Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Music and Machines: Stockhausen's HYMNEN

Bernard Pulham, who maintains The Unofficial Karlheinz Stockhausen Site, says in his notes: "1985
I attended the extensive BBC Barbican series of sell-out concerts "Music and Machines" in 1985 (which ended with an incredible performance of Hymnen with soloists and orchestra)."

I wish I'd been there. Nevertheless, I was able to tape it from the radio on an audio cassette which I transferred a few years later onto CDR. The problem with taping this on cassette was that I missed a few seconds recording while I was turning the cassette over, but I don't think this detracts too much from the overall power of this performance. The analogue sound, however, is fairly low level so if you turn it up you can hear a faint hum.

So here, for what I believe is the first time on the internet, is a recording of that incredible performance that Bernard Pulham mentioned. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on the 16th of January 1985.

The performers for Regions 1, 2 and 4 were the Stockhausen Group, comprising Markus Stockhausen (trumpet and synthesiser), Simon Stockhausen (saxophone and synthesiser), Andreas Bottger (percussion) and Ingo Metzmacher (piano).
Region 3 was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Peter Eotvos - conductor.
And Karlheinz Stockhausen was, of course, in charge of sound projection.
The performance includes announcements (in English) by the BBC announcer.

Enjoy this wonderful piece of musical history.

Random soundings - Britten

Just a few days ago I picked up a bargain from a charity shop: the orchestral study score of Britten's War Requiem for two UK pounds. The War Requiem was one of the works I studied for a GCE Music examination, but then we had the vocal score only. As well as Britten we also studied Walton- here the selected works were Belshazzar's Feast and Facade. I vaguely remember listening to the premiere on BBC Radio 3, and subsequently borrowing the LPs from our local record library. So I already knew the work when we started studying it at school.

Britten has always ranked highly in my estimation. His operas were the main argument for me overcoming my deeply set prejudice against opera as a musical genre. I found the Covent Garden production of PETER GRIMES with Jon Vickers in the title role quite overwhelming, and THE TURN OF THE SCREW never loses its power to be eerily beguiling and quite frightening in equal measures.

Yesterday I again came across Britten's name, whilst reading David Attenborough's autobiography 'Life on Air'. He first met Britten when he was Controller for BBC2 in its early days. Britten was to write an opera for television (OWEN WINGRAVE) and Attenborough found him quite forbidding and daunting to deal with. This didn't quite square with my view of Britten through his music, but I guess that it may well be that Britten may well have had some nervousness and misgivings about creating an opera for the relatively new medium of TV and it showed in his behaviour.

Before I leave this thread of the blog, apropos of the WAR REQUIEM - one of the choristers in the original performances of the WAR REQUIEM was John Rutter who went on to be a composer. I recently came across a CD of his where he mentioned this involvement in the sleeve notes, and it was his desire in the music featured to write a rather sunnier Mass with children's voices. The music sounded perfect for Classic FM, in the same way that recent compositions by Jon Lord (he of Deep Purple fame) have struck a chord with Classic FM listeners, charming but uninvolving.

Friday, 7 November 2008

A statue from the garden at Bomarzo

This statue faintly reminds me of an album cover by King Crimson....!?

BOMARZO - Ginastera's masterpiece?

For many years I've been fascinated by this opera without having heard a note of it. The very story itself was so bizarre and perverse (I remember reading a synopsis in the Pan Book of Opera - a tome which has long disappeared from my shelves) I was fascinated. The music just had to be really outlandish.

However, quite recently I was able to find and download the original 1967 CBS recording which has been unavailable for years, and it is my pleasure to be able to feature it here in my new blog, as I might have pricked your curiosity by mentioning it in my Harry Crowl entry.

A note about the recording: there are two mp3 files, the first is 100% complete but I was only able to grab about 98.7% of the second mp3 file. Mea Culpa for this but there was no more available on offer.

Before I give you the links I wanted to give you some background information:

1) Review from TIME Magazine:

In a Gloomy Garden

A seminude courtesan tries to seduce a hunchback as his image mocks him from three mirrors. Fashionable men and women strip to nearly topless leotards and pantomime a sordid orgy. A bearded astrologer chants about immortality while peacocks scream. In a gloomy garden, a man embraces a sculptured minotaur, seeing in it the face of his brother. Statues spring to life in an eerie dance.

This is such stuff as bad dreams are made on; and in Argentine Composer Alberto Ginastera's new opera Bomarzo, it is appropriately woven into the gripping nightmare of a tortured spirit. Commissioned by the Washington Opera Society and given its world première last week at Washington's Lisner Auditorium, Bomarzo is based on a prizewinning novel by Buenos Aires Art Critic Manuel Mujica Lainez, who also wrote the libretto. In 15 taut, hallucinatory scenes that take place mostly in the mind of Pierfrancesco Orsini, Renaissance Duke of Bomarzo, it flashes back over the events of the Duke's "secret life, which like the hump on my back, encumbered my soul."

Sighs & Moans. Bomarzo is taunted by his brothers and father; he is sexually ambivalent and frustrated, ghost-ridden and obsessed with death. Suspecting that his wife has been unfaithful with his brother, he orders the brother killed. Then, having built a garden of grotesque stone sculptures symbolizing his inner traumas, he unwittingly drinks poison and dies in the gaping mouth of one of his statues; his only benediction is a kiss from an innocent shepherd boy who skips by.

Musically, this lugubrious narrative is etched in a jaggedly dissonant score that takes Composer Ginastera even farther out than the twelve-tone serialism of his 1964 opera Don Rodrigo. Ginastera stacks up thick instrumental clusters, punctuates them with short, stabbing chords, sometimes uses what he calls "clouds," in which orchestra and singers improvise rhythmically suspended, ever-shifting textures. At various points in the piece, the string players clatter their bows on their instruments, the brassmen blow air tonelessly through their mouthpieces, the woodwinds bend notes into piercing quartertones. A 24-voice chorus in the pit sometimes comments on the action or makes weird noises underlining a dramatic moment; during the orgy scene, it sighs, moans, and murmurs the word love in several languages simultaneously.

Metaphysical Anxiety. Under the firm baton of New York City Opera Director Julius Rudel, the singers projected their parts with clarity and polish while threading their way through Ming Cho Lee's surrealistic settings. Mexican Tenor Salvador Novoa eloquently voiced the pain and weakness of the Duke, and statuesque Joanna Simon, as the courtesan, sang her seduction aria in a lustrous mezzo-soprano.

Ginastera sees Bomarzo as "a man of our time," because he "struggles with sex, submits to violence, and is tormented by the metaphysical anxiety of death." The thesis might be more persuasive if Bomarzo were a less odd and cringing figure, and if the unremitting bleakness of his psychological life were set off against a more robust outward existence. But there can be no doubt that Ginastera has powerfully achieved his effects, combining orchestral wizardry and forceful vocal writing to carve out the contours of jarringly dramatic emotion. As Washington Opera Society President Hobart Spalding says, "The fellow is made to write operas."

2) And here is the music:


Salvador Novoa,
Richard Torigi,
Michael Devlin,
Robert Gregori,
Brent Ellis,
Joaquin Romaguera,
Isabel Penagos,
Joanna Simon,
Claramae Turner,
Nico Castel,
David Prather,
Patricio Porras,
Andres Aranda,
Manuel Folgar,
The Opera Society of Washington directed by Julius Rudel, 1967
(Studio recording: From CBS 32-31-0006 Stereo LPs - 1967)

Track listing -

CD 1:

01 - Act I, Prelude
02 - Act I, Scene 1 - The potion
03 - Act I, Interlude
04 - Act I, Scene 2 - Pier Francesco's childhood
05 - Act I, Scene 3 - The horoscope
06 - Act I, Interlude
07 - Act I, Scene 4 - Pantasilea
08 - Act I, Interlude
09 - Act I, Scene 5 - Death of Girolamo
10 - Act I, Scene 6 - Pier Francesco Orsini, Duke of Bomarzo
11 - Act I, Interlude

CD 2

01 - Act II, Scene 7 - Fiesta in Bomarzo & Scene 8 - The portrait by Lorenzo Lott
02 - Act II, Scene 9 - Julia Farnese
03 - Act II, Interlude
04 - Act II, Scene 10 - The bridal chamber
05 - Act II, Scene 11 - The Dream
06 - Act II, Scene 12 - The minotaur
07 - Act II, Scene 13 - Maerbale
08 - Act II, Interlude
09 - Act II, Scene 14 - The alchemy
10 - Act II, Interlude
11 - Act II, Scene 15 - The park of the monsters


In the beginning...

There were two things that impelled me to begin this blog:

One was the music of Harry Crowl motivating me to sing his praises, but the second reason was that my son told me he had recently started a blog devoted to his passion - that being Japanese anime. The link to my son's blog:

Apropos of this; last week I was reading James Joyce 'Ulysses' and the passage below struck me because it seemed to echo where I sometimes felt I was with my son (and is probably just as relevant for many a father son retationship).

'The son unborn mars beauty; born, he brings pain, divides affection, increases care. He is a male: his growth is his father's decline, his youth his father's envy, his friend his father's enemy.'

My impulse in ths blog is to talk about music, but of course any opinion I express shines a torchbeam on who I am (this is so true of critics; time and again I have read reviews of books, music, drama, fine art and have come away feeling a great insight into the critic, but not into the creative artist they are criticising).

I originally named this blog 'The Bitch Goddess', because this is why in my college of music days I used to explain why I was so obsessed by music: I was seduced by her.

As well as talking about music I will be occasionally uploading recordings that may be rare or out of print. There won't be any Beethoven ("don't you like Beethoven" asked Gary Oldman in Luc Besson's 'Leon' - sic - probably a misquote) or Mahler (Maureen Lipman from 'Educating Rita', "Don't you just love Mahler") but I can promise some Stockhausen from a BBC 1985 broadcast in the near future.

I really just have to get used to laying out my wares in this blog window and hope you come back to see what is new occasionally.

Harry Crowl

Harry Crowl is a new name to me. His name suggests a character from a Hitchcock movie, but he's a Brazilian composer whose music has had rather a grip on me the past few days. I found his music through the blogsite called Brazilian Concert music, and downloaded the 3rd and 4th Symphonies. These appealed so much I went back to the same blogsite and downloaded the remaining examples of his music. The quality of his music has amazed me; there are no easy minimalist textures here. His music is challenging and has a visceral and visual excitement quite rare in new music.

So how does one describe this music. Well, firstly it's nothing like the music of one of his teachers - Peter Sculthorpe. I would describe it as polytonal, with colourful and arresting instrumental combinations, and fascinating tangled counterpoint. It may be stretching it a bit but the sound of Ginastera at his more extreme (e.g. the opera 'Bomarzo') or the wild textures from the first movement of Shostakovich's 4th Symphony might prepare you a little for this music.

The 1st Sinfonia is a great introduction to his music; it's dramatic, and eventful and remains compelling for its whole 35 minutes. Guitar-like harp ostinati drive the orchestra to chorale-like crescendos, the brass section, augmented by an army of percussion, erupts and argues with the woodwinds, the music seems to cartwheel at times in to delirious contrapuntal textures in complex time signatures.

It's a shame I cannot read Portuguese. If so I would be able to supply a lot more information. However, it's well worth checking out the following website too: for more downloads and information - some in English- on the composer.

It seems criminal that virtually none of Harry Crowl's music is available on CD in the UK. He's a vastly underrated and little known composer here. Let's hope that changes in the near future.