Apocalyptic minimalism: Carl Orff’s final opera, at Salzburg Festival, reviewed

‘Germany’s greatest artistic asset, its music, is in danger,’ warned The Spectator in June 1937. Reporting from the leading new-music festival in Darmstadt, the correspondent mentioned only one première of the two dozen on offer: ‘The most important achievement was the scenic cantata Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, a piece that would have been impossible without the influence of the “cultural Bolshevik” Stravinsky.’ He’s not wrong: give Stravinsky’s Les Noces some nail clippers and a face scrub and you get Orff. Carmina Burana can today seem irredeemably boorish and kitsch. But you can see how the piece’s hiccupy primitivism might have once startled. Still no less startling today is Orff’s

A new recording throws fresh light on Mahler’s puzzling Tenth Symphony

There are many Symphonies No. 10 by Gustav Mahler, or none. The situation is rare, if not unique, in the history of music. Basic facts: Mahler finished the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde in the summer of 1910. At the same time he discovered that his wife Alma was having an affair with Gropius, and that he had an incurable heart complaint and hadn’t long to live. One might have thought that these last two completed works are as movingly valedictory as anything ever written, but Mahler’s view was more complicated than that, and he immediately set about writing a Tenth Symphony. Over and among the notes,

The loveliest girl in Vienna

It must be rare for a popular song to have such a lasting influence on a posthumous reputation. However, this is the case with Tom Lehrer’s deliciously satirical tribute, ‘Alma’. Reading Alma Mahler’s obituary in 1964 — the ‘juiciest, spiciest, raciest’ he’d ever come across — Lehrer was amazed by her matrimonial CV and proceeded to immortalise it in a catchy lyric. Not only had Alma been married three times, to the composer Gustav Mahler, to Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus, and, finally, to Franz Werfel, author of the runaway bestseller The Song of Bernadette, she’d also managed to bag as lovers some of the top creative men in

The Rite stuff

It was Stravinsky himself who suggested that, in order to preserve its difficulty, the opening bassoon solo of The Rite of Spring should be raised by a semitone every decade. And it was a performance by Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2005 that convinced me that he wasn’t entirely joking. The audience nattered away over the opening bars; the unlucky bassoonist wobbled and cracked. Clearly, this orchestra was not remotely prepared for what was about to hit it. Rhythms splintered like shrapnel and misplaced entries spattered across every silence. As they hurtled into the final Sacrificial Dance, you could almost hear the prayers of musicians audibly struggling simply to hang on.

Gypsy king

Looney Tunes was always at its best when soundtracked by a Hungarian gypsy dance. (Watch ‘Pigs in a Polka’ if you don’t believe me.) It’s music that was made to chase small cartoon animals — and terrify conductors. The gunshot syncopations. The hand-break turns in tempi. The banana-skin portamenti and rubato ravines… Musical tripwires everywhere. Nothing to faze conductor Ivan Fischer, however. Last week at the Proms, with the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Fischer was giving a guided tour of Hungarian gypsy music and its century-long cohabitation with classical music. It was a masterclass. Without breaking a sweat, he suavely explained the provenance of each piece to the audience, then swung

The essential Kubelik

Rafael Kubelik is watching Wimbledon when I enter his suite at the Savoy. ‘Tennis fan?’ I ask, slightly surprised. He shakes his head. ‘No. Just her.’ It is 1983, the high summer of Martina Navratilova. ‘She will win,’ says Kubelik in the decisive tone that conductors use to save rehearsal time. ‘And one day my country will be free.’ He had flown out of Prague in February 1948 not daring to tell his wife and son until they landed in London that the communists had seized power and they could never return home. Sir Adrian Boult, a gent among time-beaters, offered to hand Kubelik his job with the BBC Symphony

The big chill | 7 June 2018

The picnic hamper’s open, the bubbly is chilled, and country house opera is starting to eat itself. When you arrive at the Wormsley Estate you enter a fantastic, baffling world. Figures in black tie stroll between topiary hedges in obedience to unstated rules, while serving staff hover a few paces behind, gliding silently in to reassert neatness and order. Children dressed in red (they’re from a local Scout group) pop up to help and guide. Then the new production of Die Zauberflöte begins and with a deft, surreal spin, the director Netia Jones bowls it all straight back at you. That’s a big part of the fun here. Jones has

Bat squeaks and red herrings

Blue Gadoo is one of those cats whose face looks like it’s been bashed flat with a wok. He lives in New York, apparently, and his bulging eyes goggle out from Gerald Barry’s programme note for his new Organ Concerto. Check him out: the Guardian published the full note a day before the performance, which is only right because a Gerald Barry world première really ought to be national news. ‘I saw a photograph of him with a book called Sex and the Sacred in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde,’ explains Barry. ‘By his expression I knew he was mourning the loss of atonality.’ There’s heaps more like that. Some of

Talking down to God

‘There is something enviable about the utter lack of inhibition with which Leonard Bernstein carries on,’ wrote the critic of the Boston Globe after the US première of Bernstein’s Third Symphony, Kaddish, in February 1964 — and looking at the forces arrayed at the Barbican, he had a point. In addition to the full LSO there was the London Symphony Chorus, a narrator, a solo soprano and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir. It barely fitted on stage. And if you thought the set-up was extravagant, a glance at Bernstein’s self-written text would probably have sent you screaming from the hall. ‘Lenny’ was classical music’s original bleeding-heart superstar: the man for whom

Follow the lieder

If a symphony is, as Mahler famously put it, ‘like the world’, then songs and lieder are like seeing that world in Blake’s grain of sand. Their span may be short, but their emotional horizon is infinite — a lyric window on to an epic landscape. And yet there’s something about a song recital that sets up quite a different expectation. Maybe it’s the venues. Entering the Wigmore Hall or Oxford’s Holywell Music Room still feels like stepping into another, older world. Politeness, not passion, is the overriding sensation of well-heeled audiences with their well-thumbed programmes, prepared for 90 minutes of just-enough-but-not-too-much musical excitement. Maybe it’s the genre itself; you

Salon Strauss

An opera without singers, a Strauss orchestra of just 16, and an early music ensemble playing Mahler: welcome to the Oxford Lieder Festival, where familiar repertoire is getting a reboot this year thanks to some brilliantly ambitious programming. When it comes to classical music, we’re used to living in a bifurcated world. On the one hand, you have the contemporary ensembles: the orchestras, choirs and quartets performing pretty much everything from Mozart onwards. And on the other the early music groups, whose territory is everything that’s left — Bach, Byrd, Hildegard of Bingen. It’s only fairly recently, and thanks to groups such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment,

Vice and virtue

‘Can the ultimate betrayal ever be forgiven?’ screams the publicity for The Judas Passion, transforming a Biblical drama into a spears-and-sandals soap opera in a sentence. Thankfully, this really isn’t the premise of composer Sally Beamish and poet David Harsent’s new oratorio. Instead, the two authors pose a more interesting problem: is betrayal still betrayal when it’s divinely ordained, the price of salvation? A performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony this week celebrated the innocent joys of heaven; The Judas Passion invited us to count their sinful cost. You see them before you hear them. The 30 pieces of silver catch the light as they hang suspended as part of the

The sound of no hands clapping

‘We’re going to live for ever!’ declares Robert Powell as Gustav Mahler at the end of Ken Russell’s 1974 biopic. We’ve just had the big reveal (Russell said it ‘out-Hollywoods Hollywood’) in which Mahler admits to his young wife Alma that she inspired the lyrical theme in the first movement of his Sixth Symphony. It’s a tale for which the only source is Alma herself, but hey, over the course of the movie we’ve already had exploding garden sheds, interpretative dance and Cosima Wagner in fetish gear. Russell cues the music, and few film-makers have understood better how to cut to a composer’s emotional core. As the credits roll, the

Bowled over by Bruckner

The two Proms concerts given on consecutive evenings by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra were well planned: a short opening work, and after the interval a long and demanding symphony. Moreover, the big symphonies were by Bruckner and Mahler, to the latter of whom this orchestra has been devoted almost since its foundation. Willem Mengelberg, the orchestra’s chief for 50 years, was the only conductor, Mahler said, that he could trust with his works, and the orchestra has been headed by a succession of distinguished Mahlerians ever since.Bruckner, meanwhile, entered the orchestra’s repertoire in a major way in the 1950s, and has been there ever since. Daniele Gatti, who became the

Mistaken identity | 24 August 2017

This year’s Lucerne Festival is given its identity by having as its theme ‘Identity’. Since the word doesn’t mean anything, that isn’t a lot of help. But does a festival have to have a theme? Surely a glut of fine performances of great, or at least interesting, music is enough? Michael Haefliger, the icy artistic director, clearly doesn’t agree, and offers two accounts of identity, one in the general festival booklet, where the emphasis is on refugees and national identity, the other in the programmes for the individual concerts, where he is more metaphysical, and concludes with the hope that by listening to the chosen music we will ‘rediscover ourselves

Gustav Mahler

When I began listening to music seriously, in about 1950, I had read about Mahler but wasn’t able to hear any — almost none of his works was available on 78s, apart from the celebrated pre-war recordings of the Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, under Bruno Walter, and they were way beyond a teenager’s pocket. Reading about his symphonies — vast, anguished, tormented, ecstatic — I was desperate, and when I finally managed to hear that recording of the Ninth I was suitably overwhelmed, as I still am. During the 1950s I was able, slowly, to hear, though not to get to know, the rest of his

Spot the ball

The purest form of radio is probably sports commentating, creating pictures in the mind purely through language so that by some magic the listener believes that they were there, too, when Geoff Hurst scored that final goal, Shergar ran out the field at Epsom, Mo Farah sped ahead on Super Saturday. As Mike Costello said last Thursday on Radio Five Live’s celebration of 90 years since the first outside broadcast from a rugby match on 15 January 1927, ‘We’re all blind when we listen now, just as we were back in the 1930s.’ The technology has changed radically but radio still relies on the skill of an inspired individual to

Estate agent

A big misunderstanding about art is that it excites serene meditation and transcendent bliss. But anyone who has worked in a public museum or a commercial gallery knows that this is untrue. The moral climate of the contemporary art world would embarrass the Borgias. Art excites peculation, speculation, back-stabbing, front-stabbing and avarice while fuelling nasty spats about attribution and ownership between heirs, relatives, executors and collectors. Nowhere is this more comically apparent than in the matter of artists’ estates. Once a private concern of family and lawyers, the ‘artist’s estate’ is becoming recognised as a tangible and valuable entity that needs professional management just like any other financial asset. Art

Losing their religion | 21 July 2016

Scriabin once suggested that the audiences for his music should be segregated according to their degree of personal enlightenment, with the ‘least spiritually advanced’ in the worst seats. Unsurprisingly it didn’t happen. But perhaps the Southbank Centre should take up the challenge. For its 2016–17 season, the centre has devised a series of concerts and talks entitled Belief and Beyond Belief. This ‘festival’, as it grandly styles itself, could have been an exploration of the enormous and neglected influence of faith on the great composers. Could have been — but, predictably, won’t be. Instead, the Southbank has chosen to subsume religious faith into ‘belief’, whatever that is, and then tacked

The spaces in between

The unfinished is, of course, something which tells us about the history of a work of art’s creation. A work of art may have been interrupted by the artist’s death, as with the paintings that Klimt left behind in his studio. Or it may simply have been abandoned when a patron failed to fulfil his obligations, or the painter had grown bored with the subject and moved on to something else. These spaces and gaps give us a glimpse of an artist at work and invite us to speculate about what Mondrian, for instance, was doing abandoning the 1934 ‘Composition with Double Lines’ or Cézanne the 1898 ‘Bouquet of Peonies’.