Sunday, 23 November 2014

La clemenza di Tito, Midsummer Opera, 21 November 2014

St John’s, Waterloo

Vitellia – Nicola Ihnatowicz
Sesto – Norma Ritchie
Annio – Lucy Goddard
Publio – Andy Armistead
Tito – John Upperton
Servilia – Emma Dogliani

Chorus of Midsummer Opera (chorus master and stage director: John Upperton)
Symphony Orchestra of Midsummer Opera
David Roblou (conductor)

This was my first visit to a Midsummer Opera performance; on the basis of this performance, I doubt that it will be the last. Mozart, and what we might consider the neo-Classical Mozart of La clemenza di Tito at that, is the sternest, most unsparing of musical taskmasters, and the company acquitted itself with honour.

I suspect ‘concert staging’ might be the closest description for what we saw. It certainly was not a concert performance, since performers came on and off, costumed in non-specific modern dress, and interacted with each other as they would on stage – albeit, in this case, largely behind the orchestra. As John Upperton, stage director and chorus master as well as Tito, put it in his note, ‘we just “hint” at the characterisation through simple, non-concert wear.’ There were almost no props, save for Tito’s throne in front of the altar. The idea, according to Upperton, was to have ‘the music … speak for itself … any production ideas should clarify and not confuse, so our productions are aimed solely at enhancing the overall musical experience of our audiences.’ Assisted by Lynne McAdam, Upperton succeeded admirably in that respect.

That, of course, threw the musical performances into still greater relief. Save for a disappointing Sesto, the cast largely impressed. Upperton’s communication of the text was perhaps the clearest of all, though Lucy Goddard as Annio came close. Both carried well over the orchestra too, as did Nicola Ihnatowicz’s Vitellia, for me perhaps the star of the show. Ihnatowicz showed great dramatic presence, both visually and vocally, in what is by any standards a demanding role, not just technically but emotionally too. Andy Armistead made for an impressively deep-toned Publio, with Emma Dogliani shining as Servilia when the role permitted her to do so. Choral singing was impressively full-bodied throughout, an undoubted beneficiary of the St John’s, Waterloo acoustic. Perhaps that militated against orchestral clarity, and in any case there were passages when David Roblou (who also played the harpsichord continuo) might have imparted more tension and crispness to orchestral proceedings. Balanced against that, there was some fine playing to be heard, and any shortcomings were far from grievous. Richard Stockall's basset clarinet playing deserves especial mention. The orchestra propelled the drama as it should and again sounded properly full-bodied when called for. This was, then, as Upperton hoped, ‘something more than just a concert’.


Saturday, 22 November 2014

Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, Royal Academy Opera, 20 November 2014

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

Suor Angelica – Emily Garland
Suor Dolcina - Nika Goric
Monitress – Laura Zigmantaite
Suor Genovieffa – Eve Daniell
Suor Osmina – Kirsty Michele Anderson
Mistress of the Novices – Helen Brackenbury
Abbess – Katie Stevenson
Zia Principessa - Anna Harvey

Lauretta – Charlotte Schoeters
Nella – Eve Daniell
La Ciesca – Katherine Aitken
Zita – Laura Zigmantaite
Gherardo – Richard Dowling
Rinuccio – John Porter
Amantio di Nicolao – Dominic Bowe
Gianni Schicchi – Ed Ballard
Marco – Henry Neill
Betto – Alistair Ollerenshaw
Guccio – Jamie Wright
Maestro Spinelloccio – Timothy Murphy
Pinellino – Michael Mofidian
Simone – Lancelot Nomura
Gherardino – Harriet Eyley

Will Kerley (director)
Jason Southgate (designs)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Peter Robinson (conductor)

Two-thirds of Puccini’s triptych made for yet another excellent evening at the Royal Academy of Music. It may sound exaggerated to say that London’s conservatoire opera performances more often than not put its main houses to shame, but that does genuinely seem to be the case. Productions may be a more fraught issue, but when the vocal performances are superior, that says a great deal concerning both the quality of musicianship on offer at the Royal Academy and elsewhere, and also questionable casting decisions from the Royal Opera (Idomeneo fresh in the memory) and ENO.

Comparisons – from which she would have nothing whatsoever to fear – aside, Emily Garland’s Suor Angelica quite floored me: a startling mature performance. This is not the sort of repertoire one really expects to hear from singers so young; indeed, this was the first conservatoire performance I have attended of Puccini. But Garland’s voice was the real thing, her tragic plight involving one as only a fine vocal performance could. Puccini’s mix, especially here, of sadism and sentimentality can be hard to take, but we found ourselves here in expert hands. The supporting cast had not a weak link, and Anna Harvey’s elegantly-sung Zia Principessa made for a cruel foil indeed. My other doubt, a priori, would have concerned a small-ish orchestra, and there were occasions when, even in a small theatre, a few more strings would have helped. However, they were few and far between, and, if I have heard more symphonic Puccini, especially earlier on, than Peter Robinson’s, he was always attentive to the action. Moreover, the final scene’s emotional impact flowed as much from the tauntingly gorgeous orchestral sound as from Garland’s inspired performance. Will Kerley’s keenly-observed production makes excellent use of Jason Southgate’s resourceful set and of course an eager company of nuns; the musical drama, quite rightly, remains our focus, with little to distract us from its unfolding.

Gianni Schicchi emerged after the interval in gloriously garish colours – at least so far as the staging was concerned. I sensed a kinship, perhaps coincidental, with Richard Jones’s Covent Garden production, though the updating comes closer to our time, with Rinuccio cheekily capturing moments à la mode on his telephone camera. The liveliness of the direction, every character’s movements and reactions carefully attended to and utterly convincing, even in loving caricature, was matched by a string of fine vocal performances. Again, the cliché of not a weak link in the cast held triumphantly; moreover, there was a real sense, quite an achievement this, of a true ‘company performance’. Ed Ballard’s assumption of the title role was a joy, as alert to words as to music as to stage action: another singer here from whom we shall surely hear more. I doubt that anything will convince me that ‘O mio babbino caro’ is not an unfortunate mistake, a fly in the ointment, though doubtless a case can be made for a moment when the brilliance of Puccini’s scherzo stops. That said, Charlotte Schoeters sang it and the rest of her role beautifully, making a winning pair with John Porter’s ardent Rinuccio. When I say that it is difficult to disentangle the other performances, I mean nothing but praise by that; to attempt to do so would degenerate into a mere repetition of the cast list, and the whole was far more than the sum of the parts. Robinson and the orchestra were perhaps on finer form still, that glistening orchestral brilliance to which I alluded married to an unerring sense of dramatic direction. Congratulations to all concerned!

Friday, 21 November 2014

Idomeneo, Royal Opera, 19 November 2014

Royal Opera House
Idomeneo – Matthew Polenzani
Idamante – Franco Fagioli
Ilia – Sophie Bevan
Elettra – Malin Byström
Arbace – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
High Priest – Krystian Adam
Voice of Neptune – Graeme Broadbent
Martin Kušej (director)
Annette Murschetz (set designs)
Heide Kastler (costumes)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Leah Hausman (dramaturgy)
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Marc Minkowski (conductor)
Image: ROH/Catherine Ashmore

Poor Idomeneo! Katie Mitchell more or less destroyed this magnificent yet fragile opera when she staged it for ENO. Here, when the Royal Opera at last returned to it, the musical performances proved sadly lacking, from the top down – or, better, from the pit upwards. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House deserved much, much better; so of course did Mozart. Save for some bizarrely out-of-tune trumpets, the fault lay not with the players, who indeed seemed anxious to mitigate the worst of Marc Minkowski’s incompetence. When permitted to play, the strings sounded warm and variegated and the woodwind often beautiful indeed – if hardly what one would have expected under Sir Colin Davis. But Minkowski seemed concerned not only to hurl every ‘early musicke’ cliché in the would-be treatise at Mozart but also to withdraw it not very long later. And so, the Overture opened in all-too-predictably driven fashion before suddenly being pulled around in sub-Harnoncourt, even Rattle-like, fashion. The strings were left alone for a while then suddenly prevailed upon to withdraw vibrato, especially at the beginning of the second act, and still more grievously during the atrociously-conducted ballet music. It quickly became apparent that Minkowski had no sense whatsoever of harmonic rhythm; may God, Neptune, or Anyone Else preserve us from inflicting his jejune flailing around upon the symphonic Mozart. (Doubtless he already has; in which case, we should protect ourselves from having to hear it.) Whatever possessed Covent Garden to entrust this work to him? As for the nonsensical exhibitionism to be heard from the fortepianist...
Then there was the casting. Franco Fagioli’s Idamante offered some of the worst singing I have ever heard on this hallowed stage. If incomprehensible – in what language was he singing?! – out-of-tune squawking were your thing, you would have been fine; the rest of us were left wondering why on earth a female soprano, a mezzo, or a tenor had not been engaged. (That was not the only questionable textual decision to have been made.)  Malin Byström certainly seemed to possess dramatic conviction; it is a pity she showed herself more or less incapable of holding a musical line. I am all for ‘big’ voices in Mozart, but they should at the very least be able to sing in tune. Sophie Bevan offered some beautiful moments as Ilia, though she too proved surprisingly thick with her vibrato at times, especially during the first act. Matthew Polenzani was a decent enough Idomeneo when he didn’t confuse Mozart’s style with that of Puccini. (Listen to Francisco Araiza for an object lesson here.) Although a little wayward, Krystian Adam’s reading as the High Priest seemed dramatically justified in the context of the production. Stainslas de Barbeyrac’s Arbace generally impressed, although some strange vocal colourings left me wondering quite why so many had been singing his praises quite so ardently. Sadly, and much to my surprise, the chorus was too often all over the place – and not just in terms of where it was asked to stand. What is usually a great strength of Royal Opera productions proved decidedly ragged.
Martin Kušej’s staging, on the other hand, proved a more genuinely provocative experience, certainly superior to Mitchell’s in every respect. (That, I admit, would hardly have been an onerous challenge.) A certain sort of opera-goer disdains challenge and questioning, whether to himself or to the work. So much the worse for him – or her. There were irritants, including the well-nigh unforgivable inclusion of rain (visual and sounding) during the Overture and again later in the first act. But I really cannot imagine how anyone could reasonably object to an era ravaged by war looking like – well, an era ravaged by war. Likewise, surely anyone sentient would at least question claims of enlightened absolutism, even if some might think the militaristic regime of Idomeneo goes a little ‘too far’. (I certainly do not think so.) More fundamentally, though,  Kušej’s’s concept of an island in thrall to a manufactured cult of Neptune works very well – and genuinely has one think, should one be so inclined, about issues of individual and mass agency. If Idomeneo and, at the end, Idamante is not in control, then who is? How might the wrath of the crowd be harnessed, and by whom? How does our lot compare with theirs? If not so well thought-through as, say, Hans Neuenfels’s now-classic staging of Lohengrin, some of the same ‘experimental’ questions presented themselves. The stasis of the final ballet scenes – leaving aside Minkowski’s miserable effort – might initially seem perverse, and in some senses it is, but a series of tableaux presenting ‘where we are now’, and suggesting that it equates to ‘where we were before’ actually turns out to possess considerable dramatic power. A rethinking of some elements – even just that horrible rain – would strengthen an interesting production, which was apparently booed by the usual suspects on opening night. Alas, a far more desperate need would remain for a different conductor and cast – but that can and should be arranged.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Glare, Royal Opera, 18 November 2014

Alex (Amar Muchhala) and Lea (Sky Ingram)
Images: ROH/Stephen Cummiskey
Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Alex – Amar Muchhala
Lea – Sky Ingram
Christina – Clare Presland
Michael – Ashley Riches

Thaddeus Strassberger (director)
Madeleine Boyd (designs)
Matt Haskins (lighting)

Geoffrey Paterson (conductor)
Offerings at the Linbury have looked up greatly since Kasper Holten ditched the previous regime’s ROH2 experiment and reintegrated the studio theatre’s programming. That has not precluded visiting ensembles, such as Music Theatre Wales and English Touring Opera, from giving their shows there – and giving them very well indeed, when one thinks of, for instance, Greek and King Priam. But there has been a distinct improvement in the profile of the Royal Opera’s own stagings, last season’s brilliant Francesconi Quartett a case in point, and a newly commissioned work is always – well, almost always – to be welcomed in principle.
What, then, of Glare, a new opera by Søren Nils Eichberg and his librettist, Hannah Dübgen? It certainly does not reach such heights; nor does it seem really to aspire to them. But an enterprise with a commitment to contemporary music, indeed a commitment to broadening the repertoire and the terms of its presentation, needs to offer space to fail. Glare does not do that; this is no Miss Fortune, to recall an unfortunate new work from the ‘main’ stage, let alone ENO’s nadir of Two Boys. What is offered in about an hour and a quarter might seem like a superior version – it would not be difficult! – of the latter work’s genre, coming across more like a sung version of a television drama than an opera as we generally understand it. And frankly, it is difficult imagining many wanting to grant it repeated listenings, or viewings, the plot-driven nature of the piece seemingly being more the thing than we tend to expect. Yet, on those terms, should we accept them, it passes the time and even has one think a little.
Michael (Ashley Riches) and Lea
Glare, then, is clearly driven, or so it seems, by Dübgen’s libretto. It is not always brilliantly written and, frankly, shouts of ‘fuck!’ are not in the slightest bit ‘edgy’ in themselves. Put another way, this is no angry Steven Berkoff shout, thinking again of Greek; but then, nor is it trying to be. However, despite the banalities, whether of language or indeed of a story in which a man, Alex, meets a ‘perfect’ woman, only to discover, or so he thinks, that his supposed friend, the scientist Michael, has designed her as an android, one is prompted to think, if a little too obviously, of what it might mean to be human, of how we exist in relationship to one another. There are finer libretti, of course, but for every Hofmannsthal or Da Ponte, there are many – well, fill in the gaps at your leisure.
Where, for me, the opera is weaker is in the score. Again, I am sure that part of the claim will be that it is not trying to be desperately original or searching. Its derivative rather than positive eclecticism, its drum-kit-heavy orchestration – this is an urban tale, is, I assume the point – and above all its unremarkable vocal writing and lack of musical characterisation conspire to ensure that the opera never really takes off as it might. Just when the android – or is she? – Lea seems to hint at an Olympian (Tales of Hoffmann) sound-world or at least vocal line, she is cut short and normal service resumes; I am not convinced that that is a deliberate musico-dramatic strategy. Eichberg’s writing is, to be sure, competently written on its own terms, but it trails rather than mirrors, questions, or transcends the ‘thriller’ story – which again makes one unlikely to wish to hear the work again. Perhaps that is the point: a ‘disposable’ opera for disposable times; perhaps I am too wedded to the idea of a ‘repertoire’ to be expanded. Perhaps, but I shall need more convincing than this.
Opera is also of course about performance. And here the Royal Opera scored very highly. Geoffrey Paterson and the ever-excellent musicians of CHROMA seemed very much on top of the score: precise, colourful, rhythmically taut. One was left in little doubt that this was what we were supposed to be hearing. A cast of young, attractive – vocally and physically – singers invested their roles with much of the character that was lacking in the music. Amar Muchhala proved nicely equivocal as Alex: always a difficult thing, strongly to portray (relative) weakness. (Ask any Don Ottavio!) Sky Ingram engaged considerable sympathy as Lea, despite having tediously to observe that the noise-level was so many decibels and so on. (That is an indication of her robotic nature, in case you were wondering.) Ashley Riches convincingly moved from Mephistopheles to sadistic rapist as Michael, his rich bass voice dramatically as well as musically convincing. He also proved a dab hand at pool, not least whilst singing. Clare Presland as Christina, Alex’s former girlfriend, appeared, again vocally as much as visually, properly bewitched by Lea, hinting at a greater humanity on both their parts.
Lea and Christina (Clare Presland)
Thaddeus Strassberger’s staging provides an effective enough frame for the opera to play itself out. It is difficult, indeed impossible, in such situations to know how much is his doing and how much the librettist’s; wherever the responsibility lies, Alex’s falling down upon his bed is perhaps overdone, especially when he masturbates during his sleep. The realism of the æsthetic seemingly militates against a reading that he is imagining Lea and Christina becoming better acquainted with each other, though perhaps that is the point. Perhaps, though, the lack of ambition, the ordinariness of a science-fiction conceit, is again part of the point.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Liszt, the keyboard and posterity

The following arises from a lecture given in Bergen op Zoom as part of a three-day symposium, ‘Liszt meets Ibach’. I was asked to give a general overview of the significance of Liszt’s keyboard music to complement the more specialised masterclasses, performances, and lectures.
In considering the significance of Liszt’s keyboard music, one can and should consider its significance both as keyboard music and more broadly in general musical terms, bearing in mind that, although Liszt often expressed himself best through his own instrument(s), he was not narrowly a ‘keyboard composer’, nor even a ‘piano composer’. That is not to say that I intend perversely to spend most of my time speaking about his symphonic poems, wonderful and neglected though many of them might be. (Even there, I might add, there would be a good deal to say with respect to the organ, not least in terms of Orpheus, transcribed in 1860 by Alexander Gottschalg, court organist in Weimar, but crucially – and in this, Liszt’s practice has something in common with his essay writing, early versions sometimes being penned by others – then carefully revised by the composer himself.)

Let us start in earnest nevertheless with some of Liszt’s extraordinary achievements in terms of keyboard technique and ambition.  First and perhaps foremost, we have Liszt as the quintessential piano virtuoso. Just as we immediately think of Paganini as the exemplar of the type for the violin, however much the technical difficulties of his music may since have been superseded, so we do for Liszt and the piano – and more broadly, perhaps, the keyboard family. (It is less clear, by the way, that all of the technical difficulties of Liszt’s music have been superseded, even though an unhealthy number of musicians now seem able to toss off, say, the B minor Sonata, the Transcendental Studies, or indeed the organ Fantasy and Fugue on the Chorale, ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam.’)
There is, as Dana Gooley has pointed out, in his book, The Virtuoso Liszt, something of the magician to the virtuoso. He writes, ‘Virtuosity is about shifting borders. The musician, the athlete, and the magician are potentially virtuosos as soon as they cross a limit – the limit of what seems possible, or what the spectator can imagine.’ Of course, then, ‘Once this act of transgression is complete, the border shifts, and the boundaries of the possible are redrawn.’ However, as Gooley also points out, there is a considerable difference between the ‘clichés of the professional magician – mere craft,’ and what she describes as a ‘truly surpassing virtuoso,’ whether of the magical or musical variety. ‘To be a truly surpassing virtuoso,’ he writes, our artist ‘must have his own tricks,’ and I shall add in passing that the ‘his’ is indicative of a notably gendered role here too, ‘inventing new impossibilities to be transcended, for these are the only impossibilities that will any longer seem truly impossible’. Liszt then, as Gooley summarises, ‘remains the quintessential virtuoso because he was constantly and insistently mobilising, destabilising, and reconstituting borders. … None of his protégés and imitators … came even close to him in extending the virtuoso’s relevance qualitatively – beyond the sphere of music and into the social environments he entered.’
To be a virtuoso pianist or indeed to be a virtuoso upon any musical instrument during the nineteenth century was also to be a composer. There still exist musicians who ‘do both’ and indeed who do various other things too, though many of you will be aware of the distrust with which some instrumentalists, perhaps especially pianists, meet when they take up conducting. (To digress briefly just for a moment, that seems to have been the reason Maurizio Pollini cut short his conducting career, and even Daniel Barenboim took a long time indeed properly to be accepted as a conductor, nevertheless gaining reassurance from Arthur Rubinstein, very much an old-school pianist, who rightly encouraged him. Such, in any case is a modern division of musical labour which would have astonished Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Bartók, and many others, as well as a host of ‘lesser’ names and, of course, audiences.) So Liszt, in terms simply of being a composer, was not different from his ‘rivals’ – and I think I use the term advisedly, ‘competition’ being very much an issue in the world of the nineteenth-century virtuoso.
Where Liszt differed them ‘competitors’ such as the Swiss pianist, Sigismond Thalberg was, of course, his greatness as a composer and the ultimate seriousness, despite the magical side of things, with which he approached and understood his social role – especially as time went on, but the distinction may be observed all along, if not necessarily entirely without exceptions. The celebrated ‘duel’ between Liszt and Thalberg fought itself out both on stage and in the Parisian press, following Liszt’s arrival in the city in 1836. Parisians have always enjoyed an artistic controversy, whether between Gluckists and Piccininists or Thalbergians and Lisztians. Liszt’s programmes were of course not free of display, far from it, but they were eminently more ‘serious’ – in a sense even Wagner would have appreciated – than Thalberg’s; for instance, he gave what may have been the first (semi-public) performance of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata in the city. Berlioz sang his praises, writing of Liszt, and foretelling future talk of the ‘music of the future’ of their so-called New German School, as ‘the pianist of the future’, who, in his performance of that technically but above all musically challenging work had shown highly commendable fidelity to the score – a sign again of seriousness – whose difficulties recalled ‘the riddle of the Sphinx’. Liszt had made ‘comprehensible a work not yet comprehended,’ not through interventionism but quite the contrary: ‘Not a note was left out, not one added … no inflection was effaced, no change of tempo permitted.’ I have my doubts that our modern-day apostles of ‘authenticity’ would agree – and in any case, so much the worse for them – but Berlioz’s words and message rankled with Thalberg’s supporters, and the situation became more explosive when Liszt himself reviewed Thalberg, whose music he found frankly worthless, for the Revue musicale.  The celebrated duel, in a princess’s salon, as the climax – I am honestly not making this up! – of a three-day charity bazaar, fetched prices of 40 francs a ticket. As pianism, both musicians acquitted themselves finely; it was certainly not the decisive Lisztian victory that many early biographers claimed it. But it was equally acknowledged that there was far more to Liszt than being simply a piano virtuoso; even the hostess, Princess Belgiojoso, commented: ‘Thalberg is the first pianist in the world –Liszt is unique.’
How, then, did Liszt go on to show himself ‘unique’, as a pianist-composer? Essentially by out-‘virtuosoing’, as it were, the virtuosi, albeit through musical, compositional as much as musical, performative means. (However, it must be said that defeating them on their own territory was a necessary part, though only part, of the plan, whether conceived as such or not.) The following years, roughly 1839-47, have often been termed by writers on Liszt, his ‘years of transcendental execution’. His rate of performance was quite extraordinary, utterly unlike anything that had come before or indeed since; travelling from Britain to Turkey, from Russia to Portugal, he was often giving three or four concerts a week. He was also to all intents and purposes the inventor of the modern piano recital, giving entire programmes from memory, playing the whole repertoire – at least as it existed and was understood then, and, also as enlarged by him – from Bach to Chopin. In the words of Alan Walker, the author of a splendid modern three-volume biography of Liszt, ‘Whatever else the world may debate about his life and work, one thing is generally conceded: Liszt was the first modern pianist. The technical “breakthrough” he achieved … was without precedent in the history of the piano.’ Indeed, as Walker goes on, ‘All subsequent schools’ – and, I should add, perhaps the very idea of schools of piano playing in a modern sense – ‘were branches of his tree. Rubinstein, Busoni, Paderewski, Godowsky, and Rachmaninoff – all those pianists who together formed what historians later dubbed “the golden age of piano playing” – would be unthinkable without Liszt.’ And crucially for us, that is as much through his composition as through his admittedly unparalleled virtuoso career, which was actually surprisingly short.
To become a little more technical – in performing rather than analytical terms – Liszt seems both to have invented and to have solved a good number of keyboard problems. Despite attempts, some of them doubtless interesting and valuable, to resurrect older methods of keyboard playing – organists amongst you will not need to be told about French Baroque fingering and so forth – for the most part, modern keyboard performance and modern keyboard composition can helpfully be understood in a post-Lisztian manner. That is not to say that everything comes directly from him, but a great deal comes from him either directly or indirectly through his successors and theirs. To quote Walker again, in an invaluable chapter from that biography, entitled ‘Liszt and the Keyboard’, ‘Liszt’s influence … had to do with his unique ability to solve technical problems. Liszt is to piano playing what Euclid is to geometry. Pianists turn to his music in order to discover the natural laws governing the keyboard.’ I am a little wary of speaking about natural laws; such matters are surely more constructed, but if we replace the ‘natural’ with a more historical understanding, then there is surely little to argue with there. Although he would later turn to the orchestra and indeed would enter court service at Weimar largely with the idea in mind that he would have an orchestra there at his disposal, as a new ‘instrument’ almost on which to experiment, for these earlier years and indeed beyond, he was resolved in often quite systematic fashion to explore the capabilities of his first and most beloved instrument.
Fingering, then, is always well worth studying in his music – and, when one can, in his editions of other composer’s music. They exist of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, and other composers – and one sees in them the essential truth of Berlioz’s claim regarding fidelity. Liszt’s editorial practice is not ours, but he is at all times clearly concerned to bring out what he regards as the truth of the work, certainly not to impose anything external upon it – just as, for instance, Wagner was concerned to divine what he called the melos of a work he conducted, whether his own, Beethoven’s, or someone else’s. But to return to fingering: Liszt practised every scale with the fingering of every other scale, so as to achieve the utmost independence of every finger. As Walker puts it, a central truth concerning Liszt’s technique was, however, that ultimately ‘he did not conceive of a pianist’s hands as consisting of two parts of five fingers each, but as one unit of ten fingers’. Interchangeability and interlocking of fingers were important goals – and achievements. Let us, then, listen to ‘La campanella’, the third of his Six Grandes études de Paganini, written in 1838 and revised in 1851. The chromatic scales interspersed between the hands in a sense took Paganini as an initial inspiration yet went far beyond him, and not only on account of the greater capabilities of Liszt’s own instrument. Likewise the persistent leaps across the keyboard and the notorious repeated notes, reimagining the violin in pianistic terms and ultimately having one forget the original.

It was in the Paganini and the Transcendental Etudes that that technical foundation for modern pianism was laid. And they remain, like Chopin’s essays in the genre, so much more than mere ‘studies’, despite Liszt’s dedication of the latter to his sometimes teacher, Carl Czerny, ‘in gratitude and respectful friendship’. However, he extended his distinction from the ‘mere’ virtuosi by putting his discoveries in such works, admittedly as much musical as technical even there, to more overtly ‘poetic’ and even ‘absolute’ – in the dubious sense of ‘absolute music’ – ends.
The whole issue of ‘programme music’ has, as Carl Dahlhaus noted some time ago, been clouded by unhelpful debates concerning superiority and inferiority, which date back to the dawning of the very notion and its opposite, Wagner’s derogatory coinage of ‘absolute music’, later reclaimed by Eduard Hanslick’s school as a badge of honour. We need not trouble ourselves too much, or indeed at all, by such issues; we can surely now appreciate Liszt and Brahms. But Liszt’s exploration of the keyboard, and especially the piano, as a poetic instrument, as a way of expanding music’s Romantic connections with other art-forms such as literature, painting, and architecture, as well as the natural world, is deserving of our attention in itself. An especially celebrated example of such expression and connection is the three-volume collection of pieces, Années de pèlerinage. Poetic, natural, literary, visual artistic varieties of inspiration are palpable in far more than the individual titles – as indeed is the composer’s love of travel. ‘Au Bord d’un source’ from the first, Swiss book sounds, inevitably for us, to look forward beyond his own late Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este to the water-inspired music of Ravel, and indeed the music of Ravel and Debussy – call it impressionism, or whatever we like – is inconceivable without that of Liszt. The water music of all three is, moreover, quite inconceivable without the technical advances Liszt had made during this time, and arguably without his poetic imagination too. Let us now listen to ‘Au Bord d’un source,’ whose leaps and hand crossings owe so much to his studies and yet which now seem more rarefied in their æsthetic.

Such explorations also laid the seeds for many of Liszt’s later orchestral explorations too, especially with respect to his symphonic poems, a form of his own invention. Wagner, who was certainly not wont to extol the music of any of his contemporaries, let alone to do so unduly, went so far as to posit them as an intermediary stage between Beethoven’s symphonies and his own music dramas, to a certain extent in defiance of the chronology. Liszt’s poetically-inspired motivic transformation – a technique that would have implications beyond, for Schoenberg and indeed even later serialism – was here being presented as a crucial step in the ability of the orchestra to depict, to represent, to comment, even to think and certainly to have us think. Wagner elsewhere – it is worth noting in passing that he was certainly no great pianist – noted that Liszt’s move away from the purely instrumental was a sign of progress, shunning what he, Wagner, that is, understood to be, the desire of the purely instrumental musician to divorce himself from the community and to make music alone. ‘Truly,’ Wagner wrote in his Opera and Drama, ‘the entirety of our modern art resembles the keyboard: in it, each individual component carries out the work of a mutuality, but, unfortunately, in abstracto and with utter lack of tone. Hammers – but no men!’ It was no accident, Wagner then commented in a footnote, that Liszt, the miracle worker of the piano, was now turning his attentions to the orchestra, and thereby, to the human voice. Whatever we think of that, we know, as indeed did Wagner, that Liszt had only been enabled to paint on a grander canvas by virtue of his explorations of the piano – for which he in any case would of course continue to write until the end of his life.
We should also remember the formal achievement of a work such as the B minor Sonata. (I am using it as an exemplar rather than as a sole case.) Many of Liszt’s piano works, let alone his others, are terribly neglected; one cannot make the claim of this sonata. But that perhaps offers a different danger, of coming off poorly in the wrong sort of performance. What it should not sound like – and I realise I am being prescriptive here, but Liszt often needs help – is a celebration of that ‘mere’ virtuosity Liszt first disdained and then vanquished. Of course it requires virtuosic, almost transcendental, technique, but that, as Liszt realised, is only a starting point: a way to beat the mere virtuosi at their own game. After that, and above all, stand the musical challenges. Analysis of this score can operate upon so many levels that it is difficult to know where to begin, but only briefly to consider its formal ingenuity and the dramatic issues that presents is to realise the scale of the achievement – and of the challenge. The Introduction will initially baffle; in what key do we find ourselves; what are those mysterious scales? Yet it prepares the way with well-nigh Schoenbergian economy for the thematic material of so much that is to come, much of it undergoing that thematic transformation in which Liszt’s pianistic and orchestral explorations came to influence one another.  One commentator even went so far as to suggest a ‘programme’ of ‘the transformation of Man brought about through Christ. Let us listen to the very opening of the sonata, so full of potentiality, from which the very tonality of the work itself evolves:

Drawing upon Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann, Liszt goes at least as far as anyone before Schoenberg (I think especially of the First Chamber Symphony, op.9) in synthesising and radicalising the relationship between individual sonata ‘movements’, if indeed they may now be thought of as such, and the form of the whole. Within what must in some respects at least be considered a single movement, we also hear the traditional four, and that is before we even begin to consider issues such as the false dawn of a recapitulation denied, or rather deferred. A similar path is taken in the piano concertos, amongst other works, but here the tightness of construction and singularity of purpose are, if anything, still greater. And what does it all mean? Should it be considered in extra-musical terms? Faustian? Christian? Both possibilities, and indeed others, have been suggested. Then again, do we perhaps pay Liszt a disservice by stressing potential or even real extra-musical associations? Are we again implying a certain lack of ‘absolute’ compositional rigour? As I mentioned a little earlier, æsthetic debates about the superiority or otherwise of ‘absolute music’ take us nowhere, just as they did at the time, yet at times we seem destined to replay them. Might Liszt now actually offer us a way out? A work such as this shows us that we can appreciate its stature with or without a ‘programme’, perhaps with equally satisfactory results.
Liszt was also, of course, a great populariser of, advocate for, and arguably commentator on other music, not just as a performer but also as a transcriber. His sympathies ranged widely both as a performer and, more crucially for our purposes, as a transcriber. The operatic fantasies, for instance, should not be considered with a broad brush. There is a world of difference between the virtuoso antics – perhaps he comes closer, though still only closer, to the ‘mere’ virtuoso here – of some of the early French and Italian paraphrases and the more earnest, musically rewarding, work on Wagner’s behalf. The astonishing dramatic re-imagination of Mozart in the Réminiscences de Don Juan is another thing again: though highly virtuosic in its demands, this ‘grandest of the Liszt paraphrases’, to quote Charles Suttoni, remains ‘virtually free of virtuosity for its own sake’. The principal interest today of a work such as his 1829 Grande fantaisie sur la Tyrolienne de l’opéra “La Fiancée”, that is a grand fantasy from Auber’s now-forgotten opera, would for most be the ways in which, to quote Alan Walker, ‘the opening pages, black with hemidemisemiquavers, confirm that tendency towards extreme virtuosity,’ thus leading towards the ‘transcendental’ technical breakthroughs of the 1830s. There he was perhaps exploiting Auber’s frankly rather slight music to other ends, though there is no reason to doubt Liszt’s genuine interest, at least at this stage in his life and career, in the world of the opera as it existed rather than as Wagner would later wish to reform it.  Brahms, as distant from a fervent Lisztian as any sensible man could be, admired greatly what he described as ‘the true classicism of the piano’ present in such fantasies and paraphrases. However, that is a very different world, both in source and in fantasy, from what Liszt would describe as ‘modest propaganda on the inadequate piano for the sublime genius of Wagner.’
Transcriptions for the organ tended to be more along such lines too, and, as with the piano, lines would often be blurred between transcription and ‘original’ composition, a piece such as the Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine, based on Allegri’s Miserere and Mozart’s Ave verum corpus, providing both, first in its piano version and then later in its organ version.

Liszt’s final piece of such ‘propaganda’ would be based on music from Parsifal. Let us hear the Solemn March to the Holy Grail, as distant from grandstanding as possible.

Another way in which Liszt’s super-virtuosity was arguably able to defeat ‘mere’ virtuosity lay in his increasing inclination also to write musically fascinating yet technically quite simple music. No one could accuse him of writing in such a manner out of any technical inability, but older age perhaps brought a greater willingness to distil to essentials, although certainly not to eschew experimentation. Such experimentation would, however, often be of a harmonic or other ‘musical’ variety; after all, the composer seemed pretty much to have conquered the piano. In some of the extraordinary pieces of his old age, he approached and even achieved the abandonment, or perhaps better, suspension, of tonality. Not for nothing did composers such as Schoenberg, Bartók, and Debussy revere him. In a 1911 tribute, so after he had made his own break with tonality in the 1908 Second String Quartet, Schoenberg lauded Liszt for his ‘fanatical faith’. ‘Normal men,’ he wrote, ‘possess a conviction,’ whereas ‘the great man is possessed by a faith’. Schoenberg praised Liszt for the degree to which there was much that was ‘truly new musically’ in his work, ‘discovered by genuine intuition. Was he not after all,’ Schoenberg asked, ‘one of those who started the battle against tonality, both through themes which point to no absolutely definite tonal centre, and through many harmonic details whose musical exploitation has been looked after by his successors?’ In a sense, Schoenberg suspected, the consequences might prove to be even greater than Wagner’s, since Wagner had ‘provided a work too perfect for anyone coming later to be able to add anything to it.’ Busoni, who when he re-examined his work, his piano technique included, turned to Liszt, thought similarly on both accounts. Pierre Boulez programmed no fewer than five works by Liszt in his first season at the New York Philharmonic, the 1971 opening concert featuring Totentanz, with Jorge Bolet as soloist, the second introducing Malédiction, and the third given over entirely to Die Legende von der Heiligen Elisabeth.
Introversion, desperation, bitterness, and death were the hallmarks of Liszt’s late piano pieces, whether explicitly elegies – for instance, for Wagner and for Seven Hungarian Historical Portraits – or not. Chords constructed on fourths and sevenths, augmented chords, the so-called ‘Gypsy’ scale we heard at the beginning of the B minor Sonata, biting clashes between major and minor scales and intervals: such devices and more are very much part of what may perhaps rest as the ultimate ‘late’ experimentalism. A Bagatelle without Tonality from 1885, the year before Liszt’s death, made explicit what Liszt considered the future to be. The grey clouds of Nuages gris, written in 1881, proved especially interesting to Debussy and even to Stravinsky. Its harmonies appear not so much to have rejected as to have drifted away from tonality.

And so, as Liszt looked forward in his spoken utterances, even if he did not yet use them, to quarter-tones and to something approaching twelve-note music, being preoccupied with the idea of a twelve-note chord from which composition would subtract notes, he saw his late mission, as he told Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, as being to ‘hurl my lance into the boundless realms of the future’. He even went so far as to discourage his pupils from performing his late music, lest they damage their careers by doing so – a considerable extension of the idea of Beethoven’s writing for posterity in his late quartets. This truly was ‘music of the future’, by the erstwhile ‘pianist of the future’. Liszt is, I think, the greatest musical avant-gardist of the nineteenth century, perhaps the greatest before Webern or Boulez. Wagner might often be thought of as such, and, to be fair, he has a very important claim, but Liszt probably pips him to the post. (The relationship between Wagner and Liszt is in any case endlessly fascinating and endlessly complex.) Schoenberg might often popularly be thought of as such, but there is such a strong current of traditionalism to his thought and indeed to his practice – not for nothing did he write the celebrated lecture, ‘Brahms the Progressive’ – that the picture is far more mixed and subject to qualification in his case. Liszt, on the other hand, could write: I calmly persist in staying stubbornly in my corner, and just work at becoming more and more misunderstood.’
He had perhaps come a long way since his virtuoso years, but as I have tried to argue, it was those years and their triumphs that enabled the future triumph – perhaps still lying in our future – of his later works. Still suffering from hostility towards his virtuosity as a pianist – ‘how could he also be a great composer?’ – and from hostility and indifference towards his avant-gardism as a composer, Liszt remains a cause for which we need to fight. Understanding a little more clearly and deeply the relationship between those two crucial strands, virtuosity and avant-gardism, might just help.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Takács Quartet - Beethoven and Mozart, 9 November 2014

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven – String Quartet no.13 in B-flat major, op.130
Mozart – String Quintet no.4 in G minor, KV 516

Eduard Dusinberre, Károly Schranz (violin)
Geraldine Walther, Louise Williams (viola)
András Fejér (cello)

Two towering masterpieces were given here in fine performances: not, perhaps, performances that in themselves struck me as revelatory in the sense of proposing a new way of considering the work, but performances which seemed, almost unassumingly, to permit those works to speak for themselves. Coming not much more than a couple of hours after having heard Renaud Capuçon in Beethoven, the Takács Quartet seemed less concerned to ravish, to draw one in through beauty of tone, which is not to say that Capuçon was only or even primarily concerned with that. Nevertheless, the difference in approach, or at least in results, could not help but register.

Beethoven’s op.130 Quartet opened with a broad introduction to its first movement, an introduction which nevertheless certainly moved: pretty much Adagio, ma non troppo, then. The Allegro announced itself both in terms of continuity and discontinuity, that dialectic of course being a constant preoccupation in late Beethoven, a riddle for performers and listeners eternally to reckon with. Interaction, indeed contest, between different types of material – including its emotional content and expression – was relished as difficulty; there are no easy answers here. (Having said that, I did wonder whether a little more of the sheer struggle might have been communicated in performance.) Homophonic and contrapuntal textures offered especially prominent contrast. Shards of serenity vied with exultation in music that is every bit as difficult as Schoenberg or Bartók, arguably more so. A mercurial release of pent-up energy characterised the ensuing Presto, discontinuities again disconcerting. The players made clear that the third movement is not to be understood as a conventional ‘slow movement’, whether in tempo or, at least as important, in its provisional, nervous character. Almost, perhaps an intermezzo, it remained too complex for that. A grace that could not paper over the cracks characterised the Alla danza tedesca movement, that inability to conceal rendering it all the more poignant – or at least differently poignant than Mozart. Febrile elegance and fluid elaboration brought us to the very identity of Beethoven’s material and what he accomplishes with it.

An unhurried, unassuming dignity marked out the Cavatina. We knew we were on holy ground, without having to be informed of it; crucially, we were made to listen, to think. It is a platitude, but probably one worth repeating, what a different work this becomes with the Grosse Fuge. Here we heard Beethoven’s ‘other’ finale, in which, to start with at least, he seemed to be returning to, or rather reinventing, Haydn. There was, of course, no lack of rigour, either in work or performance, but the character was quite different (if only because, most recently, I seem to have heard the Grosse Fuge rather than this movement. Again, there were no easy answers; indeed, the necessary struggle, not unlike such struggles one experiences in Birtwistle’s music, to find the guiding thread, penetrated right to the heart of Beethoven’s and our experience.

If anything, I found the Takács players’ tone more suited to Mozart (rather to my surprise, given their long experience in Beethoven, and in any case it is a matter of degree). The first movement began, suggestive of the great G minor Symphony to come, in medias res. Sonata form in Mozart’s hands seemed to reinvent itself, not least in terms of operatic example. Motivic working proved just as crucial to experience and understanding as in Beethoven, but the lyrico-dramatic context was quite different, and so it sounded. Mozart’s noble tragedy unfolded, again, as if being permitted to speak ‘for itself’. The terse, tragic impulse heard in the Minuet seemed even to look forward to Mahler’s Sixth Symphony and its scherzo (at least when that movement is placed second). Mozart sang here as if delivering an Orphic lament. The trio seemed less a contrast than a necessary consequence, the ‘relief’ of the major mode notwithstanding. Truer relief came in the slow movement; despite the mutes, this was an intense ‘relief’ worthy of the name, with its own quasi-operatic drama. As throughout, the richness of the inner parts truly told. (How Mozart clearly loved the viola!) The opening Adagio section to the finale was suffused with longing, reminding us just how close Mozart is here, and not just here, to Tristan und Isolde. He was thereby enable to surprise us, however much we expected it, with the major mode. Fragile good spirits had us – just about – believe in a possibility or at the very least variety of reconciliation that would no longer be open to Beethoven.