David Lang’s love fail is a choral work inspired by the story of Tristan and Isolde. It was originally written for Anonymous 4 but later revised for the slightly larger forces of the Lorelei Ensemble (3 sopranos, 3 mezzos, 2 altos) who have now recorded it. It’s basically an a cappella piece though there are places where the singers play percussion instruments. The texts are a mixture of elements that the composer has taken (and translated where necessary) from various classic versions of the tale; Gottfried von Strassburg, Marie de France, Sir Thomas Malory and even Richard Wagner among others, and interspersed them with poems on themes of love and loss by Lydia Davis. The “classical” texts are somewhat repetitive and reflect the classic values of the story. Davis’ poetry is wordier and less obviously poetic and deals with relationships in more more modern, more personal, less mythic terms. It’s an interesting contrast that the composer exploits to find two rather different colour palettes within the constraints of eight female voices singing essentially tonal music. It works. The risk of tedium is avoided and the work hangs together for its full length.
Last night’s TSO concert was a collaboration with Barbara Hannigan’s Equilibrium Young Artists project with EQ providing the quartet of soloists for Mozart’s Requiem. But before we got to the Requiem there was a performance of Mozart’s Symphony no. 39 in E-flat Major. It was enjoyable. A somewhat reduced scale TSO played as well as they usually do when Sir Andrew Davis is on the podium and he took us through an irreproachable reading of the works essential tuneful and easy to listen to four movements. It made a pleasant “overture”.
A comparatively rare excursion into purely instrumental music for me last night but the prospect of Sir Andrew Davis conducting Beethoven’s seventh symphony was irresistible.
The “garage piece” was the overture to King Stephen. Probably the most notable thing about this is that it was composed for a play by von Kotzebue who had just turned down Beethoven’s idea of writing the libretto for an opera on the life of Attila the Hun. It’s not a fabulous piece but it was efficiently despatched.
Last night marked the last performance I plan on seeing before the holidays so it’s time for the annual “best of” posting. So what did your scribe enjoy or admire the most in 2019? Let’s look at it by categories.
Fully staged opera with orchestra
The COC had a decent year but two of their shows stood out for me. David McVicar’s production of Rusalka in October was perhaps all round the best thing the COC have done in years. The production was clever in that interrogated the material enough to ask lots of questions for those willing to think about them without doing anything to upset those not so interested. Musically one really can’t imagine hearing Rusalka sung or played better anywhere in the world. The other winner was Elektra in January. The orchestra and the singing was the winner here, especially Christine Goerke, but the production was better than average and we don’t see enough of the great modern classics in the Four Seasons stage.
The latest release on the Chandos label from Sir Andrew Davis consists of three works by Sir Arthur Bliss; The Enchantress, Meditations on a Theme by John Blow and Mary of Magdala.
The Enchantress was written for Kathleen Ferrier and premiered in 1951. The text is a free adaptation of the Second Idyll of Theocritus by playwright Henry Reed. The preface to the score tells us that:
The Toronto Symphony have a new CD out. It’s a couple of Berlioz works recorded under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis at Roy Thomson Hall in September 2018. The first piece is the rarely heard Fantaisie sur la Tempête de Shakespeare for which the orchestra is joined by the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. It’s an early piece inspired by one of Berlioz’ unrequited passions (like everything else by Berlioz!) and was considered daringly modern in its day. It’s said to be the first piece to introduce a harp to the symphony orchestra and it also includes piano four hands. It’s very colourful and rather brash which is territory that Sir Andrew excels in. There’s great clarity to both the singing and the playing.
Hell’s Fury(*) is a two man show about Hanns Eisler conceived and created by Tim Albery. It’s focussed on his time in the United States and, somewhat, on his return to the DDR. It combines songs from the Hollywood Songbook (poems by Brecht and others set by Eisler), dialogue and projections to tell the story of Eisler’s arrival in Hollywood, his work in the US, his deportation as a result of the “work” of the House Un-American Activities Committee and his return to the GDR and struggles to come to terms with the Stalinist culturecrats leading ultimately to drink, depression and death.
I got hold of the recent Chandos recording of Berlioz’ L’Enfance du Christ largely because I wanted to take a look at the Super Audio CD format. On that subject my thoughts are here. But it was also a chance to listen to a piece I was entirely unfamiliar with. I’m glad I did. It’s quite beautiful music; lyrical rather than dramatic, except perhaps in the early sections where Herod is having a hissy fit. I can see why it’s not done very often though. It calls for seven soloists plus chorus and a big orchestra.
My recently acquired media player plays SACD disks. I recently acquired a review copy of one such. It’s the Chandos recording of Berlioz’ L’enface du Christ recorded by Andrew Davis and the Melbourne Symphony. It comes with three “tracks”; standard (more or less) CD which will play on a CD player and both stereo and surround tracks in SACD format. Now “standard CD” for Chandos is a bit higher definition than most CDs. 24 bit at 48kHz versus 16 bit at 44.1 kHz. Is there a detectable difference?
The main event in last night’s programme at the TSO was the first act of Die Walküre in concert performance but it was preceded by The Ride of the Valkyries and, more substantially (if not louder) Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra Op.6. It’s an interesting piece; post tonally expressionist with obvious homages to both Wagner and, especially, Mahler. Sir Andrew gave it one of the best introductions of the kind that I have heard; situating it not just in the Viennese musical lineage but also drawing helpful parallels with the visual arts; Klimt, Kokoschka etc. He also produced a reading of great clarity from the orchestra. It’s easy for a big piece of this kind to dissolve into a sort of aural mush and thereby give the “I don’t like this modern stuff” crowd ammunition that it’s just “noise”. Here the various strands, the references and even the musical jokes of the three movements were clearly delineated. Lovely stuff.