Showing posts with label Liszt. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Liszt. Show all posts

Monday, 31 March 2014

Matsuev/LSO/Gergiev - Scriabin and Liszt, 30 March 2014

Barbican Hall

Scriabin – Symphony no.1 in E major, op.26
Liszt – Piano Concerto no.2 in A major, S 125
Scriabin – Symphony no.4, The Poem of Ecstasy, op.54

Ekaterina Sergeyeva (mezzo-soprano)
Alexander Timchenko (tenor)
Denis Matsuev (piano)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

It is not every day one hears Scriabin’s First Symphony, and that is no bad thing. Valery Gergiev’s exhumation with the LSO was not without interest, but ultimately it is at best a mediocre piece, which long outstays its welcome. That said, the occasional opportunity to hear such a work – Gergiev is performing all of Scriabin’s symphonies with the LSO – is worth taking, even if the performance were not on the level of, say, Riccardo Muti’s Philadelphia recording. The first movement was properly languorous – an almost unavoidable word here – and, yes, ‘perfumed’. It meandered along its way, but one could take solace, not for the last time, in a beautifully-played violin solo from Roman Simovic. Wagnerisms one could spot in isolation, but they lacked the Master’s direction or development. Wagner and late-ish Romanticism made their mark again in the second movement. One sensed that Gergiev might have traced a clearer path, had his head not been so often buried in the score, though by the same token, whatever might have seemed to be the case, it was not his first encounter with the work. That said, awkwardness and novelty, even a degree of originality, came through. But there was nothing here to counter Pierre Boulez’s claim that the most interesting Scriabin lies in his piano music. The third movement glowed and swelled: more like a warm bath than anything more invigorating, but no matter. Brahms, however, this certainly is not. There is perhaps something more traditionally ‘Russian’, even reminiscent of Tchaikovsky (bad Tchaikovsky, though) to the writing of the scherzo. Rhythms were nicely sprung, and a familiar vein of (quasi-)orientalist fantasy was mined to pleasing enough effect. Ridiculous applause marred the pause before the fifth movement, as the soloists walked on. They proved excellent in the finale, Ekaterina Sergeyeva splendidly rich-toned and centred, Alexander Timchenko ardent, tending even toward the ecstatic. Beautiful wind solos, shimmering violins, brass as resplendent as the voices: Gergiev’s forces gave this paean to art a committed performance, the conductor clearly far better suited to Scriabin than, say, to Mahler. The fugal writing still sounded forced, the ending ultimately oddly conventional, but that was not the fault of the performers. It was a pity, especially in what must to most have been an unfamiliar work, that Andrew Huth’s booklet note should have said so little about the music and nothing at all in any detail; there were plenty of words available, but alas they were not well chosen.

Liszt came as a great relief following the interval, all the more so given the excellence of Denis Matsuev’s performance, well supported by Gergiev and the LSO. The opening was taken quicker than usual, as would be the following, thunderous despatch of the Allegro agitato assai section, but both tempi convinced. Matsuev offered from the start a classically Romantic Steinway tone, awe-inspiring in its clarity and its depth; I am almost tempted to use the word ‘glamorous’. One can imagine this going down a treat in Rachmaninov, and if there have perhaps been more searching interpretations, this nevertheless thrilled – not a quality to be taken for granted. Matsuev’s piano-cello duet with Tim Hugh offered a delectable example of the chamber music the composer is erroneously claimed rarely, or even never, to have written; like Wagner, Liszt’s tendency, though not an exclusive one, is to incorporate chamber music into works for larger forces. (Consider how much even of Götterdämmerung may be considered in that light.) The LSO’s woodwind here and elsewhere offered mellifluous support. If the vulgarity of the march transformation was relished rather than mitigated, that is a perfectly reasonable response. And if glissandi may not quite have scintillated as they did with Richter, they were still mightily impressive.

In The Poem of Ecstasy, Gergiev’s habitual moulding was for once not out of place; in a sense, the more narcissistic the better here. (Not quite true, I know, but anyway…) But there was purpose too, amidst the sultry languor. Playing, whether solo or tutti, was exquisite. A welcome air of Debussy stopped one suffocating entirely, but one almost welcomed the prospect of such suffocation. Strings were voluptuous, and the LSO brass excelled itself, not least in Philip Cobb’s excellent, vibrato-laden solos, as ‘Russian’ a sound as one is likely to hear from a non-Russian orchestra. The orchestra veritably shuddered, coming close to explosion. A real organ would have been welcome, but its lack is one of the prices one pays for performances in the Barbican. Nevertheless, this remained an excellent performance, one most likely to be welcomed on CD before long.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Paul Lewis - Bach-Busoni, Beethoven, Liszt, and Mussorgsky, 4 February 2014

Royal Festival Hall

Bach-Busoni – Chorale Prelude: ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland,’ BWV 659
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.13 in E-flat major, op.27 no.1
Bach-Busoni – Chorale Prelude: ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,’ BWV 639
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.14 in C-sharp minor, op.27 no.2
Liszt – Schaflos, Frage, und Antwort, S 203; Unstern! sinistre, disaster, S 208; RW – Venezia, S 201
Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition


This was the first time I had heard Paul Lewis as a recitalist, as opposed to concerto soloist or ‘accompanist’. Rather to my surprise, it was the second half of Liszt and Mussorgsky that proved most compelling, indeed magnificently so, though that is not to say that there was not much also to enjoy in the first half.

Busoni’s piano transcription of the Chorale Prelude, Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659, opened with an excellent sense of onward tread. However, I found the right-hand voicing of the chorale a little harsh of tone, at least at times. Still, this was a performance of requisite dignity. Beethoven’s E-flat major sonata, op.27 no.1, followed. The opening was beautifully understated, unassuming, and yet generative. Lewis evinced a clear delight in both the simplicity and power of Beethoven’s inspiration, Haydn an obvious kindred spirit. Concision and experimentalism were equally apparent in this first movement, which sounded, quite rightly, not as a fantasia, but quasi una fantasia. The scherzo somewhat lacked fire, though relative understatement (again) had its virtues too. Swift, unsentimental, yet full of tone, the Adagio con espressione seemed conceived less in itself than as a transition to the finale. Occasionally, I wished that it might have yielded a little more, but the iron discipline on offer in both of those two movements attested to a definite conception, that of Beethoven more as ‘Classicist’ than ‘Romantic’, however much those labels may be ours rather than his. Crucially, though, there was a sense of sublimation at the return to material from the slow movement, and indeed in the final coda.

The second Bach-Busoni Chorale Prelude, ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,’ was beautifully sung, again founded upon sure harmonic understanding. Lewis offered a fine command of line. And somehow, the final cadence surprised. The first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata benefited from similarly astute voicing, kinship revealed rather than insisted upon. It was taken at a relatively, but not absurdly, swift pace, and was again admirably unsentimental, though nevertheless alert to ‘Romantic’ intimations, both Chopin and Liszt coming to mind on occasion. The wondrous inspiration of that Neapolitan moment shone without exaggeration. The opening of the second moment was well nigh obliterated by audience coughing: a pity, since it proved to be a delightful, deeply musical account in which Lewis permitted the harmony to do the talking and resisted the all-too-common temptation to rush. Slight agogic touches worked veritable magic. So far, so excellent then. Alas, the finale proved something of a disappointment, opening in somewhat brutal fashion, and making its way with too little of a sense of release. Ultimately what was missing here was either the white, modernistic heat of a Pollini or the equally yet differently humanistic metaphysics of a Barenboim. As so often today, a Beethoven performance lacked the final degree of burning conviction, of meaning.

About the second half I really had no reservations whatsoever. A pianist who performs late Liszt with such conviction and understanding is a true artist. Schlaflos, Frage, und Antwort was schlaflos (sleepless) indeed: nagging repetitions, strange pauses, agitation, loneliness, an ambiguous, ambivalent attempt to transcend. Unstern! sounded in many respects likewise, yet deeper still: an oracle from someone who should be heard, yet who knew that he would not be, let alone that he would be understood. It was the darkest moment of Cassandra-like depression. And yet, in and through its enigmas, perhaps there did emerge something akin to hope; or perhaps not. Liszt’s deceptively straightforward cords seemed to look back to the vanished world of his B minor Sonata – and vanished we knew that world to be. RW – Venezia sounded, if anything, still more ambiguous, as much of Nono’s as Wagner’s Venice. Throughout, there was here an emotional commitment I never quite discovered in Lewis’s Beethoven, however perceptive it may have been.

The opening Promenade of Pictures at an Exhibition emerged from Liszt’s aged depression, without a break. It thus sounded almost as an affirmation, albeit one that necessarily would then question in its questing. ‘Gnomus’ again emerged from within, sounding properly sinister and indeed remarkably violent. This was a performance of great strength and acuity. The following Promenade then displayed a good impression of, well, promenading, leading into a subtly shaded rendition of ‘Il vecchio castello’, after which the next Promenade stopped short, that we might regard the ‘Tuileries’ games: affectionate and yet not without childish obstinacy. ‘Bydlo’ proved vividly evocative, effortfully seeing off the masterly yet ultimately pointless challenge of Ravel’s orchestration. There was far greater struggle and, yes, humanity here. Fantasy and whimsy of a somewhat Debussyan bent emerged in the ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle were sharply differentiated, though united in their war on bronchial terror. A bustling ‘Limoges’ was fiercer, with greater edge, than Ravel’s version; this is a Russian painting, after all. ‘Catacombae’ displayed a Lisztian grandeur – and hopelessness. There was a true sense of Hartmann haunting at the moment of ‘Cum mortuis in lingua mortua, assured by Lewis’s absolute technical control. Darkness returned with a vengeance for a ride with ‘Baba-Yaga’ that yet evinced considerable chiaroscuro. Pealing of bells at ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ evoked Liszt as well as Boris. Oddly, far greater spirit emerged through Mussorgsky’s materialism than it had in the case of Beethoven. After a suitably thunderous ovation, we were treated as an encore to a rapt account of the fourth of Liszt’s Five Piano Pieces, S 192.


Saturday, 28 September 2013

Goerne/Haefliger: Wolf and Liszt, 27 September 2013

Wigmore Hall

Wolf – Neue Liebe
Peregrina I & II
Liszt – Blume und Duft
Wolf – An die Geliebte
Liszt – Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam
Vergiftet sind meine Lieder
Laßt much ruhen
Ich möchte hingehn
Des Tages laute Stimmen schweigen
Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’
Wolf – Harfenspieler I, II, & III
Liszt – Der du von Himmel bist
Wolf – Byron-Lieder

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Andreas Haefliger (piano)
A wonderful recital, both in terms of programming and performance! No dubious attempts at ‘light relief’, but an exploration of German song that ranged beyond familiar ‘favourites’ without compromising upon quality. Matthias Goerne was in his element here, well supported – and rather more than supported – by Andreas Haefliger.

It was, of course, Haefliger who had the opening word, the introductory harmonies of Neue Liebe, as so often with Wolf, clearly in a line of descent from Wagner and Liszt, without being reducible to those influences, chords from the sepulchre, beautifully voiced, reminiscent from afar of Liszt’s ‘Il penseroso’ from the Italian Années de pèlerinage. The following Peregrina songs, again Mörike settings, offered an interesting case study of how songs that are famously focused upon text can yet emerge as less word-dominated than one might have expected, a consequence both of a fine pianist and a truly collaborative singer. Peregrina II almost sounded at times as if shading into melodrama (in the proper sense), yet somehow melodrama with an exquisite vocal line, Goerne’s crescendo and diminuendo on the last two lines a perfect example of synergy between words and music. The sole Liszt song in the first half, Blume und Duft, emerged as properly Tristan-esque, and for once – an exaggeration, I know, though a pardonable exaggeration – it may have been a matter of Wagnerian influence upon Liszt rather than the other way round, this Hebbel setting having been written in 1860, just after Tristan. In this performance, it was not just the harmony, tonality verging at times upon the suspended, but the vocal line and delivery that shaded into such dangerous territory. I could not help but think what a splendid Kurwenal Goerne would be likely to make in the future – until I consulted his programme biography, to discover that he has already sung the role.

Wolf and Mörike returned in the guise of An die Geliebte, whose poetic and musico-dramatic contours were finely drawn by both artists. The quiet ecstasy with which the song concluded could hardly have been bettered. Nachtgruß would soon offer a similar but different form of magic, that of the night, which, in Goerne’s hands, or rather through his voice, left us spellbound. The three Michelangelo-Lieder showed once again a composer in the wake of Wagner and Liszt, nevertheless unmistakeably himself. ‘Alles endet, was entstehet’ almost made Wotan’s Walküre monologue seem like a jeu d’esprit: profound in the best sense, like Goerne’s baritone itself. The final ‘Fühlt meine Seele’ offered again a sensibility that was definitely post-Lisztian, post-Tristan, and yet crucially remained very much of the Lied rather than the opera house or indeed the ‘star’ recital.

Liszt remains overlooked, even condescended to, by many who should know better. How people can talk such rubbish about him if they were to hear songs such as these, in performances such as these, I really do not know; perhaps we simply have to accept that the problem lies not with the composer and continue without the not-so-cultured despisers. Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam offered an immediate audition for the Romantic Liszt, especially in the piano: such characteristic figures and harmonies, the Années de pèlerinage again brought to mind, and such flexibility of delivery from both performers. Goerne’s strength of tone in Vergiftet sind meine Lieder, also a Heine setting, and his identification with the text were second to none. Ardour with an undertow of sadness marked the impeccable musical flow of Laßt much ruhen, but it was the relatively early (c. 1845) Georg Herwegh setting, Ich möchte hingehn that seemed to mark the very heart of the recital – or at least a twin heart, with the Michelangelo settings. Tristan-suffused, albeit this time very much avant la lettre, Liszt’s writing and sensibility seem all the more telling, given that it would be Herwegh who would introduce Wagner in his Zurich exile to the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Here, we were led into the world of a somewhat, though only somewhat, more German complement to Liszt’s own Petrarch sonnet settings. Haefliger’s shading and phrasing proved just as impressive as that of his colleague. Wotan again came to mind in the late (1880) Des Tagess laute Stimmen schweigen, Goerne’s audibility and communication at pianissimo, indeed later at ppp, quite breathtaking. The ghostly expressionism of the final kiss ‘Dann kusst euch still und mild die Nacht’ was judged to unexaggerated perfection.

Haefliger relished, likewise without unnecessary underlining, the proto-Parsifal progressions of Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’, before we returned to Wolf, whilst remaining with Goethe, for the three Harfenspieler: the piano’s assumption of the harpist’s role delightful in the first, the syncopation of the second especially unsettling. Remaining with Goethe a little longer, Liszt’s Der du von dem Himmel bist offered something akin to a depressive Liebestraum. Wolf’s two Byron settings from 1896 followed, ‘Keine gleicht von allen Schönen’ sinuous, weighty, and undeniably heartfelt. Morgenstimmung proved the recital’s crowning glory: quite the climax in every respect, both unifying and true culmination.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Wagner 200: Watson/Middleton - Wagner, Schumann, and Liszt, 26 June 2013

Hall One, Kings Place
Wagner – Gretchen am Spinnrade
Der Tannenbaum
Tous n’est qu’images fugitives
La tombe dit à la rose
SchumannLiederkreis, op.24
WagnerAdieux de Marie Stuart
LisztDie drei Zigeuner
Ihr Glocken von Marling
Im Rhein, im schönen Strome

Janice Watson (soprano)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
If Leipzig’s staging of Die Feen remains my highlight so far of Wagner’s anniversary year, this recital, on its smaller, relatively unassuming, scale probably comes next. Wagner’s songs play an interesting part in his output. Little heard, they are rarely characteristic, at least given the Wagner we generally hear – and of course, excluding the mature Wesendonck-Lieder. (Matters seem a little different, though not entirely so, when we admit, as we should, Wagner’s first three operas into the canon.) Yet, if most would be hard put to guess the composer, the songs not only show gifted assumption of various styles, as suggested in his early prose writings on German, French, and Italian music; they are well worth hearing in their own right.

Janice Watson and Joseph Middleton certainly proved excellent advocates for this music. Bar very occasional strain on a high note and a few confusions with the words, Watson’s engaged and engaging performances will surely have won a good few converts. Command of line was impeccable throughout, as was diction. One never had the sense that a favour was somehow being done to ‘obscure’ repertoire; the songs were treated with the care, dignity, and understanding that they deserve. Likewise Middleton’s accounts of the piano parts. Hovering, as does Wagner, between the pianistic – Wagner was never much of a pianist himself – and the orchestral, Middleton’s animated performances offered great harmonic and stylistic understanding, as well as unfailing support for the singer.

'Gretchen am Spinnrade', the sixth of Wagner’s op.5 Goethe Faust-Lieder (1831), may never dislodge Schubert from our affections, but it comes surprisingly close to him in tone and indeed in assuredness. The 'Melodram', last in that set, peers some way into the future. Neither its Weltschmerz nor its harmonic language would seem out of place in The Flying Dutchman. Die Feen is perhaps closer still; indeed, given a period of immersion in Wagner’s first opera, I was struck by a recurrent phrase, which he would reuse, consciously or otherwise, on that occasion. Middleton’s structured tone painting was splendidly complemented by Watson’s spoken delivery of the text. Wagner, we were reminded, was most definitely a ‘German’ composer stylistically, before what we think of as his ‘early’ experiments with more Italianate and French styles. Not for nothing had Der Freischütz made such an impression on him as a boy. The Georg Scheuerlin setting, Der Tannenbaum, from 1838, sounds more mature still: a wonderfully dark evocation of death foretold. As the fir-tree explains to the boy, it feels bitter when thinking of him, since the axe would soon fall upon it, to furnish the wood for the boy’s coffin: ‘Daß schon die Axt mich suchet zu deinem Totenschrein, das macht mich stets so trübe, gedenk’ ich, Knabe dein.’ One might almost think a version of Siegfried, with more of a consciousness than his successor would attain, was already beginning to receive his forest education.

The French songs would surely only have been recognised as the work of the same composer by someone who knew. They show an almost disturbing ability to assume not only a very different style from the Lieder, but even from each other. If Berlioz’s mélodies are perhaps the most abiding presence, especially in the delightful Tous n’est qu’images fugitives and Mignonne, then it is rather Meyerbeer who comes to the fore in the well-nigh scena-like Adieux de Marie Stuart. Watson’s deft handling of the coloratura was complemented by Middleton’s well-attuned ear for the moment when the piano should really turn operatic. La tombe dit à la rose is an oddity, in that the piano part is almost entirely absent. It might have been interesting to hear an attempt at realisation, but one can understand the desire simply to present what Wagner wrote; certainly his melodic gift, whatever contemporaries might have said (on which, see David Trippett’s excellent new book, Wagner’s Melodies), did not desert him on this or indeed any other occasion.

The Wesendonck-Lieder are of course familiar territory. Both performers clearly relished the opportunity now to present Wagner fully-formed, if still in (relative!) bagatelle-like mode. Watson’s command of idiom was as impressive as her at times quite extraordinary vocal shading, finely matched in the piano part. If, at first, I wondered whether ‘Im Treibhaus’ was being taken a little too swiftly, I was entirely won over by an account which, though it did not shun Wagner’s Tristan intimations, recognised quite properly that this was a song in its own right. Middleton ensured that there was no reason whatsoever to lament the lack of an orchestra, whether Wagner’s, Felix Mottl’s, or Henze’s enchanting chamber scoring.

Schumann’s Liederkreis, op.24, nevertheless reminded one of the difference between a great composer who wrote some wonderful songs and a great composer of Lieder (amongst other things). The ease of song-writing, the complex psychology of those miraculous piano parts, was given full opportunity for expression; the disturbing inevitability of ‘Mit Myrten und Rosen’ brought a tear or two to my eye. Liszt may not have been primarily a song-composer, and unsurprisingly proved more experimental in that field than Schumann, but the examples of his art we heard also served to remind us of the appalling neglect he continues to suffer. The ‘gypsy’ music of the Lenau setting, Die drei Zigeuner; the proto-impressionism of Ihr Glocken von Marling; the keenness and intelligence of response to Heine in Im Rhein, im schönen Strome: all was powerfully conveyed. Watson showed herself just as much at ease with the vocal line as Middleton with the gorgeous piano parts, a treat for any pianist with the requisite technique and stylistic command. It is probably Liszt who deserves another anniversary, since there remains so much of his music known only to specialists, if at all. It seemed meet and right, then, that the encore should be a loving account of Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh.

Wagner 200 continues throughout the year. There are two further concerts this week alone; I shall be reporting back from the Aurora Orchestra’s Wagner and Beethoven concert. I have also, doubtless unwisely, agreed to participate in a debate in October on an issue about which more nonsense is spoken than any other, namely, Wagner and the Jews.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Andsnes - Beethoven, Bartók, Chopin and Liszt, 10 April 2013

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.22 in F major, op.54
Bartók – Suite, op.14
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.28 in A major, op.101
Liszt – Pensée des morts, S 173/4
Chopin – Nocturne in C minor, op.48 no.1
Ballade no.4 in F minor, op.52

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)
Let there be no doubt about it: Leif Ove Andsnes is a pianist and a musician of great distinction, and this was a recital of distinction. Beethoven’s op.54 sonata opened the programme, Andsnes’s tone and touch announced as being to die for. (There would prove no exception whatsoever to that.) The pianist captured to perfection Beethoven’s marriage of stylisation and human warmth; then came the still shocking canonic disjuncture. Control of line during the reprises of the minuet stood almost beyond praise, as did the meaning imparted to its progressive decoration. The second movement exhibited a rare kaleidoscopic quality – such light and shade! – throughout its moto perpetuo; tempo was strict, and yet the music breathed, rhythmic propulsion achieved without the slightest exaggeration. It was riveting from beginning to end.

Bartók’s op.14 Suite was granted a rare performance. The Allegretto showed a perfectly judged balance between insistence and flexibility, Andsnes’s voicing quite mesmerising. Much the same could be said of the scherzo, whose vivid theatricality evoked the world of The Wooden Prince and even, peering into the future, that of The Miraculous Mandarin. Neo-Lisztian diabolicism, albeit more ‘Hungarian’ in Bartók’s terms, was the hallmark of the Allegro molto third movement. Fullness of tone was never sacrificed to technical necessity. The final movement emerged beautifully from its predecessor, as seductive as Liszt and indeed as ‘suspended’ as anything from his late years. It was unsettled and unsettling in its almost Schoenbergian beauty.

A major, wrote William S. Porter, in his 1834 Musical Cyclopædia was ‘Golden, warm, and sunny. Its brilliant effect is shown in many passages of Haydn’s Creation.’ That spirit and perhaps still more that of Mozart in A major – think, for instance, of the great KV 488 piano concerto – was captured in the exquisite yet honest presentation of the first movement of Beethoven’s op.101 sonata. Except, of course, quite rightly, there was always a sense that Elysium was already unattainable, the tragedy of Beethoven. Syncopated chords tolled like ambivalent Mozartian bells of joy; here Beethoven, like Mozart, smiled through tears. Andsnes, without in the slightest sentimentalising the music, imparted to it a poignancy that hinted at Schubert, whilst retaining echt-Beethovenian quirkiness. The second movement offered contrast, but a dialectical contrast, connected even if one could not explicitly say how. ‘Melting precision’ was the somewhat paradoxical – or perhaps better, dialectical – phrase I summoned up to describe Andsnes’s performance, delivered with a lightly-worn rhythmic insistency that was indubitably generative. The trio integrated characteristics both from that march and from the first movement, its almost seraphic quality preparing the way for a third movement that spoke with the integrity and beauty of a Bach arioso. I wondered slightly about the tempo for the finale. Was it a shade too fast? What it perhaps lost in sublimity was gained in a Haydn-like sense of play, in context a perfectly valid alternative to the ‘finale problem’.

The second half opened with Liszt’s Pensées des morts. Mysterious, sepulchral, the ‘voice’ remained eloquent. There was nothing murky to the left-hand chords; one imagined that, like Liszt himself, it would simply not be possible for Andsnes to do other than elicit a beautiful tone from the instrument. Understanding and communication of harmonic rhythm were impeccable. It would be wonderful to hear more Liszt from him, perhaps the Sonata, the Années de pèlerinage, or indeed the rest of the Harmonies poétiques et réligieuses.

Chopin’s C minor Nocturne, op.48 no.1, was uneasy from the start, benefiting from a dramatic tension I have rarely heard here, tension apparently arising from the conjunction of well-chosen tempo – it is easy to take the piece too slowly – and voicing of the left-hand line. Cumulative power was awe-inspiring, the nocturne heard as if in a single breath. Chopin was granted dignity without sentimentality. The Fourth Ballade followed on in wonderfully ‘natural’ fashion, a splendid piece of programming. It spoke initially with a similar unforced eloquence, to which again a well-judged tempo and equally finely-judged rubato contributed. What ultimately I felt it lacked – and this was really my only disappointment of the evening – were the electricity that a great Chopin player such as Maurizio Pollini would impart to the work and a more revealing approach to voice-leading. Some avenues were smoothed out rather than brought into relief. Otherwise, however, I shall repeat myself in describing this as a recital of distinction.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Igor Levit - Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Liszt, and Prokofiev, 2 April 2013

Wigmore Hall

Bach – Capriccio sopra la lontananza del suo fratello dilettissimo, BWV 992
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.30 in E major, op.109
Schubert – Allegretto in C minor, D 915
Schubert-Liszt – Du bist die Ruh, S 558/3
Aufenthalt, S 560/3
Auf dem Wasser zu singen, S 558/2
Der Wanderer, S 558/11
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata no.7 in B-flat major, op.83

This was the first time I had heard Igor Levit, already a BBC New Generation Artist and recipient of an exclusive recording contract with Sony Classical; I certainly hope that it will not be the last, The recital opened arrestingly with Bach’s B-flat major Capriccio, ‘On the departure of his most beloved brother,’ Levit’s opening bars voiced with Couperin-like delicacy (perhaps even Couperin-Strauss), and not only in terms of the ornamentation. Beautifully clear, the performance lacked nothing in tonal warmth. A fine balance was struck between necessary ‘improvisational’ quality and an equally necessary sense of the music, being Bach’s, being most definitely ‘composed. Bach’s chromaticism was equally expressive, but the overriding impression was of something more ‘courtly’, more ‘French’ in character than one expects from the composer. (It is, after all, an early work.) And yet, if the trumpet-theme of the fugue is unusually Handelian in character, the working out is – and in performance, was – undeniably that of the great Johann Sebastian. Perhaps most surprising of all was the way Levit managed to hold off applause, so as to continue into the Beethoven with but a short pause.

With the first movement of Beethoven’s E major sonata, op.109, we unmistakeably moved from music that works supremely well upon the piano to music that was definitively written for it. In this performance, we heard Beethoven as the gateway to later nineteenth-century composition, Chopin as well as Liszt. This was Beethoven for the bright-toned Steinway, not the mellow, more Viennese Bösendorfer. It was certainly not jejune, but it was a young man’s late Beethoven, quite rightly, rather than an attempt to feign the wisdom of a lengthy career. Voicing of chords was often especially beautiful. The second movement was characterised by a heightened, almost kaleidoscopic, sense of drama; again, it was intriguing to hear late Beethoven voiced with youthful radicalism. The finale came off a little less well. It certainly sounded beautifully, but without the noble simplicity the greatest Beethoven interpreters can summon. Much was exquisite, in almost Chopin-like fashion, not least on account of Levit’s well-nigh ‘Golden Age’ touch. There was great variety: more pointillistic passages vied with a positively rambunctious account of the fugal fifth variation. Ultimately, however, the movement emerged more as a compendious than an integrated or integrative set of variations. There seems, however, every reason to suspect that the latter will come before long.

Schubert’s C minor Allegretto concluded the first half. It benefited from an unexaggeratedly Romantic yearning, perhaps more apposite here than in the Beethoven finale. Ruptures were relished every bit as impressively as line was spun. Levit certainly had an impressive command of major-mode balm, however fleeting – and the brevity of that balm was of course a good part of the point.

An exquisite – sorry to use that word again, but it does seem fitting – group of Schubert-Liszt songs followed the interval. Du bist die Ruh exhibited left-hand strength and subtlety, as well as an excellent feeling for rubato. Climaxes were undeniably Liszt’s rather than Schubert’s. Aufenthalt became a true song without words; indeed, its narrative quality hinted at the ballad. Auf dem Wasser zu singen opened with a fine sense of coming de profundis, Levit’s touch soon revealed to be every bit as melting as in the preceding songs. ‘Atmosphere’ and clarity were well balanced, and virtuosity made its point without excess. The same could be said of Der Wanderer, which maintained an impeccable sense of line and direction.

Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata received a performance for which ‘outstanding’ would not be an exaggeration. Its first movement opened with an excellent sense of the diabolical and of whimsy. The roots of Prokofiev’s wartime writing thereby extended deep, recalling not only the composer of The Love for Three Oranges but even the experimental creator of the Visions fugitives. (Why do we not hear them more often?) Harmony was certainly made to tell in forging such links, whether conscious or otherwise; the claptrap ideology of socialist realism was banished for good. It was a broad Romantic, or perhaps better neo-Romantic, canvas upon which Levit painted, not dissimilar from that of the Beethoven, but certainly more fitting. That is not, however, to say that his playing could not be rhythmically taut when necessary. The side-slipping, balletic neo-Romanticism of the slow movement was captured to a tee. Something utterly personal, both for composer and pianist, was forged from what can be daunting eclecticism. Prokofiev as heir to the virtuoso Liszt was apparent too, not least in the superlative visualisation of the composer’s half-lights. If not exactly more yielding than the awe-inspiringly implacable Maurizio Pollini in his classic recording, Levit, as in the first movement, offered a greater sense of whimsy in the finale. There is room for both approaches; that one might even be moved to speak of a pianist in the same breath as Pollini speaks volumes of the distinction of this reading. Make no mistake: this was tremendous pianism – and musicianship too. Levit offered edge-of-the-seat excitement in the very best, Precipitato, sense.

As an encore, we were treated to Liszt’s transcription of the ‘Liebestod’ – yes, it is his fault we call it that, rather than Wagner’s ‘Verklärung’ – from Tristan und Isolde. The combination of magical showmanship and an utter lack of the meretricious once again showed Levit to be an uncommonly distinguished Lisztian. This performance impressed – and it moved. The kinship with Liszt’s older operatic fantasias was clear – for once Hans von Bülow’s quip concerning Wagner’s ‘bel canto opera’ did not seem entirely absurd – but the incommensurate development in terms of material was equally apparent. An excellent conclusion, then, to an excellent recital.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Caussé/Dalberto - Weber, Brahms, and Berlioz-Liszt, 19 December 2012

Wigmore Hall

Weber – Andante e Rondo ungarese, J.79, op.35
Brahms – Viola Sonata in E-flat major, op.120 no.2
Berlioz-Liszt – Harold en Italie, S 472

Gérard Caussé (viola)
Michel Dalberto (piano).

Weber’s Andante e Rondo ungarese seems nowadays more often to be performed in its later bassoon version, but was originally written for viola and orchestra. I am afraid I had the same problem I have with most of Weber’s music written before the great trilogy of three ‘late’ operas: bewilderment that such trivial, anonymous music could have been written by the same man who composed Der Freischütz. In this case, the problem was compounded by use of what I assume must have been a piano reduction of the orchestral score; at any rate, no credit was given, either to Weber or to someone else. It put me in mind of accompanying for Associated Board exams – somehow, as a teenage schoolboy, I used to think that £10 was an acceptable rate, rehearsals included, but it certainly taught me to listen to other musicians – and especially so in some thumping chords it is difficult to imagine anyone who actually played the piano having written as such. There was, however, some gorgeous lyrical tone to savour from Gérard Caussé. It was amiable enough, I suppose, but an odd choice and, in whatever guise, ultimately banal, form seemingly little more than a matter of adding section to section. Did this really hail from the composer of Euryanthe? It sounded closer to Donizetti.

With Brahms, inevitably, one could think and feel: now for some real music. The op.120 sonatas – sorry, clarinettists – have always seemed to me still more suited to the viola, its rich, dark tone as suited to the composer as the dark mahogany of a Hamburg panelled room. Caussé proved warm and clean of tone, well-nigh ideal. The first movement’s tempo was well chosen, also flexible without drawing attention to itself. After a slightly anonymous start, the piano grew in stature too, also benefiting from a richly Romantic tone to Michel Dalberto’s Bechstein (an excellent, fitting choice of instrument). Brahms’s rippling, cumulative complexity found a convincing dialectical relationship with his melodic (viola and piano) genius. The music sounded closer to the violin sonatas with these forces, and rightly so. Metrical dislocations told in the second movement: more the piano’s doing than the viola’s, again without exaggeration. Perhaps structure might have been a little more malleable or protean, a little less sectional; the transition back to Tempo I seemed tacked on rather than a necessity. Nevertheless, there was some fine ghostly as well as ardent playing in the reprise. The players grasped the singular mood of the finale, poised between melancholy and passion, dramatising the conflict between them.

This was, I think, the first time I had heard Liszt’s transcription of Harold en Italie. It is a marvellous work; I cannot imagine why it is not heard more often. But then Liszt is the transcriber, arranger, and paraphraser to vanquish all others, with the possible exception of his heir Busoni. I barely missed Berlioz’s orchestra at all: quite a claim, the more I think about it. In this performance, Dalberto’s piano opening was fluent, full of anticipation, quite unlike the piano reduction of the Weber piece. There were touches, if only from time to time, of Lisztian bravura too. Caussé made an amusingly melodramatic entrance on stage, ready for his viola entry, quite in keeping, I thought, with Berlioz’s Romantic sensibility and once again lavished his beautiful tone upon the music. Intriguingly, the music begins to sound more virtuosic in this transcription. Might Paganini have accepted it after all? Probably not, but I could not help but wonder. Nervous rhythmic eccentricity came across strongly too. Dalberto’s repeated piano notes towards the end were worth hearing for their own sake. The ‘Marche des pèlerins’ was on the swift side, but perhaps that was as much a matter of dealing with the piano’s relative lack of sustaining power as anything else. Both transcription and performance imbued the movement with high Romanticism, quite different from the more Classically-inclined Berlioz one hears from, say, Sir Colin Davis. The third movement was spirited and again surprisingly virtuosic (from both). It was fascinating as ever to hear how much of Liszt’s own personality shines through, even when he is as faithful to the original as here. The same could be said of the final orgy, though on occasion Dalberto’s rendition of the piano part suffered from a certain hardening of tone. I was not entirely convinced by Caussé’s exit from stage, followed by a return for the end: too much of a good thing. However, it did mean that one concentrated, once past the surprise, upon Liszt’s piano writing. Dalberto’s rendition was not flawless but impressed nevertheless. The delightful choice of first encore – alas, I missed the second, not having realised that there would be one – was Schubert’s Ständchen, in what seemed to be Liszt’s piano transcription, with the vocal part transferred to the viola from the second stanza onwards. It sounded quite magical, performed with delightful Romantic sweep.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Kulman/Kutrowatz - Liszt, Schumann, Albin Fries, and Schubert, 13 December 2012

Mozart-Saal, Konzerthaus, Vienna

Liszt – Es muss ein Wunderbares sein, S 314
Einst, S 322
Ein Fichtebaum steht einsam, S 309/1
Ich liebe dich, S 315
Schumann – Frauenliebe und –leben, op.42
Albin Fries – Im Traum nur lieb’ ich dich, op.24/2
O sag es nicht!, op.24/1
Mein Garten, op.27/4
Schubert – An die Nachtigall, D 497
Wehmut, D 772
Der Zwerg, D 771
Liszt – Es war ein König in Thule, S 278/1
Vergiftet sind meine Lieder, S 289
Die drei Zigeuner, S 320

Elisabeth Kulman (mezzo-soprano)
Eduard Kutrowatz (piano)
I had been very taken with Elisabeth Kulman’s voice when I heard her in the title role of Gluck’s Orfeo under Riccardo Muti at the 2010 Salzburg Festival. The opportunity to hear her in a Liederabend with pianist Eduard Kutrowatz therefore seemed an inviting prospect. Kulman certainly has an engaging recital presence, offering a little commentary between some of the sets, and it was a pleasure to hear her rich, at times almost instrumental, voice once again.

It was, moreover, a pleasure to hear six songs, two sets of three, by Liszt on the programme, this duo recently having recorded a Liszt recital. Liszt is still of course ignored or at best patronised, a few piano works being trotted out again and again, often though by no means always by pianists who are pianists first and musicians second. (Thank goodness, then, for musicians such as Pollini and Aimard.) The composer’s songs are programmed from time to time, though again not many of them, and they stand far less central in the repertoire than they should. Kutrowatz for the most part stood as a trusty guide, the harmony at the end of the opening Es muß ein Wunderbares sein unmistakeably Lisztian, especially on the second ‘sagen’. Likewise, the opening harmonies of Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam beautifully evoked Il penseroso, signalling weightier things than in the preceding Einst, whose initial flightiness had yet given way to something deeper, though not heavy. The unusual depth to Kulman’s voice announced itself from the very opening of the first song, piano offering crucial rhythmic underpinning, whilst Ein Fichtenbaum offered drama in her vocal delivery, without degenerating into or even slightly suggesting something ‘operatic’.

Frauenliebe und –leben received a good performance, Though the opening of its first song was almost peremptory – it often is – it soon settled down. In ‘Er das Herrlichste von allen,’ words were projected against a piano part that sounded like a veritable reproduction of the human heartbeat, words and all. That song’s final stanza offered imploring, angry, and proud sides to Kulman’s interpretation. Expectation, however, continued very much to be a guiding principle, for instance during ‘Helft mir, ihr Schwestern’, leading up to a nicely impetuous ‘An meinem Herzen’. Finally, in ‘Nun hast du mir den ersten Schmerz getan,’ we heard a little, though not too much, of the operatic lament, the tragic heroine. After such pain, the piano postlude proved almost unbearably touching, necessarily soaked in the experience of what had gone before. If I had not always felt quite so involved by the performances as I might have hoped, I certainly did by the end.

Three songs by Albin Fries opened the second half. It is always an interesting prospect to hear music by a composer of whom one has never heard, yet sometimes there is good reason for his lack of renown. Fries, it transpires, is the composer of two operas (Nora and Tizian) as well as songs, piano pieces, and chamber music. My initial reaction was astonishment that the songs we heard had been written towards the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Yet even if they had been written a hundred years earlier – and untimeliness, as Strauss or indeed Nietzsche might attest, can very occasionally prove a virtue – they would hardly have convinced. Essentially neo-Romantic – perhaps not even ‘neo-’? – with occasional, very tame, ‘wrong’ notes redolent of the cocktail lounge, the songs proved  uninteresting, unmemorable to a fault. Sub-sub-sub-Strauss harmonies, with hints perhaps of something French, were contradicted by a distinct lack of Strauss’s highly developed sense of form and sheer craftsmanship. Each song, including one, Mein Garten, with a text by Hofmannsthal himself, meandered along quite without consequence. Performances were undoubtedly committed, yet I could not help but ask myself: to what end?

Schubert followed. First came the D 497 An die Nachtigall, though the programme unfortunately provided the text for D 196. If I found the first two songs in this group a little generalised, Der Zwerg was a definite highlight. Schubert in ballad mode was afforded a keen sense of narrative thrust from both artists. If Erlkönig was almost inevitably brought to mind, this yet remained very much its own piece, music-dramatic through and through. Not for the first time I reflected on the often overlooked kinship between Schubert and Wagner.

It was to Liszt that we returned for the final set. High Romanticism seemed more suited to Vergiftet sind meine Lieder, a wonderful Heine setting, than it had to Goethe’s Es war ein König in Thule, though Kutrowatz occasionally struggled, seemingly less ‘inside’ the music than Kulman. The pianist was in much better form fro the closing Lenau Drei Zigeuner. He even allowed himself – and us – a lengthy pause during the piano introduction, until someone finally switched off his/her mobile telephone, the culprit treated with better humour than was deserved. Kulman offered a winning impression of the gypsy world in her vocal performance; there was a genuine sense of the improvisatory to the performance as a whole. I am less than convinced that this particular song shows Liszt at his finest, but anyway...

This recital will be broadcast on Austrian Radio 1 (Ö1), on 21 January 2013, at 10.05 Austrian time.        

Friday, 17 August 2012

Salzburg Festival (3) - VPO/Muti: Liszt and Berlioz, 17 August 2012

Grosses Festspielhaus

Liszt – Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, S 107
Liszt – Les Préludes, S 97
Berlioz – Messe solennelle, H 20

Julia Kleiter  (soprano)
Saimir Pirgu (tenor)
Ildar Abdrazakov (bass)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Ernst Raffelsberger)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

This, the third of the Vienna Philharmonic’s concerts, reunited the Salzburg Festival’s pit band with one of its favourite conductors, Riccardo Muti. Muti’s presence on the podium pretty much guarantees at the very least a high degree of execution, and there were no real problems in that respect here, though I have heard the VPO sound more faultless, not least with him. In the right repertoire, and the nature of that repertoire can readily surprise, Muti remains a great conductor. Berlioz proved on this occasion a better fit than Liszt, perhaps not surprisingly, given Muti’s track record: I recall a fine Salzburg performance of the Symphonie fantastique, followed by Lélio.

I have heard far worse in Liszt, a composer who suffers more than most not only from bad performances, but also from the deleterious consequences thereof. Bach’s towering greatness will somehow, quite miraculously, shine through even the worst the ‘authenticke’ brigade can throw at him; Liszt in the wrong hands can readily sound meretricious, and even we fervent advocates have to admit that his œuvre is mixed in quality. The late, indeed outlying, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe (‘From the Cradle to the Grave) fared better of the two symphonic poems performed, birth and death in turn faring better than the ‘struggle for existence’ in the middle. The VPO contributed delicate, sensitive performances in those outer sections, violas’ cradle song and woodwind caresses especially ravishing. Les Préludes, on the other hand, suffered from some of the bombast that also infected the middle section of the first work. The most celebrated of Liszt’s symphonic poems – for reasons that remain obscure to me – is extremely difficult to bring off successfully. Muti’s reading did not exhibit the vulgarity of, say, Solti, yet nor did it entirely convincingly convey harmonic motion and richness of texture. There were times when, volume notwithstanding, the work sounded somewhat thin. The audience, however, acted as if it were English in Beecham’s understanding, not much liking the music of Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, reaction quite tepid indeed, but certainly liking the noise that Les Préludes made.

Berlioz’s Messe solennelle was long thought lost, yet it resurfaced in 1991, granted its first modern performance in 1993. This was the first time I had heard this fascinating work in the flesh. Whilst it would be folly to proclaim it a masterpiece, or even something approaching that status, it has much to interest, not least in Berlioz’s recycling of some of the ideas in works that certainly are amongst his greatest. One might expect a degree of kinship between this mass and, say the Requiem – the latter’s celebrated brass interventions reusing material from the Resurrexit’s ‘Et iterum venturus’, but one can hardly fail to be brought up short by the appearance of music one knows so well from the ‘Scène aux champs’ in the Symphonie fantastique, employed both orchestrally and then chorally. Muti’s long experience in the sacred music of Cherubini served him well in this performance, which it is difficult to imagine being bettered. Steely, post-Revolutionary grandeur he does extremely well, form delineated with great clarity, but tender moments were equally well served. Any fears of undue restraint were duly banished by a blazing conclusion to the Kyrie. Choral singing was excellent throughout, as, the occasional blemish aside, were the performances of a large, though not extravagant, VPO. Movements additional to the typical mass – at least, typical to us, if not necessarily to early-nineteenth-century France – provided especial interest: an O salutaris, following Cherubini’s practice, and a celebratory monarchical Domine salvum fac, the latter benefiting greatly from sweet-toned yet ardent tenor, Saimir Pirgu, and the darkly Verdian Ildar Abdrazakov, whose contributions throughout were, following a slightly muddy start, characterful and at time ominous. Only soprano Julia Kleiter was somewhat disappointing, her intonation rendering Berlioz’s pastoral a little sea-sick, before descending into generalised blandness. This was Muti’s performance, though; he set his seal on the work with style and conviction.