Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Open Letter to Sound and Music and Arts Council England

Reproduced below:

27 March 2012

In its business plan of 2008, formulated after several years of detailed planning and approved by the Arts Council, the newly created body Sound and Music made it clear that it would both embrace and enhance the functions of the organisations which had been merged in order to form it: the Society for the Promotion of New Music, the British Music Information Centre, Sonic Arts Network, and the Contemporary Music Network. Instead, within a remarkably short time, it abandoned virtually all of the long-established and constructive activities of its constituent parts, largely in favour of a bland and unfocused endorsement of ‘sound art’ and the promotion of relatively fringe activities which had little or no connection with the mainstream. These are far from being areas undeserving of support, but Sound and Music had absolutely no remit to change direction in this way.

Rather than act on behalf of composers and the many musicians who work in the field of new music, it sought to become a ‘producer’ and to lead instead of serve its community. Having dismantled the previous organisations and disenfranchised their extensive membership, Sound and Music went on to alienate virtually the entire contemporary music sector: a recent wide-ranging survey conducted for the Holst Foundation (Provision for New Music, bit.ly/jOv7MW) could find no one with a good word to say on its behalf. What is particularly disturbing is the disappearance of the support for young and unestablished composers (and the musicians working with them) which the founder organisations had successfully provided over many years. Equally distressing is the abandonment of any form of Music Information Centre in England, resulting in a significant loss of international status for British music.

In spite of recent severe cuts to its public funding and the resignation of members of both the executive and board last year, Sound and Music’s current ‘New Direction’ document shows absolutely no sign of recognition of or apology for the extent of its failure to live up to its original plans; no indication that it has consulted at all with the new music community it presumes to represent; no reduction in its bloated corporate agenda; nor any desire to take risks. Instead it has, in self-regarding fashion, promised more of the same; and has pledged to continue promoting 'Electronic and Improvised; Noise and Art Rock; Notated and Modern Composition; Sonic Art; Multimedia and Cross Art Form; Jazz, World and Folk; and Alternative Rock & Dance’: areas of music which have many virtues but are for the most part entirely different from those for which Sound and Music was created.

The undersigned, the majority of whom of whom are actively engaged with ‘Notated and Modern Composition’, deplore the current state of affairs, and call for the reinstatement of the core functions of the founder organisations without delay. The recommendations of the Holst Foundation report offer many practical suggestions for the appropriate support of new music in the years ahead.


Nicola LeFanu, Colin Matthews and over 250 signatories, headed by Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and including Julian Anderson, George Benjamin, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Martyn Brabbins, Michael Finnissy, Anthony Gilbert, Steven Isserlis, Oliver Knussen, Paul Mealor, Thea Musgrave, and Judith Weir.

For a full list of signatories, click here.

Monday, 26 March 2012

On Pierre Boulez's Birthday

Alas, as was announced last week, London will be missing out on Boulez in two forthcoming concerts with the LSO, though happily, the prograames will still be performed, unaltered, with Péter Eötvös conducting in his stead. Here, however, is what has been called 'the shortest way from Mozart to Pierre Boulez', or the 'Chevauchée fantastique', from Henri Pousseur's opera, Votre Faust:

And here is another short way from Mozart to Boulez, highly recommended:

Saturday, 24 March 2012

BBC SO/Davis - Wood and Tippett, 23 March 2012

Barbican Hall

Hugh Wood – Violin Concerto no.2, op.50 (London premiere)
Tippett – A Child of Our Time

Anthony Marwood (violin)
Nicole Cabell (soprano)
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Matthew Rose (bass)

BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus-master: Stephen Jackson)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)

The Barbican’s English oratorio series now reaches the twentieth century, with Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, though it will step back to The Dream of Gerontius next month. At a little more than an hour long, Tippett’s 1939-41 oratorio might have been thought to make for short measure by itself, though I for one should much prefer to leave wanting more rather than to regret the inclusion of padding. In any case, the companion piece was certainly not padding on this occasion; we were treated to the London premiere of Hugh Wood’s delightful second violin concerto, written between 2002 and 2004, and reviewed in 2008 (premiered by Alexandra Wood, the Milton Keynes City Orchestra, and Sian Edwards in 2009). Cast in the ‘traditional’ three movements, ‘marked ‘Allegro appassionata e energico’, ‘Larghetto, calmo,’ and ‘Vivacissimo’, this proved to be a concerto worthy of any soloist’s – and orchestra’s – attention, and received committed performances from all concerned. Sir Andrew Davis is an old Wood hand, having recorded the composer’s Symphony and Scenes from Comus for NMC. His direction of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, also featured on that recording, seemed authoritative, rhythms tight and colours boldly portrayed. Likewise the contribution of Anthony Marwood impressed. His is not a ‘big’ violin tone, or at least it was not on this occasion, but his shaping of Wood’s lines and his irreproachable intonation – there are a lot of tricky yet always idiomatic double-stopping passages here – served the composer well. What struck me most forcefully about the work were the powerful echoes of Berg: to have as a kinsman, if not a model, the composer of the greatest of all twentieth-century violin concertos is not necessarily a bad thing. I assume that the harmonic relationship between the two works must be deliberate. Certainly the way Wood’s themes construct themselves – at least quasi-serially, by the sound of it – has strong parallels in the work of his august predecessor. Even the solo violin theme which enters in the second bar (a rising figure of semiquavers, G-B-E-flat-F-sharp-B-flat-D-F-A, which then continues to soar above the orchestra in lyrical crotchet triplets) seems to harness the spirit if not the letter of Berg’s example. The transformative technique to which the themes are subjected, and through which they are developed, may ultimately have its roots in Liszt, even Beethoven, but it sounds very much Wood’s own. I wondered also whether , especially in the rondo-like finale, there was something of a homage to Prokofiev, though this may have been nothing more than unwitting correspondence; whatever the truth of that, the woodblocks and other lively, rhythmic untuned percussion gave a hint of the Russian composer’s second concerto. (Wood in his programme note pointed to a ‘Spanish’ tinge, ‘prompted by Alexandra Wood’s playing of Sarasate).

A Child of Our Time had the second half to itself. Davis and the BBC SO again have a good track-record in the composer’s music, if not quite so extensive as the conductor’s namesake, Sir Colin. Marking both the increasingly traumatic turn of events in the 1930s – in particular, Kristallnacht and the 1938 assassination of a Nazi diplomat by a Jewish boy, composition beginning the day after war was declared – and the composer’s undertaking of Jungian analysis, this oratorio attempts to address the political by virtue of a turn to the psychoanalytical. That ultimately remains for me a problematical turn, though there can be no doubting the composer’s sincerity. Is it really enough in the Part Two scena – there are three parts, echoing Handel’s Messiah – for the Narrator’s ‘He shoots the official’ to be responded to with the mezzo’s ‘But he shoots only his dark brother’? It might well be the case that the fate of the boy whose tale is told obliquely can provide no answers, but do political atrocities really permit of a solution in which all we need to do is to master our dark unconscious?

At any rate, the oratorio received a fine performance. Its opening orchestral bars evoked a melancholy as ‘English’, if distinctively so, as the music of many of Tippett’s countrymen, up to and including Birtwistle, yet with its own harmonic and melodic inspiration. Are there in the music and the storytelling hints of Weill too, or does that merely reflect common influences? The BBC SO’s contribution impressed greatly, whether in the instrumental interludes – Tippett’s inspiration here Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – or the more grandly orchestral passages, the opening to the Third Part rhythmically tight and implacable, not least thanks to Davis’s direction. The first interlude, with its trio of two solo flutes and solo viola against a softly singing cello section was powerfully matched by the third part ‘Preludium’, almost neo-Baroque, in which two flutes and solo oboe prepared us for the final peroration, chaste yet without Stravinskian coldness. Choral singing was excellent throughout, the BBC Symphony Chorus as ever well trained by Stephen Jackson, yet with an emotional as well as a musical weight necessary to convey Tippett’s pain and transformation. Strength in anger – ‘A Spiritual of Anger’ – was powerfully conveyed in ‘Go down Moses’, though the intonation of Matthew Rose’s bass contributions was not always spot on. Nicole Cabell and the chorus provided what is perhaps the most magical moment. An exquisitely floated and shaded – with fulsome, though never excessive vibrato – soprano solo, ‘How can I cherish my man in such days…?’ persisted whilst the chorus movingly ‘stole in’ beneath, with the spiritual ‘Steal away’. The use of five spirituals, clearly echoing Bach’s Passion chorales, seems to me not without its problems; simplification of harmonic language at times sounds a little abrupt. Yet again, compositional sincerity tends to win out over such doubts. Karen Cargill, whilst definitely a mezzo, brought a welcome hint of the traditional oratorio contralto too to numbers such as ‘Man has measured the heavens with a telescope’. I was less sure about John Mark Ainsley’s contributions, sometimes both lachrymose and underpowered, struggling to be heard above the orchestra. (It should however be noted that he was a late replacement for an indisposed Toby Spence.) This may be a problematic work, then, but it received for the most part powerful, enlightened advocacy.

Friday, 23 March 2012

And still they come: a new piano piece by Mozart?

The Salzburg Internationale Stiftung Mozarteum sends news of a hitherto unknown piano piece, discovered in the attic of a private house in the Tyrolean Lech Valley by Dr Hildegard Herrmann-Schneider, and 'unequivocally attributed to the junior "Wolfgango Mozart"'. The latter identification is held to be of particular importance, given that Leopold Mozart used it more than once, for instance when writing the title page of the 1764 London Sketchbook. A full article will be published by Dr Herrmann-Schneider in the 2012 edition, expected to be published in September this year, of the Mozart-Jahrbuch. In the meantime, we have eighty-four bars of what would seem to be a sonata movement, marked Allegro molto, dated to c.1767. The piece has been performed in Salzburg this morning bt Florian Birsak (pictured below: images - Wolfgang Lienbacher) upon Mozart's fortepiano. I have been sent a recording file, but alas, have not yet been able to work out how to post it on here; however, we shall be able to listen to it on iTunes from tomorrow. For further details visit the Mozarteum site here.

The Wisdom of Sir Colin Davis

On the 'authenticke' brigade ('unspeakable' in Baroque music), politicians ('dull, dismal ... encased in Plaster of Paris'), re-reading Shakespeare, and much more, see a fascinating interview with Jessica Duchen (click here).

If ever one needed convincing that everything was at stake...

Is it a good or a bad thing that Beethoven, however great we consider our devotion, simply cannot matter so much to us today? I really do not know, yet it is a question I cannot help asking.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

François-Frédéric Guy - Beethoven, 20 March 2012

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Piano sonata no. 15 in D major, op.28, ‘Pastoral’
Piano sonata no. 14 in C-sharp minor, op.27, no.2, ‘Quasi una fantasia’
Piano sonata no. 29 in B-flat major, op.106, ‘Hammerklavier’

François-Frédéric Guy is apparently in the throes of performing all of the Beethoven piano sonatas and concertos. On the evidence of this recital, we in London are missing something potentially rather interesting, though on that same evidence, we in London certainly do not deserve to experience it, the bronchial terrorism of sections of the Queen Elizabeth Hall audience extreme even by current standards. The slow movement of the Hammerklavier sonata was at times well-nigh obliterated; if ever there were a time for lynchings…

Though interventions were frequent, op.28 emerged relatively unscathed. The first movement was often Romantically veiled, which is not to say subdued; when the music cast itself free, it did so organically, the impression all the stronger for it. Some slight spreading of right-hand chords might have bothered purists, but it was subtly, indeed rather magically accomplished. Phrasing was always meaningful; rhetoric was certainly not absent but it was never permitted to come remotely close to occluding Beethoven’s form. Perhaps that was sometimes a problem in the Andante. I am all for fluctuation in tempo, but meaningfully so; here, coherence was not always achieved, the score sometimes feeling merely ‘pulled around’. There was some beautiful playing, though, and at its best there was a sense of truly Beethovenian implacability. The scherzo was nicely insistent, though textures in the trio were a little muddy. I initially thought the tempo for the finale on the fast side, but reconsidered: it was not an unreasonable reading of Allegro, ma non troppo. The pedal note proved not only insistent but properly generative. Episodes were well characterised within a greater whole.

The opening movement of op.27 no.2 emerged as if taken in one long, Romantic sigh. Guy’s withering glance at an especially disruptive cougher ought to have given pause for consideration by his or her accomplices; alas not. Whether it were for that reason that the second movement proved curiously listless, its tempo never really established and its rhythm slack, can only be a matter for speculation. One certainly could not speak of slack rhythm in the finale, though articulation was not always ideally clear. Admittedly, that it is a difficulty given Beethoven’s tempo marking, but squaring the circle is part of the pianist’s task. Moreover, the performance was not entirely free of the impression of formulaic series of arpeggios. As the movement progressed, its dramatic power and coherence increased, but this sonata, despite an impressive Adagio sostenuto, received the least compelling reading considered as a whole.

If a test of the Hammerklavier sonata, and there are surely many tests one might design, could be whether it retains the sense of a pianistic and musical Everest comparable to its would-be dialectical negation, the second sonata of Boulez, then Guy’s performance more or less rose to the challenge. It certainly did so in a stunning finale, but the first movement sounded – at least to me – oddly disengaged. For what it is worth, he split the celebrated opening leap between hands; perhaps the increased technical strain would have engendered greater drama. It was not until the development section that I really felt involved, and even then it was only the extreme demands of some of the fugal writing that truly drew me in. Tone was sometimes on the glassy side, especially during the exposition. Alas, the recapitulation rather passed me by: there is surely something wrong when so little appears to be at stake. The scherzo, however, was a different matter entirely, making me realise part, at least, of what had been missing: not just intensity ‘in itself’ but an intensity born of tight-knit, indeed explosively concentrated, motivic argument. As for the slow movement, I am afraid it was impossible for me properly to judge. The opening was a matter not so much of counting the coughs per bar as per beat; frankly, I should have readily forgiven Guy if he had concluded that enough was enough and had walked out. When I could listen through – and, given the concentration of listening Beethoven requires, it is simply impossible to ignore the appalling behaviour all around – I admired crystalline purity of tone and intermittent command of line, though I felt the latter to be disrupted not only externally but also by the lack of a steady pulse. That purity, however, blossomed into genuinely Romantic warmth and intensity, whilst the whole somehow retained its air of forbidding mystery.

The finale opened with seraphic voicing of chords; trills too made their crucial importance felt. Eruptions were properly volcanic, though counterpoint remained admirably clear. If I had a cavil, it was that I felt the disintegrative tendencies of Beethoven’s compositional dialectic perhaps unduly overshadowed the attempt, indeed the Hegelian necessity to reintegrate, to reconcile, even if, indeed particularly if, that attempt should ultimately prove to be vain. A splendid requisite sense of extreme difficulty was ever present, yet there were times when an opposing yet inextricably interlinked sense of the whole seemed distant rather than tantalising. That said, the drama of disintegration was mightily impressive. Intriguingly, I had at times a sense that the music had lost its tonal moorings entirely. It never does, of course, yet it is fascinating to hear it sound so close to Boulez’s negating successor. As an encore, Guy offered Für Elise; some people unaccountably found the choice hilarious; I could only assume that they were trying to display their knowledge by aggressively voicing recognition. At any rate, one heard its combination of the melting and insistent quite differently in the wake of op.106.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Sixteen - Brahms, Schumann, and Clara Schumann, 16 March 2012

Hall One, Kings Place

Schumann – Spanische Liebeslieder, op.138, nos 4 and 9
Clara Schumann – Romance in E-flat minor, op.11 no.1
Brahms – Zigeunerlieder, op.103
Schumann – Liebesfrühling, op.37: ‘So wahr die Sonne scheiner’
Schumann – Vier Duette, op.78: ‘Tanzlied’
Schumann – Fantasiestücke, op.12, nos 2 and 3
Brahms – Neues Liebeslieder, op.65

Members of The Sixteen:
Julie Cooper, Charlotte Mobbs (soprano)
Alexandra Gibson, Martha McLorinan (alto)
Jeremy Budd, Mark Dobell (tenor)
Alex Ashworth, Eamonn Dougan (bass)

Christopher Glynn, John Reid (piano)
Harry Christophers (conductor)

Having ‘unwrapped’ Beethoven, Chopin, and Mozart, Kings Place in 2012 is mounting a year-long series, ‘Brahms Unwrapped’. This was the second of two contributions from The Sixteen, or rather members thereof, ‘The Eight’, Brahms’s Zigeunerlieder and Neue Liebeslieder accompanied by vocal and piano works by Robert and Clara Schumann. It made for a relatively short programme, but there are worse things than that.

Two songs from Schumann’s 1849 Spanische Liebeslieder opened the programme. ‘Bedeckt mich mit Blumen’, for two sopranos, made for a slightly staid opening, but ‘Blaue Augen hat das Mädchen’, for tenor and bass, proved livelier, the captivation exerted by the girl’s blue eyes for the two protagonists readily apparent. I am sorry to say that I have never heard, or indeed played, a piece by Clara Schumann I have wished to re-encounter, and this piano Romance, op.11 no.1, offered not exception. It was actually a better piece than many I have heard from her, but it proved four-square, repetitious, and unadventurous harmonically, never rising above the generically Romantic: pleasant enough, if you like that sort of thing. Alas, I cannot report on the respective contributions of the two pianists, or indeed of particular singers, by name, since the programme gave no indication as to which was which, or to who was performing what.

The Zigeunerlieder opened in rather peculiar fashion, one of the two tenors – I shall call him Tenor I – sounding closer in style to Weill than to Brahms; it worked surprisingly well, but I could not help but wonder whether it were intended. More troublingly, however, Harry Christophers, who now joined the ensemble to conduct, drove the music hard. I am not convinced that it needs a conductor; this evening’s experience suggests otherwise. It tends to flow more easily, to sound more ‘natural’ in expression, without. ‘Lieber Gott, du weißt, wie oft bereut ich hab’ benefited from commendable attention to detail, yet, like so many of the songs, sounded over-determined. ‘Kommt dir manchmal in den Sinn’ relaxed somewhat, however, and was all the better for it, permitting one to relish Brahms’s harmonies and their implications. Likewise, there was a nice sense of sad mystery to ‘Horch, der Wind klagt in den Zweigen traurig sacht,’ though there was some especially ropy singing from Tenor II here. Tenor I sounded strained in the closing ‘Rote Abendwolken ziehn am Firmament’; indeed, I was taken aback throughout at the problems both tenors experienced.

Schumann’s ‘So wahr die Sonne scheiner,’ a Rückert setting for alto and bass duet, sounded rather lovely: modest, but heartfelt, a welcome change from the over-determination of the conducted works. ‘Tanzlied,’ for soprano and tenor, benefited from a winning lilt to the waltz and its progress; the soprano shone, but the tenor again proved a bit of a trial. Two of Schumann’s Fantasiestücke followed, given by whichever was the pianist who had not performed the piece by Clara. ‘Aufschwung’ was dextrous, though it sounded closer to Mendelssohn than to a progenitor of Brahms. The performance was not especially probing, but pleasant enough, if short-breathed; it stopped very abruptly. ‘Warum?’ exhibited a fine piano touch, though it was perhaps unduly insistent.

The Neue Liebeslieder are of course for piano duet; the new piano texture was both welcome in itself and well navigated by the pianists, richer without ever becoming occluded. As for the vocal performances, much the same could be said as for the Zigeunerlieder. Christophers needed to calm down, and really had no business in part-conducting a piece such as ‘An jeder Hand die Finger’, for soprano solo (rather good, if somewhat bright in tone for Brahms). At least he desisted for most of the other solo songs. Even, though, where a piece went less hell for leather, for instance in ‘Finstere Schatten der Nacht’, it tended to emerge too moulded, audibly as well as visually. ‘Weiche Gräser im Revier’ was marred by Tenor II, ‘Ich kose süß mit der und der’ by Tenor I, who offered charmless, often out-of-tune, bellowing. A pity, given the quality of much of the rest of the singing. ‘Am Donaustrande, da steht ein Haus,’ from the op.52 Liebeslieder-Walzer, was a winning encore, more gemütlich than pretty much anything that had gone before. On the whole, however, the evening lacked Viennese charm and idiom; instead, we were left with an impression that Evensong had preceded the performances. To have had the singers stand around the piano, without conductor, might well have offered a better starting-point.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Die Zauberflöte, Royal Academy of Music, 14 March 2012

Tamino (Thomas Elwin) and the Queen of the Night
(Anna Gorbachyova)
Images: Hana Zushi, Royal Academy of Music
Sir Jack Lyons Theatre

Tamino – Thomas Elwin
Papageno – Ross Ramgobin
Queen of the Night – Anna Gorbachyova
Monostatos – Ross Scanlon
Pamina – Sónia Grané
Speaker – Gareth John
Sarastro – David Shipley
Papagena – Jennifer France
Two Armoured Men – Stuart Jackson and Nicholas Crawley
Three Ladies – Sara Lian Owen, Katie Bray, Kathryn Walker
Three Boys – Lydia Stables, William Coulter, Caroline Loane
Three Slaves – Bradley Smith, Joseph Thompson, Dominic Kraemer

Stephen Barlow (director)
Yannis Thavoris (designs)
David Howe (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)

Royal Academy Opera Chorus
Royal Academy Sinfonia
Jane Glover (conductor)

One of the principal joys of visiting Royal Academy Opera is to witness young singers at the beginning of their careers stretching themselves, taking on roles that elsewhere they would most likely have to wait quite some time to play, in a supportive yet professional environment. This Magic Flute was no exception. It is not the time for odious comparisons: one does not expect a Wunderlich or a Fischer-Dieskau here. But each of the principals in this ‘second cast’ – implying nothing concerning quality, merely reflecting opportunities afforded to two different casts – had something to offer, though every voice will doubtless develop in expected and unexpected ways in the years to come.

The 'Three Children' (Lydia Stables, William Coulter, Caroline Loane)

Thomas Elwin’s Tamino, for instance, offered in many respects a heartfelt response to what is surely Mozart’s most beautiful tenor role. It was a pity that he did not take greater advantage of the size of the small Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, for there was no need to force his voice as sometimes he did, but he is doubtless accustomed also to singing in larger halls and theatres. Ross Ramgobin made an engaging Papageno, the comic elevated over the very real pathos with which Mozart endows his bird-man, yet Ramgobin showed himself undoubtedly blessed with the gift of stage presence. Sónia Grané was in many respects the most impressive of the singers, though I sometimes felt she was miscast as Pamina, offering a more nineteenth-century emotive (Italianate?) approach than the purity that I at least associate with the role. David Shipley revealed an impressive bass as Sarastro, with Ross Scanlon a camp foil as Monastatos. Papagena has relatively little to sing, but still made an arresting, vivacious impression thanks to Jennifer France. And though she did not make every note, Anna Gorbachyova performed more than creditably as the Queen of the Night. The Three Ladies – why, in the programme, ‘Three Women’? – and most smaller parts were well taken, though the experiment in offering ‘Three Children’, two of them girls, does not seem worth repeating. Gender equality, I suppose, though in which case why not have a counter-tenor as one of the ‘Three Adults’? More seriously, even though one rarely gets to hear treble singing of the quality one expects from Vienna or Tölz – except, of course, when one is hearing Vienna or Tölz – the timbre is so crucial to our understanding and surely also to Mozart’s conception that Three Boys really must be sung by three boys. (Even venerable recordings from the past often fall down in enlisting women’s voices, but this seems an especially unnecessary compromise.) Tuning was often alarmingly awry.

Choral singing was impressive, not least during the second act, when the connections with other of Mozart’s Masonic works became especially apparent. Jane Glover led the Royal Academy Sinfonia with tempi to which it would be difficult to take exception, and if that sounds like faint praise, I should register gratitude in an age when turning Mozart into a freak-show has become more or less the tragic norm. There were a few rough edges to the orchestral playing, but only a few, and Mozart’s music, one should remember, is the most difficult of all to play well. Thank goodness, then, that there were no overt concessions on offer to the ‘authenticke’ brigade.

Papagena (Jennifer France) and Papageno (Ross Ramgobin)

Glover writes – diplomatically? – of having ‘engaged a vibrant production team led by Stephen Barlow, whose ingenious contemporary concept is of great insight, great detail and great fun’. Well, ‘vibrant’ is certainly one way of putting it, even at a stretch ‘ingenious’. However, I am afraid for me, though not, it would seem for much of the chortling – when it was not inappropriately applauding – audience, it sells The Magic Flute terribly short. We find ourselves immersed in a sketch of 1980s - or is it 1970s? - popular culture. Opening in a nightclub, Tamino escapes some form of at least sexual molestation – that is the non-existent monster – and progresses (?) to join a cult that suggests Scientology, or perhaps the Mormons. Were this intended as a critique of Enlightenment instrumental reason, Adorno and Horkheimer to hand, it might have been fascinating. But no, it merely seems to bespeak an inability to take this most extraordinary of operas remotely seriously. The trials Tamino and Pamina must undergo seem merely to entail walking into a sauna and out of a steam room; towels are to hand. Everything is a bit, or rather far too much, of a joke, and the celebratory mass wedding at the end is not undercut: are we supposed to consider initiation into a cult a good thing? Even what might have been a nice touch in having the Queen of the Night reveal herself, not unlike a character from Dallas, as the curtain drops, fails in that it is difficult, given what has gone before, to know what to make of it: less undercutting, more a silly final surprise. Goodness knows why she is first revealed to us as editor of a celebrity magazine. Instead of a flute we have a ghettoblaster – around which the ‘Three Children’ crowd during the Overture – and instead of Papageno’s pipes a mini-electronic-keyboard. Pamina seems to be auditioning for a role as Bonnie Langford, whilst Papageno is a photographer, presumably for the magazine. Monostatos and company are security guards, who occasionally like to glance at a copy of Playboy. On Barlow’s terms, however, Yannis Thavoris’s designs are accomplished; he certainly has to a tee the ghastly white short-sleeved shirt look beloved of creepy American (pseudo-)religious organisations. What a pity, then, that Barlow gives the impression of never having listened to Mozart’s score; its unearthly beauty, its unutterable dignity, should suggest to him something quite different from what he inflicts upon it. I find it difficult to imagine that that great Mozartian, Sir Colin Davis, International Chair of Conducting and Orchestral Studies, would have thought much of what we saw.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Nash Inventions - Turnage, Goehr, Matthews, Davies, Birtwistle and Harvey, 13 March 2012

Wigmore Hall

Turnage – Returning, for string sextet
Goehr – Clarinet Quintet
Colin Matthews – The Island, for soprano and seven instruments
Davies – The Last Island, for string sextet
Birtwistle – Fantasia upon all the notes, for flute, clarinet, string quartet, and harp (world premiere)
Harvey – Song Offerings, for soprano and eight instruments

Claire Booth (soprano)
Nash Ensemble
Lionel Friend (conductor)

Almost exactly four years ago (12 March 2012), three of the six works on this programme were performed at the Wigmore Hall as part of a ‘Nash Inventions’ programme, two of them, Colin Matthews’s The Island and Alexander Goehr’s Clarinet Quintet, as world premieres. It was interesting to welcome them back, not only to hear them again, but to hear them again in different company. Sir Harrison Birtwistle had been present in 2008, on that occasion with pieces from his Orpheus Elegies; this time, he had a world premiere, that of his Fantasia upon all the notes. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, another member of the ‘Manchester School’ – whether that school retains any meaningful identity is a question I shall leave on one side for the moment – was represented by The Last Island, for string sextet (2009), which forces also offered Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 2007 Returning, the third of the pieces in common between the two programmes. Last, but certainly not least, was Jonathan Harvey’s Song Offerings, by some distance the earliest of the works, dating as it does from 1985.

Turnage’s Returning, written for his parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, made a similar impression to last time. It has an intriguing opening sound world: harmonics, shard-like writing, and a strong vein of ‘English’ nostalgia. Its sense of thawing came through powerfully in the Nash Ensemble’s performance, possessed of a wonderfully rich string tone, the impassioned central climax supported by a fine sense of line throughout. If its harmonic language tends to sound somewhat conventional in the company of these other works, this remains a work worth hearing.

Goehr’s Clarinet Quintet continues to intrigue and to delight. I cannot say that I subscribe any more than I did in 2008 to the composer’s own description of it as an austere work; at times, and perhaps especially in this performance, there is a sense of playfulness and, by contrast, almost of the ecstatic. There is an arresting – post-Bartókian – opening, whose rhythmic character as well as melodic inflection set up a number of possibilities later to be followed through, though certain melodic contours also bring to mind echoes of Brahms. (I do not think that is just a matter of the forces employed, though they doubtless make a difference.) The clarinet (Richard Hosford) acts both in a quasi-soloist role and as a member of the ensemble. Post-Schoenbergian rigour is of course present, but is in general lightly worn, though I was intrigued by the hints later on both of the First Chamber Symphony and the Suite, op.29. The work’s twelve sections are apparent but so, more clearly, is the sense of the work as a whole, for which again the performers must surely share the credit. One garners a sense of something akin to variations, though not quite the same; I thought fleetingly of Stravinsky’s Variations: Aldous Huxley in Memoriam. But above all, there is a warmth, often a richness of harmony too, which prove inviting and satisfying, and make one very keen to hear the work again soon.

For The Island, a short song cycle on Rilke’s Nordsee, in Stephen Cohn’s translation, Claire Booth joined members of the Nash Ensemble. Her performance was every bit as excellent as one might have expected, indeed more so, precision and warmth in ideal balance. Matthews’s melancholy landscape was painted evocatively by the instrumentalists, the interlude between the first and second of the three songs a fine case in point of seamless yet perceptible transformation, the process furthered in the new vistas – ‘outside the course of galaxies, of other stars or suns’ – of the third.

Davies’s The Last Island returned us to the world of the string sextet. Its title, according to the composer, refers to the further of two small islands off the coast of Orkney, the sextet attempting ‘to invoke the island’s unique atmosphere – essentially peaceful and full of the wonder of ever-changing light of sea and sky, yet strangely threatened with menace, even on the brightest of days’. That gives a pictorial impression, which is certainly part of the story, but some older Davies preoccupations, notably magic squares and plainsong – ‘an unusual plainsong version of Ave maris stella’ – are also apparent. Hints of the viol consort characterise the opening; indeed there is very much a sense of historical refraction throughout the contrasted turns the material takes. I was taken by the frankly – at least to my ears – Schoenbergian writing of one section, put in mind of Verklärte Nacht and the first two numbered quartets in particular. The fading al niente of the plainsong material on high violin harmonics proved an evocative conclusion, whether pictorially, musically, or better, both.

I had assumed that Birtwistle’s Fantasia upon all the notes would be offering some sort of Purcellian reference, but Bayan Northcott’s note to the piece disabused me: ‘Rather, Fantasia upon all the notes hints at how, each time the harpist shifts a pedal between sharp, natural, or flat, a new scale or mode is set up, and – in this work – how a shifting sequence of harp modes can interact with and guide the harmonies of a surrounding ensemble’. It came as little surprise that we should hear a dangerous, violent archaic world presented, as hieratic as anything in Stravinsky or Boulez. Symphonies of Wind Instruments, despite the very different instrumentation, loomed large, and was that a reference in the angular rhythmic treatment of material and the crucial role of the harp to the Symphony in Three Movements too? And yet, there is acerbic beguiling to be heard too, perhaps our longing for the real world of Orpheus. Lionel Friend, as in the other works he was conducting – Matthews, Davies, and Harvey – proved as sure a guide as his players. Birtwistle learned, whilst working on the score, of the death of his sometime publisher Tony Fell. The work is marked at the end: ‘for Tony Fell in sorrow and anger’. It was commissioned by the Nash Ensemble, with funds provided by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Wigmore Hall itself.

Harvey’s Song Offerings was quite a revelation. Written for soprano, flute/alto flute, clarinet, piano, string quartet, and double bass, its settings of Rabindranath Tagore in his own translation from Bengali express and further a ravishing sensual and sexual mysticism. Booth once again excelled herself, as indeed did all the performers. Sleep – ‘Ah, sleep, precious sleep – prevailed for a while in the first song, with a splendid sense of lulling, whilst the second was marked by the combination of captivating instrumental glistening and exciting vocal arabesques: playful ecstasy, perhaps. Harvey’s eroticism throughout the four songs conveys a sense of Messiaen’s spirit without ever actually sounding like him. (If I occasionally thought of Zemlinsky, I think that was more a matter of Tagore’s verse than the music.) Languor and rush were combined to highly sensuous effect in the final song, ‘Death, O Thou the last fulfilment of life’.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Judith Weir, Miss Fortune, Royal Opera, 12 March 2012 (British premiere)

A member of Soul Mavericks
Images: Royal Opera/Bill Cooper
Royal Opera House

Tina (Miss Fortune) – Emma Bell
Lord Fortune – Alan Ewing
Lady Fortune – Kathryn Harries
Fate – Andrew Watts
Hassan – Noah Stewart
Donna – Anne-Marie Owens
Simon – Jacques Imbrailo

Chen Shi-Zheng (director)
Tom Pye (set designs)
Han Feng (costumes)
Leigh Sachwitz (video)
Ran Arthur Braun (movement)

Soul Mavericks (breakdancers)
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Paul Daniel (conductor)

Let me try first to ‘accentuate the positive’ (as the libretto might have it). Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune, in a co-production with the Bregenz Festival, where last year it received its world premiere (as Achterbahn), is arrestingly staged by Chen Shi-Zheng. Tom Pye’s colourful designs capture the eye throughout, whether in the initial relative abstraction of the opening scene or the sight – though is it really necessary? – of having a kebab van lowered from the stage. (Could it not just have been wheeled on, at what would surely have been less expense?) The garment factory looks like a factory, and its workers look like factory fodder. Han Feng’s costumes for the most part do the trick, the sharp suit allotted to rich boy Simon for instance presenting an immediate contrast with those around him. Video (Leigh Sachwitz) is put to good use, swift falls in share prices immediately apparent.

Simon (Jacques Imbrailo), Fate (Andrew Watts),
and Tina (Emma Bell)
The Royal Opera fields an impressive cast. Emma Bell could not really be said to inhabit the role of Tina, for there is no character really to inhabit, but she sang with spirit, handling the occasional piece of coloratura with aplomb. Alan Ewing and Kathryn Harries did likewise in the caricatured roles of her parents. Noah Stewart made an impressive house debut as Hassan, the sincerity of his delivery nicely counterpointed by Jacques Imbrailo’s beautifully sung Simon. Andrew Watts did what he could with the sketchily observed role of Fate, and Anne-Marie Owens attended nicely enough to her job as ‘laundromat’ owner, Donna. They all sang well, and Imbrailo in the second act came as close as anyone could reasonably be asked to stealing the show. The breakdancers of Soul Mavericks do a splendid job in their own terms, though whether their inclusion was anything other than a desperate bid to make a dull, inconsequential work more diverting remains at best an open question.

For the plot, let alone its mode of expression, really does not amount to anything much at all. Tina’s parents, Lord and Lady Fortune lose their money in a financial crisis, so Tina decides to make her way in ‘the world, the real world’. Working in a factory (destroyed) and left in charge of a kebab van (ditto), she finds herself at the mercy of Fate, before her luck changes. Fate gives her a lottery ticket. She is on the verge of winning, but, one number out – thirty-eight instead of thirty-nine, or is it the other way around? – she does not. Cue general disappointment. However, Tina is able to call upon Fate to repeat the last few seconds and she wins after all. Simon, however, has already told her it does not matter; he wants him to join her in any case. She therefore tosses her winning ticket into the crowd and leaves with him: it is better, you see, to take a chance oneself than to await a deus ex machina. Nothing, alas, is developed. We gain no insight into any of the characters; instead, we are left with the wisdom of the fortune cookie. This may have its basis in a Sicilian folk-tale (Sfortuna), but in its ‘contemporary’ retelling, Weir’s opera would appear to have lost any of its teeth.

Hassan (Noah Stewart)

Apparently stuck between vaguely neo-Romantic style and not-quite-minimalism, the score offers little to interest, even as orchestral music, let alone as word setting. (Though, as I mention below, the worst of Tippett sometimes sprang to mind, he always had an ear for setting the English language.) The passages when Weir sounds more minimalistic sometimes seem to offer a little more – and believe me, I am surprised to find myself longing for anything more akin to minimalism! – but they never quite seem to cohere into something more than sound-track. At times, I thought Paul Daniel could have offered more in the way of rhythmic precision, but without having seen the score, it is difficult to know for sure. Doubtless it is not the point that almost all of the harmony could have been offered by an unadventurous composer from a century ago. But when precious little goes ‘beyond’ Walton or Shostakovich, for instance, and the only hint of something a little more ‘advanced’ would seem to be the most occasional hint of second-hand Berg and the use of a few drums, then there is perhaps something of a problem. More seriously, though, and despite the use of different sound worlds and indeed different generative material, I found it impossible to discern anything of a particular compositional ‘voice’, let alone for any of the music to lodge itself in my memory. The score certainly does nothing to engage one’s sympathy with either the characters or the apparent ‘moral’.

Simon and Tina

 It is, though, Weir’s own libretto that presents the greatest problem. One could hardly imagine that anyone with the slightest ear for language, let alone verse, let alone verse to be set to music, would not have realised that, at the very least, radical revision was required. If the plot plumbs no depths, the language combines to equal degree banality of expression and concept. There were times when I was put momentarily in mind of Tippett’s late libretti, albeit without the weird eccentricity. Lord Fortune’s ‘You make your own destiny, no pain, no gain’ gives a taste: far from the worst, but typical, and without a hint of satire. References to the need to rid oneself of ‘negative energy’ are bad enough – I should like to say that I thought the phrase was used ironically, but I am not so sure – but a new low is hit by Simon’s entrance into Donna’s ‘laundromat’ to tell her that she had produced the most beautifully laundered shirt. The psychobabble was not even interesting or amusing – at least Tippett would try to explore potentially interesting ideas – but merely dull. For the most part, the language, though not alas the drama, resemble a poorly-scripted soap opera. ‘In the end, we’re all dead,’ we are informed at some point. Quite.

Miss Fortune will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 19 May at 6 p.m.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Britten Sinfonia/Delfs - Mendelssohn, Elijah, 7 March 2012

Barbican Hall

Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano)
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
William Carne (treble)

Britten Sinfonia Voices (chorus master: Eamonn Dougan)
Britten Sinfonia
Andreas Delfs (conductor)

The Barbican’s six-month series celebrating the English oratorio, has now reached Mendelssohn’s Elijah – or perhaps we should follow the Victorians and refer to it as ‘the Elijah’, given that it was performed in English, in William Bartholomew’s translation. My preference for the German version is neither here nor there, really, given the commission for the Birmingham Festival, and certainly not when it is performed in a series devoted to English-language oratorios. However, it is interesting to note the difference in sound; indeed, it is almost impossible not to notice it. Bach seems more distant, at least for much of the time, though it is not necessarily the case that Handel seems closer. For better or worse, we seem closer to the world of Victorian piety. (Consider, in a celebrated example, how different ‘O for the wings of a dove’ and ‘O könnt' ich fliegen wie Tauben dahin’ sound.)

One aspect, however, of the present performance could not have been more different from the world of the Victorian choral society, namely the size of the forces involved. This was a chamber Elijah, both in terms of choir and orchestra. The Britten Sinfonia’s strings were scaled 8:6:4:4:2 whilst Britten Sinfonia Voices numbered thirty-four in all, quite a contrast with the previous time I had heard the work, from a fully symphonic London Philharmonic Orchestra and London Philharmonic Choir under the baton of Kurt Masur (in German). The soloists were fewer in number too, limited to just the five, including a treble. The Barbican is a smaller venue than the Royal Festival Hall, though it is certainly not a chamber venue, and there were times when I missed the heft that could be imparted by larger forces – not because they are in some dubious sense ‘authentic’, but more on account of the near-Wagnerian dramatic scale they can assist to convey. One’s ears adjust, though, at least to an extent, and clarity provided some degree of compensation.

The Britten Sinfonia is generally acknowledged to be one of this country’s most enterprising ensembles, its programmes regularly proving more interesting, more imaginative, than many longer established groups. Based in Cambridge – during my time there, I attended a good number of its lunchtime and evening performances – it has recently been appointed an Associate Ensemble at the Barbican. Though that appointment will begin in autumn 2012, coinciding with the Sinfonia’s twentieth anniversary, this concert offered Barbican audiences a taste of what will be on offer: obviously not so much in programming terms – Elijah is Elijah – as in musicianship. My only real doubt concerning a fine orchestral performance was a certain stinginess concerning string vibrato during the Overture. Otherwise, all sections of the chamber orchestra emerged with great credit, from the opening sepulchral, stentorian woodwind, to the blaze of the final ‘Amen’. There was some very fine solo work too, for instance from obbligato cello (Caroline Dearnley) in Elijah’s recitative, ‘It is enough,’ and oboe (Alun Darbyshire) in his arioso, ‘For the mountains shall depart’. Elijah, though, needs a decent organ, not the electronic version the Barbican can offer.

Likewise Britten Sinfonia Voices, recently formed under the leadership of Eamonn Dougan, acquitted themselves extremely well. There were indeed times when I had to remind myself that they were relatively few in number. Diction and clarity were excellent; there was never the slightest hint of (pseudo-)Victorian staidness. Only once did I find the choral singing a little tame, in the chorus ‘Baal, we cry to thee,’ but the lack of wildness – and this is Mendelssohn, after all – seemed more a matter of direction by Andreas Delfs than of the singing as such. At any rate, the call of the priests of Baal to their god to ‘hear and answer … Mark how the scorner derideth us!’ soon registered less ‘tastefully’ and with far greater dramatic force.

Delfs I was less sure about. For the most part, his was a capable performance. Only occasionally, most notably during the Overture, did he drive the music too hard. On the other hand, and despite a truly thrilling chorus to conclude the first part, this was not a reading to grip one dramatically as Masur’s had done. The comparison may be odious, but, especially when we are dealing with a work and indeed genre that remain unfashionable, an extra ounce of musico-dramatic conviction can work wonders. It is probably fair to say that Mendelssohn’s inspiration is uneven here, not least in some of the numbers towards the end of the second part, but fiery advocacy can help persuade one otherwise. Some of these numbers dragged, alas, lending an impression of chamber-scale neo-Victoriana, petering-out Stanford rather than invigorating Handel.

There was much, nevertheless, to relish in the solo singing. Simon Keenlyside made an excellent Elijah, not a bluff prophet, but a thoughtful, sometimes even conflicted soul, sensitive to an unusual degree, whether in terms of characterisation or verbal acuity. The pathos to his delivery of ‘It is enough…’ reminded one, despite the language, of Bach: recitative it might be, but Keenlyside – and, I think, Mendelssohn too – brought the music, not for the first time, closer to arioso. Mendelssohn at his most Handelian, in the aria ‘Is not his world like a fire?’ was conveyed with equal success, echoes of Messiah – or the Messiah – readily discerned. Lucy Crowe offered a particular highlight with the aria that opens the second part, ‘Hear ye, Israel’. Clear of tone and direct of expression, this was model oratorio singing, as were the contributions from Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Wyn-Rogers had considerable ground to cover, but moved effortlessly between Angel and Queen. The latter – Jezebel, of course – exuded menace and feminine wiles, whilst the Angel’s ‘O rest in the Lord’ revelled, for better or worse, in Mendelssohn at his loveliest. After an unfortunate start, treble William Carne made up lost ground and offered a number of well-turned phrases. The only real disappointment was tenor, Andrew Kennedy. Oddly, his single line as Ahab offered properly dramatic impact, but much of the rest of his performance suffered from an awkward combination of overt emoting and a tendency to croon. Obadiah was bad enough, but the final, tenor aria, ‘Then shall the righteous shine forth,’ sounded as if it were excerpted from a West End musical, vibrato so wide as to disconcert. Fortunately, there was some excellent choral and orchestral playing still to come.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Pollini - Chopin and Liszt, 6 March 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Chopin – Fantasia in F minor, op.49
Two Nocturnes, op.62
Polonaise-Fantaisie in A-flat major, op.61
Scherzo no.1 in B minor, op.20
Liszt – Nuages gris, S 199
Unstern! Sinistre, disastro, S 208
La lugubre gondola I, S 200/1
R.W. – Venezia, S 201
Sonata in B minor, S 178

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

London has heard a good deal of Maurizio Pollini of late, his five-recital series last season a highlight not only of the year but the decade. But here was more, and how welcome it was! (Sadly, I note that he is not scheduled to play in next season’s International Piano Series.) The first half was devoted to Pollini’s beloved Chopin. I am afraid that I still do not really ‘get’ the F minor Fantasia, yet despite a certain matter-of-fact quality – still warming up? – Pollini both delineated its formal divisions and highlighted its experimental qualities. Maybe some day the penny will drop for me. The two op.62 Nocturnes followed, the B major work dreamy yet nevertheless sure of purpose; this is avowedly not a pianist to meander. Its E major successor emerged with vigour, most of all in the contrapuntal involvement of its central section. One sensed, indeed experienced, not only its Bachian roots but its (Schoen)Bergian possibilities. The Polonaise-Fantaisie was performed with a great sense of its sweep, heard as if in a single breath, no mean feat in this particular work. Finally, the B minor Scherzo not only dazzled, but was conceived with an emotional weight and depth that suggested Beethovenian antecedents.

If the first half had taken a little while to catch fire – though to be fair, it was a little while – then Liszt announced himself fully at the very outset of the second. The visionary works of Liszt’s old age are prime Pollini territory, and so it sounded here. Nuages gris was taken more swiftly than in Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s relatively recent performance next door at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. But it was never driven; rather, its tonal instability was reflected in its flexibility of progress, cumulative power accrued and continued into the pieces that followed. Here, in a sense, was a suite that brought Liszt closer than ever to Schoenberg. Unstern!, the first version of La lugubre gondola, and R.W.- Venezia fed upon each other, bitterness and would-be transfiguration holding each other in check, whilst the waves of Venice lapped against the sails of musical history. The placing and voicing of chords in R.W. – Venezia was an object lesson in how to relate them to one another. This music, complex and yet simple at the same time, is rarely difficult in narrowly technical terms. Its challenges are musical – and metaphysical. It is unlikely those challenges will be more successfully met than they were here.

Finally, the B minor Sonata. Aimard’s December performance could hardly be outdone for intelligent understand and projection of Liszt’s motivic web, but if anything Pollini seemed to go yet further. Yet the clarity with which analytical understanding was communicated was anything but cool; this was a performance fully experienced in white heat. Searingly dramatic, as close to Wagner as ever I have heard it, this was Liszt attempting, Mahler-like, to encompass an entire world. Truly diabolical at times, at others seraphic; the Faustian bargain was rendered apparent. I do not think I have ever heard the fugato that both heralds and denies the true recapitulation sound so possessed: negating, yet inspiring. Only the most uninteresting technician performs this work without an occasional slip, but ninety-nine times out of hundred, Pollini’s technique impressed as ever it had done. Crucially, it remained in the service of a properly musico-dramatic impulse. Again, this vast structure emerged as if heard in a single breath: a performance such as surely Furtwängler or Arrau would have hailed.

Ever generous with encores, Pollini treated us to three. The tenth Transcendental Etude opened as if a coda to the sonata. Though detail might have been occasionally smudged, the white heat more than compensated, as we were plunged in medias res. Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary' Study sounded defiant without the slightest hint of the sentimental exaggeration to which it can sometimes find itself subjected, whilst a breathtakingly limpid Berceuse ravished and tugged upon the heartstrings.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Prohaska/Schneider - Song of the Sirens, 4 March 2012

Wigmore Hall

Debussy – La Mer est plus belle
Haydn – The Mermaid’s Song, Hob.XXVIa/25
Lawes – Slide soft, you silver floods
Schubert – Der Fischer, D 225
Am See, D 746

Szymanowski – Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess, op.31: ‘Song of the Waves’ and ‘Dance’
Mahler – Phantasie aus Don Juan
Wolf – Nixe Binsefuss
Schumann – Die Meerfee, op.125 no.1
Mendelssohn – Schilflied, op.71 no.4
Schubert – Des Fischers Liebesglück, D 933
Fauré – La Fleur qui va sur l’eau, op.85 no.2
Honegger – Trois Chansons de la Petite Sirènes, H 63 : ‘Chanson des Sirènes’ and ‘Berceuses de la sirène’
Dowland – Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears
Dvořák – Rusalka: Song to the Moon

Wigmore Hall debuts do not come much more impressive than this: a beautifully programmed ‘Song of the Sirens’ from Anna Prohaska, splendidly partnered by her regular pianist, Eric Schneider, in which the soprano’s heavy cold could happily be written off. (One really would never have known.) Not only were we treated to a stunning variety of works, whether considered in terms of language, style, or chronology, that variety proved to be the flip side of the coin to as impeccably selected and intelligently ordered a survey of the siren in song as could be imagined. Fortunately, one did not have to imagine, for a mere hour in the stalls took us from Debussy to Dvořák via Haydn, Schubert, Szymanowski, Honegger, Dowland, and many others.

It was Schneider who announced himself first in Debussy’s 1891 Verlaine setting, La Mer reste plus belle. His announcement was vigorous rather than pastel, much to the sea’s – and to Debussy’s – benefit. The same could be said of Prohaska’s voice, richer in timbre than one might expect from a high soprano: again much to the benefit of the music, and with excellent French (often, alas, a problem with singers). ‘Un soufflé ami hante la vague, et nous chante: “Vous sans espérance, mourez sans souffrance!"’ The first but far from last of our siren calls proved ravishingly sensuous. ‘Plus belle que tous, meilleure que nous!’ Who could resist? Haydn’s Mermaid Song was playful, yet seductive in its own way. The change of language – this is one of the composer’s English canzonettas for Anne Hunter, still far too little known – posed no more problem than any subsequent shift. Echoes of earlier eighteenth-century English style – Handel and Arne, perhaps – were certainly present, providing a winning link to the earlier, more serious English writing of Henry Lawes, in his lute song, Slide soft, you silver floods. The performance from both artists was not only stylish, but more importantly, highly alert to the composer’s harmonic shifts and their implications. It is perhaps inevitable that with hindsight one would think of Purcell. Two Schubert songs followed. The insouciance of Der Fischer nicely set up the dissolution of any easy opposition between ‘reality’ and ‘unreality’. Who, after all, is a siren? And for whom is she whatever we might think she is? Goethe’s voice, moreover, shone through, the sheer quality of his verse relished in its rendition. Am See conveyed a sense of the metaphysical without any need for portentous exaggeration; it was all the more powerful for that.

The ‘Song of the Waves’ (‘Pieśń o fali’) and ‘Dance’ (‘Taniec’) from Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairy-Tale Princess were especially welcome, both for their inclusion – what wonderful songs these are, and how rarely we hear him – and for the manner of their performance, imperceptible union of eroticism and exoticism combining in a properly Szymanowskian magic carpet, harking back to the Debussy of the first song, to be sure, but the composer’s personal voice unmistakeably present. We stood close to the world of King Roger, and rightly so. Prohaska presented a combination of Carmen, Zerbinetta, and Stravinsky’s Nightingale, in ‘Dance’, and above all, seemed both to experience and to enjoy both music and text. Schneider navigated the difficult piano part with ease, teasing out the inviting ambiguities of Szymanowski’s harmonies. Already a noted Zerlina (Salzburg and La Scala, the latter under Daniel Barenboim), Prohaska then turned to a very different Don Juan fantasy, that of Mahler – although, of course, Da Ponte’s predecessor, Tirso de Molina is the writer. It is a tribute to both artists, as well of course as to Mahler himself, that the composer’s own voice, even in a song from the early 1880s, should sing out so clearly. His bitter irony is present even here, emerging from the magical world of Das klagende Lied. Haunting indeed, not least in terms of Schneider’s voicing of Mahler’s harmonic language. Wolf’s Nixe Binsefuss was properly sprite-like, capricious and not without menace, leading into a rare opportunity to hear one of Schumann’s late songs, Die Meerfee, the performance at one with the composer’s deceptive ‘simplicity’. Mendelssohn’s Schilflied, a setting of Nikolaus Lenau, not only benefited from a sense of the metaphysical, reminding us of the earlier Schubert Am See; it also showed that Prohaska, even when indisposed, could sustain a long line, musical as well as verbal virtues to the fore.

The last of the three Schubert songs featured was Des Fischers Liebesglück. Prohaska and Schneider rightly took their time, imparting a dolorous sense of longing that long haunted the imagination. Schneider’s voicing of apparent simplicity enabled detail, both in his and the vocal part, truly to stand in relief. Again, one wondered, what is reality? Should we even care, when we might more profitably, or at least pleasurably, be ensnared? Fauré’s La Fleur qui va sur l’eau showed a more tempestuous side to the composer than one often hears, both artists displaying a fine sense of dramatic narrative and metaphor. It was a delight thereafter to sample two – alas, only two – of Honegger’s 1926 Trois Chansons de la Petite Sirène, ‘Chanson des Sirènes’ perfectly placed in the programme to have one relish its relative harmonic astringency. It brought in its wake a real sense of dissolution in the waves and ultimately of the siren’s unanswerable call. ‘Berceuse de la sirène’ thereafter allowed one to luxuriate in its dangerous lullaby. Dowland’s Sorrow, stay, lend true repentant tears not only reminded one of Prohaska’s roots in early music, but crucially distilled the essence of one of our most extraordinary song-writers: sorrow, despair, and of course, melancholy. The falling ‘down’ and ‘down’ truly tugged at the heart-strings. So, in its different way, did the operatic climax, the ‘Song of the Moon’ from Rusalka, at present receiving its first staging at Covent Garden. (Prohaska sang in that production’s first outing, at the Salzburg Festival in 2008.) Once again, musical and dramatic gifts were united, in a reading poignant to a degree, a fitting finale to a fine recital, rounded off with a delightfully ambiguous encore of Wolf’s Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens.

See also the review on Classical Iconoclast.