Monday, 29 August 2011

Salzburg Festival (6) - VPO/Welser-Möst: Schubert-Mahler and Zemlinsky, 25 August 2011

Grosses Festspielhaus

Schubert-Mahler: String Quartet in D minor, D 810, ‘Death and the Maiden’
Zemlinsky – Lyric Symphony, op.18

Christine Schäfer (soprano)
Michael Volle (baritone)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst (conductor)

Franz Welser-Möst’s Vienna Philharmonic concert opened somewhat disappointingly with Mahler’s arrangement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet. It was naturally a joy in many ways to hear the massed Vienna strings and it would be difficult to fault their contribution in itself. However, I could not help but wonder quite what the point of Mahler’s arrangement was – especially nowadays. Having heard, just two days previously the Hagen Quartet perform the piece as Schubert wrote it, it was not clear that Mahler, orchestrator of genius though he was, added anything at all; a more overt orchestration might well have been more interesting. Instead, the simple apportioning of parts between a string orchestra, sometimes divided, sometimes not, has the tendency to neutralise Schubert’s music. There were occasional hints of the symphonies and perhaps the Rosamunde music too, but more often we seemed to be in a strange, or rather bland, no man’s land somewhere between Schubert and Bruckner. I suspect that it would have sounded better, if it had sounded less ‘conducted’, more chamber music writ large, yet Welser-Möst maintained an iron grip on proceedings, with constricted results. The second movement probably came off better in such circumstances. However, the scherzo was pushed towards Beethoven or rather towards a Toscanini-derived driven conception of Beethoven I find uncongenial, but to which some listeners – especially, it seems, across the Atlantic, still hold. It is difficult to begrudge performance of such a curiosity – and in these days of Mahler glut, it is arguably preferable to a run-of-the-mill symphonic performance – but I was left with a feeling of a box ticked rather than a truly musical experience. If only we could have heard the VPO in Verklärte Nacht instead…

Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony needs no apologies, and nowadays hovers on the edge of the repertoire. Not so long ago, I heard an excellent performance in London from the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen. The VPO had nothing to fear from the comparison, drawing upon seeming fathomless depth of tone, despite one especially glaring loss of ensemble. The extraordinary beauty of the horn solo in the postlude to the third movement, ‘Du bist die Abendwolke’ would have been worth the price of admission alone: utterly ravishing. However, Salonen proved a more interesting guide than Welser-Möst. The orchestral introduction did not open promisingly. Indeed, the studied ‘conducted’ style of the Schubert-Mahler quartet seemed to persist, every beat too audible. Interestingly, if somewhat disappointingly, the orchestral postlude suffered similarly, though to a considerably lesser extent, whilst Welser-Möst relaxed a great deal when ‘accompanying’, here giving a true sense of an experienced opera conductor accustomed to dealing with singers. Zemlinsky wrote a lyric symphony, though, rather than a song cycle, and the performance, however gorgeous, did not always exhibit a symphonic sense of purpose, meandering from time to time. Christine Schäfer struggled a little to be heard in the first of her three movements, in which the poet tells of the girl whose jewel is crushed by a heedless young prince’s chariot, but there was no such problem thereafter. Moreover, I have never heard the sixth movement sound quite so close to Pierrot lunaire. Doubtless Schäfer’s experience of performing – and recording – the latter work with Boulez fed into the chilling expressionism of her account. Volle’s voice was rarely beautiful, which is not to say that it was ugly either, but the point seemed much more to be the words with him, almost as if this were Wolf. Despite the shortcomings of the conducting, this remained an estimable performance, on account of orchestra and singers.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Salzburg Festival (5) - Maurizio Pollini: Beethoven, 24 August 2011

Grosses Festspielhaus

Piano Sonata no.22 in F major, op.54
Piano Sonata no.21 in C major, op.53, ‘Waldstein’
Piano Sonata no.24 in F-sharp major, op.78
Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor, op.57, ‘Appassionata’

Having already been treated to a series of five London recitals this year from Maurizio Pollini, it was a further blessing to hear a second all-Beethoven recital, with entirely different repertoire from that performed in London (the sacred ground of the final three sonatas). Here we heard four middle-period sonatas: two of the most celebrated, both prefaced by two-movement works that can sometimes be overlooked, but which most certainly should not be.

Pollini’s fabled clarity was in evidence from the opening bars of op.54, along with a Haydnesque relish in thematic working. (We can only regret, and stand bemused by, the absence of Haydn from Pollini’s repertoire, given his record in Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert.) Syncopations emerged as natural, or rather inevitable, not mere ‘features’ as they can sound in lesser hands; the same could be said of other melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic developments. (One can hardly call any such aspects embellishments with respect to either composer or pianist.) The second movement exuded a sense of Beethovenian joy: one could almost hear the pealing of bells, both physical and metaphysical. Struggle too of course was necessary. This moto perpetuo – well, almost – movement sounded in Pollini’s hands both inexorable and charming.

The Waldstein Sonata could then be heard as a necessary precursor to the F major sonata. Rhythmic momentum – and that includes harmonic rhythm – was absolutely crucial to the triumph of the first movement, never more so than in the ‘take off’ following the second subject: in the exposition, its repeat, and still more so in the recapitulation. The pianist’s crystalline beauty of touch might be taken for granted, given such dramatic imperatives, but should not be. The Introduzione presented the mystery of development in various senses: almost creatio ex nihilo, except of course even the most rudimentary thematic material in Beethoven could never be described as nothing. One could only marvel at the nobility of musical utterance that emerged, and then become absorbed in the formation – not for nothing does that word include the word ‘form’ – of the subject of the following rondo. The magic of its first statement never palls, or rather it will never pall in the hands of a musician such as Pollini. C major, the ‘simplest’ of all keys, especially on the piano, sounded once again pristine, unsullied. The strength of left-hand scalic passages and right-hand trills could doubtless have been savoured in its own right, but was never mere decoration here. Pollini left us in no doubt of his understanding of the meaning Beethoven invests in such devices, and indeed in the simplest of diatonic harmonies and in deviations therefrom – even when, arguably particularly when, that meaning cannot be expressed in words. The coda coruscated yet also beguiled with its breathtaking chiaroscuro.

Deceptive simplicity of another, yet related, kind was announced in the first movement of the F-sharp major sonata. Pollini’s warmth of tone – never believe those who dismiss him as ‘cold’ – provided a sense of virgin harmonic territory, for this is indeed a tonality rare in every sense. This was heightened by a poise, both pianist’s and composer’s, that one can hardly refrain from terming Mozartian. And yet, the second movement of this wonderful work clearly looked forward to Schumann, another composer in whose music Pollini has long excelled. Faschingschwank aus Wien seemed almost to be quoted, harmonically and melodically, except of course that it is the other way around. This movement emerged utterly winningly, almost as a Romantic character piece.

It was interesting after such Romantic explorations to hear the opening of the Appassionata stated with Bachian gravity, though the thematic working could only have been Beethoven’s. I could imagine that some of the exposition might have sounded understated to some, but the harder one listened, the subtler were the ways in which Pollini’s skill in voicing and Beethoven’s genius revealed themselves. That ability to draw in the listener, at least when he realises and acts upon the realisation that listening is hard work, is truly the mark of a great musician, whether a performer such as Pollini or a composer such as his great friend, the late Luigi Nono. What might have sounded ‘abstract’ was the necessary precondition, or so it sounded, for Beethovenian torrents truly to pour forth, something showier pianists and their fans seem unwilling, perhaps even unable, to appreciate. And so it continued throughout the piece, ‘musical’ and ‘dramatic’ virtues in persistent and generative dialectic with each other, Beethoven’s musical line all the while unbroken. The slow movement presented Beethoven’s variation form not only with extraordinary clarity, but again with necessity. Every diminution, every syncopation, every counter-melody, sounded as if it could not be otherwise. For that, we owed thanks not only to Pollini’s control of line but also to the perfection of pianistic touch that permitted such control. Technique, as Sir Peter Pears once observed, is – or at least should be – the liberation of the imagination. (I shall not name names on this occasion, but we all know pianists for whom it is nothing of the sort.) And throughout, there shone through the sheer sublimity of Beethoven’s theme. The transition to the finale managed both to surprise and to express inevitability, whereupon we heard not only a great Beethoven pianist but a great Chopin pianist too. Defiant and yet hopeful, these torrents were both like and unlike those of the Revolutionary Study; they certainly marked the climax not only of the work but of the recital as a whole, ever enveloped in tragic inevitability. In a sense it is difficult to say what Pollini ‘did’: somehow, he seemed ‘simply’ – though of course there is no ‘simply’ about it – to channel Beethoven’s music and its meaning. This was not non-interpretation after the manner Stravinsky affected to desire, but the truest interpretation of all.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Salzburg Festival (4) - Hagen Quartet: Schubert, 23 August 2011

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

String Quartet in A minor, D 804, ‘Rosamunde’
String Quartet in D minor, D 810, ‘Death and the Maiden’
String Quartet in G major, D 887

Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt (violins)
Veronika Hagen (viola)
Clemens Hagen (cello)

I could well understand the desire to perform Schubert’s final three quartets in the same concert. However, and I know that I was not alone in feeling this, there was a sense of diminishing returns by the end: a little too much of a marathon, to the detriment of the G major quartet, however finely performed. Sweltering heat in Salzburg certainly did not help; the Hagen Quartet could certainly not reasonably be held responsible for that. Nevertheless, I wondered whether performing the three quartets over two concerts, alongside a couple of other pieces, might have worked better.

That said, there was a great deal to admire, from the hushed, disquieting opening of the Rosamunde Quartet onwards. This A minor work received a dark, often violent reading, quite distinct from any complacent notions of the Biedermeier, the threat of fragmentation, especially in the first movement, always present yet never fulfilled. Adorno would surely have approved, for the Second Viennese School was brought even closer than usual to Schubert. The development’s febrile intensity, sometimes under and sometimes above the surface, enabled the recapitulation to emerge less as a return than as a second development, the coda almost as a third, albeit foreshortened and ultimately denied. I was less convinced by the second movement, whose tempo sounded more of an Allegretto than an Andante to me, though I realise that many will consider me terminally old-fashioned in that respect. The full tone of Clemens Hagen’s cello was sometimes undermined by the surprisingly low level (semi-skimmed?) vibrato above. Nevertheless, contrapuntal violence was magnificently achieved later on. The minuet exuded quiet menace. If only an intervening telephone had been quieter still, both here and in the finale. (The ringtone suggested that the culprit was one and the same.) Nevertheless, post-Mozartian grace and clarity – though by now, for Schubert, it is definitively post-Mozartian – enabled the music to smile through tears as well as calls. Mozartian perfection may no longer be possible, but there was a Beethovenian intensity of thematic working out to vie with that wistful necessity-cum-impossibility.

The darkness of Death and the Maiden’s opening rightly occluded the would-be jauntiness of the first movement’s second subject, which in any case would soon be utterly denied. And so, the movement continued: tragedy always having the upper hand, the purpose, if not the language, that of Beethoven. The celebrated slow movement set of variations was passionately tragic, yet never inappropriately so. The cello-led variation was a lyrical joy, though we always knew it could not last, the furious unisons of the ensuing third variation foreshadowing and arguably pre-emptively surpassing Bruckner. There were times, moreover, as in the fifth variation, when the players showed themselves unafraid to unleash a certain degree of ugliness akin to that of the Grosse Fuge. The scherzo’s drive indubitably owed a great deal to Beethoven’s example too, whilst the trio returned us to that post-Mozartian poise, tenderness, and vain hope expressed in the earlier quartet. The finale positioned itself, rightly, between those two tendencies, or rather veered between them, albeit with a lyricism, however strained, that was unmistakeably Schubert’s and Schubert’s alone.

If Bruckner had been occasionally present in the D minor Quartet, he almost became composer-in-residence for parts of the G major, the Seventh Symphony often coming to mind in the first movement’s melodic lines set against tremolos. The Hagens’ shaping of those melodies was of course crucial, and well-nigh faultless, likewise their appreciation of the sheer scale of Schubert’s canvas. That symphonic quality persisted into the slow movement, though melodic snatches and the give-and-take thereby necessitated underpinned the overwhelming motivic force. The scherzo was poised, as it should be, between Beethovenian gruffness and Mendelssohnian lightness, its formidable technical challenges navigated with aplomb, whilst the trio sounded as if a wistful echo of a time when one might still have danced carefree. Schubert’s finale emerged helter-skelter, yet anything but carefree, defiance and vulnerability held in necessarily uneasy confrontation.

Salzburg Festival (3) - Keenlyside/Aimard: Winterreise

Grosses Festspielhaus

Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

It would be difficult to come up with a superior replacement for an ailing Thomas Quasthoff than Simon Keenlyside. Indeed, if the truth be told, my preference would initially have been for Keenlyside, the present performance doing much to confirm that preference. Pierre-Laurent Aimard was an interesting choice as pianist; or should that be Schubert was an interesting choice for Aimard? There was often , as one might have expected, a modernistic slant to his performance, at times a little ‘objective’, not necessarily a bad thing, though at other times, his was a piano reading that showed itself fully, furiously committed. At any rate, this was not a routine Winterreise: Schubert’s great cycle emerged as a terrifying psychodrama, at times Romantic, at others expressionistic, but never comfortable.

Gute Nacht opened with promise, Aimard presenting a soft yet inexorable tread. Throughout, he proved alert to the ‘musical’ as well as ‘poetic’ form, ironclad formal certainty doing nothing to diminish poetic drama, but rather enhancing it, the rhythmic command of Die Post a case in point. He clearly knew when to support Keenlyside’s development and when to press into the dramatic foreground. If there was a certain neutrality to the piano tone in Die Wetterfahne and Gefrorne Tränen, the Debussy premonitions, Pelléas-like, of Erstarrung were testament to something particular and telling he was able to bring to Schubert: a frightening ill wind. The violence with which the third stanza of Der Lindenbaum opened was superbly judged: deeply felt in the bones, yet quite without theatrical overstatement. By contrast, the coldness of the piano in Auf dem Flusse told its story. The strangeness of Schubert’s harmonies in Irrlicht looked forward to late Liszt, rendering harmonic consolation all the more moving, whilst Mozartian delicacy in the introduction to Frühlingstraum complemented and yet ambivalently questioned Keenlyside’s lyricism. Is it not already too late to dream of springtime’s ‘bunten Blumen’? Whilst one might expect the extraordinary kinship to Webern of Letzte Hoffnung to play to Aimard’s strong suit, it was still striking how much it did. But kinship to the Schubert of the impromptus was equally apparent, in songs such as Täuschung and Das Wirtshaus. I should be intrigued to hear Aimard in more late Schubert. Finally, the ability to make the slightest (if only apparently so) variation tell in Der Leiermann was indicative of musical and dramatic certainty.

Keenlyside’s integrity – both as artist and ‘character’ – was palpable from the opening of the first song, bespeaking gentleness and hope: this was almost a Papageno verloren. There was great drama, in a more or less traditional sense, to be heard, for instance the overspill of bitterness at the close of Auf dem Flusse, but equally revealing were subtle changes in coloration, for instance the use of head voice upon the repetition of ‘Daß ich geweinet hab’?’ in Gefrorne Tränen. Yes, we noticed that the protagonist was weeping, but inwardly. Unheimlich use of head voice would chill, not least on account of its perfect integration – this was no mere ‘effect’ – in Auf dem Flusse too, rendering that subsequent explosion all the more terrifying. Wasserflut, immediately beforehand, had prepared the way: ardent, but not beautiful, Keenlyside brave enough sparingly to employ ugliness where necessary. And so, when two maiden eyes glowed in Rückblick, we fully experienced the psychosis of recollection, leading inexorably to a sickened tiredness in Rast, its weariness almost Parsifalian. (The Prelude to Act III came to mind.) In that context, the youthful ardour one still could hear in Frühlingstraum brought a tear to my eye, though of course one knew that it was too late, as the painful, hallucinogenic beauty and concluding anger (‘Grabe’) of Die Krähe would make clear. By the time we reached Im Dorfe, there was a terrible sense of desperately trying to keep everything together, the insistence on order both necessary and fooling no one. Der Wegweiser was sung with the desperate dignity of a Wozzeck, who returned definitively, frozen, in Der Leiermann.

Whether the Grosse Festspielhaus is the most appropriate venue for such a recital is open to question; the Mozarteum has a relatively intimate hall in which song recitals generally take place. Still, one can appreciate that audience demand might have played a role in the decision. What a pity, then, that so much of the audience proved incapable of remaining quiet, or in at least two cases, in their seats. Coughing was at a level that would have irritated or worse even at the height of the influenza season. The woman sitting in front of me seemed unable to keep her hands off her male companion. There was a dreadful whistling noise throughout much of the final stanza of Gute Nacht. And, to top it all, a mobile telephone from the row behind me rang at the end of Die Nebensonnen: heartbreaking preparation in the worst sense for Der Leiermann. Given such appalling behaviour, it is a tribute to the artists that the performance affected me as it did. Yes, there were occasional slips, but so what? I felt numb as after a fine performance of Tristan or Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, unable and unwilling to talk.

Salzburg Festival (2) - Die Frau ohne Schatten, 21 August 2011

Grosses Festspielhaus

Image: Salzburg Festival/Monika Rittershaus

The Emperor – Stephen Gould
The Empress – Anne Schwanewilms
The Nurse – Michaela Schuster
Barak – Wolfgang Koch
Barak’s Wife – Evelyn Herlitzius
The Spirit-Messenger – Thomas Johannes Meyer
Apparition of Youth – Peter Sonn
Voice of the Falcon – Rachel Frenkel
Guardian of the Threshold of the Temple, First Servant – Christiana Landshamer
Voice from Above – Maria Radner
The One-Eyed – Markus Brück
The One-Armed – Steven Humes
The Hunchback – Andreas Conrad
Second Servant – Lenneke Ruiten
Third Servant – Martina Mikelić
Voices of the Unborn – Janna Herfurtner, Christian Landshamer, Lenneke Ruiten, Rachel Frenkel, Martina Mikelić, Maria Radner

Christof Loy (director)
Johannes Leiacker (set designs)
Ursula Renzenbrick (costumes)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Thomas Jonigk (dramaturgy)
Thomas Wilhelm (choreography)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Thomas Lang)
Salzburg Festival Children’s Choir (chorus master: Wolfgang Götz)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Christian Thielemann (conductor)

Christof Loy strikes again. After a perversely misconceived Lulu and a still more reductive assault upon Tristan und Isolde, we seem to have reached the end of the line – at least I hope we have – with this Frau ohne Schatten. I see little point into going into great detail , though Loy does in his alternative synopsis, ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten: Eine persönliche Inhaltsangabe’. It would seem that the director despises this Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration considerably more than even Tristan, so much so that he declines to direct it all. Instead of the complex drama we might have seen, we witness an unutterably banal alternative, in which ‘an emerging young singer, sheltered and pampered by her well-to-do family is asked to take on the role of the Empress for a complete recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten. … from now she will have to meet human beings as they are …’ All that happens, then, is that we see the singers gather for a recording session in a mock-up set of the old Sofiensäle (well designed in itself, but it is difficult to care very much). At the end, for some reason, the singers take place in a Christmas concert. The claim that this aversion of responsibility somehow echoes Brechtian alienation, Anouilh even, seems beneath contempt. I cannot be bothered to say any more, save that a concert performance would have been infinitely preferable. What a scandalous, arrogant waste! If Christof Loy does not like Die Frau ohne Schatten, that is his problem: why should it become ours?

Thank goodness, then, for the Vienna Philharmonic under Christian Thielemann. If the first act, whilst of an orchestral standard that would have put almost any house to shame, was on occasion not always quite there, the latter half of the second and pretty much all of the third were simply outstanding. Orchestral heft and the full panoply of Strauss’s phantasmagorical colouristic vision (more than once Schoenberg’s Op.16 Orchestral Pieces came to mind) were married to a sense of purpose that seemed to me even to surpass that of Karl Böhm. Moreover, Böhm’s customary cut passages were restored. The VPO’s golden string tone is always – well, nearly always – a wonder to hear, but Thielemann proved as alert to the modernistic, post¬-Elektra tendencies in Strauss’s score as the dance echoes of Der Rosenkavalier. The great climaxes did not want in impact, but there was great delicacy to be heard too. And Thielemann’s ear for orchestral balance proved second to none.

One is unlikely ever to hear a perfectly cast FroSch. Here the principals mostly suffered from drawbacks, save for Michaela Schuster’s extraordinary Nurse. Hers was certainly the portrayal to savour above all others: malevolent, confident in pitch, almost imaginable in a ‘real’ production. Stephen Gould sang well enough as the Emperor – doubling up on stage, or above stage, as a recording engineer – but his phrasing and tone production were sometimes unvariegated. Still, at least he could sing the notes, unlike many who attempt the role. Anne Schwanewilms had her moments, sweetly sung, but too often she found herself wildly out of tune and her voice cracked on more than one occasion. Wolfgang Koch was mostly dependable as Barak, though again there were cracks, whilst Evelyn Herlitzius as the Dyer’s Wife veered between staggering dramatic vocalism in the best sense and seeming inability to sing a single note in tune. There was no faulting her energy, but its application was sometimes distressingly flawed. Choral singing was outstanding, however, a tribute both to the choirs and to their training.

It was the VPO’s show, then, and Thielemann’s, with Schuster the best of a mixed vocal bunch. On Loy, I shall say no more, for the moment, other than that it is a long time since I have been so angered by a ‘production’.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Salzburg Festival (1) - Le Rossignol and Iolanta (concert performances), 20 August 2011

Grosses Festspielhaus

Nightingale – Julia Novikohova
Cook – Julia Lezhneva
Fisherman – Antonio Poli
Emperor of China – Andrei Bondarenko
Chamberlain – Andrè Schuen
Bonze – Yuri Vorobiev
Death – Maria Radner
Soprano solo – Claudio Galli
Contralto solo – Theresa Holzhauser
Tenor solo, First Japanese Emissary – Andrew Owens
Second Japanese Emissary – Derek Welton
Third Japanese Emissary – Elliot Madore

Iolanta – Anna Netrebko
Count Vaudémont – Piotr Beczala
King René – John Relyea
Ibn-Hakia – Evgeny Nikitin
Robert, Duke of Burgundy – Alxey Markov
Alméric – Antonio Poli
Bertrand – Yuri Vorobiev
Martha – Maria Radner
Julia Lezhneva – Brigitta
Rachel Frankel – Laura

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Jörn H Andresen)
Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Ivor Bolton (conductor)

I first heard The Nightingale as a schoolboy, watching a BBC television broadcast conducted by Boulez. Though I instantly fell in love with the work, and have remained fond of it, opportunities to hear it seem bewilderingly infrequent: this indeed was my first live performance, and even then only in concert. Though the singing was often very good, I am afraid to say it was let down by the listless direction of Ivor Bolton. I had not thought of him previously in terms of Russian music, and shall certainly not do so now. Colours that should sound beautiful, ravishing even, were here merely nondescript. If one strained, there might be a little Debussy to be heard here and there, but one should not have to strain. The Wagnerisms – and there are many more than one might expect – were nowhere to be heard at all. As for post-Rimsky orientalism, of whatever persuasion, this was by comparison as grey as a slab of concrete. That extraordinary opening to the second act, in which St Petersburg telegraph wire should meet a Franco-Russian Orient fell utterly flat, given the lack of harmonic urgency. God forbid that Bolton should be let loose – and this conducting was loose indeed – upon The Rite of Spring. Nor was there any real sense of harmonic progression. That the singing still registered must be accounted a compliment to the cast. Julia Novikhova naturally stood out as the Nightingale: hers is a beautiful, clean, agile voice, ideally suited to the role. Maria Radner’s Death chilled yet somehow also exuded beguiling warmth, whilst Andrè Schuen impressed in the small yet far from insignificant role of the Chamberlain. They deserved better, though, much better. What generally seems to fly by seemed to last forever.

If anything, Bolton’s conducting of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta began in still worse fashion, though it would improve. The orchestral introduction sounded – and looked – as if it were conducted by a band master, beat to beat, laborious and with no sense of what might connect one note to another, let alone one phrase or period to another. This certainly was not pointillistic – that might have been interesting – but merely dull and inept. Forget the idea that Tchaikovsky’s melodies might soar: or at least rely entirely upon the singers for them to do so. The Mozarteum Orchestra did what it could; indeed, its sound was often gorgeous, if a little on the small side. But it and the singers were more often than not constricted. When, later on, Bolton seemed to attempt something a little more unbuttoned and idiomatic, his flailing around was both visually off-putting and seemingly disconnected from the results. Again, the singers provided a great deal of compensation. Anna Netrebko was simply outstanding in the title role, whose style and character she inhabited as completely as I could imagine (in the circumstances). It is a long time since I have heard a soprano soar so effortlessly and brilliantly above a Romantic orchestra, though her intimacy was equally affecting. Netrebko clearly itched to portray the blind princess on stage, but nevertheless succeeded both in moving and in exhilarating. Indeed, it was in her duet with Piotr Beczala as Vaudémont that the best was brought out of him: thrillingly operatic in a (mostly) good sense, though the audience’s philistine applause impeded what dramatic flow they had managed to impart. Bolton should have driven the music on regardless, but simply stopped and then started again. Earlier on, Beczala sounded unduly Italianate: more a ‘star tenor’, albeit with sometimes alarmingly wide vibrato, than the embodiment of a character, his persistent vocal sob a poor parody of late Pavarotti, minus the personality. John Relyea, however, proved a splendidly sonorous King René, who yet somehow managed to be outshone by the stunning, virile Duke Robert of Alexey Markov. His aria is perhaps a little too much dramatically, but it impressed tremendously on its own terms. Let us hope for a staging soon, but from a conductor with some feeling, and preferably more than that, for Tchaikovsky – and either a more appropriate coupling or none at all.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Week Ahead

I shall soon be fleeing these shores for a few days, to make my near-annual pilgrimage to the Salzburg Festival. With a degree of sadness, I realise that it will be my first visit on which I shall not be hearing a single note of Mozart - or rather, not during the performances themselves, since I am sure the tourist industry will not permit me to close my ears entirely to the city's greatest son. There is, nevertheless, a great deal to look forward to, and I shall be reporting back regularly.

St Peter's Abbey
There will be two fully staged operas, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and The Makropulos Case, both with the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit. (If the orchestra were the only noteworthy feature of the festival, it would probably suffice to make it the greatest in the world.) Die Frau is conducted by Christian Thielemann, and directed by Christof Loy. Those reports I have read so far of Loy's production have been more or less unremittingly negative, but we shall see. The cast includes Stephen Gould, Anne Schwanewilms, and Evelyn Herlitzius. The Makropulos Case is directed by Christoph Marthaler, who made an excellent job in Paris of Katya Kabanova; will that magic return, or shall we be subjected to something more akin to his Bayreuth Tristan? Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts a cast headed by Angela Denoke.

Opera in concert will also have a look in: a double bill of Stravinsky's The Nightingale and Tchaikovsky's Iolanta. The first is a work I have loved dearly, evertsince as a child I watched a BBC television broadcast of a concert performance under Boulez. I have never heard it live, though. Iolanta, with Anna Netrebko no less, will be an entirely new work for me: also quite an exciting prospect. Ivor Bolton - not the most obvious conductor for either composer, but who knows? - conducts. Other singers for the Tchaikovsky include Evgeny Nikitin, John Relyea, and Piotr Beczala.

Altar, St Peter's Abbey (where Mozart's Mass in C minor was first performed)
The concerts are at least as promising. Maurizio Pollini will give an all-Beethoven recital, including the Waldstein and (!) the Appassionata. Thomas Quasthoff Simon Keenlyside and Pierre-Laurent Aimard perform Winterreise. More Schubert will be heard from the Hagen Quartet. And last, but certainly not least, Franz Welser-Möst conducts the Vienna Philharmonic (soloists, Christine Schäfer and Michael Volle) in Mahler's arrangement of Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet and Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony.

Catacombs: Salzburg is older than many realise...

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Prom 42: Mariinsky/Gergiev - Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake

Royal Albert Hall

Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

I am not one of those who asks, ‘Why perform a ballet score in concert?’ I enjoyed greatly Valery Gergiev’s LSO Proms performance of The Sleeping Beauty a few years ago, Romeo and Juliet from the same forces a little more recently, and have enjoyed more than one concert performance of The Nutcracker. Perhaps this is partly because I am anything but an expert on dance; perhaps it is still more a matter that if I think a score worth listening to, then I am not bothered by what can sometime seem extraneous visual effects. No one in his right mind would say that concert performances were a replacement for stagings, any more than when it comes to opera – though he might care to consider that concert performances of opera sometimes at least have a tendency to superior musical results. Moreover, nobody seems to have a problem with concert performances of Stravinsky’s ballet scores, or Ravel’s, or Debussy’s. And yet, on the evidence of this Prom, Swan Lake may be a different case.

Why so? Well, first, it is not nearly so fine a score as The Sleeping Beauty or The Nutcracker, despite undeniable historical importance. It has its moments, unforgettable moments, but it also has more than its fair share of longueurs. Heard in concert, which of course was never the intention, it ends up with an awful lot of resounding conclusions, sometimes, or so it seems, every couple of minutes. Introductions to introductions can seem the order of the day. Moreover, it is difficult to deny the vulgarity of some of Tchaikovsky’s score, likewise its occasional lack of direction. (Those who would take Liszt to task, often extremely unfairly, might direct their attention here.) Again, I am sure these faults will generally be mitigated when staged. But there was a particular quality to this performance that did Swan Lake no favours at all. The Mariinsky forces, as has been their dubious tradition, performed the score not as Tchaikovsky would conceivably have recognised it, but in a ‘performing version’ made in 1895 by Riccardo Drigo. Now this might be fair enough, or at least arguable, when staging the ballet, but in concert performance it smacks of laziness: this is what we do the rest of the year in St Petersburg – or indeed, across town at Covent Garden – so this is what you will hear now. Narrative and musical sense are often obliterated; Drigo’s interpolations, often orchestrations of numbers from Tchaikovsky’s Eighteen Piano Pieces, op.72, verge upon – I am trying to be generous – the nonsensical. To his credit, David Nice made no effort to spare Drigo in his programme notes, employing phrases such as ‘stylistically inappropriate and over-extended’. (One other point: it is an excellent idea sometimes to include special notes for children, especially in a work such as this. Must they, however, sound as if they come from a world in which the notorious Section 28 was still a real presence? ‘Marital status: Married – but only for nine weeks, after which he ran away and had a nervous breakdown.’)

What of the mauled score as it came down to us in performance? One would not expect a poor performance of this music from the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre and Gergiev, and we certainly did not hear one, though there was a startling breakdown of ensemble in the first act Scene in which the Princess is announced and commands her son, Siegfried, to marry. The Mariinsky strings glistened with vibrato; so, in true Russian style, did the brass. Gergiev could often prove rather driven, yet there was flexibility to be heard too, not least in the Introduction. That oboe swan solo was always delectably taken, against a backdrop of shimmering strings. There were times, however, when the music simply seemed rushed, as if conductor and players were keen to get it over with as soon as possible, the beginning of the second scene a case in point. At the other extreme, the Pas d’action in which prince and swan fall in love sounds over-extended, or at least did so here, in concert, the operatic origins (Tchaikovsky’s opera, Ondine) a little too clear, with violin aria followed by duet for violin and cello. If there were suspicions of autopilot at times, there could, however, be no denying the glorious blazing of moments such as the ball-scene opening of the second act. Soon after, trombones sounded as if they were intoning Fate itself. Indeed, there were several passages in which Gergiev seemed to draw attention to parallels with Tchaikovsky’s symphonies: a double-edged sword, for the lack of symphonic development, especially given Drigo’s bowdlerisation, came equally to the fore. As for the final scene, I am not sure that the turn to the major has ever convinced me musically. It did not here, for which the musicians can hardly be blamed, but was it necessary, or even desirable, for the brass to blare quite so much?

One should not begrudge a first ‘complete’ performance at the Proms, though the description, as we have seen, is at best misleading. I suspect it might be a little while, however, before we hear a second.

Friday, 12 August 2011

There are many victims...

... so please do not take it amiss that here I mention just one. Tempting though it might be to express here some very strongly held views about the causes of the London riots, this is not the place for me to do so. I should simply like to draw to your attention the plight of Carla Rees, professional flautist, instrumental teacher at my academic institution, Royal Holloway, University of London, and founder of Rarescale, an ensemble for flute-based new music. The building in which Carla lived was gutted during the Croydon riots. She managed to escape to a hotel for the night, but lost everything: her instruments, music, even her two cats; she is now homeless and struggling to begin to rebuild her professional life. The company Just Flutes & Jonathan Mayall Music has set up a fund to help, details of which may be found by clicking here.

(I genuinely detest having to say this, but please do not add any overtly 'political' comments on this, lest they be deleted. I am the last person to deny the oneness of art and politics, and have been engaging animatedly and even with anger elsewhere on such matters. However, this posting is simply concerned with an individual's plight, though perhaps it might exemplify a more general plight. Other, crucially important discussions may and most certainly should be held elsewhere, but not here please.)

Here is a recording of Carla Rees playing David Bennett Thomas's Steeples in my Soul, for alto flute:

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Out of the Ashes

As parts of London lie in ruins, somehow this both begins to console and reminds us that much of the world suffers and has suffered from worse:

Monday, 8 August 2011

Prom 32: Teztlaff/BBC SO/Gardner, 7 August 2011

Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major, op.77
Mahler – Das klagende Lied (original version)

Christian Tetzlaff (violin)
Melanie Diener (soprano)
Anna Larsson (mezzo-soprano)
Stuart Skelton (tenor)
Christopher Purves (baritone)
Theodore Beeny, Augustus Bell, Timothy Fairbairn, Thomas Featherstonehaugh, Matthew Lloyd-Wilson, Oluwatimilehin Otudeko (trebles)
BBC Singers (chorus master: Stephen Jackson)
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Brahms’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Das klagende Lied did not seem to be the most obvious bedfellows – there has been some rather peculiar programming at this year’s Proms – and even after further consideration, the only real connection I could muster was that they were written at the same time: the concerto in 1878, the cantata between 1878 and 1880. At any rate, Christian Teztlaff gave a fine account of the former, though he was not always matched by Edward Gardner’s conducting, which was mostly unobjectionable – more than can be said for many examples – but not especially rich in insight. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was generally on good, if not infallible, form, its first movement contribution more lyrical than stentorian. (A mobile telephone provided unwanted interruption during the first exposition.) Teztlaff’s solo performance was intensely committed, fiercely dramatic, and unwavering in intonation, the cadenza (Joachim’s) providing both intimacy and direction. The opening of the ensuing coda proved splendidly autumnal, though its conclusion was arguably rushed by Gardner. Unwelcome applause intervened prior to a slow movement in which Tetzlaff generally acted as first among serenade-like equals, the spirit of Mozart undeniably present. Though the opening woodwind solos, especially Richard Simpson’s oboe, were well taken, there was a sense that they might have sung still more freely had Gardner moulded them less. That is a minor criticism, however, for Tetzlaff’s sweet-toned rendition ensured that the heart strings would be tugged where necessary, without the slightest hint of undue manipulation. Gardner, to his credit, held the audience at bay during the brief pause before the finale. Rhythms were well pointed here, though there were times when the orchestra felt a little driven. Tetzlaff’s musicianship and virtuosity were never in doubt; it would be good to hear him in this concerto with a more experienced Brahmsian, such as Bernard Haitink, Kurt Masur, or Sir Colin Davis. If anything even better was his poised, thoughtful, richly expressive encore account of the Gavotte en rondeau from Bach’s E major Partita. Not for the first time, the smallest of forces seemed to project better than a typical symphony orchestra in the problematic acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall.

Gardner fashioned a performance of Das klagende Lied that was more ‘operatic’ than benefits the music. Or, to put it another way, it concentrated on highlighting of certain textual ‘incident’ and artificially whipped-up excitement in a stop-and-start way that recalled Sir Georg Solti (though I am not sure whether Solti conducted this particular work). At least, though, we could hear vibrato-laden strings, a relief after the horror tales of Sir Roger Norrington’s recent Ninth Symphony. The orchestral introduction to ‘Waldmärchen’ was somewhat hesitant at first, and then, as if to compensate, was fiercely driven. It eventually settled, but the movement as a whole did not. The second stanza, though well presented vocally and orchestrally, simply dragged, Gardner seemingly finding it impossible to alight upon a just tempo. Uncertain brass slightly marred the brothers’ entry into the forest, though tenor Stuart Skelton gave a good sense of Mahler as balladeer. When, during the final two stanzas, Mahler’s Wagnerian inheritance – Gardner seemed previously to have done his utmost to make the composer sound closer to Verdi! – inevitably came to the fore, whether through harmony, instrumentation, and vocal line, it was almost a sense of too little, too late. Anna Larsson, a late substitution for Ekaterina Gubanova, nevertheless proved a wonderfully rich mezzo soloist.

Intimations of the First and Second Symphonies in the introduction to ‘Der Spielmann’ came across clearly – how could they not? – but, in Gardner’s hands, there was something unnecessarily four-square to the phrasing. Christopher Purves, however, proved plaintive indeed upon the words ‘Dort ist’s so lind und voll von Duft, als ging ein Weinen durch die Luft!’, even though the pacing now had become unduly distended. The first entry of the off-stage band sounded splendid in itself, but Gardner struggled – and failed – to keep it together with the ‘main’ orchestra. There were, happily, no such problems later on. Tempi here and in the concluding ‘Hochzeitsstück’ veered towards the comatose, however, interspersed with ‘compensating’ rushed passages. What should sound wide-eyed in its staggering youthful ambition and accomplishment tended merely to sprawl. (Applause again intervened between the second and third movements.) Choral diction was very good throughout, though it would have done no harm to have had a larger chorus. Treble voices touched in their fragility, helping to prove once again that it is this original version of Das klagende Lied that has the superior claim to performance. I cannot begin to understand David Matthews’s programme note claim that the revised two-part version is ‘incontrovertibly tighter and arguably more effective’. If the effect were somewhat sprawling, that was the fault of Gardner’s performance, not of the work itself, which is a much better piece than this evening’s audience may have been led to believe.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Bayreuth Festival (5) - Tristan und Isolde, 4 August 2011

Festspielhaus, Bayreuth

Isolde – Iréne Theorin
Brangäne – Michelle Breedt
Tristan – Robert Dean Smith
King Marke – Robert Holl
Kurwenal – Jukka Rasilainen
Melot – Ralf Lukas
Shepherd – Arnold Bezuyen
Steersman – Martin Snell
Sailor – Clemens Bieber

Christoph Marthaler (director)
Anna-Sophie Mahler (revival director)
Anna Viebrock (designs)
Malte Ubenauf (dramaturgy)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Peter Schneider (conductor)

Over the past few years, I have seen and heard a good few performances of Tristan und Isolde. Only one has satisfied in terms of stage direction, namely that of Harry Kupfer for the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Before that, I have to go back to the late Herbert Wernicke’s intelligent, abstract – and generally unloved – production for Covent Garden. Some found Christof Loy’s successor production more ‘radical’, but for me it exemplified a failure that lies at the heart of so many stagings of the work, an inability to understand that humility here is a necessity rather than a mere virtue. The necessity, if I may repeat my words concerning Kupfer’s production, is ‘to do very little, not something that comes easily to many directors. And by saying “do very little,” I do not suggest reliance upon a superficial, empty minimalism, for, at the same time, something must be done. A concert performance could certainly work, up to a point, and would be vastly preferable to most of what is put before us, but staging nevertheless makes all the difference. Perhaps it is because, in Tristan, Wagner came closest to the Attic tragedy he so revered, that straightforwardness seems the only viable course here. (A production with masks might be an “idea” with potential.) There is no point in suggesting that Tristan is “about” anything other than what it is about, which might sound tautological and probably is, but it is certainly the case that some productions, profoundly unfaithful to a work, can succeed in turning it into something else. This does not seem to be the case with Tristan.’ Nietzsche was often wrong about Wagner, but he had the measure of Tristan, speaking not only of its ‘voluptuousness of Hell’, and needing to handle it with gloves, but of Wagner’s ‘opus metaphysicum’. If Tristan does not seem the most dangerous work of art ever created, one that could, as Wagner feared, drive audiences mad were it to be accorded a good performance, than something has gone terribly wrong; it has been diminished to no good end.

Christoph Marthaler does not irritate so much as Loy (at least we do not have Kurwenal and Brangäne mauling each other behind the curtains) or indeed as Claus Guth (for Zurich), but like them, he essentially transforms a metaphysical drama into a bourgeois drama. Part of the problem with all three directors, and indeed many others, would seem to be a lack of interest in Wagner’s music. What might work if Wagner had simply produced a spoken text rarely does so when one is dealing with a music drama. For in Tristan above all other works, it is the music that has priority, sometimes even chronologically, but more importantly in metaphysical terms. We are not really dealing with individual psychology, but with the catastrophic surging of Schopenhauer’s Will – or at least of something close to Schopenhauer’s conception of that primal force of energy (not to be confused with human will as generally, indeed properly, understood). Wagner is not the only guide to his œuvre, but he is surely worth and occasional hearing. It probably therefore ought to interest directors that, when providing his own summary in 1859, he did not even mention an ostensibly important phenomenal event such as King Marke’s act of forgiveness. The action, Wagner implies, is not really of this phenomenal world at all, but metaphysical. Even Tristan’s agonies go unmentioned on the way to ‘redemption: death, dying, destruction, never more to waken!’ (Erlösung: Tod, Sterben, Untergehen, Nichtmehrerwachen!)

What we have from Marthaler are instead three scenes of resolutely anti-metaphysical, anti-Romantic drabness, in which a story of undoubtedly damaged human beings. (I cannot comment on what difference, if any, Anna-Sophie Mahler’s revival direction made to Marthaler’s original conception; though the latter is available on DVD, I have not seen it. ‘Marthaler’, then, should generally be considered as shorthand for something that may or may not have been more complex.) Now no one in his right mind would deny that Tristan and Isolde are damaged human beings, but the question is whether that is the point of the drama, or, if you like, whether it is a point that may be made credibly in a production of the drama, a production that does not become merely reductive and deny Tristan its musico-dramatic power. I am not sure that a case has been made. The first act takes place in what appears to be an especially ‘institutional’ care home for the elderly. (Perplexingly, the central protagonists look younger in subsequent acts.) The décor could not be more depressing, doubtless a tribute to Anna Viebrock’s designs, if not to the Konzept. Certain forms of obsessive behaviour manifest themselves, for instance Tristan and Kurwenal’s odd hand movements, and the turning upside down and back up again of chairs. There is an almost Beckettian feel of waiting for Marke – who does not, in defiance of Wagner’s directions, turn up at the end of the act. Meanwhile, Wagner’s music tells a different story. Marthaler seems not so much to set his production against Wagner as simply not to have any interest in him.

The second act remains in the home, but the 'lovers' have smartened up a little and Marke’s visit finally does occur and the lovers have smartened up a little. True to apparent intent, he resembles Isolde’s beleaguered carer. In a nice touch, though, he buttons up her coat, the only sign that there may have been any feelings, let alone deeds, of passion. Tristan does not proceed even as far as that. We are told, perhaps correctly, that geriatric sex is all the rage; this did not seem worth the effort. Lights flicker on and off, presumably a nod to the distinction between Light and Day. Isolde points at them with the air of one suffering from mental affliction. Kurwenal very slowly makes his way around the multitude of light switches, to no avail. Is the problem that the home did not enlist the services of a decent electrician? There is one further moment of genuine dramatic power, when Melot, having grabbed Marke’s penknife, the stabbing having occurred – as it should, Tristan compelling Melot to stab him – Melot places it back in Marke’s hands. More chilling moments like that and the anti-metaphysical might have had more going for it, though I suspect the action would merely have seemed cluttered.

Then it is off to the hospital bed for the third act. Tristan’s bed is a peculiar thing: at one point it rises up, apparently by itself, to permit him to wander around. Problems with the lights follow him around, it seems. After Isolde’s arrival, whatever it is Kurwenal thinks – or claims – is happening, is not. Melot and company remain standing at the back of the stage. It might have made more sense if they had never arrived. At the end of her Verklärung, Isolde attains some sort of union with Tristan by covering herself with the bed sheets he has vacated. It has taken a long time for something not very interesting to happen. By contrast, what could be of more interest than what is probably the single most staggering operatic score ever written?

How did the score sound then? Peter Schneider did not scale the heights, but nor did he plumb the depths. Much as one might have expected then, except that he elicited a true ‘Bayreuth’ sound from the predictably magnificent orchestra, more so than any other conductor I heard in this run. Schneider’s experience with the acoustic clearly helps greatly. Unity was achieved during the second act by playing almost everything at a uniform tempo: better than arbitrary changes, I suppose, but remembering what Böhm, let alone Furtwängler, managed, I could not help but feel this was too easy a solution, and not a little dull. Still, I have heard far worse in Tristan, and Schneider certainly did not deserve to be booed.

In the context, I was astonished, though relieved, that Robert Dean Smith did not receive such a barrage. At his best, he was dull and inexpressive – though so, one might say was the production – but there were times when he struggled to be heard against Isolde, let alone the orchestra. It was unclear to me whether Kurwenal bringing him a glass of water during the cruel monologue was part of the production or a response to vocal problems; however, I am told that an earlier performance had been similarly underpowered. Another disappointment was the gruff, sometimes crude Kurwenal of Jukka Rasilainen. Michelle Breedt had her moments as Brangäne, but suffered from a few intonational difficulties. Thank goodness, then, for the excellent Isolde and Marke. Robert Holl breathed as much humanity as the production permitted – and probably a good deal more – into a carefully, yet never pedantically, enunciated portrayal, which understood that words and music come together with irresistible alchemy. Would that Marthaler had achieved the same realisation. Iréne Theorin’s Isolde sometimes threatened to eat Tristan for breakfast, but that was not her fault. If there was not the same degree of verbal engagement that Nina Stemme brought to the part at Covent Garden, nor the bitter sarcasm of a Birgit Nilsson, Theorin presented a majesty and an emotional honesty that reaped their own rewards. She proved as tireless as the part demands, a signal achievement in itself.

Bayreuth Festival (4) - Parsifal, 3 August 2011

Festspielhaus, Bayreuth

Amfortas – Detlef Roth
Titurel – Diógenes Randes
Gurnemanz – Kwangchul Youn
Parsifal – Simon O’Neill
Klingsor – Thomas Jesatko
Kundry – Susan Maclean
First Knight of the Grail – Arnold Bezuyen
Second Knight of the Grail – Friedemann Röhlig
First Squire – Julia Borchert
Second Squire – Ulrike Helzel
Third Squire – Clemens Bieber
Fourth Squire – Willem van der Heyden
Flowermaidens – Julia Borchert, Martina Rüping, Carola Guber, Christiane Kohl, Jutta Maria Böhnert, Ulrike Helzel
Contralto solo – Simone Schröder

Stefan Herheim (director)
Heike Scheele (set designs)
Gesine Cöllm (costumes)
Ulrich Niepel (lighting)
Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach (dramaturgy)
Momme Hinrichs, Torge Møller (video)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

Should one cross the same river twice? Could Stefan Herheim’s – and Daniele Gatti’s – Parsifal possibly match up now to my first-time experience in 2008? (See also Per-Erik Skramstrad’s review from the same festival.) As with the Boulez-Chéreau ‘Centenary’ Ring, one of the few opera DVDs I find persistently engrossing, the answers are ‘yes’ – and triumphantly so. It appears almost mandatory to voice a cavil, and I have a small one, so shall get it out of the way now: there are sections of the stage direction that have been relatively simplified. In most cases, that tends to be good: a removal of clutter helped Keith Warner’s Royal Opera House Ring upon its second outing. Yet there was no clutter in Herheim’s Parsifal. Complexity, yes, but this is a complex, in many respects quite Hegelian, work, with an equally complex history; Herheim’s genius, not a word I use lightly, was and is to tell the story of both, and that includes the score, the director’s musicianship and belief in music’s redemptive power no more in doubt than his stagecraft. The first half of the third act now looks for the most part surprisingly ‘traditional’, not that it did not incorporate and develop tradition, but I slightly regret the thinning out. (Some commentators thought first time around that too much was going on, that Herheim should have concentrated on but a single line; that seemed to me to miss the whole point of his production.)

I do not intend to give a full account of the production, since that would doubtless try readers’ patience beyond endurance, and much can already be read in the two accounts I mentioned above (mine and Per-Erik’s). What I should like principally to do is to talk about some points that especially captured my intention on this particular occasion. However, it is worth briefly mentioning the broad thrust, or rather thrusts. We witness, not so much in parallel, but inextricably interlinked, as faithful a telling of Parsifal as one is ever likely to find – at least for anyone interested in Wagner’s meaning and dialectical thinking rather than fetishisation of incidental matters of costume – and a perceptive retelling of the course of German history from the time of the first performance until the present.

The metamophosis of the first-act’s Wahnfried into Siena Cathedral and back again is subtle and yet telling enough; but note that the pillars of both remain, transformed, in the field hospital of the Flowermaidens, as directed by Klingsor as Cabaret Master of Ceremonies. (Transvestite show-business is an obvious career path for the self-castrated, not unlike the castrati of old.) Herheim’s turning the mirror on the audience not a gimmick, but an invitation, indeed an incitement, to question everything we have thought. ‘Educating Parsifal’ is also ‘educating Parsifal’, and is also ‘educating us’, not in a didactic fashion but as part of a drama in which we would be fools not to participate. (Some such fools booed; another, astonishingly, asked during an overheard interval rant, ‘Why can’t it be like the Met?’) As Tristan tells King Marke, 'das kann ich dir nicht sagen; und was du frägst, das kannst du nie erfahren.' In the almost overwhelming emotional context Herheim has developed, as opposed to the abstraction of a mere act of reporting, it would be an unimaginative soul indeed who did not accept the mirror’s invitation. Identities are blurred, or better enhanced, by the play conducted not only between these two stories but also between characters: Parsifal, at various stages from baby to old man, with Amfortas – compassion or fellow-suffering (the German, Schopenhauerian Mitleid, suffering with) indeed; or Kundry and Herzeleide, whose childbirth and troubled, necessarily incestuous relationship – is any act of parenting not? – with Parsifal is worked out with Parsifal’s own education and reversion. Wagner’s anticipations of Freud have never seemed so clear as in the second-act congress with Herzeleide-Kundry. The visual motif, both on stage and on film, of Kundry as Rose of Hell – Klingsor’s ‘Urteufelin, Höllenrose!’ – guides that educative process, taking Parsifal beyond Tristan’s Nietzschean ‘voluptuousness of Hell’ and renewing in itself in the malevolence of Wagner’s Bergian chromaticism. The near-identity of Kundry and Parsifal, Christ-like, albeit Amfortas-Christ-like, at the beginning of the third act, brings us as close as we come, or indeed Wagner comes, to Christianity: helping the stricken, after the Sermon of the Mount. And those stricken in this context are the female victims of war and its aftermath, that is of one of the most violent struggles yet thrown up by the accumulation of capital and, as Adorno and Horkheimer would have it, the dialectic of Enlightenment. This is, as Per-Erik Skramstad has pointed out, a definite hommage to Götz Friedrich’s Tannhäuser : Herheim studied with Friedrich, another rare example of the musician-director.

One might have expected the electricity to wane in the second-time viewing of such coups de théâtre as the unfurling of swastikas at the destruction of Klingsor’s castle – and of Weimar – as a brown-shirted boy, perhaps Parsifal reincarnated or perhaps not, implies, incorrectly as it would turn out, that tomorrow will belong to him. Not at all: if anything, the electricity was enhanced by expectation. (We do not, after all, stop listening to Parsifal once we know what happens next in the plot.) The families gathered around beforehand for departure make their point chillingly. I could not help but think of the chasm between Herheim’s intelligence and the dreadful ‘Holocaust as entertainment’, The Producers without comedy, of Terry Gilliam’s recent Damnation of Faust. Gilliam boasted of his ignorance of Berlioz’s life and thought; Herheim, from the tying of individual movement to Wagner’s phrasing, to the broadest conceptual sweep, shows his understanding of Wagner and his reception.

Amfortas – and the Federal Republic – on trial in the Bundstag remains a potent, terrifying image following the Third Act Transformation Music. The opening of Titurel’s coffin, draped in the flag, elicits mass revulsion not only on stage but, more importantly, in the audience. (There are musical reasons for that too, to which I shall return.) The monochrome contrast, moreover, with the warmth of Ulrich Niepel’s springtime lighting for the Good Friday Music, tells its own story. Christian charity has been replaced by politics, just as the Wagner brothers’ (Wieland and Wolfgang) post-war request, that political discussion desist on the Green Hill, shown here during the Transformation Music without comment, could not have been more of a political act had they too emblazoned the stage with swastikas. The video wall built up during this scene around Wagner’s image – perhaps also an echo of Wieland’s Bayreuth wall, on whose other side lay his mother, Winifred? – is the very same wall constructed every day by those who, after Otto Schenk, wish only to see fairy-tales of knights and dragons, wilfully deaf to the words and music of Richard Wagner.

Some have complained that Daniele Gatti’s masterly pacing, slow by the clock for those who care about such things, worked against the dramatic urgency of Herheim’s staging. My experience was quite the opposite. By giving time for the drama to unfold, whilst never – I repeat never – failing to maintain the line of Wagner’s melos, Gatti presented the orchestra very much in Wagner’s Opera and Drama image of the Greek Chorus. Moreover, there was nothing unvaried about his approach. There was violence, and a nasty violence at that, in the Flowermaidens’ Music, stage images of Weimar cabaret turned sour enhanced, indeed seemingly built upon, an integrated understanding of Wagner’s harmony and colouring that foretold Schoenberg’s Golden Calf Orgy (Moses und Aron). On the other hand, the luxuriant decadence – or Nietzschean décadence? – of Kundry’s seduction spoke of Berg and Mahler. It is surely no coincidence what a fine conductor of Mahler and the Second Viennese School Gatti has proved himself to be. I mentioned above the revulsion on stage as Amfortas opened Titurel’s coffin. That was as nothing compared to the Mahlerian, indeed Schoenbergian (think of the Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16) horror Gatti screwed up in the pit. This was an exemplary collaboration between conductor and director.

What of the singers? Simon O’Neill’s Parsifal was a grave disappointment. Such is the strength of Herheim’s production – and Gatti’s conducting – that the meaning absent from O’Neill’s delivery of the text could in general be supplied elsewhere, but there was nowhere to hide when it came to the unpleasant, thin yet shouted tone production. (It was nowhere near as bad as John Treleaven’s unbearable Siegfried and Tristan, but seemed to be moving in that direction.) Christopher Ventris was superior in every respect in 2008. Susan Maclean, by contrast, was a revelatory Kundry. I have admired Maclean in the same role before, in Leipzig (twice). Here she showed the difference between a dutiful, for the most part well-sung, yet hardly seductive, portrayal (Mihoko Fujimura last time around) and one that truly engaged with the production as living musical drama. This Kundry repelled and seduced, shrieked and consoled, provoked and served. The production might have been made for her. Thomas Jesatko remained an excellent Klingsor, revelling in his kinky sleights of hand. The agonies of Detlef Roth’s Amfortas were searingly portrayed: his was a performance that made one feel not only the unsparing nature of Amfortas’s wound, but the lyrical, almost Schubertian possibilities of a future that never came. We need to believe that Amfortas’s life could have been different, and we did. Sad to say, Kwangchul Youn’s Gurnemanz proved at best variable, wideness of vibrato and occasional hoarseness never compensated for by the outsize personality artists such as Sir John Tomlinson can still bring to the role. The Flowermaidens, however, were excellent: I am sure that we shall hear more of many of them. And the choral singing was superlative, as weighty and clear as in Tannhäuser and Lohengrin: congratulations once again to the Bayreuth Festival Chorus and Eberhard Friedrich. This was not a perfect cast, then, though one could hardly have asked for more from Maclean, Jesatko, and Roth, nor from the chorus. But crucially, nothing detracted from the overwhelming force of Herheim’s and Gatti’s vision. There was no doubt, moreover, about the final redemption: it was of, for, and through Wagner’s miraculous score, ‘lit from behind’. Even if one thought Parsifal stood in no need of redemption, one realised that work and audience had been blessed.

Four requests:

1. Bayreuth: to release this production on DVD. It is a milestone not only in the staging of Parsifal but of opera tout court.

2. Stefan Herheim: to stage Die Frau ohne Schatten and Die Soldaten, works crying out for such musico-dramatic attention.

3. The Royal Opera (with apologies to readers, should this sound unduly parochial): to engage Herheim and Gatti to present a Wagner work at Covent Garden. (And no, Les Vêpres siciliennes, in which Herheim is posed to make his London debut, will not do.)

4. Bayreuth: to persuade Herheim to direct its next-but-one Ring.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Bayreuth Festival (3) - Lohengrin, 2 August 2011

Festspielhaus, Bayreuth

King Henry the Fowler – Georg Zeppenfeld
Lohengrin – Klaus Florian Vogt
Elsa – Astrid Weber
Friedrich von Telramund – Tómas Tómasson
Ortrud – Petra Lang
King’s Herald – Samuel Youn
Brabantian Nobles – Stefan Heibach, Willem van der Heyden, Rainer Zaun, Christian Tschelebiew

Hans Neuenfels (director)
Reinhard von der Thannen (designs)
Franck Evin (lighting)
Björn Verloh (video)
Henry Arnold (dramaturgy)
Susanne Øglænd (conceptual collaboration)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

Lohengrin trying to break into the experiment
It was a relief, following Sebastian Baumgarten’s messy, incoherent Tannhäuser, to proceed to a production by Hans Neuenfels. I am not sure that I especially liked it, nor that it engaged as closely as it should have done with some aspects of Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin, but it is anything but a mess and, unlike far too many examples of so-called Regietheater, there did seem to be evidence that Neuenfels had engaged with the music too, sensitive shifts reflecting on occasion the contours of the score. (I for one have never understood why so many directors who do not read or at least have a good ear for music are so willing to work in the opera house. It can work, of course, but it seems as problematical as a non-Russian speaker directing Chekhov in Russian.)

Neuenfels’s production, now in its second year on the Green Hill, presents an experiment. So far, so like the Tannhäuser, one might say. But, for one thing, it is reasonably clear what is going on: this is a laboratory experiment, and those experimented upon are rats – or at least, they often are, for there are times when they shed much of their rat-like appearance and resemble humans. The feet always give them away though. Lohengrin is shown during the Prelude – which opens without stage action, but eventually acquires some – trying to break into the realm of experimentation. One notices straight away the stylish nature of Reinhard von der Thannen’s designs – and one continues to notice the aplomb with which scene changes and the like are accomplished, for which unstinting praise should be voiced for those oft-unsung heroes of the opera house, the stagehands, operators of machinery, and so on. The experiment, naturally, is political in nature – though this is never hammered home. However, the darker side of Lohengrin, the nature of its charismatic hero and the way a crowd will follow him, is surely the stuff of the conflict. (That may leave us asking: are Ortrud and Telramund right to resist?) It was a pity, therefore, that we did not hear the word Führer when Lohengrin introduced Gottfried (‘Seht da den Herzog von Brabant! Zum Führer sei er euch ernannt!’) I can testify to the chilling impression it made in Peter Konwitschny’s Leipzig production. But then, the presentation of Gottfried as an embryo, casting off his umbilical cord, rather gets in the way. (Is this an attempt to show that one is not born a leader? Perhaps, but I felt that it complicated in an unhelpful manner.)

It is a Lohengrin one does not easily forget, though: numbered laboratory rats provide an image that lodges itself in one’s mind, and makes one think, which is just what good musical drama should do. It is also clear that Elsa does not really desire Lohengrin: she is grateful, desperate even, but the lack of eroticism is probably correct and certainly thought-provoking. One thing, however, I did not understand was why Telramund, when stealing into the bridal chamber and consequently being felled by Lohengrin, had become a rat. He did not seem to have been so before. And the question remains: who is actually running the experiment? Who is on the outside? It is, in a sense, a variation upon a perennial problem of political philosophy, never more so than in Rousseau: who is the Legislator? It seems too easy to say that it is simply the audience and yet it was not clear to me from the production what the answer might be; perhaps there were clues that I missed. In that respect, I should probably mention the strange, sickly, Amfortas-like figure of King Henry. He is clearly not in charge, whoever is.

The orchestra was on fine form indeed, its strings silky and aspiring upwards in the First Act Prelude. (There was actually a minor slip here, but that merely served to highlight the excellence elsewhere.) Andris Nelsons fashioned an account of the score that was largely unobtrusive. There were occasions when his growing mannerism of slowing things down excessively and thereafter speeding up as if to compensate – almost like a giant-scale conception of rubato – manifested itself, but for the most part he proved himself a faithful guide. It may not have sounded like ‘great’ Wagner, but it was certainly good Wagner. The choral singing probably did qualify as ‘great’. I fear that I may become unduly repetitive extolling the excellence of Eberhard Friedrich’s chorus, but the extolling really needs to be done. And to think, all the time, the chorus members had to act their roles as individual rats too.

Astrid Weber was a late replacement for Annette Dasch’s Elsa. In the circumstances, one should not be unduly harsh, and it is true that she improved as she went on. However, much of her first-act singing was wobbly and unfocused. It was difficult, moreover, to distinguish more than a few of the words she sang (an especial problem, given Bayreuth’s lack of titles). Petra Lang, by contrast, was a magnificent Ortrud. Had I not heard – and equally importantly, seen – Waltraud Meier in the role, I should have been even more awestruck. As it was, she built up to a terrifying, blood-curdling climax at the tragic close, which even rivalled Meier. Tómas Tómasson and Samuel Youn were adequate as Telramund and the Herald, though far from memorable. Georg Zeppenfeld, however, showed us an intriguing Henry the Fowler, powerful in his suggestion of diseased decadence: quite different from the norm, but compellingly so. Two of the nobles, Rainer Zaun and Stefan Heibach, I had heard earlier in the day in the Ring für Kinder. I was delighted to see such talented artists performing in the ‘main house’ too.

That leaves the staggering Lohengrin of Klaus Florian Vogt, every bit as impressive as when I saw him in Berlin, in Stefan Herheim’s outstanding production. The beauty of his voice is one thing, the purity another, the strength and clarity still further signal qualities, but here, in this role in particular, one truly senses something unheimlich, other-worldly. It delights, coldly seduces in its (apparent) honesty, and yet it chills – which fits superlatively both with work and production. When shall we hear Vogt in a major Wagner role in London? Yesterday would be too late.

Bayreuth Festival (2) - Der Ring für Kinder, 2 August 2011

Richard Wagner für Kinder – Der Ring des Nibelungen (version: Hartmut Keil, Maximilian von Mayenburg; musical arrangement, Saskia Bladt)

Probebühne IV der Bayreuther Festspiele

Wotan – Markus Eiche
Loge, Mime – Stefan Heibach
Alberich – Rainer Zaun
Wellgunde – Ulrike Helzel
Woglinde, Woodbird – Christiane Kohl
Flosshilde – Simone Schröder
Fasolt – Marek Reichert
Fafner – Friedemann Röhlig
Siegmund, Siegfried – Norbert Ernst
Sieglinde – Maraike Schröter
Hunding, Hagen – Mario Klein

Maximilian von Mayenburg (director)
Magda Willi (designs)
Ismael Schott (lighting)
Thomas Zengerle (video)

Brandenburg State Orchestra, Frankfurt an der Oder
Hartmut Keil (conductor)

After the preceding night’s Tannhäuser, this condensed Ring for children came as something approaching an unalloyed delight. Moreover, I cannot resist noting how much better behaved the mostly young audience (some members looked as young as six or seven years old) proved than its adult counterpart, no pretension, boorishness, or other exhibitionism. The children were captivated, and rightly so, not only on account of Wagner’s achievement, but also on account of the estimable performers’. Nor should one forget the skill with which the version performed was put together: Hartmut Keil, Maximilian von Mayenburg, and Saskia Bladt having almost achieved the near impossible, in presenting an accessible but never condescending Ring for children, with reduced orchestra, in a little over two hours, a twenty-minute interval included. Only in Götterdämmerung, perhaps unsurprisingly, does the pace come to seem unduly rushed, especially in terms of some awkward musical transitions. The wonder is, however, that the preceding dramas do not exhibit such signs. In many ways, this seemed a much more satisfactory reduction than that the Longborough Festival attempted a few years ago: there one really did feel the loss of what was missing.

Mime's kitchen
Though music has the upper hand, there are passages of spoken dialogue too, turning the Ring into something of a Singspiel. Wotan emerges as something of an adventurer – not inappropriately – with Loge as his adviser. They introduce themselves before we meet Alberich and the Rhinemaidens. A fun touch is to have the latter as ice-skaters, Alberich fumbling in contrast. Loge is clearly a god of fire: he takes fire from his hat, and uses it to various ends. A gleaming tenor horn is employed to represent the horn: resourceful and quite beautiful, the ring itself emerging from inside. Giants’ faces appear as video projections on the wall. A group of Nibelungs (children) help Alberich with his Nibelheim transformations: a good deal more convincing than many I have seen. Mime’s Siegfried kitchen will be recognisable and meaningful to all – and Siegfried elicited delight amongst the audience in forging the sword there, especially when he grabbed a spare violin from one of the orchestra’s music stands and added it to the mix. The ending with Hagen, Alberich, the Rhinemaidens, and a snow storm, clearly enchanted a good many. There are a good few characters missing of course, not least Fricka, Erda, Gunther, and Gutrune, but the story-telling is clear, a credit also to Mayenburg’s imaginative production, full of wonder for the children – and for the rest of us. I was genuinely moved. This, I think, is a stage director who deserves to go far. Ismael Schott’s lighting is constantly attentive to the needs of the story, the changing colours of Brünnhilde’s rock a delight without attempting to steal the show. There are (very) occasional dropped stitches, for instance Brünnhilde’s reference to Grane, who has never been mentioned or seen, but I doubt that anyone cared. To be spared tedious sub-Brecht sloganeering and to present a version whose imagination is unleashed by Wagner, rather than in puerile rebellion against him (or worse still, just ignores him), is refreshing indeed.

Keil directed the orchestra with equal measures of verve and sensitivity. There was a true sense of discovery, to which one could not help but notice the children responding. He was helped by a fine cast of young singers, whose quality of voice needed no apology whatsoever. Markus Eiche was a young-sounding Wotan, fittingly for the way in which the character was portrayed, but he certainly did not lack heft. The same could be said of the giants, played by Friedemann Röhlig and a real find, Marek Reichert. Stefan Heibach had a considerable amount to do, as both Loge and Mime, proving as fine an actor as a singer. If Norbert Ernst sounded more of a Siegfried than a Siegmund – at least in a small performing space – he certainly convinced as the former, and about how many singers can one say that? There was not a weak link in the cast, the Rhinemaidens luscious, Rainer Zaun a nasty, villainous Alberich, Mario Klein dark and dangerous as both Hunding and Hagen, and Sabine Hogrefe a lovely, touching Brünnhilde. We shall hear more from many of these artists, I am sure.

How I wish that I had had something like this to see as a child. A DVD is promised.