Saturday, 30 June 2012


Having recently heard Sir Colin Davis conducted the Berlioz Grande messe des morts made me recall his astounding Missa solemnis at the Proms last year, and think what I should give to experience something similar again. That set me thinking about works I should like to hear living (and still performing) musicians perform again, at least once more. Here are today's top dozen, in no particular order. (The list would doubtless change tomorrow.) I decided to exclude those who are no longer with us, let alone those I never heard. A choice between Furtwängler in the Ninth Synphony or Tristan, anyone? As it is, the task was well-nigh impossible: how to choose between Sir Colin in Beethoven's mass, Figaro, or Les Troyens...?

Sir Colin Davis - Missa solemnis
Bernard Haitink -  Der Ring des Nibelungen
Pierre Boulez - Mahler, Symphony no.6
Maurizio Pollini - Hammerklavier sonata
Christian Thielemann - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Daniel Barenboim - Schoenberg, Variations for Orchestra
Claudio Abbado - Il canto sospeso
Raymond Leppard - L'incoronazione di Poppea
Michael Gielen - Moses und Aron
Jonas Kaufmann - Fidelio
Riccardo Muti - Iphigénie en Tauride
Matthias Goerne - Winterreise

Friday, 29 June 2012

Susan Graham/Malcolm Martineau, 29 June 2012

Wigmore Hall

Purcell – The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation, Z 196
Berlioz – La mort d’Ophélie, op.18 no.11
Schubert – Heiß mich nicht reden, D 877/2
Schumann – So laßt mich scheinen, op.98a/9
Liszt – Mignons Lied, S 275
Tchaikovsky – None but the lonely heart, op.6 no.6
Duparc – Romance de Mignon
Wolf – Kennst du das Land
Joseph Horovitz – Lady Macbeth: A Scena
Poulenc – Fiançailles pour rire, op.101
Messager – L’Amour masqué: ‘J’ai deux amants’
Cole Porter – The Physician
Vernon Duke (arr. Roger Vignoles) – Ages Ago
Ben Moore – Sexy Lady

I recall vividly the first time I saw – and heard – Susan Graham. It was as Cherubino at the Salzburg Festival in 1996, my first visit to the festival and my first opera there. (I have from the time beaten myself up that I opted for Figaro rather than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hear Boulez conduct Moses und Aron, but anyway…) Graham stole the show, and I cannot remember a single occasion on which I have heard her since when she has disappointed. This Wigmore Hall recital, surveying various types of women and their troubles, presented no exception, even though, were one to be truly Beckmesser-ish, there were a couple of songs at least that played less obviously to her strengths.

Purcell’s The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation was a bold choice with which to open. Graham’s intensely dramatic, even operatic reading had no sense whatsoever of the warm-up, which was as well, given the difficulty of the coloratura the singer must despatch. But the words were relished equally, likewise their sound. Whether one thought the performance too ‘operatic’ would in good degree be a matter of personal taste, but Malcolm Martineau’s relative reticence made for a slightly unsatisfactory contrast; keyboard players such as Britten and Raymond Leppard have brought greater drama to Purcell. There was no such problem with Berlioz’s La mort d’Ophélie, and the slight beat in Graham’s voice – almost as if this were the warm-up – soon vanished. Both Graham and Martineau exhibited exemplary style; indeed, the piano part sounded especially limpid. Graham’s dramatic instincy was shown to good effect, without being overplayed, at the breaking of the bough and Ophelia’s consequent fall, ‘sa guirlande à la main’. And the delicate floating of the final ‘Ah’ was as noteworthy for its subtle inflections as, almost paradoxically, its unbroken line.

Goethe followed, with different ‘Mignon’ treatments. In Schubert’s Heiß mich nicht reden, Graham’s diction was most impressive, with clear communication of verbal meaning, though here and in Schumann’s So laßt mich scheinen, I felt – perhaps I am carping here – a certain lack of Innigkeit. I doubt that I should have wanted to hear an entire recital of German Romantic Lieder from her, but in the programming context, these two songs remained most welcome. Martineau’s unexaggerated impetuosity in the postlude to the Schumann song struck just the right note. Graham’s communicative skills were put to excellent use in Liszt’s setting of Kennst du das Land. Both musicians heightened the senses both of kinship to Wagner – though the Wagner we are talking about of course comes later – and of echt-Lisztian melodic bloom. Liszt’s truly ravishing harmonies were beautifully voiced by Martineau. Perhaps this came across more as a heartfelt aria than a Lied, but it was not necessarily the worse for that. Likewise the tendency towards opera heightened the drama of Tchaikovsky’s Nyet, tolko tot, kto znal. Duparc’s Romance de Mignon sounded not lit from behind, as in Debussy’s celebrate phrase concerning Parsifal, but illuminated from within: again, just the ticket. And Wolf’s Kennst du das Land opened with a greater sense of inwardness than had been apparent in the Schubert and Schumann songs. The Straussian glow Graham imparted to her line could not have been more welcome, though Martineau’s tone hardened at climaxes.

Having exchanged virginal white for vampish black during the interval, Graham gave us first Joseph Horovitz’s 1970 Lady Macbeth – A Scena. Skilfully written in its highly pictorial way, it remained derivative and obvious, even in such fine interpretative hands. It would have been as welcome to hear Graham simply recite Shakespeare’s text. Poulenc’s Fiançailles pour rire exhibited on both artists’ part an excellent refusal to sentimentalise. ‘Dans l’herbe’ provided a textbook case of using harmonies and their progression to dramatic ends, though shaping of melodic lines was just as impressive. The closing ‘Fleur’ was less light in tone, quite rightly, without a hint of the maudlin. Messager’s ‘J’ai deux amants’ from L’amour masqué  (1923) was a gift to Graham’s communicative skills in French and to her stage talent. Cole Porter’s The Physician and Vernon Duke’s Ages Ago were skilfully, winningly despatched, though I could not help but wish that we had been treated to something a little more substantial. Ben Moore’s Sexy Lady was written for Graham and wittily tells of the mezzo’s plight: all those trouser roles, latter-day competition from counter-tenors as well. It was an apt way to close the recital, though a couple of encores were to come, and took me back to that first encounter with Graham as Cherubino.

Looking ahead to the summer...

As I emerge from the morass of bureacracy surrounding university exams, the principal task of the summer is to work on the manuscript for my next book. That said, there will be a good deal of music in performance to which I can look forward, as well as the living hell of London during the vainglorious Olympic Games to dread. The programme will doubtless prove subject to change, but here is what lies in store until early September (i.e., the end of the Proms):

What remains of June

Wigmore Hall recital from Susan Graham and Malcolm Martineau (tonight)
Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal College of Music


Wigmore Hall piano recital, Debussy and Liszt, from Bertrand Chamayou
Royal Opera Les Troyens (British theatrical knights Antonio Pappano and David McVicar and a starry cast, albeit minus Jonas Kaufmann)
Wigmore Hall: Thomas Oliemans and Malcolm Martineau: Mahler, Strauss, Duparc, and Debussy
Wigmore Hall: Stephen Kovacevich plays Beethoven and Schubert
Prom 9: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim - Beethoven and Boulez
Prom 10: WEDO/Barenboim - Beethoven and Boulez
Prom 11: Les Troyens (again from the Royal Opera, but this time in concert, again alas without Jonas Kaufmann)
Prom 12: WEDO/Barenboim - Beethoven and Boulez
Prom 13: WEDO/Barenboim - Beethoven and Boulez
Prom 17 (late night) WEDO - Beethoven piano quintet and Le marteau sans maître with Hilary Summers, from the baton-less hands of the composer himself
Prom 18: WEDO/Barenboim - Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (apparently this and Les Troyens are somehow related to the Olympics, but few of us understand how or why)
Eugene Onegin from Opera Holland Park


Bayreuth Festival

Stefan Herheim's Parsifal, alas for the last time (previous reviews here and here). This time Philippe Jordan, rather than Daniele Gatti, will conduct.
The Flying Dutchman, in a new production by Jan Phillip Glogen, conducted by Christian Thielemann
A second chance to see Lohengrin, from Andris Nelsons and Hans Neuenfels (previous review here)

Salzburg Festival

An extremely rare opportunity to hear the first version of Ariadne auf Naxos, replete with Le bourgeois gentilhomme, from the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Harding, directed by Sven-Erik Bechtolf (but again, alas, without Jonas Kaufmann)
Two Schubert sonatas from Daniel Barenboim
VPO/Muti - Liszt and Berlioz's Messe solennelle
Carmen, directed and choreographed by Aletta Collins, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, and at last, with Jonas Kaufmann
Renaud Capuçon/Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra/Ivor Bolton - Mozart and Haydn
La bohème, the VPO conducted by Daniele Gatti, and directed by Damiano Michieletto
Beethoven from Maurizio Pollini (the final three sonatas once again!)
Bernd Alois Zimmermann's masterpiece, Die Soldaten, the VPO conducted by Ingo Metzmacher, in a new staging by Alvis Hermanis


Hänsel und Gretel from Co-opera Co.
Mittwoch aus Licht from Birmingham Opera (not quite the premiere, but one of the premiere performances)
Prom 57: Zimmermann/Gustav Mahler YO/Gatti - Wagner, Berg, Strauss, and Ravel
Christine Schäfer recites Pierrot Lunaire, along with Debussy's sonata for flute, viola, and harp


Prom 75: VPO/Haitink - Haydn and Strauss's Alpine Symphony

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

City of London Festival: LSO/Davis - Berlioz Requiem, 26 June 2012

St Paul’s Cathedral

Grande messe des morts (Requiem), op.5

Barry Banks (tenor)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

Both the LSO and Sir Colin Davis appeared in the first City of London Festival in 1962, though not together. Short of The Trojans – which, I hear is being performed in another place at the moment – it would be difficult to come up with a more appropriate work than the Berlioz Requiem for them to perform together during the festival’s Golden Jubilee season. Forces, spatial requirements, and, I suspect, a relative lack of popularity conspire to make performances rare things: not necessarily a bad situation when one thinks of all the terrible – or worse, merely unnecessary – performances to which poor, over-exposed Mahler has recently been subjected. No such problem here: if the LSO/Davis (not to forget the superb London Symphony Chorus) Missa Solemnis at the Proms last year may ultimately prove the still greater experience, that is only because the Missa Solemnis is the Missa Solemnis. This, the second of two performances in St Paul’s Cathedral, may even transpire to be the once-in-a-lifetime event, since, when it comes to Beethoven, one can always turn to Klemperer on CD. For the Grande messe des morts, superlative though Davis’s own past recordings have been – and this was being recorded for LSO Live – the fact remains, as I can now attest, that, like Stockhausen’s Gruppen, many of the works of Gabrieli, arguably Berlioz’s Te Deum too, one simply has not experienced the work until one has heard it spatially, in the flesh. (I wonder whether the best way to hear the forthcoming CD release would be to play it, like a piece of purely electronic music, in a suitable space. St Paul’s perhaps?)

Wren’s great cathedral is not of course a concert hall and I have heard performances here entirely ruined by the evaporation of sound upwards into the dome. (One simply has not known whether they were any good.) On this occasion, I was fortunate enough to be seated just under the dome; even there, it took ears and eyes a little time to become accustomed. Eyes were puzzled by the great lag between Sir Colin’s beat and what one heard, ears by what might otherwise have sounded a little like extravagantly excessive vibrato – though what is Berlioz if not extravagant? And yet, performance combined with building, permitting spatial considerations – not just the brass bands later on, but even the passing of the line between choral sections during the Introit – to come to the fore. It was actually, even for a member of the audience, not unlike being an organist, taking building and reverberation into account. As the Introit soon made clear, Davis managed to elicit, despite the ‘individual’ acoustic, a characteristically Berliozian orchestral sound, perhaps above all from the LSO woodwind, who, like the rest of the orchestra, played superlatively all evening. Fervour and doubt – for the fervour certainly does not seem to be invested in the Almighty – combined with grandeur and intimacy. Perhaps most crucially of all, structure, at least as important here as in Beethoven, if utterly different in nature, was unfailingly delineated and rendered ceremonially meaningful. For if Beethoven’s Mass tells of titanic struggle, here we have Requiem as ceremonial, a secular successor to the great festivals of the French Revolution, even Robespierre’s dreadful, almost comically uninvolving, Cult of the Supreme Being. Struggle with the Almighty is more interesting, more involving even, whether in Beethoven’s guise or that of a thoughtful atheist such as Marx or, much of the time, Wagner; secularism, whilst at times a necessary or advisable political stance, is not a system of belief, let alone a force for drama. The strange emptiness that lies at the heart of Berlioz’s work may be understood in that light, but it has its own interest, and could not have been better served than here, the dome of St Paul’s at times beginning to remind me, disconcertingly, of the Panthéon in Paris.

The plainchant with which the cellos open the ‘Dies irae’ sounded almost timeless, answered by sopranos and ultimately taken up by most of the forces present, doubtless a ritual more secular than mediæval, albeit with great musical rewards. (Words from the Psalmist inscribed upon the dome lingered in the mind: ‘Pse Him in the sound of the trumpet.’) The sheer weirdness of Berlioz’s orchestral interludes or interventions registered fully, even before that moment when the four brass bands made their extraordinary entry, anything but weird. This was Gabrieli to the nth degree, sending shivers down the spine, apocalypse now with brass, voices, organ, drums. I can honestly say that I had never heard anything like it before. At last, music truly for St Paul’s! And yet, historical resonances made themselves heard: the old trombone equali for All Souls or even newer equali – Beethoven, Bruckner, Stravinsky’s echo In memoriam Dylan Thomas – and, of course, Don Giovanni, which Berlioz adored. (Who does not?) A truly plaintive English horn (Christine Pendrill), with its strange amalgam of chant and the ‘Scène aux champs’ from the Symphonie fantastique, signalled the very different voice of the ‘Quid sum miser’. Choral tenors sounded universal rather than personal; this is not Bach. And yet, one was taken back to the twin intimacy and formality of Gluck – the obsequies of Orfeo – as well as to the Revolution.

‘De profundo lacu’ in the ‘Rex tremendae’ truly sounded as a bottomless pit, Dante almost having nothing upon it, and yet of course this was a relatively brief visit, especially when contrasted with the ‘Dies irae’. Equally telling were the imploring calls – though imploring whom? – of ‘Salva me’, followed by reiteration of the awe-inspiring ‘Rex’: ‘tremendae’ indeed. The ‘Quaerens me’ featured ravishingly beautiful choral singing from the London Symphony Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir, neither of which ever seemed to put a foot, or even a toe, wrong. As for the ‘Lacrimosa,’ well, however does one set this after Mozart and the inescapable mythologising that surrounds his final masterpiece? Berlioz’s deeply unsettling and yet magnificent solution resounded fully before consolation of sorts. The absence of God made for its own drama, as Sir Colin clearly appreciated.

I was especially struck by the fine violin playing during the Offertorium, just as much as by the ever excellent woodwind and voices. Davis’s handling of structure and meaning once again rendered all as clear as one could ever imagine, indeed more so. This was the hushed awe of an unbeliever. A sense of human hopelessness sounded in the ‘Hostias’: to whom were the prayers being made? If praying for the souls of the dead, or rather not praying for them, has always seemed to me an issue on which the Reformers had things utterly, unambiguously wrong – why ever would one not pray for the souls of fellow participants in the Communion of Saints? – then the implied competition here between divine mercy and nihilism struck a powerful dramatic chord. An orchestral sweetness that one could hardly fail to dub celestial was to be heard in the ‘Sanctus’. I did not care for Barry Banks’s Verdian rendition of his part, but that was a mere blemish, tempered by the dome. The strange impersonality of the cries of ‘Hosanna’ recalled once again Berlioz’s French forebears, ironically perhaps bringing Cherubini to mind. What the latter would have made of the cymbals at the return of the ‘Sanctus’, doing what one would least expect of them, is anyone’s guess. What mastery of orchestration there is here! And what splendid choral singing was to be heard too.

The ‘Agnus Dei’ displayed Davis’s renowned gift for taking his time, both for the sake of the music and the acoustic, those two aspects combining so as seemingly to present what Berlioz had all along had in mind. (‘Did he not write the work for St Paul’s?’ one was almost tempted to ask.) Cyclic completion, which if not exactly symphonic is not entirely un-symphonic, brought a satisfaction which, if not of the nature of a peace that passes all understanding, nevertheless passed beyond mere understanding. We heard the wisdom and cogency of a performance that seemed to sum up the devotion of a career – except that, nowadays, whenever one thinks that Sir Colin has crowned that extraordinary career, one is likely to experience a subsequent coronation a month or so later.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Gluck's Orfeo from Glyndebourne: Dame Janet bids 'Addio, addio'

After Nigel Lowery's dreadful assault upon Gluck, I felt the need of something more wholesome. Of course the staging would be unlikely to be carried out in quite the same way now; I am sure that Peter Hall would do it differently, were he to return to the work. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but fashions change more quickly in this respect than perhaps any other. It is certainly a hundred times preferable to Lowery's puerile effort. The glories of the audio recording (heartily recommended, with links below) originating from this production were always Dame Janet Baker's astonishingly intense, truly heartfelt farewell to the stage and the London Philharmonic's playing under Raymond Leppard; so they are here, though there is little cause for complaint here, and the chorus, trained by Jane Glover, acquits itself beautifully. 'Purists' will doubtless moan about the composite version of the work, let alone the aria ending the first act, a guilty pleasure if ever there were one; even my own favourite Gluck conductor, Riccardo Muti, disdains anything but 'pure' Vienna. The rest of us can sit back and enjoy...

Gluck, Il trionfo di Clelia, Tutti all'Opera!, 24 June 2012

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Clelia – Hélène Le Corre
Orazio – Mary-Ellen Nesi
Tarquinio – Irini Karaianni
Porsenna – Vassilis Kavayas
Larissa – Lita Messini
Mannio – Artemis Bogri

Nigel Lowery (director, set designs)
Paris Mexis (costumes)
George Tellos (lighting)

City of London Sinfonia
Giuseppe Sigismondi di Risio (conductor)

Metastasio and Gluck are both crucial musico-historical figures whom we tend to hear about more than we hear. And when opera houses, usually through gritted teeth, deign to present us with Gluck’s operas – works that matter to all those who take opera seriously as musical drama – they will almost exclusively be his ‘reform operas’. Fair enough, up to a point, for it was in that extraordinary series of works that Gluck and his librettists – it was Ranieri de’ Calzabigi who penned the celebrated preface to Alceste – truly reinstated dignity and purpose lost somewhere along the road from Monteverdi to the eighteenth century. One of the principal villains in the piece is, of course, Pietro Metastasio, Caesarian court poet in Vienna, whose codification of the principles of opera seria is held by many to represent everything that is worst about pre-reform opera. Except, of course, that Gluck set Metastasio; so indeed would Mozart. (They both set not only Il re pastore but La clemenza di Tito, even if Mozart’s setting of the latter would be in a heavily revised version.) That is where Il trionfo di Clelia comes in: one of those earlier Gluck works we never find ourselves afforded the opportunity to hear.

And yet, the need for refinement of preconceptions does not stop there, for whilst early Gluck goes unheard, Metastasio stands occasionally heard and frequently misunderstood. He certainly did not see himself, nor should we, as a server of non-dramatic entertainments; rather, very much in the line of Plato and Horace, he wished to present ‘pleasurable instruction,’ and it was the moral purpose of his art that remained most important to him. It is not at all clear that the excesses of opera seria against which Gluck and Calzabigi would protest should be lain at his door, as opposed to that of certain composers. Indeed, ironically, it would appear that the staging of this work was far more ‘Baroque’ than the libretto, so much so that, following its first performances in Bologna in 1763, other European theatres found themselves unable to put it on, owing to the complexity of stagecraft required. This was not, then, quite the ‘noble simplicity and quite grandeur’ (edle Einfalt und stille Grösse) of which Johann Joachim Winckelmann would soon write, and which would become a hallmark, however misleading, of our understanding of Gluckian opera as well as Hellenic sculpture. (The Preface to Alceste concludes with a paean to ‘belle simplicité’.)

The first composer to set Metastasio’s text, Il trionfo di Clelia, had been Johann Adolph Hasse in 1762, celebrating the confinement – those, for better or worse, were the days – of Isabella, consort to the Archduke Joseph, soon to be Holy Roman Emperor and co-regent of the Habsburg Monarchy with his mother, Maria Theresa. Gluck’s setting would be the next, to mark the opening of Bologna’s Teatro Comunale. Other renowned composers such as Josef Mysliceček and Niccolò Jommelli would follow suit (the latter in a somewhat revised version), though this late Metastasian text would never acquire the popularity of many of the poet’s libretti. (Artaserse received not far short of ninety settings.) Fashions were changing; indeed, it was not even that Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice lay around the corner; that celebrated azione teatrale (1762) actually preceded Il trionfo. Yet, for all the necessary deconstruction we might conduct of the qualitative leap between ‘reform’ and ‘pre-reform’ operas, we cannot and should not jettison the musico-historical baby with the coloratura bathwater. Reactions, moreover, were mixed, and counsel against easy reductionism. Perhaps put out by a commission that warned him against undue innovation – this was, after all already the composer of Orfeo – Gluck voiced dissatisfied with the performance of the orchestra, comparing it unfavourably, despite seventeen rehearsals, to the precision and ensemble to which he had been accustomed in Vienna. Yet, despite the failure to be staged elsewhere, twenty-eight performances, many of which sold out, were mounted in Bologna. The Linbury’s performances of this first production by a new consortium, ‘Tutti all’Opera!’, have sold out too, though they amount, less ambitiously, to a mere brace.

Before passing to the music and to the performance, it might be worth saying something about the plot, given that it will most likely be unfamiliar to many readers. The action opens during the truce following the siege of Rome conducted by the Etruscan king, Porsenna (the Italian form for ‘Porsena’), who is in league with the villainous Tarquinio (Tarquinius), who in turn would be restored to the Roman throne. One of the hostages granted by the Romans to Porsenna as a sign of good faith is Clelia (Cloelia), who is betrothed to Orazio (Horatius), the Roman Ambassador. Clelia refuses Tarquinio’s advances, disdaining a throne that is not his to give and pointing out that he is in any case betrothed to Larissa, daughter of Porsenna. Following various confusions and Cloelia’s escape, Tarquinio’s treachery is shown not only to have extended to would-be kidnap of the object of his obsessive love, but to have been political too, if ultimately to no avail; for, impressed by the virtue of Clelia and Orazio and shocked by the duplicity of his erstwhile ally, Porsenna ultimately acts as Roman liberator. Those are the bare bones, though it is not an especially complicated affair: again, much of what is alleged concerning Metastasio seems to emanate from those ignorant of him. (On this occasion, comprehension was not aided by sometimes bizarre surtitles, whose mangled and/or inappropriate language suggested that cardinal sin of translation, use of a non-native-speaker. References to characters ‘exposing’ themselves caused apparently unintentional hilarity.)

I have dwelled on the history, first because it is, I think, important, but second because Nigel Lowery’s production proves such an outright travesty. It would be tedious beyond words, almost as tedious as Lowery’s production, to list everything that was wrong with it, but some explanation needs to be given. Were you to wish to present a compendium of directorial clichés, there would be no better place to come. Following the Overture, there is a considerable musical pause, in which Clelia walks around, the director seemingly more attuned to the sound of her heels than to Gluck’s score. She wears a raincoat and carries – yes, you have guessed it – a suitcase. Before long, we see Tarquinius place a pair of dark glasses – an emblem of deceit, I suppose – upon Porsenna. The setting is vaguely and terribly unsurprisingly something akin to Fascist Italy. Armbands and uniforms remind us of that. What might have been a genuinely interesting prospect, deconstructing the claims to virtue of Clelia and Orazio, is only hinted at. Perhaps I was reading too much into a feeble attempt at a book-burning; maybe it was just there because Lowery has seen such things in other productions, genuinely radical or otherwise. Orazio must choose between love for Clelia and devotion to Rome – AMOR/ROMA, the fulcrum of Metastasian drama – and therefore has to wheel a Cross around the stage for a while. Never mind the chronology, feel the subtle, highly appropriate symbolism. Larissa is presented as an overgrown schoolgirl, who carries a doll around her. At some point, Tarquinio starts to take off Porsenna’s clothes, but does not get very far, and everyone forgets all about it. Someone else – I cannot remember who – takes off a few clothes from someone else – I cannot remember whom – and so forth, though there is not the slightest hint of eroticism. Towards the end, when war is once again the order of the day, Porsenna turns far too nasty and injects someone with a syringe, before ripping the poor person’s heart out. I think, by the look of the uniform, that that unfortunate was a generic Roman; who knows? As for the video projections depicting war itself, they veer between the offensively cartoon-like and the most tired of rehashing. I could go on and on about what we see in the production, but what do we not see? The slightest glimmer of sympathy with or even interest in the work, the slightest hint that the score might be of any importance whatsoever; above all, we witness not the slightest glimmer of any real idea. This, for all its pretension, is as anti- or at least as non-intellectual as crowd-pleasing Zeffirelli. Indeed, not unlike the monster of the Met, all we have is a few designs, which, even when accomplished – credit must certainly be granted to Paul Mexis’s costumes in themselves – tend very strongly to resemble anything else we have ever seen from Lowery, strongly suggesting that he would have been better remaining a designer himself. Gluck and Metastasio deserved far better than a bad parody of an off-night at the Komische Oper, Berlin. (And I speak as an admirer of a good number of productions from that house.) The production was first seen in Athens earlier this year. A recording (link below) was made for MDG – I have not heard it – but the lack of a DVD must surely be accounted a blessing.

The City of London Sinfonia, does not, blessedly, play on ‘period’ instruments, so we were spared the whining strings and so forth one must endure on Youtube extracts from those Athens performances – and presumably on the CD recording too. That said, whilst there was, occasional roughness aside, nothing especially wrong with the CLS performance, it often tended towards the anonymous. The orchestra was really too small; a greater body of strings than would certainly have been advisable, especially in the unfriendly acoustic of the Linbury. Something is certainly awry when the harpsichord, an unpleasant sounding version even of its kind, drowns out the orchestra. There was, however, some fine wind playing to enjoy.

Giuseppe Sigismondi de Risio’s conducting tended a little too much at times towards alleged ‘period style’ – in reality, of course, nothing of the sort – but not everything was too rushed or too mannered, and the conductor had limited success in persuading the strings to adopt the pinched style of which he seemed to be fond. Unconvincing ritardandi, however, suggested that he was better playing it straight; the performance benefited when he did. Not that there is anything wrong with fluctuations of tempi in Gluck: Furtwängler’s masterly Orfeo from La Scala would readily confute such a claim. But Furtwängler, it need hardly be added, is never arbitrary. Still, having to cooperate with such a staging may well have taken its toll, and Gluck is not an easy composer to conduct. Indeed, of present-day interpreters – alas, there are not so many – I can only think of Riccardo Muti as a shining example.

As if to revert to stereotypes of opera seria, there was more to enjoy in the singing. Pick of the bunch was Mary-Ellen Nesi's Orazio, her third-act aria a show-stopper convincing one that ‘pre-reform’ – well, just about – vocal display could actually, and despite the staging, have dramatic import. Her mezzo exhibits enviable colour and precision, as does Irini Karaianni’s (Tarquinio), the latter’s lower register especially expressive. Hélène Le Corre proved at times a little colourless as Clelia, though she handled her coloratura well and her smallish voice is not unattractive. Lita Messini was a late substitute as Larissa, so her intonational problems may well be ascribed to that. Whether her strangely gawky schoolgirl act betokened good acting ability, following the director’s instructions, or a lack thereof, must for the moment remain a matter of speculation. Artemis Bogri had a decent showing as Mannio, Prince of Vejenti, Larissa’s lover. However, the tenor, Vassilis Kavayas (Porsenna) seemed strained by a good number of the score’s demands.

The director did not appear for a curtain-call, whether at 9.20, the time at which the website had billed the performance as ending, or at 10.15, when it did.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Henze, Wagner, and the Weight of German Musical Culture

This paper was given at the annual conference of the Royal Musical Association on 31 May 2012. It is necessarily very cursory, being limited to twenty minutes (including a couple of extracts played), and is in any case part of a much larger work-in-progress, my next book, scheduled for publication by the end of 2013. However, I thought a little 'taster' might be of interest.


Hans Werner Henze grew up during the Second World War, and came of age as an artist during its aftermath. He was born in Westphalia in 1926, scarred by seeing his father, an apparently liberal schoolmaster, become transformed into not just a party member, but a Nazi enthusiast. Conscripted during total war, he eventually spent several months as a prisoner of war. Henze began to feel, as a German, responsible for the sufferings of the entire continent and sickened by the attitude of many of his countrymen. He would write, concerning his return to Bielefeld:
The crimes committed in the concentration camps were now being talked about more or less openly, resulting in a growing sense of shame and horror. No one had known a thing. Everyone had been against it. [One may detect more than a slight sense of sarcasm here.] The men and women of the occupying armies looked disbelievingly at us Germans, or their eyes were filled with loathing. Ever since then I have felt ashamed of our country and of my fellow Germans and our people. Wherever my travels have taken me, my origins – my nationality – have always caused me problems, even in Italy. Nor is it any wonder, since the devils who dragged us into this war did such unforgivable and unforgettable things to our neighbours, especially in Rome, not only in their persecution of the Jews but also following Mussolini’s fall from power and during the subsequent partisan struggles.
For him, moreover, ‘German art – especially the middle-class, nationalistic art of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – became insufferable and suspect’. There are no prizes for guessing that Wagner’s music might fall under that rubric, especially given the strong ties between the Bayreuth Festival and Hitler himself. What did remain was the modernist art proscribed by the Nazis, untainted by association.

National Socialism had prevented German musicians, composers included, for the first time in centuries from keeping in touch with the latest musical developments. Thus for composers such as Henze and the young Stockhausen, the International Summer School for New Music in Darmstadt, founded in 1946, offered the opportunity to catch up. The occupying powers and subsequently West Germany’s allies were generally happy to encourage and indeed to subsidise the ‘break’ with the country’s past, although reconstruction, as in other areas of German cultural life, was encouraged too. Moreover, the increasing ‘anti-formalist’ hostility towards twelve-note and serialist works from the East German authorities with their approved ‘socialist realism’ gave an opportunity for an allegedly ‘free’ West to distinguish itself from so-called ‘totalitarianism’ not only past but present. These factors give a number of clues as to why the more politically committed composers such as Henze might eventually find themselves out on something of a limb. How might they reconcile membership of the avant-garde with their political commitment, given that the avant-garde seemed increasingly apolitical or even reactionary? For Western European composers of all nationalities, the strictness of Webern’s apparently hermetic compositional method, somehow divorced from his utterly German context, provided the denationalised precedent – or at least so did a ‘productive misreading’, as it has generally come to be known, of his music. Even the fact of Webern’s shooting in 1945 somehow seemed to ‘fit’ the myth-making requirements of new music. The problem, at least for some, was that in practice this had begun to veer towards a doctrinaire, almost totalitarian attitude on the part of the high priests of the avant-garde. Henze connected this with a revisiting of the catastrophic German past and contrasted it with the freedom of his immersion in Italian life. The tragic irony was that the attempt to nullify the past, or perhaps in some cases to ignore it, led to its return. His recounting the first performance of his Nachtstücke und Arien in 1957 is instructive of the chasm that had opened:

… three representatives of the other wing – Boulez, my friend Gigi Nono and Stockhausen – leapt to their feet after only the first few bars and pointedly left the hall, eschewing the beauties of my latest endeavours. … I suddenly found ourselves [that is, he and Ingeborg Bachmann, who provided the texts] cold-shouldered by people who actually knew us … There was a sense of indignation throughout the building, no doubt made worse by the fact that the audience had acclaimed our piece in the liveliest manner… The impression arose that the whole of the world of music had turned against me, a situation that was really quite comical, but also somewhat disturbing from an ethical point of view: for what had become of artistic freedom? Who had the right to confuse moral and æsthetic criteria?
This conflict between freedom and authority, and the question of what freedom might really entail, is dramatised in Henze’s opera, Der Prinz von Homburg (‘The Prince of Homburg’), which has its origins in Kleist’s Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, a surprisingly militaristic, indeed Prussian, text for either Henze or his librettist, Ingeborg Bachmann. Needless to say, many modifications are made. Der Prinz von Homburg was first performed in 1960, Henze provocatively claiming his model to be nineteenth-century Italian opera.’ This is largely rhetoric, however, for Henze also tells us that the drama ‘very much cried out for this contrast between dodecaphony and what – with a pinch of salt – might be termed traditional harmony: the dialectics of the law and its violation, of dreams and reality, of mendaciousness and truth.’ This is thoroughly German.

The first two scenes of Henze’s second act are punctuated by the repetition of distorted brass fanfares, as Friedrich realises that he is hemmed in: ‘I am lost’, he sings. (Unfortunately, I do not have time to play an excerpt.) Nothing changes; what can he do? He has broken the law in order to attain victory for the Elector of Brandenburg, and death will be his reward. The contrast between twelve-note technique and Henze’s ‘traditional harmony’ evokes not only musical but also dramatic crisis – and, in a broader sense, the dialectic of crisis between the modern subject and the objective world. Meanwhile, the ‘modern’ quality of the fanfares suggests the powerlessness of the subject in relation to the fatal power of the state and its laws. Always we seem to return to the opening scene of this act, to Friedrich’s powerless plight. In Henze’s own words:

Der Prinz von Homburg … sets itself against the blind unimaginative application of laws, in favour of an exaltation of human kindness, an understanding of which reaches into deeper and more complex realms than would be ‘normal’ and which seeks to find a place for a man in this world even though he is a Schwärmer and a dreamer, or perhaps because of that.
Are the laws of Brandenburg as impervious as those of Schoenberg and, after him and deadlier still, Darmstadt? Can they actually be otherwise?

International climax was arguably centred upon the triumphant 1966 premiere of The Bassarids at the Salzburg Festival – Karajan’s citadel, no less. Aware of Henze’s hostility towards much Wagner, his librettist WH Auden had coaxed him very much in that direction, insisting that he study the score of Götterdämmerung – Henze always had less of a problem with Tristan, and indeed would write his own Tristan-work himself – and even had him attend a performance in Vienna, where he met Adorno, incidentally, intently studying his score, in order, according to his autobiography, that he should ‘learn to overcome’ his ‘aversions to Wagner’s music, aversions bound up in no small measure with my many unfortunate experiences in the past’. And, of course, with Germany’s many unfortunate experiences in the all-too-recent past. Success was at best mixed. According to his autobiography:
I was perfectly capable of judging the wider significance of Wagner’s music: as any fool can tell you, it is a summation of all Romantic experience … But I simply cannot abide this silly and self-regarding emotionalism, behind which it is impossible not to detect a neo-German mentality and ideology. There is the sense of an imperialist threat, of something militantly nationalistic, something disagreeably heterosexual and Aryan in all these rampant horn calls, this pseudo-Germanic Stabreim, these incessant chords of a seventh and all the insecure heroes and villains that people Wagner’s librettos.
The result was nevertheless in many respects Henze’s most Wagnerian drama, and one which he considered confronted ‘this “I was always against the Nazis”’ position, ‘a banal and frivolous stance (created on … stage in the last scene…)’. At the time, Henze was willing to consider that the musical path from Tristan, at least, might be of some importance in his work. In an interview for Die Welt, marking the premiere, he proclaimed his belief ‘that the road from Tristan to Mahler and Schoenberg is far from finished, and with The Bassarids I have tried to go further along it.’ Moreover, he could claim impeccable musical and German warrant for what many would decry as the score’s eclecticism:

It may be unfashionable to continue musical traditions in this way [he is specifically referring to the use of symphonic forms in the opera’s four ‘movements’], but with Goethe under my pillow, I’m not going to lose any sleep about the possibility of being accused of eclecticism. Goethe’s definition ran: ‘An eclectic … is anyone who, from that which surrounds him, takes what corresponds to his nature.’ If you wanted to do so, you could count Bach, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Mahler, and Stravinsky as eclectics …

The composer could not, should not, ‘spend all his time destroying language instead of developing it dialectically’.

That said, the very success of the opera in so bourgeois a context troubled Henze, that unease not merely coincidental with his political move from what he would call ‘generalised anti-fascism’, inspired, he explained, by the example of Italian Marxist friends. He had intervened politically, not least in 1965 during Willy Brandt’s election campaign, but now, from Rudi Dutschke and his comrades he ‘now learned to see contexts, and to see myself within those contexts’. This was why he took the decision that he would write not for himself and his friends, but ‘to help socialism’, that he would embody in his work ‘all the problems of contemporary bourgeois music,’ and yet ‘transform these into something that the masses can understand’. This certainly did not involve submitting to commercial considerations, but nor was there any ‘place for worry about losing elite notions of value’. In September 1968, Henze published a declaration, ‘Mein Standpunkt’, ending:

Unnecessary are new museums, opera houses, and world premieres. Necessary, to set about the realisation of dreams. Necessary, to abolish the dominion of men over men. Necessary, to change mankind, which is to say: necessary, the creation of mankind’s greatest work of art: the World Revolution.
Henze had by this time lent his support to the APO (the Ausserparlamentarische Opposition) and the SDS (the Socialist German Student-league).

This brings us to our second work for consideration, Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer ('The Tedious Way to Natascha Ungeheuer's Apartment'), entitled a ‘show for seventeen performers’, rather than an opera. ('Ungeheuer' means 'monster', but apparently Natascha Ungeheuer was an actual artist working in Kreuzberg, whose name was discovered in a West Berlin telephone directory. An invitation to her apartment was considered fashionable amongst certain artistic types.) Work began in January 1971, when Henze and some friends recorded street sounds near the Zoo Station in West Berlin, along with newspaper extracts read onto tape at varying tempi and pitches. The text’s author was a Chilean poet, Gastón Salvatore, who had been an active participant as a member of the Socialist German Student-league in the events of 1968, was imprisoned for a few months thereafter, and was actually Salvador Allende’s nephew. Quite a few boxes are ticked there, then. It is worth quoting from Salvatore’s account:
Natascha Ungeheuer is the siren of a false utopia. She promises the bourgeois leftist a new kind of security which is meant to enable him to retain his ‘good’ revolutionary conscience without taking active part in the class struggle. …

… the bourgeois leftist … oscillates between the temptation to abandon his awareness and return to the old class, or choose one of the two possible forms of perplexity: that of the lonely avant-gardist in his own four walls, or that of social democracy…

Natascha Ungeheuer promises both possibilities. … She torments him, challenges him … [He] refuses to go to the end of the road, to Natascha Ungeheuer’s flat. He has not yet found his way to the revolution. He knows that he has to retrace his steps and start again from the beginning.
Everything about the work – its ideological intention, its music, and its staging – was calculated to provoke, and it was roundly booed when performed at the Deutsche Oper. The protagonist’s predicament is clearly Henze’s own: stuck somewhere between Natascha Ungeheuer’s flat and the German bourgeoisie which has funded most of his activities to date.

The musical forces required are a vocalist – a baritone of sorts – a brass quintet, a Hammond organ, percussion, a jazz ensemble, redolent of the Berlin underground and, perhaps most notably, denoting the bourgeois origins of the protagonist, an instrumental quintet (piano, flute, clarinet, viola, and ‘cello) identical to that used in Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire. Here is sickly, decadent, bourgeois expressionism. (Here, I might personally add, is the more compelling music; perhaps Henze spoke more truly than he realised.) To underline the already heavy symbolism, Henze had the Pierrot quintet dress in blood-soaked white medical coats, each with a different injury: one with his eye bandaged, another with his leg in plaster of Paris, and so on. Once again, conflict between different sound worlds, representing different aspects of the political and social situation is readily apparent, as we shall now hear.

Reaching a musical assessment of the work almost seems to be missing the point, or at least there seems to be a strong will on the part of its creator(s) to make one think so. It also seems to have more than a dash of pessimism. Is this, then, what politically-committed music drama had come to?

Nevertheless, Henze has always retained a great deal of revolutionary optimism, even if it has often not been focussed on Germany. In a 1971 interview, he could say:

The proletariat is, fortunately, far less crippled than we are. It is deliberately kept ill-informed, certainly, and bombarded with miserable mass-produced products of the mass media. But in Italy, for example, the workers react in a lively and inquisitive fashion when one takes the trouble to show them things to which they otherwise have no access. They have a great deal of unused receptivity... We must not fall into the trap of seeing our path towards solidarity with the working class as an act of self-mutilation.

Many post-war composers stated more or less explicitly, at least on occasion, that a principal reason for the use of serial principles was to obliterate memory. Yet soon this was bound to seem insufficient. Music or indeed art had never operated unhistorically; indeed, even the obliteration of memory could not be understood except historically. All, it seemed, that one could do was treat with history and with the present; neither could or should be avoided. This need not constitute failure, but nor could it constitute a solution. And if a solution were reached, then there would perhaps – in a familiar Marxist or at least Hegelian sense – be no further need for art. It is difficult to imagine any artist truly wishing for that day to come.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

VPO/Rattle - Brahms, Webern, and Schumann, 17 June 2012

Barbican Hall

Brahms – Symphony no.3 in F major, op.90
Webern – Six Orchestral Pieces, op.6
Schumann – Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, op.97, ‘Rhenish’

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

This Sunday-evening visit to London by the Vienna Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle seemed heralded by little fanfare, especially when contrasted with last year’s concerts from Rattle and his ‘home’ Berlin orchestra. (The Mahler Third Symphony I caught, praised to the skies by many, was for me a less than happy experience.) Perhaps there was no need, the prospect speaking largely for itself; at any rate, the lack of hype was refreshing, relieving one of the temptation to react against it before the concert had even begun.

Alas, reaction would set in within a minute or two of its opening. I had not previously been a fan of what I had heard of Rattle’s Brahms; an inordinately fussy Proms performance of the Variations on a Theme of Haydn lodged itself in the memory for all the wrong reasons. This performance of the Third Symphony was worse still, indeed quite the worst I have ever heard. I tried to tell myself that it was skirting the risk of indulgence, when in truth it had passed into and beyond that territory some time earlier. The first movement’s second subject was taken at such a snail’s pace and with such little sense of any basic pulse that it was robbed of even the slightest aspiration to life. ‘Excitable’ would be a kind way of describing the opening of the development; its renewed attempt at vigour seemed to come from nowhere and soon passed into renewed torpor. The recapitulation proceeded in similar fashion to the exposition (heard twice); indeed, inflections of tempo were identical, so as to remove any doubts concerning ‘spontaneity’. It was all rather like wading through treacle, with the occasional nasty fall. The ‘Andante’ was subjected to similar pulling around, momentum quite lacking, certain passages milked as if in a bad parody of Rachmaninov. Here, as earlier Rattle seemed to confuse thinness and thickness with light and shade, but the fault surely lay with the orchestra too, which was on anything but its best form. Indeed, had the programme not told me that this was the Vienna Philharmonic, and had the orchestra on stage not resembled the Vienna Philharmonic, I should never have believed that it was. The third movement was a little better, less exaggerated, though ultimately Rattle still made a meal out of it. We reverted to type in the finale, when it occurred, sadly, to me that I had never heard the VPO sound so petulant, so brash; that, of course, was prior to a grotesque slowing of tempo for no apparent reason. Volume did not equate to depth, whether of tone or interpretation. I was left longing for the sanity of a Klemperer or a Sawallisch.

Webern’s Op.6 Orchestral Pieces, originally scheduled to close the first half, were shifted to the opening of the second. Whilst hardly receiving a revelatory performance, a comparison with Rattle’s 2010 Berlin Philharmonic Proms reading being unfavourable in most respects, this was much preferable to the Great Brahms Massacre. (Odd, how someone so skilled in the music of the Second Viennese School can be so utterly at sea with Brahms, but there it is.) Here at least there was a sense of life, and also of pulse. Perhaps the first piece was too swift for ‘Langsam,’ but it was a relief nevertheless. The translucence of the second and third pieces contrasted strongly with the sludge of Brahms, even though the Viennese players sounded as though they might have tried a little harder. At least the Funeral March was possessed of a proper sense of purpose, on the swift side again, but not inappropriately so. There were, moreover, intriguing hints of what was to come with Boulez and Stockhausen, as well as backward glances to Mahler. The tones of the fifth movement resonated wonderfully, as if in aftershock. Eeriness was poised between Heaven and Hell: a foretaste of Mahler’s ‘Purgatorio’ perhaps? Likewise the shards of Romanticism in the sixth movement glistened, yet still fell under the shadow of what had gone before. This performance, I should note, was given in the slimmed down 1928 revision.

Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony was given with a larger orchestra than has been recently fashionable, the five double basses almost as many in number as the first violins of which I have heard tell in certain performances. At least its first movement was not dragged out as its Brahmsian counterpart had been. Instead, we heard a generally hard-driven account, with a few arbitrary slowings down, especially during the development and recapitulation. I was puzzled here and throughout by the fierceness of the VPO’s tone, not least in the strings, but elsewhere too. Again, had I not known which orchestra this was, I should never have guessed. The second movement was oddly turbo-charged, again suffering from unpleasantness of orchestral tone. It seemed both to bludgeon and to skate over the surface. The basic, or better first, tempo for the third movement was relatively swift, but that was not really the problem; for one thing, it slowed down within a minute or so, dramatically. It was Rattle’s micro-management of every phrase that truly troubled: inordinately fussy, recalling that Proms Brahms performance, rendering the performance more or less incoherent. The Cologne Cathedral movement came off relatively well. Textures were sometimes congested, but at least there was a sense of direction to it. I was almost – almost, I repeat – moved. The relationship of the finale to its predecessor was unclear; it seemed too blithe, too much like unearned light relief. However, given much of what we had heard earlier, there was something to be said for light relief. That is, until it was eclipsed by blaring brass, such as I could never have imagined emanting from Vienna.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Pires/LSO/Haitink, - Purcell, Mozart, and Bruckner, 14 June 2012

Barbican Hall

Purcell-Steven Stucky – Funeral Music for Queen Mary
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.23 in A major, KV 488
Bruckner – Symphony no.7 in E major

Maria João Pires (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

More Purcell and Mozart in the second of these two LSO concerts with Maria João Pires and Bernard Haitink, with Schubert now ceding to Bruckner. I was intrigued by aspects of Steven Stucky’s re-creation – I am not quite sure what the right word would be – of Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary, but remained in two minds. Written in 1992 for wind, brass, percussion, piano, and harp, it was intended ‘to regard Purcell’s music, which I love deeply, through the lends of 300 intervening years.’ The opening march came across somewhat oddly, neither fish nor fowl, some of the woodwind sounds in particular a little too reminiscent of Sir Hamilton Harty’s Handel. Drum thwacks had a visceral, emotional impact somewhat lacking elsewhere, despite Haitink’s insistence upon solemnity and security of tread. I felt that I should rather hear either the ‘original’ – a loaded term, I know, but I am sure the reader will have a sense of what I mean – or something more re-creative. As we travelled through the funeral anthem and the closing canzona, the latter increasingly took over, the refraction of Purcell putting me in mind of the spirit of some of Berio’s transcriptions, including one of a Purcell hornpipe. Here there was much more of a sense of historical layering. Perhaps I should feel differently about the opening, were I to hear it again; I should certainly relish the opportunity. And please, more Baroque music from both the LSO and from Haitink!

The A major piano concerto, KV 488, has always been one of my very favourites, not least since it was both the first I recall hearing and, for that very reason, the one I chose as the first I should play in public myself. I wondered whether Haitink’s – Pires’s? – tempo in the opening tutti was a little on the swift side, or at least whether the music might have been dug into a little more probingly, but either things settled down upon the pianist’s entry or my ears adjusted. Once again Pires proved far more the chamber musician than the ‘soloist’; if that is to err, and I am not at all sure that it is, then it is certainly to err on the right side. True, she might have projected her line a little more strongly at times, but the way she drew one in to listen, both to her part and to the orchestra, especially the wonderful LSO woodwind, proved more than sufficient recompense. The siciliano rhythms of the slow movement were beautifully, meaningfully judged, alert to those extraordinary shifts of harmony – the opening theme presents what is surely a text-book example of the Neapolitan sixth – without any need for undue exaggeration. There was a noble simplicity to this that once again put me in mind of the LSO’s work with Sir Colin Davis. The balance between delicacy and boisterous good spirits, so typical of a Mozart concerto finale, was well struck on this occasion too.

Haitink showed once again – I was privileged recently to hear him conduct the Concertgebouw Orchestra in the Fifth – why there is no greater Bruckner conductor alive; indeed, there is arguably none to match him. Indeed, whilst, at the time, I had found much to admire in Daniel Barenboim’s recent Royal Festival Hall performance of the Seventh Symphony, Haitink retrospectively put Barenboim’s more impetuous, arguably more ambitious, yet ultimately less satisfying, account firmly in its place. Perhaps unfashionably, this was the Nowak edition, allegedly 'controversail' cymbal clash and all. Bruckner performance stands, or at least it should, however, upon performance rather than edition, and there could surely be no controversy in that respect. Above all, Haitink’s unassuming mastery of the score stood upon his unfailing command of line. He had less truck with highlighting certain allegedly modernistic pre-sentiments than has become fashionable nowadays and, in the end, I think that is probably as it should be. They tend to jut out a little too much, to suggest a little too much desperation to connect Bruckner to the Second Viennese School. Here there were grace and singing tone I should be tempted to call Schubertian, were it not essentially more successful still than Haitink’s Schubert. Bruckner’s unfolding, especially in the first two movements, requires patience: not only patience, but patience nonetheless. Haitink has that in spades, without a hint, at least on this occasion, of the worthy or the routine. I was enthralled by the drama, rather as I have been with Boulez’s Bruckner, very different though it sounds, and, especially in the slow movement, was reminded of my life-changing experiences of Haitink’s Wagner. It is in that respect interesting that a performance so sure in its symphonic command should actually sound closer than many to the very different world of the music drama. Dialectics abond. One was aware, also in the scherzo, of the score taking its time, but never did it seem over-long. Quite the contrary, it seemed only as long as it need to be. (Would that could say that of all Bruckner performances.) The finale provided perhaps the greatest surprise of all. I do not intend to rehearse here my difficulties with the movement itself, but I cannot recall an occasion on which I came so close to being convinced that it worked. Indeed, had I been hearing it for the first time, I doubt that I should have had any concerns at all. The opening theme sounded, as it probably should, like a Romantic reminiscence of Haydn, but where often, given the weight of what has gone before, that character can tend to feel straightforwardly inappropriate, here it permitted of development, of interaction with what was to come in a fashion that I cannot help but describe as Beethovenian. It might not be the place, or at least not always the place, for a battle royal, but this sounded as close as possible to a fitting conclusion. The final bars crowned a magnificent performance, for which of course thanks at least equal must go to the superlative playing of all sections of the LSO. They clearly love playing for Haitink, and so they should.

The Cunning Little Vixen, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 13 June 2012

Glyndebourne Opera House

The Vixen – Lucy Crowe
Fox – Emma Bell
Forester – Sergei Leiferkus
Forester’s Wife, Owl – Jean Rigby
Parson, Badger – Mischa Schelmoianski
Schoolmaster, Mosquito – Adrian Thompson
Harašta – William Dazeley
Innkeeper – Colin Judson
Innkeeper’s Wife – Sarah Pring

Melly Still (director)
Tom Pye (designs)
Dinah Collin (costumes)
Paule Constable (lighting)

Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

A performance of The Cunning Little Vixen can hardly fail to be a joy, and likewise can hardly fail to move. This new production at Glyndebourne – by now, some way into its run – proved no exception. Above all, it would be difficult truly to fault the cast. One may have experienced favoured portrayals in the past, but there was no weak link here, no mean achievement with so multifarious a set of characters. It was good to hear Sergei Leiferkus remain in excellent vocal form as the Forester, even if I found Christopher Maltman at Covent Garden a couple of years ago provided a more individual, deeply moving portrayal. Lucy Crowe was certainly more than a match for her Royal Opera counterpart, Emma Matthews, a little more wayward than often one hears, but none the worse for that. Much the same might be said of Emma Bell, as the Fox. William Dazeley stood out from the rest as Harašta, but, as I said, there were no disappointments at all.

I was less sure about Vladimir Jurowski’s direction of the London Philharmonic. Jurowski’s disinclination to Romanticise the score was perfectly justified, though by the same token, there is nothing wrong with bringing out the echoes of Strauss and early Schoenberg. Similarly, there is much to be said for an approach that brings out the radical disjunctures in Janáček’s writing. Nevertheless, one needs a balance, or perhaps better a dialectic, between those disjunctures and the greater whole. There were occasions, and I do not wish to exaggerate, when the scales seemed unduly weighted towards the former. Unfortunately, this came into greatest relief at the end, when the ecstasy of Janáček’s closing bars seemed to have come almost from nowhere; the temptation to Romanticise seemed to have taken over to a degree that did not tally with the rest of the performance. Work in progress, perhaps, or maybe an indication that other late Janáček works, such as The Makropulos Case or From the House of the Dead might suit Jurowski better. The LPO was on excellent form, though there were times when it might have benefited from a larger body of strings.

Melly Still’s production seemed to have little to say about the work, beyond a slightly puzzling desire to elide the distinction between human and animal worlds. Where other directors, not unreasonably, have seen that as a crucial component of the opera, or have at least problematised the distinction, Still seemed content to present a quasi- and sometimes not-even-quasi-balletic conception of the opera. It was beautiful enough in its æstheticised way, but something more in the way of engagement with the life cycle – I think here especially of André Engel’s Lyon staging, later seen in Paris – would have been welcome. Whether one responded well to the more Carry On-like elements – the translation in the surtitles often veered in that direction too – will have been a matter of taste; I tend to think there is something rather more serious, both delightful and moving, at the core of this wonderful opera. Whether an interval, oddly placed in the middle of the second act, as long as the opera itself is appropriate may also be considered a matter for debate.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Kennedy/RPO/Litton - Brahms and Elgar, 12 June 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Brahms – Academic Festival Overture, op.80
Elgar – Enigma Variations, op.36
Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major, op.77

Nigel Kennedy (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Andrew Litton (conductor)

Few in the audience would, I suspected, have been present specifically for the first half of this concert, so I was a little surprised to see a few seats vacated after the interval. When it came to what made the concert memorable – and I wonder whether ‘unforgettable’ will prove nearer the mark – would be Nigel Kennedy’s performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto, and indeed what would come thereafter. Nevertheless, I ought to say something about the first half too. 

Andrew Litton’s account of the Academic Festival Overture opened in intriguing Mendelssohnian fashion, its lightness putting me in mind of his fine London Philharmonic recording of the Midsummer Night’s Dream music. Later, the performance turned more excitable, closer to Tchaikovsky. I am not sure that it really added up to Brahms, but at least it was not dull. (Thank goodness, though, that that treatment was not meted out to the Tragic Overture, or the Haydn Variations.) As for Litton’s podium manner, it threatened to make the late Leonard Bernstein seem restrained.

The Enigma Variations worked better, though the emphasis tended to lie upon sharp characterisation of each individual variation as opposed to a guiding thread running through the work as a whole. Oddly, however, and despite such discontinuities, the music often sounded closer to Brahms than the overture had. The Theme was a case in point, darkly beautiful, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s cellos exhibiting great depth of tone, its violins commendable sheen. Another case would be the dark tones of ‘R.P.A’. Strauss, quite properly, had a look in for the first variation (C.A.E.); admiration of course ran both ways between the two composers. The brass, especially trombones, proved splendidly raucous in ‘Troyte’. ‘Nimrod’, though its opening was perhaps a little too febrile, received a warmly Romantic rather than pious reading, followed by a ‘Dorabella’ both whimsical and sardonic. A telephone did not quite succeed in disrupting the welcome air of mystery in the fourteenth variation (*** - Romanza), ‘E.D.U.’ proving excitable rather in the manner of the preceding overture. It was good to hear the tones of the Royal Festival Hall organ ring out here.

Now for Kennedy’s ‘half’. Though I have long admired his musicianship – far, far more serious, in the best sense, than he is often given credit for – this was my first opportunity to hear him in the flesh. I was certainly not to be disappointed. Doubtless there is hyperbole in his programme booklet declaration that ‘Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms are the raison d’être of classical music,’ but it remains refreshing to hear voiced so unapologetically the broader point being made, namely the centrality of Austro-German music: ‘At the Yehudi Menuhin School, it as made clear to us that central Europe is central to all that is good in classical music.’ And I find it difficult to disagree with Kennedy’s opening gambit: ‘It is a privilege to be playing what is probably the greatest violin concerto of them all for you guys this evening.’

It seemed as though Kennedy’s thoughts had rubbed off on Litton, for the opening tutti of the first movement sounded far more traditionally ‘Brahmsian’ than the Academic Festival Overture had. That is not to say that it was dull, or even sturdy, for it proved full of light and shade, but crucially there was a far stronger sense of harmonic rhythm, answered in turn by an electric – no, not in that sense – appearance of musical virtuosity on Kennedy’s part. (As he so rightly and indeed necessarily put it in the programme, ‘Unfortunately, for some modern proponents of violin playing, a fantastic technique and sound production are not (as in some other concertos) sufficient to tackle the philosophical demands of Brahms’s composition.’) Kennedy’s performance was to prove a standing riposte to emphasis ‘purely on gaining technique’, which he associates with much conservatoire teaching, not least ‘at the Juillard School of Boredom,’ where he studied alongside Litton. For, from the outset, his shaping of phrases and his sounding of the connections between them, spoke of true musical understanding. The sweetness of his tone, moreover, spoke of a wonderfully ‘old school’ approach, sounding almost midway between Heifetz and Menuhin, if you can imagine such a thing. Soloist and orchestra were palpably alert to the demands of the score as musical drama, to its playing out within and through Brahms’s concerto form. It was clearly above all Kennedy’s reading: Litton visibly followed his soloist’s rubato. Yet, in a performance that balanced formal demands with quasi-impovisatory calls arising from Kennedy’s not unreasonable belief in the importance of the gypsy tradition, there could be no complaint on that account.

That sense of the improvisatory came to a head in the cadenza. Kennedy, perhaps unsurprisingly, prefers the fantasy of Kreisler here to Joachim’s standard version, ‘very strong structurally but sadly lacking in pathos’. However, he elected instead to provide his own, apparently improvised, cadenza. Alarm bells might have rung upon reading the statement, ‘During this, you might detect my belief that Brahms loved gypsy music and that, therefore, if he had had the same access as we do to, say, Indian music or the blues, he would probably have incorporated these equally important types of community music into his work as well.’ What we heard proved rather less outrageous than one might have hoped or feared, at least during the purely solo part. Hints of ‘world’ music manifested themselves more strongly as the cellos began to sound a pedal point, cellos joined by other strings, and eventually by the entire orchestra. Yet there was surprisingly little sense of incongruity, and what there might have been was more than outweighed by the soloist’s personality and sheer communicative skill.

The slow movement was blessed by beautiful, characterful woodwind playing, not only from the oboe (John Anderson). Kennedy’s spinning of the violin line was ardent yet variegated, vocal yet indisputably instrumental. It was a more rhapsodic approach than one often hears – a characteristic that on occasion slightly foxed the orchestra – but there were no grounds to associate that with any lack of structural sense, line being maintained as if this were a great aria, or perhaps better, a song without words.

Likewise, in the finale, clearly channelled through the personality and to an extent the delivery of a gypsy musician, form remained clear and meaningful. The orchestra sounded reinvigorated and the results were thrilling. Though there was nothing wilful or distended about the performance, quite the contrary, it would probably have been more likely for Kreisler – or the ever-open-minded Menuhin – to smile upon it than for Joachim to have done so. Frankly, it was a struggle, and I am sure that Kennedy would maintain it to be a futile struggle, to keep one’s foot from tapping along with his. If Nietzsche maintained that much of the problem with German music was its dissociation from the dance, famously celebrating Carmen against Wagner, he perhaps should have heard this.

There was more, of course, to come. After a little joking around, including a proposal of marriage to leader, Clio Gould, Kennedy engaged in an utterly spellbinding duet with principal cellist, David Cohen. As scintillating, in-authenticke a performance of the Handel-Halvorsen Chaconne as one could every hope for – and then a great deal more – was our treat. Virtuosity and musicianship sounded in equal measure from both parties; what was perhaps most enthralling was to observe, indeed viscerally to feel, their response toward each other as chamber musicians. How rehearsed it was, I do not know – Kennedy referred to a ‘sort of rehearsal’ in Nottingham – but it sounded, if you will forgive the cliché, newly minted. A gypsy-style medley ensued, first with Cohen ‘accompanying’, but soon joined by the rest of the RPO strings, some of them also offered solo spots. It was great fun, and more than that: testament to Kennedy’s very real sense of music as a communal activity. Truly, there is only one Nigel Kennedy.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Pires/LSO/Haitink - Purcell, Mozart, and Schubert, 10 June 2012

Barbican Hall

Purcell – Chacony in G minor
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, KV 466
Schubert – Symphony no.9 in C major, ‘Great’, D 944

Maria João Pires (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

Those of us who love the music of Purcell yet have not bought into the great ‘authenticity’ marketing scam – make the music sound as unpleasant and trivial as you possibly can, and you will garner bogus plaudits – do not have it easy. Time was when conductors as different as Celibidache, Barbirolli, and Boulez included this repertoire in their concerts. (Boulez, in the days when he drew liberally from the ‘museum’ regularly conducted Purcell, an intriguing, indeed mouth-watering prospect.) Nowadays, the prospect of but a few minutes of Purcell’s music on a concert programme marks a veritable red-letter day for us beleaguered souls, let alone the prospect of two concerts from Bernard Haitink and the LSO, both opening with music by England’s greatest composer. It is not, needless to say, quite so straightforward as that, in that the great Chacony in G minor was given in Britten’s wonderful arrangement for string orchestra, whilst the Funeral Music for Queen Mary will be given later in the week in a version by Steven Stucky. (A present oddity is that certain arrangements or transcriptions, for instance the odd Bach-Stokowski indulgence, are permitted by the ayatollahs of authenticity, though never the B minor Mass). Nevertheless, however much we might abhor the cliché, we by necessity find ourselves gather rosebuds whilst we may whilst declining to look gift-horses in their mouths.

And how splendid it was to hear both the LSO in this repertoire and Bernard Haitink. Haitink conducted the Chacony with an understated passion that was somehow characteristically both English and Dutch. (His Elgar is often underrated.) From the outset, one could not help but appreciate the life given to the performance by the voicing of inner parts, violas in particular. Quite different from Britten’s magnificent recording, this was a little more stately, insistent upon invariable tempo, for Haitink guided the progression of Purcell’s ground with impeccable understanding and communication of harmonic motion. Lullian grandeur and post-Dowland melancholy came together in alchemy that could only be that of Purcell. Careful dynamic shading was a hallmark, not only in some beautiful pianissimo playing but in a powerful crescendo a little before the end. Articulation from the LSO strings could hardly have been bettered, even if there were the odd occasion when I might have wished for a little more vibrato. The sadness at the end seemed almost to rival that of Dido and Aeneas. A forlorn hope, I am sure, but could we yet hope for some Rameau from Haitink? It would make a wonderful companion to his Ravel and Debussy.

Mozart’s D minor piano concerto completed the first half. The expectancy of the opening tutti was an excellent sign, attention to inner parts again a characteristic of Haitink’s balancing. It might seem odd to speak of spine-tingling pathos, but that is what we heard from the LSO. The first entry from Maria João Pires displayed exquisite touch, in a performance that would be careful in the best sense: certainly not dull, but attentive to the placing of every note. Nothing was imposed; everything gave the impression of immanence. The partnership of Pires and Haitink was well chosen, both musicians playing to each other’s strengths. Sometimes in the first movement I wished that Pires might let rip a little, yet sane musical values had their own reward. Her cadenza, Beethoven’s, combined the ruminative and the improvisatory (perhaps surprisingly so), intimacy and a heroism that had not hitherto been so overtly present, a true climax after which the orchestra sounded newly impassioned. The final bars proved both mysterious and heart-stopping.

Elegance, refinement, and heartfelt sincerity characterised the slow movement, both Pires and Haitink clearly communicating their love for Mozart. (How could one not love Mozart, one might well ask? Quite, but many performances suggest the contrary.) Command of musical line, both within and between episodes, was ever apparent, to an extent rare in either solo or symphonic music, let alone the give and take of a concerto performance. Silky strings and ravishing woodwind showed the LSO on Mozartian form as fine as that which they display for Sir Colin Davis. (It was, however, a little disconcerting to notice one critic snoring through much of the movement; it will be interesting to read the account of his dreams and their interpretation.) Pires took the finale attacca, succeeded by a tutti of well-nigh Beethovenian vehemence, which yet remained sensitive to the differences between Mozart and Beethoven. Cellos were especially important here with respect to the driving harmonic impetus they contributed. All proved equally sensitive to the moments of joy and, still more crucially, the sadness of Mozart in the major mode. Pires’s cadenza had certain Beethovenian characteristics but was more Romantically unstable, intriguingly if fleetingly so. The coda was an utter joy, all the more so for its ­echt-Mozartian subtleties of sado-masochistic ambivalence. A woodwind figure looked forward knowingly to Papageno, Haitink’s refusal to push the tempo providing its own justification.

In that context, but not, I think, solely in that context, the first movement of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony proved somewhat disappointing, not in terms of the LSO’s excellent contribution, but Haitink’s interpretation, or rather lack thereof. The swift introduction was not the only point at which I missed Furtwängler’s incandescence. Continuity of tempo has its advocates, I know, but the lack of an accelerando into the exposition remains, at least for me, a problem. This was a brisk, no-nonsense account, without much if anything in the way of the daemonic, or indeed the drama of Schubert’s ebb and flow. The Andante was brisk, con moto indeed. Here, however, there remained space for unfolding, revelation even. Woodwind again excelled themselves: Christopher Cowie’s oboe, of course, but the entire band. Not that one should forget the warmly consoling strings, save for the fact that anger reminded us that consolation was at best half of Schubert’s story. Brass were frighteningly militaristic – shades of Haydn’s Mass in Time of War – but so was the drama as a whole. The scherzo was vigorous, weighty, and graceful, taken at an ideal tempo. However, it was difficult not to think that its trio, whilst possessing both grandeur and flow, would not have benefited from a slight relaxation of the reins. The finale possessed many of the same virtues as the scherzo proper, the sheer weight of the LSO’s orchestral sound here as crucial as the lightness that permitted a true sense of chiaroscuro. At the risk of undue repetition – the same charge used to be levelled at the composer – I really must credit the magical woodwind once again, as well as the Mendelssohnian agility of the strings. Trombones and the rest of the brass section were pretty fine too. Haitink’s sense of line never deserted him, but here, unlike the rather plain first movement, it seemed far more keenly married to communication of Schubert’s ebb and flow. If I had not been enthralled then, I certainly was by now. This was not Furtwängler, of course, but Haitink’s unshowy integrity was proffered in abundance.