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Robert Schumann

Monday, June 27, 2016


Classical iconoclast

June 23

Vaughan Williams Weekend St John's Smith Square

Classical iconoclastRalph Vaughan Williams and Friends Weekend at St John's Smith Square, a glorious three-day celebration of British music. This follows on the success of previous SJSS weekends devoted to Schubert and Schumann.  Curated by Anna Tilbrook, the RVW/SJSS weekend features The Holst Singers, James Gilchrist, Philip Dukes, and Ensemble Elata. The Weekend runs from 7th to 9th October, but get tickets soon as they will sell fast. There's no clash with the Oxford Lieder Festival which starts the following weekend, this year featuring Schumann. Friday 7th at 7.30 : The Holst Singers conducted by Benjamin Nicholas launch the festival on Friday evening: Parry I was Glad, Stanford Beatoi quorum via, W Lloyd Weber, Howells Requiem, Holst Nunc Dimittis, and RVW's Lord thou hast been our refuge Saturday 8th at 1 pm :  RVW Songs of Travel, Elgar Salut d'amour, Frank Bridge Oh, that it were so, Rebecca Clarke Passacaglia, Quilter : Go, lovely Rose, Bantock Hebrew Melody, Ivor Gurney Ludlow and Teme Saturday 8th 4 pm : The Folk Connection  Quilter I will go with my father a-ploughing, Percy Grainger : Molly on the Shoree, RVW : Along the Field, Six Studies in English Folk Song, Winter's Willow and Linden lea, Rebecca Clarke : I'll bid my heart be still, Grainger: Handel in the Strand. Saturday 8th at 7.30 : The Spiritual Realm  RVW : Rhosymedre, Four Hymns, Orpheus with his lute, Sky above the roof, Silent Noon, Piano Quintet, Finzi : Til the Earth Outwears, Elgar : Chanson de matin, Chanson de nuit (photo above Finzi and RVW, courtesy Finzi Trust) Sunday 9th at 11.30 : The Shadow of War : Bliss Elegaic Sonnet, Ireland The Darkened valley, Butterworth : Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, Elgar : Piano Quintet Sunday 9th at 3 pm : The Shadow of War II : Ireland ;The Soldier, Blow out, you bugles, Spring Sorrow, Elgar : Sospiri, Gurney: Severn Meadows, Lights Out, Sleep, In Flanders, By a Bierside, Howells : Elegy, RVW : On Wenlock Edge

Classical iconoclast

June 23

James Gilchrist Sally Beamish premiere Wigmore Hall

James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook at the Wigmore Hall, London with  Sally Beamish's West Wind.  Gilchrist has been one of the most determined advocates of English song, almost from the beginning of his career.  Although his core repertoire is built on solid foundations of Handel, Purcell, RVW, Britten, and especially Gerald Finzi of whom he is a great exponent, Gilchrist has always made a point of promoting composers who should be more in the mainstream, like Hugh Wood, Lennox Berkeley and John Jeffreys and others whom he's performed live but not recorded. .  By commissioning Beamish, one of the most prominent British composers for voice, Gilchrist is again making a valuable contribution to British music.  Beamish's West Wind is based on Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ode to the West Wind, which everyone knows as a poem, but which has hardly ever been set to music, at least not in full.  English poets dominate world literature - Shakespeare, the Restoration poets, Wordsworth, Keats - but this heritage is hardly reflected in music. History might explain things. The Industrial Revolution transformed British society, making it more urban and centralized than was the case elsewhere in Europe.  British and European Romanticism were very different, in ways too complex to describe here.  Furthermore,  the British choral tradition was so strong that other forms of music making didn't get much attention.  Perhaps the very nature of English Romantic poetry is relevant.  The style is fulsome and elegaic, lending itself to oratorio rather than to art song. It's significant that Hubert Parry was one of the first to create art song from English poetry.  Read here about the ground breaking series of Parry's songs to English texts from Somm Records  (Gilchrist, Roderick Williams and Susan Gritton.) Rolling, circular figures introduce Beamish's West Wind the voice entering from a distance as if it were being blown in by the "pestilence stricken multitudes".  Soon, though, the voice asserts itself.,  Gilchrist dings the words "Cold and low.....the corpse within its grave". A slow, penetrating chill descends, but, like the wind, the music changes direction, at turns capricious, rhen still, then rushing forth.  The third section is particularly beautiful. Delicate piano figures lead into curling, keening vocal phrases that seem to hover in the air, "Lull'd by the coil of his crystalline streams".   In the lower register of the piano, perhaps we can detect sonorous "lungs" . Suddenly lightness returns. "If I were a dead leaf", Gilchrist sings, almost unaccompanied, suggesting fragility.  His touch is delicate, yet perfectly poised. The phrasing suits his voice. Gilchrist has the strange esoteric timbre of a typical English tenor, but also direct, almost conversational  naturalness.  From vulnerable sensitivity to the ferocity of the last poem. "Make me thy lyre" Gilchrist growls at the bottom of his timbre. Now Tilbrook's playing flutters weightlessly, like falling leaves.  "Scatter, scatter, scatter" Gilchrist sings, each word on a slightly different level.  "O.. O...O " he sang, mimicking the sound of wind, the word "Wind" pitched and held  so high that it floated, rarified, into air.  Beamish's West Wind is quirky, underlining the disturbing undercurrents in a poem ostensibly about Nature, but too malign to be a "nature poem". I kept thinking of  Peter Warlock's The Curlew, another cycle well suited to Gilchrist's style.  I also remembered Gilchrist's  Die Schöne Müllerin. There are hundreds of recordings, but his stood out out from the competition because it was an interpretation derived as if from clinical observation of the miller's psychology.  In this Wigmore Hall recital, Gilchrist and Tilbrook included songs by Mendelssohn,and Liszt and Schumann's Liederkreis op 39. Eichendorff's poems are less overtly ironic than Heine's, which formed the basis of Schumann's Leiderkreis Op 24.  but are perhaps closer to,the spirit of the very early Romantic period. After hearing this performance, I've decided to grt Gilchrist's recent recording of the Schumann song cycles on Linn. photo credit operomnia.uk/Hazard Chase Management




Classical iconoclast

June 8

Weber Der Freischütz - what it really means

Mark Elder and The Orchestra of the Enlightenment marked its 30th anniversary with Carl Maria von Weber Der Freischütz. A good choice, since Der Freischütz is a milestone in music history, and represents a turning point, too, in wider European cultural history. Der Freischütz is the embodiment of Romantic ideals. In effect it marks the beginning of the modern era. So what if English-language listeners don't know the work as well as they should? Without Weber, music, not just opera, might not be as we know it today. No Der Freischütz, no Wagner, no Berlioz, no Schumann, no Mahler.  Parochialism is no excuse for not knowing music or even basic world history.   Der Freischütz was first performed in 1821, just seven years after Napoleon's defeat.  Many in the audiences in early performances would have had direct personal experience of  the wars and their impact on German-speaking lands.   Romanticism has nothing to do with being "romantic" in the modern sense of the word    Its ideals galvanized European thought, especially in Germany which hitherto had been a diverse conglomeration of 300 states.  This period saw the growth of solidarity between German-language speakers, whatever their region. Nationalism then was a progressive, unifying force.  This interest in the past  wasn't about the past but a way of using the past to validate new ideas like national identity and the role of the individual. Thus the interest in German folklore, in Brentano and von Arnim's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, in the poetry of Gottfried Herder and even the concept "Gedanken sind Frei" (Read more here)  the individual as opposed to mass authority. From the Romantik sprang the revolutions of 1848, all over Europe, not just Germany. Understanding this context is fundamental to appreciating Der Freischütz.  Der Freischütz portrays an idealized vision of the German past, where hunters provide sustenance  and live (more or less) in harmony with Nature.  But remember that forests can be dangerous places. Not for nothing are they a symbol of the unknown, and of the unconscious., Read Simon Schama: Landscape and Memory (2004), Jeffrey Wilson The German Forest (2012).  And, for that matter Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment.  Disney sanitized our appreciation of fairy tales as folk psychology, and infantilized meaning. Absolutely resist the idea that Der Freischütz should either be sentimental or kitsch.  The people in this opera inhabit a world where danger and loss is never very far away.  Max, a humble junior huntsman, wants to marry Agathe, the boss's daughter, but in this rigid, hierarchial society he has no chance of challenging the social order. To win Agathe, he has to do a deal with the Devil whom Samiel represents.  If Max escapes in the end, it's only because Caspar pays the price and Prince Ottokar intervenes as deus ex machina. It's a near thing. Agathe could have been killed and Max executed for murder.   Weber's music is exquisitely beautiful, as if it were, like the magic bullet, deflecting truth from those who can't handle reality.  Magic Bullets are not a solution. indeed, this opera can even allude to the dangers of quick-fix nationalism. Remember Hermann Göring if you think productions should be twee and folksy. Who was Göring in league with?   Hunting parties have long been a part of European culture, so they aren't in themselves any big deal. Read my piece here why the French Der Freischütz matters. It translates perfectly well to a non-German context. When we listen to Weber's hunting horns and rousing choruses, we should think about what's being hunted, and why.  The music is ravishingly beautiful because it emphasizes the beauty of life.  But killing is a bloody business, it's not pretty and it's not sentimental  Stick to Disney if you can't cope.  Weber's audiences would have known all about the Lützower Freikorps and other volunteer units who took to the forests and fought Napoleon's armies in guerilla action.  Most of these men were urban intellectuals, some aristocrats, some artists.  Some of Schubert's friends and poets were among their number.  But all believed in liberty and the ideals of the Romantic movement.  For me the most rewarding recording is Carlos Kleiber because it's savage and Max (Peter Schreier) is wonderfullly manic. 



Robert Schumann
(1810 – 1856)

Robert Schumann (8 June 1810 - 29 July 1856) was a German composer, aesthete and influential music critic. He is regarded as one of the greatest and most representative composers of the Romantic era. Schumann left the study of law to return to music, intending to pursue a career as a virtuoso pianist. He had been assured by his teacher, Friedrich Wieck, that he could become the finest pianist in Europe, but a hand injury caused by a device he created with the false belief that it would help increase the size of his hands prevented that. One of the most promising careers as a pianist had thus come to an end. Schumann then focused his musical energies on composing. Schumann's published compositions were written exclusively for the piano until 1840; he later composed works for piano and orchestra; many lieder (songs for voice and piano); four symphonies; an opera; and other orchestral, choral, and chamber works. His writings about music appeared mostly in the New Journal for Music, a Leipzig-based publication which he jointly founded. In 1840, Schumann married pianist Clara Wieck when she was of age, following a long and acrimonious legal battle with her father, his former teacher, to gain his approval of the match. Clara also composed music and had a considerable concert career. For the last two years of his life, after an attempted suicide, Schumann was confined to a mental institution, at his own request.



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