On record: Magdalena Kozená, Christian Gerhaher, LSO / Sir Simon Rattle – Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande (LSO Live)

Debussy Pelléas et Mélisande

Magdalena KozenáChristian Gerhaher, Gerald Finley, Bernarda FinkFranz-Josef Selig, Joshua BloomElias Madlër, London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO0790 (three SACDs and one Blu-ray, 160’46”)
Producer James Mallinson Engineers Jonathan Stokes, James Hutchinson
Dates Live performances at Barbican Hall, London on January 9th and 10th, 2016

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra release their first opera collaboration on the LSO’s label. Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande is a work Rattle has conducted often (including London and Salzburg), and the present account confirms his identity with this most elusive of operas.

What’s the music like?

Premiered in 1902 after a genesis of almost a decade, Pelléas et Mélisande is Debussy’s only completed opera and his treatment of Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama is a high point of musical impressionism. This recording is derived from two performances at Barbican Hall, shorn of Peter Sellars’ ‘platform staging’ but its partial re-seating of the orchestra evident in numerous instances of balance. The result is to emphasize dramatic extremes, though without necessitating extremes of tempo in what is otherwise a finely integrated reading of real poise.

The cast is a strong one, and such reservations as there are centre on the title-roles. A model of clarity and lucidity, Christian Gerhaher is arguably too self-contained to convey fully the emotional eloquence of a figure whose actions can seem almost involuntary. No less secure technically, Magdalena Kožená is elegant if at times rather generalized in her assumption – rendering the notes with unerring accuracy yet not always conveying the inner radiance of one whose presence should be disconcerting through its very intangibility and equivocation.

Gerald Finley’s is among the finest recorded Golaud – conveying his moroseness and anxiety with palpable conviction though retaining a vital degree of empathy, while Franz-Josef Selig makes of Arkel a nobler and more substantial figure than is too often the case. Bernarda Fink brings warmth and pathos to the (too?) brief role of Geneviève, with Joshua Bloom shining in his cameos as the Doctor and Shepherd, but Elias Mädler is a little too mature in timbre to be ideal for Yniold – his exchanges with Golaud a heart-rending instance of innocence corrupted.

The London Symphony Chorus acquits itself admirably during its brief contribution, with the LSO playing as well as it has done for its new Music Director in terms of fastidiousness and subtlety; climactic peaks thereby feeling the more acute for their rarity. Compared to that of his Royal Opera staging, Rattle’s conducting is freer and less inhibited – touching on a wide expressive range without sacrificing attention to detail. Each of these five acts is shaped with scrupulous regard to the action at hand while being responsive to the emergent overall drama.

Does it all work?

Indeed, for all that Pelléas et Mélisande already has an extensive and impressive discography. Roger Desormière’s 1942 recording (Warner) remains the interpretative benchmark – while, among the more recent accounts, Claudio Abbado (DG), Bernard Haitink (Naïve) and Pierre Boulez’s DVD (DG) all have serious claims on the listener. Presentation over three SACDs and one Blu-ray, with the booklet containing a succinct introduction, synopsis and bilingual libretto, is unexceptionally fine – as also the sound, if with little sense of a tangible acoustic.

Is it recommended?

Yes, though the absence of a visual component on the Blu-ray might be thought something of a missed opportunity. Something LSO Live might like to reconsider before issuing Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, the next Rattle/Sellars/LSO project which is due in the coming months.

You can read more about this release at the LSO Live website, or you can listen on Spotify below:

On screen: Barbara Hannigan, London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Stravinsky: Rite of Spring; Berg: Wozzeck Fragments; Ligeti: Mysteries of the Macabre (LSO Live)

Webern Six Pieces op.6 (1909/28)
Berg Three Fragments from Wozzeck, op. 7 (1923)
Ligeti arr. Howarth Mysteries of the Macabre (1992)
Stravinsky The Rite of Spring (1913)

Barbara Hannigan (soprano – Berg & Ligeti), London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

LSO Live LSO3028 [84’58’’] One DVD and one Blu-ray disc

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Following on from its all-French programme (LSO3038), LSO Live here releases a further concert by the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle on DVD and Blu-ray – once again a co-production with the digital channel Mezzo and in association with ARTE France.

What’s the music like?

Rattle has long been an advocate of Webern’s Six Pieces and made a fine recording of it in his Birmingham days. This LSO account is notable for its scrupulous attention to dynamics and tonal shading, even if such fastidiousness minimizes any real spontaneity in this elusive music. A case in point is the rather effortful climax to the explosive second piece, while the ‘funeral march’ fourth lacks underlying momentum on the way to its powerful though hardly unnerving culmination. Elsewhere, this music’s subdued introspection is tellingly conveyed.

The Three Fragments which Berg drew from Wozzeck follows on naturally. Focussing on the character of Marie enabled the composer to bring together three of this opera’s highlights for concert use, and Barbara Hannigan brings a probing characterization to the lullaby from Act One then the bible-reading scene from Act Three. She captures the naivety of the child at the close of the third fragment, before which the LSO comes into its own in a powerful while not unduly vehement interlude prior to the final scene – Rattle steering them through unerringly.

Hannigan returns in rather different guise for Mysteries of the Macabre that Elgar Howarth arranged from Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre. This present-day staple of the coloratura repertoire lends itself to all manner of parody and if Hannigan’s juvenile delinquent might be felt inappropriate for a chief of secret police, her vocal contribution is uninhibited in its virtuosity. Rattle and his orchestra enter-into the music’s anarchic accordingly, the former’s joke at the expense of Nigel Farage seeming all too ironic in the light of subsequent events.

Rattle’s association with Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring goes back to the outset of his career and hearing this account is a reminder of his prowess in music the LSO has itself played many times. Yet for all the consummate technical skill, there is a nagging sense of conductor and orchestra going through the motions to ultimately predictable effect (indeed, the performance from Peter Eötvös with the LSO later that season generated much more genuine excitement and sense of purpose). Easy to admire, there is little here to make one assess this work afresh.

Does it all work?

Absolutely in terms of a programme both cohesive and provocative. Things are more mixed in term of performances – with those of the Berg and (musically at least) the Ligeti as good as one is ever likely to hear, that of the Webern just a little too micro-managed overall and the Stravinsky a reminder that superb playing and expert conducting do not necessarily make for a gripping interpretation.

As an indication of Rattle’s association with the orchestra of which he subsequently became Music Director, there is much here that is enjoyable and engrossing

Is it recommended?

Yes, in terms of a concert to which one might wish to return on repeated occasions. Sound and vision leave little to be desired in either format, though post-production means that there is little sense of the orchestra performing in a tangible acoustic – Barbican Hall or otherwise.

For more information on this release, visit the LSO Live website

London Symphony Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle – Genesis Suite & Bartók Concerto for Orchestra

Simon Callow, Rodney Earl Clarke, Sara Kestelman, Helen McCrory (narrators), Gerard McBurney (creative director), Mike Tutaj (projection design), London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Sir Simon Rattle

Various composers The Genesis Suite (1945)
Bartók Concerto for Orchestra (1943)

Barbican Hall, London; Saturday 13 January 2018

Written by Ben Hogwood

Collaboration in classical music is rare. Pop music is full of it – many of the best songs and albums are co-written – but for composers to work together on a single work is nigh on unthinkable. Full marks, then, to Sir Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra for reminding us of an instance when that did in fact happen – no fewer than SEVEN classical composers coming together in 1945, at the end of World War II, to write the Genesis Suite. The project was held together by Nathanial Shilkret, masterminding the project from Hollywood.

The Suite, of course, has nothing to do with the rock band. Yet it is fully progressive, telling the story of the first book of the Bible from creation through to the construction of the Tower of Babylon in the space of an hour, working its way from Schoenberg to Stravinsky via Shilkret himself, Alexandre Tansman, Darius Milhaud, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Ernst Toch.

Rattle and creative director Gerard McBurney collaborated on a series of moving images and audio clips to put the Genesis Suite in modern perspective. These were thought provoking and occasionally daring. The story of Cain and Abel (with surprisingly upbeat music from Milhaud) was played out to a Middle Eastern backdrop, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were prominent during the story of The Flood (Noah and the Ark), while the construction of the Shard against Stravinsky’s music for Babel was a powerful allegory.

Unfortunately the music was overshadowed somewhat by the wordy text, taken directly from the King James Bible, and read as written. Nor was it helped by a lack of ensemble between the starry quartet of narrators. Simon Callow and Helen McCrory stood far left, Sara Kestelman and Rodney Earl Clarke far right – which meant for the audience it was a strain to hear two of the four speakers unless sat directly in the middle, despite the amplification. Some speakers were better versed than others in their delivery, too – and maybe because of my own seated position Kestelman and Clarke appeared to have greater emotional involvement.

The London Symphony Chorus, however, were as one in their powerful contributions, dressed in white to maximise their dramatic delivery. When the men came out into the stalls for the Stravinsky finale the Suite’s tension between creation and what man has done with it reached its ultimate, tense conclusion.

Musically the Suite was inconsistent. Schoenberg’s Prelude stood out for inventive orchestration and far reaching harmonic language, while in a dramatic sense Toch’s dramatic setting of The Rainbow (The Covenant) was a notable high. Creation itself, Shilkret’s contribution, felt hurried, the seven days of creation crammed into ten minutes.

Despite these reservations Genesis Suite made a lasting impression, especially following Rattle’s assertion that all composers except one wrote in exile. After the interval another such composer, the Hungarian Béla Bartók writing in America in 1943, was to light up the concert.

It is very easy to take the LSO’s virtuosity for granted, but in a performance like this they shone from every corner. Rattle challenged them to dig deep technically and emotionally and they delivered on every level, particularly in the work’s deeply felt heart, the Elegia. Rattle and McBurney opted to continue with images, which were slow moving or static this time, depicting the forests Bartók looked on during composition. However the gauze on which the images were shown did on occasion muffle the projection of the brass musicians sat under or behind the screen.

Ultimately this did not spoil a terrific performance, where sinewy strings and percussive outbursts were complemented by outstanding, colourful woodwind playing. The first of the two scherzos brought this out, with pairs of bassoons, flutes, clarinets and oboes outstanding in their delivery, balanced by the trumpets. The finale danced energetically, bathed in a luminous glow which proceeded to leave its spell on the audience.

Further listening

You can see Sir Simon Rattle talking about the Genesis Suite below:

The music from this concert, including Rattle’s own recording of the Concerto for Orchestra, can be heard on this Spotify playlist:

Ask the Audience at the BBC Proms – Kulwinder Singh-Rai on the Berliner Philharmoniker & Sir Simon Rattle

Ask The Audience Arcana at the Proms
kulwinder-singh-raiThis is the latest in the series where Arcana invites a friend to a Prom who does not normally listen to classical music. In an interview after the concert each will share their musical upbringing and their thoughts on the concert – whether good or bad! Here, Kulwinder Singh-Rai (above) gives his thoughts on Prom 64.

Berliner Philharmoniker / Sir Simon Rattle

Boulez Éclat (1965); Mahler Symphony no.7 (1904-05)

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer here

Arcana: Kulwinder, what was your musical upbringing?

I listen to a lot of Bhangra music, Punjabi music and hip hop. Being born in the city of Birmingham I would experience a lot of dancehall and bashment music, but always something with a real beat to it. All the genres I’ve mentioned have got a real strong beat to their music. I listen to a lot of music in the car, so would listen to a lot of music with a beat there, and from my phone.

I grew up with what was on the radio, in houses and at parties I went to. Even when I was a student, you would hang around people who liked similar music to you. So I didn’t have much contact with classical music!

Did you have much contact with Indian classical music?

Not then, but recently one of my friends is an Indian classical musician, and I find that music very relaxing and soothing. That is something that I have appreciated, listening to music with silence in it, which is quite a new experience!

Could you name three musical acts you love, and why you love them?

That’s difficult, as it varies from day to day! It’s what with me at the time, so it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re groundbreaking. What you have is a snapshot of me now, really – in a month’s time it would be totally different stuff! Currently I would say Diljit Dosanjh, who’s pretty big in Punjabi popular music. From pop music I like Drake, because again it has a really good beat and varies a lot.

I’m trying to think of what I play in the car, although when I’m in the workplace I do play some calmer stuff. (looks at phone) I don’t play any pop music at work, especially when I’m doing reports and need something to calm me down. I just go by what I like rather than the name, and these are quite old recordings. (shows Arcana Glenn Gould plays Mozart). It’s because I need something to keep me steady at work, and I would listen to it on headphones.

What has been your experience of classical music so far?

All the famous adverts really. I’ve been to two classical concerts before, and only recently. I think this is the third, but previously I went to see a concert at the Royal Festival Hall – Messiah I think it was, with a choir, and we were really high up. It was uplifting and you were whistling tunes for the next few days at work!

How did you rate your first Proms experience?

It was good to see the crowd there, because the only other crowds I really experience are at football matches. It was a similar kind of experience in that sense, though a lot more interesting than the last match I went to! (Kulwinder is a West Bromwich Albion season ticket holder, and the last game he was an interminable goalless draw with Middlesbrough! – ed)

You have some chants and jeering there obviously, but it’s similar – the crowd gathered around, affiliation to the team – and so it was very enjoyable. I was surprised by how mixed the audience was, not all middle class – and the dress sense. The guy next to me could easily have been from a park bench! So it was a lot more accessible than I thought it would be, which was really good.

What did you think of the Boulez?

I must admit I didn’t really get into that. It finished so quickly that I can’t remember much of it. It was early in the concert and I hadn’t really acclimatised to it, and I was expecting more of a build up like you normally get. There wasn’t really time to do that, so I can’t remember a great deal. It could be that the other piece was so intense that it washed away the memory.

And the Mahler?

I thought it was very emotional, which was a good thing. I watch different things like the conductor to keep my attention, but I would say it was very convincing and I was deeply engrossed in it. If I heard it again I would have more thoughts and pictures about the story I think, but it drew you into the music and you could have drawn more into the narrative if there was a more obvious one.

I would say I felt relaxed but alert, if you know what I mean. Calm but the music was quite surprising sometimes – some of what happened in the middle I would expect to happen at the end. Normally I would expect a crash at the end and you would expect them to stop, but here it carried on.

Would you change anything about the experience?

No I don’t think so. It’s very popular, so obviously people are aware of it with the queues to get in. Maybe if they moved it around a bit, more outside of London – bringing it to other cities – it would work! Because it’s my first one I can’t think too much of that but I thought the venue was great, and the audience were great as well – very quiet and paid attention.

Would you go again?

I would definitely go again. Not having been bought up with classical music it’s all new to me, so I’m looking as a child at the different sounds and instruments. Maybe if it was some vocal music I would be more likely to go, but either / or is doable!

Verdict: SUCCESS

 

BBC Proms 2016 – Berliner Philharmoniker & Sir Simon Rattle: Mahler Symphony no.7

berlin-rattle-1

Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in Mahler‘s Symphony no.7 (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 64; Royal Albert Hall, 2 September 2016

You can watch this Prom on the BBC iPlayer

Mahler is the composer Sir Simon Rattle was born to conduct. That may sound like a grandiose statement, but for four decades now Rattle has been immersed in the composer’s music. Now he is at the top of the musical pile, on the verge of taking over the London Symphony Orchestra job next year, and this Prom was another opportunity to appraise the results of his tenure – not always easy – with the Berlin Philharmonic.

The results were little short of spectacular. To see the Berlin Philharmonic in the flesh is to witness the pinnacle of orchestral playing, especially when the woodwind principals are soloists in their own right – flautist Emmanuel Pahud, clarinetist Andreas Ottensamer and oboist Albrecht Mayer to name but three.

All were integral to a performance of Mahler’s Symphony no.7 that will live long in the memory. The work is often regarded as problematic, and sprawling, but in this performance Rattle and his charges brought compelling characterisation to the central movements in particular.

In the right performance the work still sounds remarkably modern given its 1913 composition date, using sonorities composers of today would struggle to create. Mahler writes two Nachtmusik movements, placed two and four in the five-movement structure, and here it felt as though we had stepped unwittingly into a magical garden in the heat of summer.

The night time flying bodies were out in force, realised through music that was at turns macabre, enchanting or just downright weird – allusions to the Habañera could be detected in the second movement. The mandolin and guitar in the fourth movement were odd in the extreme but also gave prime examples of Mahler’s amazing scoring, able to reduce a symphony orchestra of 110 from ear splitting climaxes to near-silent conversation in the blink of an eye.

berlin-rattle-2

Horn player Stefan Dohr was rightly cheered for his contribution to the first Nachtmusik, a recurring folk-like motif that set the outdoor tone beautifully. The first movement was an invigorating Alpine march, with warmer moments when the violins swept into the second main theme, and a colder, steely approach when the march took a greater hold. The scherzo, placed third, had no such let-up, and was a macabre dance into the darker areas of the mind.

This undercurrent followed the music to the end, for although the last movement was largely jubilant, and let timpanist Rainer Seegers off the hook with a riotous opening solo, it frequently looked into the unknown. Nowhere was this more evident than the approach to the end, Rattle making sure the brief but significant pause and harmonic detour was signposted.

Rattle is often accused of micro managing Mahler but here his interventions were both instinctive and stylish, followed to a letter by his superb orchestra. The audience hung on their every note, and although some of Mahler’s phrases and turns of foot are difficult to follow and comprehend, this account was as strong and sweeping as any.

By way of a palette cleanser, Rattle and some of his charges began with the 1965 piece Éclat by Pierre Boulez. This was an exercise in texture and resonance, Boulez using instruments primarily for their reverberant qualities. It was indeed a vibrant set of sounds, but they were occasionally difficult to connect – purely because of the anticipation of the Mahler to follow and the exuberance of the crowd. We were there to see a memorable performance – and Rattle duly delivered. Berlin’s loss will most definitely be London’s gain.

Ben Hogwood