Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Bayreuth Festival (3) - Tristan und Isolde, 22 August 2016

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Tristan – Stephen Gould
Isolde – Petra Lang
Kurwenal – Iain Paterson
King Marke - Georg Zeppenfeld
Melot – Raimund Nolte
Brangäne – Christa Mayer
Shepherd – Tansel Akzeybek
Steersman – Kay Stiefermann

Katharina Wagner (director)
Frank Philipp Schlößmann, Matthias Lippert (set designs)
Thomas Kaiser (costumes)
Daniel Weber (dramaturgy)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Christian Thielemann (conductor)


Let me summarise the case for Katharina Wagner’s defence; in this production, that is, rather than more generally. It is certainly better than her Meistersinger, although its problems are not dissimilar in quality. Nothing is downright embarrassing: remember those shoes being thrown all over the place for several minutes, because, well, because Hans Sachs is a cobbler (who nevertheless does not wear shoes himself), or a child-from-the-Stolzing-future requiring a lavatory break during the Quintet? This time, at least, it seems that the characters are doing what they are supposed (by the director) to be doing; there has clearly been progress made in terms of the director’s craft.


There are, moreover, several visually striking aspects to the mise-en-scène, for which designers Frank Philipp Schlößmann and Matthias Lippert certainly deserve credit. In some cases, although not all, they point to engagement with and a welcome critical standpoint with respect to the drama. The first act’s setting in a labyrinth, full of dead ends and other pitfalls, persistently – yet not entirely successfully – preventing the lovers from meeting presents a striking metaphor. That for the second act, in which Tristan and Isolde are constantly under King Marke’s surveillance, cruel, harsh spotlighting directed from above, initially makes its point well, taking on board Wagner’s Day/Night antithesis, and extending it, even questioning it. This is clearly a cruel world indeed; it may be understood politically, psychologically, or in both ways. The darkness of the third act is again visually attractive, and the images in which Isolde appears – I wondered to begin with whether something was being done with the white hands of legend, but then thought not – are again striking, even if their framing stands perhaps a little too close for comfort to Herbert Wernicke’s Covent Garden triangles. Tristan’s interaction with these empty ragdolls of his imagination is sensitively accomplished, although somewhat repetitive after a while. And the revisionist view of King Marke – yes, of course it is at odds with the surface of the text, but is it so very wrong to question, from time to time, its ideological basis and assumptions – is in itself welcome. His dragging Isolde off at the close, transfiguration clearly an idle, Romantic delusion, duly chills.


For the fundamental problem, however, is not so dissimilar to that of the hapless Meistersinger. Whilst there are striking images and ideas – in some instances at least, one presumes, dramaturge, Daniel Weber should at least share the credit for the latter – very little, at least until that striking conclusion, is really done with them; or, in some cases, too much of little import is done with them. I am all for an audience having to do some thinking for itself; a production that fails to accomplish that is unworthy of the name. Nevertheless, it seems to me, that there is a world of difference between, say, Frank Castorf’s Ring (at least so far, in revised fashion, as seen in 2016) and a staging (which may well, of course, undergo significant revision of its own in the future) in which the first act is made up more or less entirely of people running around, platforms being raised and lowered, and, on a couple of occasions, Tristan and Isolde are all over each other. Similarly for the stylised torture-medical (?) paraphernalia of the second act. Melot’s murder of Tristan, entirely without agency on the part of the latter, might have been suggestive; as it was, however, it came across as merely ‘different’ for the sake of it. If it were not for the striking designs – less happily striking in the hideous yellow costumes of Marke and his men – it would not be so very different from the most conventional, ‘traditional’ production. Although the screams of one audience member as I left the theatre – ‘They’ve changed the ending! You can’t change the ending! You can’t change the ending!’ – left me feeling more sympathetic with Katharina Wagner’s production than I might otherwise have done, having upset a person seemingly possessed of no critical abilities whatsoever is not in itself enough.


There is not really very much being said, then, whilst, at the same time, Wagner’s insistence – and I have yet to see it properly contradicted, on stage, in practice – that this is a metaphysical drama, majestically unconcerned with the ephemera of external representation, goes sadly unacknowledged. For, when condensing the action of Tristan und Isolde into a few words for Mathilde Wesendonck, the composer, in full Schopenhauerian flow, did not even mention Marke’s forgiveness (which is perhaps not so very important, then, to undercut). The action, he suggested, as much by omission as by commission, was not really of this phenomenal world at all; even Tristan’s agonies went unmentioned upon the way to ‘redemption: death, dying, destruction, never more to waken!’ (Erlösung: Tod, Sterben, Untergehen, Nichtmehrerwachen!) Now that need not be taken on trust, although this drama seems curiously, almost uniquely, resistant to attempts to question it on stage; the dots, however, need to be joined up a good deal more convincingly than they are here. Ultimately, what we see becomes tedious – and not in a self-critical, ‘let us consider tedium’ manner.


Fortunately, we were on much, much surer ground musically, permitting metaphysics a not insignificant re-entry to the proceedings. Hearing Christian Thielemann, in the finest Wagner I have heard from him for quite some time, made me realise that I had, in fact, been bending over backwards to excuse the shortcomings of Marek Janowski’s handling of the Ring scores (so far). De facto music director Thielemann has, of course, a huge advantage over Janowski: he has been dealing with the peculiarities of the Bayreuth acoustic – and pit! – for many years; indeed, he conducted Die Meistersinger here on my first visit, in 2000. And so, that fabled Bayreuth sound, more or less entirely absent, whether by design or otherwise, from Janowski’s performances, was once again a real presence amongst us. Perhaps I should say a variety of that fabled sound, for Thielemann tends perhaps to a slightly glossier, even more Straussian, sound than, say, that other fabled Bayreuth Straussian Tristan-master, Karl Böhm.


Beneath the surface, though – and what a glorious surface it was, all the more so for Thielemann’s non un-Barenboim-like willingness to let Debussy-tilting woodwind have their say too – there was undoubted rigour. Not only did the orchestra twist and turn, growl and gloat, speak and dissent as his fabled Oper und Drama successor to the chorus of Attic tragedy; it constituted, at least as much as merely representing, the Handlung of Wagner’s designation for the work. It was, I think, a reading of avowedly tonal understanding, such as would have pleased Wagnerian colleagues as distant ideologically from one another as JPE Harper-Scott and Roger Scruton. Schenker would have been proud. In the agonies of the third act, I might prefer something more Schoenbergian, more prepared at least to consider the air of another planet and the way it might criticise the (admittedly) iron-clad tonal structure of the work as a whole. (I think, for instance, of a performance Esa-Pekka Salonen gave with the Philharmonia in 2010.) Not every performance, not even one by Furtwängler, can present all of the potentialities of a Wagner score, though; no one would have been disappointed, or indeed anything other than thrilled, by the work of Thielemann and his orchestra, now back on superlative form.


It is unusual indeed not to find oneself making excuses for a Tristan cast, but there was no need to do so on this occasion. Bayreuth should be in the business of engaging casts to challenge, at the very least, those to be found anywhere else in the world; here it succeeded in doing so. ‘Untiring’ is often, in the Heldentenor world, a part-euphemism for ‘unpleasant, wildly out of tune, but he kept going’; not so in Stephen Gould’s case. Gould was able to put that ability to pace himself to thoroughly musical use, shaping his phrases with care, with dramatic meaning, in most cases equally careful with his words. The clarity of Petra Lang’s diction came and went, but hers was a powerfully dramatic reading, in which the somewhat unusual – for the role – colouring of her voice was relished. Her first-act sarcasm towards Brangäne, flouncingly acted as much as sung, was very different from that of, say, Birgit Nilsson, but made its point. I was less keen on the broken phrasing of the opening of her (non-)Verklärung, but it seemed to be part of a genuine effort to point to words as well as music.


Christa Mayer was as fine a Brangäne as I can recall hearing, wide of dynamic range and colour, unfailing sympathetic (perhaps especially when Isolde did not wish to hear). Iain Paterson seemed more at home with Kurwenal than the Rheingold Wotan, not that there was anything to complain about in his portrayal of the latter. This was a trustworthy, kind, unfailingly human servant and (failed) friend. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Marke proved as distinguished, at least, as his Hunding the previous night, exhibiting many similar musico-dramatic virtues. Zeppenfeld’s delivery of the second-act monologue was in no sense hampered by the director’s unsympathetic view of his character. Quite the contrary; potential difficulty was transformed into meaningful dramatic counterpoint. Tansel Akzeybek, whose Froh I had previously found uncommonly sweetly sung, offered similar pleasures in the twin roles of the Young Sailor and the Shepherd; I hope to hear more from him. Music, then, redeemed the work, or rather the production. Nietzsche’s opus metaphysicum was, more or less, reinstated as such.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Bayreuth Festival (2) - Die Walküre, 21 August 2016

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Siegmund – Christopher Ventris
Hunding – Georg Zeppenfeld
Wotan – John Lundgren
Sieglinde – Heidi Melton
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster
Fricka – Sarah Connolly
Gerhilde – Caroline Wenborne
Ortlinde – Dara Hobbs
Waltraute – Stephanie Houtzeel
Schwetleite – Nadine Weissmann
Helmwige – Christiane Kohl
Siegrune – Mareike Morr
Grimgerde – Weibe Lehmkuhl
Rossweiße – Alexandra Petersamer

Frank Castorf (director)
Aleksandar Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Kasper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Marek Janowski (conductor)

Again, one’s memory can readily play tricks, but I think I can say with a good degree of certainty that this Walküre, like its Rheingold predecessor, marked a considerable improvement upon the performance I saw two years ago. How much of that relates to revision of Frank Castorf’s staging and how much to individual (and indeed ensemble) performances onstage, I am not entirely sure. Perhaps that is as it should be, for a performance without a little mystery – if not necessarily the mystification that might be seen as the ‘bad nineteenth-century’ part of Wagner’s, still more Wagnerian, aesthetics – will generally be found lacking.

It certainly, I think, made a difference having Christopher Ventris as Siegmund. In 2014, although Johan Botha could certainly sing the role – not something to be taken for granted, naming no names – his inability to act was a problem one could not simply ignore. Now, with Ventris at least Botha’s vocal equal, albeit very different in tone, but also a committed stage actor, the first act and the end of the second looked up completely. There are many different ways to sing Siegmund, and Ventris’s, perhaps inevitably, comes closer to the sound we expect from a Parsifal; his is not a baritonal tenor.  Nor need it be; this beautifully, though never just beautifully sung, performance, equally attentive to words and music, was quite beyond reproach. I was tempted to ask why we seemingly never hear Ventris in Britain any more, but why should we? Germany surely has much more to offer him.


Heidi Melton, on much better form, or rather much more consistent form, than as Isolde recently at ENO, offered a heartfelt reading of Sieglinde. Occasional intonational wobbles counted for little or nothing when set against such palpable sincerity and range. Much the same might be said of Catherine Foster’s Brünnhilde. Foster has always struck me as a very likeable artist, not at all inappropriate for Wotan’s wayward girl. Occasional waywardness was much in keeping with her character; the tenderness of her farewell – suggesting perhaps that Brünnhilde understood a little more than usual the finality of her sentence – was touching and dramatically productive indeed. John Lundgren’s Wotan was dark of tone, commanding of presence, highly attentive – crucial in this of all roles – to the marriage of words and music. His shaping of Wotan’s second act monologue, his communication of its verbal and musical contours, their interaction with each other and with the orchestra, was excellent. A sense of chill, of reserve, seemed very much part of the interpretation, and varied according to circumstances.


Georg Zeppenfeld’s Hunding proved outstanding: dark, although not so dark as one often hears of tone, dark of intent, yet not without charm. The return of video in the second half of the first act gave him a great deal more to do than would generally the case; his acting offstage, both before and after drugging, offered an important additional standpoint upon the action below. Sarah Connolly’s return as Fricka lived up to its Rheingold promise. There was no doubting her fury and righteous indignation. An excellent band of Valkyries worked together extremely well. Not unlike the Rhinemaidens the night before, their ensemble and solo work was equally distinguished; they, again, had much more to do, given close camera attention, than usual. Such was not a problem; it was, instead, an opportunity.


Where I felt that opportunity was slightly missed was in Castorf’s conception itself. By the time we reached the third act, perhaps especially its first part, I could not help but wonder whether he had somewhat lost interest. It was a feeling much less strong than last time, but what earlier exerts considerable post-Brechtian force – the alienation of the world of Aleksandar Denić’s wondrous set designs and their tale of striking oil in Azerbaijan, 1942, from suspect, one presumes, ‘Romantic’ Lenz and Liebe – comes at some points to seem arbitrary again. Or at least it did to me; I may well have been missing the point. The first act in particular, as I said, benefited from Ventris’s Siegmund. Lengthy stretches of almost nothing happening at all onstage are, mercifully, no longer with us. What seemed to betoken contempt for the work, or stretches thereof, in 2014, no longer does. However, even at the end of the third act, when things pick up again dramatically, I wondered whether there was a little too much of Wotan and Brünnhilde not listening to each other, not even being in the same place. The case is at least arguable, though; maybe I need a more thoroughgoing purge of my Romanticism.


Earlier on, the tension and indeed interplay work better. The trip back seventy years or so in time from the present-day (Wifi is available at the Golden Motel) does not bother me. Wagner plays with time, in any case, as is witnessed by the confrontation of his dual, Genesis-like creation myths (those of Alberich in Rheingold and Wotan in Götterdämmerung), with the march of dramatic time, both as experienced by us and, we presume, by the characters. He does not play with it as Castorf does, but Castorf’s play has us think: always a good and necessary thing in Wagner, whatever his preposterous ‘protectors’ might claim. I wish, as I think I did before, that more still might have been done with such disjuncture, but there we are. More to the point, however, we come to think of Rheingold all the more in retrospect as distant pre-history. That world of gods and giants is not identical to that of the succeeding three dramas, although there is, of course, much complex interconnection and interaction. We have seen, to a certain extent, where things might lead.


However, we also come to see that we are on different historical, even ideological trajectory. ‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Texas anymore.’ It is not just location, though; it is the shift to the Eastern bloc, as once we called it. Russian and Azerbaijani scripts, Pravda, even hints at socialist realism: are we perhaps giving Marx and Wagner a try, taking them at, if not their own word, then a sceptical yet not despising deconstruction thereof? If the world of the Golden Motel is so bad, then show us what you can do? Is Wagner, then, being found wanting by Castorf? Up to a point, I think, for it is difficult, on some level, to avoid the conclusion that the ‘real’ action is that of the oil strikes rather than that of Siegmund and Sieglinde? Unreliable narration nevertheless continues to make its point, although less so – a pity, I think – than in Das Rheingold.


Where Castorf really scores, though, at least for me, is in the return of the gods to this world. Adopting local dress, customs, commercial practices, and indeed leading the latter, the gods do what we have always thought they did when they assumed human form. One might think as much here of Greek myth as Teutonic – as, of course, did Wagner. Do they, or does capital, reinstate Fate? Or is the opposition false? We are led to ask such questions, difficult to resolve, perhaps incapable of resolution. Wotan’s loss of his 'local' beard (seen first on film towards the end of the first act, as the god drinks his vodka) comes to seem akin to dropping of a mask. We behold him, as, unforgettably, Hunding does, in all his godlike terror. And we also recall, with Wagner, student of Feuerbach, that we have made him, as we have our other gods of capital, law, ‘love’, and so on.


Marek Janowski and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra seemed to me on surer form than the previous evening (not that they were bad then). There were still some odd orchestral balances: the clarinet line again, albeit to a considerably lesser extent. Perhaps the issue was more acoustical than intentional. More generally, though, Janowski’s emphasis on the woodwind in particular was balanced by a greater willingness to let the strings play out. He was more flexible of tempo too, usually to excellent effect. If the results remain more conventionally of the ‘opera’ world than its ‘musico-dramatic’ sibling or rival, increased command of the melos, the ebb and flow, worked very much to the drama’s benefit. We cannot always hear Daniel Barenboim, and there is much to be said for the marriage of general competence to a desire to bring out overlooked aspects of a work.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Bayreuth Festival (1) - Das Rheingold, 20 August 2016

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Wotan – Iain Paterson
Donner – Markus Eiche
Froh – Tansel Akzeyebek
Loge – Roberto Saccà
Fricka – Sarah Connolly
Freia – Caroline Wenborne
Erda – Nadine Weissmann
Alberich – Albert Dohmen
Mime – Andreas Conrad
Fasolt – Günther Groissböck
Fafner – Karl-Heinz Lehner
Woglinde – Alexandra Steiner
Wellgunde – Stephanie Houtzeel
Flosshilde – Wiebke Lehmkuhl

Frank Castorf (director)
Aleksandar Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Kasper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Marek Janowski (conductor)


And so, two years after my first viewing, I am returning to Frank Castorf’s Ring. I shall not re-read my first reviews until afterwards: not because I entertain some absurd fantasy about coming to the production anew, for my present experience will clearly be coloured by prior experience; yet, by the same token, I see no especial reason to have the former over-determined by the latter. One’s memory can play tricks, of course, and what I perceive as difference may or may not so; I may be misremembering, or indeed may simply not have noticed certain aspects before; I may also be viewing them in different contexts, the world – mostly to its disadvantage – having ‘moved on’ considerably since 2014. That, after all, is part of the message – at least part of the message I have taken – from the video work in this production. No one, perhaps, is so unreliable a narrator as the person convinced of the absolute truth of his or her recollections. Even if ‘correct’, that correctness is of limited use: few things are so pernicious as anti-historical elevation of the momentary to the permanent; one has only to think of the runes inscribed on Wotan’s spear, or, more generally, the bourgeois universalism of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Any Hegelian and/or Marxist – perhaps more to the point, any historian or philosopher of history – could tell you that. However, for anyone wishing to read my previous reviews, they may be found here: Rheingold, Walküre, Siegfried, Götterdämmerung.


Back, then, to the Golden Motel: the trashy Texan (Route 66) location for the action. On first glance, like much mass culture, it might seem to be all about sex. Like the first scene of Das Rheingold, one might say, for what Wagner called Alberich’s liebesgelüste (‘erotic urge’ he was at that time disdaining traditional capital letters for nouns). In both work and production, though, things are far more complicated than they might seem. How might we characterise that liebesgelüste? It may – as I have argued elsewhere – be understood partly, at least when considered from the standpoint of the history of ideas, as an important precedent for Nieztsche’s will to power. But Wagner is not Nietzsche – even if Nietzsche is far closer to Wagner than he ever, even earlier on, wishes to admit. For the question is social too: Alberich’s proto-Nietzschean ressentiment is born of his lowly place in Wotan’s society. That is the psychological – and, in some senses, socio-political – impulse for the challenge of capital to the established political order; or at least it was in Wagner’s time. The relationship between Valhalla and Nibelheim is not entirely different in the age of neo-liberalism, but nor is it the same.


The ressentiment is also æsthetic, of course: Wagner once remarked that he had every sympathy for Alberich’s turn against the Rhinemaidens. Hedonists reject and scorn the dwarf because he is ugly. Yet the relationship between the social and the æsthetic – and this is just one relationship amongst many in this complex world – also needs to be considered. (Rhine)gold is here crucial: as itself; as the oil that powers so much of what we see, petrol pumps in the forecourt; as the shiny stuff of hegemonic trash culture (think Donald Trump, on whom, more soon); as the agent of the motel’s ‘rainbow’ rebranding in the fourth act; even, perhaps, as something hallucinogenic, narcotic, when Froh’s mysterious ‘clearing’ of the air leaves the pleasure-seekers in the bar – something now, as the rainbow flag and tight-fitting costumes for all genders and orientations – in a state of trance-like animation. But the complexity of the web of power relations, not only between characters, but between forms of power, is really the thing.


Returning – or perhaps better, again trying to return – to the beginning, then, the hedonism of swimming pool, beach ball, sun loungers, of a supposed ‘golden age’ is lain bare, again both in work and production. It is a construction; it always was; it creates more gold for some, takes away that gold from others. Wagner makes it perfectly clear that the world into which Alberich intrudes is no idyll, no ‘natural’ state of affairs; so does Castorf. The Rhinemaidens, just like the gods and goddesses who come after them – in the hierarchy, do they come before or after? Intriguingly, it is the Rhinemaidens who take occupation of the gods’ room once they have vacated it to deal with the giants. Will they relive what has gone on between those crumpled sheets, or will they – hollow laugh! – put things right? There are, of course, many more options than that. It is, rightly, unclear, or at least complicated – are already social beings. They are clad, and they behave, in ways that many would consider attractive, others would consider exploitative and/or exploited, others ‘whorish’, and so on. They have agency, yes, but only up to a point – like the rest of us. ‘Men make their own history,’ as Marx, writing at the same time as Wagner, and under many similar influences, tells us, ‘but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.’ So too, of course, does the weight of those with greater power – and so too does the source of that power itself.


What might seem initially arbitrary, and did so (at least to me) more, although not entirely, two years ago, now speaks of complexity: when Wotan and Mime initially bring Alberich and Mime onto the scene in Nibelheim, we are asked to consider who is ensnaring whom, and, when we think we have an answer, that answer is immediately called into question. Welcome to (late) capitalism. Similarly, the Trump-like – how prescient! – depiction of Wotan, as we initially see him, a pleasure-seeking playboy who has, we might guess, inherited power, whilst claiming to have earned it, a vulgarian who yet exercises brute force, whilst allegedly (at least to Donner) renouncing it, two constructed ‘blondes’ – what a custom that is, to refer to women simply by hair-colour! – not only on his arm, but in his bed: that poses still more questions than it might ever answer.

The video work to which I referred adds another crucial dimension. Often we see in close-up what we would see on stage, were we closer. Sometimes we see what we could not otherwise see, that action taking place in a space not otherwise at the moment visible. Sometimes we suspect that what we are seeing is different; at certain points, we know that it is. And there are stills too; where did they come from? Did those events, those scenes ever happen at all? We learn a great deal – and truly acclaim the magnificent acting of the cast (and their detailed direction). We appreciate the complexity of the action. But we are also, like the characters in Hans Neuenfels’s Lohengrin, like the viewers of the ‘reality television’ that seems to be being made before our eyes, being directed. There are interests, powerful interests, at stake here. And just as Trump-Wotan does not make history as he pleases, however much he might insist otherwise, nor do we, as spectators-cum-participants. Patric Seibert’s Everyman offers us almost conventionally dramatic opportunity to empathise – but, as soon as we do, the situation is again rendered more complex. Post-dramatic theatre actually seems to encompass that which it has negated; but is the dialectic Hegelian or Adornian? Brecht, it seems, has more Aktualität, even in opera, than we might have given him credit for.


That detailed direction is really worth saying a little more about. (I am afraid there is much I shall have to miss out, for there is far too much to say.) Whether it is the Rhinemaidens taking occupation of and apparently driving the flashy car on stage, the heartrending – pretty much stage-direction-literal – covering of Freia with gold, the truly shocking, yet utterly to the point, penetration of Erda by Wotan in the shower cubicle as giants and gods settle their accounts, or, to take a very different example, the extraordinary acting by facial expression of Sarah Connolly’s Fricka (on camera): there is so much to see, to think about. It is more coherent than one might initially suspect, irrespective, I suspect, of intention; and when it is not, the incoherence now seems far more a matter of policy, of criticism, than it did last time (to me).

Few, if any, Rheingold productions have for me so convincingly, completely combined vocal and acting skills. In that, this is an utterly Wagnerian, or neo-Wagnerian essay. The Rheingold Wotan is always a tricky one, often rendered comprehensible, or more so, by what comes afterwards, yet needing nevertheless to make a strong impression of his own in the here and now. Iain Paterson would always have had a good many balls in the air; in this production, he had a good few more. They were kept in motion with great conviction; it will be very interesting to see how things turn out. Connolly’s Fricka, as previously mentioned, was a tour de force of vocal acting; her disquiet, yet her need at some point to reconcile herself with what was going on, whatever her distaste (her character’s distaste, that is) for the sub-Dallas antics around her, were powerful, provocative, partly on account of their lack of exaggeration.  Tansel Akzeyebek’s Froh was beautifully sung, equally well acted. Markus Eiche’s Donner came into his more conventional own with the storm; his portrayal of the crazed, clearly dangerous playboy earlier on, was – even if one were to dislike the directorial concept – equally impressive. Caroline Wenborne’s Freia elicited as much as sympathy as the post-Brechtian framework permitted; again, her marriage of singing and acting – on stage and on camera – was worthy of the highest praise. Roberto Saccà offered a sardonic Loge, careful with his words, yet free with them at the same time. Nadine Weissman’s deep-toned Erda – what an entrance, in that joyously vulgar white fur coat! – proved as much a vocal pleasure as her character’s greater role was a provocative dramatic development.


Albert Dohmen, as Alberich, grew in stature – quite rightly – as the performance progressed. The earth-shattering moment of his curse was strikingly well prepared: as much verbally as musically. Andreas Conrad did a great deal with the relatively few lines that Mime has: his evocation of old Nibelheim struck an excellent balance between genuine sentiment and alienated narration (reliable or otherwise). The giants’ journey, not the least striking part of the production, was marked as powerfully in vocal-dramatic terms by Karl-Heinz Lehner and Günther Groissböck as it was in their costume upgrade: local thugs to (relatively) expensive-suited Mafiosi. Both performances were sexually charged (which takes us back to that liebesgelüste starting-point), and highly differentiated, especially as time went on. One would certainly not have blamed Freia at all had she opted for Groissböck’s Fasolt, whether on grounds of physical allure or acuity of response to Wagner’s alchemic blend of words and music. Alexandra Steiner, Stephanie Houtzeel, and Wiebke Lehmkuhl offered both excellent blend and, where necessary, commendable differentiation of character as the Rhinemaidens; their acting skills were, again, outstanding.


In this, in some ways, perhaps the most radical of all Wagner’s scores, the orchestra has a very particular role, or roles. It offers exposition, commentary, wonder, dialectical development, emotional and conceptual depth: all that and much more. Marek Janowski’s conducting often seemed – at least by comparison with the multivalent drama elsewhere – to be a little too concerned to keep the score on a tight leash. It was fast-paced, which is fair enough, but there is more to be revealed when the work relaxes too. Some balances were also peculiar; the conductor appeared to have a bizarre fascination with the composer’s clarinet lines, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. It was fascinating to hear the work almost as if from a clarinettist’s standpoint, but again a little odd, and one-sided. Perhaps it was an acoustical quirk. Against those reservations, of which I do not wish to make too much, Janowski clearly knew what he wanted and how to achieve it. His neo-Mendelssohnian persuasion has a degree of historical warrant, and there was no denying the ability of the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra’s ability in that respect. In Wagner, however, at least for me, there is never one single answer; one looks forward as well as back. Certain intimations of Schoenberg (Pierrot, and not only on account of the clarinet!) were most welcome. More standpoints, reconciled by the slippery conception of the Wagnerian melos, might have been brought to our attention in certain other performances, but this had coherence of its own.


Friday, 19 August 2016

Prom 43: Argerich/WEDO/Barenboim - Widmann, Liszt, and Wagner, 17 August 2016

Royal Albert Hall

Widmann – Con brio (revised version)
Liszt – Piano Concerto no.1 in E-flat major
Wagner – Tannhäuser: Overture
Götterdämmerung: ‘Dawn’ and ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act One

Martha Argerich (piano)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

For once, my precautions paid off. Having – extravagantly, insanely, whatever you wish to call it – booked to hear this concert both in Salzburg and at the Proms, I managed to hear Martha Argerich once. Having cancelled the previous week’s concert, Martha Argerich no longer had to call upon the services of Daniel Barenboim as substitute pianist. Barenboim had given, under the circumstances, a fine account of Mozart’s final piano concerto, but this performance of Liszt’s First Piano Concerto was in another league. And I think that, if comparisons must be drawn – I have not looked again at my earlier review before writing this – that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was on even better form in the Wagner extracts too.


I relished the opportunity to hear Jörg Widmann’s Con brio for a second time in such close succession. Its performance certainly sounded every bit as incisive as in Salzburg, the quality of ‘cinematic cuts’, if anything, still more apparent. Barenboim played new music, as his wont, as repertoire music, and it benefited greatly from the lack of ghettoisation. Once again, the West-Eastern Divan’s percussionist proved mesmerising. We heard here a post-expresisonist soundscape, on which Beethovenian fragments – not quite ruins – were eerily and yet wittily displayed, or viewed, even set in motion. Beethoven seemed still more expertly misremembered; we think we recognise what we hear, but we do not actually. Interestingly, with Liszt to come, the piece and its progress seemed more akin to a symphonic poem than an overture.

The Liszt Concerto’s orchestral opening was forthright, Argerich’s piano response quite simply defying any reasonable – and perhaps unreasonable – expectations. I was quite taken aback, as I have been before when hearing her play a piano concerto, by the way she manages to cut through an orchestra; I really do not know how she does it, especially with an acoustic such as the Royal Albert Hall’s. There were depth and clarity to rival Sviatoslav Richter on his legendary recording with the LSO and Kyrill Kondrashin. And how she then yielded, much as one might imagine Liszt having done so himself. (Just imagine that world premiere, with Berlioz conducting Liszt’s own orchestra in Weimar!) Barenboim supplied, supported motivic integrity to remind us how rightful an heir to Beethoven Liszt is, and there was Wagnerian flexibility from both conductor and soloist. We were reminded – not that any Lisztian would ever forget – how much of his orchestral writing is chamber music too, not least by the superlative clarinet solo against Argerich’s ever-sensitive piano. The slow movement brought nobility and depth – again echoes of Beethoven – from the opening string utterances onwards. (I could not help but think there of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto.) Argerich’s piano soliloquising might have come from one of Liszt’s own solo works; the example of the Années de pèlerinage loomed large, and there were even hints of the Piano Sonata. The triangle-led transition brought us scherzo skittishness from all concerned, the orchestra notably sardonic, the piano increasingly moving towards something more devilish, Totentanz-like. The depth of Liszt’s musical argument was never in doubt as we moved into the finale, brimming full of musico-theatrical excitement, all courtesy of the composer’s transformative genius.

As an encore, we were treated to an intimate duet performance of Schubert’s A major Rondo, D.951. This is not public music; instead, we felt as if we were eavesdropping on some exalted music-making en famille. The length of the piece – which can readily seem repetitive to the listener, as opposed to the performer – was on this occasion, in Schumann’s all-too-oft-repeated description, ‘heavenly’ indeed. And Barenboim had practised.

It was, then, again, to Wagner, Liszt’s musical comrade-in-arms, that we moved for the second half. I recalled the woodiness of the opening wind from the earlier performance of the Tannhäuser Overture. Strings replied, initially sounding, as if continuing from Liszt’s example, like an enlarged chamber group, gradually swelling to become fully, undoubtedly orchestral. Barenboim’s shaping of this and the subsequent pieces was as expert as ever; he knew exactly how to provide impetus, how to communicate Wagner’s melos. One could, in this context, especially in the music of Venus, hear the seductive languor that so attracted Liszt. The frustrations of attempted climax were frankly sexual; how could they not be? The final peroration glowed and, prefiguring Götterdämmerung, burned.

Dawn from that opera’s Prologue (or rather the period just before Dawn) had lugubrious mystery, which yet remained admirably clear. Muddiness is the last thing this music requires, as Barenboim’s revered Boulez would always have argued – and more, to the point, shown us. There was glorious string tone in the approach to the climax, responded to just as gloriously by the WEDO brass. An excellent horn solo (taken from the organ) led us to Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. It was graceful and monumental, full of incident, yet sure of purpose. Gibichung malevolence began to draw us in, before another brutal close to the first act. The Funeral March’s opening sounded still darker, still graver than before, prior to the memorial grandeur that so impressed Thomas Mann, the Volsung genealogy leading us through an overwhelming celebration of memory and mind, from ‘the longing questions of the boy [Siegfried] about his mother’ to ‘earth-shakings and thunderings, with the body borne high on its bier’. In Barenboim’s hands, the music developed from what had gone before, and continued to develop, before once again descending into potentially nihilistic darkness.

Finally, at least so far as the published programme was concerned, we heard the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger. I think it may have been taken, initially, at a brisker tempo than in Salzburg; it certainly felt that way. At any rate, it relaxed considerably, when appropriate, without damage to an underlying pulse. Tempo variation was, as Wagner demanded, never arbitrary, always meaningful. And here it was often considerable, Barenboim at his most Furtwänglerian. There was nevertheless Mendelssohnian lightness – what delightful woodwind playing! – to be heard in the development, and a general ease to the despatch of the composer’s virtuosic, anything-but-textbook counterpoint. The encores were as in Salzburg; first a darkly noble, later blossoming, Prelude to Act III of the same opera, then a swashbuckling Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, with a strikingly courtly central section. Magnificent!


Sunday, 14 August 2016

Proms at … Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Arcangelo/Cohen, 13 August 2016

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Purcell – The History of Timon of Athens, The Man-Hater: excerpts
Blow – Venus and Adonis: excerpts
Purcell – The Fairy Queen: excerpts
Locke – The Tempest: excerpts
Purcell (attrib.) – The Tempest: excerpts

Katherine Watson (soprano)
Samuel Boden (tenor)
Callum Thorpe (bass)

Alessandro Talevi (movement director)
Jonathan Cohen (director, harpsichord, organ)


This highly enjoyable Prom, part of 2016’s ‘Proms at…’ mini-series, took as its guiding concept the reopening of London’s theatres following the Restoration, focusing in particular upon musical and dramatic responses to Shakespeare. Purcell, rightly, loomed large, with John Blow and Matthew Locke joining him. Receiving their Proms premieres were the excerpts from Timon of Athens and those from Locke’s The Tempest.

The Timon of Athens excerpts opened with a Curtain Tune of decidedly ‘world’-‘jazz’ inflection. I have nothing against such an approach at all, but it seemed a bit of an easy option here, as if offering a touch of – highly predictable – ‘swing’ and some ‘colourful’ percussion was all that was required. We seemed on surer ground with ‘I spy Celia’. Our tenor and bass, Samuel Boden and Callum Thorpe, dressed in matching white T-shirts and jeans offered strutting performances: ‘I am redder, then I please her’. Boden’s ‘I see she flies me’ showed off again his splendid, light but not too light tenor, the coloratura negotiated with nonchalant ease. There was languorous contrast in Dryden’s lines, ‘Were she but kind whom I adore/I might live longer, but not love her more.’

What we still believe to be the first English opera, Venus and Adonis followed, again, as in all cases this afternoon, in excerpted form. Two recorders and harpsichord gave us the Act I ‘Tune for flutes’, in nicely unhurried fashion, again a welcome contrast with what had gone before. Further music from the first act – a sequence opening ‘Venus! … Adonis!’ and the music surrounded by the Hunters’ Music – followed. Thorpe’s chocolatey bass seemed ideally suited to the role of Adonis, whilst his Venus, Katherine Watson, proved equally stylish, ‘English’, but in a good way. The Hunters’ Music again revived the ‘popular’ element, this time with tambourine; much to its benefit, it was varied, more intense, the second time around. (Yes, I know I am being a bit of a puritan; please forgive me.)

Music from The Fairy Queen followed, excerpts selected from Acts I, III, and V. The opening Prelude (First Music) was fast and furious – for better or for worse. The following Hornpipe was well judged, with a winning swing, colourful too. The Act V Prelude showed an air of unease, followed by the Second Music-Rondeau, which proved graceful of lilt. ‘If Love’s a Sweet Passion’ benefited from a lovely oboe solo, sounding almost like a soft-spoken trumpet at times, at others thoroughly pastoral. Dances from that same, third act followed: for the Fairies, a Hornpipe, and for the Haymakers, the ‘Dialogue between Coridon and Mopsa’ just before that final dance. Done up in lipstick, newly clad in a pashmina, Boden played the countertenor-ish maiden, blessed with beautiful deportment too. Alessandro Talevi had certainly prepared the participants well for a highly erotic conclusion. The Chaconne: Dance for a Chinese man and woman rounded off the first half.

Opening the second were two pieces from Matthew Locke’s incidental music to The Tempest, a 1674 production much loved by Nell Gwynne. The music – Curtain Tune and Dance of the Fantastick Spirits – was interesting to hear, but paled somewhat next to that of Purcell (even ‘Purcell, attrib.’). Purcell’s 1695 music, if indeed it is by Purcell, followed. Thorpe’s rendition of ‘Arise, ye subterranean winds’ was commanding, duly declamatory. Watson’s ‘Full fathom five’, later joined by her tenor and bass colleagues, proved a charming item to follow. Her ‘Dry those eyes’ offered a vocal line both clear and melancholic, with fine playing too from the members of Arcangelo. Finally, ‘Neptune’s Masque’ provided opportunities, well taken, for all to shine. Neptune’s lengthy air again received a commanding yet subtle performance from Thorpe. Aeolus, summoned by the god, appeared in black leather jacket and shades all over the theatre. His ‘Your awful voice’ was as agile both vocally and in stagecraft. There was some able fiddling too. The closing chorus had more than a hint of ‘authentic’ Purcellian melancholy, whoever the actual composer may have been.

Salzburg Festival (9) - WEDO/Barenboim - Widmann, Mozart, and Wagner, 11 August 2016

Grosses Festspielhaus

Image: © Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli

Jörg Widmann – Con brio
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.27 in B-flat major, KV 595
Wagner - Tannhäuser: Overture
Götterdämmerung: ‘Dawn’ and ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Prelude to Act One

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor)

Another day, another cancellation by Martha Argerich, who was supposed to have performed Liszt’s First Piano Concerto here with Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Barenboim, whom I cannot remember having cancelled a single appearance, stepped in and offered Mozart’s final piano concerto instead. It was not the finest performance I have heard from him, nor from the WEDO, but it was still very good, and all the more welcome in the circumstances. If the first movement was slightly ragged at times, it was always clear where it was heading. Barenboim’s basic tempo – not initially settled upon – was spot on, capable of infinite modification according to the progress of the music. There was admirable clarity throughout, the performance really hitting its stride in the development section. The WEDO’s woodwind section proved especially delightful here and thereafter, its principal bassoonist heart-breaking in that solo line, likewise its principal flautist in response. Intimacy of mood and consequentiality of phrases were the hallmark of the slow movement, possessed of an air that was rare enough, but not so autumnal as many: this was more the world of an outdoor Salzburg serenade, fondly recalled by Mozart in Vienna. It was gloriously unhurried, though. Ornamentation was always convincing, always delightful. The finale was equally rare of mood, its knife-edge demands perfectly captured from the opening solo onwards. The occasional piano slip did not bother me in the slightest, but might, I suppose, have disconcerted some. The cadenza had Beethovenian purpose, but the closing bars were imbued with Mozartian grace and chiaroscuro.


Prior to that, we had heard an excellent performance of Jörg Widmann’s Con brio Overture, commissioned by Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra to accompany Beethoven’s Seventh and Eighth Symphonies. There is throughout – and was, I think, still more so in this particular performance – a strong and yet elusive sense of Beethovenian presence, from the opening timpani solo and orchestral éclat onwards. I found Barenboim’s performance livelier, more at home with Beethovenian allusion than the performance I have heard from Jansons. It dreamed, rather than experiencing nightmares, even when sounding closer to Mahler: a thoroughly upbeat – in more than one sense – opening to the concert.


The second half was devoted to Wagner. I am not the greatest fan of ‘bleeding chunks’, but with a conductor and orchestra such as this am unlikely to protest too strongly. The Tannhäuser Overture benefited from a deliciously woody opening, responded to by impressively dark-toned, contrasting strings. Barenboim took it faster, I think, than I have heard him do so in the theatre; as a stand-alone piece, it deserves different treatment (which may, of course, take very different forms). It was, in any case, a reading full of contrast, especially dynamic contrast, and – something that struck me in all the performances to follow – quite expertly shaped, so much so that one barely noticed it was being shaped. The final peroration was glorious by any standards.


The Götterdämmerung excerpts opened with ‘Dawn’: fatal, duly ambiguous. Tragedy was foretold, yet there seemed some sense of hope too. To cut to the end of the scene and the transition to ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ will always, I suspect, sound odd to me, but Barenboim did what he could with such foreshortening. The intrepid quality ensuing seemed not only to relate to the Volsung hero but to an anthropomorphised version of the mighty Rhine itself. As we reached the Gibichung gates, dark, Nibelung (or part-Nibelung) brass invited us in; despite ourselves, we felt drawn. Then we skipped to the shattering climax – here, Karajan-like in its brutality, the brutality of rape – to the first act. Fearful symmetry was to be experienced in the reappearance of trombones in the opening to the Funeral March. But now, there was no hope, just remembrance. The falling back into night seemed to look forward to Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (a work I should love to hear performed by these musicians).


Finally, at least so far as the advertised programme was concerned, we heard the ultimate pick-me-up, following Siegfried’s death: the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger. It was gloriously full of tone, never lingering, but nor was it hard-driven. As two encores, we heard the Prelude to Act III: dark, noble, almost Elgarian, and with the greatest contrast of light, which would yet not be unalloyed for long. I guessed correctly that it would be followed by the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin. Barenboim trusted his musicians, often barely conducting them. It was a bravura performance, but never just a bravura performance.

Salzburg Festival (8) - WEDO/Barenboim - Mozart, 10 August 2016

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Symphony no.39 in E-flat major, KV 543
Symphony no.40 in G minor, KV 550
Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551, ‘Jupiter’

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Image: © Salzburger Festspiele / Marco Borrelli

Not only the highpoint of my visit to the Salzburg Festival, this will surely prove a shoo-in for any list I might make of Performances of the Year. A couple of years ago, I heard Daniel Barenboim conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Mozart’s final three symphonies; they were excellent performances, although just occasionally, I missed a little more of a smile. I do not exaggerate when I say that I found these performances with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra superior in almost every respect, very occasional instances of raggedness only serving to remind that the players were human. Not that we really needed any such reminder, of course, for, imbued with the truest Mozartian spirit, each performance was brimming with humanity, with drama, with integrity, with the greatest of civilisation. These were, perhaps, the greatest ‘live’ performances of each of these three symphonies I have heard. The only rival coming readily to mind would have been a very, very different 39th from Thomas Zehetmair and the Northern Sinfonia. Moreover, without evident exertion to frame them as such, let alone sophistry, Barenboim presented a powerful case, without resorting to the idiocy of Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s suddenly discovered conception of them as a more-than-metaphorical wordless oratorio (!), for musico-dramatic understanding of them as a triptych. Our greatest living conductor of Wagner and Beethoven is almost certainly our greatest living conductor of Mozart too. And what players he had here at his disposal, both individually and corporately!

First, then, came the E-flat Symphony. The introduction to the first movement exuded warmth and grandeur, very much in the tradition of those greatest of Mozartians, Karl Böhm and Colin Davis. Barenboim and his players also shared those conductors’ understanding and communication of ease and tension. It was as fateful as any overture, even that to Don Giovanni. And how the richness of the orchestra, not least its post-Prague Symphony woodwind, matched, even enhanced the richness of Mozart’s harmonies. Dissonances pointed long into the future, even to Schoenberg, but here of course they were resolved, and how! Barenboim, who has now thoroughly internalised the influence of Furtwängler, slowed for the transition to the exposition proper, just as if he were outlining the dramatic necessity of an on-stage operatic manœuvre. The first subject came forth at a measured tempo, properly emerging from the nature and demands of the material, sounding as if it could not be otherwise. (Of course, it could have been, but that is not the point; necessity wears more than one face.) The second subject likewise emerged with what sounded like absolute necessity, necessity in all its dazzling, ever-developing variety. As in Berlin, Barenboim did not take the repeat here, though he would in the first movements of the other two symphonies. The development section, however, continued to develop at such a rate that one barely missed what we had ‘lost’; there was such conflict and also such civilisation – the two are closer than many would like to admit – in what we heard that such ‘loss’ in any case barely registered. The recapitulation was upon us in the twinkling of an eye, yet all had changed in the meantime; few conductors alive understand the dynamism of sonata form so well as Barenboim, still less communicate it so well. The late beauty of the West-Eastern Divan’s Harmoniemusik, as transition to the second group, brought Così-like tears, and for not entirely dissimilar reasons, to my eyes. It was, however, the Klemperer-like strength underpinning the movement and the symphony as whole that proved most important of all, the final climax the most thrilling I have ever heard, timpani rolls and all.

The slow movement flowed unhurriedly, yet with dramatic, well-nigh operatic tension; there was something of Schubert too, to its tread. Until the minor-key episode, that is, when we experienced the ‘purest’ – yes, I know that word needs deconstructing – Mozartian tragedy. Everything was at stake, so it seemed; yet, with Shakespearean genius, all manner of alternative standpoints seemed both possible and necessary. The profusion of melodic and harmonic possibilities was quite wondrous, agonising even. Klemperer again sprang to mind, but with Böhm’s, or Bruno Walter’s, warmth. The minuet proved both aristocratic and boisterous, possessed of a longer line and characterful within that Wagnerian melos. It was, moreover, imbued with the most winning of old-world charm. (Sorry, puritan fundamentalists of ‘authenticity’!) The trio likewise combined the aristocratic and the rustic to generative effect, the WEDO woodwind section (and not just the woodwind) silky and fruity. Horns were simply to die for. Opera buffa and seria combined in the finale, its performance as integrative as anything in Barenboim’s Beethoven, yet retaining all of Mozart’s particularity. We heard, felt a better world; we heard, felt its distance from us. This was light-footed jubilation, yes, yet at the same time it was hard-won drama.

Tragedy, Mozartian tragedy: such was the note struck from the very opening of the G minor Symphony. Once again, there was no need for anything to be underlined – let us recoil in horror from the freak-show tactics of the René Jacobs brigade – for everything grew out of the material and its possibilities. ‘Could your Beethoven have done that?’ I felt like asking. No, of course he could not, as he himself would have recognised, just as there were many things only Beethoven could have done. This was a reading closer on the surface to Böhm or to Klemperer than to Furtwängler, but line and – perhaps – meaning took one closer toward the greatest hero of all from Barenboim’s pantheon. The repeat seemed to be upon us almost before we had begun; such is Mozart’s concision and such was the tightness of this performance. The clarinets (in the second group) sounded as if they were played by angels. The jolt of development registered with all its might, which is to say again without exaggeration. Schoenbergian dissonance and the equally Schoenbergian task of reconstruction were accomplished with Webern-like concision. (We need to hear more Webern from Barenboim!) Woodwind led us, during the recapitulation, into still darker, deeper tragedy. Counterpoint – those who disclaim Bach’s influence here are surely in denial – wrought its horrendous magic. The turn to the tonic minor in the second group and coda brooked no alternative. Riveting, terrifying, and yes, edifying.

Like its counterpart in the E-flat Symphony, the slow movement was not taken slowly, yet it was never harried in the now fashionable manner. Harmony and motivic development were permitted instead to do their work, free of interference from podium showboating. The variety of instrumental articulation was quite something in itself; more to the point, it was meaningful. The ghost of Bach once again seemed present: every note counted. The opening out, horizontal and vertical, of harmony brought the Wagner of Tristan and, again, Schoenberg, to mind. The Minuet was ferocious and yielding; every note seemed to have its own tone-quality, as if Barenboim were playing the piano rather than conducting an orchestra. It was at the beginning of the Trio that we heard a rare instance of string fallibility, but who cares? The rest was grace personified, or rather musicalised, and what balm we felt from the woodwind! It was developmental too, keenly so. The finale brought out Barenboim at his most overtly Furtwänglerian. Again, there was no routine note, let alone phrase. How tragically, even in the major mode, the second subject was shaped! The development was announced as a clear echo of its announcement in the first movement, the struggle but a stone’s throw from Beethoven. Dynamism and transformation were twin partners in the working out of the recapitulation.

There was nothing pompous to the opening of the Jupiter Symphony: it was, rather vivid, dynamic, endless variegated, although again never for the mere sake of variegation. In C major it nevertheless emphatically rejoiced; we heard the world of earlier symphonies, piano concertos, masses evoked, transformed; shivers were duly sent down the spine. The first movement development had the purpose of Haydn, but the temperament of Mozartian opera buffa. Rarely can the recapitulation have sounded so inevitable. Barenboim’s pause before turning to the minor was perfectly judged, Goldilocks-like. One felt, as well as knew, the truth of Charles Rosen’s observation of oscillation between major and minor as one of the keys to understanding the ‘Classical style’. Perhaps the second group here might have smiled a little more, Walter-like, but I am simply being ungrateful.

The slow movement felt physically different as well as sounding different, on account of muted first violins; I am not quite sure what it was about the WEDO violins’ playing here, but the sensation has rarely, if ever, registered so strongly with me, sounding both ‘old’ and ‘new’. It was, more important still, heard and played as if in a single breath, possessing all the emotional weight of a great aria, or indeed the slow movement of a piano concerto. Its gravity was that of Idomeneo or La clemenza di Tito – works which, sadly, Barenboim has never conducted. (There is time yet!) Yet the guiding musical thread proclaimed Mozart as one of the greatest of all symphonists. Again, there was not the slightest trace of pomposity to the Minuet. It had all the dash, all the grace of a Platonic form of Vienna’s Redoutensaal, all the conversational quality of a string quartet, all the chorus-like quality of the opera orchestra. In its all-encompassing quality, it seemed, somehow, like a ball-scene from Tolstoy. Balance and teeming development took us on our way to a duly courtly response in the Trio, followed by vehemence, and again something more demure.

The opening phrase and response to the finale were playful and severe – and not only in turn. And so, the great agon was set in motion. There could be no doubt of this movement’s status as crowning glory, but there was a struggle to come: both close to and sublimely unconcerned with Beethoven. What swagger there was in the learning, what humanity in the tendresse! This was music of the spheres, music of Heaven and Hell; this was species counterpoint that could produce music of the elegance and depth of all three Da Ponte operas. We not only knew that, though; we heard it, experienced it. The recapitulation rejoiced as the greatest Roman Catholic mass setting before Beethoven, the Coda, prepared with the utmost, almost sacramental, mystery offered the greatest ecumenism, Bach reintegrated into our thoughts and experienced. One’s heart leapt, with Haydn’s, for joy. Mozart’s miracle of quintuple invertible counterpoint remained both ours and untouchable, without peer.