Saturday, 31 May 2008

Richard Goode and Jonathan Biss, piano recital, 31 May 2008

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Schubert – Allegro in A minor for piano duet, D.947, ‘Lebensstürme’
Schumann-Debussy – Six Etudes en forme de canon, Op.56, for two pianos
Beethoven – Grosse Fuge in B flat, Op. 134, arr. by the composer for piano duet (but performed on two pianos)
Stravinsky – Agon, arr. by the composer for two pianos
Debussy – En blanc et noir, for two pianos

Richard Goode (piano)
Jonathan Biss (piano)

What a delightful choice for Richard Goode to conclude his Southbank Centre residency! It is sometimes said that piano duets are more players’ than audiences’ music, but try telling that to anyone who cares for Schubert. (Is there anyone who does not?) In any case, music written for four hands on two pianos presents a different genre, although again hardly a fashionable one. However, the choice of his fellow pianist was more important still than the variety of concert. Quoted in the programme, Goode disarmingly confessed that the reason for the latter was simply that he wanted to play with Jonathan Biss: quite an accolade for the young American pianist, although amply warranted. The two pianists formed a considerable partnership, in which it was often difficult if not impossible to disentangle their respective contributions.

Schubert’s Allegro in A minor received an impassioned reading, especially for the opening theme and its reprises; its nickname, ‘Lebensstürme’, seemed highly appropriate. The form was clearly delineated: important in itself and for appreciation of the work’s emotional course. Themes passed flawlessly between the four hands. The typically Schubertian cross-rhythms (threes against fours) were rightly not adjusted so as to lose their edge. When it came to the coda, the minor-key desolation was almost Mozartian. This was a performance of great depth, considerably more involving than the previous week’s Fifth Symphony from Sir Colin Davis and the LSO.

Debussy’s arrangement of Schumann’s canons for pedal-piano was fascinating, inhabiting a shifting ground somewhere between Bach and Debussy: as it happens, not a bad way to characterise Schumann’s music. I was also put in mind of Mozart’s piano works in the ‘Baroque style’ and Schumann’s editions of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin (with piano ‘additional accompaniments’). Debussy’s division of the canonical lines between the two pianos was made decisively to tell, so that the counterpoint emerged with great, yet never un-Romantic clarity. Chopinesque nostalgia was to be heard to great effect in the second, marked Avec beaucoup d’expression; the two-piano texture heightened the import of its concluding chromaticism. The fourth, Expressivo–Un peu plus mouvementé, was perhaps the most Romantic in character and writing; it received a duly yet never excessively passionate reading. Bach seemed distant here and Schumann himself most readily present; inspiration from the former composer in this canon was the most assimilated and transformed. (It is perhaps no coincidence that Schumann’s canonical writing is less strict here than in some of the other pieces.) The rhythmic bounce given to the fifth canon, Pas trop vite, was infectious. There was a true sense of expansive culmination in the Adagio final canon, which – rather to my surprise – put me briefly in mind of Elgar. This was not merely the sixth piece, but the final movement in a six-movement work. The only drawback was the return with a vengeance of Goode’s curiously tuneless ‘singing’: one can cope, but it is undeniably distracting.

Beethoven’s own transcription of the Grosse Fuge ought to be more often performed. If the final ounce of the original’s strain – near-impossibility? – is absent, then this is really only a matter of degree. I am not sure why it was performed on two pianos; perhaps it was simply in order to avoid a second change-over, although this could readily have been accommodated, given that the performers left the stage after the Schumann canons. It is a very minor point, but I wonder whether some of that strain would have returned with a performance on one instrument. In any case, the playing was of such impressive unanimity that one might often have been forgiven for hearing but the one piano. Having heard the Op.111 sonata from Krystian Zimerman earlier in the week, I was reminded once again of how much more radical Beethoven’s writing is in this fugue even than that of the late piano sonatas. The opening Allegro was brusquely vehement, appearing to presage almost the whole gamut of twentieth-century composition. Then, the second section brought to mind the piano writing of the late Bagatelles and, in its characteristic sublimity, the Ninth Symphony and the Missa Solemnis. Its G-flat major tonality – one of the most enjoyable keys in which to play on the piano, in sharp contrast to nasty F-sharp major – was the perfect setting for Beethoven’s rapt lyricism. Goode’s grunting was more distracting here than it would be in the Allegro molto e con brio, where the sense of such strenuous effort was not entirely out of place. Indeed, this third section boasted an awe-inspiring dialectic between quixotic play and extreme intellectual strenuousness. On the technical side, co-ordination of the trills was impressive, but there was never any question of beauty for its own sake, as had sometimes been the case in the Zimerman Beethoven performance referred to above. Occasionally, I thought that Beethoven’s silences might profitably have been slightly extended, but this was my only cavil, and a minor one at that. The coda was rightly made both to perform its integrative function and also not quite to succeed in doing so, the music proving uncontainable within its form; the Romantics did not err completely in understanding Beethoven as having burst the constraints of Classical – or in this case, quasi-Baroque – form. Both pianists looked appropriately exhausted at the conclusion to this fine performance.

‘Stravinsky’s Agon I’m somewhat obsessed with,’ Goode confided in the programme interview: ‘it’s invigorating and wonderful. It’s one of the most New York things Stravinsky ever write: you can hear the traffic!’ We certainly could during this performance, above all during the Pas-de-Quatre and its reprise in the Coda. The metrical tightness with which Stravinsky’s rhythmic cells were projected was all one might have asked for; the several ostinati were especially well served in this regard. An entirely apt impression of total control evoked that quality, common to the composer’s entire œuvre, in the score. It was, moreover, commendably apparent throughout that these were dance numbers. I missed the orchestral colours – not least the mandolin – and our pianists could not entirely disguise the fact that Stravinsky had arranged the work for rehearsal purposes rather than as a creative re-imagining, yet the losses were not so great as one might have expected. The one occasion when orchestral colour remained was during the Bransle Gay: however, whilst it was fun to see Biss play the castanets rather than the piano this number, his slightly diffident performance suggests that he should keep the day job. A more implacable performance of its 3/8 metre would have allowed the irregular quintuple and septuple semiquaver piano variants to register more bitingly, although Goode projected the grace-note rhythm here with great style. The spirit of Webern truly enters the score during its second half (roughly) and it is sad to note that some quarters of the audience became a little restless. This could not, however, negate the extraordinary and so-very-typical achievement of Stravinsky in creating a Rameau-meets-Webern score that yet sounds only like Stravinsky.

As in Goode’s February solo recital, the Debussy here was painted with primary colours, with little hint of impressionist haze. The technical challenges of En blanc et noir are perhaps more audibly apparent than during the other works, but they were all despatched with aplomb, and musical aplomb at that. Biss may have exhibited a slightly brighter tone than Goode, but this may simply have reflected the distribution of parts; the way in which four hands played as one was far more remarkable than any occasional slightest differences of character. The slow second piece, prefaced in the score by François Villon’s Ballade contre les ennemis de la France, successfully evoked both the spirit of old France and the horrors of the battlefield: Ein’ feste Burg had an implacable onward tread. I do not care for Debussy’s nationalism here, but it would do no one any good to ignore it. The third movement was a true scherzando, all the more remarkable given the participation of two pianists and two instruments. There was ample virtuosity on display, not least in the treacherous repeated notes, yet it was always at the service of the music.

After this triumphant performance, Goode and Biss reverted to one piano, four hands, for an encore: Schumann’s Abendlied. It proved the perfect conclusion to a splendid recital: achingly beautiful and so unambiguously characteristic of the composer (far more so than the earlier canons). The harmonies tugged the heartstrings in a way unique to Schumann, and left this listener wishing for more.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Krystian Zimerman, piano recital, 27 May 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Bach – Partita no.4 in D major, BWV 828
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.32 in C minor, Op.111
Brahms – Four piano pieces, Op.119
Szymanowski – Variations on a Polish folk theme in B minor, Op.10

Krystian Zimerman (piano)

Let it first be said that Krystian Zimerman is a great pianist, with a touch as an exquisite as any. I have long treasured a number of his recordings, perhaps above all his Webern solo piano works and his Ravel with Pierre Boulez. The evidence of this recital, however, was somewhat more mixed. There could be no doubting his stellar qualities as a pianist, but they did not always seem to stand in ideal sympathy with the music. By the same token, I did not sense a particular idea behind the programme beyond Zimerman’s choice of some favoured works. That there happened to be a brief fugato towards the end of the Szymanowski Variations does not seem to me in itself, as the programme notes had it, to return us in any meaningful sense to Bach. I am far from saying that every concert programme need be explicitly didactic in its intent, but the unfailing artistry in putting together a programme shown, for instance, by Boulez, is a great example to all manner of musicians. There had been a pre-concert talk, which I was unable to attend, so maybe this would have made matters clearer.

The Bach partita received an excellent performance. My single reservation lay with the somewhat hurried tempo of the courante, but even this presented a welcome contrast with the preceding allemande, and its trumpeting of bright D major was an undeniable joy. The ‘ornaments’ too were truly melodic, a quality too often disregarded or unappreciated by the more fey Bach would-be interpreters. The opening Grave adagio of the sinfonia was conceived in a grand, Busoni-like fashion, followed by a spellbinding hush for the Andante section, which opened out perfectly into the principal Allegro. Rhythmic definition and momentum were impeccable throughout. The echt-Bachian dissolution of the distinction between harmony and counterpoint came to the fore in the allemande and rondeau. The allemande received a dreamily Romantic reading, shaded with great beauty, whilst the exquisite variation between shades of legato, non legato, and staccato in the rondeau evoked impressions of other Baroque keyboard composers, notably Rameau and Scarlatti. Zimerman’s ravishing touch presented the sarabande, quite rightly, as the still heart of the work. And when it came to the final capriccio, utterly pianistic in its conception, we were treated to an almost Chopinesque beauty of sonorous articulation.

Chopin, however, seemed a little too present in Beethoven’s final piano sonata. There were many admirable aspects to Zimerman’s performance, but also some which seemed rather less appropriate. It started off very well, with truly thunderous trills, although I wondered whether the Allegro con brio was taken a little too fast. My doubts concerning this were largely dispelled by the commendable flexibility of tempo Zimerman displayed – and by serene moments of Olympian calm. I did not mind hearing the Revolutionary Etude foreshadowed just before the end of the first movement; indeed, it was salutary to hear the connection, when so often one is told that Chopin, alone amongst Romantic composers, honoured Beethoven by failing to be influenced by him. Moreover, the Pollini-like beauty of the trills in the second movement, without the slightest hint of rigidity, was also something at which truly to wonder. Yet, on the whole, I found this movement in particular too ‘pianistically’ conceived, drawing attention to the instrument and to the pianist rather than to the music. Even the undoubtedly ravishing filigree of the high passages sounded just a touch narcissistic. And whilst there was a splendid expression of joy in the third variation, I had a nagging sense of it being taken unusually fast at least partly because the pianist could. This may be an unfair estimate of his intention, but it did come across just a little like that. And the opening statement of the great theme, almost Gluckian in its noble simplicity – at least in the score – was by turns both just that and excessively manicured. However beautiful the trees, we need always to have our eyes firmly set upon the wood. If only I had not heard Daniel Barenboim perform this work in February at the end of his Beethoven sonata cycle, I might have been less critical; but I had, and so I was.

The Brahms Op.119 Pieces were similarly mixed. I entertained no reservations whatsoever concerning the opening B minor intermezzo. The ‘grey pearl’ to which Clara Schumann so perceptively likened it did indeed ‘look as if … [it was] veiled,’ and was certainly ‘very precious’. Zimerman seemed perfectly attuned to mood, style, and the construction of the piece from that truly Brahmsian interval of the falling third. There was here the profoundest melancholy, but not as Nietzsche so maliciously alleged, the ‘melancholy of impotence’. Instead, there was a true sense of intervallic proliferation, looking back to Bach – here there was certainly a valid connection in the programming – and forward to Webern. The ineffable sadness of the final B minor chords was lain bare for all to hear. In the following intermezzo, its outer sections marked Andantino un poco agitato, Zimerman’s flexibility just about prevented one thinking his basic tempo too fast, but it was a close run thing and this is certainly not how I should understand an andantino, however agitato. There was once again a welcome hint of Chopin in the central waltz, which lilted unforgettably. However, I found the third intermezzo simply too close to Chopin and longed for something more weighty, Klemperer-like even, despite the undeniable structural soundness of Zimerman’s reading. Perhaps the weight had been held in reserve for the concluding rhapsody, I thought, although some passages sounded curiously withdrawn for such forthright music; these contrasts sounded excessive, even wilful. That said, there was a magnificently tumultuous conclusion, which put me in mind of the first piano concerto and swept all before it.

I cannot imagine Zimerman’s performance of the early Szymanowski Variations on a Polish folk theme ever being surpassed. He seemed perfectly attuned to the shifting moods of the variations, and was unabashed in exhibiting the often exacting technique they require. A splendidly exploratory tone was set in the introduction, Debussyan in its ambiguity. The theme again sounded almost French, albeit with an undeniably Polish longing and nostalgia, evoking the Chopin of the mazurkas in its harmonies. Rachmaninov seemed to loom large in a number of the variations, although this may have been as much correspondence as influence. Certainly the passage work of the first and the torrentially cascading octaves of the second sounded as much ‘music for the Steinway’ as that of the Russian composer. This was counterbalanced by a sense of disquiet in the third variation and a rapt stillness in the major-mode sixth variation. The funeral march of the eighth inevitably brought Chopin to mind, but the physical sense of a passing cortège also evoked Mussorgsky’s Bydlo. The fff passages – I imagine they would be thus marked, since I do not have access to a score – were truly thunderous, but never harsh, whilst the final disappearance was a moment of pianistic magic. Debussy reappeared – or at least seemed to, for those of us who know his music better than that of Szymanowski – during the ninth variation: somewhere between Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest and Feux d’artifice, albeit without the individuality of the Frenchman’s harmony. Zimerman’s virtuosity in the finale dispelled any lingering doubts one might have entertained concerning the slightly derivative nature of some of the music. This set of variations received a performance I should unhesitatingly describe as magnificent. Perhaps next time, though, we might have some music from Chopin himself?

Saturday, 24 May 2008

LSO/Davis: Schubert and Bruckner, 23 May 2008

Barbican Hall

Schubert – Symphony no.5 in B-flat major, D.485
Bruckner – Symphony no.7 in E major (ed. Nowak)

London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

A surprisingly small London Symphony Orchestra – ten first violins and so on – assembled on the stage for Schubert’s Fifth Symphony. Had Sir Colin Davis finally succumbed to the ‘authenticity’ bug? That is scarcely more likely than Daniel Barenboim or Riccardo Muti doing so, and the answer remained no, yet there was something a little – and I do not wish to exaggerate – perfunctory about this performance. The tempo of each movement was swifter than one might have expected, the outer movements fast by any standards and all the music more urgently driven than Davis’s Mozart. Schubert marked the second movement as a flowing Andante con moto and this was certainly what we heard. If not quite hard-driven, I thought that Davis might profitably have yielded a little more. The ‘minuet’ (Allegro molto) was taken one beat to a bar, although there was – thankfully – a considerable relaxation for the rustic, rather Haydnesque trio. This was recalled in a slight relaxation for the second subject of the finale, which worked well, but otherwise there was little variation of tempo. There were numerous instances of finely-etched instrumental detail, for instance carefully-projected bass lines, beautiful horn arpeggios at the close of the second movement, and a telling bassoon underlay in the third movement’s trio. It was all very stylish, not least in its unerring articulation, and was without exception most beautifully performed, but ultimately something was missing. Although I can appreciate the retort that Teutonic profundity would be out of place in this work and should agree that an attempt to transform it into late Bruckner would be misguided, I am far from convinced that an attempt to penetrate deeper beneath the surface would have been in vain. Karl Böhm in his Vienna recording of the work provides an object lesson in this respect, as indeed do many of Davis’s own Schubert recordings with the Staatskapelle Dresden.

The orchestra reverted to full-size for Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. It opened most promisingly, with a beautifully – yet never self-consciously – moulded ’cello line, surrounded by shimmering upper strings. How glorious the full orchestra now sounded, the brass soon making us realise just how ‘full’ it was. There were in this first movement slight yet telling hints of rubato, which would not have gone amiss later on. For this was as about far from a Furtwänglerian reading as one might travel, not that anyone – even Barenboim – conducts Bruckner like Furtwängler any more. There was an implacability that perhaps recalled Klemperer, although the sheer beauty of orchestral sound had more in common, rather to my surprise, with Karajan. Davis’s care with articulation and phrasing were once again worthy of note.

Then, however, something truly extraordinary happened. Instead of the expected Adagio we heard the Scherzo. It appears that this has been Davis’s practice in the past; it is certainly the order to which he adheres in his Orfeo recording with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. But why? It is, I freely admit, refreshing to experience a performance that stands for itself rather than being prefaced by lengthy ‘justifications’, but in this case, I do think that at least some reference in the programme to this unusual – to put it mildly – practice would have been welcome. This is not a disputed case, such as the movement order of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, but a unilateral reorganisation, all the more surprising given that it hails from a conductor with a far from radical reputation. As it happens, it worked better than I should have expected, at least until the finale, which, coming after the Adagio, sounded more lightweight than ever and simply seemed incapable of taking the emotional and musico-dramatic strain.

Much of what we heard, however, was once again extremely beautiful. There was a sense of the apocalyptic to the Scherzo, not in an overriding metaphysical (Furtwänglerian) manner, but it was nevertheless present. The care taken to spring the movement’s rhythms was much appreciated by this listener. Silences were observed, though never milked; both here and in the Adagio, Davis displayed a commendable ability to incorporate Bruckner’s silences into an overarching phrasal structure. The ending of the trio sounded oddly dissipated, but this was very much an exception. Depth of tone was wonderfully apparent in much of the Adagio, although there were lighter moments too, perhaps a few too many. The depth of the strings did not preclude a full appreciation of woodwind soli, especially that of Gareth Davies’s truly magical flute. Again, the conductor’s moulding of phrases was exquisite, without sounding appliqué. This being the Nowak edition, we heard the cymbal clash suggested to the composer by Arthur Nikisch. The finale’s opening sounded more than usually jaunty, which, as I suggested above, was exacerbated by the reordering of the inner movements. This opening phrase was, however, surrounded once again by ravishingly shimmering strings. The LSO’s brass section soon reached volume-levels very close to its fabled Chicago Symphony counterpart, albeit without the slightest hint of brashness. An unfortunate horn slip toward the end highlighted the otherwise extremely high level of orchestral execution, which produced a most impressive weight to the symphony’s conclusion. However, some flexibility in tempo would have made this movement seem less of a race and more viable as a solution to the ‘finale problem’ that had dogged symphonists since Beethoven. I suspect that this would not have been enough, given the reordering, but it would have helped. As for the latter aspect, I can only ask again: why?

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

András Schiff, piano recital: Schubert, 14 May 2008

Schubert – Four Impromptus, D.899
Schubert – Six Moments Musicaux, D.780
Schubert – Three Klavierstücke, D.946
Schubert – Four Impromptus, D.935

András Schiff (piano)

This was a frustrating recital. András Schiff, it goes without saying, is an extremely fine musician, who has perhaps always been most at home in the Classical repertoire (and Bach). His touch, as once again displayed here, is almost unfailing beautiful, not for its own sake, but at the service of the music. His beloved Bösendorfer piano serves his approach supremely well: infinitely yielding, never strident, at one with the music. One cannot fault his musical seriousness, his absolute lack of empty showmanship, nor the evident fondness of his advocacy for Schubert.

What, then, was the problem? Sad to say, it lay in the programme itself. What could be wrong with an all-Schubert programme? Nothing, but the organisation of this particular all-Schubert programme was unfortunate. To perform the first three sets of pieces prior to the interval made for a very long ‘half’: an hour and a half. For much of the Three Piano Pieces, D.946, a large part of the audience seemed restless and even Schiff seemed at times a little tired. Doubtless the heat did not help, but I suspect the upshot might have been similar even in the dead of winter. It was telling that a number of audience members did not return after the interval – which was a great pity, since there were musical riches aplenty to be heard. However, it was not simply the length of the recital, which, beginning at half-past seven, did not end until about ten past ten. The concentration of so many Schubert pieces, without a single sonata, or indeed movement in sonata form, had the extremely unhappy consequence of making them sound too similar, especially those in ternary form. I am not convinced that the Moments musicaux are heard to best advantage as a set, but they were certainly not in this context; I rather think the programme would have been better without any of them, save perhaps as an encore or two. What might have made very good sense in a recording, namely collecting a good number of non-sonata works by Schubert, does not necessarily work as a recital programme.

I had heard the C minor Impromptu, D.899/1, in the same hall, six nights previously from David Fray. Schiff’s was a different performance, less Romantically volatile, but at least as fine. His subtle rubato was exquisitely tuned to the twists and turns of the music, whilst the Erlkönig-like triplets were suitably implacable. Inner voices, where they existed, were projected powerfully, to what was perhaps a surprising extent; so too were bass lines. The lightness of touch with which Schiff opened the second impromptu provided a great contrast from the outset, without precluding sterner minor-mode moments, even within the opening material, let alone in subsequent sections. Left-hand dissonances later on were keenly projected, in almost Bartókian fashion. Throughout this set, though especially in the second and fourth pieces, I was impressed by the lack of any vain attempt to hide the sectional nature of Schubert’s writing; instead, Schiff made a structurally contrasting virtue of it. Fray had also performed the G flat impromptu, no.3. If his performance had put me in mind of Mendelssohn, then Schiff’s did even more; there were even shades of Bach, in the near-complete obliteration of any distinction between melody and harmony. Here was a voice of great experience, yet an experience in no sense weary.

The Moments musicaux started well and, if the truth be told, continued well; my doubts concerned the programming rather than the performances as such. With the first, Schiff started extremely promisingly, providing a contrasting, quirkier Schubertian voice, married to an intensely lyrical middle section. A truly impassioned outburst performed a similar structural-expressive function in the second. Rhythms were nicely sprung in the celebrated – and considerably shorter – third piece, in F sharp minor. But by the time we reached the fifth, the only truly quick piece in the set, the relief was palpable, this despite great success purely on its own terms in projecting the quicksilver mood swings of the fourth. The sixth piece, sadly, sounded more like a reversion than anything new.

It was with the Three Piano Pieces, D.946, that even Schiff himself began to seem a little tired: not that there were inaccuracies, but dynamic and rhythmic contrasts at least appeared a little dulled at times. The first piece suffered least in this regard; indeed, its mood-swings were very well captured. When it came to the second, the barcarolle sections were achingly beautiful, but I felt that the first of the minor-key episodes was somewhat under-characterised, with the consequence that it came to sound prolix. There was no such problem with the second of these episodes, whose metrical change registered truly magically, exhibiting a pathos all the finer and truer for its complete lack of exaggeration. Audience restlessness, married to an undeniable similarity of mood between the first and third pieces, resulted in a sense of relief that the interval had finally arrived.

Duly refreshed, I felt in a much better position to enjoy the D.935 set of impromptus. There could be no doubt that Schiff was in his element here. Without attempting to wield the pieces closer together than their character could bear – Schumann was surely incorrect to dub them as a sonata in disguise – a looser unity, born of contrast as much as similarity, was confidently forged. The great strengths of Schiff’s technique and musicianship were allowed to shine, without the marring fatigue that had set in during the first ‘half’. For instance, although the second impromptu, in A-flat major, is rather similar in character and indeed in piano-writing, to some of the Moments musicaux, here it gained from its placing with more contrasted pieces. The grand manner of the opening of the first was surely contrasted with the most tender lyricism that followed. During the third, a truly exquisite set of variations, there was a sense of proliferation, of variety, rather than of undue regimentation, which suited Schubert’s brand of variation-writing perfectly. The anguish of the third variation was the more telling for developing, rather than being imprinted upon Schiff’s reading from the outset. And the quirky Hungarian style of the fourth suited him equally. The ambivalence and complications of metre were married to an exquisite legato in the more lyrical sections. There was no lack of virtuosity in the passage-work, but the word seems almost beside the point in describing so utterly musical an account. What a pity, then, that the impact of such a performance remained somewhat blunted by its overall context.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

LSO/Boulez: Schoenberg, Pintscher, and Bartók, 11 May 2008

Barbican Hall

Schoenberg - Die glückliche Hand, Op.18
Matthias Pintscher - Osiris (British premiere)
Bartók - Bluebeard's Castle

Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano)
Peter Fried (bass)
BBC Singers
London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

And so, we came to the second of Boulez's two LSO concerts this season. The performance of Die glückliche Hand was magnificent. Although Peter Fried's contribution was solid rather than inspiring, this seemed to matter little, since the real drama appeared to take place in the orchestra and in the chorus. The phantasmagoria of colours Boulez drew from the LSO was quite a revelation - and an extraordinary contrast with his rather flat Sony recording. (I do wonder whether the recordings are more at fault than the performances in his Sony Schoenberg series, but nevertheless remain sure that his greater experience, not least in the music of Mahler, has paid dividends in his more recent Schoenberg, which demands to be recorded.) Wild terror, rare beauty, and sometimes plain - or rather anything-but-plain - weirdness were all there in abundance during the unfoldling of this Expressionist nightmare. Details such as the early harp ostinato were projected with that clarity which eludes most musicians yet seems to be second nature to Boulez. To begin with, I wondered whether the BBC Singers sounded too much like individual voices, rather than 'a choir', but on reflection - and being convinced by their performance - appreciated that it was almost certainly my conception rather than theirs that was at fault. If one considers not only Schoenberg's wishes, but also the dictates of the drama, then mysterious, threatening, cajoling 'voices' is really just what they should be. I find the neglect of this score incomprehensible; let us hope that this performance will have left, as it should, many in the audience hungry for more.

The first British performance of Matthias Pintscher's Osiris received a commanding performance. (Consider the fortune of the composer who has Boulez to conduct the earliest performances of his works!) The early string-based textures, stemming from individual, twisting lines put me in mind of late Mahler (the Ninth and Tenth Symphonies). There was, moreover, a strong sense of this being something akin to a late-Romantic tone poem. This is not to say that the harmonies were straightforwardly of Mahler's or even Berg's world, but equally they were not wholly divorced from those composers' worlds. The intensification of the textures brought with it an 'updating' of the style, almost as if we were being asked to take a synoptic journey through the modernist inheritance. Ligeti's Ramifications was a work that came strongly to mind. This may of course merely represent my attempts at understanding rather than anything more fundamental to the work itself, but I wonder. As the textures diversified further, and the rest of the orchestra played an increasingly prominent role, I thought also of Messiaen, especially as the themes sounded more fragmentary. The coincidence with some of Messiaen's bird-song may again be no more than that. There were superb solos from the contrabass clarinettist and principal trumpet; the percussionists increasingly enjoyed a field day. Surely no section of the orchestra has benefited more from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I had no doubt of the strong narrative drive of the work, which further hearings would doubtless render clearer. In Pintscher's overall approach to modernist tradition, I was reminded of Wolfgang Rihm, which is not to say that one could mistake one for the other.

The account of Bluebeard's Castle (sadly, minus Prologue) was for the most part excellent, although I did not react so ecstatically as some in the audience. There was a section, a little after the duly overwhelming opening of the fifth door, in which I thought the orchestra - and perhaps its direction too - sounded just a little laboured, tired even. There were also occasions when its rhythmic bite might have been more pronounced, although this was doubtless to some extent a product of Boulez's rather Debussyan conception of the textures: closer to The Wooden Prince and even to Pelléas than to more typically 'Hungarian' readings. Fried was somewhat disappointing, variable in his ability to project the text over the orchestra. His timbre was suitably black, but often rather dry. (Think of John Tomlinson in this repertoire, and one appreciates what was missing.) Michelle DeYoung had no such difficulties, and also proved herself unfailingly musical with regard to the general - and particular - musical 'line'. Orchestral soli were without exception of the highest order, and the work's conclusion, subsiding into eery nothingness, was simply breathtaking. There were certainly most of the ingredients for a great performance here and, perhaps on another occasion and with another Bluebeard, this is what it would have been.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Prometeo, 10 May 2008, Royal Festival Hall

Royal Festival Hall

Caroline Chaniolleau and Mathias Jung (narrators)
Synergy Vocals
London Sinfonietta
Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble
Diego Masson and Patrick Bailey (conductors)

Experimental Studio for Acoustic Arts, Freiburg (live electronic realisation)
André Richard (spatial sound direction and concept artistic co-ordination)
Michael Acker and Reinhold Braig (sound projection and electronic realisation)

One might be ungracious and ask why it has taken twenty-four years to perform Prometeo in thus country, but let us instead express our delight that the Southbank Centre's excellent festival, Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice has now reached its climax with this long-awaited premiere. It would, I think, be uncontroversial to describe this performance as a triumph for all - and there are many - involved. Indeed, there seemed to be a sense from those who had attended the previous night's performance, that this performance had come together all the more strongly on account of the additional experience.

During the pre-concert discussion, André Richard spoke of having transformed the Royal Festival Hall - perhaps not the ideal space for such a work - into a musical instrument, and this was very much how it felt. Richard also pointed to the Monteverdian quality of the four instrumental ensembles - seven strings, flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, and trombone - positioned around the audience. The combination of such instrumental composition, voices, and the all-important spatial dimension - not just the placing of instrumentalists and voices, but also that of the twenty-seven speakers, to be understood not as agents of amplification but as points at which music could take place - inevitably brought to mind the great Venetian polychoral works of the past. St Mark's, in a sense, was brought to the South Bank and transformed. But equally so was Venice itself, or at least the Venice of Nono's understanding (for which, Bettina Ehrhardt's beautiful, moving film, A Trail on the Water, available on DVD, should be considered mandatory). The twists and turns, the lapping of the waves, the transfer between East and West were voiced; indeed, the interchanges, and landscapes of Venetian, European, and world history were present throughout this retelling of the Prometheus myth. Moreover, the words, a fascinating assemblage from Massimo Cacciari, are far more readily audible than many commentators - have they actually been listening? - would have one believe.

For most importantly, we were both enabled and compelled to listen, as the repeated injunction 'Ascolta!' suggested we might and must. There is something quite extraordinary about Nono's music, which, despite its 'difficulty' and its length - two and a quarter hours with, quite rightly, no interval - awards us the privilege and the duty to listen, most likely as we have never listened before. I doubt that anyone in the audience will listen quite in the same way again following this experience. In this sense, the lack of stage action is crucial: we can only perceive through listening: in a sense, the culmination of Wagner's expressed desire, having created an invisible orchestra, subsequently to create an invisible theatre. The hall had truly become the instrument of which Richard spoke and no less had it become the stage.

The outstanding musical performances contributed so much to this. It seems invidious to single out any contributor, not least given Nono's deconstruction of the Romantic hierarchy of musical performance. But the two conductors - none of whom is at the centre - shared their wealth of experience with the combined forces of the London Sinfonietta and RAM Manson Ensemble. There was, incidentally, no sense of the young players of the latter being anything other than equals with their more experienced colleagues. Both shone especially in the only purely instrumental movement, the second Interlude. The great demands placed upon singers and instrumentalists were impeccably met and amply rewarded throughout. This was truly an experience that no one is likely to forget, an experience all the more necessary when lazy short-cuts and attempts to 'compromise' with the audience have become all the rage, and not just on the other side of the Atlantic. A mishmash of re-re-heated neo-Romantic pastiche or lazy minimalism may be more overt in the work of some American composers, but it is perhaps all the more dangerous in Europe given its (slightly) greater cover here. (Calling something 'post-modern' must not be permitted to forestall rigorous criticism.) The audience, at this performance commendably mixed, emphatically does not need compromise; it needs to be challenged; it needs to listen and to be presented with something to which it is truly worth listening. Prometeo may be a 'tragedy in listening', and one can never be in doubt concerning the human suffering that yet again provoked Nono into composing this work, but the outcome is far from tragic, in that once again it provides us with hope.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

David Fray, piano recital, 8 May 2008

Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Impromptu in C minor, D 899 no.1
Schubert – Impromptu in G flat major, D 899 no.3
Mozart – Piano Sonata in B flat major, KV 333/315c
Mozart – Adagio in B minor, KV 540
Bach – Partita no.6 in E minor, BWV 830

David Fray (piano)

The audience at this Wigmore Hall recital was disappointingly small, despite the recent release of David Fray’s widely-lauded first disc for Virgin Classics. Perhaps this is a case of a record company – and record collectors – being more discriminating than concert audiences, for Fray, on the evidence of this recital alone, is a very important pianist. He does not need to be treated as ‘promising’; he is a fully-fledged musician. This is not to say that everything was performed at an equal level, but where I am more critical, namely in the performance of the Mozart piano sonata, this is more a reflection on the very high quality of the rest of the performance than upon any serious failings.

Clichés concerning French musicians, not least pianists, die hard, but the only thing Gallic about Fray’s performance was his appearance. Indeed, if one closed one’s eyes during the two Schubert impromptus, one might have guessed at least ‘school of’ Wilhelm Kempff. In his programme notes, Jonathan Burton likened the C minor Impromptu to ‘taking the tune for a walk,’ which was just how it sounded here. Fray’s alertness to harmonic motion ensured that we were in safe hands with regard to the walk’s direction, whatever its diverting twists and turns. Voice-leading was excellent, though never in a self-consciously ‘individual’ way. The Erlkönig-triplets were ominous but never melodramatic; this was an impromptu, not an aspirant sonata movement. And the way in which the music died away – an especial strength of Fray’s performances throughout the recital – was truly magical, testament to his powers of touch and phrasing. The G flat major piece rightly stood closer to Mendelssohn than to Bellini; if vocal this were, then it was a song without words, not an aria. It was again a performance driven by a profound understanding of the work’s harmonic sense. Schenker – and indeed Furtwängler – would have approved. The darker undertones were well judged: neither too little nor too much. Again, the music subsided into nothingness, the only Gallic concession being the shrug at the end.

Mozart’s sonata in B flat, KV 333/315c was the only work concerning whose performance I had reservations. The opening Allegro was taken at quite a speed. Though not really hard-driven, I did think that it could profitably have been taken down a notch, and that Fray might have yielded a little more to Mozart’s lyricism. In this respect, the second subject was moulded to better effect during the exposition repeat and the recapitulation than it had been upon its initial presentation. The ineffably operatic vocal leaps first heard at the end of the exposition would have benefited from more tender shaping. Moreover, the dynamic range was somewhat restricted throughout: Fray proved himself excellent at differentiating between a wide range of piano playing, but never rose to a true forte. His varied articulation, however, was excellent. The Andante cantabile was certainly a modern reading in terms of its flowing tempo, but ultimately it sounded ever so slightly impatient. Admittedly, the exposition sounded more relaxed the second time round, so this was not simply a matter for the metronome. The concerto finale, marked Allegretto grazioso, was not excessively fast, but again I felt that a slightly more measured pace would have been preferable, not least when we reached the coda, whose figuration, whilst perfectly delivered in technical terms, suggested that a slower basic tempo might have been beneficial. This movement sounded louder on the whole, sometimes to good effect, as in the ‘orchestral’ lead-up to the cadenza, although I missed the shades of piano evident during the first two movements. The cadenza certainly sounded as a cadenza should.

After the interval, Fray remained with Mozart, for the miraculous Adagio in B minor, KV 540. Here, from the word go, there were greater dynamic contrasts, indicating a greater willingness to employ more or less the full resources of the modern piano. Imitating the fortepiano merely reduces the music, and I fancy there was a little of this to the sonata performance. Having said that, there is the undeniable fact that to perform Mozart well is the most difficult of all musical tasks, so one should not be too harsh; I have heard far, far worse. At any rate, we were treated – in every sense – not only to a true forte, but even sparingly to a true fortissimo, albeit always at the service of the music. Great care was taken with the voicing of the semiquaver chords, enabling their rhythmic and harmonic momentum fully to register. And there was an undeniable sense of fatal progression, always leading to the desolation of the coda and the final consoling warmth of B major.

If the Mozart Adagio was excellent, then the Bach partita received a performance for which the word ‘great’ is not an exaggeration. There was no sense whatsoever here of fearing to use the modern instrument to the full; it is interesting, though regrettable, that pianists nowadays often sound more circumscribed in Mozart than in Bach. Indeed, it was absolutely clear from this performance that, for those for whom Bach is more – so much more – than merely decorative, generically Baroque, the continuously developing life-force of his music will always demand the piano. As Ernst Bloch put it, ‘the harpsichord’s sharp, short sound fulfils not a single one of Bach’s requirements. … there can be no doubt that only our own pianos, the incomparable Steinways that were born for the modern Bach, clear, booming, edged with silver, have revealed how the master should now be played.’

The Toccata began with a splendid sense of freedom, both rhythmic and dynamic, to the opening flourishes. There was an excellent sense of the counterpoint developing therefrom, rather than providing a mere contrast. Every note counted, both in itself and for where it was going. Here, the tempi sounded ‘right’ without fail; there was no sense whatsoever of being hurried. Finely modulated dynamic contrasts added to the great cumulative build up to the reprise of the earlier, freer music. This return sounded duly inevitable, yet the sense of transformation was truly magical. The Allemande brought a good sense of Bachian ambiguity between the melodic and the chordal in its arpeggio figuration. Intricacy, expressive rather than decorative, was the key to the almost Wagnerian sense of ‘unending melody’. The Corrente was nicely contrasted, sounding a more boisterous mood from the outset. There was a real sense of the corrente dance truly running, though running meaningfully, for there was real depth to the projection of the music’s chromatic twists. In the Air, an especial joy was the subtle contrasting of the presentation of the theme, allied once again to a supreme sense of line and unendliche Melodie. The beauty of the Sarabande’s broken chords showed what only the piano could do, yet these were not merely ‘colourful’. Indeed, there was a presentiment of Boulezian proliferation – Fray’s disc for Virgin combined Bach and Boulez – as the dialectic between harmony and melody worked itself out. Likewise, the ornaments were truly melodic, which had not always been the case in the Mozart sonata. There could be no doubt that this movement formed the still heart to the partita. Fray boldly projected the Gigue’s counterpoint. From the opening bar, it was sharply defined rhythmically, and showed how one can have drive without ever tending towards the hard-driven. Bach’s extreme chromaticism brings us close to Berg, an aspect Fray clearly relished. Moreover, the expressive potential of the intervallic relationships, especially in the wedge-like opening out of the themes, was frankly Webernian, to an extent I cannot recall hearing previously. At the end, one appreciated that Fray had conceived the performance as a whole, and had triumphantly succeeded. It only remained for the poet to speak in the magical Schumann encore with which Fray concluded his distinguished recital.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Don Giovanni, English Touring Opera, 2 May 2008

Cambridge Arts Theatre

Don Giovanni – Roland Wood
Leporello – Jonathan Gunthorpe
Il Commendatore – Andrew Slater
Donna Anna – Julia Sporsén
Don Ottavio – Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson
Donna Elvira – Laura Parfitt
Zerlina – Ilona Domnich
Masetto – Adrian Powter

Orchestra and Chorus of English Touring Opera
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

Jonathan Munby (director)
Barnaby Rayfield (associate director)
Soutra Gilmour (designs)
Guy Hoare (lighting)

The raison d’être of English Touring Opera is a good one, indeed a very good one: performing opera across England, largely in venues untouched by larger companies. On the last occasion that I had heard the company, also in Cambridge, it had been in Ariadne auf Naxos. I had not attended with great expectations and had therefore been pleasantly surprised with a perfectly respectable, often witty presentation of Strauss’s opera. If only I were able to say the same about this Don Giovanni, which really did not pass muster. This was a slightly cut version that conformed more to Prague than to Vienna in terms of versions, although not quite to either. That, however, was the least of its problems.

One expects a reduced, even somewhat hard-pressed orchestra in such situations and, if one is reasonable, one does not expect the tonal quality of the Vienna Philharmonic. But I think one has a right to expect more than the scrawniness with which the strings, especially the violins, presented Mozart’s score on this occasion. The woodwind, however, sounded unexceptionable but perfectly acceptable, as did the brass, even though the latter sounded strangely subdued; for instance, it would have been good to have heard more from the trombones in the ‘Stone Guest’ scene. I assume that the failing woodwind during the first number of the Tafelmusik was deliberate; if not, then Leporello’s reaction to it was quickly improvised. However, I could not understand what was the point of transforming the aria from Vicente Martin y Soler’s Una cosa rara into an intimation of Siegfried’s hapless attempts to communicate with the animals of the forest. Michael Rosewell kept things going on, and if there was no especial insight from his interpretation and there was certainly a lack of loving phrasing, there were no true horrors, such as one may often be faced with in Mozart.

So far, then, not quite so bad, but I am afraid there was little good news elsewhere. The updating to the fascist era might have worked, but did not really come off. Perhaps budgetary constraints were involved here; I suspect they must have lain behind the unimaginative trellis-set that formed the backdrop for almost everything. Don Giovanni’s transformation into what seemed to be a local police or military commander at least had the merit of preserving some element of social differentiation, so crucial to this work’s success. This was utterly squandered, however, by the inexplicable decision to have the nobleman act as the coarsest of peasants at table. Such was not reckless abandon; it was, again, merely embarrassing. Moreover, the fascist salutes at various junctures were more embarrassing than chilling, not least at what should be that most terrifying prospect of social collapse, the extended cries of ‘Viva la libertà’ (here, ‘Freedom for one and all’) in the Act I finale. Balanced against that, I thought the exchange of clothes between Giovanni and Leporello during the second act worked better than I have often seen, partly on account of the physical similarity between Roland Wood and Jonathan Gunthorpe. It was when the drama demanded something more than comedy – which, I should argue, is almost all of the time – that the production failed to deliver. There was no sense of the metaphysical, no sense of Giovanni’s almost Faustian heroism, but rather a reversion to the world of burlesque – and it seemed more a case of faute de mieux than a challenging reversion. Many members of the audience seemed to find the arrival of the Stone Guest amusing rather than terrifying; I found it neither.

The English translation did not help at all. I find it difficult at the best of times to endure a work I know so well in anything other than Lorenzo da Ponte’s skilful original libretto. Since ETO was performing Bellini’s Anna Bolena in Italian, I do not understand why it could not have done so with a far better-known work. If translated it must be, though, it would benefit from something considerably superior to the strange mixture of vaguely archaic forced rhyming and free association of an ‘only slightly after da Ponte’ variety.

It was with the singing, however, that the gravest of problems lay. First, the good news: Adrian Powter was a winning, musical Masetto, far more sympathetic than one often finds him, not without his violent side but also torn between differing impulses. I should unhesitatingly describe his performance as a true success. Ilona Domnich also made an attractive Zerlina, although her stage persona was often in advance of her vocal quality. The rest of the cast ranged from adequate to disastrous. Wood and Gunthorpe’s Giovanni and Leporello were largely wooden and/or caricatured. There was a great deal of dissociation of pit and stage, most egregiously during the ‘Champagne Aria’, in which at one point singer and orchestra found themselves a bar apart. Laura Parfitt just about managed the notes as Elvira, albeit with little insight and a far from attractive voice. Andrew Slater was underpowered as the Commendatore, usually a gift of a role to a stentorian bass. As for the seria couple, Don Ottavio and Donna Anna, Julia Sporsén coped with her coloratura, but seemed hopelessly at sea when it came to acting; she lacked dignity, let alone characterisation. Eyjólfur Eyjólfsson was not too bad at acting on stage, but could barely sing the role. In fact, he could not sing the role, although this minor handicap did not prevent irritating applause after 'Il mio tesoro'. He emphatically did not cope with his coloratura; he was often startlingly out of tune, and produced an unpleasant nasal tone throughout.

I wish I could have been more positive, and have tried to point to relatively more promising aspects of the performance. Don Giovanni, however, is an extremely difficult work to pull off, even in the most favoured of circumstances. ETO needs to consider whether it would be better advised to bring smaller, more practicable, perhaps more unusual works to the stage. Should it decide against, then it really must do better than this in mainstream repertoire.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

LSO/Boulez: Bartók, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Boulez, 30 April 2008

Barbican Hall, London

Bartók – Concerto for two pianos and percussion
Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Stravinsky – Le chant du Rossignol
Boulez – Notations I, VII, IV, III, and II

Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich (piano)
Neil Percy and Nigel Thomas (percussion)
London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

Bartók wrote his concerto for himself and his wife to perform in America, deriving it from the Sonata for two pianos and percussion. It received a commanding performance here, as, given the identity of the performers, one would expect. Rhythms were razor-sharp, orchestral colour truly shone, and there was never even the slightest hint of a loss of implacable direction. My only reservation really lay with the work itself, which seems to me to have lost the extraordinary sonority and large-scale intimacy – if the contradiction be allowed – of its original form, without truly having been rewritten enough to qualify as a new work. The orchestra is often, although not always, resigned to an accompanying role, which can on occasion obscure the clarity of lines so crucial to the work’s success. That said, if anyone could combat such obscurity it was Pierre Boulez, and he did a fine job.

Boulez has long championed Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces. They, unsurprisingly, received once again an excellent performance here. There were numerous lines, such as that of the xylophone in the first movement, which I heard with greater clarity than I can recall from other performances. The brass was duly brutal, though without brashness, in that movement’s chilling conclusion. Vergangenes, the second movement, received a languorous and indeed seductive opening. If the sonorities beguiled, so also did the twists and turns in respect of melody, harmony, and tempo. The lower strings sounded especially heartfelt, and there was an almost Debussyan perfect balance of timbres throughout, leading one inexorably into the Klangfarbenmelodie of the third piece. Here Debussy once again came to mind, although, quite righly, in the guise of the darkness of Pelléas rather than of anything more perfumed. Indeed, the timbres sounded more suffocating than usual. There was no doubt that Boulez was conducting with hindsight, for the melody of colours not only harked back to earlier Debussy but also looked forward to the post-war experiments of Darmstadt. It seemed that Schoenberg might not even then have been so dead as the young Boulez had once claimed. Rhythmic precision, which can often be overlooked in this music, was as impeccable as one would expect from Boulez, which prepared the way very well for the fourth movement. (The sense of the five pieces forming part of a greater whole was throughout most impressive.) Peripetie proved a movement of great contrasts, which showcased, although never in a shallow way, the dazzling orchestral virtuosity of Schoenberg, Boulez, and the LSO. The final piece provided us with a real narrative – it is, after all, a ‘recitative’ of sorts – which heightened the influence of Wagner, both horizontally and vertically. Supremely disciplined and therefore heightened drama was the order of the day as the shattering conclusion came upon us.

Drama was also the order of the day in Stravinsky’s tone poem, Chant du rossignol. In this case, the narrative was more redolent, quite appropriately, of a series of balletic tableaux, culminating in a real sense of discovery at the end as the true Nightingale’s song won out over its competitors. In this respect, the flute and its rivals were beyond criticism; all of their individual lines were beautifully shaped and as sharply characterised as one could ask. The trumpet soloist also deserves special mention, not least for his reminiscences of Mussorgsky in the courtiers’ funeral march. Stravinsky was always a Russian composer. This we also heard in the mix of telegraph wire and Shrovetide Fair with which Stravinsky and Boulez brought us back to old St Petersburg.

Programming has always been a great strength of Boulez, and this was no exception. The performance of his five existing – or at least published – orchestral Notations made one realise how much he owed to each of the featured predecessors, whilst also exhibiting his extraordinary originality. If ever there were a showcase for a virtuosic yet also truly musical orchestra, then this is it. The physical size of the conductor’s score is in itself remarkable. This is a work-in-progress that requires no fewer than eight percussionists, and divides the strings into as many as forty different parts. The sense, omnipresent in Boulez, of teeming proliferation, never finished and indeed impossible to finish, was definitively present under the composer’s own direction. A sense of what Calum MacDonald in the programme notes called ‘an exotic ritual procession’ was palpable in the – relatively – lengthy seventh Notation, with its wonderful marking ‘hiératique’. There were hints of the Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna, perhaps even of Balinese music, and certainly – at least in this performance – of Parsifal. It is undeniable that the experience of Bayreuth has changed Boulez for ever. The skeleton of the piano original is perhaps most readily heard in IV, ‘Rhythmique’. Here Bartók and Stravinsky vied with Webern to create something audibly fresh and new, but then one could say much the same about any of the pieces. The extraordinary second Notation, with which the performance closed, is such a riot of orchestral colours and so viscerally enjoyable – yes, Boulez can be extremely enjoyable, if only one deigns to listen – that it was encored with an exhilarating sense of jubilation.

Sir Thomas Allen, vocal recital, 29 April 2008

Friends of Peterhouse Theatre, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Schumann – Dichterliebe, Op.48
Butterworth – selection from A Shropshire lad
Copland – Long time ago
Copland – At the river
Bernstein – Greeting
Warlock – Ha’nacker Mill
Warlock – My own country
Warlock – Sleep
Thomas Dunhill – The cloths of heaven
Frank Bridge – The Devon maid

Sir Thomas Allen (baritone)
Simon Over (piano)

This was a concert of two halves, certainly not in terms of quality of performance but rather of content. In the second half, Sir Thomas Allen and Simon Over performed a varied selection of songs in English, from twentieth-century English and American composers. If Leonard Bernstein’s uncharacteristically subdued Greeting failed to make any particular impression, and Frank Bridge’s The Devon Maid impressed more on account of Keats’s verse than Bridge’s setting, then this was in no sense the fault of the performers, who lavished as much care and attention upon songs such as these as they had on Schumann during the first half. The two Copland songs exhibited an easy going, almost folksy charm in Allen’s performance, to which he added if not quite an American drawl, then at least something unforcedly mid-Atlantic. Peter Warlock’s settings, to which Allen imparted a diverting spoken introduction, exhibited a fine marriage of words and music, both in terms of the works themselves and the performances. Over’s contribution was crucial not only to the general ‘atmosphere’ of the songs, but also to the sense of harmonic and rhythmic momentum, which without exception sounded in perfect tandem with the vocal line.

Perhaps the highlight of the first half came at its opening with six of George Butterworth’s settings from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The group – Loveliest of trees, When I was one-and-twenty, Look not in my eyes, Think no more, lad, The lads in their hundreds, and Is my team ploughing? – were nicely contrasted. Whilst there was an undoubted overarching melancholy to poetry, music, and performance, this did not preclude a sprightlier response where called for. The performances were thoroughly idiomatic, sounding as if presentations of the songs themselves rather than ‘interpretations’ thereof. I might hazard a couple of minor cavils, in that Allen’s intonation very occasionally did not initially hit the spot, although it was without exception swiftly corrected, and the head voice was not always quite so secure as the fine chest register. But if anything, these minor attributes added to the sense of slightly flawed humanity; they were in no sense distracting.

The first half was devoted entirely, and rightly so, to Schumann’s Dichterliebe. I left this until last, since it is of course a masterpiece of the highest order, and I suspect that it is this performance that I shall longest remember. What I said concerning intonation was occasionally the case here, but again the quibble is somewhat beside the point. What mattered was a thoughtful and profoundly moving response to the verbal and musical text. Indeed, Allen presented some of the best diction, in both German and English, I have heard in a recital or indeed anywhere else. There was not a single word for which I had to strain to hear. This was doubtless helped by the acoustic of the intimate Friends of Peterhouse Theatre, but on past experience, this nevertheless remains far from a given. In any case, Heine’s verse is so perfect that one needs to hear every word, and for once one did.

The audience’s attention seemed – and mine certainly was – captured from the vernal opening of Im wunderschönen Monat Mai. Word-painting, in both the vocal and piano parts, was beautifully expressed throughout, without descending into the didactic. The word zerrissen (‘torn’) in Und wüßten’s die Blumen, die kleinen was almost onomatopoeic, yet the vocal line remained perfectly intact. Schubert’s ghost will always haunt subsequent Lieder, but I felt him notably present on a number of apt occasions. Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne brought an especially finely-detailed piano response, reminiscent of the past joys of Winterreise, whilst the following Wenn ich in deine Augen seh was rounded off with a touchingly Schubertian postlude. Likewise the signs of hope, almost instantly to be dashed, in Ich will meine Seele tauchen, which is not of course in any sense to deny Schumann’s originality. An authentic Heine irony was heard in the real anger of Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen, as the poet hears the wedding dance of his beloved. Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen painted a true landscape of the heart, from the piano’s frozen opening onwards. And when, in Allnächtlich im Traume, we heard, ‘Du sagst mir heimlich ein leises Wort’, we were indeed told a hushed word in secret. The nobility of the penultimate Aus alten Märchen winkt es prepared the way for the devastating Die alten, bösen Lieder. No one could have missed the bitterness of the final lines, in which the poet tells us that the coffin must be so large and heavy since he will also bury his love and his suffering. And the piano epilogue took me back to the parallel passage of beauty through tears in the Op.18 Arabeske, reminding us that Schumann remained above all a poet of his own instrument.