Friday, 30 November 2012

December in Vienna

During December I shall be working in Vienna, for just over a fortnight at the Arnold Schoenberg Center, looking at Schoenberg's library, in particular his marginal annotations. (It excites me anyway...!) There is much of interest in terms of musical performance during my stay, though alas it seems a rather fallow period so far as the State Opera is concerned. (One cannot win everything...) Here, by way of a trailer, is a list of the performances I have arranged to attend so far. They may be added to.

4th - Formenti, Widmann, Minguet Quartet: Rihm
5th - Sokolov (hooray, since British government policies mean we are unable to hear him in London): Rameau, Mozart, Beethoven
7th - ORF SO/Metzmacher: Schreker, Mahler, Pfitzner, Berg
8th - Hänsel und Gretel  (Volksoper)
9th - Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/Järvi: Schumann
11th - Aimard: Debussy
12th - Rotterdam PO/Nézet-Séguin: Beethoven and Mahler
13th - Kulman/Kutrowatz: Schumann
15th - Tonkünstler Orchestra, Lower Austria/Orozsco-Estrado: Mahler
16th - Mathis der Maler (Theater an der Wien)

Thursday, 29 November 2012

LPO/Jurowski - Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Nono, 28 November 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Overture: Fidelio, op.72c
Schoenberg – Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, op.41
Schoenberg – A Survivor from Warsaw, op.46
Nono – Julius Fučik (United Kingdom premiere)
Beethoven – Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67

Robert Hayward (narrator)
Omar Ebrahim (Fučik)
Malcom Sinclair (Voice in Julius Fučik)

Annabel Arden (director)
John B. Read (lighting)
Pieter Hugo (protographer)
Annalisa Terranova (video)

Gentlemen of the London Philharmonic Choir (chorus master: Neville Creed)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

Vladimir Jurowski said all the right things during a brief address at the opening of the concert. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony should not be regarded as the climax of the performance, but as the fifth movement in a single work, whose theme was human suffering and the strength of the human spirit, never quashed by the former. It was, moreover, a rare pleasure to experience such bold and coherent programming. The problem, alas, was that performances of these works – or performance of this ‘work’ – were not always convincing; it was, perhaps predictably but no less sadly, Beethoven who suffered most. Two of the other ‘movements’, Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw and Nono’s Julius Fučik received excellent performances. A curate’s egg, then, which was hardly the intention.

The Fidelio Overture opened proceedings. It was hard driven, though to be fair, I have heard worse. Odder was the strange, almost balletic lightness of tone, strange until one realised that it arose from a fatal lack of harmonic grounding. I was put in mind of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s recent Philharmonia performance of the Fifth Symphony, which ended up sounding more like Delibes than Beethoven; it too had inspired programming, the symphony prefacing Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero, yet was let down in Beethoven’s case by inferior performance. And so, Beethoven’s music merely floated along. It was all efficiently despatched by the London Philharmonic Orchestra; the problem lay in Jurowski’s conception. Once again, moreover, Jurowski indulged his odd penchant for mixing modern horns, which, give or take the odd split note, played splendidly, and natural trumpets, whose rasping certainly did not help matters.

Schoenberg was next up. First came his Ode to Napoleon, given in its version for narrator, piano, and string orchestra. I have never been especially convinced by the orchestral version; a string quartet works far better. Sadly, this performance did nothing to alter that judgement. Part of the problem is – and was – that the piano does not blend well with the strings and ends up sounding like a concertante instrument rather than a member of a chamber ensemble. Despite excellent playing from Catherine Edwards, the effect was unconvincing. Robert Hayward contributed an excellent rendition of Byron’s poem, relishing text and subtext alike to chilling effect. Jurowski did not help matters for at least the first half of the performance. Once again, harmonic depth was lacking and direction was disturbingly metronomic. There was little or no sense of the score’s roots in German tradition, not least that of Beethoven. Having said that, Jurowski’s reading improved considerably. By the time we reached the words, ‘If still she loves thee, hoard that gem, ‘Tis worth thy vanish’d diadem!’ the summoned ghosts of Romanticism duly haunted. The stanza, ‘Thou Timour...’ accomplished, perhaps for the first time with respect to this performance, speed without (the wrong sort of) brutality. Schoenberg’s furious inverse ode to Napoleon/Hitler ended with just the right sense of false triumph, the final E-flat cadence – an ironic echo of the Eroica – falling flat as it must. Sadly, a performance that really gathered pace and conviction was blighted by some appalling audience behaviour, not least a French-speaking – yes, literally ‘speaking’ – person in the row in front of me, who flashed around his Blackberry for most of the time.

A Survivor from Warsaw completed the first half. It suffered even worse from the Blackberry wielder, who proceeded not only to type messages throughout the performance, but to chatter to his companion and even to fondle her. Such a reaction to commemoration of the Holocaust would have been obscene enough, but he actually seemed turned on not so much by genocide as by his indifference to it. (I should lay odds that he was a ‘beneficiary’ of ‘corporate hospitality’.) A Survivor survived, just about, but such behaviour ought to lead to a life-time ban. This work is less garrulous than the Ode to Napoleon and seemed to inspire Jurowski less fitfully. It received a more properly modern and focused performance, with less of the agitprop to it. Richly expressive and rhythmically alert, this was at last a reading that justified the hopes of the programme. Ghosts of Mahler and of Schoenberg’s earlier self pervaded work and performance alike. Hayward’s narration was once again excellent, a case in point the combination of brutality and beauty – Nazi æstheticisation of politics brought to mind – in Schoenberg’s setting of the Feldwebel’s words. The horrific race, quickly a stampede, into the chamber was such even before the word ‘stampede’. Militancy, inspired and terrifying, of the male chorus and its hymn, ‘Sh’ma Yisroel’ brought echoes of Bach as well as Beethoven, a spirited rejoinder to the vile ‘Aryanisation’ of German culture official policy had brought. (Even the text of Mozart’s Requiem had had to be altered, ‘Te decet hymnus Deus, in Sion et tibi reddetur votum in Ierusalem,’ rejected in favour of ‘Te decet hymnus Deus, in coelis et tibi reddetur votum hic in terra,’ in Bruno Kittel’s celebrated or notorious 1941 recording.)

The British premiere of Nono’s 1951 Julius Fučik opened the second half, wisely instructed to be performed without a break. (Not that that stopped some applauding the end of the first movement of the Beethoven...) Incomplete, it was first performed – posthumously – at the 2006 Munich Biennale (not almost sixty years ago, as Jurowski claimed, perhaps thinking of composition) and offers another of Nono’s tributes to the memory of the Czech communist and literary critic, hanged following captivity in Berlin in 1943 and an official hero for socialist Czechoslovakia. Fučik’s words – and ‘Voice’ – are employed in Intolleranza 1960  (dedicated to Schoenberg), and Nono’s Composizione per Orchestra no.1, also from 1951, offered another as-yet-secret memorial – programme music hardly the thing for Darmstadt – to Fučik. It was a pity we could not hear the Composizione as well, but perhaps that is just being greedy or plain unreasonable. A strange mini-biography awaited us on the screen as we returned from the interval. I hope that the problematic sentence was a matter of translation – though surely that could have been attended to’ since ‘sadly,’ as in ‘Sadly, the Nazis executed him in 1943,’ really is not the mot juste. The house lights went down so as to focus attention upon the stage and the searchlit interrogation of Fučik. (Still worse now, Blackberry man resumed its activities, lighting up a good part of the stalls with his screen and flashing red light.)

Jurowski captured to a tee the pointillistic post-Webern violence of Nono’s opening, likewise its lyricism that marks the composer’s music even at this stage as quite different from that of Stockhausen. The score blossomed – both in work and performance – into something perhaps surprisingly Schoenbergian, but then  Nono never shared Boulez’s resolve to parricide, despite posthumous elevation as Schoenberg’s son-in-law. (It is rather misleading, by the way, to speak of him at this stage in that light, since he had yet to meet Schoenberg’s daughter, Nuria, let alone to marry her. Their meeting had to wait until the 1953 premiere of Moses und Aron.) Obar Ebrahim and Malcolm Sinclair offered excellent performances. This excellent account, antiphonal drumming and all, exuded brutality, psychoticism, and yet inviting, spellbinding beauty – not unlike the interrogation in Intolleranza. It was somehow not unlike a Bach cantata, though Fučik’s last words – ‘Believe me, this has taken nothing, absolutely nothing, from the joy that is in me and that heralds itself each day with some Beethoven theme or other .... – inevitably brought one’s focus, insofar as it was not distracted by Blackberry antics, towards another great predecessor. Nor was Schoenberg forgotten. I could not help but think of Helmut Lachenmann’s transcription of a 1960 lecture Nono gave on A Survivor from Warsaw at Darmstadt. It was, Nono, said (my translation):

... the musical-æsthetic manifesto of our era. What Jean-Paul Sartre says in his essay, What is Literature?, about the problem ‘why write?’, is witnessed in utterly authentic fashion in Schoenberg’s creative necessity:  
‘And if I am presented with this world and its injustices, then I should not look at it coldly, but ... with indignation, that I might expose it and create it in its nature as injustice and abuse.’
And further, should someone refuse to recognise Schoenberg’s [here Nono makes reference to a previous quotation from Arnold Schmitz on Bach] docere and movere, above all in his A Survivor from Warsaw, he should know that the words which the nineteen-year-old student, Giacomo Levi, wrote in his last letter before execution by the Fascists in Modena in 1942, are also addressed to him: ‘Do not say that you no longer wish to know anything about it. Consider this, that all that has happened is because you no longer wished to know anything more about it.’

Finally, then, the Fifth Symphony. The odd-numbered movements fared better than the even ones, but this was not, alas, a performance to justify the hopes placed in it. (Most infuriating or even obscene of all was Blackberry man sitting back to ‘enjoy’ what he presumably thought of as the ‘real’ music. He managed to wait until the first movement coda before checking for messages again.)  Jurowski took the first movement fast but not entirely unreasonably so. If hardly the last word in profundity, then at least there was a much stronger sense of line than there had been in the overture. One had to put up with those dreadful rasping trumpets though. Beethoven’s extraordinary concision came through, if not the necessary weight of tone and message. It was good to have the opening of the slow movement greeted by a mobile telephone, but in truth, there was little of consequence to be disrupted here. Predictably swift, this is doubtless what passes for a Beethoven slow movement, even one marked Andante can moto, in the fashionable circles of an age seemingly incapable, a few Barenboim-like exceptions aside, of responding to the symphonic Beethoven. It sounded more like an intermezzo with unpleasant and arbitrary brass interventions than the unfolding of an inevitable musical narrative. The LPO very much seemed to be going through the motions – and I could not entirely blame them. It was genuinely sad that, following the two previous performances, this music should go for so little, but at least Jurowski’s tempo ensured that it was over relatively quickly.

Rather to my surprise, the scherzo fared better. It was full of menace,  not least since melody, harmony, and rhythm now once again seemed to be related to one another. The counterpoint of the trio was irrepressible as well as clear, the ghostliness of the scherzo’s reprise not merely colourful but also chilling. Alas, the opening of the finale was marred by the plodding parade-ground sound of natural trumpets. The horns, by contrast, sounded glorious. It was full of incidental ‘moments’ – not quite in the Stockhausen sense: that might have been interesting... – yet the great sweep of Beethoven’s imagination seemed quite to elude Jurowski. This performance remained stubbornly earthbound, for all its superficial highlighting in apparent attempts to generate ‘excitement’. The drama has to come within; it cannot be appliqué. A message for our time indeed. Whilst I was greatly moved by A Survivor  and by Julius Fučik, Beethoven – and this is less sad than tragic – elicited no such reaction. Jurowski’s programming was estimable, but it needed a Gielen or a Barenboim – or, imagine! a Klemperer or a Furtwängler – to carry it off.   

L'incoronazione di Poppea, 27 November 2012, Royal College of Music,

Ottone (Bradley Travis)

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

Poppea – Katherine Crompton
Nerone – Annie Fredriksson
Ottavia – Fiona Mackenzie
Drusilla – Hanna Sandison
Seneca – David Hansford
Arnalta – Matthew Ward
Ottone, First Kinsman – Bradley Travis
Lucano, Second Kinsman – Peter Kirk
Nutrice – Angela Simkin
Liberto, Littore, Third Kinsman – Luke Williams
Fortune – Filipa Van Eck
Virtù – Soraya Mafi
Amore – Joanna Songi
First Soldier – Vasili Karpiak
Second Soldier – Michael Butchard

James Conway (director)
Oliver Platt, Sandra Martinovic (assistant directors)
Samal Blak (designs)
Ace McCarron (lighting)

Ottavia (Fiona Mackenzie)
Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

James Conway’s new production of what is surely one of the three greatest operas of the seventeenth century, and perhaps the greatest of all, L’incoronazione di Poppea, is a splendid affair: intelligent conceived , tightly directed, and resourcefully designed by Samal Blak. Conway’s words in the programme should be drilled into anyone who opines on staging, whether in print, on the Internet, or in the theatre: ‘The question of what “period” to set it all in is not the beginning or the end of the process, but an historically informed decision somewhere in the middle. Sadly, this is certainly the decision that seems to exercise people most.’ There is no reasoning with those who scream ‘why is not set in x at the time y?’ as soon as anything is depicted that does not conform to their unimaginative, unhistorical and generally quite vulgar sense of hyper-realism. If only we had pictures, or other evidence, of the costumes and backdrops employed in Venice’s Teatro SS Giovanni e Paulo, I am sure they would find themselves in an irresolvable quandary. Should those be replicated, or should we have something recognisably of Rome in AD 65? I doubt very much that any set of designs would be able to accomplish both. Conway’s setting was imaginative and worked in theatrical terms. Apologising ‘to those who anticipated togas, or 17th century Venice,’ and we should note the operative or, he says that he considered ‘Tudor Terror, but too much reading about the revolutionary ego and Stalin’s bruising reign convinced me that this was a place ... from which Ottone, Dusilla, Ottavia and Seneca might suddenly disappear, and in which all might live cheek by jowl in a sort of family nightmare, persisting in belief in family (or some related ideal) even as it devours them.’ And so it came to pass, a fine young cast conveying its conviction in the concept.

Katherine Crompton (Poppea) and Annie
Frederiksson (Nerone)
Yet, as we saw Conway remark, the time and place are not in themselves the most important matter. The sense of relative claustrophobia, of arbitrary imperial caprice, of the intertwining of sex and high – or low – politics was far more important than the admittedly handsome designs, whether of costume or sets. (The latter were crucial in another way, though, permitting a great deal of observation from outside and sudden secret intimacy.) Perhaps the most radical step, however, had nothing to do with where the opera was set at all. It was the depiction of Poppea less as the typical sex kitten than as an almost Lulu-like projection of fantasies ‘far more damaging than she’.

That reversal, or at least re-evaluation, seemed to me to work better after the interval in the second and third acts than in the first, where one felt something of a lack in her character. But perhaps the fault lay with me and the time it took to accustom myself to the new understanding. I think it was also, though, a matter of Katherine Crompton working her way into the role of the anti-heroine. The blonde wig and somewhat frumpy costume of the first act did her no favours; indeed, she looked at that point more like Grayson Perry than aspirant empress. Moreover, her vocal performance took a while to blossom too. Once the first act was over, however, idea and portrayal were captivating – and convincing. Much the same could be said of Annie Fredriksson’s Nerone. Perhaps the most impressive members of an impressive cast were Bradley Travis’s Ottone and Fiona Mackenzie as a beautiful, wronged but also wronging Ottavia: a far more complex character than one would ever guess from hearing the astounding lament, ‘Addio Roma’ out of context – as one often does. Travis offered an Ottone as handsome of voice as of uniformed figure; his conflict was credible, tormenting and, through expressive artistry very much became ours. Hanna Sandison’s Drusilla also offered complexity of character, whilst Matthew Ward’s nurse in drag, Arnalta, offered not only a degree of Shakespearean comic relief but the proper degree of homespun wisdom – or is it nonsense?

Hannah Sandison (Drusilla)
From where I was seated I could not see the pit, so am not entirely certain whether the instruments were ‘old’ (which, in our Alice in Wonderland world generally seems to mean new, but alleged replicas). The strings, a small band, certainly did not sound modern, but they had more than a hint of the ‘modern, but played in “period” style’ to them: more Harnoncourt than the extremist fringe. That is of course as much a matter of performance as of hardware, and Michael Rosewell’s direction tended to steer a not entirely convincing ‘third way’. There was certainly none of Leppard’s – let alone Karajan’s – tonal refulgence; indeed, string sonority was often unpleasantly thin. But nor was there the lightness, after a fashion, of Renaissance, as opposed to later Baroque, instruments. Continuo playing picked up after the interval; the first act alternated a little too often between heavy harpsichords and hesitant theorbo. Recorders were occasionally employed, to good effect. But the singing and production were the thing – and they were in most respects impressive indeed. Those unable to make these RCM performances may be interested to know that the production will be revived for English Touring Opera in autumn 2013.

Matthew Ward (Arnalta)
For what it is worth, that most frustrating of final duets, ‘Pur ti miro,’ – one desperately wants it to be by Monteverdi, since it is so ravishingly beautiful and moving, even though one’s head tells one that it is not – sounded rather different from the rest of the score, as if by a later or younger composer, which it almost certainly is. Someone, or rather several people, had clearly done something right, to engineer that effect, much as one might have wanted to wish it away.

Performances continue on 28 and 30 November, and 1 December, the second and fourth performances offering partly different casts.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Kavakos/LSO/Bychkov - Berg and Mahler, 25 November 2012

Barbican Hall

Berg – Violin Concerto
Mahler – Symphony no.1 in D major

Leonidas Kavakos (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

A brief report rather than a proper review here, if only because this was a concert that puzzled in that it is difficult to think of very much to say about it. It had the same programme as a concert I attended in 2008, Christoph von Dohnányi’s final concert as Principal Conductor of the Philharmonia. That seemed to attract little attention at the time, though I thought highly of it. The present concert, however, seemed strangely routine. There was little or nothing that was bad, but nor was there anything to excite.

Leonidas Kavakos played the solo part of the Berg Violin Concerto competently enough, bar a few notes early on for which intonation was a slight issue. Yet he evinced little affinity for the work, the style, let alone the idea. His performance began rather rough-hewn, disconcertingly so in the opening bars, but then settled down to nondescript. Semyon Bychkov’s reading was fine, so far as it went; there were some intriguing, almost Debussyan moments colouristically, but again it was difficult to say that either he or the LSO was on good form. Rather to my surprise, the orchestra seemed unresponsive to him; more than once I saw him signalling to sections to quieten down, to little or no avail. The most striking music came at the beginning of the second part, direction and even violence briefly to be heard, especially from the orchestra. Then the music once again subsided into pleasant rêverie. There is so much more to Berg than was heard here.

The performance of Mahler’s First Symphony proceeded for the most part smoothly enough, though there was an uncharacteristic number of slips from the LSO, especially during the first movement. It inhabited a strange no-man’s-land between ‘objectivity’ and commitment, with few of the advantages either. Bychkov’s tempi were throughout sensible; likewise balances – well, usually anyway. But rarely did the music catch fire. Amiability was the watchword of the second movement. The third movement probably came off best, Colin Paris’s double bass solo well taken and the Klezmer(-ish) music performed with generous swing. Surprisingly for someone with so keen a sense of musical form, Bychkov was unsuccessful in papering over the formal cracks in the finale, which sounded unfortunately extended. Yes, there is repetition here that looks questionable on paper, but a great performance will sweep all before it. Sadly it was not to be on this occasion. Altogether a rather puzzling evening: maybe the LSO and Bychkov are just not the partnership for which one might have hoped.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

LPO/Nézet-Séguin - Haydn and Strauss, 24 November 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Haydn – Missa in Angustiis, ‘Nelson Mass’, Hob. XXII:11
Strauss – Ein Heldenleben, op.40

Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano)
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Robin Tritschler (tenor)
Luca Pisaroni (bass-baritone)

London Philharmonic Choir (chorus master: Neville Creed)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)

Haydn’s settings of the Mass ought to be heard incessantly, in churches and in the concert hall. For reasons that elude me, they are not, even this, the so-called Nelson Mass, arguably the most celebrated of all, if only on account of his nickname. Indeed classical sacred music in general, Mozart’s included, with a very few obvious exceptions, is unaccountably neglected by most concert programmers. (When did you last hear Beethoven’s Mass in C major, op.86, any of Gluck’s sacred music, anything that was not a Mass setting from the Salzburg Mozart, or indeed any of the shorter liturgical works by Schubert?) Perhaps performers, audiences, bureaucrats alike still have the Whiggish canard that the Enlightenment was somehow concerned with secularisation seared into their incurious minds; if so, send them away with a copy of Ernst Cassirer’s venerable Philosophy of the Enlightenment in one hand and a good few scores or recordings in the other. In any case, let us hope that the London Philharmonic will programme more of this wonderful repertoire, especially if performed with such success as it was here, under Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

The ‘Kyrie’ plunged us immediately into a world of high liturgical, symphonic, well-nigh operatic, drama, the D minor tonality of Don Giovanni ringing in our ears. It was driven, but not too much; Nézet-Séguin knew where to yield too. The London Philharmonic Choir, here as elsewhere, shone, fullness of tone and precision in no sense antithetical. Sarah-Jane Brandon imparted the necessary note of wartime terror to the return of the ‘Kyrie’ material, form sharply delineated by Nézet-Séguin. A propulsive opening to the ‘Gloria’ shared that marriage of choral weight and transparency. It struck me, perhaps for the first time, how much Haydn’s writing for soprano against choir prefigures the ‘Hymn’ in The Creation, which lay, after all, just around the corner. The setting of the words ‘miserere nobis’ seemed to evoke Mozart – which of course in many senses it does, Haydn always keen to learn at the hands of the younger genius.

A particularly Haydnesque combination of Baroque sturdy figured bass, such as one always finds in his setting of the Creed (‘Tu es Petrus’) and Beethovenian symphonism characterised the opening section of the ‘Credo’. It was nicely shaded too, without fussiness. The cult of alte Musik furthered by Gottfried van Swieten, Viennese patron to Mozart and Haydn, as well as librettist (of sorts) for Haydn’s oratorios, was heard here for the inspirational influence it was: none of today’s mere antiquarianism (at best), but a vital force, informing performance and composition alike. Just listen to the words ‘et homo factus est’, Handel channelled via Haydn’s loving yet vigorous offices. The final section, like much of the rest of the faster material, was taken at a challenging tempo, or at least a tempo that would have proved challenging, had it not been for the excellence of orchestral and choral execution.

The ‘Sanctus’ was properly imploring, taken at a magnificently slow tempo, without the slightest hint of dragging. ‘Pleni sunt cœli...’ came as a thunderbolt of joy. A flowing contrast to both parts of that preceding movement was offered by a flowing ‘Benedicturs’. Militarism made its point, chillingly, yet commendably without the exaggeration one would most likely have endured from latter-day ‘authenticke’ freak-shows. Textures were clear and weighty (where necessary). Nézet-Séguin handled the ‘Agnus Dei’ with loving tenderness. Sarah Connolly offered excellent solo work at the opening, soon joined by her equally fine colleagues, Brandon, Robin Tritschler, and Luca Pisaroni. ‘Dona nobis pacem’ brought a wonderful, elating feeling of choral and orchestral release. Was anyone a more joyful contrapuntist – or homophonist! – than Haydn? As he is alleged to have said to a (slightly dubious) biographer, Giuseppe Carpani, ‘At the thought of God my heart leaps for joy, and I cannot help my music doing the same.’

Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben followed the interval. It is difficult to think of anything meaningful to connect the two works, so it was better approached simply as a contrast – which indeed it was. Nézet-Séguin and the LPO revelled in the opening kaleidoscope of colour, which sometimes, quite rightly, tended a little towards the phantasmagorically nauseous.  The LPO’s cellos shone particularly, horns (led by David Pyatt) here and elsewhere quite glorious. Strauss’s critics were properly carping; Pieter Schoeman’s violin solo offered a delectable ‘feminine’ contrast, clean but not clinical, sinuous but not cloying. It was an interesting reading taken as a whole: not overtly symphonic, yet by the same token certainly not without form. Rather, the latter seemed to emerge from the material, which is doubtless as it should be. (Not that there is just one way of that happening, of course.) Battle was instrumental in more than one sense, a battery of brass and percussion both impressing and amusing: Strauss the inveterate ironist. It was brutal, but in a toy soldiers’ sort of way. There were a few occasions when I thought Nézet-Séguin might have relaxed a little more, but that was certainly preferable to meandering, always a danger in this score. The difficulty of shooting’s one bolt too early – I am not even convinced that Karajan always showed himself innocent of that all-too-seductive mistake – was avoided completely: quite an achievement.


Friday, 23 November 2012

Coote/Britten Sinfonia - Purcell, Tippett, Handel, and Britten, 22 November 2012

Wigmore Hall

Purcell – Abdelazer, Z570: ‘Rondeau’
Purcell-Muhly – Let the night perish (Job’s Curse), Z191
Purcell-Stokowski – Dido’s Lament
Tippett – A Lament from Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’
Handel – Alcina: arias
Britten – Prelude and Fugue for eighteen-part string orchestra, op.29
Purcell-Britten – Chacony in G minor
Tippett – Little Music for Strings
Britten – Phaedra, op.93

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Britten Sinfonia
Jacqueline Shave (director/violin)
Richard Hetherington (conductor).

I was a little puzzled to start with when I noticed that this concert was announced as celebrating Britten’s ninety-ninth birthday. Any excuse for a party, I supposed, but it might not have made sense to wait a year? Then I read a little further, to discover that it was launching a year’s events at the Wigmore Hall, to culminate in the centenary itself – also St Cecilia’s Day, by the way. As something less than a paid-up Brittenophile – some works I respond to far more readily than others: The Turn of the Screw I find a masterpiece, whereas Peter Grimes I obstinately continue to find grossly overrated – I suspect that I shall be more selective than some. Next year, after all, is Wagner’s, for better or worse, though in many respects I fear the worst. However, if any of the Britten performances I hear next year are at this level of distinction, I shall be fortunate indeed. (The Turn of the Screw from Sir Colin Davis and the LSO looks a good bet already...)

This programme played into an aspect of Britten’s career for which I have almost unbounded admiration, namely Britten as performer. Though I certainly do not share his antipathies – Brahms most notoriously, Beethoven too – I cannot help but admire so ardent a Purcellian, especially when his conducted performances of Purcell were, without exception in my experience, outstanding. The Rondeau from Abdelazar, famously chosen by Britten as the theme for the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, set the tone impeccably. Spirited, robust even, without a hint of carping, inhumane ‘authenticity’, this performance from the Britten Sinfonia, led by Jacqueline Shave, managed also to convey a hint of melancholy that stands at the heart of so much great English music from Byrd to Birtwistle.

There followed three pieces offering different sides of creation, re-creation, and thematic inspiration. Alice Coote joined the strings for Nico Muhly’s ‘realisation’ of Let the night perish, or Job’s Curse.  If truth be told, Muhly’s part in proceedings pertained more to ‘effect’ than anything more substantial. (How unlike Britten’s own Purcell realisations!) Techniques employed – sudden high violin notes, cello tremolandi, etc. – might sound ‘clever’, but they are easily accomplished enough and seemed strangely unmotivated by text or music. Performances, however, were first-class, Coote’s part in proceedings exquisitely shaded – and what a way with words she has! There seemed more kinship with the Sorceress than with Dido, which, given the subject matter, makes sense. And the chilling diminuendo upon the final ‘grave’, would have implied the word even if her diction had been less impeccable than it was. Stokowski’s arrangement for strings – I say arrangement, but it verges at times upon transcription, though subtly so – of Dido’s Lament came next. Following on from Coote, one expected words, but one that loss was dealt with – very quickly in practice – we heard a deeply felt rendition of a deeply felt tribute, both when the richly expressive strings were heard orchestrally and in the poignant solo spots: violin ‘Remember me’-s especially.

Then came Tippett’s contribution to a composite work commissioned for the 1953 Aldeburgh Festival, each movement of which was to include a reference to Sellinger’s Round. Tippett’s piece is preoccupied at least as much with Dido’s ‘Ah Belinda’ as with the traditional dance tune. Purcell’s aria emerges fantazia-like, though with a sense of compositional refraction not so very different in principle from Berio’s orchestration of a Purcell hornpipe, though with an ineffable Englishness quite foreign to the Italian composer. Ornamentation, if that be the word, is expressive, not merely decorative, still less ‘effect’. One senses a pull already towards the Tippett of the symphonies. Once again, the Britten Sinfonia’s performance was compelling indeed.

Three Handel arias – there is a wonderful, indeed the most wonderful, recording of Handel Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day by Britten – completed the first half. Alcina is one of his finest operas; these arias were certainly gems even within that context. The warmth of the orchestral playing struck me immediately; this was not at all unlike the English Chamber Orchestra of old, Britten or Raymond Leppard at the helm. What a life-enhancing change from current fashion, in which so much as to utter the word ‘vibrato’ is to be discounted by the ayatollahs of authenticity! The Britten Sinfonia players, led as throughout by Shave, showed keen understanding of harmonic rhythm, above which Coote offered an imploring performance of ‘Mi lusinga il dolce affetto’. Careful attention to words never detracted from roundness of phrasing. The B section was allotted to single strings (and harpsichord from Maggie Cole), reverting to fuller forces for the da capo, a similar practice being followed in the repeated lines of ‘Verdi prati’, which received a dignified, moving performance. ‘Stà nell’Ircana’ fairly brought the house down. The change of pace brought alert, exciting and thoroughly musical performances – again, no silly ‘effects’ – from all concerned. Coloratura was brilliantly but also meaningfully despatched, owing to Coote’s keen command of the words and their implications. There was welcome flexibility in the middle section. And what glorious horn playing from Stephen Bell and Chris Davies! I am not sure that I have heard a more ecstatic response from a clearly exhilarated Wigmore Hall audience.

Britten’s Prelude and Fugue, op.29, opened the second half. Written for the Boyd Neel Orchestra’s tenth anniversary, it is very much a Wigmore Hall work, having been premiered there on 23 June 1943. I wish I could say it convinced me as a piece. The Prelude works better, and received once again a rich-toned performance, thanks both to the fine acoustic and to the players. A sweet-toned violin solo from Shave found itself set against Shostakovich-like harmonies. Perhaps inevitably, given the forces, the fugue sometimes sounds like watered-down Bartók. It nevertheless received a committed, vigorous performance. I am not sure that it hangs together very well in formal terms though.

Britten’s realisation – call it what you will – of Purcell’s great G minor Chacony is an example to all who would follow. The players clearly understood and – just as important – communicated the nature of the form and its implications, in a performance that was as finely shaded as it was unfussy. This is a masterpiece and sounded like it, even if nothing, not even BernardHaitink’s recent LSO performance, can quite match Britten’s own with the ECO. Tippett’s well-nigh neo-Classical Little Music for Strings, if not a masterpiece, is certainly a handy addition to the string orchestral repertoire. None of its four movements outstays its welcome; indeed, the finale wittily leaves one wanting more. The Prelude oddly seems determined to launch into the National Anthem, but never does. Counterpoint was throughout, not just in the Fugue, clearly and vigorously handled in a performance of great energy.

Finally came the real Britten, in his late cantata for Dame Janet Baker, Phaedra. This performance, conducted by Richard Hetherington, immediately thrust one into a sound-world which, unlike the earlier Prelude and Fugue, was unmistakeably Britten’s own – a sound-world, moreover, of the opera house. This is clearly the composer of The Rape of Lucretia, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, most darkly, of Death in Venice. Performances once again were exceptional; I really could not, even if so inclined, find anything to fault. From the alert cello and harpsichord continuo of the first recitative through the savagery of the drums, to what sounds very much like a ghost of the Berg Violin Concerto in the interlude between the Recitative to Oenone and the Adagio to Theseus, the players of the Britten Sinfonia played as if their lives depended on it. Coote’s performance was simply outstanding. An early highlight was the colouring of ‘murderer’ in the first recitative (referring to Aphrodite and Phaedra’s mother), so as to impart a sense of a grey veil being cast over proceedings. There was a magnificently hieratic quality to the performance of the Presto to Hippolytus. And the final Adagio told us that, whilst we might be helpless in the face of the gods, we can evince a humanist pride too, one that belongs as much to Phaedra as to Prometheus. Whilst quite unlike Dame Janet’s recording, Coote had nothing to fear with that most demanding of comparisons.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Carmen, English National Opera, 21 November 2012

(sung in English)

Carmen – Ruxandra Donose
Don José – Adam Diegel
Escamillo – Leigh Melrose
Micaëla – Elizabeth Llewellyn
Zuniga – Graeme Danby
Moralès – Duncan Rock
Frasquita – Rhian Loise
Mercédès – Madeleine Shaw
Dancairo – Geoffrey Dolton
Remendado – Alan Rhys-Jenkins
Lillas Pastia – Dean Street
Girl – Anya Truman

Calixto Bieito (director)
Joan Antonio Recchi (assistant director)
Alfons Flores (set designs)
Mercè Paloma (costumes)
Bruno Poet (lighting) 

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

A triumph for ENO! I suspected that Carmen would prove eminently suited to Calixto Bieito’s talents, and so it proved. Shorn of any ‘picturesque’ pandering – remember Francesco Zambello and her donkey? – what we saw here is perfectly attuned to Bizet’s resolutely unsentimental score. Spanish heat is for once no cliché; instead, we feel that heat almost unmediated, its oppression, its sexiness, its glory, its desperation. This is a more unsparing depiction of 1970s Spain than anything one would see in Almodóvar. Life is brutal: Carmen seems much more a product of her society, defiant and yet unable to transcend it, than we tend to imagine. The tawdry car-park world of gypsy trading is not romanticised; it does not necessarily appear better – or for that matter, worse – than that of the army. The figure of the abused girl is all the more disturbing for the lack of exaggeration. Ruthless realism, as in the opera, is the order of the day. We always think of Don José as a mummy’s boy; here his most erotic moment is the lingering, passionate kiss with Micaëla – a far more rounded, credible character than a mere angel of goodness – when she passes on the kiss from his mother.  Escamillo is no deus ex machina; he is cut down to size as twentieth-century ‘heroes’ tend to be. The marking of the bullring in the fourth act circumscribes the boundaries for the action in a fashion more chilling than I have ever experienced. The crowd has turned to us, has made its own entertainment – shaping of bull and toreadors from the men available is a masterstroke – and has disappeared. Now we – or they – are alone. Fate, as foretold in the cards, is played out. Hesitance prolongs the agony, yet the desert bleakness – social, scenic, existential – of the drama is in a sense the true protagonist here. Franco or his successors? Is there that much of a difference, especially under the present regime?

Ryan Wigglesworth conducted as fine an account of the score as I can recall hearing in the theatre, infinitely more subtle than the bandmaster performance of Antonio Pappano at Covent Garden, let alone the perverse manufactured intimacy of Simon Rattle in Salzburg. Rhythms were precise yet never – save, perhaps at the very opening – did the score seem harried. Colour was painted vividly; at times, this might almost have been Ravel. And Wigglesworth knew when to hang back, especially during the opening of the fourth act. There was nothing arbitrary to this; the score was not pulled around. Rather, dramatic tension was screwed up in tandem with the action on stage. Throughout the ENO Orchestra played magnificently, the performance from the chorus – and children’s chorus – equally faultless.

Ruxandra Donose made an excellent Carmen: vulnerable but not too vulnerable, strong, but not too strong, complex, conflicted, and at times devastatingly alluring. Grame Danby and Duncan Rock made great impressions as Zuniga and Moralès respectively; it would be well-nigh impossible to distinguish between the distinction of their vocal and acting performances. Elizabeth Llewellyn was a touching Micaëla, though here at least as much as anywhere else, one regretted the lack of the original French (not that there was anything intrinsically wrong with Christopher Cowell’s valiant translation). Leigh Melrose sang well enough as Escamillo, but his portrayal lacked the requisite virility – even given the concerns of Bieito’s staging. He seemed somewhat miscast. The only real fly in the ointment, however, was Adam Diegel’s Don José. Uncertain of intonation, whether through excess vibrato or simple poor tuning, this was a performance whose stiffness seemed anything but dramatically motivated; stylistically it hovered at its best between Puccini and musical theatre. Such, however, was the power of the ensemble performance that it was difficult to mind too much.

This was the best performance I have seen at ENO for quite some time – and the best performance of Carmen I have ever seen. More Bieito and more Wigglesworth, please!

(Pictures shoud follow when available: later today, I hope.)

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

La vera costanza, Royal Academy of Music, 19 November 2012

Helen Bailey (Rosina)
Images: Hana Zushi, Royal Academy of Music
 Sir Jack Lyons Theatre
La Baronessa Irene – Rosalind Coad
Il Marchese Ernesto – Thomas Elwin
Lisetta – Sónia Grané
Villotto – Nicholas Crawley
Rosina – Helen Bailey
Masino _ Samuel Pantcheff
Il Conte Errico – Stuart Jackson
Rosina’s son – Jude Chandler

Jamie Hayes (director)
Tim Reed (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Trevor Pinnock (conductor)
Nicholas Crawley (Villotto), Il Conte Erico (Stuart Jackson)

Il Marchese Ernesto (Thomas Elwin),
La Baronessa Irene (Rosalind Coad), and
Lisetta (Sónia Grané)
I often fear that I am the only enthusiast for Haydn’s operas. Quite apart from the questions that raises concerning one’s sanity, it is heartening to be reminded that I am not quite in a minority of one. According to Jane Glover’s programme welcome note, Trevor Pinnock, having conducted La fedeltà premiata – how I wish I had caught that – in 2009, suggested following that up with La vera costanza, a proposal Royal Academy Opera ‘embraced ... with great enthusiasm’. And so it should have done. This, like many of Haydn’s works, only more so, is an opera whose neglect does shame to all concerned, superior in almost every way to a good number of pieces that inexplicably hold the stage. No, it is not written by we-all-know-who, but apart from that lack of profound characterisation in which some of the Salzburg composer’s greatest genius lies, Haydn is not entirely embarrassed by the comparison here, which is more than can be said of many. La vera costanza is at least to be ranked alongside La finta giardiniera and in some respects – not least the surprisingly sophisticated ensemble writing – even looks towards the likes of Figaro. The likes of the Baroness Irene, Rosina – an unfortunate name in retrospect, I admit – and Count Errico will not linger in our imaginations; there is no one remotely akin to Susanna, let alone the Countess, here, but the advanced level of musical thought is undeniable. Take for instance the canonical writing in the second act finale, or the opening storm music. The latter cannot boast the almost psychoanalytical quality to the opening of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, but it would make an excellent, thrilling, concert overture, and thrilled even more here in the theatre, in so fine a performance.

Samuel Pantcheff (Masino) and Lisetta
Part of the problem with Haydn’s operas seems to be an extension of the general problem Haydn’s music faces: beloved of all true musicians, it rarely seems to appeal to non-musicians. Wagner adored Haydn’s music, and increasingly so, often comparing his symphonic writing favourably to Mozart’s. (A parallel or opposing error one often comes up against is gross underestimation of Mozart as a symphonist, on account of his writing being so very different from that of Haydn and Beethoven, but that is a cause for another day.) I can only assume that it is a lack of formal understanding that means many listeners simply do not follow as attentively as they must what Haydn is doing and how he rings his changes. The strange inability truly to characterise in musical terms remains a considerably shortcoming, of course, and a shortcoming that cannot be ascribed simply to formal convention, yet the music is so glorious – that of the opening scene alone – that one can forgive a lot. Indeed, in order fairly to dismiss Haydn as an opera composer it would have to be on that basis alone and one would most likely therefore have to confine oneself exclusively to Monteverdi, Purcell, Mozart, Wagner, Strauss, Berg, and Janáček. I for one have never encountered someone who fell into that category.

Trevor Pinnock led a gripping account of the score by the Royal Academy Sinfonia. I wondered during the opening storm whether he might be tempted to drive a little harder, a little too hard, but was delighted to have my fears assuaged. This was a performance full of life, which yielded where necessary, and which never once failed to delineate Haydn’s musico-dramatic structures, whether at a micro- or a macro-level. Only occasionally did I feel the lack of a greater body of strings ( Those few moments of relative thinness aside, I have nothing but praise for a stylish, warm, alert performance from all concerned. Chad Kelley’s harpsichord continuo was also a model of its kind, mercifully free of the ludicrous exhibitionism in favour in certain quarters.

Jude Chandler (Rosina's son)
Moreover, every member of this young cast contributed to the overall success, every one of them contributing something positive. (If only one could say that of most performances on starrier stages, the contrast with a recent Götterdämmerung being especially glaring, from the out-of-his-depth conductor down...) Italian pronunciation and diction were excellent throughout; ability to shape a phrase was equally apparent. All performances exuded dramatic and musical honesty and understanding. If I was especially taken with Helen Bailey’s portrayal of the sentimental – in the eighteenth-century sense – heroine Rosina, abandoned by the Count as a consequence of the Baroness’s machinations, that was perhaps a matter of the role as much as anything else, though Crawley has a distinctive voice which, allied with stage presence, ought to mark her out in the future. Rosalind Coad and Sónia Grané both entered into their roles with spirit and style. Thomas Elwin and Nicholas Crawley fashioned finely-honed marriages of words, music, and gesture, very much with eyes – and ears – for what Haydn’s prodigal inventiveness requested. Samuel Pantcheff’s Masino showed keen awareness for the social differentiation of characters in Haydn’s dramma giocoso, whilst Stuart Jackson’s portrayal of the Count, after a slightly bluff start, blossomed into something rather affecting, partly on account of his command of the text. Even Jude Chandler delivered his spoken line as Rosina's son in convincing Italian.

The production by Jamie Hayes was richly rewarding too. It had no especial ‘point’ to make, but keen direction of the singers, within a somewhat stylised – no pandering to false naïveté – evocation of eighteenth-century manners proved a perfect setting for Haydn’s music to work its wonders. This was without a shadow of a doubt the best live performance I have yet heard of a Haydn opera – and that includes Armida at the Salzburg Festival.

Performances will continue on 22, 23, and 26 November, a second cast alternating with this one.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

LPO/Eschenbach - Schumann and Beethoven, 14 November 2012

Royal Festival Hall
Schumann – Overture: Der Braut von Messina, op.100
Beethoven – Concerto for piano, violin, and cello in C major, op.56
Schumann – Symphony no.2 in C major, op.61

Baiba Skride (violin)
Daniel Müller-Schott (cello)
Lars Vogt (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach (conductor)

Christoph Eschenbach is a regular visitor to the London Philharmonic, but I think this was the first time I caught them together. I certainly hope that it will not be the last, for it is quite a while since I have heard the LPO on such good form. There was no nonsense about scaling the orchestra down (fifteen firsts down to eight double basses for the Schumann works); that cannot but have helped. But the dark, convincingly German tone Eschenbach drew from the orchestra was just as important, probably more so. Schumann’s Bride of Messina Overture made for an excellent opening, its introduction full of tension, slow but quite the opposite of staid, as if on a coiled spring. The main Allegro was properly tormented, the prominent piccolo part reminiscent of Beethoven’s use of the instrument. A warmly lyrical clarinet second subject offered balm to the soul, though it was soon undercut. This is the sort of piece – and performance – for which the word ‘Romanticism’ might have been intended, and it is a piece we should hear more often.

The opening of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto nevertheless registered an increase in voltage. What a joy it was to hear the LPO sounding so darkly German in tone, miles away from the quasi-‘authentic’ experiments of its music director. Romantic warmth from the cello, cultivation from the violin, obstinate ruggedness from the piano: those were the initial impressions gleaned from the solo instruments’ first entries. Character, then, was portrayed, though it was amenable to transformation according to Beethoven’s demands. Sometimes I felt that Lars Vogt’s piano playing was ingratiating, and could also be rather neutral in tone, but at least it was not sentimentalised. Though he did nothing to upstage his colleagues, Daniel Müller-Schott’s performance of the cello part was the star turn for me. Eschenbach’s handling of the orchestra was equally important though, drive coming from within, or better from below (the bass line). The slow movement opened with a sweetly intense solo from Müller-Schott. The trio, including Baiba Skride’s violin thereafter blended uncommonly well in an ideally posed account that gave Beethoven all the time he needed, without ever coming close to dragging. Orchestral depth was present where it mattered. Müller-Schott’s transition to the finale was finely judged. The movement fairly danced, lacking nothing to start with in Beethovenian vigour, but fading of the latter made it overstay its welcome. There should not be a suspicion of note-spinning; here there was, if only slightly.

Schumann’s Second Symphony received a memorable account, revealing Eschenbach and the LPO at their finest. I was very much in two minds for the first half of the first movement – but that intrigued me. At first, I wondered whether Eschenbach’s direction was two four-square, playing to the score’s potential weaknesses; however, Eschenbach took the high road of making a virtue out of them. If his reading lacked the easy flow of, say, Wolfgang Sawallisch, then rhythmic and motivic insistence told their own story, even when underlined to an extent I should have thought undesirable in theory. That was all the more the case when themes were tossed between parts, Eschenbach’s division of the violins paying off handsomely, though the woodwind proved equally distinguished in that respect. This movement often sounded like an uphill struggle, even swimming against the tide, yet it held the attention and, more than that, compelled. And there was a truly Beethovenian spirit of triumph to the recapitulation.

The scherzo was taken at quite a lick, almost insanely so, but Eschenbach’s tempo held no fears for the LPO. The disturbing hesitance of the trios – a matter of interpretative strategy – painted the outer sections in greater relief. Even when Schumann sang, it was disquieting. A long-breathed account of a true slow movement banished any thoughts of the mere intermezzo one sometimes hears. The LPO’s playing was darkly beautiful, benefiting from the surest of foundations in Eschenbach’s understanding of harmonic rhythm. There was, for once, not the slightest hint of ‘chamber orchestra’ condescension; this was truly symphonic, and all the better for it. A martial opening announced a finale that was anything but carefree; there was symphonic battle yet to be done. And it was won with gloriously rich string tone. Expertly shaped, this was as resounding a rejoinder to the clarions of ‘authenticity’ as one could have hoped for, arguably more so. Amongst present conductors, Eschenbach gave Barenboim a run for his money: quite an achievement.