Thursday 29 November 2012

Pilgrim(s) progressing

Before returning to the knotty problem of Vaughan Williams, I ought to make the long overdue announcement that the sum total of invoking a benign Mammon for this September's Norfolk Churches Walk was £764. That’s well down on last year, but times are harder and our dear friends are no doubt suffering from annual chchugging* fatigue. Anyway, the amount will be no doubt be gladly received by All Saints Burnham Thorpe, the ‘Nelson church’ where fellow-walker Jill’s mother was warden (we carry on walking annually in her memory as well as for the good of our health). Thank you, all and sundry.

Some folk get the impression from all this that I’m seriously religious. Decidely not, except in the vaguest sense: I’m happy to cast myself in the role of VW’s Pilgrim and not Bunyan’s Christian. So a not untopical farewell to this year's venture with a detail of one of the misericords in St Margaret's Minster back at King's Lynn, our town base for the walks. The cockleshells on the shield are pertinent as symbol of that pioneering pilgrim Saint James.

The City Lit students and I carry on making headway with the operatic Pilgrim’s Progress in class. It makes a lot more sense to me now that I’ve heard much of the music’s origins in a 1942 Radio 3 dramatization of Bunyan starring John Gielgud as Pilgrim. No wonder much of the opera sounds like film music, as Sarah Playfair in a neighbouring seat on the night remarked. It works much better in two or three minute chunksworths of incidental music, as the late Christopher Palmer’s excellent truncation of the 1942 venture on Hyperion allows us to hear. Gielgud reprises a small part of his role, and Richard Pasco is smooth-tongued as just about everyone/thing else.

Here foul fiend Apollyon does not outstay his welcome (and his seventh-leaping intervals return in a terrific brass fugato for Giant Despair, sadly not represented in the opera). The first half of the radio Vanity Fair sequence is divided into three pithy set pieces: the hustle and bustle; a waltz for a solitary Wanton which, kicking off with two violins and harp, is much less overloaded than its counterpart in the opera; and a splendidly extended whirling-dervish number for jongleurs (we get only a bit of it, with voices pasted over it, in the opera). The Tallis Fantasia-related Alleluias for the Celestial City’s reception of burnt-up Faithful, Christian’s companion in the book who meets his end at Vanity Fair, are more moving in their simplicity than the later apotheosis for Pilgrim in the opera.

Coming to the stage Vanity Fair, I felt I had to apologise for it not only with the radio music but with more varied, inventive VW dissonance/naughtiness in the Sixth Symphony, the ‘John Jayberd of Diss’ sequence from the Five Tudor Portraits and that outstanding ballet score of 1931 Job. Here’s the sax music for Job’s comforters followed by the vision of Satan on God’s throne. Vernon Handley’s London Philharmonic insinuaters don’t smooch as splendidly as Boult’s, but it’s another Handley performance I like very much as a whole. And it’s good to have Youtube presenting some of the Blake illustrations which inspired VW.

Thinking about it, though, the grinding monotony of all those parallel fourths and fifths in the opera might work better if the town crowd were less dolled up for fun than they were in Oida’s production. I see them, as well as Apollyon, in black and grey. For there is no mirth, no light entertainment here. How about a production where Pilgrim’s progress is mostly through Samuel Palmer landscapes – no cells, no electric chair, if you please – but, encountering real opposition, hits the reality of the post-war grimness which must still have been on VW’s mind in 1951.

I’m reminded of Bill Bryden at the Royal Opera setting Parsifal in a bombed-out Coventry Cathedral. Not everybody liked it, and there were a few incidental sillinesses, but I found the ritual conducted by plainly dressed folk angled along long wooden tables convincing, for once (it helped that Haitink’s conducting had such a naturalness about it). Below, Abraham Pisarek’s photograph of a Saxon flea-market in 1945. Draft in a few whores, roaring boys and legal types, and there’s your Vanity Fair.

So that’s it: my idea for staging The Pilgrim’s Progress. Though I very much doubt that anyone else after ENO will want to put it in to action. Anyway, on with some trepidation to the Bieito Carmen next week. Over the last, I’ve had such a rewarding trio of concerts to review for The Arts Desk: the perfect servings of Haydn and Strauss from the incandescent Yannick Nézet-Séguin – three cheers, incidentally, for an out-and-proud gay conductor, there aren’t many; Alice Coote, the Janet Baker of our age, as Britten’s Phaedra at the end of a jam-packed Wigmore concert from the Britten Sinfonia also weaving in Purcell, Handel and Tippett; and an intriguing if not entirely successful BBCSO programme cannily following the eastern inspirations of Rolf Hind’s often compelling The Tiniest House of Time with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in the ‘deep sound’ Bělohlávek protégé Jakub Hrůša likes to command. The Radio 3 broadcast is scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

*once again, that's church charity mugging

Thursday 22 November 2012

A fish-sermon transmogrified

With apologies to Veronese for the acidification of his St Anthony preaching to the fish

Praise be to the BBC Symphony Orchestra for programming Mahler’s Second Symphony and Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia less than a week apart in December, and making our life on the City Lit BBCSO course that much more fun. Famously, or infamously, the giddying centrepiece of Berio’s 1968-9 experiment takes the carcase of Mahler’s Scherzo and allows other music from Bach to Boulez to batten on it, against a barrage of song and speech from the eight vocalists (originally the Swingle Singers). Mahler's tempo indication, In ruhig fließender Bewegung (With quietly flowing movement), is also used by Berio.

Refreshingly, and rare in a composer who as a Darmstadt terror in the 1950s declared war on the past, Berio’s care in never letting the Mahler movement go under for long through his 11-minute movement makes us think even more of the original's extraordinary modernism. Herrgott, to think it was composed in 1893 (and last night in a stunning LPO concert which I’ve eulogized over on The Arts Desk, we had further food for wonder in how much of the mature Schoenberg Strauss pre-empts in the fabulous labyrinth of Don Quixote, premiered only three years after the Resurrection Symphony).

It seems that by 1893, when he gave shape to three of the Second Symphony's five movements, Mahler had already written the song from the folk-anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn which the symphonic scherzo daringly expands. St Anthony of Padua’s sermon to the fish for voice and piano needed working up instrumentally, which Mahler did alongside the scherzo in the fertile summer preceding his ‘flash of inspiration’ that the Second Symphony should be crowned by Klopstock’s 'Resurrection' chorale-text.

The gist of this slithery satire is that the piscean congregation listens open mouthed to the sermon, only to go on and behave as before – surely a connection with the human hurly-burly suggested in the symphony, against which a ‘cry of disgust’ proves powerless. Here's the song, which happily precipitates a belated tribute to the late, great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Have patience with the delayed start and the background buzz.

The futility of action seems to be part of Berio’s point, too, and there's an aqueous undertow which seems to refer both to Mahler's song and the first-movement quotations from Claude Levi-Strauss's Le cru et le cuit, which relates water-myths to musical forms. If Berio is dissing the waltz-crazy decadence of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it has to be said that his multiple references sound marvellous. I only picked up some of them on a first hearing: several waves of Debussy’s La Mer, the Part One conclusion to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and a bit of woodwind dancing from Agon, Strauss’s Rosenkavalier morphing into Ravel’s La Valse, a bar of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, the drowning in Berg's Wozzeck. But here too are Schoenberg’s Peripetaia from the Five Orchestral Pieces, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2, the idée fixe from Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique (still can’t hear it), Webern, Hindemith, Boulez’s Pli selon pli…that’s by no means the full list.

Meanwhile the amplified voices pick up Mahler’s tunes or recite Beckett (The Unnamable), student slogans from ’68, Joyce, lines from Berio’s notebooks. Sometimes the text is pertinent (‘Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on'; ‘there was even, for a second, hope of resurrection, or almost’), more often it just sounds like radio interference. The head spins with so much going on at once, which is surely the point. I can’t wait to hear it live at the Barbican on 7 December. Jiří Bělohlávek's long term Mahler cycle with the BBCSO has been one of the best so far, so his Resurrection on 1 December should be remarkable, too. In the meantime, here's the Berio centrepiece from Pappano with Swinglers at the Proms.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Pilgrim revisited

I dreamed a Dream – it must be about four years ago now – that Vaughan Williams’s very selective, semi-operatic take on Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress had enough in it to attain the celestial city of masterpiece status. I saw a man in the very likeness of a good pilgrim – Roderick Williams – and a conductor, Richard Hickox, whom I’d been wary of in dynamic, intensely rhythmic scores but who had the spiritual measure of the music. This was the Philharmonia performance, which turned out to be one of Hickox's last, at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, minimally but movingly staged by the director I knew so well from City Opera days, David Edwards.

It’s curious to look back on what I wrote then and see how drastically it differed from my experience of what might have been another work altogether at English National Opera last week. Very decently conducted it was by Martyn Brabbins, and the chorus seized their multiple roles with fervour. But it seemed to me that a lot of the music, especially in the first half, was mired in a handful of chord progressions or else horribly invertebrate. The male soloists weren’t a patch on their Philharmonia counterparts, and I now conclude – especially as I take my City Lit students through the Boult and Hickox recordings – that much of the spiritual inner light must have been missing, at least until the scene (composed by VW back in the 1920s, decades before the finished ceremonial) where Pilgrim meets the Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains.

Musically that was so affecting in its restraint; but since director Yoshi Oida had the simple men got up as establishment figures – a priest, a lawyer and a doctor - telling prisoner Pilgrim to ready himself for death, the message was confused. As I thought it was throughout this very fitfully interesting interpretation of Bunyan’s allegorical dream. The prison walls and grills moved around the stage very malleably, and there is of course cause in the circumstances under which Bunyan wrote the work (in Bedford Gaol). Certain tableaux like the dramatically redundant and rather old-fashioned spectacle of Pilgrim’s setting out on the King’s Highway were visually interesting (ENO production photos by Mike Hoban).

Yet the prison re-enactment didn’t always mesh with the rest. That musically interminable conflict with fiend Apollyon seemed like a flimsy pretext for a bit of puppetry

while the Vanity Fair scene, which likewise came across as screamingly monotonous on the musical front as it had not at Sadler’s Wells, lavished a lot of expensive colourful costumes to an effect no naughtier than a camp carnival. There has to be threat here, doesn’t there?

Similarly the World War 1 footage in the second half, which often seemed hard pressed to remind us of the prison ritual, served only to nod rather vaguely at VW’s participation as stretcher-bearer. And the electric chair as gateway to paradise spelled out a messsage that was ambivalent at best. Roland Wood’s rather bottled baritone, doubling Bunyan and Pilgrim, improved as the evening wore on, but never touched any spiritual sympathy for me, and George von Bergen in various roles forced the voice into a colossal wobble. The celestial women were better, Eleanor Dennis especially, but never did I get any sense that VW had given anybody anything really grateful to sing.

There was cause for dread, then, that I’d allotted three classes on the work for my Opera in Focus course. But after one session – admittedly dealing with the best music apart from the Shepherds sequence, Act One – I felt much happier. There’s real radiance in Hickox’s Chandos recording, and it boasts Gerald Finley as Pilgrim alongside a stalwart supporting cast.  We looked at the background of VW’s seminal work on the English Hymnal from 1904 to 1906, which in part ties in with his folksong hunt: it was fun to find the original, ‘Our Captain cried all hands’, of ‘He who would valiant be’ (the original text of which, beginning 'Who would true valour see', appears in the lesser-known Second Part of Bunyan's book, the journey of Christian/Pilgrim's wife Christiana and their four sons). I've chosen instead of 'Our captain' here the great Maddy Prior singing the hymn with consciousness of its roots.

Why, incidentally – and contrary to what’s twice stated in some factually dodgy ENO programme notes – does VW not use his original setting when ‘He who would valiant be’ pops up in the opera’s King’s Highway scene? It’s so much better than the alternative, which comes from I know not where. Anyway, I have such a soft spot for the Hymnal setting, as I do now for Bunyan’s book. It puzzles me why VW adapts so little of it, especially as he drafts in new 'types' (above all in the interminable Vanity Fair sequence) and even whole scenes. Some of Bunyan’s dialogues lose me, but I love the homespun, anyone-can-read-this approach to the fantastical. Bunyan’s most eloquent critic, as Alasdair Gray points out in his splendid Book of Prefaces, was Thomas Macaulay in the 1830 Edinburgh Review:

The vocabulary is the vocabulary of the common people. There is not an expression, if we except a few technical terms of theology, which would puzzle the rudest peasant. Many pages do not contain a single word of more than two syllables. Yet no writer has said more exactly what he meant to say. For magnificence, for pathos, for vehement exhortation, for every purpose of the poet, the orator and the divine, this homely dialect – the dialect of plain working men – was sufficient. There is no book in our literature which shows how rich the old unpolluted English language is in its own proper wealth, and how little it has been improved by all it has borrowed.

And to think that Milton’s Paradise Lost, the antithesis of Bunyan, had appeared only a decade earlier. I wonder if something of what Macaulay writes about doesn’t hover behind the purpose of Vaughan Williams’s sacred rite too. So much depends on the dedication of the performers. The same goes for the composer's perhaps greater symphonies. I don't always melt to the Romanza of the Fifth Symphony - part of which corresponds to the 'House Beautiful' sequence of the opera - but it shines with a rare light in the late Vernon Handley's phenomenal performance with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.