Thursday, 26 March 2015

Happy Birthday, Pierre!

I do not intend to say very much, if only on account of time, but I thought it would be remiss to offer an unduly Cagean tribute to Pierre Boulez on his ninetieth birthday. I shall shortly be reporting back from Daniel Barenboim's latest homage in Berlin; the rest of the year will bring performances in London, Salzburg, and maybe elsewhere, from which I hope to say something. Let me just say now that, of any living musician, this is the one who has most inspired me. Hearing his music for the first time (Pollini's recording of the Second Sonata), hearing him conduct for the first time, whether on CD (Mahler's Sixth Symphony), or 'live' (Notations, Bartók, Ravel, and, perhaps inevitably, The Rite of Spring): those and so many subsequent encounters are not only experiences I shall never forget, but also experiences that remain with me, experiences that continue to shape me.

I am certainly not the first to call him the conscience of what I still - quaintly? - call New Music; I doubt that I shall be the last. This, however, was the man, and still is, who, by his example, whether as composer, conductor, thinker, or polemicist, showed me why we desperately needed such a conscience - and why we still do. Our Conservative Secretary State of Culture (not that a Labour politician would be any better) tweeted last night about his sadness concerning the departure of someone from the pop group, One Direction; what are the odds of his giving some thoughts upon Pli selon pli today?  As Augusta Read Thomas reminded us in a Barbican programme tribute at the weekend, Boulez has been 'a true ambassador in the belief that the history of civilisation is written in art'. Resistance to barbarous late capitalism will not be found in Mr Javid's latest alleged enthusiasm; let us remember that he considers ticket touts to be worthy 'entrepreneurs'. It may just, however, be discerned in the bloody-minded refusal to bend to what is easy, to what is commercially advantageous, to what might offer false reconciliation, which brought us IRCAM and Le Marteau sans maître.  That is one of the many reasons why we need Pierre Boulez and his example more than ever.

The following, however, remain just a few of the numerous more compelling reasons for that need and, more to the point. for our gratitude. We need a realm for the free proliferation of artistic fantasy, because we are human.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Berlin calls...

I have often made a Holy Week pilgrimage to one of the most atheistic cities in Europe: not out of religious perversity, indeed I have sometimes caught the odd Passion and/or Parsifal in Leipzig too, but on account of the Berlin State Opera's Festtage. It was with an account of the Barenboim/Boulez Mahler cycle that I began this blog. Both Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez will feature strongly in this year's events, the latter as part of his ninetieth birthday celebrations. Tomorrow, I shall leave for Berlin, musical performances beginning on Friday. I shall, God or whoever it is one should evoke in Berlin willing, report back on the following:

27 March - VPO/Barenboim: Boulez Livre pour cordes, Mémoriale, Originel, and Schubert 'Great' C major Symphony
28 March - first night of new Parsifal production: directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov; conducted by Barenboim; cast including René Pape, Wolfgang Koch, Andreas Schager, Anja Kampe.
29 March a.m. - Erdmann/Lapkovskaya/Michael Barenboim/Women from the NDR and MDR Radio Choirs/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Boulez - Le Visage nuptial, Anthèmes 2, Notations (piano and orchestral)
29 March p.m. - Deutsche Oper: Madama Butterfly
30 March - Michael Wendeberg: Boulez piano works
1 April - Kremer/Argerich: works by Weinberg, Beethoven, and Franck
2 April - Staatsoper Tannhäuser (as also seen last year)
3 April - NDR Choir/Konzerthaus Orchestra/Spering: Bach Trauerode and Schubert Mass in A-flat major
4 April - West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim: Debussy, Boulez (Dérive 2), Ravel
5 April - Komische Oper: double-bill of Gianni Schicchi and Bluebeard's Castle, dir. Calixto Bieito

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Boulez Total Immersion, 21 March 2015

Barbican Hall

Piano Sonata no.2

Notations I, VII, IV, III, and II
Pli selon pli
Jean-Frédéric Neuburger (piano)
Yeree She (soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Pablo Rus Broseta, Thierry Fischer (conductors)

The BBC’s Total Immersion series has recently seemed to be running out of steam, offering distinctly underwhelming, and in some cases downright bizarre, repertoire choices. At least it did the right thing here, and honoured in the year of his ninetieth birthday the man who remains not only the single most important Chief Conductor in the history of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but the abiding presence in post-war music (as I suppose we may still, just about, call it). Alas, I was unable to attend the whole day’s events, which included a pair of films and a lecture by Paul Griffiths, but I managed to hear two out of the three concerts, having to forego an LSO St Luke’s performance from the Guildhall New Music Ensemble and David Corkhill (une page d’éphéméride, Anthèmes 1, Mémoriale (‘…expolsante-fixe…’ Originel), Dérive 1, the Sonatine for flute and piano, and the piano Notations).

The first, lunchtime concert gave decent enough but slightly disappointing performances of two works: the Second Piano Sonata and Eclat/Multiples. When it comes to the former work, I have doubtless been spoilt both by Maurizio Pollini’s legendary recording and the experience of thrice having heard him perform it in concert (in Salzburg, Berlin, and London). This was, however, unless I have forgotten something (unlikely in this case, I think), the first time I had heard Eclat/Multiples ‘live’. The Sonata remains of course a monumental challenge to all who approach it, which is not to say that it is ‘unapproachable’, whatever that might mean. I stand in admiration for any pianist who can so much as play the notes and play them relatively convincingly. Those days Boulez long lamented, when new music suffered so greatly from well-meaning yet, in the pejorative sense, amateurish performances – a situation that led directly to his taking up conducting – are long since passed. Jean-Frédéric Neuburger gave a sense of the piece’s concerns, even, though perhaps only if one knew this already, of its celebrated ‘destruction’ of the idea of the sonata. But the white heat of Pollini’s ultra-commitment, his unerring sense and projection of musical drama, above all his ability not only to maintain a musical line even as the work does its damnedest to obliterate it: I struggled to discern them. Range of expression was ultimately somewhat narrow; undoubted virtuosity astonished less than it should. Above all, Such, perhaps, is the danger attendant to the work’s transformation from New Music rallying cry into ‘classic’. (Boulez’s persistent warnings concerning museum culture remain as urgent as ever.) Beethoven, after all, is destroyed far more by insufficient performances than by Boulez’s apocalyptic reckoning with the example of the Hammerklavier Sonata.

Eclat/Multiples was conducted by Pablo Rus Broseta, who had replaced François-Xavier Roth at short notice. Gratitude is in order, then, and again, to conduct the piece well enough is no mean achievement. However, of the scintillation that Boulez himself has brought to the work – this was the orchestra that gave its first performance, conducted by the composer, in 1970 –was not altogether present, the BBC SO at times sounding less razor-sharp than ideal. Opposition between ‘striated’ and smooth time was present, yet seemed less urgently generative than one might have hoped for. That said, the sense of losing oneself in time remained quite remarkable: a presentiment, perhaps, of Dérive 2? Moreover, hearing the opening piano cascade after the sonata brought to life both what the works have in common and where they differ. Technique and implications of proliferation are very different in nature, even though but a single section of Multiples having been completed, we must still wait to hear the ‘finished’ work. I say ‘even though’, but the near-endless sense of possibility in serial proliferation is something to which Boulez has often drawn attention. Tantalisingly, we read in a 2010 interview for Universal Edition: ‘I would especially like to finish Éclat/Multiples. That’s one of the works which is almost finished, and, you know, I have practically twice the length of the work as I play it now, and therefore I would like to finish because the concept of the end is already there.’ There is much for us to occupy ourselves with in the meantime, though, not least in the composer’s post-Debussyan liberation – perhaps in this case, even exaltation – of timbre. (Those violas, that basset horn! They are emphatically not ‘mere colour’. Klangfarbenmelodie has continued to develop, to expand its realm of possibilities.) Moreover, as Jonathan Goldman has written, ‘Form, once thought by serial composers such as the young Boulez to be equivalent to the exhaustion of the possibilities of the series (a characteristic of none but a single Boulezian creation, the often-analysed Structures Ia), reveals itself in Boulez’s later works to be an open-ended affair.’

For the evening concert, Thierry Fischer was Roth’s replacement. I assume that he must have conducted Notations and Pli selon pli before; they are hardly the sort of works one conducts for the first time at the drop of a hat. Whatever the truth of that, these were assured performances. I doubt that anything will ever eclipse the memory of Boulez’s extraordinary, Bergian performance of Pli selon pli in London four years ago. But one thing that has struck me recently is the greater willingness of other conductors to perform his work. Daniel Barenboim has, of course, long been a champion; I shall soon be reporting from performances in Berlin. Nor is he alone. However, I wonder whether a perverse consequence of Boulez’s pre-eminence as a conductor has been either reluctance or inability – Why would an orchestra hire X to conduct Boulez, when it might enlist the composer himself? – on the part of other musicians to lead performances of his orchestral music. Fischer’s performances proved assured, a worthy tribute, and the BBC SO was on much better form too.

For those who carp about Boulez’s conducting activities allegedly having taken his attention away from composition – they generally seem not to like his music very much, so it is not immediately clear why they should care – the Notations should stand as a rebuke. Boulez himself has owned that he would have been unable to compose the pieces without the experience of conducting Wagner and Mahler. With every listening, that claim becomes more and more unarguable. The virtuosity in orchestral writing is staggering, in its way as much so as that of Ravel, or indeed Mahler. Such was revealed here in performance; it is remarkable what a difference inclusion of the Seventh Notation now makes to the previous first four. As much as Eclat/Multiples, one hears Boulez as, amongst many other things, a true heir to the Viennese purveyors of Klangfarbenmelodie, Schoenberg as much as Webern. This was perhaps the most ‘Romantic’ reading, not only of that movement, but of the work-in-progress as a whole, I have yet to hear. Mahler, perhaps reimagined by the Schoenberg of op.19 no.6, continued as foundational processional, whilst Boulezian fantasy ignited and – that word again – proliferated above. In retrospect, the Boulez of Pli selon pli, especially some of its later revisions, seemed increasingly his own progenitor here. A somewhat deliberate reading of no.4 had me wondering for a while, but won me round; no more than in the music of the ‘museum’ is there one ‘correct’ way to perform this music. Its openness to interpretation is, and should be, at least as great as its openness to further compositional development. The extraordinary Notation II – everyone’s favourite, so far? – brought the house down, as, in my experience, it always has. It threatens to veer out of control, testing the limits of even the most expert orchestra, yet never quite does so. Again, Mahler reimagined. To quote from that 2010 interview for a second time, ‘There’s the Mahler quotation again, “the material composes for you.”’

Pli selon pli proved, as one would have hoped, a fitting climax. If ever there were a Boulez work that seemed to cry out for the word ‘masterpiece’ it must surely be this. Or Le Marteau sans maître, or Répons, or … But, however, over-used that word, here, once again, it seemed fitting. Arnold Whittall’s description of Boulez’s ‘modern classicism’ seemed once more very much the thing; and yet, this work is not so ‘closed’ as it may seem, emphatic though the closing of the circle at the end of ‘Tombeau’ remains. A quality I am almost tempted to call ‘symphonic’ has always been present in the work, but it seems more and more overwhelming, almost ‘tragically’ so. (Perhaps I remain very much – too much? – under Mahler’s spell? Certainly Boulez’s Mahler has been the revelation in the last generation or so of Mahler performance.) Performance, just as much as study of the score, reveals other possibilities – which may never now be taken up; or which may indeed some day by others, just as Boulez has responded to some of those by his predecesssors. Mallarmé, nevertheless, remains; or as Boulez might have put it, Mallarmé demeure. (Boulez’s analysis of the Rite of Spring, ‘Stravinsky demeure’, is surely as essential to a cellular reading as ever it was.) The transformation of verse into poetry is not the least important process at work here; who knows, were the material to continue to develop, might the ravishing vocal line disappear entirely? That is not to denigrate the excellent contribution of Yeree Suh to the performance. Perhaps less overtly sensual, even erotic, than Boulez’s 2011 Barbara Hannigan, Suh offered a straightforward integrity that was very much her own, and which sounded very much at ease with Fischer’s own approach. There will be further penetrations into the Boulezian labyrinth, into Mallarmé’s sirens, shipwrecks, lava, tombs, and all; in the meantime, this ‘classical’ performance did very well indeed. The dizzying yet now (relatively) stabilised interplay between different formal levels continues to challenge, to beguile, to point to an open future. Serialism demeure.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Pollini - Schumann and Chopin, 17 March 2015

Royal Festival Hall

Schumann – Arabeske, op.18
Schumann – Kreisleriana, op.16
Chopin – Preludes, op.28

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Pollini joining the protests against Berlusconi

Apologies for having taken so long to write something about this, the most recent visit of the world’s – and thus, presumably the universe’s – greatest living pianist to London. I must also apologise for the generalised nature and, most likely, the superficiality of the following remarks. Not having had chance to write something earlier, much detail has now escaped my memory. ‘Never apologise, never explain’: I know, but anyway…

Schumann and Chopin have always been central to Pollini’s repertoire, and have almost unfailingly showed him at his greatest. This recital was no exception. I have never been clear why we do not hear the C major Arabeske more often in concert. Pollini showed why we should. Its ‘poetic’ form – somehow, Schumann at his best always manages to inform his music with ‘literary’ sensibility, without in any sense forsaking its ‘musical’ nature – was revealed both as straightforward, readily comprehensible, and yet as rewarding of the most careful of playing and listening. Counterpoint was clear, yet not too clear: the pianistic depth of Schumann’s re-reading of Bach was understood on its own terms, not those of ‘authenticity’, and of course on our terms too; we have heard Schoenberg and Stockhausen, not least from Pollini. Subtle rubato drew one in, and held one there. This is a musician as incapable of self-regard as, say, Sviatoslav Richter; whether one agrees with an interpretation or not, or indeed whether one finds fault with a performance or not, there can be no case of denying the pianist’s commitment to the music. Here, what, in lesser hands – it was one of the relatively few Schumann solo works I hubristically dared to play in public – might sound sectional, proved cumulative and, above all, poetically and structurally satisfying. ‘Satisfaction’ might sound a faint compliment; it is not. The conclusion, ‘Zum Schluss’, was rapt as only the non-narcissistic can be. It seemed over in a trice, yet its infinitely touching musical poetry remained.

Kreisleriana followed. Florestan and Eusebius inevitably came to mind, indeed came into well-nigh physical reality. Not the least of Pollini’s skill here was to ensure that we never forgot that they were two characters, or complexes of character, but of one mind and body. ‘Hoffmannesque’ may be all to easy a term for Schumann’s reimagination of E.T.A.’s novel, or perhaps better, Hoffmann’s spirit, for this is no ‘setting’ as such; nevertheless, the proximity and indeed extension of temperament were striking. Soulful, innig slow movements were no mere oases; they were necessitated by, for instance, the furious tonal alternations of the work as a whole or the kinetic energy of the fifth movement. Romantic tonality and its structural implications sounded as if they were being thoroughly explored for the first time; they were not, of course, but the unfolding of the tonal drama brought the shock of the new to music that for some has become too comfortable.

The Chopin Preludes are a Pollini speciality, of course. I have reviewed several performances on here since I began writing. In a sense, I have little to add to what I have written before, especially at this distance. But this performance was every bit the equal, and in no sense a routine reproduction. The ability to hear the work, irrespective of the composer’s ‘intention’, as an entirety, as an exploration of a tonal universe both informed by Bach and yet going beyond him, is in my rare experience rarer than one might expect. Pollini showed how that is no mere conceptual framing, but a living, animating musico-dramatic imperative. The dignity of the ‘smaller’ pieces was just as apparent as the world-conquering larger pieces. (It is all relative, of course.) Everything had its place, yet was never confined to it; this is no bureaucratic mind. Yet, in the exploratory, almost experimental temperament Pollini has always divined in his – and our – beloved Chopin, one sensed, even dared perhaps to understand, the affinity with the post-war avant garde, with those successors to the Romantics, who wished to push musical parameters still further, indeed once again to establish quite how far they might be pushed. Boulez seemed as close as Bach. And yes, the melting beauty of the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, not remotely sentimental, its sentiment intact and yet reaching outward, had to be heard to be believed. The three encores – the ‘Revolutionary’ Study, the D-flat major Nocturne, op.27 no.2, and a decidedly Lisztian-sounding C-sharp minor Scherzo – deserve essays in themselves, not least in context. Next time…

The Rake's Progress, Royal Academy of Music, 16 March 2015

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

Tom Rakewell – Bradley Smith
Anne Trulove – Rhiannon Llewellyn
Nick Shadow – Božidar Smiljanić
Baba the Turk – Claire Barnett-Jones
Sellem – Gwilym Bowen
Trulove – Lancelot Nomura
Mother Goose – Katherine Aitken
Keeper of the Madhouse – Ed Ballard 

John Ramster (director)
Adrian Linford (designs)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)

Royal Academy Opera Chorus
Royal Academy Sinfonia
Jane Glover (conductor)

The apogee of neo-Classicism, an opera surely intended to incite debate upon debate about it and its form, whatever Stravinsky’s typically disingenuous, eye-twinkling denials, The Rake’s Progress is, unless one is Pierre Boulez, very difficult not to admire, almost as difficult not in some sense to disapprove of or at least to suspect, perhaps almost as difficult to love. I think this Royal Academy staging might just have proved me wrong on the final point.

For what struck me about John Ramster’s production and, of course, the performances onstage it inspired, was that they treated this first and foremost as an opera. They  certainly were neither deaf nor blind to the debates – ‘The Rake’s Progress seemed to have been created for journalistic debates concerning: a) the historical validity of the approach; and, b) the question whether I am guilty of imitation and pastiche. If the Rake contains imitations, however – of Mozart, as has been said – I will gladly allow the charge (given the breadth of the Aristotelian word), if I may thereby release people from the argument and bring them to the music.’ (Stravinsky) – but they did not become ensnared by them. Still less did they mistake them for questions of æsthetic quality. Ramster’s production frames the work well, the first scene indicating a mid-twentieth-century filming of an eighteenth-century drama, and there are occasional reminders, not least the appearance in various guises of indications as to how many days Tom Rakewell will have left before his reckoning with Nick Shadow. But for the most part, that framing falls away, and a somewhat yet not excessively stylised set of designs (all handsomely done by Adrian Linford) is not mistaken for human hearts beating beneath the framing and the ‘debates’.

For that, the cast, well prepared by Jane Glover, naturally deserves the lion’s share of the credit. Bradley Smith presented a weak, human, yet impossible-not-to-like Tom: just as he should be. His sappy tenor proved appealing throughout, but moving too, especially towards the end: all very much in character. Rhiannon Llewellyn’s Anne combined grace and beauty to a properly euphonious degree; her first act aria was very fine indeed. Božidar Smiljanić’s Nick stole the show on a number of occasions: protean, dark, and humorous. One could hardly have asked for more. Claire Barnett-Jones revealed a richly expressive voice as well as a finely-judged sense of humour as Baba. As Sellem, Gwilym Bowen offered a very different sense of humour, utterly captivating, never outstaying its welcome, and likewise never at the expense of excellent musical values, line and attention to the words exemplary. Indeed, there was hardly a moment in the entire performance on which one could not readily discern Auden’s libretto. Lancelot Nomura’s deep-voiced Trulove, Katherine Aitken’s haughtily naughty Mother Goose, and Ed Ballard’s Keeper of the Madhouse rounded off, but certainly did not merely round off, an excellent cast.

Choral singing was mightily impressive, as was Ramster’s direction of the chorus. After a slightly, though only slightly, shaky start, in which Glover’s conducting lacked the bite one (not unreasonably) expects, the orchestra passed with flying colours too. Again, a heart was revealed, without any loss to the intellectual, time-travelling revels, in which now more than ever one can understand why Stravinsky would make his next (apparent) about turn. Schoenberg est mort, or rather he may, to a post-war generation, have seemed to be; serialism, however, was already in Stravinsky’s personal way under preparation. Richard Leach's harpsichord playing, not least in that extraordinary graveyard solo, was dazzling.

I am not yet entirely won over by Henze’s typically anti-Boulezian – and not just anti-him – words from an interview in 1967:

Soon the ‘clusters’, the serial recitatives and the ‘happenings’ will have exhausted themselves, and the young composer will look around in vain in this wasteland for something to nourish his hungry soul. I believe, in contrast to Boulez for whom the neo-Classical Stravinsky is 'very weak' (there they go, forty years of musical history, brushed aside in a couple of words!), that in the next few years he will be seen properly for the first time, and understood in all his greatness and significance. The history of music knows plenty of examples where a reorientation has been necessary. This will be the case in the near future too.

In any case, that debate is surely dead and buried; no one thinks about ‘Darmstadt’ like that any more, nr indeed even speaks of ‘Darmstadt’ as such a thing-in-itself; I doubt, moreover, that anyone thinks about Henze and Stravinsky quite in Boulez-of-1960s vein either. For me, neo-Classical Stravinsky’s achievements nevertheless remain very mixed; Orpheus, for instance, I dislike as much as ever, though ‘dislike’ is not to be confused with ‘denigrate’. Perhaps, though, I was edged a little closer to Henze on this occasion. If so, it was by virtue of this fine staging and performance.


Monday, 16 March 2015

La bohème, English Touring Opera, 14 March 2015

Images: Richard Hubert Smith

Hackney Empire

Rodolfo – David Butt Philip
Mimì – Ilona Domnich
Marcello – Grant Doyle
Musetta – Sky Ingram
Schaunard – Njabo Madlala
Colline – Matthew Stiff
Benoît – Adam Player
Alcindoro – Andrew Glover
Pa’Guignol – Dominic J. Walsh
Soldier – Gareth Brynmor John

James Conway (director)
Florence de Maré (designs)
Mark Howland (lighting)

Children from St Mary’s and St John’s Church of England Schools, Hackney
Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

I am not sure that I have seen and heard so well-integrated a production of La bohème in the theatre. Yes, it is over-exposed, but one cannot accuse English Touring Opera of conservative repertoire choices in general, and much of the country in any case has far less variety than London is. (For what it is worth, it is quite a relief to see some opera in East London: in this case, at the splendid Hackney Empire.) There is no translation: Puccini in any language other than Italian starts at a grave disadvantage. One might have thought the same about a small orchestra, but no. I was astonished quite how full a sound Michael Rosewell drew from his forces, not least from the strings: doubtless partly a matter of a helpful acoustic, but only partly. Rosewell’s conception began in relatively Classical style, but that that was an interpretative decision rather than a response to necessity became ever clearer following the interval. This was not, of course, the Vienna Philharmonic under Daniele Gatti, but no one would expect it to have been; such a performance would in any case hardly have been conceived for smaller theatres. And if the presence of Wagner were less than one often hears, Wagner – and Puccini – can cope with that.  

David Butt Philip proved himself an ardent, Italianate Rodolfo, so communicative with the text that the surtitles would almost have been superfluous, even for a newcomer to the work. That point regarding delivery of the words held for pretty much the entire cast, which worked very well indeed as an ensemble, as if its members had already been performing together for weeks. Ilona Domnich was a properly engaging Mimì, feminine yet never sentimentalising, her vocal performance increasingly encompassing tragic proportions. Sky Ingram’s characterful Musetta duly stole the second-act show, Grant Doyle’s Marcello giving very much as good as he got in their sparring. Matthew Stiff and Njabulo Madlala offered fine support as the other Bohemians, the nonchalance of their student existence more powerfully conveyed than I can recall. Adam Player and Andrew Glover put in notable turns as Benoît and Alcindoro: neither weak nor merely passable links here. Choral singing and acting, both from adults and children, impresses throughout.

James Conway’s production seems well set up to withstand the ordeals of touring, but is far more than that. It liberates the imagination and yet at the same time informs it. The ludicrous extravaganzas of luxury outsize garrets have no place here. Instead, Florence de Maré’s designs and the interactions of the characters within them have us think about memories – of the work, of the nineteenth century, of our lives, of those we have known – and respond to them. As the designer put it, ‘Bohème is certainly influenced by the quality and style of photography during the late 19th century; there’s a real sense of playfulness and performance amongst those experimenting with a new artistic medium. … We wanted this opera to look and feel like a memory; some areas of the stage have the vivid surrealism of a dream whereas others are hazily devoid of detail.’ Crucially, that comes across without having read the interview (which I only did later). The Paris of Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) comes to life but also to death, Schaunard's demise apparently impending; the perils as well as the 'progress' of art in an age of reproduction inform the trajectory of the drama. As Conway observes, ‘we have not tried … to join the dots between these four brief scenes of shared youth’. The music, to an extent, does that, but the scenic quality, not entirely unlike that of Eugene Onegin, remains an important aspect of the construction. Touches such as the puppet show of ‘Pa’Guignol’ add to the anti-Romantic menace without overwhelming. Stefan Herheim’s brilliant production (available on DVD), easily the greatest I have seen, has one entirely rethink the work; Conway’s ambition is lesser in scope, yet finds itself just as readily fulfilled.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

BBC SO/Karabits - Schnelzer, Ravel, and Bartók, 13 March 2015

Barbican Hall

Albert Schnelzer – Tales from Suburbia (world premiere)
Ravel – Suite: Ma mère l’Oye
Bartok – Bluebeard’s Castle

Judit – Michelle DeYoung
Bluebeard – Gábor Bretz

João Henriques (director, narrator)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Kirill Karabits (conductor).

Albert Schnelzer’s Tales of Suburbia, written in 2012 as a co-commission from the BBC and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, here received its first performance. Lasting about a quarter of an hour, it seemed to me akin more to a vaguely, generically ‘atmospheric’ television score – doubtless fine in its place – than a concert work. Written for a large orchestra in a language at least a century out of date, it sounded like a diluted version of early-twentieth-century conservatism. The composer wrote, ‘… this is where I live. Mahler once said that he wanted his symphonies to encompass the whole world. I would settle for just suburbia.’ The seemingly aimless meandering that ensued suggested his commentary had not been intended ironically. My previous encounter with Schnelzer’s work had been a performance, the first in this country, of his Emperor Akbar. If that had left me nonplussed, this left me less than that. Mention, though, should be made of the solos from leader, Natalie Chee; if only she had been playing Szymanowski…

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was played charmingly, if not necessarily with quite the enchantment or precision that the greatest performances bring. Still, there was much to admire in this account from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Kirill Karabits. A stately opening ‘Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant’ seemed perfectly poised – as, of course, the movement is – between the Pavane pour une infante défunte and the later Ravel of Le Tombeau de Couperin. It did not lack a little luxuriance either. I wondered whether ‘Laidoronnette’ was taken too quickly; its treatment verged upon the harrying. However, there remained a sense of the parts contributing to a greater whole, never more so than in the concluding ‘Le Jardin féerique,’ which pretty much lived up to its name.

Bluebeard’s Castle was given a fine performance: unquestionably the highlight of the evening for me. I look forward next month to reporting back from Calixto Bieito’s new staging, in a double-bill with Gianni Schicchi, but here, a spare concert staging, imaginatively conceived by João Henriques, kept the work where it arguably belongs, in the theatre of the imagination. Henriques acted as Narrator too, offering (in English translation) an inviting, probing reading of that crucial Prologue. It seemed to offer choices; yet, at the same time, we knew that Fate would win. We certainly did once Bartók’s score began its work. (If only a good few other operas could say as much as it does, in the time it takes to do so!) Arriving with seven suitcases upon a trolley, one for each door, this pairing of Bluebeard and Judit increasingly suggested both that there were things better left packed up, and that the Forbidden Question – those inevitable shades of Lohengrin – would be asked.

Michelle DeYoung was strong yet imploring, totally assured in her delivery of Bartók’s lines, bringing them, quite rightly, close to a Hungarian Pelléas. She shuddered with the orchestra, if not necessarily at the same time (if that makes any sense!) This Judit was transformed before our very ears, De Young expertly tracing Bartók’s – and Béla Balázs’s – arc from triumph to tragedy. Gábor Bretz sounded more youthful and, indeed, more aristocratic than one often hears, exercising a dark, mysterious allure; one could understand why she had fallen for him. One sensed that there was not only more to him than we knew; there was probably more than Bluebeard himself consciously knew. For this is a sadistic drama of the mind (perfectly suited, one might say, to next month’s pairing with that master-sadist, Puccini).

All the while, the orchestra under Karabits shaped and commented upon the drama – unlike but also unlike Debussy in his sole completed opera. (There are surely few more singular operatic masterpieces than Pelléas and Bluebeard’s Castle.) Maybe this was because Ravel had been heard before the interval, though I think not entirely so; in any case, I felt there were a few occasions upon which colour and ‘atmosphere’ were perhaps exalted at the expense of more ‘Teutonic’ structural concerns. (I am doubtless, however, consciously or otherwise, making odious comparisons, having heard Boulez conduct the work twice. What I should give to have that opportunity just once again!) The opening of that fifth door overwhelmed as it must, the disappointing electronic organ notwithstanding. (Another cause for Sir Simon Rattle to address?) And yet, Karabits seemed to impress upon us that this was not to be, that there was something unreal to what our ears led us to ‘see’. That was an exaltation of colour that was worth hearing.


Benedetti/Camerata Salzburg/Gernon - Bartók, Bruckner, and Mozart, 11 March 2015

Cadogan Hall

Bartók – Divertimento, Sz 113
Mozart – Violin Concerto no.5 in A major, KV 219
Mozart – Rondo in C major, KV 373
Bruckner (arr. Stanislaw Skrowaczewski) – ‘Adagio’ from String Quintet in F major
Mozart – Symphony no.29 in A major, KV 201/186a

Nicola Benedetti (violin)
Camerata Salzburg
Ben Gernon (conductor)

A disappointing concert, I am afraid, for which much of the responsibility lay with the conductor, Ben Gernon. I was initially intrigued by the decidedly unusual performance of Bartók’s Divertimento. To his credit, Gernon observed the ‘non troppo’ from Bartók’s ‘Allegro non troppo’ marking to the first movement, though perhaps he observed it a little ‘troppo’. It certainly felt like the slowest account I had heard. The playing of the Camerata Salzburg was in its way impressive, the strings really digging in, but offering a sound that was more generally mitteleuropäisch than Hungarian. That I did not mind, though my companion was less impressed; however, as the work progressed, what might at first have seemed refreshingly different merely sounded inappropriate. The lack of a greater intensity from and/or a greater body of strings was felt strongly during the slow movement. It was not that that greater intensity could not be summoned up; it just needed to be done so more often. When the finale began, I again wondered whether something less frenetic than usual might actually prove revealing. Despite some fine solo playing, however, the movement and the work as a whole remained earthbound.

Nicola Benedetti joined the orchestra for Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto and, as a sort of written-in encore, the C major Rondo for Violin and Orchestra. The first movement of the concerto announced a better sense of style. One would, of course, hope so with this orchestra, although one hardly knows what to expect post-Norringtonisation. Vibrato, at least, was not eschewed, although it might have been employed more freely. Benedetti’s Adagio entry properly disoriented, almost as if an operatic character had awoken. I was less sure about what followed. At its best, Benedetti’s violin tone was characterful, whether silvery or bright. However, there were numerous surprising intonational slips and, more worrying, strange bulgings of phrasing. The movement never really settled down, and never sounded effortless. Its successor, the Adagio, would have benefited from warmer orchestra playing; perhaps the Camerata still has ghosts of dated ‘authenticity’ to lay. Both soloist and orchestra had an unfortunate tendency of progressing from beat to beat, with little sense of a longer line. The music plodded rather than flowed. More successful was the finale, which proved both warmer of tone and more connected. A sensible tempo was adopted and, perhaps surprisingly, given the movement’s structure, there was, if only at times, a greater sense of dramatic development. The ‘Turkish’ music offered welcome contrast, though not too much. However, some tricky corners ought to have been more smoothly handled. The C major Rondo was played with grace, functioning well as an encore, although there was nothing to challenge players such as Arthur Grumiaux here either.

In this rather oddly conceived programme, the second half followed with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski’s arrangement for string orchestra of the Adagio from Bruckner’s String Quintet. A somewhat bizarre programme note engaged in ill-expressed special pleading. (A taste: ‘The work was composed between the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and so is an example of Bruckner at full maturity and the Adagio is one of his greatest symphonic movements and it would be a pity indeed if it languished unperformed because of purist concerns about playing a single movement out of its context.’) Again, Gernon conveyed little of the longer line, a failing as damaging to Bruckner as it is to Mozart. The music progressed from note to note, with the unfortunate consequence that I began to fear that it would never end. There is no reason at all why performance of this arrangement should require special pleading; it just needs a Skrowaczewski to bring it to life, and ideally, a larger body of strings.

String tone, if not aggressively ‘period’, was thinner in the A major Symphony than it had been in the works with violin. (Had, perhaps, inclinations been tempered for Benedetti’s benefit?) The first movement set the tone for what followed, proving ‘light’ in a meagre rather than spirited sense. One had a reasonable idea of how it hung together, but there was little beyond that to the performance. Thinness of tone was even more of a problem in the slow movement, which at least was not taken so absurdly fast as has recently become fashionable; as an Andante, it was well judged. Playing was generally alert, though occasionally scrappy, in the Minuet. The Trio, however, less relaxed than slumped. It was not a matter of speed, but of lack of tension. Encouragingly, the finale began in rigorous fashion, with not a little swagger. Alas, it lost its way soon enough. Mozart remains the sternest test for any conductor – or orchestra, or soloist. No one passed with flying colours on this occasion.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Aufstieg and Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, Royal Opera, 10 March 2015

Images: ROH/Clive Barda
(sung in English)
Royal Opera House

Leocadia Begbick – Anne Sofie von Otter
Fatty – Peter Hoare
Trinity Moses – Sir Willard W. White
Jenny – Christine Rice
Six Girls – Anna Burford, Lauren Fagan, Anush Hovhannisyan, Stephanie Marshall, Meeta Ravel, Harriet Williams
Jimmy McIntyre – Kurt Streit
Jack O’Brien – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Bank-Account Bill – Darren Jeffery
Alaska Wolf Joe – Neal Davies
Bar Pianist – Robert Clark
Toby Higgins – Hubert Francis
Voice – Paterson Joseph

John Fulljames (director)
Es Devlin (set designs)
Christina Cunningham (costumes)
Bruno Poet (lighting)
Finn Ross (video)
Arthur Pita (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renata Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)

At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad. The unresolved tension, much of it fruitful, some of it perhaps less so, between Brecht and Weill, came through loud and clear in this estimable performance, given in a new translation by Jeremy Sams (which was certainly preferable to his ‘versions’ of Mozart, even if not entirely free of the translator’s habit of drawing attention to himself rather than to the work). Is it an opera? Yes, of course. As David Drew pointed out long ago, in a 1963 Musical Times article,  one of the most pernicious ideas about Mahagonny has been ‘one that menaces even the most generous-hearted listener – the idea that Weill intended the work as an attack on the body of the operatic convention by means of parody or an injected virus (jazz, cabaret etc.). This idea is wholly false.’ As Drew continued, Weill had far too much knowledge of and respect for the operatic repertoire, above all Mozart, but others too (not least, and ominously for his collaboration with Brecht, Wagner), but he was also genuinely excited by the new paths opened up by composers such as Janáček and Stravinsky. (He was also a great defender of Wozzeck.) The problem, for me, is that sometimes, though not always, the musical material does not present the composer at his strongest; in general, and despite the songs and tunes we know and love, I find him the more compelling the closer he comes to his time with Busoni. The Second Symphony and Violin Concerto are surely his masterpieces. Mahagonny’s music, however, remains on an entirely different level from Weill’s disappointing music for the United States. (Whatever his apologists may claim, that is surely where, in aesthetic terms at least, he ‘sold out’.)

Trinity Moses (Willard White), Leocadia Begbick (Anne Sofie von Otter), Fatty (Peter Hoare)

The greater problem still, though, lies in the collaboration with Brecht, whose strengths are quite different, and whose adamant refusal to sentimentalise may sometimes be undone by Weill. (Not that Weill is sentimental as such, but his æsthetic is undoubtedly different, less didactic, unquestionably less concerned with alienation, more concerned perhaps with ‘opera’). It is no mean achievement of John Fulljames’s production of this difficult, perhaps impossible, work, that Brecht’s stature as, after Beckett, perhaps the greatest of twentieth-century playwrights comes across with increasing immediacy. There is no attempt to make us ‘sympathise’, although Weill sometimes does not help in that respect. The conceit, as with that of the work itself, is admirably simple, though certainly not simplistic.  Mahagonny and Mahagonny grow from a splendidly designed lorry. The accoutrements of capital, of ‘entertainment’, of neo-liberal barbarism sprout necessarily: garishly, of course, but retaining focus. Voice-overs and video projections do excellent work, Brecht’s placards reimagined for our computer-screen-obsessed age. Perhaps the acting does not always convince as strongly as it might as acting, but that is part of the trade-off between Brecht and Weill: an immanent criticism as much as, perhaps more than, a shortcoming. Choreography is sharp and to the point, for instance during the ‘Mandalay Song’, as the men of Mahagonny – and what an indictment for us this is of male behaviour, the Widow Begbick notwithstanding! – await their turn with the prostitutes. I wondered whether the Christ-like imagery at the end was exaggerated, but to be fair, it is no more so than it is in the work. Besides, we are at liberty to interpret God’s coming to Mahagonny as we will.

For, in general, the action is non-specific enough for us to be able to relate it to when and where seems most appropriate. (It would surely be bizarre, if in our age of bankster-crime run truly riot, we did not think of our own characters such as HSBC's The Revd Prebendary Baron Green of Hurstpierpoint, surely an invention who would have been too much, too far-fetched, too agitprop, even for Brecht.) Price variations do their evil work, and Fulljames, whilst not entirely ignoring the ‘American’ element, does not overplay it. Weill was certainly alert to the danger of the work seeming as if it were too much ‘about’ America, writing to his publisher: ‘The use of American names for Mahagonny runs the risk of establishing a wholly false idea of Americanism, Wildwest, of such like. I am very glad that, together with Brecht, I have now found a very convenient solution … and I ask you to include the following notice in the piano score and libretto,’ although, oddly, it would only appear in the full score, not in the piano score: ‘“In view of the fact that those amusements of man which can be had for money are always and everywhere exactly the same, and because the Amusement-Town of Mahagonny is thus international in the widest sense, the names of the leading characters can be changed into customary forms at any given time. The following names are therefore recommended for German performances: Willy (for Fatty), Johann Ackermann (for Jim), Jakob Schmidt (for Jack O’Brien) [etc.]”.’ In an English-language version, we necessarily tilt more towards Americana – the exhibitionist piano-playing of Robert Clark is an especial joy! –  but not too much. Moreover, whilst those of us with Lotte Lenya in our mind’s ear, may miss her and the rest of the Wilhelm Bruckner-Rüggeberg crew, we know that this is not a work to be confined to nostalgic conceptions of Weimar culture.

Jenny (Christine Rice)

Mark Wigglesworth is surely one of our most underrated conductors, although let us hope his forthcoming tenure at ENO will change that; he conducted a punchy, intelligently varied account. If I found the ‘Alabama Song’ a little on the slow side, it was slow rather than sentimentalised. Weill’s Neue Sachlichkeit generally won through, and where more typical ‘operatic’ impulses threatened Brecht’s conception, that suggested its own humane rewards. Choral singing was well-drilled and not without ‘expressive’ quality: never too much, though. The chorales did their formal, almost Stravinskian (think not least of The Soldier’s Tale) work, reacting both with ‘tradition’ and with Brecht. There was certainly a characterful, properly parodic sense of what Drew, in that Musical Times article, called ‘the fairground banalities of the trial scene,’ likewise of the horrifying ‘stormtrooper tunes of the boxing scene’. Where, though, was the Crane Song? Everything is permitted, of course, its omission certainly so, but it seemed a pity. We should at any rate be grateful that the once-popular ‘Paris version’, a travesty, with no warrant from Weill, in which songs from the Songspiel were interspersed with a few instrumental pieces from the opera, is no longer favoured.


The tension between Brecht and Weill was perhaps most clear in the vocal performances. How to approach these roles as opera singers, in so large a theatre? For the most part, the cast coped well enough; if their performances fell somewhat uneasily between (at least) two stools, then perhaps that is unavoidable in a presentation of the work so conceived. Willard White balanced gravity and sleaze as Trinity Moses. Kurt Streit as Jimmy had his lyrical moments – but also, alas, his moments of would-be lyricism. Christine Rice’s Jenny veered uneasily between home-spun Oklahoma and operatic vibrato, but her transformations were not so blatant as those of Anne Sofie von Otter’s Widow Begbick. Stylistically, she was all over the place, but I assume that in some sense was the point.  In any case, the whole, as the cliché has it, was more than the sum of its parts.

At the time of its first performance, Adorno’s was one of the few critical voices raised in favour of the work: ‘Apart from the diametrically opposed operas of the Schoenberg school, I know of no work better or more strongly in keeping with the idea of the avant-garde than Mahagonny … Despite and on account of the primitive façade, it must be counted among the most difficult works of today.’ That difficulty may have lessened, as indeed has that of Wozzeck or Von heute auf morgen – now when shall we see that in London? – but it remains, the chill with which Brecht and Weill react against each other perhaps no less than ever.


Denk/ASMF/Keller - Suk, Bach, and Dvořák, 9 March 2015

Cadogan Hall

Suk – Serenade for Strings in E-flat major, op.6
Bach – Piano Concerto no.2 in E major, BWV 1053
Bach – Piano Concerto no.4 in A major, BWV 1055
Dvořák – Serenade for Strings in E major, op.22

Jeremy Denk (piano)
Academy of St Martin in the Fields (director: Tomo Keller)

A slightly odd programme, this: two Bach piano concertos sandwiched by string serenades by two Czech composers. Still, it doubtless made sense in the sense that there was no need for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields to field any non-string players. And, whilst the Academy has always fielded excellent instrumentalists across the board, the foundation of its excellence since its founding by Neville Marriner has always been its string playing.

There was certainly no gainsaying that excellence in the performances of Serenades of Strings by Dvořák and his son-in-law, Josef Suk. Perhaps it is simply the nature of the ensemble for which both composer call; perhaps it is being English, whether in my case or the Academy’s (despite the international provenance of its players, ably led throughout by Tomo Keller). Whatever the reason, I could not help but note on several occasions something in the sound that put me in mind of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, op.20. That most prolific of recording artists, Sir Neville, has certainly recorded both the Dvořák and Elgar works; I do not know whether he has also left a version of the Suk. Hand on heart, it would be difficult to regret its loss too strongly. It is an amiable enough work, but its bland pleasantness, even with such gorgeous violin tone as we heard here, in a model performance of chamber music writ large, soon outstays its welcome, especially during the slow movement and finale. Dvořák’s work, unsurprisingly, has more character, although there is little that can be done about the abruptness of the finale’s transitions, a little too obviously attempting ‘cyclic’ recollection. That said, each of its five movements received sharp, attentive performances, the ASMF players clearly communicating their enjoyment in music-making. The lilt of the waltzing second movement was finely judged, as was the ‘singing’ of the melodies in the first. Rhythmic definition in the third did not lead to driving too hard, a splendid performative balance having been struck.

Would that one could have said the same for Jeremy Denk’s rendition of Bach’s E major Concerto. Every movement seemed a good few notches too fast: not necessarily a disaster, since most works can adapt to different choices of tempi. What Bach, at least to my ears, can withstand far less easy is hard-driven performance, in which the music is not given space to breathe and the harmony and its implications are not permitted to tell. At times, the playing simply sounded garbled. For the most part, it did not, but we found ourselves once again in the situation outlined by Adorno more than sixty years ago: Bach reduced to the level of a generic Baroque composer. ‘They say Bach … mean Telemann.’ As Furtwängler wrote in an essay on Bach, the ‘astonishing superiority of Bach’s music clearer … than when one compares him with other composers of his time and environment’. Not necessarily so here. Moreover, it was a pity that the ASMF players, whilst far from eschewing vibrato, did not lavish such resplendent string tone on Bach’s music as they had and would upon his Czech companions. The A major Concerto fared better in every respect. Tempi, especially during the first and second movements, remained fast, but harmony was not neglected; nor were piano bass lines merely stabbed. The slow movement had true gravity, especially on account of searching string playing, whilst the finale, both in tempo and articulation, was perhaps the finest judged Bach movement of the evening.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

New opera by Olga Neuwirth: Orlando (scheduled 2019)

Press release from the Vienna State Opera:

Within the focus on contemporary music, which will characterise the repertoire in the coming seasons, Vienna State Opera Director Dominique Meyer scheduled five composition mandates for the next five seasons. The chronologically last premiere project was presented during today’s press conference: Olga Neuwirth is going to compose the opera Orlando for the Wiener Staatsoper, based on the homonymous novel by Virginia Woolf. The librettist will be the Franco-American author and playwright Catherine Filloux. The premiere is scheduled for December 2019 – cast and leading team will be announced at a later time.

Orlando is Virginia Woolf’s first big literary success. Woolf is to be considered one of the most prominent classics of English modernism. The central theme of the novel is the interlocking of gender identity, love and artistic creativity. Personal and social realities are cracked in a poetic and cunning way.

"Ever since I was a child I have always been interested in everything, from arts to politics, sciences to human psychology. Passionate towards everything. I let myself be inspired in the same way by the small and big things that the world has to offer, by the wonderful diversity of life, and that is something that I see reflected in Orlando. The essence of this fictional biography is the love for oddities, the supernatural, deceit, virtuosity, exaltation and exaggeration. It’s also about remembrance, about a sophisticated form of sexual allure and against the restrain toward a single gender. Another important topic is also the refusal to be patronised and to be treated in a condescending way, which is something that happens over and over again to women and will keep on happening. Virginia Woolf questioned the roles of man and woman, the status of women in society and their approach to literature. My musical theatre won’t be about a theoretical proof, but about different possibilities that unfold – also musically – scene by scene", says Olga Neuwirth. "For me Orlando and music are very similar: through the centuries the story of Orlando conveys, in the same way as (classical) music, on the one side the bittersweet pain that goes beyond words, and on the other hand the precise structures, proportions, abstraction and mathematical-scientific thinking and solace. Each life arises from a process of self-creation. As we live, we create our own world. In the same way as we do with music, or with and through Orlando".

Orlando is a through-composed opera in English for soloists