Saturday, 15 November 2008

Music for November, or what happened when a violin began to play. . .

It's been one of those weeks when I've serendipitously been led up so many wonderful musical paths touching on so many of my current and expanding interests, that it's left me awed and humbled by the emotional power of so many amazing artists.

It's been years since I've attended a concert by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, but I went Wednesday night to hear a programme they were billing as a night of English music. The line-up was "Four Sea Interludes" from Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, Ralph Vaughan Williams' beautiful, beautiful Symphony No. 5 in D Major - both composed during the Second World War - and the North American premiere of Mark-Antony Turnage's violin concerto Mambo, Blues and Tarantella. In honour of Remembrance Day week, I've been listening to Britten's War Requiem, based in part on the poetry of Wilfrid Owen, both on CD and in this interesting, newly released DVD of Derek Jarman's film adaptation, using archival footage and symbolic theatricality all set to Britten's music. The cast is wonderful - Laurence Olivier as an older veteran clutching the photo of a nurse to his chest; Nathanial Parker as Owen, and the luminous Tilda Swinton playing different generations of nurses.

Of the three concert pieces, my favourite was definitely the Vaughan Williams but while I found the Turnage a bit too jarring and not quite my cup of tea, I couldn't help but marvel at the technical artistry required and displayed by the violin soloist Christian Tetzlaff. Someday I would definitely like to see or hear a recording (is there one available out there?) of Turnage's opera based on Sean O'Casey's play, The Silver Tassie - one of my favourite First World War plays. His musical style would definitely suit the play's second act, set on the battlefield and in stark, expressionist contrast to the realism that permeates the rest of the play. His new piece definitely had me yearning to hear more of the violin - is there any better instrument to accompany the melancholy, dark and windy nights of November? I'd forgotten that Roy Thompson Hall has an extremely well-stocked Music Store with very knowledgeable staff and so off I went at intermission to browse. And found some wonderful discs. I'm still on a Weill and Cabaret high and so I picked up Speak Low: Songs by Kurt Weill sung by Anne Sofie Von Otter (which includes a recording of "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" - a song I've been looking for since I first heard it during the Kurt Weill night at the Cabaret Festival) and Ute Lemper's Blood & Feathers: Live from the Cafe Carlyle which is absolutely FANTASTIC! Everything - the incredible singing, the flirtatious banter, the humour - I love, love, love this CD. It has the BEST version I've ever heard of the song "Cabaret" which Lemper turns into a medley infused with bits from Weill's "Mack the Knife", Edith Piaf songs, the odd line from Kander and Ebb's other big musical Chicago, and other songs from Cabaret. The CD also has a terrific Moon Medley where contemporary songs by Van Morrison, Sting, Joni Mitchell and Tom Waits fit perfectly with Weill and Brecht's "Bilbao Song" and Harold Arlen's "It's Only a Paper Moon". And speaking of Tom Waits - I just saw the Tarragon Theatre's incredible and inventive production of Black Rider - the crazy musical collaboration with Waits, Robert Wilson and William S. Burroughs. I must get the CD for this as well - loved the songs.

But back to the concert hall's music shop and in the racks, just a finger's tap away from Weill was William Walton. I found a great 1954 recording of Facade - Walton's musical accompaniment to the poems of Edith Sitwell. The poems are read - sometimes at incredible tongue-twisting speed - by Sitwell herself and Peter Pears and they are terrifically funny - a cross between Noel Coward and Gilbert and Sullivan. The CD also includes music from Walton's Henry V with Laurence Olivier doing the key speeches. I'm glad to have them, but for my money, I prefer Christopher Plummer's rendition - his voice is so much richer. And to go off on another tangent (sorry - it's just been one of those rich weeks!), I've recently finished Plummer's memoirs, In Spite of Myself and it's a terrific read - full of naughty stories from the theatre and film worlds, a magical, wistful portrait of a vanished Montreal, and a look at the early days of the Stratford Festival. Plummer is a great writer and very honest about his many vices and arrogant ego, but just as generous to the many people who have helped him in his career. One of the best books I've read all year.

But my ultimate goal was to find some violin music. And so Naxos to the rescue. My final purchase of the evening was a disc called Opera Fantasies for Violin. Just a violin played by Livia Sohn accompanied by Benjamin Loeb on the piano. A lovely CD, including a riff on Bizet's Carmen by Jeno Hubay and my favorite piece, "From My Window" from the opera Ainadamar by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov. The story centers around the poet Federico Garcia Lorca who was executed during the Spanish Civil war and the music is haunting and melancholy. Oh, and was this a coincidence or delicious fate? On this CD is also an arrangement of songs from Weill's Threepenny Opera, the violin plucking away at Mack the Knife. I love it!
All my senses have been thrillingly challenged this week. Let the wind howl outside my window and the rain batter down on whatever leaves are still stubbornly clinging to almost barren trees. I shall crank up the Lemper or drown it out with piercing violins.


_lethe_ said...

Thank you for the Ute Lemper review, this might be a good present for a friend of mine. First I have to find out if she already has it, though!

Blithe Spirit said...

Yes, it would make a fabulous gift. It's really a CD you have to sit and listen to in its entirety at one go because she does so much talking between songs, introducing them etc. You almost feel as if you were in the room with her at the concert. She's definitely someone I'd love to see in a live concert.