Sunday 21 June 2020

Preaching to the fishes (again in vain)

It's not the first time I've referenced the quasi-folk poem from the anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth's Magic Horn) 'St Anthony of Padua's Sermon to the Fish', set to slithery music by Mahler (the original legend illustrated above by Tiepolo). But never has the parable of preaching to deaf ears - namely the fish at Rimini who in this treatment enjoy the words but go back to doing what they did before - seemed more appropriate as, after a brief change of lifestyle during lockdown, most fish in human shapes resume their senseless round of environment-destroying, consumerist idiocy. With a government of criminal incompetence and wilful, profit-bent malignity such as we have now, how could it be otherwise? The only hope is, as before, grassroots action; there are a lot of us who will NOT follow bad advice and will keep up responsible distancing and all that goes with it as before.

The above is by the pier for the houseboats near Hammersmith Bridge; the park behind it on this north side of the Thames had young picnickers in groups of 20 or so the weekend after people started losing the plot on VE Day - because the media told them that lockdown was at an end.

Here's one of the best performance I know, this time with a great mezzo rather than a bass baritone. The English translation is below (crucial for the point of this post if you don't understand the German).

St. Anthony arrives for his sermon
and finds the church empty.
He goes to the river
to preach to the fishes;
They flap with their tails,
and glisten in the sunshine.

The carp with their roe
have all congregated,
their mouths all gaping,
listening attentively.
Never did a sermon
so please the fishes.

Sharp-snouted pike
that are always fighting
have swum up in a hurry
to hear this pious one;

Also, those fantastic creatures
that are always fasting -
the stockfish, I mean -
they also appeared for the sermon;
Never did a sermon
so please the stockfish so.
Good eels and sturgeon,
that fine folk dine upon -
even they took the trouble
to hear the sermon:

Crabs too, and turtles,
usually such slowcoaches,
rise quickly from the bottom,
to hear this voice.
Never did a sermon
so please the crabs.

Big fish, little fish,
noble and common,
all lift their heads
like intelligent beings:
At God's command
they listen to the sermon.

The sermon completed,
each one turns away;
the pikes remain thieves,
the eels, great lovers.
The sermon has pleased them,
but they remain the same as before.

The crabs still go backwards,
the stockfish stay fat,
the carps still gorge themselves,
the sermon is forgotten!
The sermon has pleased them,
but they remain the same as before.

Monday 1 June 2020

Elektra's death-dance, Butterfly's flight

For much of my Opera in Depth Zoom classes on Richard Strauss's Elektra - three out of five - we have been incredibly lucky and honoured to have the insights of Susan Bullock, one of the world's great performers of the role (pictured below at the Royal Opera by Clive Barda), who's since entered what she calls 'a whole new world of weird' - the strange territory of mother Clytemnestra's suppurating conscience.

And now, on the Monday after next, Ermonela Jaho will join us for the third class on Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

Ermonela was to have repeated her triumph in the role at the Royal Opera (pictured above by Bill Cooper) this summer, but sadly it's not to be; though you can catch her equally heartbreaking Suor Angelica in the screening of the Trittico as vividly realised by Richard Jones in the company's next weekly offering. She'll be there next Monday to talk about the challenges in the first part of Act Two, Puccini's longest and most intense psychological study (and it includes 'Un bel di').

Sue was there throughout our second and third sessions (there she is on the first of two screens above, second row down on the left. You may need to click to enlarge). When she wasn't able to attend the last Elektra class - online coaching has now taken over at the Royal Academy of Music's request - she sent what amounted to three wonderful essays on the Recognition Scene, Elektra's encounter with Aegisth and the turbulent finale. It made me think she should write a book on, say, five or six heroines she knows inside out - Brünnhilde, Isolde, Salome, Elektra, Madama Butterfly, perhaps Katya Kabanova - from her performing perspective. Always going in-depth with the marriage of words and music, text and dynamics - what she had to say about Schoenberg's Erwartung in the second class was fascinating - she could fill a real need, and weave in the crucial autobiography around it. Any publishers out there? I'll do some canvassing.

I am also indebted to Sue for putting me on to her admiration for a great (the greatest?) Elektra, Astrid Varnay. My allegiance, recordings and performance wise, has been to Nilsson (of course), Behrens,  Ibge Borkh,  Erna Schlüter, but now I'm a convert to Varnay's recordings with Mitropoulos live and Richard Kraus in the studio (where her sister Chrysothemis is sung by Leonie Rysanek, later Elektra in the Götz Friedrich film to Varnay's Clytemnestra).

The Mitropoulos experience is a live 1949 New York concert performance which plonks an interval at the end of Clytemnestra's short-lived triumphal interlude and goes on to omit the second Elektra-Chrysothemis scene. The sound is fairly dim for the orchestra, but what pacing and textural clarity! The end is wackier than usual; Varnay decides to go up to a top for her final note (tan-zen, a B, not a low F sharp) and the woodwind hang on before the final two-note thwack.The Kraus sounds much better, and he was a good conductor, but it doesn't quite have that level of visceral excitement. But it is complete.

That final scene wasn't the only end-of-class experience to leave me all worked up and discombobulated. It wasn't until we had the introductory class to Butterfly that I realised we'd left a suffocating, brilliantly-lit house for the open air and a chance to soar into blue skies (for at least the first act and half of the second).

I loved excursions into Saint-Saëns's La princesse jaune and Messager's Madame Chrysanthème (I've just started reading Pierre Loti's memoir-novella which was the basis for that pretty operette); and only just realised what really connects Madama Butterfly with The Mikado beyond the use of the same folksong and the japonaiserie - Smetana's Overture to The Bartered Bride. Coasting with Pavarotti, Robert Kerns and Karajan from 'America for ever!' to the arrival of Butterfly put me back into that peculiar lyric ecstasy in which Puccini is unsurpassed. And he was, of course, just as consummate an orchestrator as Strauss. Happy days ahead.

Meanwhile, the course on the symphony from Haydn to Adams has taken on a hue I hadn't anticipated, which is to say distinguished guests on a weekly basis; not sure I can keep it up for every class. I mentioned in the introductory post (all 11 classes duly listed there) having the gift of Jonathan Bloxham and Ian Page to comment on Haydn and Mozart, then Mark Wigglesworth with Jonny for Beethoven. It was a real bonus that Nicholas Collon was able to join us for half an hour at the beginning of the class on Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (his performance with the Aurora Orchestra from memory is still there on their website, as is their 'Eroica' and now their 'Pastoral').

On Thursday I made the acquaintance of Berlin-based conductor Catherine Larsen-Maguire (pictured above by David Beecroft), 15 years a bassoonist with the great orchestras and under the best conductors (Abbado, Haitink, Kirill Petrenko, Rattle, not a bad list). I'm so grateful to Aude-Marie Auphan of Victoria Rowsell Management, with its roster of selectively excellent artists, for putting us in touch.

Catherine (top row centre above; as with the Elektra class Zoom image, click to enlarge) was brilliant and vivacious on every point, and she induced in me a Sehnsucht to go and live in Berlin. Heck, what a dream: a country where music, and the arts in general, matter to so many more people than they do here, where the orchestral musicians are still on full pay, where there's been a civic and governmental responsibility to the C-19 crisis lacking, at least from our disastrous leadership, here. As our stumbling, irresponsible government in Westminster, in marked contrast to the real leaders in Scotland and Wales, plunges us into another vortex, the thought of joining a responsible society has become very pressing. There have been serious discussions at home; watch this space.

In the meantime, this coming Thursday's class has a double whammy: Paavo Järvi to discuss the unique finale of Brahms's Fourth, Vladimir Jurowski on the endgame genius in Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. Musicians on the continent are now beginning to go back to their full schedules again - for Vladimir it's a series of challenging programmes with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (listen here to the first), for Paavo work before the second season with his Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich and, yes, the Pärnu Festival in July. which I hope and pray to attend because it's my favourite in the world - so we're very lucky to have had this window of opportunity.

UPDATE: I must write more about this anon, but Paavo is joining us this coming Thursday for Mahler 3, Vladimir Jurowski was with us for two hours on Brahms 4 and Tchaikovsky 6 - revelatory - and Ermonela Jaho for two and a half hours yesterday, including a full hour-long masterclass on 'Un bel di'. These are such exceptional human beings as well as top musicians.

SECOND UPDATE (22/6): This is going to look like bragging, but I'm very proud and happy about the latest developments. Vasily Petrenko joined the symphony class last Thursday to talk about Mahler, Elgar, the musical philistinism of British politicians and adapting to smaller forces post-crisis. Mark Elder is visiting the Butterfly class today, while Antonio Pappano has pledged to Zoom in for our grand finale next Monday. More developments expected...