
Krzysztof Penderecki: Violin Concerto No.1
—Interval—
Henryk Górecki: Symphony No.3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), Op.36

Performers
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Michal Dworzynski conductor
Barnabas Kelemen violin
Allison Bell soprano

Questions and Answers
The pre-concert conversation with conductor Michal Dworzynski was interesting:

  • Were the three great post-war Polish composers – Gorecki, Penderecki, Lutoslawski – part of movement, a generation, a common voice? No.
  • Was there a conscious reaction against the avant-garde, against Darmstadt Modernism, sometime in the mid 1970s? Not conscious, no.
  • So why did their styles change so strikingly, especially Penderecki, from the intense modernism of the famous Threnody? Dworzynski thinks it happened when Penderecki started conducting and realised how difficult the music he’d been composing was to actually play. (I question this, as I saw Pendercki himself conducting the Threnody last year and it was blisteringly together.)
  • Why is Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony so popular (it is the bestselling classical CD of all time)? Like everyone else Dworzynski  replies that, in our hectic times, it speaks of peace and serenity. Maybe: but I think it is also a piece of contemporary classical music you can listen to without hurting your ears. it is extremely easy to listen to, as Classic FM knew when they chose to launch their radio station with it.
  • Is Penderecki’s Violin concerto a return to Romanticism? In respect of the long lines of melody, maybe, but it is also very intense and fiendishly difficult for soloist and orchestra to play.

Review
I found the violin concerto stunningly old-fashioned, lots of effects throughout reminding me of Shostakovitch, with glimpses of Mahlerian lushness. Certainly it is in a harmonic, key-based language which throws back to the start of the 20th century. Sure there are spooky modernist glissandos but not many and nowhere near as dominating and bewildering as the effects in Gulbaidulina’s violin concerto (Offertorium). A quaffable half hour but there did seem to be the same idea of starting at the bottom of a scale and staggering up it, repeated many times. But it also seemed to be a deliberate tour around the orchestra trying out different sounds and sonorities. And the steady doom-doom-doom of the drums and percussion gave it a very accessible pulse.

Maybe the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is hard to do live but: it seemed to me the double basses which start it, deep down and mournful, were out of tune; the soloist Allison Bell lacked Dawn Upshaw’s smoothness (maybe that’s partly attributable to the sound recordists on the famous CD): and rather than lulling and inspiring, I found Dworzynski’s pacing of the insistent repetitive chords (variations on A, I believe) in the final section, as monotonous and eventually as headachey as a less successful Steve Reich piece. Instead of waves on the shore, the orchestra went quiet enough between pulses that each insistent chord seemed more like the throbbing of a headache.

Violin by MATANAO (Wikimedia Commons)

Violin by MATANAO (Wikimedia Commons)

Britten’s War Requiem @ the Royal Festival Hall

To the Royal Festival hall to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski with Evelina Dobraceva soprano, Ian Bostridge tenor, Matthias Goerne baritone and Neville Creed conducting the chamber orchestra. along with the London Philharmonic Choir and Trinity Boys Choir perform Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.

It was premiered in 1962 at the opening of the new cathedral in Coventry, built on the ruins of the old one, demolished like half the city in a catastrophic German air raid.

Among requiems it is notable because Britten intersperses the texts of the Latin requiem (the Missa pro Defunctis) – the ones set by Mozart, Brahms, Verdi and numerous other composers – with poems by the greatest poet of the Great War, Wilfred Owen. Thus it harks back to, or can be seen as a summation of, Britten’s lifelong interest in creating song cycles.

What struck me in performance was:

  • The size of the chorus – I counted 145 choristers – when they sang forte in unison as during the Dies irae and the climax, before Strange Meeting, I was pushed back in my seat by the power, and the power of Britten’s intentions to overwhelm us.
  • By striking contrast, the smallness of the chamber orchestra of about 8 players who accompanied the tenor and baritone when they sang the poems. And the way, throughout the requiem, Britten used tics and habits which I associate with Peter Grimes and Billy Budd – the use of little trills on trumpet or horn to punctuate phrases, of a snare drum to accompany phrasing – both these and other tics have the affect of distancing and alienating the music so it is not lush and orchestral and comforting. There’s something of Stravinsky’s ‘Histoire du Soldat’ or Weill’s Weimar songs in their deliberately patchy, scratchy orchestration.
  • I am not sure this was a great production. Despite myriad high points (including the piercing soprano voice in the Lacrymosa and the swaying orchestration of the final Let us sleep) the offstage voices of the boys choir (which I take to be intended as a heavenly choir) were so offstage that at moments it became inaudible; I found the deep notes of the baritone in the Abraham poem so low that I wouldn’t have been able to understand it if I hadn’t had the text in front of me.

There was a minute’s silence after the last notes died away. Maybe that is traditional and it was certainly well observed here. And as the applause started I felt a tear well up in my eye. My great uncle fought at the Somme. “Such a waste, a bloody waste,” he said on the only occasion he was ever known to swear. But I wasn’t as moved as I have been listening to the CD in the privacy of my home. As soon as the clapping died away the usual audience chit-chat started up and I felt we hadn’t been as traumatised as we should have been.

John Eliot Gardiner conducts the North German Symphony Orchestra in Britten’s War Requiem on Youtube

Three years after the War Requiem‘s premiere, in 1965, Gyorgi Ligeti published his Requiem. Innovative though Britten’s introduction of Owen’s poetry might have been, comparison with Ligeti makes it clear that it is an innovation by moving backwards, towards 50-year old (and very traditional) English poetry and using the small-scale orchestration which appears throughout the operas. It is an innovation from Britten’s roots, a recapitulation: whereas Ligeti has invented a dazzling new way for music to exist altogether and, arguably, a more appropriate sonic response to the horror of 20th century war.

Related links

Wilfred Owen 1893-1918 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wilfred Owen 1893-1918 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Mahler, Schoenberg and Webern @ the Royal Festival Hall

23 January 2013

To the Royal Festival Hall to see ‘Extreme Expression‘, one of the 92 concerts featured in their fabulous year-long festival of 20th century music, The Rest Is Noise. Far from being extreme these three pieces represent the lush last years of Germanic Romanticism before Schoenberg and his acolytes opened the door to atonality and then to Serialism.

Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind – idyll for orchestra
Arnold Schoenberg: 5 Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Interval
Gustav Mahler: Das Lied von der Erde

The Webern is a very early (1904) ten-minute piece of late Romanticism inspired by stays in the country, and suppressed by the later, wildly radical composer, until rediscovered in the 1960s. It shows what Webern might have been, a pasticheur of the Tradition, of the dominant musical Austrian, Richard Strauss – full of jaunty tunes and lush orchestration. Lovely, but dead.

The Schoenberg (1909) comprises five short pieces which experiment with atonality, timbre, unusual dynamics and sounds ie moving beyond the rich chromaticism of Mahler and Strauss. Their first audiences were outraged by Schoenberg’s deliberate rejection of melody, harmony, smooth orchestration in favour of impenetrable logic, abrupt changes of timbre and assonance, sudden eruptions of loudness, pieces ending on half finished phrases. But to the listener in 2013 it seems full of special affects which will be plundered by composers of film and TV music for countless thrillers and sci fi movies.

‘The Song of the Earth’ by Mahler is the name he gave to a symphonic setting of six songs. It follows his Eighth Symphony, though Mahler was superstitious about calling it his 9th. (All Germanic composers lived in the long shadow of Beethoven and his unsurpassable Ninth Symphony.)

Despite some shorter, jovial drinking songs among the first five, the piece is dominated by the half-hour long final song, ‘Das Abschied’, or ‘The Farewell’, the last of Mahler’s mournful meditations on death. The whole was premiered in November 1911, after the composer’s death in May of that year.

It was pretty much the last symphony in the great German tradition which stretched back to Haydn. After Mahler, Schoenberg and his disciples Berg and Webern were to take German music to completely new places, while composers like Eissler and Weill concentrated on songs and Paul Hindemith did his own thing. Then it’s Stockhausen!

So this concert was about the peak, the acme, the zenith of the German symphonic tradition – and the moment of its dissolution and abrupt, mysterious disappearance. The last words of The Farewell (which Mahler himself wrote) take on a biographical resonance for the dead composer, but also for the entire tradition:

“The beloved Earth blooms forth everywhere in Spring, and becomes green anew! Everywhere and endlessly blue shines the horizon! Endless… endless…”

The three pieces were performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Mark Elder, joined by mezzo-soprano Lilli Paasikivi and tenor Paul Groves for Das Lied. The Webern was pretty; the Schoenberg was fascinating but not radical enough; the first five songs of Das Lied I’ve always thought trivial and non-descript, full of Mahler mannerisms but without the melodies or big themes which make his earlier songs and symphonies. But Der Abschied was absolutely tremendous. Lilli Paasikivi was just fabulous, moving and trembling with the music, and there was special applause for key instruments the flute, clarinet and horn, all of whom played delicately and wonderfully during the quiet, almost silent passages of this marvellous piece.

The concert was broadcast by BBC Radio 3, so you should be able to hear it here.

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