Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Garrick Ohlsson: Handel, Brahms, Liszt, and Scriabin, 29 November 2011

Wigmore Hall

Handel – Suite no.2 in F major, HWV 427
Brahms – Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, op.24
Liszt – Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, S 173/3
Scriabin – Trois Etudes, op.56
Fragilité, op.51 no.1
Piano Sonata no.5, op.53


It was not entirely clear what the two halves of this recital had in common, apart, that is, from pianist Garrick Ohlsson, though it was an attractive enough collection of pieces, even if performances only intermittently caught fire. Handel’s F major Suite – not the B-flat major Suite from which Brahms would take his theme – opened promisingly, the ‘Adagio’ first movement delicately Romantic, perhaps sounding more Bachian than one tends to hear (insofar as one hears Handel’s keyboard suites at all). The following ‘Allegro’ received a clean performance, a bit Gouldian for my taste, not least in its unyielding brightness. Murray Perahia imparts greater grace and depth to this repertoire. I missed a proper sense of momentum in the third movement ‘Adagio’, which was also occasionally heavy-handed, a besetting problem for a good part of the recital, The closing fugue certainly boasted contrapuntal clarity, though again, a greater willingness to yield might have elicited more grateful results.



Brahms’s Handel Variations followed. Again, Ohlsson opened promisingly, Handel’s Air actually sounding more elegantly idiomatic than much of the complete suite had done. The early variations set up a variable pattern that would be followed throughout: some finely characterised playing, some less so. For instance, the first variation sounded choppy and – that word again – unyielding, whereas its successor magically revelled in Brahms’s Schumannesque writing, the intimations of his later Haydn Variations wonderfully apparent. The third variation fell somewhere in between. I liked Ohlsson’s shaping of the composer’s Bachian reminiscences (the B-flat minor Prelude from Book I sprang to mind) in the fifth variation, whilst the eleventh, though it rippled pleasantly enough, somewhat lacked poetry. The rich tone lavished upon the thirteenth variation overcame a nearby intervention from a wristwatch chime. (Unforgivably, the same watch would intervene precisely an hour later in the second half.) However, the fourteenth suffered from an unduly abrupt ending: surely a case in which Brahms’s gruffness benefits from a little tempering. It was something of a tonal relief to reach G minor in the twenty-first variation, but execution remained prosaic, lacking fantasy, whilst the final, twenty-fifth variation sounded more heavy than joyous. Much the same could be said of the fugue, in which Ohlsson again declined to adopt a more yielding approach. There was much to be said for his structural grasp, the connection between variations and the theme clear throughout; yet man, even Brahms, cannot live on structure alone.

Liszt’s Bénédiction de Dieu dans sa solitude received an increasingly involving performance, though it laboured a little under a weighty opening not entirely free of the ponderousness of which Ohlsson’s sometime teacher, Claudio Arrau, often stood accused by his detractors (for me, quite unjustly). This was nevertheless preferable to mere flashiness, and there was much to enjoy in the richness of tone Ohlsson conjured from the piano: an excellent Steinway ‘demonstration’. He can sustain a line too, as became increasingly apparent. If the central section does not necessarily show Liszt at his most inspired, I have heard it sound considerably less prosaic than it did here. The remainder of the work permitted a degree of poetic fantasy often lacking elsewhere. There were, however, a few unfortunate harmonic hangovers that might have been alleviated by more careful pedalling. (Sometimes even Liszt’s own pedal markings need reinterpretation for a modern instrument.)

The first two of Scriabin’s three op.56 Etudes emerged both glittering and languorous, delicate enigmas vying with an apt degree of skittishness. (That watch alarm this time collaborated with someone towards the back of the hall endlessly rummaging in a plastic bag.) The third, however, emerged in glassy, even brutal tone. Laughter greeting its conclusion bewildered, for whatever accusations of excess one might hurl at Scriabin, a riotous sense of humour is not the most obviously founded candidate. Fragilité was a pleasant enough interlude, but the fifth sonata was clearly the (spiced, even perfumed) meat to this section. Ohlsson’s performance shared both the virtues and the vices of what had gone before. Yet, if his is hardly the most ingratiating of pianism, he exhibited a fine sense of form here, a requirement not always fulfilled in music that can often sound merely elusive, arguably incomprehensible. It was a pity that such elucidation was mitigated by a considerable degree of heavy-handed bludgeoning. As for the charmless Chopin encores, the less said the better.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Letter published in International Record Review, December 2011 edition

Dear Madam,


I hope that it will not try patience unduly for me to respond to Robert Matthew-Walker’s reply to my letter (November 2011) concerning the movement order in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. It seems to me that the fundamental difference between our positions is that I am perfectly willing to listen to performances that do not conform to my æsthetic preference, holding out at least the possibility that I might be convinced by the artistic result, whilst RM-W dismisses out of hand those that are not ‘correct’. I find the very idea of ‘correctness’ odd indeed with respect to matters of performance. What is the endgame? A final, ‘correct’ performance or audition, after which we shall no longer have any need to attend to the work? Surely Mahler’s music continually challenges us, continually poses problems, which by their very nature resist solution. That is very much part of its greatness.

And yes, if someone were to believe that it made sense to reverse the second and third movements in the Second Symphony, why not let him do so? Why should we wish to act as police rather than as listeners? Many musicologists adopt much more of a post-modernist stance than I when it comes to the concept of musical works. I do not reject it; indeed I strongly hold to it, but not, I hope, in naïve fashion. The essence of a work, the Schoenbergian – or, should one prefer, Platonic – ‘Idea’ changes not only through time but also according to other matters of context. If the Sixth Symphony did not mean many different things to us than it did to Mahler, something would have gone horribly wrong. Few dogmas have done such harm to musical performance as Werktreue, or ‘fidelity to the work’. Sometimes a greater fidelity may be found in ‘infidelity’. That is not to say that one should do whatever one likes; there are good decisions and bad, better decisions and worse, and they might vary according to time and context. But ‘correct’ rarely comes into it.

This is not an issue peculiar to Mahler. We still argue over ‘versions’ of Bruckner symphonies. Moreover, Sir Colin Davis, hardly a conductor given to iconoclasm, goes so far as to reverse the performance order of the middle movements in Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. I am not aware of any warrant from the composer for the practice, which I should not be inclined to follow, but it represents a distinguished conductor’s attempt to deal with what he considers to be the problems of the work. It would not occur to me to be ‘upset’ by Davis’s decision; nor should I harangue others for supporting or following it. Pierre Boulez, who follows what RM-W considers to be the ‘incorrect’ movement order in Mahler’s Sixth, has altered the movement order in Debussy’s Images, giving what seem to me perfectly good reasons for doing so. Boulez tried the ‘correct’ way once and remained unconvinced, so has persisted in concluding with ‘Ibéria’ rather than with ‘Rondes de printemps’. If we wish to disregard those who would follow Mahler, both before and possibly after he changed his mind, then surely we should excoriate those who act without any compositional or editorial ‘authority’ whatsoever in Bruckner and Debussy. For my part, I should prefer to assess and to respond to the performances as performances. What would the point of insisting that Davis or Boulez conform to an understanding of the works that they do not share? It is difficult to imagine that they would give of their best in performance.

I have no wish to ‘ridicule’ Valery Gergiev for following the instructions of Sander Wilkens in the First Symphony, though I have not cared at all for the Mahler I have heard under Gergiev’s baton. (My problem, doubtless.) But I do wonder why conductors, both to my taste and less so, followed a very peculiar textual suggestion. Had they relied upon their musical sense, as opposed to practising obeisance to the exaggerated authority of a collected edition, I do not doubt that they would have acted otherwise. That is very similar to the point I have tried to make concerning the Sixth Symphony: there is so much more to consider when making musical decisions than what lies in versions of the printed score, what the composer may have thought, and when he might have thought it.

Yours etc. ...

(The letter published in the November issue may be read here.)


Recommended recordings:



A Celebration of Cornelius Cardew, 27 November 2011

Purcell Room

February Piece 1959
February Piece 1960
February Piece 1961
The Fourth System
Material
Unintended Piano Music
Croppy Boy

John Tilbury (piano)

This ‘celebration’ at the Purcell Room is part of a greater festival devoted to Cornelius Cardew by Morley College, of which further details may be found at http://www.thengineroom2011.com/. Cardew is certainly an absorbing, intriguing figure to read about, progressing from boy chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, to the Royal Academy of Music, to assistant to Stockhausen on Carré, to composer of the seven-hour-long Great Learning, founder of the Scratch Orchestra, and radical political activist, having engaged in vigorous Maoist self-criticism, finally meeting his death in a mysterious hit-and-run accident near his Leyton home.

Opportunities to hear Cardew’s music are infrequent. John Tilbury, a friend of the composer, has engaged in tireless advocacy, whether as pianist or biographer. There was certainly no reason to doubt in the truthfulness of his performances. (I have seen no scores.) They sounded committed in every sense, born of experience as well as devotion. To my ears – which, I am well aware, are not necessarily well-attuned to the composer’s voice – it was the earlier works that exerted greater interest. Tilbury mentioned in his programme note Cage and Stockhausen as influences on the three February Pieces; they indeed sounded present, though so, I thought, did Schoenberg, especially in some of the harmonies, if only accidentally. (According to Tilbury’s fascinating memorial lecture, Cardew would later, in 1967, write of Schoenberg: ‘From America Columbus brought us back syphillis, or Death through sex; there is no reason why the compliment should not be returned with myself as the humble vehicle, in the form of total serialism - of Death through music. In the case of serialism the damage has already been done, Schoenberg is the bearer of that intolerable guilt.’ Boulez’s ‘Schoenberg est mort’ sounds relatively innocuous by the side of such words.) The nature of Tilbury’s page-turning suggested aleatory writing; whatever the nature of the compositional principles, this seemed attractive, well-crafted music, even if it was difficult to discern great individuality on a first hearing. The Fourth Element, ‘a kind of appendix to the February Pieces,’ involved a ‘prepared’ element to the piano. Again, it was attractive enough, though somewhat repetitive as time went on.

Material is Cardew’s 1964 piano transcription of his Third Orchestral Piece from four years earlier. Though the material is therefore contemporary with the February Pieces, to me it seemed harmonically more conventional, as if the composer were already moving towards a variety of experimental English minimalism. The previously advertised Winter Potato no.1 – there are three such ‘potatoes’, the pieces, according to Cardew, having lain underground for some time – was omitted, though Croppy Boy took its place, albeit as the final work on the programme. Before that, we heard Unintended Piano Music from 1970 or 1971: Cardew apparently ‘slipped [Tilbury] a single sheet of manuscript paper with a few chords and grace notes.’ I am afraid that is rather what it sounded like: muted doodling. Croppy Boy, based upon a revolutionary Irish song, may well have been important to Cardew in terms of his political principles; yet, as piano music, it sounded merely inconsequential to these doubtless-jaded ears.

I am afraid that I was unable to stay for the second half of the concert, which offered instead of other works by Cardew, improvisations by Tilbury and percussionist Eddie Prévost, coming together as AMM, a ‘cloaked acronym,’ which is both ‘the name of a music improvisation ensemble and the embodiment of a philosophy’. On the basis of Prévost’s programme note, it would seem as though AMM has had something of a fractious history, which once included Cardew, who departed from the ensemble – perhaps the philosophy too? – twice. Further details may be found at http://www.matchlessrecordings.com/.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Tosca, English National Opera, 26 November 2011

Coliseum

Floria Tosca – Claire Rutter
Mario Cavaradossi – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Baron Scarpia – Anthony Michaels-Moore
Cesare Angelotti – Matthew Hargreaves
Sacristan – Henry Waddington
Spoletta – Scott Davies
Sciarrone – Graeme Danby
Gaoler – Christopher Ross
Shepherd-boy –Jacob Ramsay-Patel

Catherine Malfitano (director)
Frank Schloessmann (set designs)
Gideon Davey (costumes)
David Martin Jacques, Kevin Sleep (lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Nicholas Chalmers)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Stephen Lord (conductor)


Tosca (Claire Rutter) and Cavaradossi (Gwyn
Hughes-Jones)
Images: Mike Hoban
The swift return to the Coliseum of Catherine Malfitano’s production of Tosca, premiered in 2010, contrasts strongly with the increasingly disposable nature of many recent ENO productions. Malfitano’s staging makes a refreshing change both from the likes of the floundering first-time spoken theatre and film directors often recently engaged by the company, and from the ludicrous, dramatically-null vulgarity of the Zeffirelli brigade. It doubtless helps to have someone at the directorial helm who knows the work from the inside, having sung the title-role a good many times herself. There is nothing here – with the possible exception of the third act – to frighten self-appointed ‘traditionalists’, although in such repertoire and with respect the audiences it tends to attract, I cannot help but wish that someone would occasionally shock the horses. (Just imagine what Calixto Bieito might make of Tosca!) Despite the sometimes bizarre specificity of the libretto, there seems to me no reason why intelligent relocation or abstraction could not work: the opera is not in any meaningful sense ‘about’ the experience of the French Revolution in Rome. Malfitano, however, elects successfully to retain the settings and for the most part the attitudes of the work’s creators, respecting as do they the classical unities.


Scarpia (Anthony Michaels-Moore)
The first act is therefore set in S.Andrea della Valle at noon, convincingly represented in realistic fashion by Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s designs. The force of Cavaradossi’s painting registers straightforwardly, but none the worse for that. One strongly feels the menace of the Church as pillar of the (re-)established order at the entrance of clergy and acolytes for the Te Deum. (I cannot help but find the anti-clericalism shallow, verging on the puerile, but that is no fault of the production.) Likewise, the second act is set at evening in Scarpia’s quarters in the Palazzo Farnese, furnished as one might expect, though without excess. The third act therefore comes as a bit of a surprise, at least in terms of designs . Doubtless taking as its cue references in words and stage directions to the stars, perhaps even those to the saints in heaven, we see the skies as if from a space ship, though something akin to the battlements is still present. It did not bother me in the slightest, though nor, by the same token, did I find the image revelatory. Throughout, Malfitano’s direction of the characters on stage proves quietly accomplished, providing neither mishaps nor particular flashes of revelation. I do not mean to imply that it is dull, for it is not, but nor does this in any sense approach reinterpretation, for which many will doubtless be relieved. If I found the final melodrama as difficult to take as ever, a not-entirely-fitting conclusion to so well-crafted a score, then clearly I am in the minority; rightly or wrongly, it receives faithful treatment here.

Stephen Lord’s conducting was impressive. Lord is not a conductor I have previously heard, but I should certainly be interested to do so again. Despite the occasional instance of perhaps driving the score a little hard, the full yet variegated sound conjured from the orchestra was as fine as I have heard at the Coliseum for quite some time. Alert to Puccini’s Wagnerisms without overplaying them, there was a fine continuity to Lord’s traversal of the score, which here in both harmony and orchestration at times sounded, to its great benefit, appreciably more modernistic than one often hears. It was not for nothing that both Schoenberg and Berg were admirers. Even Mahler, in his scathing description of a Meistermachwerk, acknowledged the skill of orchestration – an undoubted advance upon so many of Puccini’s Italian forebears – though added that any cobbler nowadays could merely ‘orchestrate to perfection’.


If the singing did not truly scaled the heights, it was professionally despatched. No one is going to replicate Callas, and Claire Rutter wisely did not attempt to try: hers was an intelligent enough stage portrayal, a little lacking in charisma perhaps, likewise in creation of the diva-status of Floria Tosca as singer, but, despite occasional weakness in sustaining her line, there was nothing grievous to worry about. Gwyn Hughes-Jones’s Cavaradossi was not entirely free of crooning tendencies, nor did it revel in subtleties, but it was well enough sung, and would doubtless have sounded better in Italian. Anthony Michaels-Moore seemed to experience vocal difficulties in the first act but his Scarpia sharpened up in the second, albeit without ever quite capturing the sheer danger and malevolence of the most notable interpreters. The smaller parts were all well taken. Choral singing, not always the strongest point recently at the Coliseum, was similarly accomplished.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Book Review: Helen Berry, The Castrato and His Wife

This review was originally published here for Times Higher Education. The author, so far as I am aware, is no relation to me...

The Castrato and His Wife

By Helen Berry
Oxford University Press, 312 pp., £16.99
ISBN 978-0-19-956981-6
Published 22 September 2011

The Castrato and His Wife opens with a brief sketch of a documented evening at the London residence of the Spanish Ambassador, the famed ‘Farinelli’ (Carlo Broschi) the prime attraction, then switches to another event from 1735, the birth of Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci, with the proviso that we know nothing about that, save that it happened. It is refreshing to see an historian so comfortably move beyond written texts, to embrace visual evidence (Gainsborough, for instance, engravings too) and the world of mentalités. Though Helen Berry claims also to have consulted musical scores, it remains unclear in what respect. No matter: this is a work of social and cultural history, not musicology. (Repeated references to a favoured title role, that of Gluck’s Orpheo conflate Italian Orfeo and French Orphée¸ the latter a tenor version.) Nor is it a biography; perhaps we should think of an extended historical sketch, musing upon transfer from the anonymous, barely documented world of the poor to the realm of books, paintings, and theatres.

That transfer necessitated ‘a very particular and brutal kind of sacrifice,’ the details shrouded in mystery. The Church and its princes claimed no knowledge of the procedure, yet proved willing to taste of its fruits. Frenchmen and Spaniards blamed Italians; how then to account for French and Spanish castrati? The celebrated musical traveller, Charles Burney, ‘was told at Milan’ that the operation took place ‘at Venice; at Venice that it was at Bologna,’ and so on. For the English, needless to say, the practice was a cruel offshoot of Popery and absolutism, yet they happily sampled the proffered exoticism and vocal fireworks as relief from those provided by Bedlam. Following the operation, ‘happily executed’ by an itinerant barber-surgeon, Tenducci headed from Siena to a Neapolitan conservatoire, where he was invested by a priest at confession and Mass, and subsequently built a starry career across Europe, taking in debt, scandal, and imprisonment, as well as powerful patronage, the title of Count Palatine, and acquaintance with Thomas Arne, Johann Christian Bach, and Mozart.

There is much of interest in terms of gender relations: masculinity (or not), of course, but also the ‘quasi-dynastic’ support afforded from elder to younger singers in the absence of biological fatherhood, and the possibility of extra-marital affairs for unhappy wives, which provided ‘a loophole in the sexual double standard’. Tenducci for his part refused to accept that his ‘impediment’ precluded romantic heterosexual entanglement, leading to elopement, marriage, trial and annulment – the latter much to the relief of the Protestant Ascendancy family of his bride, Dorothea Maunsell. Berry proves a diverting guide in piecing together a narrative from sources and – unavoidably, given their partial nature – speculation.

Tantalisingly – perhaps an unfortunate word in this context – recordings from 1902-3 feature the ‘last castrato’, Alessandro Moreschi, musical director of the Sistine Choir. They remain objects of controversy, not only thanks to poor recording quality, but also concerning Moreschi’s vocal quality: was it even very good to begin with, or is he caught too late? Moreschi was certainly not an international star alla Tenducci, though he exasperated Vatican officials with airs, graces, and quixotic cancellations. Moreover, students of the voice vary widely in their assessments – just as they did of course during the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, we are reminded of the partial nature of evidence, and the role imagination can and must play. If Tenducci’s voice ‘has been difficult, but not impossible, to recover across the centuries,’ castrati and their histories remind us that voices may mislead. Proponents of the recent ‘authenticity’ craze – so-called ‘period’ instruments and performance styles – might nevertheless do well to listen.


Diener/Philharmonia/Kluttig and Dohnányi: Schöllhorn, Strauss, and Mozart, 24 November 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Johannes Schöllhorn – Anamorphoses: Contrapunctus IV, VI, IX, XI, and Canon per augmentationem in contrario motu

Strauss – Don Juan, op.20
Strauss – Four Last Songs
Mozart – Symphony no.25 in G minor, KV 183
Strauss – Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, op.28

Melanie Diener (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Roland Kluttig and Christoph von Dohnányi (conductors)

‘Schöllhorn, Strauss, and Mozart’: not, alas, a firm of German lawyers, nor even the composers featured in a Philharmonia concert, but rather those appearing in two. The first in a new series of ‘Music of Today’ featured members of the Philharmonia, conducted by Roland Kluttig in five movements from Johannes Schöllhorn’s Bach-reworking, Anamorphoses; the second welcomed back sometime Principal Conductor, Christoph von Dohnányi, for Strauss and a little Mozart.

Schöllhorn’s music was selected by Music of Today’s new Artistic Director, Unsuk Chin, to open her series. (Ivan Fedele and Gérard Grisey are amongst the others who will be featured.) Anamorphoses refers to Schöllhorn’s inspiration in the mannerist technique of having the viewer see different aspects of a painting according to where he is standing: Holbein’s The Ambassadors would be an obvious example. Schöllhorn presents the Art of Fugue in a fashion that for him – and, I thought, for the listener – presents Bach’s music not only as coming from the cathedral, but also from the bazaar. The accordion is a nice touch in that respect, though its employment is far from limited to presentation of ‘street colour’; indeed, its music later forms a significant component of the still, or rather gradually beating, heart to the movements we heard. There is Stravinskian spikiness later on, but just as arresting is the Berio-like technique – I think more of Berio’s orchestration of a Purcell hornpipe and his variations on ‘Ein mädchen oder Weibchen’ than his Art of Fugue transcription – in which wisps of music become apparent, whilst having been ever-present, sometimes submerged. Sinfonia’s treatment of Mahler also sprang to mind, especially in Contrapunctus XI. Performances seemed keenly observed and committed. I should love to hear more – though preferably without the distracting company of the roving telephone-photographer, eventually, albeit far too late, asked to desist from his travels around the hall and even into the choir.



Don Juan opened the second concert and was the only disappointment: not that it was bad, but more a matter of seeming to have caught Dohnányi before he had really found his stride. The Philharmonia sounded tremendous from the opening upwards sweep, but its direction early on was somewhat brusque, four-square even, though the more tender moments were permitted to sing. Zsolt-Tihámer Visontay’s solos as leader were predictably fine. As partial compensation for the lack of narrative swagger, Dohnányi offered a great deal of revealing attention to detail, thematically as much as pictorially, not least in the generative emphasis accorded to the cello line. Ultimately, however, though I was often (relatively) impressed, I remained unmoved.

The Four Last Songs were another matter – as surely they must. (Imagine a performance that did not move; or rather, try to banish such thoughts or recollections.) Melanie Diener showed that she could float a line just as long as Strauss – or Dohnányi – required, without turning the vocal line into just another gorgeous strand of orchestration: the words meant something. When Hermann Hesse’s verse told of the soul unwatched in free flight (‘Und die Seele unbewacht/will in freien Flügen schweben’) that was just what we heard – and felt. Dohnányi’s leadership was resolutely unsentimental, but not without sentiment. ‘Frühling’ evoked springtime, thereby permitting transformation to take place. Through the subtle array of colours in the final stanza of ‘September’, autumnal phantasmagoria turned to weariness – not too much, just enough – in ‘Beim Schlafengehen’, Strauss’s music possessed of unassuming dignity. It moved as Don Juan never had, which is not only a matter of the works’ individual qualities. Likewise, the introduction to ‘Im Abendrot’ was perfectly judged, in a similar vein; I was especially grateful for the rich – not too much, just enough – viola line, and its heart-rending articulation. ‘Ist dies etwa der Tod?’ Maybe, or maybe not: life seemed as much affirmed as denied.

Mozart’s ‘Little’ G minor Symphony was a somewhat odd bedfellow, Strauss’s devotion to Mozart notwithstanding. Either more Mozart or more Mozartian Strauss, perhaps both, might have worked better; as it was, there was a slight sense of the palette-cleanser. That was a pity, since Dohnányi led an impressive performance, hamstrung only by a strangely prosaic slow movement, in which phrase merely followed phrase. The first movement, however, was mightily impressive: vehement, without exaggeration, stylishly accomplished throughout. Structure was clearly delineated, making me keen to hear the conductor in Haydn, especially Sturm und Drang Haydn. Interplay between antiphonally placed first and second violins enthralled; there was a true sense of divine drama through ‘purely’ musical means. The minuet was finely detailed, and taken at a sensible tempo, with no fashionable one-in-a-bar nonsense. (In that connection, how refreshing it also was to welcome a decently-sized orchestra, with ten first violins down to four double basses, though Mozart himself would have welcomed larger forces, a fact the ‘authenticke’ lobby simply ignores.) The trio emerged as wondrous Harmoniemusik, breathing the air of a Salzburg summer’s evening, whilst the finale, fast but not breathless, resumed the non-exhibitionistic vehemence of the opening.

Till Eulenspiegel benefited from the reinvigoration imparted, at least seemingly so, by Mozart; this was a much livelier, more flexible reading than that accorded Don Juan. In Dohnányi’s hands, Strauss’s score sounded full of incident, superbly articulated, the performance blessed with excellent grasp of structure, permitting narrative and character to emerge with proper coherence. It was elegant, witty, and dashing. The trickiness of Strauss’s post-Meistersinger counterpoint was navigated as if it were the easiest thing in the world, which it certainly is not. The Philharmonia’s brass sounded positively Wagnerian, albeit with an apt materialist edge. In this quite outstanding account, I was above all reminded with what surpassing virtuosity Strauss, the reviser of Berlioz’s treatise, composed for orchestra.

Béatrice et Bénédict, Royal Academy Opera, 23 November 2011

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

Somarone – Nicholas Crawley
Léonato – James Wolstenholme
Messenger, Archbishop – Johnny Herford
Béatrice – Rachel Kelly
Héro – Jennifer France
Don Pedro – Frederick Long
Bénédict – Stuart Jackson
Claudio – Ross Ramgobin
Ursule – Fiona Mackay

John Copley (director)
Tim Reed (set designs)
Prue Handely (costumes)
Geraint Pughe (lighting)
John Castle (Shakespeare dialogue coach)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Royal Academy Opera Chorus
Sir Colin Davis (conductor).

Héro (Jennifer France)
Images: Hana Zushi
A new production of a Berlioz opera conducted by Sir Colin Davis: who would not jump at the chance? I had begun to fear that I might never be vouchsafed the theatrical opportunity, though LSO concert performances of Les Troyens and Benvenuto Cellini remain highlights of my opera-going life. How wonderful, then, to be offered the opportunity to see Béatrice et Bénédict at the Royal Academy, an institution to which, in the words of Jane Glover, Director of Opera, ‘Sir Colin … has given so much … over the years.’ Long may one of ‘the greatest living legends in the world of opera’ continue to do so, for he inspired his young musicians, both singers and instrumentalists, to heights such as one could hardly have dared anticipate. The playing of the Royal Academy Sinfonia was characterful, beautifully articulated, and above all responsive to the tricky twists and turns of Berlioz’s inimitable, fantastical imagination. As it should, the Overture properly set the scene: nervous energy palpable at a level that would not have shamed the LSO, with melting contrast from a daringly slow, quite ravishing played, second group, prefiguring the delights of the Nocturne, ‘Nuit paisible et sereine!’ which ushers the first act to sleep. The thread might have snapped in less experienced hands, but Davis knew precisely what he was doing, and held us – and, it would seem, his musicians – spellbound throughout. Onstage instrumental playing impressed too, not least the evocative guitar-playing of Benjamin Bruant.

Somarone (Nicholas Crawley)
I wonder a little quite what one would make of the opera, did one not know Shakespeare’s play; in many respects, Béatrice et Bénédict comes across, like Roméo et Juliette and La Damnation de Faust, even Tristia, more as reflections upon an original than a fully-fledged drama in its own right. I cannot help, moreover, but think that some of the numbers are a little longer than they need be. At any rate, the work’s pleasures are quite different from the splendours of Benvenuto Cellini and Les Troyens. Nevertheless, John Copley’s direction makes a strong and enjoyable case. This was not, for better or worse, a Regietheater reimagining, but a warm-hearted, sympathetic staging that complemented Sir Colin’s contribution in the pit, delighting the audience with its warmly Mediterranean designs and its fine sense of comic timing. It seemed to me a perfectly reasonable compromise in a conservatoire context to have the dialogue in English, mostly that of Shakespeare; the singers certainly delivered it well, no doubt a measure of John Castle’s contribution as dialogue coach.

Léonato (James Wolstenholme), Bénédict (Stuart Jackson),
and Claudio (Ross Ramgobin)

Notwithstanding the estimable qualities of the conductor and director, Royal Academy Opera is a draw in itself. This is the third production I have seen there within a year, the others having been Così fan tutte and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s Kommilitonen! Though Béatrice et Bénédict proved the finest performance of all, both Così and Kommilitonen! had also proved highly impressive. Moreover, the contrast with Opera North’s unhappy Queen of Spades the preceding evening was stark. Not a single member of the cast disappointed; indeed, each in his or her own way enthralled. Nicholas Crawley offered a sharply-etched, genuinely amusing, characterisation of Somarone, the music master (Berlioz’s own creation), as beautifully sung as it was finely acted. Frederick Long impressed again, this time in the role of Don Pedro; he is fast emerging a versatile, highly-accomplished artist. Stuart Jackson and Rachel Kelly negotiated with aplomb the strenuous demands placed upon them in the title roles, whilst the stars of Jennifer France’s Héro and Ross Ramgobin’s Claudio shone brightly indeed, their lines both ardent yet elegantly shaped in fine Gallic fashion. The sixteen-strong chorus was outstanding: once again, this was a performance that would put to shame many of those one would encounter in the grandest of houses.



Final scene (some of the singers are from a different cast)

It is a sad reflection on France’s treatment of one of her greatest composers that the 1862 premiere of this very ‘French’ work took place in Baden-Baden, but then, even as late as 1990, an act of restitution to open the Opéra Bastille, an allegedly ‘complete’ performance of Les Troyens, would omit its ballet music. The land of Berlioz’s beloved Shakespeare, has often turned out, above all though not solely through the offices of Sir Colin Davis, to be friendlier territory. Let us hope that this new staging will have furnished many on stage and in the audience with newfound or confirmed enthusiasm for the cause. When one considers some of the works that bafflingly continue to hold our operatic stages, Berlioz deserves to be heard far more frequently.

Recommended recording:

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Queen of Spades, Opera North, 22 November 2011

(sung in English)

Barbican Theatre

Lisa – Orla Boylan
Countess – Dame Josephine Barstow
Hermann – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Count Tomsky, Pluto – Jonathan Summers
Prince Yeletsky – William Dazeley
Pauline, Daphnis – Alexandra Sherman
Governess – Fiona Kimm
Chekalinsky – Daniel Norman
Sourin – Julian Tovey
Masha – Gillene Herbert
Chaplitsky – David Llewellyn
Narumov – Dean Robinson
Master of Ceremonies – Paul Rendall
Chloë – Miranda Bevin

Neil Bartlett (director)
Kandis Cook (designs)
Chris Davey (lighting)
Leah Hausman (choreography)

Chorus of Opera North (chorus master: Timothy Burke)
Orchestra of Opera North
Richard Farnes (conductor)

Opera North holds a special place in my affections: my first full opera in the theatre was the company’s Wozzeck, which I saw as a schoolboy at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield. The experience marked me for life. I have never doubted since that Wozzeck is one of the greatest operas ever written, nor have I doubted that opera, whatever the disappointments one may experience in practice, can at its best prove at least as potent a form of drama as any other. It is many years now since I heard a performance from the company, though I have received very good reports from those who have, often comparing its offerings favourably with those on offer from the two principal London houses. I was therefore delighted to have opportunity to see and to hear for myself in Opera North’s first visit to the Barbican Theatre. (More are planned.) The timing was interesting too, affording comparison with Eugene Onegin across town at the Coliseum.
First impressions of Neil Bartlett’s production were preferable to those of Deborah Warner’s Met-bound anodyne crowd-pleaser. There is, at least to begin with, no evident point of view expressed; straightforward storytelling seems the order of the day. By the same token, however, that does not come across as a deliberate policy to play safe, even to condescend. The setting is where it ‘should’ be; costumes are of the period; there is neither jarring nor particular elucidation. It would have been bizarre and not just unwelcome if the audience had followed the practice of a segment of that for Onegin and had drowned out the music by applauding Kandis Cook’s serviceable sets; they simply did their job without ostentation and without sentimental emphasis upon petit bourgeois conceptions of the ‘beautiful’. However, I said ‘first impressions’ above, because there is one aspect of Bartlett’s staging that might distress the literal-minded. It seemed interesting to me, yet arguably out of place in a production that offered nothing more of the same, rather as if the concept had wandered in from elsewhere. I speak of Bartlett’s treatment of the Countess, who emerges a sex-crazed vamp: she certainly would have captured attention in her scarlet gown even if she had not been played by Dame Josephine Barstow. Fitting or not, it was at least an idea, which was more than could be said for anything Warner mustered. The Personenregie, however, was considerably less skilled, or at least its execution was. And If Catherine the Great made her appearance, I am afraid I missed it.

The real problems, though, lay in the musical performances, and above all with Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s Hermann. It did not sound as though this were an off-day, more a matter of having taken on a task that lay far beyond what the voice was incapable of delivering. It would be a matter of taste rather than judgement whether the shouting or tuning proved more painful. This, I am sad to say, constituted some of the most troubling professional singing I have heard; indeed, most student or other amateur performances are executed at a much higher level. He improved slightly during the third act, though he continued to croon in a manner that might have been thought excessive for a West End musical. Some smaller roles were no less approximate and crude, though, by the same token, some proved much better. William Dazeley’s Yeletsky impressed, as did the Tomsky of Jonathan Summers. Perhaps best of all was Alexandra Sherman’s Pauline. Hers was that rare thing: a true contralto. Moreover, she could use it to properly dramatic ends, the song, ‘Podrugi milïye,’ musically shaped and genuinely moving. Orla Boylan’s Lisa had its moments, but sometimes found herself all over the place in terms both of (melo-)drama and of intonation.

The chorus had clearly been well trained by Timothy Burke, and generally acquitted itself well, most of all in the third act, when, despite the translation, choral sound came across as more plausibly Russian than elsewhere. (The translation itself veered between embarrassing couplets and the merely prosaic; in that respect, Martin Pickard’s work recalled what we heard from him for Onegin.) Barstow, as the reader may have guessed, stole the show. Though her tuning was a little awry upon her entrance, and some might have queried the preponderance of quasi-spoken, parlando style, she can still hold a stage. One longed for more, wishing that her palpable commitment had rubbed off on others.

Richard Farnes proved intermittently impressive. There was certainly dramatic drive, sensitivity too, to his conducting. Yet, whilst there were moments in which the orchestra sounded to have just the right Tchaikovsky sound – the opening of the third act, for instance – there were other passages in which the score veered awkwardly between dark, would-be Wagnerism and soft-centred Puccini. A greater body of strings would have assisted: though what was mustered played well, the lack of heft was apparent throughout. Characterful woodwind was offset by variable brass, sometimes blaring, sometimes surprisingly tentative. (Placing outside the pit, at the edge of the stage, doubtless did not help.)

It was just about worth it for the Countess, then, but Opera North’s outing to London proved for the most part a damp squib. And it is surely a little too easy to say that the problem may have lain in staging so ambitious a work. After all, it was Wozzeck, no less, that made such an impression upon me in Sheffield. The stage director of that searing, life-changing Wozzeck? Ironically, one Deborah Warner…

Sunday, 20 November 2011

More from Baker, Leppard, and the ECO...

This time, Ottavia's lament, 'Disprezzata regina,' from the greatest of all seventeenth-century operas, Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea. A fine paradox this: Monteverdi's music is so intimately tied to the words, yet, such are the integrity and intensity of the performance that one should most likely glean their meaning without even a smattering of Italian.



Saturday, 19 November 2011

Janet Baker and Raymond Leppard in Gluck's 'Le perfide Renaud me fuit'

As a pendant to the recent review of Acis and Galatea, here are Dame Janet Baker and Raymond Leppard, again with the English Chamber Orchestra, in the supremely moving 'Le perfide Renaud me fuit', from Armide. Is any of our great musical dramatists, with the possible exception of Schoenberg, more scandalously neglected than Gluck?



For the excellent full collection of Gluck arias from these artists, click on the link below.



For a review of Armide in Berlin, directed by Calixto Bieito, and which might not quite have been Dame Janet's cup of tea, click here. (In relation to which, what tantalising news it is that Bieito will direct Carmen for ENO! Although almost anything would be preferable to another Met co-production...)

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Acis and Galatea, ECO/Leppard, 15 November 2011

Cadogan Hall

Acis – Ed Lyon
Galatea – Ruby Hughes
Polyphemus – João Fernandes
Damon – Richard Edgar-Wilson

Dame Janet Baker (narrator)
Choir of the 21st Century
English Chamber Orchestra
Raymond Leppard (conductor).

There was something charmingly of another age – an apparently gentler age, which, like the pastoral idyll itself, may not ever have existed – to this performance of Acis and Galatea. It was not only a matter of hearing Handel once again from Raymond Leppard and the English Chamber Orchestra, welcome though it was to hear the composer’s music not only on modern instruments, but in a performance that did not treat those instruments as if they must discard all their advantages over predecessors – or, more likely, modern copies – and ape their whining tones, their lack of warmth and tuning, in short their gross technical and musical disadvantages. After all, an age in which Baroque music was not a matter of abrasiveness, of ‘effects without cause’, of hysterical promotion of hair-shirted exhibitionism, did once exist: we have a host of recordings from Leppard and the ECO to show it.

Dame Janet Baker was of course present on a good few of those. Her presence on this occasion as narrator, her delivery, and Leppard’s narration itself fitted into a form of presentation redolent of what some of us might imagine the wireless Home Service once to have been. I am not sure that the experiment is likely to be widely repeated, nor that it should be, consisting as it did in descriptions of the action to come, a little explication of situation, and some gentle humour that might have sounded strained when Abigail’s Party was but a twinkle in Mike Leigh’s eye. A wryer framing might better have suited our age’s world-weary cynicism, and we could have done with fewer recurrent mentions of the plains. (The temptation to include a ‘Rain in Spain’ reference certainly ought to have been resisted.) Nevertheless, it would take a heart considerably harder than mine not to be more than a little charmed – and grateful, if for the first and perhaps last, time, to hear Dame Janet back in the concert hall. Her well-spoken Yorkshire tones remained just as one recalled, similarly her graceful demeanour; I for one was delighted to savour them and should have been equally delighted by the opportunity to have heard a bedtime story in such vein.

I had no qualms whatsoever concerning the performance from Leppard and the ECO, a delight from beginning to end. The Sinfonia was lively and well articulated, breathing air that was as theatrical as it was pastoral; and so it continued. If Leppard’s interventionism in the music of composers such as Monteverdi and Cavalli grew more controversial as his career progressed, it might be thought still more so in Handel. (‘Authenticke’ conductors such as René Jacobs take almighty liberties, but that, apparently, is another matter.) Not unreasonably, Leppard took his cue from Handel’s later practice in post-Cannons performances, for instance at the Haymarket, and added a few parts here and there, not only violas and sometimes other, additional string lines, but even – and this, I admit, came as something of a jolt – a glockenspiel for the chorus, itself the beneficiary of a spot of (re-)composition, ‘Happy, happy! Happy we!’ If the truth be told, the effect was a little de trop, closer to Papageno than to the rejoicing Israelites of Saul; moreover, I could not help but think that the number would have been better left as a duet, which we heard, prior to the entry of the chorus. There are far more grievous sins, though, than the occasional gilding of a lily.

Other decisions were less interventionist, as stylish as the instrumental performances themselves. The poignant delicacy of Galatea’s ‘As when the dove laments her love,’ was as much a matter of dialogue, between oboe and marvellously fruity bassoon, conducted against a chamber organ backdrop, as it was of Ruby Hughes’s limpid and at times radiant vocal delivery. I very much liked the balance between ‘English’, Purcellian directness and the warbling of the sopranino recorder in ‘Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!’ A melting oboe solo in the penultimate aria and chorus, ‘Must I my Acis still bemoan’ proved another highlight. Continuo playing – organ and harpsichord were employed, though not, as once might have been the case, played by Leppard himself – was both reliable and imaginative throughout.

Hughes’s contribution I generally found winning, though there were times when her diction might have been stronger. Richard Edgar-Wilson’s brief appearance as Damon – a part that might without great loss be cut – also suffered a little in that respect, though his coloratura was excellent. There were no such problems, however, from the other male soloists, Ed Lyon as the lovestruck Acis and João Fernandes as the giant, Polyphemus. ‘Love in her eyes sits playing’ was an especially touching example of Lyon’s artistry, which showed that, even in ‘concert performance’ – there was throughout a degree of acting, tending somewhat towards the ‘semi-staged – he knew how to act as well as how to sing a Baroque da capo aria. So much was captured in a gesture, a glance, as well of course as in the shaping of words and phrase, that one needed no more: a Handelian tableau vivant, as Leppard outlined in the programme. The da capo return in beautifully hushed tone, love not only playing but already threatening ‘delicious death’, was truly a moment to savour. On a micro-level, the judgement shown in a revealing crescendo on the second syllable of ‘alarm’ in ‘Love sounds th’alarm’ betokened both musical and dramatic sensitivity. Fernandes’s facial expressions exhibited a degree of the gentle grotesque: amusing, touching even, without becoming merely silly. His theatrical experience showed equally, like Lyon’s, in his way with words; the lightly accented English seemed delightfully apt in context. This again is a singer of whom I should like to hear – and to see – more. In the trio, ‘The flocks shall leave the mountains,’ Hughes, Lyon, and Fernandes all helped to show that Handel is perfectly capable of expressing action as well as mood through music – making it all the sadder that opera seria would rarely offer him that opportunity. The Choir of the 21st Century contributed in lively fashion, though the solos in the opening chorus were a little weak. That was soon forgotten, however, and the sense of playful resolution in ‘Galatea, dry thy tears,’ was theirs as well as Leppard’s. More please!

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Handel's 'Hallelujah' Chorus sung as Berlusconi exits stage right

The truly wonderful news is, of course, the resignation of the man who at times seemed close to buying Italy. However, it is more than a little wonderful to hear Handel's role in the celebrations:



Let us hope that the Messiah will soon come in useful on the streets of London too. Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, et al., beware...

(Click here for a reminder of Maurizio Pollini's words against Berlusconi's 'government'.)

Eugene Onegin, English National Opera, 12 November 2011

Coliseum

Madame Larina – Diana Montague
Tatiana – Amanda Echalaz
Olga – Claudia Huckle
Filipievna – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Eugene Onegin – Audun Iversen
Lensky – Toby Spence
Monsieur Triquet – Adrian Thompson
Zaretsky – David Stout
Prince Gremin – Brindley Sherratt
Captain – Paul Napier-Burrows
Peasant Singer – David Newman

Deborah Warner (director)
Tom Pye (designs)
Chloe Obolensky (costumes)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Kim Brandstrup (choreography)

Chorus and Additional Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Images: Neil Libbert

Was this ENO? Or had I nodded off and slipped into a living Met nightmare? Actually, ‘nightmare’ is too harsh, too interesting, for Deborah Warner’s production of Eugene Onegin, actually conceived, I discovered, as a co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, is just plain dull, a strange throwback to the 1970s or further back still, in which singers sing their lines against a pretty – to some – backdrop in ‘period’ dress that might well have come from a television serial. The ‘period’ in question seems to be slightly later than Pushkin, to no obvious end. Now there is nothing necessarily wrong with ‘traditional’ productions, but this one offered no discernible view upon the work, no discernible insight, save perhaps for a tired, slightly misandrist suggestion that the work might be better off entitled ‘Tatiana Larina’, into the characters and their development, and no discernible provocation or even invitation to think. It is, I think, the first time I have witnessed members of the audience even –  I assure you, I am not making this up – applaud a Coliseum set, in this case as the curtain rose for the third act, obscuring Tchaikovsky's Polonaise. (They indulged in plenty of disruption elsewhere too, a selfish couple seated behind me a particular menace, speaking throughout the performance, unresponsive to the iciest of glares.)

Even from a literalist perspective, there are problems beyond the slight ‘updating’. Once one engages upon such a path, fetishising costumes, scenery, and the like, any deviation tends to stand out like a sore thumb. Thus, whilst a more neutral or suggestive space would doubtless double up without too much trouble for the first three scenes of the first act, we are left wondering in literalist mode why Tatiana appears to sleep in a capacious barn. (It will doubtless be more capacious still in New York.) Child ‘extras’ running around for no particular reason are an irritant; they seem to be a favoured device of the director, her ENO Messiah a case in point. Are not the costumes for the celebration of Tatiana’s name day a little on the dour side for such an occasion? Why does the final scene not appear quite where it ‘should’?

Lensky (Toby Spence)

More serious is the problem alluded to above, whereby Warner’s sympathies seemed only to be elicited by the female characters. It used often to be a critical plaint that the opera should not have been entitled Eugene Onegin; this production, whether by design or by default, comes across as an attempt to revive that view. Everything is centred upon Tatiana. The subtext – at times, it is barely ‘sub-‘ – of Romantic friendship or more between Onegin and Lensky is ignored. Surely it does not take even a leap of the imagination to appreciate how Tchaikovsky would have understood Onegin’s rejection of Tatiana, herself of course in many respects a projection of male homosexuality. To take at face value without any further probing the description of Onegin as an ‘outsider’ seems in this context merely bizarre: would one not at least ask what is meant by ‘outsider’, just as one would in Peter Grimes? The following words surely speak for themselves:

If I had wished to pass my life
within the confines of the family circle,
and benevolent fate had decreed for me
the role of husband and father,
then I should most likely not choose
any bride other than you.
Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Munich production (reviewed here by Jens Laurson) made explicit what might though need not remain implicit. One can remain relatively reticent, though, and still address this central issue of the opera: take Steven Pimlott’s woefully underrated production for Covent Garden, ‘traditional’ in look, but so much more dramatically alert than Warner’s production. Had the action been centred upon Tatiana in especially dramatic, more revisionist, fashion, I am sure that would have been a valid approach, but Warner’s focus seemed more a default setting than anything else.


Onegin (Audun Iversen) and Lensky

There was considerable compensation, however, to be heard from Edward Gardner’s conducting: undoubtedly the best I have heard from him at the Coliseum. If I have been spoilt by my most recent two hearings of the work in the theatre, both conducted by Daniel Barenboim, Gardner nevertheless impressed, Shape and sweep almost unfailingly present. There was a fine swagger to the choral numbers and the dances (in which the dancers made a good impression), which the more intimate moments – insofar as the production permitted them to exist – were executed with tenderness and genuine sympathy. If Gardner’s reading did not quite scintillate in the way that some can, there is plenty of scope for intensification as the run of performances proceeds. He certainly has the ENO Orchestra on fine form, though a few more strings would have been welcome. The chorus, trained by Martin Merry, returned to form too, though all suffered from Martin Pickard’s clunky English translation: if we must do without the Russian text and its inimitable sonorities, then we need a superior substitute.


Toby Spence shone out from the cast. (Lenskys often do.) Though his ardent sincerity was somewhat robbed of context by the production, it nevertheless left its mark. Audun Iversen was likewise hamstrung in the title role, though earlier on, fine English diction notwithstanding, he rarely seemed truly to get inside the part even in musical terms. His performance in the third act heated up nicely, however, so maybe first night nerves were a factor. Amanda Echalaz merely seemed miscast as Tatiana. Her high soprano often seemed thin and disengaged; attempts to compensate skirted dangerously close to Puccini-caricature. Claudia Huckle’s often blowsy Olga struck a discordant note in more than one sense. Adrian Thompson, however, made a fine impression with a sensitive rendition of Monsieur Triquet’s couplets, even if one could have done without the assumed 'French' accent. One dry patch apart, Brindley Sherratt shaped Prince Gremin’s aria well. Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Diana Montague contributed a focus to the roles of Filipievna and Mme Larina that was not always present elsewhere. I could not help wishing that they might be offered a little more to do.

Tatiana (Amanda Echalaz) and Prince Gremin (Brindley Sherratt)

For those weary, then, of Konzept-heavy productions, this Onegin might offer some balm; it is certainly worth hearing for Gardner and Spence. Yet there remains ample room for a more ‘traditional’ production that does not forego interpretation, of whatever variety.

The performance on 23 November will be recorded by BBC Radio 3 for subsequent broadcast.

Recommended performances on CD and DVD:




Saturday, 12 November 2011

Tan/Arensky Chamber Orchestra/Kunhardt - Stravinsky, Wagner, and Ravel, 10 November 2011

Cadogan Hall

Stravinsky – Pulcinella: Suite
Wagner – Siegfried-Idyll
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major

Melvyn Tan (piano)
Arensky Chamber Orchestra
William Kunhardt (conductor)


This concert marked the final event of the Arensky Chamber Orchestra’s 2011 season, though it will return in 2012 with a spring series devoted to Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, ‘The Revolutionaries of Vienna’, a concert devoted to each composer. The concert also marked the expansion of this ensemble of fine young soloists into a full chamber orchestra, previous concerts having been focused upon strings. It was the first in which the ACO’s artistic director, William Kunhardt, conducted – and an impressive job he made of it too.

First off was Stravinsky’s suite from Pulcinella. (Or rather, first off was the ‘Polichinelle’, first of three mini-cocktails prepared especially for the evening: a typically distinctive touch, recipes provided on the back of the programme.) The opening Sinfonia was more graceful, sensuous even, certainly less driven, than one often hears, much to its advantage. One could say the same of a good part of the rest of the suite, though the Tarantella would be properly insistent, standing out all the more on that account. The bizarre individuality of Stravinsky’s scoring – Paul Griffiths once described the ballet as less a work than a way of hearing – was permitted to speak for itself. Solos were well taken, Kenny Sturgeon’s oboe an especial joy in the Serenata. The Scherzino was rhythmically alert and nicely shaded, its changing demands well negotiated by Kunhardt. A smart, stylish Toccata featured excellent wind and brass playing: proof, were it needed, that expansion of forces was working well. Only the Gavotta lacked a little incision, at some times sounding a little tentative. Stravinsky’s inimitable ear for colour was once again restored to our consciousness in the Finale. Special mention should go to leader, Sulki Yu, whose poised, assured manner set the tone for the ensemble as a whole. And if Sir Neville Marriner’s old Academy of St Martin in the Fields recording – a favourite of mine for the suite, as opposed to full ballet – were smoother, this playing arguably possessed greater character.



Following a sip of the ‘Tribschen’, a cream-based cocktail, we moved on to the Siegfried-Idyll, a formidably difficult work to bring off in one overarching span. The players responded to Kunhardt’s sensitive direction with aplomb, their versatility showing in an immediately mellower tone than that adopted for Stravinsky, the arch anti-Wagnerite (at least in theory). Much was beautifully ‘sung’, just as it should be, with real warmth at climaxes, the occasional more four-square moment quickly effaced by the skill and generosity of the music-making on offer.

A Paris Mojito led us into Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto, with Melvyn Tan as soloist. Tan has a rather peculiar podium manner, which takes a little getting used to; I felt, moreover, that he and the orchestra were not always of one mind, especially during the outer movements. Where differences occurred, I admit that the orchestra’s seemed to be the better mind. For instance, the splendidly jazzy orchestral colours of the first movement and Kunhardt’s eager relish to luxuriate in Ravel’s harmonies contrasted with Tan’s more aggressive approach. There was a spellbinding moment of near-but-not-quite-stasis led by the excellent harpist (Anneke Hodnett) too. Tan seemed much more at home in the slow movement, the opening cantilena beautifully handled: performed in more Romantic, almost Chopinesque, fashion than often, but it worked. The orchestra was on fine form throughout, temperature again higher than one tends to hear, but that is no bad thing. If the finale suffered somewhat from an initially plodding tempo – later corrected – there were some riotous orchestral solos to enjoy. If Tan does not seem always to have achieved unmitigated success in transferring full-time to the modern piano, then the increased orchestral forces employed surely compensated.

The ACO has reached the final six from a shortlist of nine hundred for a Sky Arts Ignition Award. Apparently members of the jury were present; they should have been duly impressed.

Salzburg Festival, 2012



New Intendant of the Festival, Alexander Pereira, the Festival President, Helga Rabl-Stadler, and Director of Drama, Sven-Erik Bechtholf, announced the programme for next year’s Festival, first in Salzburg, before flying to London to speak at the Residence of the Austrian Ambassador. The 2012 season will see seven new opera productions, plus two concert performances (Il re pastore and Tamerlano, both from period-instrument ensembles). Two will have been presented earlier in the year at the Salzburg Easter and Whitsun Festivals (Carmen under Sir Simon Rattle and Giulio Cesare in Egitto with Cecilia Bartoli, staged by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier), but five will be seen for the first time in the summer, Pereira stating adamantly that revivals will be at the very least an exception during his tenure of office, requiring continued collaboration between the same stage director and conductor.


First of the new productions is Die Zauberflöte, in a staging by Jens-Daniel Herzog. Nikolaus Harnoncourt had stated that he would no longer conduct opera in Salzburg, but Pereira enticed him back with the suggestion that Harnoncourt lead his first ‘late’ Mozart opera on period instruments. (Doubtless reactions will vary on that score: Herbert von Karajan must be rolling in his well-upholstered grave.) Wherever one stands on that matter, there is an intriguing offering to commemorate the two-hundred anniversary of Emanuel Schikaneder’s death: a staging of his ‘zweyte Theil der Zauberflöte,’ Das Labyrinth, oder Der Kampf mit den Elementen, music by the Bavarian court composer, Peter von Winter. Alexandra Liedtke directs; Ivor Bolton conducts the Mozarteum Orchestra.

A rare opportunity is afforded to hear the first version of Ariadne auf Naxos, replete with a good portion of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme. Riccardo Chailly conducts the VPO, whilst Bechtholf himself directs: a good augury for closer collaboration between music and drama. (Pereira also spoke of wanting to introduce more ballet into the Festival.) Singers include Emily Magee, Elena Moşuc, and no less than Jonas Kaufmann, who will also sing Don José alongside Magdalena Kožená in the Rattle Carmen (staging, Aletta Collins). La bohème appears for the first time at the Festival – Pereira spoke of wanting to banish any prejudice against Puccini – in a production from Damiano Michieletto, conducted by Daniele Gatti; the cast includes Piotr Beczala and Anna Netrebko.

Finally, and this is at least as much a draw as Ariadne, comes Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. Ingo Metzmacher conducts a work that cannot have been played that many times, if at all, by the VPO, in a production by Alvis Hermanis. The cast includes Alfred Muff, Laura Aikin, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner, Cornelia Kallisch, and Tomasz Konieczny. Though the production will later be seen in Milan, it is surely a high priority in these Felsenreitschule performances.

The Vienna Philharmonic, as usual, also gives five different concert programmes, under conductors Gergiev, Jansons, Muti, Holliger, and Haitink. Heinz Holliger’s programme launches an initiative outlined by Pereira for new commissions to be performed by the VPO: this concert features Berg’s Chamber Concerto and a Gran Partita apiece by Holliger and Mozart. Muti’s concert looks especially promising: two Liszt symphonic poems (Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe and Les Préludes) and Berlioz’s Messe solennelle. Haitink collaborates with Murray Perahia in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, before conducting Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony.

Visiting orchestras include the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and the Orchestra Mozart under Claudio Abbado. They will both perform in a new, opening week of sacred music, ‘Ouverture spirituelle’,’ which aims to make especial use of the city’s wonderful array of churches, but also to initiate dialogue between Western Christianity and other faiths: Judaism in the first year (hence Ernst Bloch’s Avodath Hakodesh), followed by Buddhism/Shintoism, Islam, and Orthodox Christianity. Abbado’s coupling looks highly promising, comprising two works with which he has long been associated: Mozart’s Waisenhausmesse and Schubert’s E-flat Mass, D 950.

Other visiting orchestral highlights include the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim (Beethoven’s Sixth and Fifth Symphonies), the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra with Gatti (Wagner, Berg, Strauss, and Ravel, Frank-Peter Zimmermann the soloist in Berg’s concerto), two performances from the Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst, both including a work by Lutosławski, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Chailly in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, and the Concertgebouw in Bartók and Mahler under Jansons. Gergiev will conduct the LSO in the complete Cinderella. (There are others too, so please do check the website!)

Sándor Végh’s hundredth birthday attracts two marathon concerts from ‘his’ Camerata Salzburg – Bach and Mozart; Schubert and Bartók – plus a series of masterclasses, involving musicians such as Steven Isserlis and András Schiff. The Mozarteum Orchestra’s series of Mozart Matinées continues in seven concerts, highlights including a performance of Die Schuldigkeit des Erstens Gebots, a concert of Dallapiccola, Mozart, and Holliger, under the baton of the last-named composer, and a concert of Mozart and Georg Friedrich Haas from Michael Gielen.

‘Salzburg contemporary,’ the re-named new music strand has no fewer than eleven concerts. Holliger, Zimmermann, and Lutosławski all feature this year. Especially notable offerings for me would include two concerts from the ever-excellent Klangforum Wien: Lutosławski, Dallapiccola, Berio, Boulez, and Castiglioni, from Pablo Heras-Casado and Elīna Garanča, and Zimmermann, Ligeti, Eisler, and Stravinsky, under Johannes Kalitzke. Matthias Goerne joins Christoph Eschenbach in Schubert orchestrations and Zimmermann’s Ich wandte mich und sah an alles unrecht, das geschah unter der Sonne (as well as Berg’s op.6 Orchestral Pieces). Thomas Zehetmair, Ruth Killius, and Thomas Demenga perform solo Bach, Zimmermann, and Scelsi.

A wealth of Lieder and solo performances is again offered. Christian Gerhaher in Die schöne Müllerin bodes well, likewise Garanča’s offering of Schumann and Strauss. Kožena intriguingly presents a recital with organ (Christian Schmitt): Messiaen, Peter Eben, Bach, Liszt, and Dvořák. José Carreras and Juan Diego Florez offer a more Latinate perspective; other singers are Goerne, Thomas Hampson, and Thomas Quasthoff.

Daniel Barenboim performs the final four Schubert sonatas in a series of three recitals, also taking in the two sets of four Impromptus, D 935, and D 899. Schiff performs the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations, Pollini the final three Beethoven sonatas, Krystian Zimerman works by Debussy, and Perahia works by Bach, Chopin, and Schumann. The Hagen Quartet offers two all-Beethoven concerts, and also appears in Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony, conducted by Daniel Harding, and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. Beethoven’s violin sonatas are performed over three evenings by Leonidas Kavakos and Enrico Pace.

Finally, a few words on spoken theatre, which seems revivified under Bechtholf’s leadership. Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann will, of course, be there, but there is so much else. Andrea Brecht directs Kleist’s Prinz Friedrich von Homburg – would that the Festival in a subsequent year would stage the Henze-Bachmann opera! – and Irina Brook, Peter’s daughter, stages both Peer Gynt (in English) and The Tempest (in French, from the Bouffes du Nord). Puppet theatre is offered, in the guise of Nuremeberg’s Thalias Kompagnons (Kafkas Schloss), and the Austrian classic, Ferdinand Raimund’s Der Bauer als Millionär, as is children’s theatre (Theatre-Rites: Mojo, also to be seen at the Barbican). South Africa’s Tick Tock Productions presents a new, English-language work Trapped, directed by Princess Zinzi Mhlong. Another premiere offering is Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, from Theater Montagnes. Gisèle Vienne has two productions including music, whilst a Korean theatre group brings – in Korean – Hamlet Cantabile to the Salzburg stage.

Further details, including a good number of performances not mentioned, may be found by clicking here for the Salzburg Festival website.

Friday, 11 November 2011

New operas at Salzburg Festival from 2013

The programme for next year's Salzburg Festival has been announced. I shall post some details on that a little later, though everything can of course be found on the website (click here). In the meantime, there is interesting news from new Intendant, Alexander Pereira, whom I heard speak earlier this evening at the Austrian Ambassador's Residence, along with Festival President, Helga Rabl-Stadler, and Director of Drama, Sven-Erik Bechtholf (who has interesting plans of his own). From 2013 until 2016 - and, let us hope, beyond - there will be a newly commissioned opera each year. 2014 will be the turn of Marc-André Dalbavie, 2015 Thomas Adès (also to be seen at Covent Garden and in New York, though I think it will be the Philharmonic rather than the Met), and 2016 Jörg Widmann. 2013 is perhaps the most exciting of all: a new opera on Beckett's Endgame, by none other than György Kurtág. More soon on the programme for 2012...

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Andreas Haefliger: Liszt and Schubert, 9 November 2011

Wigmore Hall

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage: Première année – Suisse, S 160
Schubert – Piano Sonata in G major, D 894

The Wigmore Hall has, I think, contributed more than any other London venue to this year’s Liszt bicentenary. Andreas Haefliger contributed the first book of the Années de pèlerinage – Louis Lortie will perform the second next month – alongside Schubert’s G major piano sonata, D 894. One could make connections, of course, but I was not entirely convinced by the juxtaposition; maybe it was better simply to consider this as a concert of two halves, or maybe I found myself too much under the spell cast by Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s visionary programming at the previous night’s Queen Elizabeth Hall concert.

With the memory of Aimard’s recital still fresh, comparison was inevitable. Haefliger did not come off badly at all. If the two pianists’ styles and approaches were often quite different, there was much to learn and much to enjoy from both. ‘Chapelle de Guillaume Tell’ announced not only big tone, Haefliger’s Steinway contrasting with Aimard’s Yamaha, but also resplendent, I am tempted to say ‘modernistic’, clarity alongside the pianist’s generally monumental approach. ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt’ provided a nicely rippling interlude, whilst the ‘Pastorale’ proceeded with properly generative rhythmic impetus, more than a merely thematic nod to Beethoven in general and to his op.28 sonata in particular. Colour and narrative remained of course very much Liszt’s own. ‘Au bord d’une source’ boasted glittering sonority, though Haefliger displayed a degree of untidiness and hardening of tone at climaxes. ‘Orage’, on the other hand, seemed tailor-made to the grand manner adopted, the Steinway truly coming into its own in a tumultuous rejoicing in its capabilities. Lisztian rhetoric and Romantic force of Nature sounded as one.

With ‘Vallée d’Obermann’, Haefliger came into direct ‘competition’ with Aimard. Both pianists displayed unerring command of line. Perhaps surprisingly, Haefliger’s tone was the more crystalline of the two, though lines could dissolve vertically where required, prophetic not only of Wagner’s technique in, say, Tristan und Isolde, but also of the Second Viennese School. Aimard, on the other hand, more strongly foreshadowed the dark expressionism of such ‘music of the future’. I preferred his darker way with Liszt’s climaxes, but there was much to learn from Haefliger’s more ‘objective’ approach, even if again, one had to deal with a degree of hardening at climaxes. Shaping of the more overtly ‘vocal’ lines, however, remained a joy. ‘Eglogue’ offered a charming pendant, whilst ‘Le mal du pays’ offered an intriguing combination of sonority that was still very much of its time and troubled mood that looked forward to the fruits of Liszt’s old age. ‘Les cloches de Genève’ offered quiet – at least to begin with – ecstasy, Liszt’s line spun as if superior Bellini. When the temperature increased, I felt the tempo might have benefited from broadening somewhat. This nevertheless remained an impressive performance.

Command of line was once again apparent in the first movement of the Schubert sonata, though I wondered whether Haefliger focused a little too much upon the bright, even glittering, side of life here, especially in the second group. There was, though, some beautifully hushed playing too. The development had Beethovenian purpose, though it could seem unduly stark, even monochrome, at times. Haefliger paced the movement well, throughout its well-nigh Brucknerian yet surely ‘heavenly’ length. The opening of the second movement sounded as a sincere lyrical outpouring, though the minor-key episodes perhaps intruded a little too violently. (One might well argue, though, for the necessity of contrast here.) Did gruffness shade into heavy-handedness in the minuet? Perhaps, but the lyrical response was delightful – and painful, in the best sense. The trio was likewise pastoral yet discomfiting. If the finale is always likely to prove somewhat enigmatic, was it a little too much so here? There were some charming and some striking moments, to be sure, but overall line seemed a little hesitant; Sometimes the best way to deal with a door is to walk straight through it. On the other hand, the lack of easy ‘solution’ had more than a little to commend it.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Pierre-Laurent Aimard: Liszt, Bartók, Stroppa, Ravel, and Messiaen, 8 November 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Liszt – Années de pèlerinage, Book III, S 163: ‘Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este: Thrénodie (I)’
Bartók – Four Dirges, op.9: no.4, ‘Nénie’
Liszt – Légende no.1, S 275/1: ‘St François d’Assise’
Stroppa – Miniature estrose: ‘Tangata manu’
Liszt – Années de pèlerinage, Book III, S 163: ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’
Ravel – Jeux d’eau
Messiaen – Catalogue d’oiseaux: ‘Le Traquet stapazin’
Liszt - Années de pèlerinage, Book I, S 160: ‘Vallée d’Obermann’


Just the sort of treatment Liszt needs: a thoughtful, fascinating programme, performed by a pianist who is first and foremost a musician, Pierre-Laurent Aimard. To see so many empty seats in the Queen Elizabeth Hall was saddening, whether for Liszt’s or Aimard’s sake; doubtless the Royal Festival Hall would have been full to the rafters for the likes of Lang Lang. Aimard’s recital was as far removed from such a travelling circus as one could imagine: works by Liszt combined with a fascinating range of related twentieth-century works. Crucially, Aimard performed the entire recital without an interval, and without applause. Would that other pianists might follow suit, where appropriate.

There was, thankfully, nothing remotely flashy about Aimard’s pianism. (Has there ever been?) Yet that does not imply a technique that is anything other than astounding. It is, however, harnessed to musical rather than to merely virtuosic results. As Liszt himself realised, to defeat mere virtuosi, one needs to have super-virtuosic means at one’s disposal. The control with which Aimard, for instance, shaped the climaxes of ‘Vallée d’Obermann’ provided a masterclass in both technical and musical senses. The B minor Sonata sounded, rightly, just around the corner. So, incidentally, in the introduction did Eugene Onegin: not the only time Tchaikovsky seems to have cribbed from Liszt. (Compare their respective first piano concertos, though not in form.)

The third book of the Années de pèlerinage had provided two items earlier on, the opening ‘Aux cyprès de la Villa d’Este: Thrénodie (I)’ and ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’. The former emerged as finely poised as I have heard between the grand and lyrical Romantic manner of Liszt’s maturity and the dark intimations of old age. The way in which the latter gradually won out, though never entirely, over the former was a tribute both to the pianist’s – as well as the composer’s – technical and intellectual means and to the vividness of his pianist imagination. The fourth of Bartók’s Four Dirges, ‘Nénie’, followed on, as if a supplement penned by Liszt himself. Harmony and voice sounded almost as one: a revelatory choice of programming. If only we could have heard all four.

‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’ and Ravel’s Jeux d’eau may have been a more obvious coupling, but here, Aimard’s twist was as much to highlight distinction as much as undeniable debt. (When Ravel was asked how his work should be performed, he responded, ‘like Liszt, of course'.) Through the brilliant evocation of fountains and their games, we realised that for Ravel, they were just that: games, albeit of surpassing elegance. Liszt, however, invested a sense of the divine into a typically awestruck depiction of Nature. As the composer, acknowledged in his quotation from St John, ‘But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.’ If Messiaen’s ‘Le Traquet stapazin’ from Catalogue d’oiseaux owes something to the writing of Ravel and Debussy, in its spirituality it has much more in common with Liszt. As one might expect, Aimard’s account was nothing less than magnificent: fully idiomatic in tone, tempo, and overall conception, as commanding of silence as of intervallic relationships, and seemingly at one with the composer’s spirit.

It was only really in the Légende, ‘St François d’Assise’, that I harboured any doubts – and it would be astonishing in such a recital if some works did not come off better than others. The tempo seemed a little laboured, which is not to say that it necessarily was in objective terms, but rather that Lisztian fantasy did not quite take flight. Even here, there were compensations, in hearing a great deal more than one often does of the relationship between the notes, but the poetic ‘idea’ was not quite fully voiced. The piece made an excellent introduction, however, to Marco Stroppa’s 1995 ‘Tangata manu’, from his Miniature estrose, a work which not only in its piano writing but also in its subject matter, the divine hunt for the egg of a sea swallow, connected so many concerns of Liszt, Ravel, and Messiaen. The treble register of Aimard’s Yamaha proved as equal to the challenge as the pianist’s mind and fingers.

More is to come on 7 December. There is also a recording, which I have not yet heard, featuring repertoire from both recitals. I fully intend to investigate.