Archive for Richard Strauss

Der Rosenkavalier at WNO

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , , , , on June 5, 2017 by telescoper

I’m in London attending a cosmology meeting (of which more, perhaps, anon) but I couldn’t resist posting a quick review of yesterday’s birthday treat: the first performance of a new production of Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss. It wasn’t exactly a first night as such because it was a 3pm start. In fact it was still daylight when I got home..

Der Rosenkavalier is superficially a comic opera but it also moments of great depth and poignancy, dealing with the passage of time and the nature of love. The libretto contains some lovely passages, such as this:

Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding.
Wenn man so hinlebt, ist sie rein gar nichts.
Aber dann auf einmal, da spürt man nichts als sie.
Sie ist um uns herum, sie ist auch in uns drinnen.
In den Gesichtern rieselt sie,
im Spiegel da rieselt sie,
in meinen Schläfen fliesst sie.
Und zwischen mir und dir da fliesst sie wieder,
lautlos, wie eine Sanduhr.

Most of the comedy is supplied by an intrigue involving the boorish Baron Ochs, played brilliantly by bass Brindley Sherrat, who wishes to marry the innocent Sophie (largely to acquire the property of Sophie’s father). The Baron engages dashing young Octavian to deliver a ceremonial silver rose to Sophie as a wedding gift. Octavian arrives with the gift but falls in love at first sight with Sophie and his feelings are reciprocated. When the Baron turns out to be the horrible git that he is, Octavian engineers a plot to discredit him, rescue Sophie from a potentially disastrous marriage and claim her for himself. The cunning plan, which proves successful, involves Octavian dressing as a maid in order to catch the Baron in flagrante.

It’s worth mentioning that the part of 17-year old Octavian is played by a female singer – in this production the excellent Lucia Cervoni – who at one point has to be a girl playing a boy playing a girl, rather like Cherubino in the Marriage of Figaro. Sounds silly? Well, it is but it was beautifully done and gloriously funny.

Octavian (right) presents Sophie with the silver rose..

Octavian is a `trouser role’ but in this production the character begins with trousers off, having a bit of rumpy-pumpy with the Marschallin (played by the wonderful Rebecca Evans), who is much older than Octavian. At the start of the Opera they are in a passionate relationship, but the Marschallin is conscious of the passage of time and that her relationship with Octavian can’t last. At the end of Act I, she points out to Octavian that their relationship can’t go on and he storms out, shortly to meet young Sophie (in Act II).

In this production the Marschallin is often accompanied on stage by the silent and solitary figure of an old lady, who it turns out is a representation of herself in later life. It’s a clever device and would have been even more effective had the old lady not reminded me so much of Madge Allsop

The staging is in period, and for the most part pleasantly straightforward but there is a rather gimmicky element of steadily encroaching sand, presumably ‘the sands of time’ referred to in the last line of the excerpt quoted above. I felt this was neither necessary nor convincing. The theme of time’s inexorable progress is clear enough. There’s no need to labour it.

Near the end of Act III, after much coming and going, and the odious Baron’s entrapment and humiliation, the Marschallin  is left alone with her former lover Octavian and his intended bride Sophie, we arrive at the Opera’s emotional high point, and indeed one of the most sublime moments in the entire operatic repertoire, the sumptuous trio Hab Mir’s Gelobt,  in which the Marschallin comes to terms with the loss of Octavian and blesses the relationship between him and Sophie. This is one of the pieces of music that really affects me very powerfully, and I am not too proud to admit that I did let go a tear or two. Maybe more. Not because it is especially sad, but because it’s so very beautiful the way the three voice blend together and with the orchestra.

I don’t give star ratings but from a vocal point of view this is definitely one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen on the Opera stage. All four principals: Rebecca Evans, Lucia Cervoni, Brindley Sherratt and Louise Alder (Sophie) rose to the challenges of their roles in great style. All were superb so it would be wrong to single out one, but I will say that I was surprised to discover that this was Rebecca Evan’s debut as the Marschallin – she was just about perfect in the role.

The Orchestra of Welsh National Opera directed by Tomas Hanus played Strauss’s lush score with great precision and passion,  holding together a wonderful afternoon at the Wales Millennium Centre. An altogether excellent way to spend a birthday afternoon!

Beethoven and Strauss at St David’s Hall 

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , on February 25, 2017 by telescoper

I’m a bit late writing about this because the last two days have been very busy, but on Wednesday evening (22nd February) I went to a concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, featuring the Philharmonia Orchestra under the direction of Principal Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

The first half of the programme featured two pieces by Beethoven, starting with a piece that was entirely new to me: his rarely heard concert overture Zur Namensfeier. It’s just a short piece (7 minutes long) and isn’t among Beethoven’s best compositions, but it did at least get the Philharmonia warmed up for the main event.

The Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”) wasn’t immediately popular when it was first performed in 1809 – perhaps because it was considered a bit grandiose – but is now firmly established as one of the pinnacles of the repertoire. The soloist was the superb Pierre-Laurent Aimard who gave us an electrifying performance, though I did feel that some of the transitions from soloist to orchestra could have been a little smoother.

The second half of the programme was devoted to a single work by Richard Strauss, for which the orchestra was augmented  by the addition of brass and a larger percussion section.

For many people, the tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra is irrevocably associated with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey  as well as the BBC coverage of the Apollo moon landings. The opening section, representing sunrise (“as the individual enters the world, or the world enters the individual”), was memorably featured in both. Perhaps that association is why the opening section of this work sounds very modern, when it was actually written in 1896.

This is a spine-tingling piece to hear live, especially with the timpani, trumpets and splendid organ of St David’s Hall giving it everything.  The principal percussionist was clearly loving every minute.

But the sunrise is only one section of nine and it’s a pity that it’s often the only part we get to hear. The other sections are rather more recognisably late-romantic, but they cover a huge range as Strauss expresses in music various aspects of the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche that inspired this piece.

The whole performance was brilliantly energised. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen got so carried away at one point that the baton slipped from his hand and flew into the First Violins. That’s definitely the first time I’ve seen that happen!
The concert ended to tumultuous applause: St David’s Hall wasn’t full, but the audience was very appreciative of an excellent performance. 


Posted in Music with tags , , on March 11, 2014 by telescoper

I thought I’d post this recording of Frühling (“Spring”) which I heard  on the radio at the weekend; it seems appropriate enough for the season and for the lovely weather we’re currently enjoying. It features the gorgeous voice of Gundula Janowitz,  wonderfully bright and clear like finest crystal. I have so far posted two of the Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss; this makes it three.


Posted in Opera with tags , , , on October 13, 2013 by telescoper

I seem to have spent more time in London than in Brighton over the last week, and on Saturday I was in the Big Smoke again, for a Night at the Opera. This was a trip I’ve been looking forward to for some time, because it was made possible by the good folks of the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University: when I left at the end of January this year they presented me with a gift voucher for the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, which I’ve only just around to using. So before going on, let me take the opportunity express my gratitude for such a lovely gift!

The Opera I went to see was Elektra by Richard Strauss, in a revival of Charles Edwards’s production that first ran in 2003. Elektra is a complex story (geddit?) set in ancient Mycenae, whose ruling class is gripped by a terrible family feud. The Opera begins with Elektra deranged with grief because of the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Clytemnestra. She resolves to take revenge on her mother and her allies. Her hopes are initially thwarted when her sister Chrysothemis refuses to help and she hears of the death of her brother Orestes. However, Orestes is not dead; he returns to the Palace and, together with a companion, goes on a bloody rampage. The final scenes see the stage covered with dead bodies and the murderers drenched in blood. Elektra rejoices that her revenge is complete, but the fulfilment of her goal leaves her with nothing left to live for; the collapses and dies.

That’s what you go to the Opera for, a happy ending!

I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Elektra is an opera in one Act, so it runs for about two hours without an interval. Christine Goerke was absolutely outstanding as Elektra, as was Iain Paterson as Orestes. The music by Richard Strauss is full of contrasts: at times dark and brooding, but at others with a radiant beauty. Those extremes represent the psychological extremes of the story: Elektra’s obsession with revenge is a distorted reflection of her love for her father. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House conducted by Christopher Willis, standing in for Andris Jansons who was ill, added excellent colour and dynamics to the action on stage.

With all the corpses coming back to life in bloodstained costumes, the curtain call looked the Zombie Apocalypse had started, but we managed to escape and made it to an excellent Italian restaurant in time for a splendid supper followed by too much grappa. I didn’t get back to Brighton until late this afternoon…

Hab Mir’s Gelobt

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on September 6, 2011 by telescoper

Too busy for anything else today so I’ll make do with a piece of music. No apologies, however, for “making do” with one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. I don’t admitting that this reduces me to jelly every time I hear it. Richard Strauss possessed an amazing gift for writing for the female voice, but in this trio from Act III of Der Rosenkavalier, the whole exceeds even the sum of the exquisite parts. The title, roughly speaking, means “I made a vow” but with music like this the  words are almost irrelevant…

Final Thoughts

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on May 28, 2011 by telescoper

I decided to round off the working week last night with a trip to St David’s Hall in Cardiff to hear the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the baton of guest conductor Jac van Steen in a programme of music by Richard Strauss and Anton Bruckner. Both pieces featured in the concert are longstanding favourites of mine and I’d been looking forward to the event for some time. The concert was billed Final Thoughts as each piece was in fact the respective composer’s last.

First up were the Vier Letzte Lieder (“Four Last Songs“). Richard Strauss had a particularly wonderful gift for writing music for the female voice and these pieces are perfect demonstrations of his art. Only published posthumously, they were never performed in Strauss’ lifetime but they quickly established themselves as concert favourites. In fact there’s no evidence that they were ever intended to form a set; the last – which happens to be my favourite, Im Abendrot, a setting of a poem by von Eichendorff, was completed before Strauss decided to set the other three, which are poems by Herman Hesse. There is more unity in compositional approach in the first three of the four, but nothing for me matches the sheer gorgeousness of the last. I freely admit that I quite often burst into tears listening to it, it’s so beautiful. I posted a favourite version elsewhere on this blog, and I have six different versions on CD.

Last night’s performance featured Swedish mezzo soprano Katarina Karnéus who has a very fine voice. They were performed at a slightly brisker tempo than is often the case (which is no bad thing) and the orchestra was in good form. The only problem was that the singer was standing so far back into the orchestra that she had difficulty projecting her voice, particularly since she was almost behind the conductor from where I was sitting. Some of her singing was barely audible, but when she did break through she brought out the beauty of Strauss music in fine style. Overall, a very nice performance. But no, I didn’t burst into tears this time.

After the interval we had Anton Bruckner‘s monumental Symphony No. 9, which was unfinished at Bruckner’s death in 1896. Insufficient material was recovered after the composer’s death to enable a reconstruction of the missing 4th movement, so this work is generally performed in its incomplete state with only three movements. Even so, it’s an immense work in both length and ambition. The majestic first movement (marked Feierlich, Misterioso; solemn & mysterious) with its soaring themes and thunderous climaxes always puts me in mind of a mountaineering expedition, with wonderful vistas to experience but with danger lurking at every step. At times it’s rapturously beautiful, at times terrifying. It’s not actually about mountaineering, of course – Bruckner meant this symphony to be an expression of his religious faith, which, in the latter years of his life must have been pretty shaky if the music is anything to go by.

The second movement (Scherzo) is all juddering rhythms, jagged themes and harsh dissonances reminiscent (to me) of Shostakovich. It alternates between menacing, playful and cryptic; the frenzied animation of central Trio section is especially disconcerting.

The last movement  (Adagio)  begins restlessly, with an unaccompanied violin theme and then becomes more obviously religious in character in various passages of hymn-like quality, still punctuated by stark crescendi. In this movement Bruckner doffs his cap in the direction of Richard Wagner,  especially when the four Wagner tubas appear, and the movement reaches yet another climax with the brass bellowing out the initial violin theme. This dies away and the movement comes to an unresolved, poignant conclusion. With a long pause in silence as if to say “that’s all he wrote”, the concert came to an end.

Although I’ve loved this work for many years I’ve only ever heard it on CD before last night.  The live performance definitely adds another dimension and I enjoyed it enormously. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales may not be the Berlin Philharmonic but I was generally very impressed, especially with the strings, who brought warmth and colour to a piece some people find a bit cold. On the other hand, on the way out people were raving about the four Wagner tubas, which I thought sounded ill-at-ease and unconvincing.

The concert was broadcast live last night on BBC Radio 3 (you can here it here for the next week or so), which is why it had to start at 7pm. A crazy decision by the controller of BBC Radio3, in my opinion, to insist that live concerts all start so early. There being no time to go home first, I just went straight there from work. I was deeply disappointed to see such a low turnout – the Hall was less than half full. Curiously, though, when I had tried to book a ticket just a week or so ago the vast majority of seats were sold and I had to settle for a place upstairs. I’m told that large numbers of seats are kept back for corporate guests and for BBC employees, of whom there are many in Cardiff as Auntie Beeb is a big employer here. Since these folk haven’t paid anything they often don’t turn up. The effect of this is that no matter how interesting the programme is, how fine the venue is, and how cheap the tickets are (top price is less than £30), the place is often pretty empty. It’s a shame.

Anyway, the one advantage of a 7pm start is that the concerts finish quite early, just after nine in this case. It was still twilight when I emerged from St David’s Hall, so I decided to take a crepuscular perambulation along the Taff embankment past the cricket ground at Sophia Gardens (where England are currently playing a Test Match against Sri Lanka). When I got near the SWALEC Stadium I was beset on all sides by a number of bats, no doubt feasting on insects flying over the river. They didn’t bother me at all. I find them fascinating creatures, in fact. At one point however, one of the critters flew into my leg at about knee level and fell back onto the path, apparently stunned. I stopped to find out whether it was badly hurt but after a bit of a struggle getting airborne it flapped off into the murk. It was a tiny little thing and, judging by the poor standard of its navigation, I suspect it was merely a trainee.

Ariadne auf Naxos

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on October 8, 2010 by telescoper

There are three operas in the current season from Welsh National Opera, and last night I went to see the final one of the set,   a revival of their 2004 production of Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. It seems I saved the best until last! It was a wonderful evening, beautifully sung and imaginatively staged.

It’s a strange opera, consisting of two acts. The first is a prologue, set backstage during the preparations for  a musical performance commissioned by the “wealthiest man in Vienna”, a character who never actually makes an appearance but who communicates with the others through his Major-Domo (a speaking role, played by Eric Roberts).  The centrepiece of the performance is to be a new opera, the tragedy of Ariadne on the Island of Naxos, written by a gifted young composer (played in male drag by the lovely Sarah Connolly). Afraid that the opera might bore his guests, the patron decides to liven up the performance by adding a musical comedy act, in the style of the Commedia dell’Arte, and a firework display. While the opera singers argue with assorted clowns and grotesques of the rival Harlequinade about who should perform first, news comes down from on high that in order that the fireworks are not delayed, instead of performing one after the other, the two performances will be merged. The upshot of this is that instead of being marooned on a desert island with only three nymphs for company, the lovelorn Ariadne has to put up with the presence of the entire cast of a comic burlesque.

In case you hadn’t figured it out, this is a comedy. It’s very German, of course, in the sense that it’s not all that funny really, but the set up does pay off in the second act, wherein the comedy and tragedy (or, more precisely, an Opera Buffa and an Opera Seria) are played together. It’s a bit like the “play-within-a-play” in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

First Ariadne (played by Orla Boylan) appears on her island, singing of her desire for death after the loss of her beloved Theseus. Then the clowns interrupt the performance and try to cheer her up, by suggesting she finds another man. Then the comics take over the show entirely, at least for a while. Finally Ariadne reappears and is met by Bacchus, the god of wine, who brings much-needed consolation. The two sing a rapturous duet and eventually ascend to heaven, in a style reminiscent of Close Encounters, while the clowns look on from the wings.

It’s all a bit daft, of course, but the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy is unexpectedly moving. It works largely because of the sheer beauty of Strauss’ music, especially in the second act. People who don’t like opera probably don’t understand how it’s possibly to fall into such a stylised form of drama in which people sing to each other rather than speak, but somehow – at least for me – that’s what happens. Something draws you into the drama and you forget the artificiality of the performance. That it works in this opera is especially surprising because it’s  a second-order opera; the audience knows it’s an opera, but within the opera there’s another opera. Nevertheless, the sensuously romantic score still pulls you in, especially in the scenes with Ariadne. Strauss was always a superb writer for the female voice, and this opera is no exception.

Last night’s performance was lovely, with Sarah Connolly and   Orla Boylan both oustanding. Boyland in particular was simply superb, a true dramatic soprano with a voice of great lyrical beauty as well as  thrilling power when needed. I was expecting Sarah Connolly to be great, and she didn’t disappoint at all, but Orla Boylan was even better. 10/10.

The only part I didn’t like was the Wig-Maker, a crude gay stereotype mincing ostentatiously around the stage during the Prologue. Very naff.

Oh, and Eric Roberts as the Major-Domo seemed to get a bit confused in a couple of places and repeated his lines, sending the surtitle machine into chaos for a bit. Even though the performance was in German I didn’t really look at the surtitles. When you wear varifocals it’s quite difficult to read them without missing out on what’s happening on stage.

These were only minor blemishes, however, and overall it was a wonderful evening. I’ll add a word for the orchestra too, which played beautifully under the baton of Lothar Koenigs.

There’s only one other performance of this in Cardiff, tomorrow night (Saturday 9th October). Do go and see it if you can!


The First Four Last Songs

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on September 5, 2010 by telescoper

Just a quickie today, as I have a lot to do this afternoon. Last night I stayed in and listened to  Prom 66, the penultimate Saturday evening concert of the 2010 season of BBC Promenade Concerts from the Royal Albert Hall in London. In fact it was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and then shown on BBC television a bit later, a strange arrangement but one that at least let me listen to some of the music twice.

I haven’t listened to all that many of the Saturday concerts this year – on a weekend the scheduling is often somewhat orthogonal to my tastes – but this one was one I’d been looking forward to for ages. It didn’t disappoint. The performance featured the Berlin Philharmoniker conducted by Sir Simon Rattle in a very varied programme of music, including  the Prelude to Act I of Parsifal by Richard Wagner and three marvellous orchestral suites by Arnold Schoenberg (Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16) and two of his students from the 2nd Vienna School Anton Webern (Six Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6) and Alban Berg (Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6). All of these were played quite beautifully by an Orchestra whose name is synonymous with the highest standards of musicianship.

Even better than these, however, was the centrepiece of the concert, Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss, sung by the wonderful Finnish soprano Karita Mattila. I particularly wanted to hear this because the very first recording I bought of the Four Last Songs was by her (conducted by Claudio Abbado). It got mixed reviews when it came out about 10 years ago, but it’s still one of my favourites. Anyway, I thought her performance last night was as  moving as any I’ve heard. Ten out of ten.

I’ve always known that the Four Last Songs were published after his  death, so Strauss never heard them performed. What I didn’t know before the discussion on TV during the interval immediately after the performance was that the very first time they were performed was in 1950 at the Royal Albert Hall, by the London Philharmonia, so this was an occasion especially redolent for those who love this exquisite work. One can only imagine what it must have been like for the orchestra making this music live for the very first time.  Apparently the first time any of them had seen the score was when they turned up for the rehearsal. I’m sure they knew as soon as they started playing that it was a masterpiece.

Anyway, I’ve posted a version of one of the Four Last Songs already – the last one, which happens to be my favourite. I thought I’d put up another one today and, given the historical connection, it seemed apt to pick a recording of the World Premiere of the work from 1950, by the London Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler and featuring the legendary Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad. You have to make some allowance for the sound quality given that it’s such an old live recording, but it’s fascinating to listen to it. For one thing it’s a very different tempo to that of most modern recordings.  Here they are performing the second song which, appropriately enough given the time of year, is called September.


Also Sprach Zarathustra

Posted in Biographical, Music, Poetry with tags , , , , on September 8, 2009 by telescoper

Today is the 60th anniversary of the death of the great composer Richard Strauss in 1949. I’ve already used up the music which is probably the most appropriate for this occasion, so I thought I’d mark it instead with a clip from the work that is probably most familiar to my likely readership, Also Sprach Zarathustra, as used in the closing stages of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This little clip is from the final stages of the film, though the music itself is from the opening segment of the Strauss work, the part that represents the Sunrise.

For people of my age, this music is inextricably linked not only with the film, but also with the TV coverage of the moon landings that happened about the same time as its release, about 40 years ago, and for which it also provided the theme music. I don’t know which came first. I’d love to be able to say that these events are behind what made me become an astrophysicist but, as I’ve explained before, the truth is somewhat different.

Anyway, the theme of transfiguration and rebirth depicted in the movie  seems to me to be one more closely related to Strauss’ earlier work Tod und Verklärung,  and it always makes me think of the following lines from East Coker, the second of the Four Quartets by TS Eliot:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

The End of All Songs

Posted in Music with tags , , on August 1, 2009 by telescoper

I’ve been searching around on Youtube for quite a while trying to decide which is my favourite version of my favourite song. This is Im Abendrot, a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff, as it was set to music by Richard Strauss and published as the last of his Four Last Songs. Strauss wrote the music for this in 1948, just a year before he died.

The poem had a special meaning for Strauss and I think that comes across in the achingly beautiful music he composed for it. The verse is

Wir sind durch Not und Freude
gegangen Hand in Hand;
vom Wandern ruhen wir
nun überm stillen Land.

Rings sich die Täler neigen,
es dunkelt schon die Luft,
zwei Lerchen nur noch steigen
nachträumend in den Duft.

Tritt her und laß sie schwirren,
bald ist es Schlafenszeit,
daß wir uns nicht verirren
In dieser Einsamkeit.

O weiter, stiller Friede!
So tief im Abendrot.
Wie sind wir wandermüde–
Ist dies etwa der Tod?

Although it is basically about death, I find this piece immensely uplifting and joyful.  The setting of the last verse in particular reaches parts of me that other music doesn’t reach. The voice floats freely as if suspended in mid-air over the first line (O weiter, stiller Friede!) while the orchestra gently swells beneath it, heightening the suspense. The voice then soars up and away like a majestic bird over the second line of text (So tief im Abendrot) while the orchestra gathers again. The exquisite countermelody rises up to meet the vocal line and they fly together for a while before the words come to and end and it all eventually subsides into a quiet but wonderful sense of fulfilment and peace.

Music just doesn’t get much better than this.

This is the best version I could find on Youtube, by the relatively unknown Gundula Janowitz recorded in 1973 with the Berlin Philharmonic. I’m not saying it’s the best version that’s ever been done – this piece has been recorded by virtually every soprano worthy of the name and everyone will have their favourite- but this is up among the very best.