Saturday, 30 January 2016

Raskatov Green Mass London Philharmonic Jurowski

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6
Raskatov: Green Mass (world premiere)

Elena Vassilieva soprano
Iestyn Davies countertenor
Mark Padmore tenor
Nikolay Didenko bass
Clare College Choir, Cambridge
Vladimir Jurowski conductor
London Philharmonic Orchestra

Alexander Raskatov (pictured above, image M.F. Plissart) is best known in the UK for his opera A Dog’s Heart, staged at ENO in 2010. The music there is anarchic, stylistically diverse and bleakly comical at every turn. But there is another side to the composer, a spiritual depth that informs his religious music, especially his choral works. The style there is unified and focussed, still distinctive, but refined in a way that his more overtly dramatic orchestral works are not.
Those two sides come together in Raskatov’s Green Mass, premiered this evening by the London Philharmonic under Vladimir Jurowski. It’s a huge work, 80 minutes of music for large orchestra, choir and four soloists. The piece explores two ideas, a setting of the Mass ordinary for these huge forces, and a celebration of nature, as expressed in poems by Blake, Georg Trakl, Velimir Khlebnikov, Apollinaire and Francis of Assisi, interspersed between the Mass movements. Raskatov is often accused of incoherency, so there is a clear danger here of the piece sounding like two separate works spliced together. In fact, it is impressively coherent. Raskatov’s trademark eclecticism is apparent throughout, and in every moment it feels like he is reaching out to find a new effect or musical device to deploy across the performing forces. But by doing this as much in the Mass movements as the poem settings, an uneasy, and paradoxical, continuity emerges.
Even so, the work also gives the impression that it is based on a more simple Mass setting, subsumed within the more complex orchestral and choral textures, and periodically rising to the surface to offer spiritual guidance amongst the chaos. The Kyrie opens with a simple three-note figure in the choir, each note held by the orchestra to create a simple dissonance: the two aspects of the work seem to start from a single source, and as the movement continues, the choir maintains the simplicity, while the orchestra increases the complexity and uncertainly beneath.
Blake’s “The Wild Flower’s Song” is set here for countertenor, the ever dependable Iestyn Davies. Here, for the first and last time, Raskatov indulges in pastoral tone painting, with the woodwinds singing birdcalls and fluttering in the breeze. The Gloria remains upbeat, the tone, if not the style, approaching Carmina Burana. Mark Padmore then sings Traktl’s “Lebensalter”, his German pronunciation a better match for the text than the rhythms of Raskatov’s setting.
“Clotilde” by Apollinaire is sung by soprano Elena Vassilieva. She is also the composer’s wife, and Raskatov regularly writes for her astonishing vocal abilities. She is a modern-music soprano in the Pierrot lunaire mould, and this movement displays her extraordinary vocal acrobatics in the upper register. Vassilieva must be well into her 60s, but it is difficult to imagine any other singer, whatever their age, matching this. The final song “Preghiera” of St. Francis is set for the four soloists, accompanied only by a collection of wind chimes, set in continuous motion by electric fans pointing upwards from beneath. It’s an eerie and magical effect, evoking nature, but in an abstract way ideal for the context.
In the final two Mass movements, the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei, the fog lifts and a more straightforward, consonant style emerges, especially in the choir, which was often supported by radiant chorales in the brass. What is Raskatov trying to tell us here? That the religious dimension of the work redeems all? It is difficult to see how this fits into the environmental theme. But then, the two ideas, the liturgical and the natural, are so closely interconnected throughout the work, that, in this optimistic ending, it feels like there are no losers.
The London Philharmonic gave an excellent performance. Despite the huge orchestra, filled with unusual instruments, balances were always finely judged.  Vocally, the performance was less secure. The four soloists made for a curious ensemble, Vassilieva’s coloratura sitting uneasily with the purer tone of Iestyn Davies, Mark Padmore and bass Nikolay Didenko. But this was in the spirit of the piece, just another stylistic juxtaposition for Raskatov to work with. The composer stymied a proposed second performance of the work, by an American orchestra, on the grounds that they could not provide a professional choir, so it was surprising to see the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge singing this evening. The young choristers handled the unusual techniques and textures well, although it sometimes seemed that the composer had a more bottom-heavy, Russian sound in mind. All of the vocalists were in the choir stalls, the soloists there presumably because the huge orchestra left no room for them at the front of the stage, and all were amplified. This seemed like a last minute solution to a balance problem, one that would have taken a larger stage and a large choir to resolve otherwise.
The concert opened with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, an obvious choice, but one that in retrospect only went to demonstrate the pastoral tone painting that Raskatov largely avoids. A pared-down London Philharmonic performed with a large tone, but with Jurowski maintaining disciplined tempos throughout. A mix-and-match approach to instrumentation saw the otherwise modern band accompanied by natural trumpets and period timpani in the storm, the former elegantly crisp, but the latter somewhat tubby. A competent performance of the Beethoven, but one that seemed to acknowledge that it was there mainly as a support act.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016


“To take a stand regarding Schoenberg?”
So Boulez began the famous diatribe against his predecessor, written soon enough after his death to add a calculated sense of disrespect. Now Boulez himself has left us, and, just as in 1951, the event feels like the ending of an era: Whatever the manifold achievements of the two men, their greatest historical legacy is to have defined their times.
But the difference in attitude is revealing. If we write “To take a stand regarding Boulez” no question mark is necessary. He made it his life’s work to define a polemic in which you were either with him or against him. His attitudes may have seemed to soften in later years, particularly with the increasing breadth of his conducting repertoire, but he kept his corner, and nothing in his later work could give rise to the accusations of regression that formed the main point of attack in his essay on Schoenberg.
By then, the Modernists had found a new figurehead, Anton Webern, whose aesthetic trajectory seemed to move in the opposite direction to Schoenberg’s, and who therefore was a better fit for the dialectical/progressive model for musical history that Boulez and his contemporaries attempted to foster. And for all his achievements as a composer, conductor and electronic music pioneer, it is the staggering success of that project that made him the defining figure of his times. Serialism, in its purest form, became not only an ideal but a necessity. As he famously said in 1952, “I … assert that any musician who has not experienced – I do not say understood, but in all exactness, experienced – the necessity for serialism is useless.” And if you were on the wrong side of this debate, you were on the wrong side of history, something else that could only be stated in extremes, as when Boulez’ colleague René Leibowitz in 1955 described Sibelius as “the world’s worst composer.”
How times change. What would either of these statements sound like if uttered today? Petulant, certainly, but also indicative of the marginal status, and even irrelevance, of the speaker. For these are no longer times of aesthetic polarity. The culture that Boulez fostered (along with many other composers of his generation, though most others in action rather than word) of new music as us against them, right vs wrong, and all based on purely aesthetic criteria, already seems like a distant memory. Modernist music of the sort Boulez championed is still with us – its progress continues – but its insularity has evaporated, and with it any sense of authority or higher moral purpose.
Boulez leaves us much: an impressive and unique catalogue of works, an enviable discography – and let’s not forget IRCAM. Yet his musical ideology has predeceased him by several decades. Just as the post-war generation could take the repertoire they had inherited but had to find a new framework in which to affirm its relevance, so Boulez’ successors must argue the case for his music in an environment already broadly hostile to its underlying assumptions.
Therefore, I do not hesitate to write, not out of any desire to provoke a stupid scandal, but equally without bashful hypocrisy and pointless melancholy:

Monday, 2 November 2015

Opera Looks Expensive

Opera is perceived as expensive, when actually it’s not. From out outreach perspective, it’s a lose-lose situation, and something the whole culture needs to address. Several bloggers have been writing on this subject recently, mostly in response to a television interview, in which Gavin Esler posed questions to Jonas Kaufmann based on the assumption of opera’s expense. @chaconato has done sterling work in demonstrating that opera tickets are not expensive, and that in fact they are relatively cheap. 

So clearly this is an image problem. Bob Shingleton agrees. He thinks one of the culprits is online streaming, especially when offered free. Opera tickets seem expensive by comparison with free, so his argument goes. I’m inclined to disagree with this thesis, but I’ll readily admit that is because I value and enjoy webstreams of concerts and opera performances, and like to think that I don’t associate their financial cost with their artistic and cultural value. 

That, of course, is where I’m deluding myself. The capitalist impulse to quantify value in material terms is innate. It’s not the only way we judge things, but it is always in the mix somewhere. This is where opera’s image and cultural status become a problem. Opera must defend a precarious position in the world of theatre, one that is predicated on the notion of “high art”. That is what separates it from the much larger, more profitable – and more expensive – world of commercial musical theatre. 

The distinction is fundamental to the survival of opera; it’s what justifies the public subsidy that keeps it afloat. Generic distinctions do separate the two art forms, but so too do the actual experiences of seeing and hearing them. Opera maintains its “high art” appearance by looking expensive - that basic equation between financial and artistic value. Just look at the décor of the Royal Opera House or the Coliseum. Then there is the dress code, something that few opera advocates have ever made any serious efforts to defend (John Christie’s explanation that it is out of respect for the performers a rare and tenuous effort). 

The fact is that opera needs to be seen as superior and special. It must present itself with the trappings of aristocracy, whoever its target audience might actually be. It’s an integral part of what makes opera distinctive – and eligible for subsidy on artistic grounds. The irony is deep and entrenched: that opera must look expensive to qualify for the funding that keeps it cheap.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Lebrecht, Sokolov…and Sokolov’s wife

Grigory Sokolov’s refusal of the Cremona Award, on account its having previously been presented to Norman Lebrecht, has generated much debate about the cause of their antagonism. Some have speculated that it’s a result of a blogpost Lebrecht wrote in 2013 questioning Sokolov’s greatness on the curious grounds of his not being willing to perform in the UK. But a reply to my previouspost on this story, from one ‘ADGO’, points to a more compelling reason. Here is the message in full:

“As Lebrecht refused to post my comment on his blog Slippedisc, I will copy-paste it here for all to read. He cannot bury his shameless actions forever.

Recall last year that soon after Sokolov's wife passed away, the pianist published a cryptic letter which began, 'To my astonishment, I have learned about some delirious inventions made on the subject of my wife's life'. This can be read in full on Sokolov's website or on AMC. The cause of that was most likely Norman Lebrecht's blog post in which he speculated about Sokolov marrying his dead cousin's wife, going into detail about the apparent Sokolov family tree. You can find this blog post still on Slippedisc, and the links at the bottom of it which lead to the old Sokolov website. Click any of those links and you'll see a message which states that Norman Lebrecht should not be believed. Lebrecht's rash and shameless speculation about Sokolov's recently deceased wife is most likely the reason why Sokolov refuses to associate with him. I want to make this clear as it is the only sensible public explanation for Sokolov's refusal. There may be private reasons no one can know about, but the public one is there for all to see.

On another matter....I've attended Sokolov's recitals for nearly 15 years and he is without doubt the greatest pianist I've ever heard. If you can't hear him in the UK--which I used to--then take a trip to Brussels or Amsterdam and it'll most likely turn into one of the great concert experiences of your life.”

And Sokolov’s response here:
As the earlier version of Lebrecht’s post on Sokolov’s site shows, “his wife was also his cousin’s widow” originally read “his wife was also his aunt”, a more lurid claim and, as it turns out, a false one. Lebrecht could probably have avoided this whole incident if he had issued an acknowledged correction and an apology, rather than the “update” we get instead. But, of course, that’s not how Lebrecht works.