Sunday, 27 April 2008

Berg and Mahler, Zimmermann/Philharmonia/Dohnányi, 27 April 2008

Royal Festival Hall

(Christoph von Dohnányi’s final concert as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra)

Berg – Violin Concerto
Mahler – Symphony no.1 in D major

Frank Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor)

I have for some time admired Frank Peter Zimmermann as one of the most musical – in every sense – violinists of his generation. Having recently heard his relatively new recording of the Busoni Violin Concerto and Violin Sonata no.2 – very fine indeed – I was eager to hear him in the Berg concerto, not least since I had just missed hearing him perform it earlier in the season in Berlin with Bernard Haitink. I was not disappointed. I noticed something upon which I had remarked on hearing Zimmermann perform the Beethoven concerto with the LSO, again under Haitink, namely, that a work whose ‘concerto’ elements can often be lost suddenly had them found, albeit with no loss whatsoever to the ‘symphonic’ thread. The sense of give and take, including a supremely natural rubato, with the orchestra was faultless, which of course does great credit to the Philharmonia and Christoph von Dohnányi too. Early on, the work’s triple-time rhythms evinced a veritably post-Mahlerian swing, tossed between soloist and orchestra, and often shared.

For sometimes Zimmermann was first among equals, not least in an exquisite duet during the third movement with the principal viola; but he could equally be the Romantic soloist, standing in opposition to the orchestra. The supreme versatility of Berg’s twelve-note technique is demonstrated by the fact that it invites or rather demands both approaches, necessitating both horizontal and vertical understanding of the score. Technically Zimmermann’s account was flawless. The combination of double-stopping and pizzicato held no fears for him, although there was nothing showy about his application. His sweetness of tone and expressive vibrato were beautiful indeed, the latter especially notable – and rapid – upon the violin part’s long, held final note. It sounded, if this be possible, as if it were spun from silver. The clarity Dohnányi brought to the orchestral part was rare indeed, although I should make clear that this entailed no loss of tonal warmth. Indeed, the Philharmonia sounded so much better in every respect than when I had last heard it (in January, under Vladimir Ashkenazy), that it was difficult to believe that it was the same orchestra. If string tone has often been considered the Achilles heel of London orchestras, it certainly was not on this occasion, when we were treated to a sound that was thoroughly central European. Moreover, the woodwind statement of the harmonised Bach chorale was, quite simply, perfect in its organ-like blend. The chorale, needless to say, truly grew out of what had gone before, a further tribute to Berg’s technique, and to the players’ application thereof. And the concerto ended with a truly redemptive halo, as distant from tonal saccharine as one could imagine, yet not fearing to make the attempt to reconcile.

Dohnányi’s skill as an orchestral trainer, of which members of the orchestra spoke in a programme article, was once again displayed to great advantage in Mahler’s First Symphony. That the Philharmonia again sounded thoroughly mitteleuropäisch is testament enough to his influence and to the recounted scrupulousness of his rehearsal technique. For in the concert itself, this sounded like the most natural thing in the world, not in any sense appliqué. Likewise the celebrated – notorious? – harmonics of the symphony’s opening bars: as warm of tone as they were secure of pitch. The sound from beyond of responding brass brought an apt sense of Freischütz magic, which continued into the material from Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. It was enjoyable too, with a thoroughly idiomatic Schwung. There were baleful moments too, of course, including the sounding of a splendidly ghost-like harp and the horns’ intimations of the horrors of the final movement. However – and this was a supreme characteristic of the performance as a whole – the mood of the moment never detracted from a greater sense of line; instead, the two dialectically enhanced one another.

The second movement was a Ländler from the outset. Cellos and double basses really dug into their strings, complemented by impeccably rustic woodwind. There were also some finely-judged portamenti. In the busy nature of its counterpoint – crystal-clear yet tonally refulgent – there were intimations of the Fifth Symphony, and the horn’s transition to the trio briefly suggested the Seventh’s Nachtmusik. There could be no doubt that Dohnányi knew the Mahlerian corpus, although my Lob des hohen Verstandes should not be taken to imply pedantic reference (at least on his part). Careful control over dynamic contrasts presented a myriad of colours, distinct from each other yet nevertheless related. Delightful hints of Schubert dances surfaced. The movement reached its climax with a splendid antiphonal exchange between horns and trumpets, another occasion taken for the Philharmonia’s brass to excel. After this, the opening of the third movement was eerie indeed. Solo double bass and kettledrum were spot on with their contributions, as indeed would be every canonical entrant. The inexorable build up of tension was very well managed here by Dohnányi. Interludes were evocative yet always integrated into the greater whole, especially the lovely yet haunting passage referring again to the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen. There was a wonderful sense of ominous transformation when the Bruder Martin theme returned in a different key.

And then, Hell broke loose, all the more effectively for the rounded rather than hysterical sound of the orchestral tutti. The music was allowed to speak for itself, and speak for itself it did. There were, thankfully, no podium theatrics from the conductor; this is a symphony, not a ballet. Even the stereophonic kettledrums provided more of an aural than a visual feast. The D-flat major episode brought some heart-rending, indeed heart-stopping Sehnsucht, making the return of Hell all the more terrifying, if short-lived. Thereafter the instability of the to-ing and fro-ing between the F minor material of the opening and the destination tonality of D major was marvellously handled, perfectly aware of the tonal opposition and therefore resisting needless italicisation. When the horns finally did scream, leading us into D major proper and soon therefore resuming their earlier nobility, they were all the more powerful for not previously having shot their bolt. There was an apt sense of exhausted heaviness in the lead up to the final triumph, which thereby sounded all the more exultant – and hair-raising. To accomplish this, the climax needs to have been judged musically rather than emotionally, or rather the two should be coterminous. Here they were. At this stage, the minor theatrics of the eight horns standing – with good historical warrant, mind you – were justified, for this conclusion had been musically prepared. And so came to a fitting conclusion what was certainly the best concert performance of Mahler’s First Symphony I have heard: ‘objective’ in some senses perhaps, but all the stronger for it. So came to an equally fitting conclusion Dohnányi’s tenure as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia, although he will return in the autumn as Honorary Conductor for Life.

Friday, 25 April 2008

The Minotaur, Royal Opera, 25 April 2008

Royal Opera House

Ariadne - Christine Rice
First Innocent - Rebecca Bottone
Second Innocent - Pumeza Matshikiza
Third Innocent - Wendy Dawn Thompson
Fourth Innocent - Christopher Ainslie
Fifth Innocent - Tim Mead
Theseus - Johan Reuter
The Minotaur - Sir John Tomlinson
Ker - Amanda Echalaz
Snake Priestess - Andrew Watts
Hiereus - Philip Langridge

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Renata Balsadonna (chorus-master and second conductor)
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Stephen Langridge (director)
Alison Chitty (designs)
Paul Pyant (lighting)
Philippe Giraudeau (choreographer)
Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer (video designs)

This was the fourth performance of The Minotaur. Only two performances remain , comprising a rather short run. Let us hope that this presages a swift revival, for the work and production certainly deserve it.

One should be very careful about voicing reservations after a single hearing; perhaps one should know better than even to make the attempt. However, I shall venture my single, tentative reservation at the outset, to get it over with. I wondered whether the opening, essentially the music up until the second toccata, was a little longer than it might have been. It may, of course, be that Sir Harrison Birtwistle will revise the work; such was his practice with Gawain. I felt that the drama was a touch slow-burning to begin with, although once it hit its stride, there really was no turning back. This seemed reflected in the performances, although again this was a matter of degree.

That said, this is, unsurprisingly, a fine score indeed, another instance of Birtwistle's genius in evoking the ancient world in all its complexity, in all its danger, in all its strangeness. It also sounded, again unsurprisingly for those who have followed his career, very English, at least in places. I do not of course mean this in the debased sense of the 'pastoral', which has been taken by some reactionaries to define Englishness. This is something more viscerally melancholic - if the combination makes sense - and more willing to treat English tradition, old and new, as part of Europe rather than cling to sentimental island-based canards. There was violence, not least in the terrific music of the Keres - wonderfully portrayed by a host of actresses - but there was tenderness too, and the presence of both intensified rather than detracted from the opposing tendencies. There was also a very strong sense of linear narrative, suggestive of Ariadne's thread, which might surprise those more cognisant of Birtwistle's earlier work. It was more marked, I thought, even than in Gawain, which presented something of a watershed in that respect. Perhaps the resistance to Beethovenian goal-orientation that has characterised so much of Birtwistle's oeuvre is lessening, in response to new challenges, perhaps partly born of his increasing fascination for Wagner. Some of the trademark Birtwistle sounds were there - the cimbalom reminiscent of his beloved Stravinsky and of Gawain, and the soaring alto saxophone, shadowing and perhaps inciting Ariadne - but there was nothing reheated about the orchestration. Instead, there was an abiding, oppressive force of Fate, utterly suited to the subject matter, and quite different from the relative optimism of The Io Passion. A characteristic attentiveness to the sounds and meanings of words, and carefully chosen - and thus extremely effective and affective - melismata were as noteworthy as in other Birtwistle vocal works.

The production seemed to me to serve the work very well indeed. I was perhaps slightly surprised by the straightforwardness of the tale's retelling, but then this was not The Mask of Orpheus. Stephen Langridge had clearly taken great care with his Personenregie, and this paid off handsomely. There was not one aspect of this with which I could find fault, even if so inclined. Alison Chitty's designs seemed perfect for the task: never intent on drawing attention to themselves, but clearly worked out in a commendably collaborative process with composer, librettist, and director - which is as it should be. The clutter that has characterised certain productions was banished from one's grateful imagination, leaving it to deal with the suggestive but never unduly spare staging Langridge, Chitty, and their other collaborators presented.

Birtwistle and Langridge were fortunate in their performers. The orchestra revelled in his taxing yet alluring score, as did Antonio Pappano, in what seemed to me perhaps the most impressive performance I have heard from his baton at Covent Garden. There were perhaps moments when I felt he held back the orchestra a little much in favour of the singers, but it is not difficult to appreciate why. The chorus handled Birtwistle's music and David Harsent's splendid words with aplomb, making of itself an essential part of the action, a duly nasty witness of bloodthirsty Minoan society. Of the Innocents who sang, I found the male voices - countertenors both of them - more impressive than the female.

Amanda Echalaz was quite spectacular leading her band of Keres: what a role, and what she made of it! All that hysterical swooping never forsook sound musical - indeed quite mathematical - fundamentals. Christine Rice garnered very warm applause as Ariadne. Yet, although she undoubtedly impressed in a difficult role, I found her to be unduly remote on occasion, and her diction was not always quite what it might have been. Johan Reuter was for me, if I had to choose, the more worthy recipient of praise. He had a fine stage presence with a voice to match, employed judiciously and with remarkable sensitivity to vocal shading. One does not have to shout to be heard in Birtwistle; one simply has to sing well. Philip Langridge and Andrew Watts were both outstanding in the extraordinary tenth scene ('The Oracle at Psychro'). Every aspect of their performances - whether musical or acted, or both - seemed both accurate and idiomatic. And then, of course, there was John Tomlinson in the title role. It may not surprise, but it should still register, that his was a triumphant portrayal of the 'half-and-half'. One could tell every word that he sang - and indeed notice on the odd occasion when it differed from the titles! - and every pitch at which he sang it. Not that there was anything pointillistic about his performance: it was strenuously lyrical and extremely moving. It is quite an achievement on the part of performer, composer, librettist, and production team to have made one empathise with the predicament of this character, mocked and turned violent by a vicious society, which, by failing to recognise his humanity, threatens to deprive him of it forever. Yet a signal and noble achievement this was. It culminated in a heart-rendingly intense death scene that could not but remind one of another towering assumption on Tomlinson's part: Boris Godunov.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Schoenberg, 'Moderne Menschen' triple-bill, Leipzig Opera, 20 April 2008

Oper Leipzig

Moderne Menschen: Eine Schönberg-Trilogie

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Axel Kober (conductor)

The musical world’s debt to Leipzig Opera cannot be gainsaid. Even Erwartung is hardly over-exposed, whilst stagings of Die glückliche Hand and Von heute auf morgen are rarer than gold-dust. Moreover, to perform all three of Schoenberg’s one-act operas was not merely a magnificent declaration of intent; it also paid off in artistic terms. Though I might entertain reservations concerning certain aspects of the staging, these should not detract from the enterprise itself, which also included a Schoenberg exhibition at the opera house. Each of the operas was presented separately, with a different cast and production team. Conductor Axel Kober and the fearless Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra were common to all three. One can debate about whether the works might have benefited from a common approach; there are valid arguments on either side. Given that they were performed under the single heading, Modern Menschen (‘Modern People’), deriving from the final line of Von heute auf morgen, there would have been something to be said for a more single-minded treatment, but let us not worry too much on that score. I am delighted to see that Leipzig Opera’s dedication to the cause will continue; next season, the trilogy will be revived as part of the house’s permanent repertoire. Many more celebrated companies should be put to shame.

Von heute auf morgen

Der Mann – Wolfgang Newerla
Die Frau – Hendrikje Wangemann
Sänger – Timothy Fallon
Die Freundin – Susanna Anderson

Das Kind – Johannes Gosch, Jonathan Lauch, Maximilian Friedrich, Ruben Bestfleisch, Johannes Ruß, Ilkja Kafanke, Andre Kafanke, Johannes Gramsee, Thomas Beck, Patrick Koglin
Der Gasmann – Björn Bachmann, Roman Schulze, Christoph Schubert

Immo Karaman (director)
Fabian Posca (co-director)
Kaspar Zwimpfer (designs)
Marie-Louise Walek (costumes)

Von heute auf morgen is, by any standards, an historically important work: the first twelve-note opera. Yet how often does one have the opportunity to hear it, let alone to see it staged? It is more than historically important, too, a far better work than many that refuse to leave our stages. One may smile at Schoenberg’s desire, influenced by the success of the Brecht-Weill Threepenny Opera, to write a popular ‘hit’, but as Hanns Eisler remarked, the subject matter and the words evoke ‘a mundane operetta’. The music, however, as Eisler went on to say, is, of the future, in spite of Schoenberg’s intentions, but this tension rendered the apparent banality of the text ambiguous and ultimately presented ‘a kind of apocalypse on a family scale’. One of the work’s most persuasive interpreters, Michael Gielen, has rightly referred, again suggesting that this was far from Schoenberg’s intention, to the ‘horror music’ of the ‘subconscious of the bourgeoisie’.

This came to the fore, though not didactically so, in Oper Leipzig’s production. The banality of bourgeois existence was nicely portrayed on stage, in what was a vaguely updated setting. A nice touch was the initial conveyor-belt of household goods: important to this mode of existence in one sense, yet utterly unimportant and indeed ‘fashionable’ in another. For Schoenberg’s intentional ire is directed against the vapidity of fashion, a just object of anyone’s ire. And so there was no attempt to dignify the Friend and the Singer. Their fashionable contempt for ‘old-fashioned’ existence was worse than the object of their contempt.

All four of the singers impressed in their roles, whose vocal difficulties are of course considerable. Such difficulties are perhaps intensified by the need to continue in ‘light’ vein. The principal couple, played by Wolfgang Newerla and Hendrikje Wangemann, bear the brunt of this pressure. That they never seemed to tire and remained impeccably in character, albeit changing character, throughout is a tribute to their artistry. Susanna Anderson and Timothy Fallon were convincing siren voices for the fashion, which changes ‘between today and tomorrow’, although I wondered whether the latter might have been a little more alluring and/or heroic. The Child underwent various incarnations, from small to strapping. (I am not quite sure why.) Each of his incarnations handled his notated rhythms well. The three – again, I do not know why – images of the gasman had little to do other than display their chiselled physiques as bait for the unhappy Woman, but they could hardly be faulted in that respect.

The orchestra was excellent throughout and was securely led by Axel Kober. The gleaming Bauhaus-like constructivism of Schoenberg’s score is not generous to second-rate performance, let alone worse, but there was no chance of that here. There was a fine sense of continuity, and one felt duly overwhelmed – and in definite need of a drink – by the canonical ‘horror’ quartet in which the opera culminates.

Die glückliche Hand

Der Mann – Matteo de Monti

Members of the Leipzig Opera Chorus
Stefan Biz (chorus master)

Eine Frau – Meylem González
Ein Herr – Roman Schulze

Carlos Wagner (director)
Daphne Kitschen (designs, costumes)
Tom Baert (choreographer)

Die glückliche Hand is anything but ‘light’, even in the somewhat ironic sense one must adopt when speaking of Schoenberg. It is, however, I think, ultimately a more ingratiating work, an Expressionist masterpiece of the highest order. Schoenberg’s fanatically detailed instructions for staging, many concerned with an almost Scriabin-like music of colours, present a difficulty for any director. Carlos Wagner elected to ignore the colours, or rather to present many of them as words above the stage, although on stage he actually followed quite a few of Schoenberg’s directions. In the programme, he defended this course by speaking of creating a ‘world of symbols’ from his own subconscious, to respond to that of Schoenberg. I have no especial problem with this, but I wondered whether, in a work so rarely staged, it might have been worthwhile to present at least some of Schoenberg’s colours. As it was, we found ourselves on the moon, and with a football theme replacing the Schoenbergian jewellers’ workshop.

Matteo de Monti was a good, if not outstanding, ‘man’, as the only vocal soloist. There was nothing wrong with his portrayal, but it lacked the flawed artistic heroism that Schoenberg at least saw as so crucial. The six men and six women from the Leipzig Opera Chorus were superb, for which credit should also go to Stefan Biz. Positioned unseen behind the audience, there was a wonderful spatial effect, which offered an intriguing substitute for our colour deprivation. The orchestra sounded magnificent, revelling in the heights and depths of Schoenberg’s expressionism, once again securely guided – and rather more than merely guided – by Kober.

If I had doubts – though doubts rather than opposition – concerning the production, it should be added that Carlos Wagner’s Personenregie was faultless. One witnessed this as much in the non-singing ‘extras’ as the Man himself. Meylem González and Roman Schulze (previously a Gasman) proved themselves fine actors and commendably athletic too. Members of the Faculty of Sports Science at the University of Leipzig were able to display their footballing skills, joined by Schulze, who seemed just as much at home in this respect.


Die Frau – Deborah Polaski

Sandra Leopold (director)
Tom Musch (designs, costumes)

Erwartung also received a fine performance. Anything remotely acceptable in the role of the Woman will be a tour de force, and this was no exception. I did not feel that Deborah Polaski brought quite the knife-edge dramatic charisma to the role that I heard a few years ago from Inga Nielsen at Covent Garden, but this was also doubtless partly attributable to the differing concerns of the production. It would be unreasonable, to put it mildly, to expect pitch-perfection here, but I noted a number of slips. Balanced against that, Polaski was admirably secure of tone and certainly could act.

We appeared to be in some sort of studio confessional, the Woman of course having lost her lover. She appeared to be recording herself, for at least part of the time, although it was not clear why she was in the studio. Was she being held, on trial, mad, etc.? There is much that is unclear in Schoenberg’s original, and indeed that is much of the point, so we should not concern ourselves too much with precision. There was a creditable sense – shared between production and performance – of increasing madness and hopelessness. Once again, the orchestral contribution was first-class, as was Kober’s direction. That marvellous sense of athematic splintering and refraction was powerfully caught, but so was the underlying sense of direction through which one of Schoenberg’s most miraculous score continues to cohere, whilst breathing the air of all manner of other planets.

More controversial was the ending. Disrupting what Walter Benjamin would have called the ‘aura’ of the work, Sandra Leopold decided to have Polaski play back part of the recording she had made, which we heard – in recorded form. I thought that this worked rather well, and offered an interesting response – intentionally or otherwise – to the lack of finality in the score. (This is a lack of finality arising from the very nature of the very writing, so my words should not in any sense be considered as an adverse criticism.) Certainly, no one seemed to mind in Leipzig, although I can imagine that more conservatively-minded audiences might well do so. On the other hand, they would probably have stayed away in the first place from Schoenberg, even a century on.

I am not sure that I emerged from this trilogy any the wiser concerning the Child’s question at the end of Von heute auf Morgen – ‘Mama, what are modern people? – but perhaps that is the point. Maybe there is no single thread binding us together at all. Schoenberg would probably have dissented, but no more than Wagner was he always the surest guide to his own work. The crucial thing here is that Oper Leipzig gave us the rarest of opportunities to consider such questions.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Radu Lupu piano recital, 19 April 2008

Gewandhaus, Leipzig

Schubert – Piano sonata in D major, D850
Debussy – Préludes, Book I

Radu Lupu (piano)

This was a concert of two halves, consisting of an intriguing, albeit often perplexing performance of Schubert’s D major piano sonata, D850, followed by a straightforwardly excellent account of Debussy’s first book of piano Préludes. Most of the Schubert sounded more akin to eavesdropping upon a private musing than to a conventional public ‘performance’. Relatively rarely did the dynamic level rise above piano; rarely indeed did it reach forte. In terms of the interpretation’s withdrawn Romanticism, I do not think I have ever heard Schubert sound so close to Schumann – and to late Schumann at that. This was a disturbing reading, to which there was no consolation, although perhaps this is as it should be, at least on occasion. Sometimes I wondered whether the extreme tempo fluctuations were taken too far, but they were never taken so far as to lose my attention. This was particularly the case during the first two movements and parts of the third. Having said that, the scherzo began with a rhythmic and metrical precision, which in context was quite startling. The same could be said of each statement of the finale’s rondo theme, wonderfully playful in its presentation but never distended. The quotation from Schumann in the programme notes, referring to a satire on the style of Pleyel and Vanhal, was spot on for this reading, for there was by now a winning, wry humour to Radu Lupu’s interpretation. I had no reservations at all concerning this movement, its final bars an exemplar of the beauty of Lupu’s pianissimo touch. However, I did wonder whether there might have been more of an opposing tendency earlier on.

There was a considerably greater dynamic range to the Debussy Préludes, although the louder passages never sounded strident. They, just as much as the softer music, truly sounded as if the piano were an instrument without hammers. For instance, the tension mounted in La cathédrale engloutie, in a fashion that put me in mind of La mer, until the cathedral bells truly rang forth: Mussorgsky was not far behind. ‘Atmosphere’ – a dubious word without elucidation, I know, but I shall take a chance – was judiciously chosen and developed in every piece. Nor did this exert any detrimental effect upon precision, as was clear from the opening of the very first prelude, Danseuses de Delphes. Lupu’s shaping of the climaxes in Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest was exemplary, although this had a strange knock-on effect upon the next piece, La fille aux cheveux de lin. Its opening note was strangely loud, as if a hangover from the previous prelude, although thereafter there was no such problem. Perhaps La sérénade interrompue was a little too peremptory, too interrompue for my taste, but taste rather than anything more fundamental is probably the operative word here. The series came to a sparkling end with Minstrels; the sprung rhythms of the opening promised well, and such promise was delivered with interest, without anything of the showily ‘virtuosic’ to compromise this eminently musical account.

Friday, 18 April 2008

Scharoun Ensemble/Boulez, 18 April 2008

Philharmonie, Kammermusiksaal

Bach-Webern – Ricercare a 6, from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079
Webern – Five Movements, for string quartet, Op.5
Webern – Three Songs, for voice, E flat clarinet, and guitar, Op.18
Webern – Concerto for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, trumpet, trombone, violin, viola, and piano, Op.24
Berg – Seven Early Songs, arr. for ensemble by Reinbert de Leeuw
Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony no.1 in E major, Op.9

Scharoun Ensemble and guests

Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

This concert marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Scharoun Ensemble, the new music ensemble – albeit with a repertoire extending back to the Baroque – founded by six members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and two other musicians. Two of the original members remain: Peter Riegelbauer on the double bass and horn-player Stefan de Leval Jezierski. Today’s ensemble of eight was joined by a number of other instrumentalists, including other members of the Berlin Philharmonic and, most laudably, its orchestral academy. So high was the quality of solo and ensemble playing that I think it would have been impossible for anyone successfully to distinguish between members and guests, although doubtless the absolute security of the core players was crucial to the integration of the others. Indeed, such is the ensemble’s calibre that it was able to secure none other than Pierre Boulez to conduct. It was good to see Sir Simon Rattle in the audience too.

I do not think that I had previously heard Webern’s celebrated Bach transcription performed by an ensemble of soloists rather than by full orchestra. The good news is that it works extremely well. (There is no bad news.) This performance struck a finely-judged note between chamber and orchestral music. It was notable that the instrumentalists were listening to each other as chamber musicians, whilst also taking their cue from Boulez. This in fact was a characteristic of the rest of the programme too (bar Webern’s Op.5, which was not conducted). Boulez did not resort to the generous, some might say exaggerated, rubato that a conductor such as Esa-Pekka Salonen has employed in this work. Instead, the music unfolded with supremely natural inevitability. It was perhaps more beautiful than I had ever heard before; this was not, however, a surface beauty, but representative of an extraordinary polyphonic and timbral richness. The linear transitions between instruments registered Webern’s Klangfarbenmelodie with a well-nigh perfect balance between similarity and difference.

Webern’s Five movements for string quartet received a performance at least as good as any I have heard. It was more rich in string tone than the Arditti Quartet performance I heard last year: not necessarily better, but certainly different. The viola opening to the second movement, matchlessly performed by Micha Aufkham, sounded as ripe as late Brahms, and put me quite appropriately in mind of Brahms’s sonatas for viola and piano. This did not preclude violence where necessary, as in the eruption of the Sehr bewegt third movement. The full-blooded delicacy – the contradiction is deliberate – of those achingly rare wisps of sound in the fifth movement displayed another extreme of Webern’s and the ensemble’s soundworld. One was made to listen, not with the ultra-extremity of Nono’s music, but with an appreciation that this music lay somewhere between Brahms and Nono. In fact, I have never heard the work, or at least parts of it, sound so close to Verklärte Nacht.

Soprano Barbara Hannigan and guitarist Wilhelm Bruck joined the ensemble for Webern’s Op.18 songs. This is not one of Webern’s most ingratiating works but it is difficult to imagine a better performance. The strange dissocation between words and text in ‘expressive’ terms registered but, more importantly, so did the sense that the words suggest, indeed almost determine, the musical form. Each player’s – the third was Walter Seyfarth – ability not only to sound but also to express the intervals in his or her line ensured that the result was never clinical. As, of course, did Boulez. I was a little surprised, but also delighted, by the late-Romantic rubato he employed during the second song, Erlösung. There seemed to me little doubt that Boulez’s approach to Webern has now been influenced by his recent work on Mahler and no doubt whatsoever that Webern benefited. Seyfarth ensured that the high pitch of the E flat clarinet never became shrill, and the lengthy – at least in Webern’s terms! – instrumental postlude to the third song evinced a perfect match between timbral beauty and pin-point precision.

The first half came to an end with the masterpiece that is Webern’s Op.24 Concerto. A defining characteristic of this performance was that it truly was a concerto for (small) orchestra. Each instrument had and took its opportunity to shine, whilst never forgetting its place within the whole. Whilst it is invidious to single out any performer, I especially appreciated Wolfram Brandl’s sweet-toned violin and the splendidly neo-Brahmsian piano part as presented by Holger Groschopp. Rhythmic definition, just as important here as in Stravinsky or Bartók, was superb throughout, imparting a real sense of a concerto finale to the third movement, Sehr rasch.

Hannigan returned for Reinbert de Leeuw’s arrangement of Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder. I had not heard the arrangement before, but thought it worked very well, cleverly incorporating aspects of Second Viennese practice in transcription of other music, not least the use of the harmonium, but also the scoring in general. The songs lay relatively low for Hannigan’s voice, allowing her to exhibit a richness that one might not have expected. This was not the richness of a Jessye Norman, of course, but it was certainly enough for an ensemble of this size. Indeed, there was a real sense of the singer being part of the ensemble, first among equals, rather than simply a ‘soloist’. Hannigan imparted a considerable erotic charge to much of the music, for instance in the final line, ‘O gib acht! Gib acht!’ of Nacht, or the Treibhaus-atmosphere of Die Nachtigall. She really worked with the words, almost all of them perfectly discernible, to produce music that appeared to emanate from them. The solo strings were almost unbelievably rich in tone, violist Micha Aufkham once again forming the expressive heart of the ensemble, visibly – and audibly – attentive to his colleagues and to the conductor. The instrumental postlude to Traumgekrönt was simply exquisite. Clarinettist Alexander Bader beautifully sounded the summer wind in Liebesode, followed by a telling recognition of the harmonic shift on ‘Und aus dem Garten…’ from soprano, conductor, and the entire ensemble. Boulez imparted a true sense of progression and unity to the songs, ensuring that there was no sense of miscellany.

Crowning this wonderful evening was, quite simply, the best performance of Schoenberg’s first chamber symphony I have heard, whether live or recorded. I have never experienced the work as quite so symphonic before, which is testament to the prowess of the players and to Boulez’s guiding hand. Inner parts sounded and told as if they were lines in a Brahms symphony – and, of course, one is not very far at all from Brahms, motivically or even harmonically. Every single line told from every member of the ensemble, and yet the whole was far greater, far richer than the considerable sum of the parts. Problems of balance never even seemed to be an issue, which in this of all works is a staggering achievement. The characterisation of each of the four movements within the single-movement overall plan was sharper than I can recall in any other performance, but their integration was just as remarkable. Rarely if ever can the sense of Schoenberg not only synthesising but also extending the paths of Brahms and Wagner have been so readily yet un-self-consciously apparent. Speeds were far from slow but the music relaxed when necessary, never sounding hard-driven, as can often been the case, and even used to be the case with this conductor. Boulez must re-record this work – and with these players. Better still, the entire concert should be released as a live recording. It was a perfect celebration of a great ensemble.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Ode to Napoleon and Il Prigioniero, Opéra National de Paris, 15 April 2008

Palais Garnier

Schoenberg: Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Op.41

Dale Duesing (reciter)
Frédéric Laroque, Vanessa Jean (violins)
Laurent Verney (viola)
Martine Bailly (’cello)
Christine Lagniel (piano)

Dallapiccola: Il prigioniero

La Madre – Rosalind Plowright
Il Prigoniero – Evgeny Nikitin
Il Carciere, Il Grande Inquisitore – Chris Merritt
Due Sacerdoti – Johan Weigel and Bartlomiej Mlaluda

Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris
Alessandro di Stefano (chorus-master)
Lothar Zagrosek (conductor)

Llula Pasqual (director)
Paco Azorin (designs)
Isidre Prunés (costumes)
Albert Faura (lighting)

It was an excellent idea to preface Il prigioniero, Dallapiccola’s one-act opera – strictly, ‘un prologo e un atto’ – with Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon. The last time I had seen Il prigioniero it had represented almost the only adventurous selection for the English National Opera’s 2000 ‘Italian season’, combined with Berio’s Folk songs – which just about worked and absolved ENO from having to stage a Berio opera – and, bizarrely, Nino Rota’s film score, La strada. Paris made far more sense, offering two fiercely immediate responses to European fascism (assuming that we count National Socialism as such).

It has generally been considered, although I do not think the composer ever explicitly made the connection, that Schoenberg had Hitler in mind as he set Byron’s sardonic ‘ode’ from his American exile in 1942. Many on the English side of the Channel, whilst they would not go so far as to identity Napoleon and Hitler, would still consider the former to have been and certainly to have become a monstrous dictator. Yet such a reaction is far less common in France, where Bonapartism dies hard. This Anglo-Austrian onslaught therefore gained an extra frisson, to which an additional layer of historical meaning was lent by the location: not the Opéra Bastille, but the old house, the Palais Garnier, ‘in the style of Napoleon III’. The production, however, dwelled upon the era of Schoenberg rather than that of Byron. I have heard Schoenberg’s Ode taken to task for hectoring, which seems rather like criticising Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ for rejoicing. The combination of subject matter and Sprechgesang more or less guarantees such a characterisation, should one be so inclined. (Incidentally, it has much in common with Schoenberg’s psalm settings and, indeed, with his Moses.)

Llula Pasqual’s production created an illuminating context for such hectoring – ‘ranting’ has been the word more often employed – by introducing the element of cabaret. As the curtain rose, I could not imagine why reciter Dale Duesing was in drag, but the penny soon dropped, not least since the instrumentalists, male and female, of the onstage piano quintet were dressed in black tie à la Weimar. I wondered how far Duesing’s striptease would progress, until it became clear that not only would he perform his dressing-room ablutions, but he would also don pyjamas in preparation for the concentration camp. There was also the suggestion – if only from me – that Napoleon and Hitler were, as Nietzsche would have understood only too well, essentially ‘actors’ themselves. Intriguingly, Duesing appeared to have something of a German accent to begin with. It worked rather well, although was rather puzzling since he is American; perhaps it was more of a response to Schoenberg’s word-setting, or perhaps it was just ‘staged’. In any case, Duesing’s vocal contribution was impressive, although there were just a couple of instances where he seemed to fall very briefly out of sync with the players. Their musicianship was manifest from the opening bars, surely some of the most immediately memorable music Schoenberg ever wrote. (If it is too ‘busy’ quite to be hummable, one can certainly hear it in one’s head after a single audition.) Conducted by Lothar Zagrosek, they expressed not only the fury of Schoenberg’s admonitions, but also the neo-Brahmsian musical integrity of this astonishing score, leading inexorably and shatteringly to the unforgettable E-flat major reference to Beethoven’s Sinfonia eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire d'un grand'uomo. In this performance, ‘hero dust’ was indeed as ‘vile as vulgar clay’.

Il prigioniero was composed at much the same time, although it was not completed until 1948, after the full horrors of wartime experience were known to all. Equally dodecaphonic, and rejoicing in its homage to each member of the Second Viennese School, the score is also undeniably Italian. The opening motif, redolent of a distorted fanfare, is equally suggestive of twelve-note Puccini, and its recurrences are every bit as memorable as one of his melodies. So was the almost unbearable false hope of the three-note ‘fratello’ motif, as we follow the Prisoner in the hope engendered by his gaoler having called him ‘brother’, only to have it dashed by the startling revelation of his would-be-friend as the Inquisitor himself. I was in two minds about the production identifying the two, if indeed this were the intention. It was certainly the effect and in practice the two roles are often sung by the same tenor. It sealed the hopelessness in hope of the Prisoner’s fate and identified, as does the score, the Inquisitor’s ‘fratello’ with the terrible ‘sogno’ (dream) of the Prisoner’s mother, but it made it more difficult for us to hope, through prayer, of freedom (each of these three concepts being symbolically associated with one of the opera’s three note-rows). Either way, this is the ultimate anti-Fidelio. Where Beethoven could still dream of bourgeois freedom in noble fashion, this is now impossible; hope is itself the worst form of torture.

The production certainly scored in its depiction of the prison in which a variety of torture takes place. Paco Azarin’s designs, with their Piranesi staircases, created a suitably labyrinthine setting. Likewise the treadmill effect as the Prisoner edged towards ‘freedom’. Moreover, whilst it might seem wearisome in the abstract retelling, this was an instance of Guantanamo on stage that worked. The parallels between sixteenth-century Europe, torn apart through ‘religious’ strife and our own time are clear, as are those of the responses. Truly shocking was the choral intermezzo between the Prologue and Scene One, in which the chorus was directed on stage to sing the words, ‘Fiat misericordia tua, Domine, super nos,’ as a hanging and other behaviour of ‘our’ troops proceeded. Having witnessed similar scenes very recently in the Komische Oper Berlin’s Iphigénie en Tauride, I noted how immediately relevant they were to two such very different dramas. This was not the shock of épater les bourgeois; this was confronting our world with crimes indistinguishable from those of sixty or more than four hundred years earlier. It is worth adding that the choral singing was superb, both here and later, when its Latin was heard from behind and above, adding a powerful spatial dimension to the drama. The songs of praise when freedom is apparently attained were overwhelmingly chilling.

So too was Evgeny Nikitin as the Inquisitor – and, owing to their identity, as the Gaoler. He exhibited majesty as the former and an horrific ‘compassion’ as the latter. I thought his final deed, administering a lethal injection to the Prisoner, a melodramatic miscalculation, but that was not Nikitin’s fault. Otherwise, he succeeded in projecting the absolute evil so unsparingly depicted in the drama (a rarer accomplishment in terms of artist and work than one might imagine). Hagen came to mind during the final scene. Chris Merritt sang well for the most part as the Prisoner, and certainly gave a powerful stage performance. He appeared to tire somewhat at one point, although in fact this actually worked in terms of the drama. Rosalind Plowright was close to perfect as the Mother. The twin emotion and clarity of her performance precisely mirrored the role and the text. It is a wonderful role, and she was wonderful in it. It would be excessively faint praise to say that the singers were well supported by the orchestra, although they were. For much of the drama lies within the orchestra, not least in the Bergian ricercares, in which that powerful dialectic between expression and precision, both aspects gaining power from the interplay, was searingly brought to the fore. Lothar Zagrosek, who in my experience has always been at his best in twentieth-century music, should be credited for steering a clear line through the score. Lyricism was not overlooked, far from it. Equally crucially, the power of the musical work’s structure and construction was permitted to stand as a sign of resistance. There may not be hope in an administered world, yet, as Adorno signalled, twelve-note music, for all the complexity of its relationship with that world, somehow continues to resist. Now will someone stage Dallapiccola’s Ulisse?

It was, then, certainly worth making a special trip to Paris for an extremely powerful and provocative theatrical experience. Afterwards, having found a restaurant in Montparnasse, I was heartened that the waiter, spying my programme, declared, ‘Le prisonnier – c’est magnifique!’ and proceeded enthusiastically to discuss his experience of the first night with me. I suppose something similar could have happened in London, but suspect that any such hope would be without foundation.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Der fliegende Holländer, 8 April 2008, Vienna State Opera

Vienna State Opera

Daland – Ain Auger
Senta – Eva Johansson
Erik – Klaus Florian Vogt
Mary – Daniela Denschlag
Steuermann – Gergely Németi
Der Holländer – Terje Stensvold

Orchestra, Chorus, and Additional Chorus of the Vienna State Opera
Thomas Long (chorus-master)
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

Christine Mielitz (director)
Stefan Mayer (designs)

At last, some real musical drama at the Vienna State Opera! After my experiences with a musically-flawed Tristan and a superannuated production of Ariadne auf Naxos, I had begun to wonder whether the house had become more of a tourist trap than a living opera house. This Flying Dutchman was not flawless but should certainly be accounted an artistic success.

I had praised the orchestra in Tristan; its contribution had certainly been superior to any other aspect of the performance. Here, however, I was reminded of the difference when it clearly wants to play. Second-rate (or worse) conductors are simply not tolerated by these players; whatever one thinks of such practice, that is how it is. Donald Runnicles, thankfully, could not be taken for a second-rater. Wagner’s score, quite a miracle when one considers how it followed immediately upon Rienzi, was taken by the scruff of its neck, by a musician who appeared to commit everything to two-and-a-quarter hours of unbroken musical drama. The deplorable practice of splitting up the work once again into three separate acts was, thankfully, not followed. (Covent Garden had done so on the last occasion it mounted the Dutchman, but that had been almost the least of its problems, given the presence of the lamentable Simone Young in the pit. I also had the misfortune to re-encounter her in Berlin, although Harry Kupfer’s superb production almost salvaged that occasion.) Although I might quibble at certain choices, for instance the very slow speed Runnicles adopted for Senta’s Ballad (and – at least he was consistent – its presentiment in the Overture), these were evidently choices thought through, as opposed to some of the thoughtlessness and ineptitude in Ariadne, especially its Prologue. The tricky balance between individual numbers – all there, despite the through-composed nature of the score – and the tonal architecture was in safe and exciting hands. As for the orchestra itself, every section played as if its lives depended upon it. The Vienna strings can never sound truly anonymous, but I now appreciated just how much had been missing on previous evenings. The depth of tone and supremely judged vibrato were something at which to wonder, had one not been so gripped by the unfolding of the score. Sitting immediately above the horns did not make for an ideal orchestral blend, but there was ample compensation in full appreciation of their consummate contribution, as was the case with the rest of the brass, which added immeasurably to both salty tang and supernatural terror.

The cast was not musically perfect, but it was dramatically engaged. Klaus Florian Vogt perhaps came closest to combining both virtues. Not only did he make something of Erik’s role, he convinced me to sympathise, which I think must be a first. Considering that Erik’s music is often in itself relatively banal – dramatically contrasting with the more highly-charged and forward-looking music of Senta and the Dutchman – this was quite an achievement for the sweetly-toned, often plangent tenor. There were hints of something more heroic to the voice, but wisely they were not over-emphasised, however tempting this might have been in purely musical terms. Gergely Németi was an unusually ingratiating Daland, which gave an interesting slant upon the character. His attention to words and to musical line was noteworthy, although the musical portrayal was perhaps too beautiful, ultimately lacking the overt venality that the character demands. Both Eva Johansson and Terje Stensvold were very convincing dramatically, although they could equally both be a little too free and loose with intonation. Stensvold did not always project as strongly as he might, although this was far more prevalent earlier on.

The choral singing was superb: perhaps a little rough around the edges, but better dramatically truthful than clinical. It was also clear that the chorus had been directed, not fussily but with enough skill to make its members credible and indeed interesting on stage. Indeed, this was a hallmark of the production in general. It did not draw attention unduly to itself, but gave a relatively straightforward – which is not to say unimaginative – account of the drama. The wraith-like denizens of the Dutchman’s ship convinced in supernatural terms, when one might have feared a dated science-fiction treatment. It appeared that due notice had been taken of the music, which sadly cannot be taken for granted. The final redemption – prophetically in immolation – of Senta and the Dutchman was fittingly climactic but not sensational, which is just how it should be

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Mitsuko Uchida piano recital, 6 April 2008


Schubert - Piano Sonata in C minor, D.958
Kurtág - Antiphon in F sharp major
Bach - The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080: Contrapunctus I
Kurtág - Tumble-Bunny
Kurtág - Portrait 3
Kurtág - Dirge 2
Kurtág - Hommage à Christian Wolff (Half-Asleep)
Bach - French Suite no.5 in G major, BWV 816: Sarabande
Kurtág - Spiel mit dem Unendlichen
Schumann - Symphonic Etudes, Op.13

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

This was a wonderful recital. Mitsuko Uchida, should anyone need reminding, is one of the greatest living pianists; her performances this evening attested to this in no uncertain way. The Schubert sonata opened with a Beethovenian vehemence: not manufactured, but intrinsic to the work, or at least to its opening. Not for nothing was this, the first of Schubert's 'late triptych', written in C minor. The second subject was beautifully - aching beautifully - voiced, an object lesson in sentiment without sentimentality. Uchida's balance between harmony and counterpoint was unerring. The line spun through the slow movement was as close to perfect as one is likely to hear, attentive to every melodic and harmonic development but never neglecting the greater structure. And the touch was to die for! The tricky final movement was perhaps not quite so compelling, with the odd awkward corner - admittedly, as much Schubert's responsibility as Uchida's - but this is so minor a caveat I wonder whether I should delete it.

The selection of Bach and Kurtág - a favoured combination of Kurtág himself - was equally marvellous. If there is any justice in the world - at best an open question - then this should have won a legion of new Kurtág devotees. There was no disingenuous attempt to make the music of the two composers sound alike, but a willingness to let the music speak for itself, once again exquisitely voiced, so that the listener would make of it what he would. Although in theory I regret not hearing more of the Bach, so beautifully performed as it was, at the time nothing could have been further from my mind, so engrossed was I by what came next. Kurtág's antecedents in Bach, but also in the language - extended - of Bartók and the almost unbearably expressive concision of Webern were there for one to hear, but not didactically so. The selection rather resembled a Baroque suite of its own. And the way Uchida and Kurtág made us listen more closely, for instance through the extremely quiet music of Spiel mit dem Unendlichen, was not wholly dissimilar from the insistence upon close listening of Nono's later music.

The shorter second half was given over to Schumann's Symphonic Etudes, which received a commanding, all-encompassing interpretation. Uchida is not short of vigour where required, but the utmost delicacy is equally available to her. What was perhaps most impressive about this performance was how truly 'symphonic' it became. As we progressed through the work, one noted the variation form, but in retrospect, the owl of Minerva only taking flight at dusk, one realised that there was something more, the finale being so in the strongest, symphonic sense. Voice-leading was as impressive and moving as the beautifully legato-pedalled chordal passages. There was virtuosity aplenty, but it almost seems shameful to name it such, so far were Uchida's concerns from anything other than the purely musical. After some of the perverse and, in one case, meretricious pianism I have heard recently, this was balm to the soul. So too were her Mozart and Schubert encores, the latter's G flat Impromptu of a distilled beauty rare indeed.

Daniel Barenboim/VPO, 6 April 2008

Theater an der Wien

Beethoven-Liszt - 'Andante cantabile' from the 'Archduke' Piano Trio in B flat major, Op.97
Beethoven - Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor, Op.37
Beethoven - Piano Concerto no.4 in G major, Op.58

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

The Theater an der Wien, home to the Vienna State Opera immediately after the war, thereafter was largely confined to staging musicals, until its recent 'rebranding' as Vienna's 'New Opera House'. In addition to the operas being staged - I saw Idomeneo there a couple of years ago - there are other musical events, including this tribute to the composer who was 'in residence' during its earliest years. The theatre was also the venue of the celebrated/notorious concert in 1808, in which the first performances of Beethoven's Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and his Choral Fantasia were 'complemented' by the first Vienna performance of his Fourth Piano Concerto and performances of the concert aria, Ah perfido!, and the 'Gloria' and 'Sanctus' from his Mass in C major. They don't make premieres like that any more, which is probably just as well.

There was, however, a rarity to open this performance: Liszt's arrangement for orchestra of the Andante cantabile from the 'Archduke' Trio. It was published first as part of Liszt's second 'Beethoven' cantata and then separately. I was delighted to make its acquaintance and should definitely like to hear it again. The orchestration is definitely of the later nineteenth-century, not least in its wonderful part for harp, but this in no sense jars. The Vienna Philharmonic's woodwind sounded utterly gorgeous: as high a class of Harmoniemusik as one could imagine. This performance gave a real sense of progression to its variation form and was a welcome change from one of the Beethoven overtures; it provided another historical layer of tribute to the occasion. It was interesting to note that Barenboim, who must often have performed the original version - indeed he recorded it - conducted from memory. I doubt that he can have conducted it many times previously.

The C minor piano concerto received a good if slightly underwhelming performance. Perhaps my expectations, especially following Barenboim's piano sonata cycle in London, were unreasonable, although I did sense that a little more preparation might have helped. For instance, although this is insignificant in itself, he had to adjust the level of his piano stool during the first movement. Someone ought to have checked that beforehand. The first exposition seemed slightly rushed into, and the movement took a while to settle down, in orchestral as well as solo terms. Indeed, it was only really in the third movement that the performance truly seemed to take wing, despite flashes of brilliance beforehand. The performance I heard Barenboim give with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra a few years ago seemed to me significantly more exciting, although there was nothing really 'wrong' with this one. Both pianist/conductor and orchestra nevertheless gave the impression that they knew the music inside out and did not have anything in particular to say on this occasion.

The Fourth, G major, piano concerto was stronger in every respect. The orchestra was more obviously 'conducted' from the outset and clearly benefited from this. Once a basic pulse and line had emerged, there was far more of the give and take of chamber music, although Barenboim was still prepared to guide where necessary. All sections of the orchestra shone, and Barenboim appeared to recapture some of the magical form from his sonata cycle. Particular highlights were the awe-inspiring first movement cadenza and the entire second movement. Here Orpheus really did tame the Furies, but what beautifully intransigent Furies they were! Barenboim's final piano phrase was an object lesson both in touch and in dramatic projection: something to melt the coldest of hearts, but in no sense sentimental. The sense of progression to the delightful finale was spot on. I could not help but notice at the end that the orchestra clearly loved Barenboim, something which cannot be said for the VPO and all of its conductors. I should be very keen to hear the partnership in the symphonies of Beethoven - and much else besides.

Saturday, 5 April 2008

The Rape of Lucretia, Klangforum Wien, 5 April 2008

(concert performance)

Konzerthaus, Vienna

Angelika Kirchschlager – Lucretia
Emma Bell – Female Chorus
Ian Bostridge – Male Chorus
Christopher Maltman – Tarquinius
John Relyea – Collatinus
James Rutherford – Junius
Jean Rigby – Bianca
Malin Christensson – Lucia

Klangforum Wien
Robin Ticciati (conductor)

The idea of Britten in Vienna was appealing. No music benefits from being treated as the property of a particular nation – unless, that is, such particularist ‘tradition’ involves special pleading. Britten anyway seems now to be gaining greater exposure on the Continent than would have been the case until quite recently. Looking at the cast list, however, dispelled the illusion that this might have been a truly international performance. There is, of course, nothing wrong with casting English singers, but it was more of a home from home than one might have initially expected. Angelika Kirchschlager and Malin Christensson were the only exceptions to the Anglophone rule.

That said, there was no uniformity amongst the cast. Ian Bostridge and Emma Bell delivered their roles as Chorus with great skill, although in rather different fashion. With Bostridge, most listeners will know what to expect. The contorted facial expressions were not for the queasy, and there was, needless to say, more than a little vocal mannerism. Britten supplies quite enough of that already for my taste. By the same token, however, Bostridge’s delivery was in general impressively handled, with due attention paid to words, pitch, and modulation. It was only really during the Interlude to Act One, in which the Male Chorus recounts Tarquinius’s furious ride to Rome, that I felt the music and words ran away with him a little. (This may of course not have been by the singer’s own design.) Bell, by contrast, provided a ‘straighter’ reading, for which I stood most grateful. This is not intended to imply dullness or lack of imagination, but it was well focused and free of histrionics, if a little obscure of diction on occasion.

This was not a problem for Christopher Maltman, who to my mind delivered the best performance of the evening. One could sense him itching to be on stage, without this compromising the conditions of concert performance. Every word was made to tell, and the character of Tarquinius – dangerous, powerfully attractive, yet in thrall to his passions and so ultimately weak – was superbly portrayed. I cannot summon up a single caveat regarding this performance. John Relyea was also very fine in the less interesting role of Collatinus. I had most recently heard him in Sir Colin Davis’s LSO concert performance last year of Benvenuto Cellini, and there was no sign of dilution of promise. Relyea has a fine, truly powerful voice, which he knows how to marshal. James Rutherford, by contrast, was a variable Junius. Much of what he sang was respectable, but there was too much imprecision with regard both to pitch – mostly in the lower notes – and to diction.

Perhaps surprisingly, the best female diction came from Malin Christensson, whose silvery soprano was a delight in the role of Lucia. Her interest in Tarquinius, both before and after the deed – unbeknown to her, of course – was genuinely touching. Jean Rigby was in general a characterful Bianca, although not especially alluring. Angelika Kirchschlager varied in the role of Lucretia. Much of her portrayal was impressive: well-acted, within the constraints of a concert performance, and secure of tone. Sometimes, however, the acting got the better of the music, which is more of a problem in a concert performance than on stage. Her words were not always clear either. I have mentioned diction a few times, because it is important in itself, but also since if I, as a native English-speaker could often not discern the words, then I doubt that many of the Viennese could. Printing the words with German translation in the programme doubtless helped, but consulting them should be a last resort.

For the Klangforum Wien I have nothing but praise. The ensemble’s contribution was the clearest example of Britten freed from parochialism; the music clearly benefited. I do not regard all of the score as equally successful; Britten’s musical facility too often led him in the direction of mere note-spinning. However, the passages most obviously ‘constructed’ here gained an almost Schoenbergian instrumental intensity, relating more to inter-war modernism than to Suffolk. The strings were perhaps exceptional in this regard, but that is more a reflection upon the score than upon the performance. Nothing, I am afraid, can repair the dramatic flaw of the Christian ‘interpretation’ – by turns sentimental, incoherent, or both – transplanted onto an inherently powerful plot, but Klangforum Wien reminded us that there was musical interest nevertheless. I was less sure about Robin Ticciati’s direction. There was nothing terribly wrong with it, apart from a few overtly interventionist passages that simply sounded exaggeratedly slow or fast. For the most part, though, it was not clear that he really added anything. Perhaps most of his work had been done during rehearsal, but the ensemble seemed often – very successfully – to be doing its own thing. Eyes were certainly not always upon the conductor, whose beat seemed vague and who certainly did not help by ostentatiously performing the piano part himself. Just because one can does not mean that one should; numerous instances of arising from the piano stool should either have been more unobtrusively handled or, better still, rendered unnecessary by engaging a pianist from the ensemble. Still, the instrumentalists, every one of them, sounded excellent regardless, although even they could not entirely disguise some of Britten’s more threadbare invention.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Ariadne auf Naxos, Vienna State Opera, 4 April 2008

Vienna State Opera

Major Domo – Hans Peter Kammerer
Music Master – Michael Volle
The Composer – Michaela Selinger
Der Tenor/Bacchus – Lance Ryan
An officer – Martin Müller
Dancing Master – Alexander Kaimbacher
Wigmaker – Wolfram Igor Derntl
A lackey – Marcus Pelz
Zerbinetta – Daniela Fally
Prima donna/Ariadne – Adrianne Pieczonka
Harlequin – Adrian Eröd
Scaramuccio – Peter Jelosits
Truffaldino – Wolfgang Bankl
Brighella – Alexander Kaimbacher
Naiad – Jane Archibald
Driad – Roxana Constantinescu
Echo – Elisabeta Marin

Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Friedrich Haider (conductor)

Filippo Sanjust (director and designs)

This did not start promisingly. The Overture was rather on the brisk side. Whilst there should of course be lightness, there should not only be lightness. Indeed, throughout the Prologue, there were problems with balance and a lack of depth to the orchestral sound, a depth which is necessary in spite of the chamber music forces. No one knew this better than Herbert von Karajan, as preserved in his definitive EMI recording. Friedrich Haider did not seem really to settle until some time into the Opera. The progression towards the climactic moment of the Prologue – one of those moments in which Strauss, here in the guise of the Composer, lets the mask slip and proclaims his love for music – was fatally compromised in a headlong rush, and there were times here when pit and stage were simply not co-ordinated. Michaela Selinger was adequate in this role; however, at least on this evidence, hers is neither a great assumption nor a great voice. Michael Volle and Alexander Kaimbacher were, however, excellent. If a Dancing Master is memorable, he must have done something impressive. Hans Peter Kammerer’s Major Domo was not the larger-than-life figure one often encounters, although it is arguable that he should not be, given his station.

If one were looking for a ‘traditional’ production, one would be hard put to find one more so than this, certainly in terms of its designs. There is no reason in principle why such a production should not work, of course, but one might say that we see quite enough of the (imagined) eighteenth century in Vienna as it is, and that something a little more imaginative might pay theatrical dividends. (That Filippo Sanjust’s production, first seen in 1976, here received its 149th performance, may be suggestive.) The Personenregie was largely unremarkable – doubtless due in part to the repertory system – although there was a nice sense of business from the assorted servants. However, when I compare this to Christof Loy’s revelatory Covent Garden production – the first of Antonio Pappano’s new regime – it is abundantly clear what was lacking: something very important, namely a sense that the Prologue is about us: the audience, our stances, our prejudices, our reactions. In the ever-quotable words of Horace, mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur. ('Change but the name, and the tale is told of you.') Here we simply had a pretty show. Perhaps it is the case that, in a work in which so many will know a definitive, unmatchable recording, strong theatrical values become more necessary than ever.

After a shaky start, including that of Ariadne herself, the Opera was better. Where, in the Prologue, the absence of Nathalie Dessay, promised as Zerbinetta, had been keenly felt, not least in the aforementioned lack of theatrical values, here Daniela Fally came into her own. Despite a few minor – and utterly forgivable – slips, her ‘Großmächtige Prinzessin’ was duly showstopping; perhaps the twin trials of the shadow of Dessay and Fally’s own nerves had now left her alone. By the time of ‘Es gibt ein Reich…,’ Adrianne Pieczonka’s voice had strengthened. She went on to give a good, if something short of deeply memorable, performance. Adrian Eröd shone as Harlequin, dashing in both figure and voice. Zerbinetta’s other companions were nothing out of the ordinary. Likewise, Lance Ryan’s Bacchus coped with Strauss’s cruel demands, but did little else to imprint itself upon one’s memory. The setting, once again very much ‘traditional’, was effective enough; it is, after all, an evocation of the moribund world of opera seria. Orchestra and conductor sounded on much better form, with the missing depth now found. The woodwind bubbling reminded one of Mozart, and the strings were their usual beautiful selves. It could not be claimed that Haider’s direction was on a par with Pappano, let alone Colin Davis in the Covent Garden revival, whilst Karajan’s was simply the air of another planet, but at least it did not let the side down as it had during the Prologue.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Fazil Say piano recital, 3 April 2008

Konzerthaus, Vienna

Bach, arr. Fazil Say – Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.17 in D minor, Op.31 no.2, ‘Tempest’
Mussorgsky, Pictures at an exhibition

Fazil Say (piano)

What a strange concert! First, Bach’s great Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 592, as arranged by Fazil Say, was cancelled, since, it was announced, he had needed to concentrate upon the other works during his preparation. Fair enough, but I soon began to wonder what that rehearsal had entailed. I am not in any sense implying a lack of preparation, but it had led to some highly unusual ideas for performance.

Having missed out on the first of the Bach transcriptions, our first port of call was the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542. If I were to describe the transcription as hyper-Romantic, that would give some sense of its nature, but in another sense might mislead. For whilst there was assuredly nothing of the ‘authentic’ about this, it also stood at some remove from, say, the Bach transcriptions of Liszt and Busoni. It somehow managed less to sound Gothic than to suggest the glorious Technicolour of Stokowski’s orchestral transcriptions whilst remaining on the piano. There were times at which less would have been more, but it was undoubtedly impressive. The performance helped, of course, although there were odd aspects to that in itself. The fantasia opened rather quickly, and took a while to settle down: somewhat at odds with the nature of the transcription, I thought. The fugue, by contrast, suffered from an extremely deliberate speed – and this comes from a writer who admires Klemperer’s Bach to the skies. It was, of course, not simply a matter of speed: the deliberate quality was as much a product of Say’s laying of equal stress upon every note of the fugue’s subject. Both problems lessened as time went on, although light and shade tended to be sectional rather than phrased. There was a great deal of sustaining pedal, as one might expect in such a performance, and some thundering left-hand octaves. Whilst I am about as far from a purist concerning Bach as can be imagined, I am not sure that this Fantasia and Fugue really hit the mark.

If the Bach was ‘interesting’, then I do not know how to categorise the Beethoven ‘Tempest’ sonata. I do not think I have ever heard Beethoven sound less like Beethoven. Much of the Allegro sounded like Chopin in an especially vehement performance. There were, however, some truly exquisite recitative passages, in which the Ninth Symphony (and, intriguingly, late Liszt) loomed large. There were huge variations of tempo and, once again, plenty of thundering left hand passages. As for the Adagio and Allegretto, they often sounded as if they were a later nineteenth-century re-composition, ‘after Beethoven’. I often thought of Saint-Saëns, of all people. And yet… there was clearly conviction to what Say was doing. This was not playing to the gallery, not the feigned musicality of so many a mere virtuoso, and it was certainly more interesting than the interchangeable note-perfect, score-bound non-performances of so many competition winners. The pianist appeared to exhibit a sense of wonder in his music making, which counts for a lot. Say, also a composer, is evidently a highly creative artist, if no Beethoven. If one were to consider this as a performance rather than as Beethoven, one might conclude that it impressed, unlike so many of its kind. We do not need to rail so much against the excesses of pianistic tradition as Sir Donald Tovey did; there is far greater danger nowadays from lack of imagination. I must, however, admit that I was simply at a loss when it came to the throwaway ending.

That said, the Mussorgsky second half was quite a relief. From the outset, this sounded far more idiomatic. The performance was not without liberties, but they were fewer and more in keeping. (Say’s poking inside the piano may have been an exception, although, if it gained little, it equally did little harm, perhaps since it was restricted to a single instance. I assume that the intention was to suggest plucked orchestral strings.) The pianist’s palette sounded more appropriate, with some wonderful pitch black for ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’ and a scintillating ‘Baba Yaga’. ‘The ballet of the unhatched chicks’ was simply mesmerising, and bells truly pealed during ‘The great gate of Kiev’. There was, however, some strange discontinuity during that final movement, overcome at the last, though it remained unclear what its purpose had been. All in all, though, this was a far more consistent performance.

Say performed two encores. The first was based upon Gershwin’s Summertime. Whether it was his own composition, someone else’s, or even improvised, I do not know, although I suspect it to have been his own fantasy. The compendious virtuoso displays deservedly excited the audience, and Say revealed more of a sense of delicacy than had been evident in much of the recital. I can only assume that the second encore was a composition of his own. It involved a great deal of poking inside the piano and a severe paucity of music. Whilst it was doubtless performed impeccably, I could make neither head nor tail of it. Still, it is surely far better to have a genuinely eccentric composer-performer – his demeanour often suggested that he might be attending a séance – than a bland robot-instrumentalist.

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Tristan und Isolde, Vienna State Opera, 1 April 2008

Vienna State Opera

Tristan – John Treleaven
König Marke – Stephen Milling
Isolde – Evelyn Herlitzius
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel
Melot – Clemens Unterreiner
Brangäne – Daniela Denschlag
Hirt – Michael Roider
Stimme des Seemanns – Gegely Németi
Steuermann – Marcus Pelz

Chorus and Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Thomas Lang (chorus master)
Leif Segerstam (conductor)

Günter Krämer (producer)
Gisbert Jäkel (designs)
Falk Bauer (costumes)

Wagner famously wrote to Mathilde Wesendonk of his fears whilst composing the music for Tristan und Isolde: ‘I fear the opera will be banned – unless the whole thing is parodied in a bad performance –: only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, – I cannot imagine it otherwise.’ On those rare occasions when ‘perfectly good’ performances arise, one knows precisely what he means: the work is truly unbearable. The problem, however, is, that it appears that nothing other than a ‘perfectly good’ performance will do. Even a performance with great merits, let alone a truly ‘mediocre’ one or a ‘parody’, leaves one feeling that it has not really done the job at all. Such, at least, has been my experience on a number of occasions, and was again this evening.

The orchestra was excellent. Indeed, the Vienna strings struck me as absolutely perfect for the work: certainly the best I have ever heard. Those hunting horns, that bass clarinet, the shepherd’s English horn: for all of these and more, I should have nothing but praise. There were many times that I found myself wishing to hear a purely orchestral rendition: inappropriate, of course, but not so wholly inappropriate as in any other of the Wagner music dramas, given that, even more than usual, the drama lies in the orchestra. Leif Segerstam’s direction was for the most part unimpressive. There were moments when he indulged the gorgeousness of the orchestra a little too much, but one could easily forgive that. Yet something very odd happened during Tristan’s monologue, which really derailed the performance. My problem is that I am not entirely sure what it was. It sounded either as if Segerstam had lost his way, or – which I cannot quite believe – the music had been cut. I say ‘cannot quite believe’, not because the work is never cut – although the Act Two love duet would be the more usual place for butchery – but because, if it were, I could not register when and where it had happened. However, the end of the monologue at least sounded foreshortened, and somehow managed to seem a terrible anti-climax (at least in retrospect, for one might actually have missed it there and then). Somewhere along the line, my attention started wandering, which I can honestly say it has never done before in a live performance of Tristan, whatever its faults. After that, I am afraid, I simply – and very sadly – found myself wishing that it were all over.

Casting Tristan is, of course, impossible. Perhaps Ben Heppner can sing the title role; I have not heard him. But I doubt that anyone else can today. There are no rivals to Windgassen or Suthaus, let alone Vickers or Melchior. I feared the worst with John Treleaven, following his Royal Opera Siegfried. Perhaps lowering expectations helped, but I think that he was somewhat better, even if his stage presence was risibly unconvincing. He looked throughout like a newly-redundant middle-manager, upset and just occasionally crazed at the prospect of eking out his remaining years on the dole. Nobility and unbearable possession did not come in to it. Nor did beauty of tone, or at times sung tone – although this was less frequent than it had been in the Ring. He exhibited stamina, as he had at Covent Garden, but sadly that is not enough. Dramatic sense would have been furthered if Evelyn Herlitzius's Isolde had chanced her arm by eloping with Clemens Unterreiner's vocally- and physically-attractive Melot instead. Herlitzius at least looked credible. She approached the part – or at least this was how it seemed – as a singing actress, rather in the line of Waltraud Meier, albeit without Meier’s extraordinary charisma, or indeed without the refulgence of tone of which Meier is still capable, whatever her detractors might claim. Some of her portrayal worked better than other parts. Much of the worst was over in the first half of the first act, when it had sometimes seemed as though she had little voice at all. She clearly did, and used it to great effect in much of the second act. Yet the guiding principle of her portrayal – was it of her direction? – appeared to be that Isolde was deranged. I suppose she is, in a sense, but this is something far more powerful, far more complex, than the traditional operatic heroine’s ‘madness’. Especially earlier on, one might have been forgiven for thinking that this was Donizetti with music. As so often, the Kurwenal and Brangäne were better, although Daniela Denschlag appeared – somewhat oddly – to tire later on. Boaz Daniel was certainly a fine Kurwenal; his loyalty was heard as well as seen. Moreover, his lines were shaped in a musical fashion from which the Tristan and Isolde could have learned much. Stephen Milling did not disappoint as Marke, but then I am not sure that I have ever heard anyone disappoint in this gift of a role. I did not find him especially memorable, but could find no fault with his tone, nor his command of line.

The production did no particular harm, although I am not sure that it did any particular good either. There was some powerful use of lighting, in a straightforwardly representational fashion, to suggest day and night. (The colours of Herbert Wernicke’s Covent Garden production achieved something far more difficult: meaningful abstraction.) I thought having Tristan and Isolde kiss as the curtain came down on Act I a mistake. It seemed merely tawdry, and not only on account of the unconvincing acting. The sets worked well enough, without drawing undue attention, which is as it should be. And there was one extremely compelling image, a video image of waves during the first scene of Act Two. Uncannily synchronised with the surging of the orchestra – impeccably projected by Segerstam – this was powerful indeed. I could not really say why, but it worked, which is all that mattered. The costumes were nondescript nineteenth-century, making one wonder why Falk Bauer had even been engaged.

There was, however, one other important element to the performance. Even if one had been in the presence of Furtwängler and Flagstad, I think it would have been difficult to maintain concentration in the face of the audience. In this of all works, absolute concentration, indeed possession, is vital. Lose it and one might as well go home. Mobile telephones rang twice. On the first time, the culprit would not even turn off the nauseating wrong-key rendition of the first subject from Mozart’s great G minor symphony. Coughing one can put up with, irritating though it might be; there are, after all, occasions on which many people simply cannot help it. There is no excuse whatsoever, for conducting 'conversations', for want of a better word. One member of an American ‘tour group’ behind congratulated another member, ‘admiring’ him for having ‘put up’ with ‘so long in the theatre’, just as the shepherd’s pipe song began. Nor is there any excuse for falling asleep, let alone for snoring, as the unpleasant Austrian in an ill-fitting suit seated next to me did: not just once, but on several occasions. When awake, he insisted upon ‘conducting’, although whatever he was doing bore no relation to the score, nor to what was being heard. Given that he had been asleep for much of the performance, I wondered at his boorish shouts of ‘Bravo’ – to John Treleaven, of all people. There were many more examples, but I shall stop there. It was doubtless all the more shocking for being Vienna, not Verona. What I truly do not understand, however, is why such people have elected to attend a performance of Tristan. Only the St Matthew Passion would seem less suited. Are they attending by mistake, expecting something akin to La Traviata? Do they really not care that they ruin whatever might be left to salvage for everyone else? This is, perforce, a communal experience. I was driven mad for all the wrong reasons.