Saturday, December 31, 2011

Returning Home?

It's strange about seeing a picture out of context. I often go into the National Gallery to view Britain's only Klimt - a 1904 portrait of Hermine Gallia. But at the moment you can't see it in London, because it's come to Vienna to be displayed alongside other Klimts and Josef Hoffmann artefacts in an exhibition at the Unteres Belvedere. Seeing it in, what are for me, foreign surroundings was strange. I half expected to walk out of the room onto Trafalgar Square. Of course, it is a return home for the painting. Klimt 'belongs' in Vienna. Like those Aciman 'Shadow City' moments, whenever I see the painting in London it reminds me of Vienna. Seeing it here in Vienna, reminded me of London and the glories of the National Gallery. Loans. Restitution. Returning pictures to those to whom they belong. Adele Bloch-Bauer. The Elgin Marbles. How tedious it would be if all art works were back in their places of origin (largely because they wouldn't be in public collections where people could see them). But there's still a strange tug of the that location on the picture in its new home and vice versa. The 'Beethoven Frieze' also seemed out of place in the Belvedere (although it's officially in their collection). The Secession must surely feel bereft of that masterpiece created for its spaces. But these are just my own projections of homelessness.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Blasts from the Past

Angelo Soliman is like Humpty Dumpty. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put him back together again. But the Wien Museum has attempted reassembly with its latest exhibition. Ironically, such a process has to divide myth and reality. Who was he? A West African slave, brought to Vienna through Sicily, Soliman became a trusted and respected figure in Enlightenment Vienna. After his death, however, he was exhibited in the Imperial Natural History collections as an exotic. As immigration arguments in Austria reach new intensity, the Wien Museum's Soliman exhibition offers historical guidance.

Soliman begins and ends with a cliché. No Austrians had been to Africa. It was a place where enormous monsters roamed the earth and the people wore fantastical clothing. It was 'other', sexual and ornamental (all depicted in gloriously un-PC imagery). By the time that slaves had arrived in Vienna, the distance between origin and orientalism had only widened. Despite expectation, Soliman gained a relatively privileged position in Viennese society. Normally, once an African slave hit puberty, they were cast out to fend for themselves. And although pictures show him as a dwarf or child servant, he was an adult in service to both Prince Lobkowitz and later the Liechtenstein family. He's depicted in the latter Prince's retinue as he goes to woo a wife and the bill for Soliman's uniform lies next to that picture (in one of many brilliant bits of intense research evident in the exhibition).

Winning a huge amount of money by gambling, Soliman married, bought a house and became an independent man (and was fired by the Liechtensteins for breaking contract). A page from a Masonic Lodge guestbook reveals that he spent time with Mozart. He was the quintessence of Enlightenment thinking. And the Liechtensteins asked him to work with them again towards the end of his life. But after his death, the Enlightenment figure became the exotic cliché once more. Soliman's body was placed in a ludicrous savage's costume and displayed for all to see. Whether as revenge for 'inappropriate' assimilation or for curiosity's sake, Soliman the reality disappeared.

To tell this story, an exhibition needs clarity and space and curator Philipp Blom and his team guide us deftly through cliché to reality (and back again). The final section of the exhibition - linking the racial stereotypes of Soliman's lifetime with those of more recent decades in Vienna - perhaps overstates its case. But it offers an essential bridge to the present day and a final film installation where black Viennese residents talk about their stories and the tolerance (or lack thereof) around them. Have we learned from history? The hushed but powerful question hovers over the exhibition. With immigration debates still raging between the SPÖ and FPÖ, Soliman offers an essential blast from the past.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Winter Dreams

"Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories." Or so An Affair to Remember reminds us. And there is certainly a pervasive chill over the Kunsthistorisches Museum at the moment. The Wintermärchen exhibition offers a vast collation of images inspired by the darkest and coldest months of the year. While there's plenty of cheer against the elements, by the 20th century a more dangerous elision of man and his environment has returned.

Winter has its own mythology. The nativity, an old man warming his hands by a fire with a well-stocked table, the feasts, the slaughtered pig. From the clock faces of the medieval period to Joseph Beuys' own invented self-mythology, the season has created its own images and codes. The exhibition is a grand unlocking of those signifiers and, although it is somewhat crammed with examples, the simple chronology invites further investigation.

The work of the Breugel family dominates the early part of the exhibition, not only by their inherent drama, but through the vividness of their depictions. As the medieval period gives way to the excesses of the 16th and 17th century, the harshness of those canvases - not least the brutal slaughter of the innocents - turns to Rubens and his fecund feasts. Here a corpulent bean king stuffs his face.

Perhaps the most ostentatious work on display is the two sleighs from the late 18th and early 19th century. Gilded gliding fantasies with harnesses studded with bells, winter provided just another excuse to show off. And although they cannot compete with Turner's apocalyptic depiction of Hannibal crossing the Alps, David's picture of Napoleon following in his footsteps seems like a polite society portrait next to these golden playthings.

The real chill sets in after such glitzy glamour and Monet's gestural canvases offer more existential frigidity. Rivers burst their banks and water, ice and snow become one, distinguished only by the smallest shift in brush stroke. And there's an aesthetic cool to Carl Moll's picture of his studio on the Theresianumgasse. Placed in the top right-hand corner of the canvas, the studio appears like a fevered imago in a desolate white waste. Just the kind of place that you'd find Joseph Beuys' 'Schlitten'. Like Schubert's Leiermann, Monet, Moll and Beuys appear trapped in their frosty landscapes. And its with that deathly chill that you leave this dizzyingly encyclopaedic Winterreise.


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dead Opera

Ariadne auf Naxos is set in the house of the richest man in Vienna. As entertainment is provided, things go horribly wrong. But it's all entertaining and ultimately rather moving. In Peter Konwitschny's production of From the House of the Dead (performed at the Wiener Staatsoper for the first time) the setting is the same and performers are provided. Sadly, neither entertainment nor emotion are on the menu.

Rather than Dostoevsky's Siberian prison camp, Konwitschny has transported us to an oligarch's flat - the frontcloth projections suggest today's Vienna. The brutality of the gulags is seemingly akin to the ferocity of high-end bad behaviour capitalism; Goryanchikov becomes the group's bullied plaything. But once the (apparently) Marxist point is made, the concept has nowhere to go. It railroads over the libretto, provides all-too-liberal translations and bars access to an already difficult piece.

Janáček's 1928 opera needs all the help it can get. In it, he often bypassed linear narrative in favour of reflective tableaux. It's open-ended nature troubled the composer's students when they discovered the score after his death (erroneously suggesting it was incomplete). But given a clear production, the opera can pack a terrific punch. Konwitschny ignores the warnings. He places his entire cast in black tie and pumps out skewed translations to support his vision. The effect is woefully misleading. And given that Patrice Chéreau's production started at the Wiener Festvochen (in a co-pro with the Holland Festival), it's perplexing as to why the Staatsoper has opted for this arrogant, cynical nonsense.

For all the posturing on stage, the musical performances remain strong. Franz Welser-Möst drives a hard bargain with the Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper. A ferocious overture prepares the ground for harsh exchanges and vivid colouring. Only a passing criticism would be that the musicians make light work of Janáček's complex textures; we should feel the effort involved in producing that caustic sound world. Nevertheless, it makes for a rich listening experience.

Sorin Coliban uses that strong orchestral bedrock to project his poetic Goryanchikov. It creates a lyrical counterpoint to the brutality of the opera. Similarly touching is Christopher Maltman's Shishkov. His is a voice in its prime. He offered only a cameo here, but we need to hear Maltman stretched by more diverse repertoire. Herbert Lippert shone as Skuratov, leading an impressive ensemble and strident chorus. Yet however hard they tried, nobody could overcome Konwitschny's die-hard cynicism. Janáček wrote that you could not 'extinguish the spark of God' in these characters; the current production at the Staatsoper is a deeply unappealing attempt on the opera's life.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas from Entartete Musik

After a month of Tchaikovsky on the blog, it's high time I wished all the readers of Entartete Musik a Very Merry Christmas. It's been a great year for readership, with over 50,000 hits on the main site per month. The most popular posts this year have been the reports on Mahler's death 100 years after the event, an interview with the Berliner Philharmoniker's principal clarinettist Andreas Ottensamer, a preview of the Wagnerian elements in Melancholia, a review of Bernard Herrmann's string quartets, reports from the BBC Proms of Norrington's tendentious Mahler 9 and Brian's 'Gothic' Symphony and the daily posts from The Nutcracker Advent Calendar. There are currently nearly 1200 'fans' of the blog on Facebook and over 1300 followers on Twitter. The top-ten countries for visitors are United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Netherlands, Austria, France, Canada, Italy, Spain and Australia, with many individual readers living in London, Vienna, New York, Berlin, Madrid, Buenos Aires and Chicago. Please keep returning to the blog, commenting, sending through suggestions; it's as wonderful to hear about your passions as it is to share mine. Next week I leave for Vienna once more, when there will be many reports from the Kaffeehausen, exhibitions about Klimt and Hoffmann, Winter Pictures at the Kunsthistorichesmuseum, From the House of the Dead at the Staatsoper, Die Fledermaus at the Volksoper and lots more besides. Have a great Christmas and I look forward to a truly degenerate 2012.


from The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Friday, December 23, 2011

Day 24 - Final Waltz and Apotheosis

We reach the end of our journey. For the final moments of The Nutcracker Petipa asked for a 'grand general coda' with '128 bars of very brilliant and fiery music in 3/4'. Therefore like Act 1, Act 2 also ends with a waltz. But unlike the final bars of the first act, this dance is back in the original B flat major tonality. Everything has come full circle. The penultimate movement's D major (the key, of course, of the second movement in the whole ballet) provides a tertiary modulation back home. Tchaikovsky's waltz is a summation of everything that has occurred in the Kingdom of Sweets. Its metre recalls the Waltz of the Flowers,  while its emphasis on the second beat of the bar harks back to the Sarabande rhythms of the Spanish Dance. Again, those minor key colours come through all the time, but like the coda of the pas de deux, jeopardy is kept firmly at bay. After the initial waltz theme, Tchaikovsky has a series of characteristic episodes: double reed woodwind are followed by the celesta and flutes, with a more heroic brass section perhaps recalling the Russian Trepak. The waltz theme returns in yet more outspoken fashion presaging more variegated harmonies and Tchaikovsky's ubiquitous hemiola. In the original ballet, of course, this was a depiction of the world of The Nutcracker as it ends - the Nephew has been released from the wooden toy and returned to the Kingdom of Sweets. In modern productions this tends to be a last hurrah before a swift departure for Nuremberg, where Clara is found asleep under the Christmas Tree and Hans-Peter is reunited with his Uncle Drosselmeyer. The music for the Apotheosis was originally intended to depict 'illuminated fountains' and the celesta returns for those luminous water drops. But by recalling the earlier melody that accompanied Clara's trip over the Sea of Lemonade, Tchaikovsky did perhaps intend to indicate another journey. Whatever conclusion a production chooses, there can be no doubt about Clara's (and our) glee as the score ends in a resolute B flat major.


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Ricardo Cervera as the Nephew in The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson



Day 23 - Coda

After both the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince have dazzled with their respective variations, the pas de deux concludes with a virtuosic show stopper for them both. Gone are the grave harmonies and the eerie desiccation of the celesta. This is a genuinely happy and glorious conclusion. Tchaikovsky was asked to provide 'still lively music in 2/4 - 88 bars' and although he exceeded his brief, writing 102 bars, Petipa's description couldn't be more apt. There is a bouncing accompaniment on top of which Tchaikovsky places another descending melody. The emphasis on the ninth note in the scale lends a heartfelt quality, but the harmonies are otherwise simple. The first phrase moves to the dominant and the second phrase moves back to the tonic; it's just like the foursquare clarity of the overture. The presence of the submediant (next to the dominant in the scale) gives a slight minor tinge, but it too is understated. Such a move, however, does preface more chromatically inflected harmonies. There is a brief moment in E minor, there are diminished chords and all the richness of the composer's palate. Whereas before these harmonies portended emotional truths or elements of danger, Tchaikovsky quickly moves away through runs and sequences to more traditional tonal ground. This is a dance of resolution and it ends with a dazzling (if abrupt) cadence in D major.


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Yuhui Choe as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Day 22 - Variation II: Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

This dance is one of the most famous musical moments in all ballet. Tchaikovsky choice of the celesta (heard first as Clara and Hans-Peter's arrive in the Kingdom of Sweets) proved an ingenious one. Sugary but tart, its prissy bell-like notes later came to dominate the highly sexualised world of post-Wagnerian opera. Strauss, Schreker and Korngold used the instrument to excess. It speaks of an 'other', something artificial perhaps, or here, framed in that earlier 'jeopardy' key of E minor, something more deathly. This is the quintessence of ballerina delicacy. The Sugar Plum Fairy represents untouchable femininity or, for Petipa the music should sound akin to 'drops of water shooting out of fountains'. Tchaikovsky favours unresolved streams of dissonance. Flattened subdominant and dominant notes act as precarious lynchpins within the context. The Fairy and Prince's descending scale becomes a rather forlorn bass clarinet solo (then passed elsewhere in the woodwind) and the response to the dominant (itself rather short and sharp in appearance) is a stream of diminished chords in first and second position. Everything seems to hover around the tonic rather than endorsing it. After a stream of diminished and minor seventh arpeggios, the tune returns one octave higher and the dance ends with a rapid coda, highly reminiscent of the snowflake music.


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Sarah Lamb as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Magic of Fritz Wunderlich

To be honest, I'm one of those people who cannot stand the queeny opera bore. 'Well, my dear, she wasn't Birgit Nilsson, now, was she?' Well, given that I was 3 when Nilsson retired, I can't testify. Thdre's a sickness in endlessly comparing what is now with what had gone before. But what's really irritating is how right those heritage queens can be. Fritz Wunderlich is a case in point. The tenor had been dead for 15 years by the time I was born, so I really had no connection whatsoever with his life or career. But during an intensive period of work on Schubert, countless people urged me to listen to his recordings. And how addictive they are. 

My latest dependency is on this re-released boxed set of opera highlights. Recorded not as complete recordings, but as bleeding chunks, they offered showcases for Wunderlich's talents. We are treated to his Pinkerton, Rodolfo, Don Ottavio and Lensky (among others). The icy tenderness of 'Che gelida manina' and Lieder-like 'Dalla sua pace' are pretty wonderful, but cannot prepare for the finest recording of Lensky's Act 2 aria on disc. Like Toby Spence in the recent ENO production of Eugene Onegin - see, modern singers can do it - Wunderlich perfectly expresses unfulfilled ambitions. This isn't someone ready for death, but a man on whom death has been forced by convention. The foggy murmur of Bayerisches Staatsorchester strings and an improvisatory clarinet solo weave around his entirely destroying rendition. Perfect. Click here to order a copy of the boxed set. 

Day 21 - Variation I: Tarantella

For the shortest day, the shortest track. As is customary in a classical pas de deux, both dancers perform a testing variation. Tchaikovsky, like Drigo and Minkus before him, tended to emphasise contrastingly  masculine and feminine characteristics within those variations. Here Petipa asked for 48 bars in 6/8 time for the cavalier. Shifting into B minor, the movement is distinguished by a flowing dialogue between various instruments in turn. Given the showcase that Petipa intended (and Ivanov realised), with great leaps and turns for the Prince, Tchaikovsky obliges with a steady crescendo and the dialogue between the instruments creates a breathless counterpoint to the dance. The music moves into D major and Tchaikovsky introduces the tambourine - part and parcel of the southern Italian tarantella - but the tonic proper is insistent, the bass inflexible and the variation ends with a brusque cadence in B minor. It brilliantly sets up the Sugar Plum Fairy's variation in E minor.








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Steven McRae as The Prince in The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Through the eyes of a child…


We grow up with The Nutcracker. We change. And it changes before our eyes. While writing my piece about the score for The Guardian, I needed to remind myself that it wasn’t all about death, E minor and eternity. So I took the opportunity to go and see the matinee on Sunday 11th December with my nephew in tow. He will be six in February, so he was probably one of the youngest members of the audience. Despite his age, he was completely gripped.

The magic for him began on entering the auditorium. ‘It’s so beautiful.’ That duck-egg blue ceiling, the descending lighting panels, the elegant sweep of the curtains and the sight of 2256 people all there to see the same thing are hugely impressive for a 5-year-old (and a 30-year-old). It reminded me of the first time I went to Covent Garden on 27 December 1988; I’ve been hooked ever since.

Act 1 of The Nutcracker prompted a series of questions. ‘Who’s he?’ ‘How do they make him fly?’ My stock response of, ‘It’s magic,’ was immediately frowned upon. Boys are pragmatic creatures; they need real answers. So as soon as the query was satisfied, my nephew resumed his concentrated pose. And you could see his eyes widen further when the Christmas tree shot up in size. ‘How do they do it? Is it as tall as my house?’

For a first time ballet goer, he was rather acute. He could spot the ‘mouse’ mime actions, he picked out the snowflake patterns in Ivanov’s choreography and when, in Act 2, Hans-Peter re-enacts the story of how he and Clara came to be in the Kingdom of Sweets, my nephew was the first to hear the recurrent musical motifs. Not bad for a kid who’d never heard the score or seen the ballet.

And it was those musical details that dominated my talk to a Year 12 group at Beaumont School in St Albans last week. It’s a seriously impressive local comprehensive. Admittedly it’s got a good catchment area in a predominantly middle class town, but they were, far and away, the sharpest 6th-form class I’d ever met. They really understood that while you could enjoy the ballet on my nephew’s terms – he later cited the death of the Mouse King as his favourite moment – there was perhaps a bit more going on.

We looked at the whole of the first act in the score, but we spent most of the time on Clara’s glorious pas de deux with Hans-Peter in the forest. That aching C major tune, replete with crunchy subdominant minor chords, invites further investigation. I asked the class for a list of adjectives. ‘Intense… emotional… romantic…’ And then one girl, hesitant at first, suggested it was about sexuality. ‘Is she growing up? Is Clara changing?’ Life reflected art, reflecting life. Perhaps The Nutcracker really is about eternity after all.

Day 20 - Pas de deux (Intrada)

Building on the emotional impact of the Waltz of the Flowers, Petipa asked Tchaikovsky for an opening to the pas de deux that was 'intended to produce a colossal impression'. Obliging as ever, the Intrada is a passionate outpouring. True, we may be watching a Sugar Plum and a Cough Drop (as the original Prince's name translates), but Tchaikovsky couldn't resist suggesting something infinitely more profound. The melody may just be a descending scale - shades of Swan Lake again - but the harmony completely revolutionises that simple device; it becomes an elegiac melody. And although it starts in G major, it's not long before we've shifted to that pervasive key of E minor. This pas de deux mirrors Clara's first moments with Hans-Peter in the forest. The harp is present as it was there, but while Clara's longing found voice in an ascending melody, it is inverted here; a reflection shows things in reverse. The second section is less grandiose, with an oboe and clarinet duet representing the dancers on stage. But the next passage, marked 'incalzando' - increasing in both speed and warmth - is charged with emotion. A dominant pedal is firmly expectant of E minor and things are yet more candid in the final bars, as the brass takes over the melodic duties. The presence of a flattened seventh in the tonic proper (G major) moves us briefly into C minor, out of which Tchaikovsky snatches back the tonic. The Intrada ends triumphantly.


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Sergei Polunin as The Prince and Sarah Lamb as the Sugar Plum Fairy
in The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson



Monday, December 19, 2011

Day 19 - Waltz of the Flowers

After the pithy dances of the Divertissement, Petipa wanted a Grande ballabile in the style of the waltz from The Sleeping Beauty. Tchaikovsky provided one of his most inspired compositions. Picking up the tonality from the previous movement, the A major introduction becomes a dominant preparation for the waltz. Thematic ideas are introduced here in a dialogue between woodwind and harp. The first waltz theme seems to be in equal four bar phrases, with the string accompaniment answered in kind by the horns. A three-bar phrase follows, with further two-bar phrases creating a wonderful sense of acceleration. The final five-bar phrase with a tumbling chromatic line leading to the cadence soon puts the breaks on. Throughout, Tchaikovsky keeps us guessing by alternating the textures and lengths of phrases (unlike the repeated four-bar waltz themes of Johann Strauss II). A second descending theme is delivered passionately on the strings in a constant ebb-and-flow between music and emotion. At one point, Tchaikovsky shifts into B minor. While the initial oboe melody manages to evade its grasp, the cellos and violas are caught and become more outspoken in their 'Pathétique' tones. Like the 'Waltz of the Snowflakes' in the first act, which rocked between E minor and its relative major, the 'Waltz of the Flowers' vacillates between tonic and its relative minor. The mirror images between the first and second acts become clearer all the time. As before, however, Tchaikovsky is careful not to overcloud our view and, after a brief hemiola, we're back to the original theme. The final passages are delivered with great zeal, as the strings sail up to a passionate counter-melody and the brass come to the fore. The waltz ends with a dazzling sequence of hemiolas, quickening the harmonic pace right up to the final cadence.


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Elizabeth Harrod as Clara, Alastair Marriott as Drosselmeyer and Artists of the Royal Ballet
In the Waltz of the Flowers from The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Václav Havel (1936-2011) R.I.P.

The poet-playwright-president Václav Havel has died. A thorn in the Soviets' side, a cheerleader for democracy and a self-effacing hero for Czechoslovakia, he was, more or less, the picture of what our leaders should be. While the great Milan Kundera felt it necessary to distance himself from Havel during the collapse of communism - seemingly unable to differentiate between the great ideal and the terrible reality - Havel came to power when his country needed him most. You can read The Guardian's obituary of Havel here.

Last night, before a performance of Rusalka at the National Theatre in Prague, the Artistic Director Ondřej Černý appeared on stage to deliver these words of tribute:

Václav Havel has died. The greatest spiritual authority of our young democracy has left us for ever. An extraordinary human, a true citizen, a great politician, a splendid playwright. Undoubtedly the greatest figure this country has had since the time of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. One it has given to the world. His bust, unveiled  at the National Theatre on this  anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, on 17 November, will for ever remind us of his unpretentious yet magnificent legacy. And serve as a constant source of inspiration in our lives. Now it is up to us. 

Day 18 - Mother Gigogne

Many productions cut this number, depicting the legendary Mère Gigogne. She is usually called Mother Ginger in English, though the name translates as 'nesting', not unlike a matryoshka doll. She has also been called Mère Cicogne, the French for stork, emphasising her baby-carrying role. Whether ginger, nesting or stork, Petipa intended a link with the character from the marionette theatre tradition, instantly recognisable by the 32 children who burst out from under her voluminous skirt. He wanted a ternary form dance from Tchaikovsky where a 'leisurely and very accented' 2/4 section moves into a slower 3/4; the 2/4 then returns 'but in a somewhat faster tempo'. This is a French-dance through-and-through and the composer employed the folk tune 'Giroflé-Giroflá' for his theme in the first section. As with the majority of the dances in the Divertissement, the phrasing is relatively equal and the harmonic language moves seamlessly between tonic and dominant. However, the textures are yet brighter with an excited semiquaver accompaniment running through the violas and clarinets. Thrown accents in the tutti repeat of the theme give rhythmic variety before arriving at the second section. Tchaikovsky settles into a bouncing 6/8 and then the ferocious 2/4 returns with even more jagged syncopations. It's a great shame that many modern productions do not use this music, as it represents Tchaikovsky at his most gregarious.


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Ricardo Cervera as Hans Peter (in the Russian Dance)
In the Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Tchaikovsky's 'In Memoriam'

There's always something more lurking beneath the surface. There must be some reason, other than me being emotionally unstable, that I cry every time I see The Nutcracker. Those vertiginous harp cadenzas, the longing sigh of Clara's pas de deux with Hans-Peter and the brooding B minor in the cellos during the Waltz of the Flowers get me every time. But Tchaikovsky initially loathed the idea of the ballet and found it impossible to commit any musical thoughts to paper. But something radically changed and, like The Queen of Spades and the 'Pathétique' Symphony, the shadow of death hangs over the score. While it's important not to forget the surface, Tchaikovsky's soaring melodies demand further attention.

It's the basis of my article in the Review section of today's Guardian. You can read it on page 15 of the review section. Or you can click here to read it online.

Day 17 - Dance of the Reed Pipes

Although the Dance of the Reed Pipes has no expressed national sentiment, Petipa asked Tchaikovsky for a Polka - a Czech 2/4 dance. It was to for up to 96 bars, with girls 'playing on little fifes made of reed, both ends of which are stopped with a piece of gold-beater's skin'. Called Mirlitons in French these were folk instruments prevalent in Central Europe. Petipa may have intended to continue the Slavic theme in these Divertissements. Whatever the local colour, Tchaikovsky responds with great delicacy. Pizzicato strings support the flutes' two-bar-phrased tune, which spans longer chromatic stretches towards cadences. The movement has a broader harmonic palate and the cor anglais gives a melancholic touch. As ever, these shadows are short-lived and the melody returns with violins providing a bouncing counter-melody. The brass dominate the second section, sitting uneasily in F# minor (an implied dominant of the relative minor of B minor). It feels that the music will resolve into B minor proper, but Tchaikovsky steers us back into D major for an elegant restatement of the tune. Far from the frenetic polkas of Dvořák or Strauss, this is a very elegant dance.



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Iohna Loots as Clara and Artists of the Royal Ballet in The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

 

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day 16 - Russian Dance

Tchaikovsky is back closer to home with the final national dance in the sequence. The Trepak - a rapid hop in 2/4 time - was danced by the Cossack tribe predominant in the Ukraine. It is a men-only dance and Ivanov's choreography mimics the famous prisiadka technique, where the men kick out their legs from a squatting position. This is one of Tchaikovsky's most exuberant movements, framed in a bright G major. It has breathless phrases, first two 2-bar bursts, followed by a 4-bar build towards the cadence point. The theme is then repeated by the whole orchestra before moving into a second section in the dominant. Scurrying runs in the lower strings (including the unusually frisky double basses) give a wonderful burst of energy. And there's an excited swing to the syncopated to-and-fro before the repeat. Tchaikovsky finally runs away with a bold stringendo.


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Iohna Loots as Clara, Ricardo Cervera as the Nephew, Paul Kay and Michael Stojko
in the Russian Dance of The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Day 15 - Chinese Dance

Tchaikovsky was then asked to provide a dance 'in the Chinese taste' representing tea, thereby going deeper into the Asian continent. For the 'European' Russians of St. Petersburg, the far reaches of that enormous landmass on which they were perched provided a strange 'other' in an already exotic culture. This is a humorous movement, with all the chinoiserie you could expect - pentatonic scales and filigree decoration. But having already written two triple-time dances, Tchaikovsky ignored Petipa's instructions for a third and cut his 48-bar count down to 32. The dance is like a whistling kettle, with a bassoon bass pattern and trilling flute solo. Pizzicato strings add to the 'too hot to handle' tone before the flute plays its theme again, now in inversion. Throughout the dance, Tchaikovsky keeps to equal two bar phrases, providing a solid basis for Ivanov's slapstick choreography.



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Iohna Loots as Clara and Artists of The Royal Ballet in the Chinese Dance in The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Day 14 - Arabian Dance

For his next entertainment, Drosselmeyer conjures the exotic perfumes and coffee of Arabia. Tchaikovsky obliges with sultry tones. Petipa had asked for 24 to 32 bars of 'charming and voluptuous music'; the composer created 102 bars of wonderfully erotic music. The rocking accompaniment is played by muted strings, on top of which the woodwind and then upper strings weave their melodies. While the other national dances are fast and foursquare, this movement sounds a note of eerie danger in the Kingdom of Sweets. Like Strauss's Salome and just over a decade avant la lettre, Tchaikovsky's Araby is the stuff of high-Orientalist imagination. The dance is all suggestion, texture and orchestration. Harmonically, it's relative static, with the G-D drone continuing throughout. The melody is coloured by 'Arabic' ornaments and reaches more passionate heights in the middle section. But like many of Drosselmeyer's tricks, this is the stuff of consummate artifice.


Today's Track on Spotify.
Click here to order a recording of the complete ballet.

Laura McCulloch, Ryoichi Hirano and Johannes Stepanek in the Arabian Dance
in The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Day 13 - Spanish Dance

And so begin the entertainments for Clara and Hans Peter in the Kingdom of Sweets. First up, a Spanish Dance representing Chocolate. Tchaikovsky had written a similar set of Divertissements in the third act of Swan Lake (albeit without the culinary links), so Petipa needed to give very few instructions, just 'in 3/4 from 64 to 80 bars'. Here, Tchaikovsky's Iberian showpiece is less agressive than in the earlier ballet, with a Sarabande-like emphasis on the second beat. It is cast in relatively simple terms, rocking between the tonic (E flat major) and the dominant. A cheeky trumpet tune, with a counter melody in the clarinet (evoking hot chocolate), gives way to a tutti statement of the initial theme. Tchaikovsky uses the 'local colour' of castanets and a second theme is played by the strings (related in shape to the original trumpet melody). That melody returns in thirds before a chirruping plagal cadence.  


Today's Track on Spotify.
Click here to order a recording of the complete ballet.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in the Spanish Dance
in The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson



Monday, December 12, 2011

Tchaikovsky's Harmonic Language

Throughout this month's daily posts on the music of The Nutcracker, I've pinpointed Tchaikovsky's various harmonic tricks. This is not the music of the everyday and the Russian composer works hard to underline the extraordinary nature of his tale. While the overture echoed standard harmonic practice, with perfect cadences (moving from the dominant - chord V - to the tonic - chord I) and neat modulations from tonic to dominant and back again, the rest of the score plays faster and looser within those parameters. One of the main ways in which Tchaikovsky colours his musical canvas is by favouring the relative minor (sharing the same key signature as the major - G major and E minor for instance) rather than the dominant as a secondary key centre. It happens all over the score, but one particularly noticeable is in the middle of the Waltz of the Flowers. Although performed at the height of the Sugar Plum Fairy's Act 2 festivities, this heart-on-sleeve passage comes across as particularly forlorn. The waltz is in D major, but this theme is in B minor, the tonality that dominates Swan Lake and the 'Pathétique' Symphony. While the dominant has a musical logic, the relative minor has a subtler flavour and casts its own melancholic shadow.
Even within major tonalities, Tchaikovsky alters the mood with the use of certain chords. He frequently uses the flattened submediant (the sixth note in the scale, but flattened by a semitone). In Clara and the Nutcracker this creates a really dazzling final cadence as the Christmas tree reaches its full height.
The proximity to the dominant, which would be E major here, creates one level of surprise. The second is that F major isn't part of A major. It's a chromatic and somewhat alien harmony within the overall tonal structure of this part and implies some kind of mediant transition (such as are prevalent in Tchaikovsky's symphonies and the music of Brahms). It's like the glitter that falls from the fly tower in the Royal Opera House's production. Something extraordinary is happening on stage and in the score.

Within the 'In the Pine Forest' movement, Tchaikovsky opts for a darker harmonic surprise. He settles on a minor subdominant. We're in C major here and the normal subdominant would be F major. If there was a cadence from that back to the tonic it would be a plagal cadence, like a standard 'Amen'. But the flattened of the A natural in that F major chord to A flat makes it all the more poignant. It's a passing colour at first, followed by a perfect cadence with a consoling 4-3 suspension (in bar 10).
You'll note that F minor is quite closely related to A flat major (the triad shares two notes - A flat and C natural). At the climax of Clara's dance with Hans Peter, that harmony gives the final cadence a newly heightened quality. It's passionate, almost erotic. And here it's coloured by an even more extreme F sharp in the bass (following by the chord II7b, Ic, V7(9) and I).
Rather than proffering foursquare harmonic formulas in the ballet, Tchaikovsky constantly surprises. These are just a few examples of his sound world and how, through various chromatic sleights of hand, he grabs our attention. And the more you listen, the more you realise that the score has an other worldly quality.


Day 12 - Clara and the Prince

By the time that Clara and Hans Peter arrive in the Kingdom of Sweets, Marius Petipa has gone into overdrive describing its vistas and the Sugar Plum Fairy's retenue. The great candied Princess is announced by the celesta, her signature instrument. Tchaikovsky found this new type of keyboard glockenspiel when he was in Paris in 1891 and employed the machine as soon as he could. It was the perfect sound to describe sublime artifice (coupled with a flutter-tongue technique on the flutes and piccolo). Although Ernest Chausson had used the celesta in his 1888 composition La tempête, Tchaikovsky was the first to bring it to Russia. As Clara and Hans Peter arrive, the music begins to reverse its modulations. Having moved from C major into E major (via E minor) at the end of the first act, Tchaikovsky shifts back into C major during this passage. The Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince approach and a solemn descending motif appears on the bassoons, trombones and lower strings. A swift 6/8 dance comes next, teetering on the edge of E minor and then into A minor. This introduces Hans Peter's recollections of what occurred in act one. The battle music returns in ever more vicious tones, as he mimes the events to the Sugar Plum Fairy. But after a glorious surging run in the strings, a lyrical theme tells of Clara's triumph, shifting through A flat major to E flat major (all the time coloured by flattened subdominant harmonies). In the original scenario, the Sugar Plum Fairy brings out a table of preserves for the courageous pair. Tchaikovsky seems to move away from E flat, only to confirm the tonality as we prepare for the various national divertissements.


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Click here to order a recording of the complete ballet.

Iohna Loots as Clara and Ricardo Cervera as the Nephew
in The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Day 11 - The Kingdom of Sweets

After the emotional highs of the first act, Act 2 begins in a more sober fashion. Still in E major (the key in which we left the Land of Snow), Tchaikovsky conjures an ululating soundscape. Petipa described the scene in detailed terms: it was to have 'the most fantastic décor', with gold and silver everywhere; and 'at the back of the stage fountains gushing lemonade, orangeade, orgeat [a French barley water], and currant syrup.' Petipa's only specific request was that Tchaikovsky make his music grandiose as the curtain rises. This passage is relatively straightforward harmonically speaking. The risk of the previous act has dissolved into a gentle to-and-fro between tonic and dominant. The orchestrations are, however, equally glittering. And when the curtain rises (during a harp cadenza) the charming melody is interspersed with giggling runs in the piccolo. When chromaticism does embellish that simpler palate, it is to indicate excitement (in the vein of Aurora's arrival in The Sleeping Beauty). With Rossini-like precision, Tchaikovsky builds to the arrival of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Her unique celesta sparkles on the surface, with the melody now played in harmonics by three violins. Clara's hesitation is expressed in the final cadence's complex resolution through another flattened submediant chord (this time with an added seventh), before the music rests in E major. Clara is home.


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Click here to order a recording of the complete ballet.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A late muse

As well as Tchaikovsky, I've been spending the week with Mozart and Brahms. The 18th Austrian master has beguiled me with his piano sonatas... like his symphonies they act as as biography in music, bearing the hallmarks of location, time and utility. Christian Blackshaw starts a journey through the lot at Wigmore in January. And then Brahms took over. I've been writing liner notes for a new recording of the F minor Piano Quintet - an ambitious and often aggressive work - and the Clarinet Quintet. Richard Mühlfeld (pictured left) must have been an extraordinary musician. In 1891, when he and Brahms met, the German-born composer wrote not only this great autumnal quintet - gently rocking between major and minor tonalities - but also the trio. So good was their working relationship that Brahms not only wrote two sonatas for Mühlfeld, but he gave the clarinettist all the royalties from performances of the works written for him, as well as his pianist's fee whenever they performed the pieces together. After publication, Brahms handed over the manuscripts of both sonatas. Oh to have heard him play...

The Best of 2011... in Films



1. Weekend directed by Andrew Haigh
The great gay film of the decade. Reality and tenderness combined. And who knew that Nottingham could look so serene?

2. Wuthering Heights directed by Andrea Arnold
Narrative liberties gave birth to the moodiest but most accurate distillation of this book on film. Terrific performances and eye-widening shots of a very bleak Yorkshire.  

3. Michael directed by Markus Schleinzer
Hardly the comfort choice, this sober look at imprisonment and paedophilia confirmed Austria's place on the feel-bad stage. But its pacing and punch were second to none this year.

4. The King's Speech directed by Tom Hooper
The best use of Beethoven in film and a surprisingly tender portrayal of the weight of responsibility. Colin Firth gets stronger film by film, while Geoffrey Rush managed to contain himself and give the performance of his career.

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy directed by Tomas Alfredson
Never once pandering to blockbuster signposting or moralising, Alfedson's film version of le Carré's classic offered a strong alternative to the BBC originals. Casting Firth made the guessing game a little obvious, but the drama never dimmed. 

6. The Dirk Bogarde Season at the BFI
Loved and loathed in equal measure, Bogarde nevertheless made some seriously impressive films. While Death in Venice will always dominate, the ever-contemporary Victim and Accident were the highlights of the season.  

7. Loose Canons directed by Ferzan Ozpetek
A charming dose of Italian sunshine from Italian-Turkish director Ferzan Ozpetek. 

8. Die Jungs vom Bahnhof Zoo directed by Rosa von Praunheim
Documentary at its most incisive. Exposing the bitter world of underaged male prostitution in Berlin and the impact on the lives of those who buy and sell.  

9. Deep Blue Sea directed by Terence Davies
The mainstream polish of this adaptation puts it outside the best of Davies, but the performances are terrific and Davies is the master storyteller of post-War repression. 

10. Mahler auf der Couch directed by Percy and Felix Adlon
On screen for the first time in the UK (at the Jewish Film Festival), this is a highly intelligent composer film. Eschewing the excesses of the late Ken Russell, the Adlons clearly know their subject. 

The Christmas Turkey
Just one look at Spielberg's computer generated Tintin told me to steer clear. 

The Best of 2011... in Art and Exhibitions



1. Richter at Tate Modern
Variety and virtuosity in one artist. Public commentary and private tenderness... he really is the best alive today. The exhibition is running until 8 January. Go now. 

2. Adolf Loos at RIBA
Incredible insight into the development and workings of this radical architect. The RIBA collections are an untapped resource. Beautifully presented, though under-celebrated. 

3. Watercolour at Tate Britain
A wonderful sweep across a genre. Although recent work would claim radicalism, the most daring pictures came from the English romantics.  

4. The Birth of Modern at the Neue Galerie
Popping over the Atlantic to relish cross-cultural display. Britain may have great spaces and world-class collections but we segregate our culture. This exhibition placed the art and architecture in the context of thought, literature and music. It proves to be a much more invigorating experience. British curators, take not.  

5. Islamic Art at the Kunsthistorisches Museum 
This exhibition of rarities from a Kuwait collection underlined how much still awaits discovery in the Middle East. Exquisite artistry and artefacts.   

6. The reopening of the Great Midland Hotel
After years of neglect it is wonderful to see George Gilbert Scott's masterpiece back in use as a hotel. Although the decoration needs the patina of time, it is a triumphant resurrection. 

7. Art nouveau in Brussels
One of the great open-air museums... wandering through the suburb of St Gilles with Horta, Brunfaut and Hamesse. Vision and change.  

8. The Magritte Museum in Brussels
A museum dedicated to the king of Belgian art. Superb lay-out and lighting, with contextual displays and, of course, Magritte's dizzying vision.  

9. The Cult of Beauty at the V&A
The closest we came to a cross-cultural exhibition in the UK. However glorious the content, it was cramped and lacked the finesse of last year's Diaghilev.   

10. Gauguin at Tate Modern
Included for its two contextual rooms. Gauguin is an artist of wavering quality, but the best was terrific. 

The Christmas Turkey
The National Gallery's approach to opening the Leonardo exhibition. Why not run it through the night and capitalise on the success, rather than letting eBay entrepreneurs cash in.  

The Best of 2011... in Books


1. Alibis by André Aciman (FSG)
When has a book of essays ever embraced so much? References to lavender and the Langsamer Satz are just part and parcel of Aciman's poetic prose.  

2. The End by Ian Kershaw (Allen Lane)
The German perspective in the last year of the Nazi regime. The troops may have be dying on the front, but the mechanism and machinations of the Nazi state continued to roll. Brilliant narrative history.

3. Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig (Peirene)
A late entry on the list. Shape shifting storytelling. Chilling but wonderful. 

4. A Singer's Notebook by Ian Bostridge (Faber)
I've become less convinced by Bostridge as a singer as time goes on - though he was extraordinary in the LSO's War Requiem in October - but he's an increasingly wonderful writer. The Standpoint columns in this collection are eminently readable.

5. The Mahler Album (Abrams)
Every known photograph and picture of the great man. The cult of celebrity in all its glory. 

6. Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald (Hamish Hamilton)
The death of Sebald in 2001 was a horrendous loss to contemporary writing. But as some of the byways of his output reach English translation for the first time, it's like he's still here. These poems are extraordinary, as you'd expect.

7. Gustav Mahler by Jens Malte Fischer (Yale)
Although de la Grange's four volume biography is a must-have, Fischer places his protagonist in greater context. And it's a really good read.

8. A Wicked Company by Philipp Blom (Basic Books)
The skill of a narrative historian is to take you into familiar terrain and render it unfamiliar but graspable. Blom is the master of the historical kaleidoscope. Urgent and personal, his style draws you deftly through the French 18th century and its incredible philosophers.

9. By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham (FSG)
Death in Venice Revisited. The emotional and cultural stagnation of our world captured in prose. A great read.

10. Neue Cuisine by Kurt Gutenbrunner (Rizzoli)
An Austrian chef, with a New York food empire. Yet for all Gutenbrunner's success, this is a touching and personal volume. Shades of Nigel Slater and beautifully illustrated with pictures from the Neue Galerie collection.

The Christmas Turkey
Jeffrey Deaver's Carte Blanche. The simpleton's James Bond. 

The Best of 2011... in Recorded Music



1. Mahler 9 with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra (Accentus on DVD)
After a recent slew of disappointing Mahler 9s - Norrington, Salonen, Zinman, Gergiev - this is a masterclass. No hype here. Abbado rules. 

2. Complete Beethoven Symphonies with the Gewandhausorchester (Decca)
Can a recording live up to the live experience? Not quite. But there is some seriously brilliant playing on this set. It's infectious and I haven't been able to turn it off. 

3. Passion and Resurrection with Polyphony (Hyperion)
Ēriks Ešenvalds Passiontide cantata dominated the early part of my year. Luscious and controlled singing from Polyphony and a seriously impressive Carolyn Sampson make for the most moving disc of 2011. Sublime. 

4. Schubert Piano Works with Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi)
Although Lewis impressed at Wigmore Hall in June, I wasn't wowed. But in the privacy of the recording studio, Lewis takes wing. The schizophrenic Drei Klavierstücke are benchmark performances. 

5. Schwanengesang with Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis (Harmonia Mundi)
'Der Doppelgänger' is my track of the year. The pugnacity of the dynamics and Padmore's fevered performance are indicative of this hugely impressive disc. I hope Padmore and Lewis continue to perform and record together. Their Schubert cycles are a wonder. 

6. Brahms via Schoenberg with the Berliner Philharmoniker (EMI)
Rattle has recorded Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1 before. His Birmingham performance is  cerebral and committed. But placed next to Schoenberg's orchestration of Brahms's Piano Quartet, the work takes on a beguiling post-Romantic sheen in Berlin. Glorious playing, as you'd expect. 

7. Brahms Symphonies with the Tonhalle (RCA)
Like Chailly's Beethoven or Haitink's Brahms at the Proms, Zinman polishes these symphonies and they come up gleaming. The Tonhalle strings may not quite have the warmth you want and the 2nd Symphony is forced, but 1, 3 and 4 are exemplary. 

8. Mahler 3 with the Bamberger Symphoniker (Tudor)
While 'bigger' orchestras bulldoze their way through Mahler, Nott's Bavarian band create respectful and revelatory new discs. This 3 is no exception. If you're looking for a new Mahler set, you've found it.

9. Strauss Waltzes with the Philharmonics (Accentus)
Kaffeehaus music shouldn't be this good. Although the camera work lacks imagination (not a consideration for 8 of the other choices here), the performances are winning. Real abandon and colour brings these Second Viennese School arrangements zinging to life. 

10. Complete Wolf Lieder - Vol. 1 (Stone Records)
As part of the Oxford Lieder Festival, Artistic Director Sholto Kynoch has embarked on the first complete Wolf recording project. The singing and highly sympathetic accompaniment on this first disc promises much. 

The Christmas Turkey
There is genuinely no disc that hit my desk that really exasperated this year and many more could have been included in a top 20 list. 

The Best of 2011... in Live Music



1. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Glyndebourne
An emotional body-blow. Gerald Finley's Sachs was the performance of the year, with Johannes Martin Kränzle's Beckmesser an immediate second. David McVicar's production was a total treat. No posturing, no polemic, just honest storytelling with the power to wow. As Eva placed a crown of flowers on Sachs's head in the final bars, I was helpless.

2. The Complete Beethoven with the Gewandhausorchester 
Masterpieces played by a masterclass orchestra. Like McVicar's Meistersinger, Chailly eschewed point-scoring to deliver fresh insightful performances. The orchestra of the year. 

3. Mahler 4 with the Berliner Philharmoniker
Rattle's troupe came to London with two Mahler symphonies, Stravinsky and Schubert in tow. Although each concert was exemplary, their Mahler 4 was the most sincere. The finale's claim that 'Kein' Musik ist ja nicht auf Erden' [no music on earth compares with ours] is clearly the orchestra's maxim.  

4. Il trittico at the Royal Opera House
Again, Antonio Pappano proved that Puccini is what he does best. A brutal Il tabarro and genuinely funny Gianni Schicchi were to be expected. But the clincher was the triptych's searing Suor Angelica. Richard Jones trod a brilliant middle line between sentiment and cynicism. 

5. Brahms 4 with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe at the Proms
Bernard Haitink made you feel that the finale of Brahms 4 was the beginning of modernism. Torrid but beautiful, this was extraordinary playing. The best of the 2011 Proms.   

6. Miah Persson at the Oxford Lieder Festival
Persson was the highlight of Glyndebourne's Don Giovanni but it was the clarity of communication in her Oxford Lieder Festival recital that really wowed.  

7. Mahler 1 with the Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Proms
Ivan Fischer's band came a whisker away from being my Proms highlight. After their hell-bound Liszt, this Mahler 1 moved from pacific heights to dejected lows with daring colour and panache.   

8. Pelléas et Mélisande at the Barbican
Natalie Dessay gave us a 40th birthday present... her husband Laurent Naouri as Golaud. And with Simon Keenlyside as her ardent lover this was a seriously impressive semi-staged performance.  

9. Salome at the Salzburg Easter Festival
Although Stefan Herheim's production was decidedly perverse, there were musical joys aplenty. Emily Magee combined the 16-year-old coquette with Wagnerian vocal chops while Stig Andersen charted Herod's gruelling lines with Lieder-isch lightness of touch. The Berliner Philharmoniker, again, proved perfect.   

10. Roderick Williams at Wigmore Hall 
Communication and candour is key in Lieder. And Roderick Williams has it in bucket-loads. You'll be able to relish his Schumann Kerner Lieder next year when the concert is released on Wigmore Hall Live. 

The Christmas Turkey
Roger Norrington's abusive performance of Mahler 9 at the Proms. Proving a point, scratching his nose, picking his ears and ruining one of the great masterpieces of all time.


The Best of 2011

The tree will soon be trimmed, so the papers must be filling with the year in review. And it's been a good one. There have been a few cultural casualties along the way and over-hyping. Sadly, reduced funding has led to more conservative schedules, but there are a bevy of highlights... this is a thoroughly Entartete Musik list. Nearly everything in the list has been featured and/or reviewed on the blog over the course of the year. There are notable absences and I've suggested a Christmas Turkey for each category.

So here it is... the best of 2011 in Live Music, Recorded Music, Books, Art and Exhibitions and Film.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Day 10 - Waltz of the Snowflakes

‘Snow is falling,’ Petipa said, ‘Suddenly thick, light, white snowflakes begin to move’. Although dainty and pretty, Tchaikovsky’s choice of E minor here (an easy but significant slide from the previous C major) underlines the pervasive tension in the score. And although it settles into a waltz, the metre and harmony are similarly ambiguous. Hushed string chords introduce the waltz proper, which is built over an unstable accompaniment, complete with hemiola (the feeling of two in the bar in a 3/4 context). A growl of brass melts into a pizzicato dance followed by an affecting wordless children’s chorus in the relative major. There’s a brief section in B minor before the waltz returns with the voices. But the more aggressive streak comes to the surface in what Petipa described as a ‘snowball’ broken apart by a gust of wind. The first waltz concludes with another forceful hemiola and a double harp cadenza. The snow begins to fall ‘in thick flakes […] illuminated by electricity’. And rather than the second whirling waltz that Petipa requested, Tchaikovsky goes into a rapid 2/4 dance as the snowflakes begin to charge. Although the children’s voices return, they cannot restore the relative major; E minor is resolute. Suddenly, the music gives way, there is a rising bass line and the first act ends in a dazzling E major. Jeopardy has turned to joy and Clara and Hans-Peter glide off to the Kingdom of Sweets.


Today's Track on Spotify.
Click here to order a recording of the complete ballet.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Day 9 - In the Pine Forest

Tchaikovsky composed one of his most heartfelt melodies for the moment when ‘the Nutcracker turns into an enchanting prince’. Cushioned by two arpeggiating harps, this new theme is pregnant with hope. Occasionally it veers towards that 'jeopardy' key of E minor, but continues growing nonetheless. The melody (played first on the cor anglais) is given a further emotional tug by the use of an F minor chord (or a related diminished chord two - as Irving Berlin used in White Christmas) placed over a tonic pedal; it creates a real ‘crunch’ harmony. Clara is coming to terms with her feelings for Hans-Peter - Drosselmeyer’s nephew - who has been released from the Nutcracker. Sighing falls of a fifth and a slow but steady crescendo create an impression of burgeoning sexuality. Here, Tchaikovsky shrugs off the claims of ‘children’s ballet’. Echoing the C major tonality of her parents at the party, Clara is becoming an adult. The theme grows and grows until it is joined by a thrilling counter melody – comprised of a descending scale (a motif that will come to the fore in the second act) – and an enormous final cadence using an expressive flattened submediant (based on an A flat major chord within a C major context). Suddenly, after this great outburst, Clara and Hans-Peter are surrounded by snow.


Today's Track on Spotify.
Click here to order a recording of the complete ballet.

Ludovic Ondiviela as Hans-Peter and Elizabeth Harrod as Clara
in The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Day 8 - The Battle

Tchaikovsky doesn’t let the paint dry on that sparkling cadence before the ominous scratches start again. A battle has broken out between the mice and Fritz's toy soldiers, who are led by the Nutcracker (now raised to human height). Petipa was incredibly detailed about how he wanted the fight to unfold. Two bars for a sentry, two bars of silence, a gunshot, two bars of fright and further sections for awakening, alarms and getting into formation. From these notes Tchaikovsky wrote a fluid musical drama, moving through that ‘jeopardy’ key of E minor (pitted as far away from the home key of B flat major as possible) into a highlx chromatic D minor and finally A minor. This tonal impermanence mirrors the danger of the situation. It may be a toy battle, but the squally oboes, boom of the tam tam and tremelando strings are truly ominous. You can hear a premonition of Shostakovich in the melée. The Mouse King's arrival is announced by an ugly braying fanfare. He weakens the Nutcracker's attack. The battle builds until we hear the moment when Clara, seizing her opportunity, hits the Mouse King over the head with her slipper. He falls, the mice disappear and the music slumps into that ‘adult’ key of C major.


Today's Track on Spotify.
Click here to order a recording of the complete ballet.

Artists of The Royal Ballet in The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson


Reliable Narrator

Alois Hotschnig is a writer with a vivid eye. Everything in Maybe This Time appears to be normal. Scenes are recognisable. The narrator has a familiar voice. It could well be one of us. But over the course these short narratives, the perspective slowly changes, reality slips away and a more bewildering actuality begins to emerge. Like E.T.A. Hoffmann seen through a prism of Michael Haneke, these tales constantly surprise.

It would be easy to equate Hotschnig's false realities with a distrust of his country. And while there are flashes of local colour and pervasive Gemütlichkeit, the malaise is a global one. Our individuality is eroded every day and these stories are ones in which the subject and the object constantly merge. The perception of who controls the narrative in 'The Same Silence, the Same Noise' is a case in point. A man watches and reports on his neighbours' every move. Convinced that they're ignoring him, he becomes obsessed. Slowly his life fuses with theirs. But while he watches them, we read about him. Whose privacy is really invaded?

Similar issues arise in 'Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut'. An old lady keeps a collection of dolls, but when Karl visits he realises that all the toys represent people from the area. Most chillingly, he is presented with a toy version of himself. The elision of the storyteller and the events he tells become one and the same thing. Reality may be the springboard to these stories but the destination is always unsure. In 'The Beginning of Something' the narrator addresses the dichotomy.

Into whose story had I fallen, I wondered. The story had as little do with me as the smell. Just as I didn't fit here, so nothing here fit me, except for the notes, and I had no idea what I should do with them. I had covered them like everything else. The sentences were not to be trusted. 

Sentences are the basis of Hotschnig's art. He listens to the conversations around him, filling notebooks with mundane fragments. The impulse for every bit of story telling is found in the everyday. And what is so marvellous about this new publication is that Tess Lewis's English translation feels that instant and fresh. For texts that surprise at every single turn, you need to cling to the translation's linguistic clarity. But what happens within those readable paragraphs is the stuff of nightmare. This is bargain basement horror. Hotschnig does something much more daring; he changes our perception of reality. Click here to order a copy.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Day 7 - Clara and the Nutcracker

The guests begin to leave. Clara’s lullaby for the Nutcracker – still in C major – dominates, now accompanied by harp and triangle. It is given further emotional clout when heard on a lone cor anglais against a shiver of strings. Slowly but surely the house is closed up for the night. A sudden cadential shift through E major within the overriding C major tonality gives Clara’s seemingly childish attachment to the doll broader significance. These evocative mediant and submediant cadences appear throughout the score; clearly, traditional resolutions will not do. All is still in the house, though Tchaikovsky resolutely avoids settling on the root position chord. A shift through various tonal centres – first A flat major – confirms that restlessness in what Petipa described as ‘mysterious and tender music’. Harp glissandi and trilling woodwind accompany Clara’s return downstairs. She has come to reclaim her Nutcracker. But the more malevolent murmurs we heard throughout the party scene come home to roost in the following musical landscape. The clock strikes midnight and Clara’s childhood home begins to change. She can hear mice in the skirting boards – depicted in vivid colours. But their scratchy music soon dissolves into a more longing theme. Initially insecure, the theme builds through the orchestra as the Christmas tree grows and grows in ‘48 bars of fantastic music with a grandiose crescendo’. This is not just the music of Christmas fantasy; we witness Clara herself change through its great swathes of searching strings. Eventually finding its home in A major, the Christmas tree reaches full height with a dazzling final cadence.


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Gary Avis as Drosselmeyer in The Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
Photograph © ROH/Johan Persson

Things Turn Out Differently

Until recently, Walter Arlen was a totally unknown quantity… at least in Vienna, the city of his birth. Kicked out by the Nazis after the Anschluß, Arlen fled to America where he became the pupil of the composer Roy Harris. Arlen eventually settled in Los Angeles, then a hub for Central Europeans in exile. He studied at UCLA and later worked as a musical academic at Loyola Marymount University. But the daily grind couldn't match his talent and every evening he would go home to work on his music (some of which he'd brought from Vienna). In among this emerging body of work was a collection of striking songs.

Bridging the gap between the Lieder tradition of his homeland and the desiccated beauty of Ives, Barber and Copland, these songs are the music of exile. They have no geography; their texts, from the Song of Songs, Shakespeare, St John of the Cross, Rilke and Miłosz, speak of diverse taste as much as of Arlen's longings. But rather than sharing his feelings of displacement, Arlen hid the songs in a drawer. Only Marni Nixon, the 'voice' of The King and I, West Side Story and My Fair Lady, was allowed to sing them.

A chance meeting in 2005 between Arlen and the record producer Michael Haas finally brought this extraordinary music out of hiding. Michael has worked for years to re-establish repertoire forgotten or lost in the atrocities of the Nazi period. And his multi-award winning Entartete Musik series on Decca was the inspiration for the title of this blog. With the financial support of the Vienna-based exil.arte, Christian Immler, Rebecca Nelsen (pictured above with Arlen) and Danny Driver recorded a selection of these 'hidden' songs in July and August 2010. The disc was released on the Gramola label last month in Vienna, launched at a special ceremony at the Volkstheater.

The city that rejected Arlen in its blackest period is welcoming him back; restitution clearly comes in many forms. There's now a square named after him in the district of Ottakring, where Arlen's family had its department store Warenhaus Dichter (aryanised after the Anschluß). Blind, physically frail, but mentally pin-sharp, the 90-year-old Arlen return to Vienna for the recording sessions. Unable to read his scores, Arlen was hearing many of them for the first time. Correcting harmonies, suggesting weightings within chords, Arlen hadn't forgotten a thing. And I sat in the room overlooking the Belvedere Palace gardens as soprano Rebecca Nelsen began to sing; Arlen was transfixed. His music has returned to at least one of its homes. Click here to order a copy of the CD.