Sunday 16 May 2021

A Life On-Line: Recovering The White Rose, rediscovering Grainger, rethinking Bach, reimagining Elgar

Jorge Jimenez - Rethinking Bach (Capture from stream)
Jorge Jimenez - Rethinking Bach (Capture from stream)

This week we have been busy rediscovering, rethinking and reimagining whether it be The White Rose's non-violent resistance to the Nazi's, the sheer strangeness and imagination of Percy Grainger's music, a journey towards Bach's Goldberg Variations via a new transcription for violin or David Matthews' reworking Elgar's string quartet.

The White Rose, the non-violent resistance group in Nazi Germany, has been in the news recently partly because 9 May 2021 was the centenary of the birth of Sophie Scholl, one of the founders of the group. There have been a number of artistic responses to the group and its message, from new music [David Chesky's The White Rose Trilogy] to new opera [Udo Zimmerman's Weisse Rose at Hamburg State Opera]. 

The choir Sansara and conductor Tom Herring joined forces with The White Rose Project, a research and engagement initiative at the University of Oxford, to create Voices of the German Resistance, a programme which interleaved music by Bach, Byrd, Rudolf Mauersberger, Max Reger, Philip Moore and Piers Kennedy with readings from the resistance group's writings in new English translations by students at the University of Oxford. 

The programme was recorded last year (for the 77th anniversary of the first White Rose trials) and finally broadcast last Sunday on Harrison Parrott's Virtual Circle platform. The first part featured Bach chorales and William Byrd's Ne irascaris Domine and Civitas sancti tui (which form two parts of a single large-scale work from his 1589 Cantiones Sacrae lamenting the desolation of the Holy City, Jerusalem) alongside readings from the White Rose's pamphlets, texts which have an extraordinary prescience when seen in the context of developments in contemporary politics.

The second part moved to letters between the members of the group, as their activities moved towards their inevitable arrest. Music here was more contemporary to them. Rudolf Mauersberger (1889-1971) wrote Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst in 1945, in the wake of the bombing of Dresden where Mauersberger was director of music of Kreuzkirche. Max Reger (1873-1916) was from an older generation and his Nachtlied was sung as reflection of one of the men's love for, and separation from, his young child.

Finally the letters from prison were interleaved with the powerful settings by composer Philip Moore (born 1943) of three prayers by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), the Lutheran pastor and theologian who was arrested by the Nazis and executed in 1945. These are striking and intense works in their own right and set in the context of the members of the White Rose's letters from prison the results were powerful indeed. The programme ended with a striking new piece, Blessed are the Peacemakers by Piers Connor Kennedy (born 1991), himself a student at Oxford and older than Sophie Scholl was when she was executed, a sobering thought. 

More about Sansara's The White Rose project at the ensemble's website

Percy Grainger's restless, innovative, and uneven, talent is sometimes overlooked, well-hidden behind the sheer engaging hummability of his popular short works. A new programme from the London Symphony Orchestra (on Marquee TV), which was devised by Sir Simon Rattle and Gerard McBurney, and conducted by Lee Reynolds (standing in at last minute for Rattle) aimed to explore more of the composer than we might expect. Recorded at LSO St Lukes, with striking images by Amelia Kosminsky, the programme featured readings by Roger Allam from Grainger's own letters. We didn't have any of the S&M shenanigins, but there were plenty of other eye-opening moments, not only his self-regard but the startlingly intimate relationship with his mother.

This was the LSO in wind band format (with double basses, piano, organ and lots of tuned percussion), again something which revealed the innovative aspects of Grainger's talent, and his ear for striking sounds. We began with Lads of Wamphray – March, which deserves to be better known, and then on to Grainger's fascination with Early Music, his Ballade No 17 (after Machaut). Then Blithe Bells, the remarkable sonorities of his re-working of JS Bach. With the anti-war sentiments of The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart we went deep into unknown territory, this piece is rarely performed and its musical content belies the strange title. The Immovable Do and Country Gardens are better known, but we heard Grainger's later orchestrations of them with the Country Gardens in the luxurious version created for Stokowski. Lincolnshire Posy is a Grainger perennial, but that does not disguise the work's innovative nature, and we ended with 'The Gum-Suckers' March, Grainger's evocation of his native land. 

This was one of those programmes which, in normal circumstances, you suspect might not have happened, but it was terrific to hear so much Grainger, played by such a crack wind-band as the LSO wind and brass sections. Lee Reynolds conducted to the manner born, and the whole made me long for more. [London Symphony Orchestra]

Elgar was very kind to string players, leaving two major pieces for string orchestra along with concertos for violin and for cello, a violin sonata and a string quartet. Composer David Matthews has tweaked this latter to create a version for string orchestra. The English Symphony Orchestra and Kenneth Woods have given us a film of Matthew's new version, successfully banishing thoughts of the original with this re-imaging [English Symphony Orchestra]

If all this is a bit to securely comfortable for you, then Bastard Assignments are inviting you to explore in far more dynamic ways. The group has been producing a series of Lockdown Jams, inventive sequences in which the four composer-performers, Timothy Cape, Edward Henderson, Caitlin Rowley and Josh Spear, and their guests don't just create experimental music but push the concept of music to its limit as well as rethinking what it means to perform together when we are not able to be together. What I have always enjoyed about Bastard Assignments when seeing them live is the way the group combines this inventiveness and boundary crossing with a wicked sense of humour, as well as a willingness to reference all sorts of pop culture. Their Lockdown Jams are all now up on their website, and until we can delight in the next show, lose yourself in their inventive, ground-breaking and wacky world [Bastard Assignments]

One of the engaging things to come out of the past year was the way it encouraged performers to go into the studio and not just record but to engage with the music and with their audience, providing spoken introductions and historical context. I have been enjoying the series from groups such as the Marian Consort and Stile Antico, both of whom have been engaging in they way the put the music into its historical setting.

I have also been enjoying Jorge Jimenez series, Rethinking Bach. This is a series of four films, each around 20 minutes long in which Jimenez talks about and plays Bach's Goldberg Variations. Not a particularly striking concept you might think, except that Jimenez plays the Baroque violin, though as a musician his projects stretch right into contemporary music [see my review of Jimenez and Anna Stegman's Lunaris]. In each film he talks about the music and plays a quarter of the whole work so that in effect we explore the music with Jimenez and hear a complete performance of his transcription for violin.

He explains that Glenn Gould's performance of the Goldberg Variations made a strong impression on him as a young man, and here he bravely bookends the films with the keyboard original played on the piano by Kimiko Ishizaka (from her ground-breaking Open Goldberg Project). Jimenez gives us a real transcription, we forget the original and are engaged by his dramatic narrative on the violin. Bach often transcribed music from one instrument to another, transferring Vivaldi's solo violin lines to the harpsichord. Here, Jimenez uses his knowledge of the way Bach could write for the violin and suggests polyphonic textures with much string crossing, the result is engaging and convincing. He plays with discreet bravura, setting himself some real challenges in the denser, more complex variations, and solving them without any 'look at me' cleverness.

Along the way we learn more about the piece, and some of the legends that have gathered around it. Jimenez says at one point that he loves a good story but he leaves us with what he calls 'the best story of all', the music.

Jimenez not only made the transcription and played it, he directed, filmed and edited the film too, performing in a lovely historic house and including some highly atmospheric filmed sequences. Do explore. [Jorge Jimenez]

I have also been enjoying BBC Radio 3's The Essay on BBC Sounds, there is something about this focused 15-minute format which appeals. This week it was baritone Peter Brathwaite [who sang the Old Gardener in the 2019 performances of my opera The Gardeners] with In their Voices, meditations on five influential Black singers from the past and their voices. Subjects of the talk ranged from contralto Marian Anderson and soprano Leontyne Price to Eric Bentley (not a trained singer, but he sang cabaret arising out of his friendship with Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler), to baritone Robert McFerrin (a figure not as well known as he should be, the first ever African American man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and the father of Bobby McFerrin), and folk-singer Vera Hall. A thoughtful and deeply affecting series about what voices can convey and how they can affect our experience. [BBC Radio 3]

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Elsewhere on this blog
  • Bärenreiter's Schubert edition, BBC Singers & Bathrobe recitals: baritone Jamie W Hall's remarkable journey to making his first solo disc, Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin - interview
  • Streamed, live-audiences or both? As ensembles consider innovative ways of returning to performance with live audiences, Middlesex University has been doing some research - feature
  • The Harmonious Echo: there are plenty of delights in this second dip into Sullivan's neglected song repertoire - record review
  • Together, apart: The House of Bedlam's Enclosure on NMC explores how musicians make music when not physically able to be together - record review
  • A vivid and restless talent: music by Serbian composer Isidora Žebeljan in the first disc issued after her death last year - record review
  • "Heard a practice mighty good of Grebus" - Samuel Pepys and the tantalising Louis Grabu - feature
  • Messe da Pacem: conductor Rupert Gough and the choir of Royal Holloway rediscover a mass by Pierre Villette, unperformed since the 1970s - interview
  • Celebrating Latvia's centenary with music: the State Choir "Latvija" records 16 new works from a project creating a grand total of 77 new pieces by Latvian composers - record review
  • Vaughan Williams' folk songs; Albion Records continues its exploration with a second volume including 15 world premiere recordings  - record review
  • Hymns of Kassiani: Cappella Romana explores the music of the earliest known female composer - record review
  • The Sultan, the Siege of Rhodes, the Secretary to the Navy Board and his lover  - feature
  • Songs for a Broken World: American composer David Chesky discusses the way contemporary and historical issues intersect in his new album  - guest posting
  • The perfect lockdown piano concerto: pianist Mark Bebbington on recording Poulenc's Aubade and Le Bal masqué for Resonus Classics - interview
  • Home

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