Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Salzburg Festival (4) - VPO/Muti: Schubert and Bruckner, 15 August 2014


Grosses Festspielhaus

Schubert – Symphony no.4 in C minor, D.417, ‘Tragic’
Bruckner – Symphony no.6 in A major

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)
 

A disturbing feature of recent years has been the distinctly mixed quality of performances heard from the Vienna Philharmonic; I am therefore delighted to report that, this year at Salzburg, such lapses would appear to have been put behind the orchestra, in repertoire ranging from Mozart to Strauss. The VPO has always, in my experience, played very well for Riccardo Muti, and this concert, dedicated to the memory of Herbert von Karajan, who had died twenty-five years earlier, proved no exception.


Schubert’s Fourth Symphony is not heard so often in concert halls. Although, like other early Schubert symphonies, it sometimes exhibits a certain stiffness of form, it is difficult really to understand why. I should certainly rather hear it than a good number of other Fourth Symphonies, Bruckner’s included. The introduction to the first movement opened with an expectancy seemingly echoing The Creation’s ‘Representation of Chaos’, albeit with woodwind lines that could only be Schubert’s. There was more than a hint of Beethoven too, likewise in the exposition proper, in which Muti finely balanced grace and formal dynamism. String turns of phrase again marked out the composer – and indeed the orchestra – unmistakeably, whatever the undoubted examples of influence from others. The extent to which the VPO has Schubert in its blood was underlined by the number of occasions on which Muti was able to stand back and let it play, intervening only to point a certain phrase or to coax a certain strand of development. The tricky opening to the slow movement was perhaps slightly diffident, but that seemed intentional rather than by default. There were gorgeous woodwind solos to enjoy thereafter – and such warmth from the Viennese strings. Beautifully melancholic, the movement was ideally paced as an Andante; its length was certainly ‘heavenly’. A exuberant reading of the Minuet followed, sounding very much ‘after’ Haydn, though the syncopations and the places they led were equally very much Schubert’s own. The trio was, rightly, more Mozartian in spirit, evoking the air of a Salzburg serenade, and relaxed to just the right degree. There was an excellent sense in the finale of Schubert’s Rossinian side, an influence that yet permits the composer to penetrate far deeper than ever Rossini would have been able – or cared – to do. Mendelssohn also came to mind at times in a fleet yet never superficial reading, lovingly, seemingly effortlessly played. No other orchestra can play quite like this.
 

Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony, despite its Schubertian resonances, is a very different work – and is, frankly, a symphony with which I continue to struggle. I know that many others feel similarly, but am equally well aware that, for others whose judgement I greatly respect, this stands as a masterpiece. The ‘Bruckner problem’ refuses to go away, then, and what I have to say should be taken in the spirit of my personal experience, both of work and experience. (In a sense, that is always the case, but I thought it perhaps worth underlining here.) The first movement I can follow – and, in this performance, did. Again, it opened with great expectancy. The VPO’s tone was different: pellucid, almost as if for late Karajan, or indeed Boulez, in late Bruckner (with which I certainly do not experience such difficulties). The sound, though, developed into something greater for those terrifying unisons. Rhythmic precision was crucial to Muti’s delineation of the composer’s formal processes. This was, perhaps, ‘objective’ Bruckner, certainly not the Bruckner of, say, Eugen Jochum, but was none the worse for it, especially in this movement. Woodwind ‘moment’s evoked Wagner, Siegfried in particular, but the counterpoint was unmistakeably Bruckner’s. The apparent twilight of liminal zones was particularly captivating – and intriguing. The Adagio had a warmer, more rounded tone – yes, sehr feierlich, as Bruckner marks it. It progressed with a serenity that at times tended towards the seraphic, yet which did not long go unsullied by darker undercurrents. However, I could not claim that I really followed where it went and why, Bruckner’s byways remaining a mystery to me. The scherzo was again rather Wagnerian in sonority, if hardly in form. I am afraid that, whatever the excellence of the playing, those repetitions remained – well, repetitions. And the final was much the same. Again, I could relish the Wagner echoes and the fine playing, but formal development often eluded me. I was given no reason to doubt the guide(s); the problem, for me, lay with the obscurity of the path itself.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Salzburg Festival (3) - Charlotte Salomon, 14 August 2014



Images; Ruth Walz/Salzburger Festspiele
Charlotte Kahn (Marianne Crebassa), Charlotte Salomon (Johanna Wokalek)

 
Felsenreitschule

Charlotte Salomon – Johanna Wokalek
Charlotte Kahn – Marianne Crebassa
Paulinka Bimbam – Anaïk Morel
Amadeus Daberlohn – Frédéric Antoun
Herr Knarre, Fourth Nazi – Vincent Le Texier
Frau Knarre – Cornelia Kallisch
Franziska Kahn, A Woman – Géraldine Chauvet
Dr Kahn, First Emigrant – Jean-Sébastien Bou
Professor Klingklang, Art Student, Second Nazi, Policeman – Michal Partyka
Art Professor, Propaganda Minister, First Nazi, Man, Second Emigrant – Eric Huchet
Tyrolese Art Student, Hostel Landlady – Annika Schlicht
Third Nazi – Wolfgang Resch 

Luc Bondy (director)
Johannes Schütz (set designs)
Moidele Bickel (costumes)
Bertrand Couderc (lighting)
Marie-Louise Bischofsberger (choreography)
Konrad Kuhn (dramaturgy)

Choral ‘Stürmer’
Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Marc-André Dalbavie (conductor)
 

I wish I could write more enthusiastically about this. What, given the delay over Kurtág’s Endgame, still promised for next year, has turned out to be the first-staged of the Salzburg Festival’s four operatic commissions comes from the pen of a highly-regarded composer, and treats with a subject that sounds, on paper at least, not only worthy but interesting. The story of Charlotte Salomon, a German Jewish artist, who created from her gouaches an autobiographical work, Leben? oder Theater? Ein Singespiel, completed in French exile, prior to her unspeakable end in Auschwitz (not featured here) would seem to propose many possibilities not only for plot and character portrayal and development, but also for contemplation upon the artist’s construction of her life, œuvre, and legacy. (I am not sure why Singespiel rather than Singspiel, although Dalbavie claims in an interview with Konrad Kuhn that the distinction allowed him to avoid the classical Singspiel fate of ‘music … interrupted by spoken scenes of “straight” theatre,’ in favour of ‘recited texts … woven into the music’.) Alas, Marc-André Dalbavie’s Charlotte Salomon proved, if not a failure, then simply rather forgettable, the concept offering more than the reality.

 

What, then, was the problem? Part of it seems to have lain in a somewhat troubled genesis. An original libretto by Richard Millet, with whom Dalbavie had already collaborated on his earlier opera, Gesualdo, was rejected, Dalbavie finding that ‘Millet’s text doesn’t give one enough of an impression of the person Charlotte Salomon and of her work.’ Millet’s libretto has apparently since been published separately in book form. Barbara Honigmann was suggested by Luc Bondy – who had emboldened Dalbavie to reject Millet’s version – and prepared, reasonably enough, a German libretto, translated into French. However, Charlotte Salomon (as opposed to her fictitious alter ego, ‘Charlotte Kahn’) retains her spoken dialogue in German. Much was made in the programme about the ‘chemical reaction’ between French and German, and so on; in reality, such claims come across as special pleading for slight awkwardness. Moreover, Honigmann’s Epilogue underwent radical revision by Bondy and Marie-Louise Bischofsberger at what seems to have been quite a late – too late? – stage. This can only be speculation, given that I do not know what Honigmann provided, but the sketchy nature of the dénouement suggests that either more or less should have been done. Moreover, whilst this is not an opera ‘about’ National Socialism, the almost-walk-on roles for a group of brownshirts, however admirably sung, veer dangerously close to a touch of brief, added ‘colour’.  

 
Dr Kann (Jean-Sébastien Bou), Paulinka Bimbam (Anaïk Morel), Amadeus Daberlohn (Frédéric Antoun), Charlotte Kahn, Frau Knarre (Cornelia Kallisch), Vincent Le Texier (Herr Knarre)
 

The opera also, I think, tries to do too much. There is nothing wrong with ambition, of course, but to write the Ring, you have to be Wagner, and so on. Salomon’s project was of course in part to encapsulate her reimagined life in art, but to present what attempts to be almost an autobiography in operatic form proves too tall an order. The dramatic material actually comes across, metatheatrical intentions notwithstanding, as more suitable for a television mini-series, albeit necessarily condensed, than for a viable opera. ‘The movement of the music and drama,’ Dalbavie claims, ‘does not follow the model of a linear narrative,’ but that actually is very much how it came across to me. As long as Das Rheingold, and likewise presented without an interval – though I do not think a break would have done any violence here to the ‘two acts with a prelude and an epilogue’ – the experience is not tedious, nor indeed unpleasant, but nor does it, or rather in my case did it, inspire, move, or even really engage. Such thoughts and emotions as I experienced tended to be reflections upon either the idea of the work or the story that had inspired it.
 

Dalbavie’s score must also bear responsibility here. I admit to being no expert on his work, though I have heard some and generally found it interesting. I was a little surprised to find it spread so thin, almost as ‘background’. The strongest impressions, arguably too strong in context, come from the music quoted – Carmen, Der Freischütz, Bist du bei mir, and so on – and refracted than from the rest, which often just washes over us. Whilst it is perfectly understandable that Dalbavie, or anyone else, might wish to go beyond spectral music, as generally understood, there might be more compelling ways to do so. The writing is undoubtedly refined, in a manner that almost obliges one to resort to national stereotype, but too often lacks dramatic or indeed even musical interest. Did the troubles over the libretto lead to too much of a rush here? Again, such thoughts can only be speculation, and one can only deal with the results. However, those results, whilst again they could not be described as either tedious or unpleasant, made surprisingly little impression.


Bondy’s staging is perfectly decent, stylishly presenting the action, with a degree of simultaneity of action in the different rooms offered by the long stage of the Felsenreitschule. (Alvis Hermanis made more of a concerted effort in that respect for Die Soldaten, two years previously, but there we are dealing with a towering masterpiece which absolutely requires such treatment.) However, I wondered whether a more forthright metatheatrical treatment might have drawn out the latent aspiration of the work. Katie Mitchell, for instance, would seem to have been made for such themes.
 
 
 
Musical performances were the strongest aspect of the evening. Dalbavie, insofar as I could tell for a new work, drew assured, refined, even committed playing from the Mozarteum Orchestra: a far more versatile ensemble than its reputation, or rather lazy reception thereof, might suggest. Marianna Crebassa and Johanna Wokalek did as much as they could to make one believe in the two Charlottes. Anaïk Morel offered heartfelt and richly-toned singing as Paulinka Bimbam (Charlotte’s stepmother, the singer, Paula Lindberg, one of her roles the aforementioned Carmen). Cornelia Kallisch’s appearance as Charlotte’s grandmother was laudably strong on musico-dramatic commitment; I longed to hear more from her. Frédéric Antoun also made a fine impression, especially attentive to words and their dramatic implications, as Amadeus Daberlohn, the vocal teacher who, in love with Paulinka, spurns the heroine. Indeed, there was no weak list amongst a hard-working cast. Its members could not, however, achieve the seemingly impossible. Salomon’s work, seen here briefly, tantalisingly, remains far more intriguing than this recreation.  

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Salzburg Festival (2) - Pollini: Chopin and Debussy, 13 August 2014


Grosses Festspielhaus

Chopin – Preludes, op.28
Debussy – Préludes, Book I

Maurizio Pollini (piano)
 

Rankings are absurd, but if anyone were to have doubted the identity of our greatest living pianist, this recital should have made the answer clear. The programme was wonderful: supremely challenging, of course, but one which one might have expected some other of our more thoughtful pianists to have essayed. Results were more than wonderful, the first half offering a tonal conspectus of searing drama, without a hint of didacticism, the second offering commentary and extension, sometimes readily apparent, sometimes more oblique, upon the first, whilst always remaining true to itself.
 

Chopin’s C major Prelude opening the recital sounded less as an opening flourish than as the latest instalment in a recital that might have been going on for hours: less creatio ex nihilo, then, than being plunged in medias res. That seemed to apply equally to work and performance, between which it was in any case impossible to distinguish. From this outset, Maurizio Pollini managed to combine a scale of utterance necessary for the Grosses Festspielhaus with an intimacy that retained more than a trace of the salon (albeit without the vapidity of much of its music). The integrity of the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude would be a case in point. It sounded as if a miniature Lisztian symphonic poem: high Romanticism in the best sense. As Chopin traversed the tonal system, so he seemed to traverse an entire world of expression. The A minor Prelude, introverted, almost Schoenbergian, happened upon a new vista with the pianist’s right hand: not superseding, but a new element, the dialectical relationship between new, existing, and developing material properly unstable. Likewise the left hand’s sad melody in the B minor Prelude evoked a world we seemed both to know and yet not to know. Sentiment was certainly never to be confused with sentimentality, as the minor mode Prelude in between, that in E minor, asserted, ensuring that Chopin’s sadness was all the greater. Pollini’s razor-like clarity extended not only to musical line but also to harmonic direction. Meaningful fury, not a note wasted, characterised such different pieces as those in F-sharp minor, G-sharp minor, and F minor. The E major Prelude, bold, and public, attained its stature at least as much on account of its placing, upon what had gone before, as its undeniable individuality; much the same could be said of its C minor cousin, and how one felt the impact of Chopin’s bass there! The G minor Prelude was revealed to be as complex and as passionate as a Brahms Intermezzo. (If only Pollini were to play some of those late Brahms works!) So too was the final Prelude in D minor, a daemonic conclusion, which, despite equal temperament, testified to the very special nature of that key, whether looking back to Mozart, or forward to Berg and Schoenberg.
 

‘Danseuses de Delphes’ is a very different opening gambit, and so it sounded, yet it emerged, intriguingly, in its onward tread as a son of Chopin’s G minor Prelude, irresolution in more than one sense marking Debussy’s very different path. Indeterminacy was, in ‘Voiles’, raised to the status of a determining principle, although the piece was to receive a few more turnings of that dialectical screw in Pollini’s performance. Not that there was anything ‘dry’ to his performance, in which the Debussyan instrument without hammers sounded less an aspiration, more a realised delight. ‘Sons’ and ‘parfums’ alike were made musical sense of in ‘Les Sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir’; I was set to wonder what Pollini’s Scriabin or Messiaen might have to offer. (A great deal, I am sure, although I doubt, alas, that we shall now ever find out.) ‘Les Collines d’Anacapri’ was more nervously consistent than I can recall hearing, whether from Pollini or anyone else, probably less ‘Spanish’ too, at least in a touristic sense, although, on the other hand, musical connections to Ibéria announced themselves freely. ‘Des pas sur la neige’ came across after that as all the more powerful in its introverted mode of generation: ‘simple’ yet deeply radical. Ensuing turbulence in ‘Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest’ highlighted both Chopinesque roots and Debussyan singularity. Kinship between ‘La Fille aux cheveux de lin’ and the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude similarly registered, seemingly of its own accord. The opening of ‘La Sérénade interrompue’ might have been from a work by Bartók, albeit, if this may be imagined, a hammer-less Bartók, presaging the radical, sometimes menacing whimsy of ‘La Danse de Puck’. In between, ‘La Cathédrale engloutie’ offered magical – and provocative – lack of clarity between melody and harmony. The lance that Liszt had hurled into the musical future appeared to land in the final ‘Minstrels’, the ghost of Mephisto haunting, sardonically and yet certainly not without warmth.
 

Three encores followed. First came the ‘Revolutionary’ Etude, very much in the vein of the most furious of the Preludes, yet resolutely ‘Classical’ in direct, unbending presentation of the argument. The G minor Ballade was as fluid as the Etude was strict, the dynamism of Chopin’s form speaking just as clearly. What powerful drama, meaning emerging from within rather than being ‘applied’ from without! Finally, the Berceuse, Pollini’s performance achieving a Nono-like marriage between ‘aquatic’ invitation and steely, generative turbulence. It sounded so simple and yet so infinitely complex, ‘so alt – und war doch so neu!’ Chopin playing, indeed any musical performance, really does not get better than this.

 

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Prom 31 - Coote/Hallé/Elder: Berlioz, Elgar, Grime, and Beethoven, 9 August 2014


Royal Albert Hall

Berlioz – Overture: Le Corsaire, op.21
Elgar – Sea Pictures
Helen Grime – Near Midnight (London premiere)
Beethoven – Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, ‘Eroica’, op.55

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Hallé
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
 

One of the most saddening aspects of this year’s Proms has been the insulting disservice it has done to new music. Whoever is responsible for the decision to cut contemporary works from television broadcasts should lose his or her job forthwith; it is difficult to imagine a case in which the BBC has acted more clearly against anything remotely approaching Reithian principles. (For the most informative and thoughtful piece on this issue, I have seen, please visit Classical Iconoclast here.) And so it was, apparently, that despite giving the London premiere of Helen Grime’s Near Midnight, the BBC saw fit not to broadcast it on television, whilst offering the rest of the concert. Not only was the decision wrong, it was foolish, for this probably proved the highlight of the Hallé’s concert under Sir Mark Elder. (Incidentally, does not this ‘Hallé’ rebranding sound silly; whatever was wrong with the Hallé Orchestra?)
 

Near Midnight was the first piece Grime wrote for the Hallé as Associate Composer, as we learned in the composer’s informative programme note. Initially inspired by D.H. Lawrence’s poem, Week-night Service, it shows a composer seemingly born to write for a large symphony orchestra. Indeed, though there is not necessarily much in common in terms of language and musical content, that ease of handling initially put me in mind of Henze, though French composers and perhaps Carter may offer a more revealing comparison. Considerable, but not excessive, use is made of percussion, likewise brass fanfares which act ‘almost like the tolling of bells … important markers in the structure of the piece’. A keen sense of drama and fantasy – and fantasy accomplished – was very well conveyed by orchestra and conductor; so was Grime’s careful pacing, impetus building before subsiding beautifully. Composer, orchestra, conductor, and not least television audience: all are owed an apology by the BBC.

 

The first half had been devoted to Berlioz and Elgar, in what might, barring Near Midnight, have been a classic Barbirolli programme. In the Corsaire Overture, Elder seemed unable to settle upon convincing tempi. The opening was absurdly fast; what followed seemed excessively drawn out, there seeming to be little that connect various sections. However, the orchestra itself was on fine form, no detail being lost, whatever the tempo. That said, when very fast, accented notes tended to be snatched at rather than given their full import: hardly surprising. Not for the first time in the evening, I longed for the late Sir Colin Davis.
 

Alice Coote joined the orchestra for Elgar’s Sea Pictures. Hers was a carefully variegated performance, in many ways admirable, though sometimes she struggled either to make herself heard or at least to make the words heard in the Royal Albert Hall acoustic. Elder ensured that the orchestra did not overwhelm her, offering a magical tapestry of orchestral colour. Whether one can take Alice Elgar’s poetry is a matter of taste, or lack thereof, but ‘Capri’ at least proved a charming musical interlude between ‘Sea Slumber-Song’ and a dignified, if somewhat slow-moving ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’. ‘Where Corals Lie’ was splendidly free, whilst maintaining a good sense of form. The Hallé was again beyond reproach, as full of colour as if this had been Les Nuits d’été. Again, though, it was difficult to make out a good number of the words. The final song, ‘The Swimmer’ was urgent yet noble, perhaps more operatic than oratorio-like. Again, though, the music is so much better than the poem (this time by Adam Lindsey Gordon).
 

After Midnight followed the interval, Grime’s piece then being followed by the Eroica Symphony. On this showing – and, indeed, on that of his Royal Opera Fidelio – Elder is, alas, not a great Beethovenian. Quoted in the programme, he made wearily predictable ‘authenticke’ remarks, claiming that his work with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment had ‘changed everything: the excitement, the edge, the daring … Comfortable opulence has no place here.’ Yes, of course Furtwängler, Klemperer, et al. were known for that very lack of excitement, edge, and danger, and of course for ‘comfortable opulence’. Likewise more recent Beethovenians as different as the aforementioned Sir Colin, Daniel Barenboim, and Michael Gielen. People say silly things, however, and it does not necessarily invalidate their performances. What was striking, however, was how lacking in excitement, edge, or danger Elder’s performance was.
 

The first movement was fashionably fast, presumably conforming to some metronome fatwa somewhere, but what was more apparent than mere speed was the strange lightness of tone. The Hallé’s performance was well articulated, sometimes excessively so. However, if Elder’s performance were punctilious with respect to the score – as if that were ever more than the starting-point for a performance! – what seemed entirely lacking was any sense of meaning, of why this work and Beethoven’s vision might matter. What ought to be a truly climactic moment, that of recapitulation, passed by almost unheralded – and weirdly un-phrased. Heroism: whither now? Beethoven seemed bizarrely domesticated, certainly far from Wagner’s 1851 vision of this symphony:  ‘the term “heroic” must be taken in the widest sense, and not simply as relating to a military hero. If we understand “hero” to mean, above all, the whole, complete man, in possession of all purely human feelings — love, pain, and strength — at their richest and most intense, we shall comprehend the correct object, as conveyed to us by the artist in the speaking, moving tones of his work. The artistic space of this work is occupied by … feelings of a strong, fully formed individuality, to which nothing human is strange, and which contains within itself everything that is truly human.’ But no, of course, Wagner is wrong, and ‘authenticity’ is right.
 

Perhaps surprisingly, the Funeral March fared better, though only comparatively. It flowed well – which, at whatever tempo, it must – and, despite a swift temp, it did not sound rushed. However, it was often little more than pleasant, which is hardly enough; there was certainly little sign of the composer to whom Wagner referred to as ‘the master who was called upon to write the world history of music in his works’. Withdrawal of string vibrato irritated too. Mendelssohn came to mind in the scherzo, albeit with loud(-ish) interjections; again, Beethoven’s spirit seemed distant. (It is perhaps worth mentioning here Elder’s strange, quite inauthentic decision to use four horns.) The finale went along its way quite merrily, if rather quickly, but with all the metaphysical import of a Toblerone. I was left feeling distinctly nonplussed, and recalling Barenboim’s performance two years previously at the Proms: it might as well have been a different work, and not only on account of the heroism of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Proms Saturday Matinee no.2 – Hardenberger/Lapland CO/Storgårds: C.P.E. Bach, Birtwistle, Honegger, Davies, and Sibelius, 9 August 2014


Cadogan Hall

C.P.E. Bach – Symphony in B minor, Wq 182 no.5
Birtwistle – Endless Parade
Honegger – Pastorale d’été
Davies – Sinfonia
Sibelius - Rakastava

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)
Lapland Chamber Orchestra
John Storgårds (conductor)
 

A principal theme of this year’s Proms has been the greater-than-ever variety of ensembles from across the world, many of them making their debuts here, whether at Cadogan Hall or a short walk away at the Royal Albert Hall. This Saturday Matinee offered the Proms debut of the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, the most northerly orchestra in the European Union, conducted by its Artistic Director, John Storgårds, with trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger joining for Birtwistle’s Endless Parade.
 

To hear an orchestral work – or indeed any work – by C.P.E. Bach is a rare treat. Unfortunately, the performance of his ‘Hamburg’ Symphony in B minor, Wq 182 no.5 (a Proms first), was not the most ingratiating; indeed, the first movement proved downright abrasive, and not only on account of some dodgy intonation. The strangeness of Emanuel Bach’s orchestral tessitura registered, as did the disjunctures – a canny programming presentiment of Birtwistle? – but there is more to the composer than that. A slightly fuller tone was permitted to the small orchestra (4.4.3.2.1, expanded for the following works) in the slow movement, and the finale was frenetic in a good sense. Still, it is sad to reflect that, on the few occasions when modern orchestras feel able to perform this music, they nevertheless so often feel constrained to ape ‘period’ mannerisms. If you have modern strings, make use of them!
 

Birtwistle’s Endless Parade offered what the composer, in a brief conversation with Clemency Burton-Hill, called a ‘piece of permanent discontinuity’, after Cubism, and more particularly after Picasso. The orchestra now sounded more at home, doubtless helped by the virtuosity and musical understanding of Hardenberger. Indeed, it would be little exaggeration to speak of ‘supreme command’ in his case. The piece was played as chamber music writ large, material tossed between soloist and various orchestral instruments. In its syncopation, it even approached ‘swing’, though jazz enthusiasts would probably beg to differ. It is, of course, a typically perspectival work, but I was struck – as was my companion, new to Birtwistle’s music – at the continuity that yet dialectically emerged from discontinuity. As Birtwistle commented, Beethoven is a true master in such matters, working, however, with the disadvantage (!) of tonality. Birtwistle’s language, technique, and for much of his career, eschewal of goal-orientation might seem to make him and Beethoven odd bed-fellows, but the comparison is well worth reflecting upon. As ever, of course, there was a keen sense not only of drama and landscape, but of drama through landscape, and of landscape through drama.
 

Another great English musical knight, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, was represented by his early (1962) Sinfonia, one of the works he wrote after – in one sense or another – Monteverdi’s Vespers, which, in a performance under Walter Goehr, had so inspired him and many others. (What a pity no recording seems to exist of any of Goehr’s performances! If anyone knows differently, I should be delighted to hear.) Davies admitted that he had not heard the piece since having conducted it during the 1980s with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and that he would take a red pencil to it now. I was interested to hear it, but should not necessarily rush to do so again. The opening clarinet solo was properly ‘recitando’, the first movement being marked ‘Lento recitando’, and that movement as a whole was full of expectant energy. None of the piece, though, seemed especially characteristic. The slow onward tread of the last of the four short movements came across very well in performance.
 

I could not bring myself to become excited about the other two pieces on the programme. Honegger’s Pastorale d’été ideally needs a greater cushion of strings than was available here. However, the essence of the music was well conveyed, greatly helped by steadiness in the rocking movement upon which it rests. Woodwind playing especially impressed – as indeed it had in Birtwistle. Sibelius’s Rakastava, the third of the pieces receiving its first Proms performance (Sinfonia having been the second) received an idiomatic, committed performance, if with smaller forces than it would doubtless often receive. (In this hall, it did not seem to matter.) Despite the characterful muted playing in the second movement, and especially fine solo cello playing throughout from Lauri Angervo, it remained for me a largely bland work. The encore, a Romance by Nils-Eric Fougstedt, was pleasant enough in a generic film-music sort of way.

Prom 28 - D'Orazio/BBC SO/Oramo: Beethoven, Brett Dean, and Stravinsky, 7 August 2014


Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Egmont, op.84: Overture
Brett Dean – Electric Preludes
Stravinsky – Oedipus Rex
 
Francesco D’Orazio (electric violin)

Oedipus – Allan Clayton
Jocasta – Hilary Summers
Creon – Juha Uusitalo
Tiresias – Brindley Sherratt
Messenger – Duncan Rock
Shepherd – Samuel Boden
Speaker – Rory Kinnear

BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo (conductor)


I admit that I came to this concert mostly with the second half in mind. It was a more than pleasant surprise, then, also to find a good deal more to enjoy before the interval than I had expected. It is not, of course, that I do not think the world of the Egmont Overture, but I have increasingly become weary of the state of present-day orchestral Beethoven performance. (Oddly, the problems bedevilling symphonic Beethoven seem less apparent or at least far less widespread in solo and chamber music.) Sakari Oramo’s account with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, then, came as a breath of fresh air. The introduction was full of suspense and foreboding, unfolding at a tempo that simply sounded ‘right’ (which is not, of course, to say that another could not). Already there was a proper sense of the mystery of Beethovenian development. The transition to the main Allegro was well handled, and throughout there was a good sense of formal dynamism. Characterful woodwind and forthright brass (admittedly, not always ideally precise) added a great deal. The ‘Victory Symphony’ at the end – I know that it is not actually entitled as such here – was perhaps a touch harried, but if a shortcoming, it was one that was readily forgiven. This was a real Beethoven performance.
 

Brett Dean’s Electric Preludes, for electric violin and orchestral strings, received its first Proms performance, Francesco D’Orazio joining the orchestra. In six ‘character pieces’, some of them continuous, Dean’s work explores, in his words, ‘the intersection between high instrumental virtuosity of a “classical” nature on the one hand and sound-worlds that are only possible with electronics on the other, all commented upon by an essentially “unplugged” string chamber orchestra’. As a summary, that seemed to me to tally very well with what I heard. The first movement, ‘Abandoned Playground’ is scurrying, at times almost filmic in quality and ‘atmosphere’, though perhaps a little repetitive. Despite its inspiration by indigenous painting from around Papunya, in Australia’s Northern Territory, the second movement sounded – at least, impressionistically, to me – more ‘abstract’, though perhaps matters would be different if one knew the art.  The short ‘Peripetea’ that follows, fast and highly rhythmical, had a sense, both as work and performance, of providing what it says, a dramatic turning-point. A slow movement, ‘The Beyond of Mirrors’, seemed more fully to emphasise electronic sounds, and yet at the same time to engage in ‘traditional’ violin and string fantasy. So too, in another mood, did the following ‘Perpetuum mobile’, which put me in mind almost of electric Prokofiev (the finale to the Second Violin Concerto). Its lengthy cadenza seemed perhaps to outstay its welcome, but there could be no gainsaying, here or elsewhere, D’Orazio’s command of technique, idiom, and expression. Likewise, the BBC SO sounded reinvigorated under its new Principal Conductor. The final ‘Berceuse’ traces an unhurried path from a dark, almost growling opening to quiet ecstasy – or so it sounded here in what seemed to me an excellent performance.
 

There followed an equally excellent performance of Oedipus Rex, in which the singularity of this ‘opera-oratorio’ announced itself as only it can, whether through form, language, or that oppressive atmosphere engendered by the pervasive minor third and its implications. The orchestra and Oramo continued to be on fine form, now joined by soloists, men’s voices from both the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Chorus, and Rory Kinnear, a splendid narrator throughout, declamatory without a hint of the excessive ‘ac-tor-li-ness’ which often comes into play here. Stravinsky’s opening chorus was splendidly attacked by chorus and orchestra alike, truly plunging us into the drama. Motor rhythms and ostinato made one all the more aware than usual of Poulenc’s blatant plagiarism in Dialogues des Carmélites (not that Stravinsky, given his record, need have disapproved). The aggression of neo-Classicism was as apparent in Oedipus’s ensuing claim of deliverance as in, say, the Octet; there is nothing placid about this æsthetic. I especially liked the clearly questioning choral ‘Quid fakiendum, Oedipus, ut liberemur?’ There soon followed what for me was the only real blot on the performance, the dry, wooden solo from Juha Uusitalo’s Creon, not helped by a pronounced vocal wobble. An intriguing, quasi-liturgical sense of versicle and response between ensuing chorus and Oedipus (‘Solve, solve, solve!’ ‘Pollikeor divinabo!’ etc.) swiftly compensated. Brindley Sherratt’s Tiresias sounded ‘old’ in character but without detriment to his fine musical delivery, precise and clear of tone, declamatory yet most definitely ‘sung’. The oddness of Stravinsky’s tenor writing constantly forced itself upon one’s attention, at least as much here as in, say, The Flood, but Allan Clayton coped – indeed, more than coped – very well.
 

The second act brings the extraordinary entrance of Jocasta. I mean it as no disrespect to the rest of the cast when I say that Hilary Summers truly stole the show with her unmistakeable contralto, somehow wonderfully archaic in a Mediterranean sense. Stylistically, she sounded just right, ‘operatic’ in Stravinsky’s utterly personal way (all the more so, the more ‘impersonal’ he might try to be). Oramo’s urgent yet spacious pacing seemed well-nigh ideal here, whilst choral imprecations of Fate hammered home their ritualistic point. Jocasta being joined by Oedipus, we heard what registered wonderfully as both parody and instantiation of the operatic duet. Indeed, it was a strength of the performance as a whole that issues of genre seemed, in unforced fashion, to come so strongly to the fore. Duncan Rock’s arrival as Messenger had one wishing he might have sung Creon too: his was a thoughtful, expressive performance, as was that of Samuel Boden as Shepherd, whose sappy tenor dealt so well with the vocal awkwardness of Stravinsky’s writing as almost to vanquish it. (It should not be entirely vanquished, of course, since it is a crucial part of the work and its ‘expressive’ – to use a loaded word in any Stravinskian context – power.) The weird jauntiness of the chorus, ‘Mulier in vestibulo’ led inexorably, as in performance it must, to the stone death of ‘Tibi valedico, Oedipus, tibi valedico’. Oramo and his forces had much to be proud of in this concert.

Prom 26 - EUYO/Petrenko: Berio and Shostakovich, 5 August 2014


Royal Albert Hall

Berio – Sinfonia  
Shostakovich – Symphony no.4 in C minor, op.43

London Voices (chorus master: Ben Parry)
European Union Youth Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko (conductor)


Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko. Petrenko did a reasonable job in Berio; however, I could not help but wonder how often he had conducted the work before. It was certainly a swift, driven reading, but that seemed to reflect a head more than usually stuck in the score (understandable, given the circumstances).
 

The opening of the first movement was promising indeed: aethereal, its harmonies unmistakeably announcing an ‘Italian’ flavour – both Dallapiccola and Nono springing to mind – whatever the undoubted internationalism of Berio’s outlook. It is a great piece for the European Youth Orchestra, not only in terms of that ‘internationalism’ but also because, like Mahler (if only we could have had his music in the second half!) a large orchestra is employed, but sparingly, smaller ensembles drawn therefrom to wonderful, magical effect. It was a pity Petrenko drove so hard, but the movement recognisably remained itself. The second movement came across almost as a ‘traditional’ slow movement, albeit again with sparing, almost soloistic use of the orchestra. An appropriately geological and river-like sense characterised the third movement. Mahler’s Second Symphony was the bedrock, of course, but I was also fascinated by the thoughts of memory and its tricks that the Rosenkavalier references provoked. If anything, Strauss and Hofmannsthal proved the more resonant on this occasion, though whether that was simply a matter of my frame of mind, or was in some sense owed to the performance, I am not sure. At any rate, the combination – and conflict – between the EUYO and London Voices made it seem, especially in the context of Petrenko’s once-again driven tempo, almost as though one were trapped within a human mind, and a witty one at that. Mathieu van Bellen offered an excellent violin solo. The typically varied vocal references included one to ‘Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony’, concluding with a ‘Thank you, Mr Petrenko’. Amplification perhaps seemed a bit heavy in the fourth movement, though perhaps it was more a matter of the acoustic; nevertheless Berio’s imagination continued to shine through. I wondered whether the final movement might have smiled a little more – no such problem with the voices – but all was present and correct, and often rather more than that.
 

As for Shostakovich: well, his apologists hail this symphony as a masterpiece, but an opportunity to hear it had the rest of us wish it had remain ‘withdrawn’, not on account of any dangerous ‘modernism’ – Stalinist ‘socialist realism’ truly was insane! – but because it is such a dull, frankly un-symphonic work. For the most part, Petrenko and the EUYO did all they did to convince, although string playing sometimes went awry.  The first movement opened with Lady Macbeth-style Grand Guignol, perhaps more interesting than anything that followed. Precision and attack were impressive: there was a chilling mechanistic quality to the performance, but alas, the work ensured that returns diminished, Shostakovich’s threadbare invention rendered all too apparent after a while. The second movement is at least shorter, but from the outset, one felt, as so often with this composer, that one had heard it all before, and it still seemed too long. Oft-drawn comparisons with Mahler seemed as incomprehensible as ever. They made a little more sense in the final movement – so long as one bore in mind Boulez’s observation that Shostakovich offers at best a ‘second pressing’ in olive oil terms – but surely nothing justified the lack of variegation and indeed the sheer tedium of this piece. Petrenko and the orchestra rendered the movement’s Largo opening nicely creepy. Various woodwind took the opportunity to shine within the confines of generally unrelieved lugubriousness. There could, however, be no papering over the formal cracks. How I longed for a little invention: Haydn, Webern, Mahler, Berio,  just about anyone! Is it not about time that we abandoned puerile Cold War attitudes and considered whether this music is actually any good, rather than merely sympathising with the autobiography of an alleged ‘dissident’?

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Today's prize for shoddy, ignorant music journalism goes to...






... Philip Oltermann of The Guardian. (It is actually a report dated 31 July, but since we are dealing with journalism, what's a fact or two between friends?) A Twitter friend brought this to my attention, and it is quite staggering, even by the normal standards, clearly written by someone who knows nothing about Wagner, Bayreuth, music, nor indeed anything else, it would seem.













'Long considered the embodiment of German high culture...'
By whom, and in what sense? I cannot recall having heard anyone speak of it in such terms, insofar as those terms might be considered meaningful.

'Bayreuth's opera festival is becoming more notorious for its scandals than its music...'
'Becoming'? Do you know anything about the history of the Festival? Have you perhaps heard of the Third Reich, of Winifred Wagner, or indeed of a host of controversial stagings, at the very least from Wieland Wagner onwards?

'Director Frank Castorf's radically deconstructed six-hour production of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung...'
Six-hour production?! As another Twitter friend commented, that is 'radically deconstructed' indeed. It certainly took longer when I was there last week.

'Director Frank Castorf's radically deconstructed six-hour production of Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung was met with boos and jeers when it premiered at Bayreuth last year...'
So now you are talking about something that happened last year? In what sense is this conceivably a news item?

'Castorf, an experimental east German director drafted in after the film directors Lars von Trier and Wim Wenders declined invitations...'
Well, only in the sense that he was 'drafted in' after the death of Winifred Wagner or indeed after the death of Richard Wagner. Lars von Trier was due to direct the previous 'Ring' at Bayreuth.


That is quite enough for now. I really cannot be bothered with the rest: poorly digested, if at all, from other reports... (There is, though, serious competition from an error-laden, almost comically reactionary piece - 'horrible modern-dress concepts that have become the bane of every opera lover's existence' etc. - in The Daily Telegraph on the Munich Opera Festival, should you really wish to seek it out.)


Alternatively, you might spend your time more wisely listening to this:




Monday, 4 August 2014

Proms Chamber Music 3 - London Winds/Collins: Mozart and Strauss, 4 August 2014


Cadogan Hall

Mozart – Serenade no.12 in C minor, KV 388/384a
Strauss – Suite in B-flat major for thirteen wind instruments, op.4

Philippa Davies, Sarah Newbold (flutes)
Gareth Hulse, Katie Clemmow (oboes)
Michael Collins, Peter Sparks (clarinets)
Dan Jemison, Helen Simons (bassoons)
Fraser Gordon (contra-bassoon)
Richard Watkins, Michael Thompson, Elise Campbell, Carys Evans (horns)
Michael Collins (director)
 

This lovely lunchtime Prom at Cadogan Hall presented Mozart’s great C minor Serenade for woodwind followed by Strauss’s B-flat major Suite for thirteen wind instruments. The former is a masterpiece, the latter an apprentice work, but it was something of a tribute to the performance from London Winds that one could still respond more or less equally warmly to both halves of the recital.
 

The Mozart Serenade opened in grave fashion, opening up just as it should. In this of all Mozart’s ‘serenades’, the popular understanding of the genre surely stands most distant. There is typical chiaroscuro, of course, and there are plenty of well opportunities, here taken, for Elysian delight, but this is a work of a seriousness we are more likely to consider ‘symphonic’. Harmonic rhythm was beautifully, meaningfully judged, often built here in the first movement upon a wonderfully grainy bassoon line. The close was tragic in a properly Mozartian sense. Tender dignity characterised the slow movement, played simply, seemingly ‘as written’, though such simplicity conceals a great deal of artifice. As in its predecessor, the tempo seemed just ‘right’, so much so that one did not notice it. The minuet brought Mozart poised, quite rightly, between Bach and Beethoven, ‘learned’ counterpoint and its harmonic implications the key to tragedy. Its trio imparted welcome sunlight – or should that be moonlight? Mood, voice, strength of purpose, and indeed form all served to have the finale point to that of the C minor Piano Concerto, KV 491. Musical inventiveness gave the lie to silly claims one sometimes hears concerning the relative impoverishment of Classical variation form, the conviction of the performance leaving one in no doubt as to this movement’s stature, or indeed as to that of the work as a whole. As so often, Mozart’s chromaticism and construction had us know that we were but a stone’s throw away from the Second Viennese School. The first banishment of clouds, heralded by tender horns, had me think of Figaro; the second led to a suitably good-natured conclusion which yet could not efface memories of what had gone before.
 

The larger ensemble (thirteen as opposed to eight instruments) required by Strauss necessarily resulted in fuller tone, but there was also of course plenty of scope for subdivision. Already in the first movement one heard a highly dramatic, even at times operatic voice, if without quite the individuality or indeed the clarity of purpose that would soon develop. The second movement came closer, not least at its opening. Its dignity as a ‘Romanze’ seemed both to hark back to Mozart’s Andante and to pay its debt to nineteenth-century masters. Mock-seriousness in the Gavotte was soon, almost instantly, transmuted into clearer thumbing of the nose, Till Eulenspiegel-style, even though Strauss’s handling of form here remains relatively stiff. Solos seemed also to herald the world of the tone poems. Again, there was splendid contrast between them and a grainy bassoon bass line, all the more delightful when one of the bassoons itself turned soloist. ‘Learned’ counterpoint might not suit Strauss so well as Mozart, but that in the final fugue was despatched – both in work and performance – with good humour, even delight. This might not be a masterpiece, but its performance confirmed my general belief that the lesser works of great composers are of more interest than the principal works of lesser composers. Who would not rather hear Apollo et Hyacinthus or Guntram than … (fill in the gap)?

 

Prom 23 - BBC SSO/Runnicles: John McLeod, Beethoven, and Mozart


Royal Albert Hall

John McLeod – The Sun Dances (London premiere)
Beethoven – Symphony no.4 in B-flat major, op.60
Mozart (ed. Robert Levin) – Requiem in D minor, KV 626

Carolyn Sampson (soprano)
Christine Rice (mezzo-soprano)
Jeremy Ovenden (tenor)
Neil Davies (bass)
National Youth Choir of Scotland (chorus master: Christopher Bell)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles (conductor)


Another programme of which it was difficult to make much sense: a twenty-first-century Scottish tone poem, followed by a Beethoven symphony, followed by Mozart’s Requiem. As it turned out, I should readily have skipped the first half and simply heard the Mozart, which, if, in Donald Runnicles’s hands, it certainly did not plumb any metaphysical depths, offered excellent singing from the National Youth Choir of Scotland.
 

Apparently, John McLeod’s 2001 The Sun Dances takes its inspiration from the story of an old Scottish woman, Barbara Macphie, climbing Ben More on the Isle of Mull to see sunrise on Easter Sunday. It seemed well played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, but alternates awkwardly between stretches of relatively biting, highly rhythmical music, and more Romantic, even film-music-like material. Attractively orchestrated in a post-Ravel fashion, it was not really clear to me what it added up to. The BBC SSO brass seemed to enjoy the climax though.
 

Runnicles’s account of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony started promisingly enough, the introduction to the first movement full of potentiality. What followed, however, set the scene all too well for a largely characterless performance: almost ‘designer Beethoven’. The first movement proper was very fast indeed, highly (excessively?) articulated, with undeniably characterful woodwind. Of metaphysics, or indeed more generally of meaning, there was not so much as an aural glimpse. The development passed almost without incident (!), but some degree of fury was whipped up for the return; without context, however, and without any of the necessary flexibility, it could make little real impact. Applause followed – as, annoyingly, it would every movement. Runnicles offered a strange conception of an Adagio, surely more of an Andante. The slow movement was pleasant rather than dignified, let alone deep. Despite incidental felicities, it felt skated over and, frankly, rushed. The scherzo was clear and correct, but where was the struggle? There was nothing especially objectionable, but nothing revelatory either. At least there was a sense of relaxation for the trio. The close to the movement as a whole was perfunctory in the extreme. Beethoven’s finale was taken attacca, very fast indeed, more akin to a Presto. An horrendous bout of audience coughing accompanied its course. Otherwise it was stylish, sleek, sometimes even urgent, but never exultant, more often brusque and unsmiling. If only we could have heard Daniel Barenboim again…  
 

Mozart’s Requiem was performed in Robert Levin’s edition, which goes beyond the familiar Süssmayr completion in a number of respects. It was interesting to hear, but I cannot say that I should in general wish to do so. In any case, as mentioned above, the principal joy of this performance was the alert, expressive singing of the National Youth Choir of Scotland, ably supported by the BBC SSO. The female soloists, Carolyn Sampson and Christine Rice, fared better than their male counterparts, Jeremy Ovenden and Neal Davies. Runnicles again exhibited a tendency towards unduly fast and driven tempi, but was on better form than in the Beethoven, even though again it was difficult to detect anything much in the way of religious or more generally metaphysical import.
 

The opening bars were ominous enough, on the swift side but not unreasonably so. Both the chorus and Sampson made a welcome mark in the ‘Introitus’, though excessively articulated violins proved less of a boon. The ‘Kyrie’ was very fast, frankly too fast and too light in texture. (What a strange response to words and music alike!) At least there was, as throughout, fine choral singing to enjoy and Runnicles slowed down to offer a glimpse of real neo-Handelian grandeur at the very close. If the ‘Dies irae’ were very fast, that was fair enough; it was darker of hue too, a welcome development. The ‘Tuba mirum; was taken at a predictably ‘flowing’ tempo, but was permitted to breathe. Davies’s solo was uncomfortably wobbly. A wonderfully forthright ‘Rex tremendae’ followed, choral clarity especially noteworthy. The ‘Recordare’ was light of character, but on its own terms flowed nicely; Ovenden’s tenor was, however, anything but ingratiating of tone. Surely, however, there should have been more at stake than we heard in the merely fast ‘Confutatis’ and a decidedly un-Romantic ‘Lacrimosa’. Levin’s ‘Amen fugue was the surprise: perfectly competent contrapuntal writing, but not, to my ears, remotely Mozartian. I think we can do without it.
 

Again, the ‘Domine Jesu’ was too fast, the words and their meaning ultimately lacking seriousness, however well sung. It sounded, I am afraid, dangerously close to Mendelssohn fairy music. And should the setting of ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ really sound jaunty, however beautifully blended it was? So it continued, through a driven ‘Hostias’, to the ‘Sanctus’, in which Levin’s hand offered interesting new violin figuration: the one case in which I positively welcomed his intervention. Levin’s ‘Osanna’ sounds more Handelian – with an obvious, perhaps too obvious, nod to Mozart’s Mass in C minor – than what we are accustomed to hear. The ‘Benedictus’ was prettily skated over, but again, what of meaning, what of liturgical context? Radically different orchestral writing was to be heard; I should not mind hearing it again, but I am not convinced that it was definitely preferable to Süssmayr, whatever the accusations of clumsiness sometimes hurled at him. Ovenden was here again the weakest link, often sounding strained indeed. Levin’s transition to the following ‘Osanna’ was more ‘interesting’ than convincing. The ‘Agnus Dei’ showed that (relative) gravity and swift tempi were not necessarily incompatible; alas, it was interrupted by some extraneous (electronic?) noise. There was an intriguingly Bachian (the B minor Mass came to mind) character to the close, after which the ‘Lux aeterna’ offered a spirited conclusion, more in keeping with the performance than the work. Might Runnicles have been happier with, say, Fauré than the tragic Catholicism of Mozart’s final work?

 

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Bayreuth Festival (5) - Götterdämmerung, 1 August 2014





Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Siegfried – Lance Ryan
Gunther – Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester
Alberich – Oleg Bryjak
Hagen – Attila Jun
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster
Gutrune – Allison Oakes
Waltraute, Second Norn – Claudia Mahnke
First Norn, Flosshilde – Okka van der Damerau
Third Norn – Christiane Kohl
Woglinde – Mirella Hagen
Wellgunde – Julia Rutigliano

Frank Castorf (director)
Aleksander Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Casper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

 


 
We used to hear the final motif heard in the Ring described in Hans von Wolzogen-ese as ‘redemption through love’. Its ‘meaning’ has proved endlessly controversial; for my money, ‘redemption of love’, though still partial, perhaps comes closer. Carl Dahlhaus, having pointed is first hearing in Die Walküre, when Sieglinde hails the miracle of Siegfried’s birth as foretold by Brünnhilde, it now represents ‘an expression of the “rapturous love” celebrated’ in Wagner’s envisaged ‘1852 ending’ to his poem, subsequently omitted. (Dahlhaus is ever at pains to deny the importance of Schopenhauer for the Ring, whether in terms of anticipation or influence.) Thomas Mann makes a similar point, writing that Wagner’s ‘real prophecy is not goods nor gold not lordly pomp,’ a reference to Brünnhilde’s rejection of such in the ‘Feuerbach ending’. Nor does the composer prophesy ‘sad compacts of living bonds’. Wagner’s ‘real prophecy’, Mann claims, is ‘the heavenly melody which at the end of Götterdämmerung rises from the burning citadel of earthly power and restates in music the same theme as that of the closing lines of the other German poem of life and world: Das Ewig-weibliche zieht uns hinan.’ It certainly is not all about love, though. As John Deathridge has pointed out, ‘part of the final motif’s meaning lies in ‘one of Wagner’s perennial concerns …: the relation of the individual to the community’. In the first instance, an isolated appearance of the motif is sung by an individual; its frequent repetition in the presence of ‘a silent on-stage chorus’ in Götterdämmerung is ‘a striking symbol’ of the relationship. Its content thus involves both the widening of the circles of sympathy — and joy — and what Wagner would, in a late piece (Ausführungen zu “Religion und Kunst”: Heldentum und Christentum’), call the ultimate ‘oneness of the human species’. The motif does not, at any rate, as Dahlhaus claims, straightforwardly ‘express’ rapturous love, but offers redemption of a force both glorious and destructive. In the terms of the German Romantic æsthetics of music – here words of August Wilhem Schlegel, from his Kunstlehre to which both Wagner and Schopenhauer owed a great deal, it might be said of the motif’s catharsis that: ‘It purifies, so to speak, the passions of the material, of the dirt that clings to them, by representing the passions in our inner mind without reference to objects, but only in their form; and, after stripping them of their mundane shell, permits them to breathe the pure ether.’
 

Why start rather than end there, if indeed I were to mention it at all? Because none of these possible interpretations – or indeed many more: what of Bakunin-like pyromania? of the revenge of the natural world through the Rhine? of Wagner’s Schopenhauerian shift from eros to caritas, etc., etc. – is prepared or considered in Frank Castorf’s staging. That might not matter: perhaps he might have something new to offer. Not really, alas, though this Götterdämmerung is certainly an improvement upon the absolute nadir of his Siegfried, if not quite a return to the (relative) form of Das Rheingold. But if, as Castorf, at least at times appears to be hinting, there is something of a political meaning to be gleaned, might it not be worth considering what others have thought about the Ring in that or indeed in any other respect? Above all, how can a staging which apparently takes no interest whatsoever in the music – I am told that Castorf never so much as looked at a score, referring only to a yellow Reclam version of the poem: true or false, it has the ring of truth – possibly begin to consider such necessary questions as the contextual meaning, be that context of the work, the production, or better, both, of that culminating motif, to which Wagner once enigmatically gave the label, ‘glorification of Brünnhilde’? Why, even if we are concentrating one-sidedly upon the poem, discard any sense of the ‘watchers’ whose social being contributes so much? They need not necessarily be ‘moved to the very depths of their being’, as Wagner’s Schopenhauerian suggestion has it; they could be something more akin to the cloth-capped, almost Brechtian questioners of Patrice Chéreau. There might be good reason, in context, to dispense with them, but one would have thought that they might have appealed to Castorf’s ‘post-dramatic’ conception of theatre. Like so much, alas, it is difficult not to suspect that they, like the small matter of Wagner’s score, were never considered in the first place.

 

Instead, then, we see what seems, at least at times, to be an allusion to some of the revolutionary upheavals of the twentieth century. There is nothing wrong with that in principle: 1917, even 1989, alluded to European revolutionary tradition, not least that of the 1848-9 revolutions in which Wagner was an active participant, just as 1848-9 had alluded to 1830 and above all to the French Revolution. ‘Die Revolution’ was, as well as the title of a torrential revolutionary catechism by Kapellmeister Wagner, an abiding concept of Vormärz social and political discourse. Aleksander Denić’s once-again mightily-impressive sets – considered as sculptures – turn us between what seem to be West and East Germany, the sight of a GDR chemical works immediately evocative, I am told, for those who lived there, Chancellor Merkel (in the audience) included. It seems that at some point we come to die Wende itself, at which point, I presume, we fully glimpse the total victory of the now-unveiled New York Stock Exchange. The problem is that, for the most part, this remains little more than a backdrop, despite occasional promising treatment of the (revolutionary?) crowd. Quite why so many of them fly Union Flags I am not entirely sure. As for why we are treated to, or rather distracted by, film clips of our valiant director’s assistant – I was wrong in Das Rheingold; he does not survived quite until the end – chopping food at a kebab stall, and eventually splicing open his hand in especially gruesome fashion… (At least we were spared a return to Miss Fortune.)
 

 
 

Insofar as I can glean another theme, it is perhaps that of the power of visual, or rather filmed, media. It certainly comes, whether intentionally or not, quite to overpower Wagner’s drama, even if that were misleadingly understood simply to refer to his poem, let alone his music. Problematising that state of affairs seems to me again potentially a good idea, but if that happens, and I am genuinely not sure whether it does, it is occasional and sporadic. For the most part, Castorf – ironically, for a man of the theatre – seems to accept, or at least to present, quite uncritically the all-too-fashionable assumption prevalent at all levels of society of film’s superiority. And so, decontextualized references to film appear: a good example would be the second-act sudden appearance, pushed down the stairs by Castorf’s assistant, of a pram filled with potatoes. Yet, unless one knows that to be a reference to Eisenstein, it adds nothing at all; if the truth be told, it does not add a great deal even so. And why should one, particularly? It would doubtless be ‘elitist’ – or something – to presume knowledge of Shakespeare, Beethoven, or Aeschylus, let alone Schoenberg or Furtwängler; but film, for some reason, is considered necessary. If so, let us question that, as we should if it were any other medium. I am not at all sure that Castorf, whatever his intentions, does. Instead, he seems often to denigrate a form – opera, music drama, call it what we will – on which he is not necessarily in a strong position to comment. (Surely the undertow of much of Die Walküre and Siegfried is, chez Castorf: how on earth could you take this rubbish seriously? Well, to be able to say that, you probably ought to have tried to take it seriously in the first place.)   
 

 

What more might have been done, within the bounds of what I have read as a twentieth-century-revolutionary interpretation? Above all, this returns us to treating with the work in serious fashion, a sense of who the characters are within this setting? I realise that Castorf might disdain such ‘logical’ concerns, but in order to achieve something that is more than a mess, perhaps he should not. A group of thugs gathered around a kebab van, perhaps at best – or worst – some low-level members of an organised crime network: they are not real, revolutionary agents. Why are we not dealing with those in positions of real authority? The Gibichung court is bigger than that – and that is why its Nietzschean décadence matters. If Gunther, Gutrune, and Hagen are no one in particular, likewise Siegfried and Brünnhilde, then who cares (in this particular respect)? Wagner employed myth for reasons that largely remain sound; that certainly does not preclude specificity in terms of particular staging, but it seems perverse to be attempting something close to a political treatment, albeit an anarchic one in a decidedly non-Bakunin sense, and then not to look seriously at the political, economic, social, and religious nature of the society in which the myth is set. Just when one thinks that the director might, we have some irrelevant, puncturing silliness. Yes, doubtless that is partly ‘the point’, but again, I have to say that if that be so, the point is not a good one. It is a great pity, since here in Götterdämmerung, as in Das Rheingold, there are hints of interesting ideas; would that they were pursued. And above all, just to hammer the point home, would that the music were listened to – even just once or twice. A film of Hagen walking through a forest is not what, at any level, we need to see during Siegfried’s Funeral March. Better an entirely black stage than such irrelevant banality.

 


 
Musically, things were better – though, of course, if there is little sense of musical drama, then the music ‘itself’ will be sold short, reduced, as I commented in an earlier review, to the status of a troublesome soundtrack. Kirill Petrenko led the orchestra with considerable verve. I do not have a great deal to add to what I have said about his leadership before. There was not much in the way of metaphysical depth, although I doubt that there could be, given the production. But there was a strong sense of line, considerable ebb and flow, and perhaps above all, a sense of wonder, grandeur, and intimacy born of daring dynamic contrast, insofar as one were not distracted by increasingly ridiculous film footage. There were perhaps a few more orchestral fluffs, especially from the brass, than one might have hoped for, especially in Bayreuth, but these things happen. Choral singing was excellent, once again a great credit to all involved, and to Eberhard Friedrich.

 

Catherine Foster’s Achilles heel was her poor diction. Yes, those of us who know the text intimately could fill in the gaps, but that is hardly the point; with that logic, we might as well have a blank stage and empty pit. Otherwise, hers was in general a beautifully sung rendition of Brünnhilde. Foster certainly has the gift of making one sympathise, which counts for a great deal. Lance Ryan – well, though there were actually a few moments of decent, even alluring, tone production, most of this shouted performance might have been classified as ‘school of John Treleaven’ (remember him?) If Bayreuth has any sense, it will have enlisted the services of Andreas Schager as soon as possible. Ryan can certainly act, but much of what one heard was straightforwardly painful, perhaps particularly when in concert with others. Of the Gibichungs, Allison Oakes sang well as Gutrune, without making a huge impression; I liked, however, the idea of her initially rejecting Siegfried when she heard Brünnhilde’s accusations. Attila Jun certainly had the blackness of tone for a traditional Hagen, though his portrayal was somewhat generalised when compared with the (admittedly light-toned) likes of Mikhail Petrenko. Alejandro Marco-Buhrmester was for me the brightest star in the cast: a Gunther I should happily hear – and see – anywhere. For once, one had a sense, even given Castorf’s production, of the charisma that such a character must have to have survived at all. It is a very difficult balance to present someone who is at heart weak and yet also has the political gifts to survive, even to an extent to thrive, in this decayed world. Words, music, and Wagner’s ‘gesture’ were as one here; frankly, nine out of ten Brünnhildes would have been more likely to choose this Gunther than this Siegfried. Oleg Bryjak made an impressive re-appearance as Alberich, more careful with the words than his son. (Quite why Castorf then had him repeatedly giving an unidentified woman oral sex is another open question.) Claudia Mahnke made a better Waltraute than she had Fricka, but it would be difficult to say that hers was a Valkyrie for the ages. As Second Norn, however, she proved a characterful part of a splendid trio of Erda’s daughters. The Rhinemaidens, called on to do more than one would usually expect here – a car-based orgy with Siegfried and Gunther swiftly became tedious – also proved to be excellent singing-actresses.


 
And so, I left the Festspielhaus, following prolonged curtain-calls – and, in the case of the production team, prolonged booing, to which Castorf responded with considerable, highly creditable wit – feeling sadness that a staging which, at its best, was not without interesting ideas, had been let down so badly by a director’s apparent lack of interest both in much of the work and in all of the music. Perhaps Castorf needs an editor, though such ‘authority’ would doubtless be rejected. More likely, as I thought at the very beginning, a ‘version’ in which he was free, somewhere other than Bayreuth, to treat with the text, perhaps minus the music, as he wished might have brought something more worthwhile to the table. As it is, and not disregarding its good points, this remains a directorial failure – and, it seems, in many ways a wilful one. To return to Chéreau, he wished, as stated in a programme essay from 1977, ‘that the orchestra pit be, like Delphi’s smoking pit, a crevice uttering oracles — the Funeral March and the concluding redemption motif. The redemption motif is a message delivered to the entire world, but like all pythonesses, the orchestra is unclear, and there are several ways in which one might interpret its message.’ Should one, he asked, ‘not hear it with mistrust and anxiety?’ Indeed, but first one has to hear it at all.