Tuesday, 16 December 2014

From the House of the Dead, Berlin Staatsoper, 13 December 2014

Schillertheater
 
Images: Monika Rittershaus (from the original, 2011 staging)
 
Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov – Tom Fox
Aljeja – Eric Stoklossa
Luka Kuzmič (or Filka Morozov) – Štefan Margita
Skuratov – Ladislav Elgr
Siškov, Guard – Pavlo Hunka
Prison Governor – Jiří Sulženko
Big Prisoner – Peter Straka
Small Prisoner – Vladimír Chmelo
Elderly Prisoner – Heinz Zednik
Cook, Blacksmith – Maximilian Krummen
Priest – Arttu Kataja
Cekunov – Ján Galla
Drunk Prisoner – Stephen Chambers
Sapkin – Peter Hoare
Kedril – Marian Pavlovič
Don Juan, The Brahmin – Ales Jenis
Young Prisoner – Olivier Dumait
Prostitute – Eva Vogel
Cerevin, Guard – Stephan Rügamer
 
Patrice Chéreau (director)
Peter McClintock (revival director)
Richard Peduzzi (set designs)
Caroline de Vivaise (costumes)
Bertrand Couderc (lighting, video)
 
Chorus of the Berlin State Opera (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)
 
Let me find something to complain about. The typing of such a review is a nightmare: all those diacriticals, especially for someone who knows not a word of Czech. That would be it, really. Two of my abiding musical regrets are not having seen the production of Moses und Aron, conducted by Pierre Boulez at my very first Salzburg Festival (I opted for The Marriage of Figaro instead) and not having seen this production of From the House of the Dead (Z mrtvého Domu) when it was first staged, again conducted by Boulez. Neither of those omissions can be put right, of course, but at least I have managed to see my first and – again, alas – doubtless last opera production by Patrice Chéreau in the theatre. (That is, unless I somehow manage to travel to New York to see his valedictory offering, Elektra.)
 
Perhaps the ultimate joy – should that not be an utterly misplaced word with respect to this opera – of this production is to see something that is so well thought out, so well executed, so clearly what it intends to be and what an operatic staging should be, that one experiences almost anew the greatness of genre and work, in themselves and also in performance. Any element of ‘opera house routine’ is banished, likewise any idiotic directorial clichés and incoherences. (The contrast with Christof Loy’s self-regarding assault on Tristan earlier this month could hardly be greater.) Chéreau trusts the work, and it therefore trusts him, permitting re-creative freedom as opposed to mere licence. Realism is both apparent and yet called into question or extended, according to taste. By that, I mean that the prisoners are clearly prisoners, as we should expect to see them; the prison is clearly a prison as we should expect to see it, the behaviour and interaction of the prisoners is so clearly plausible that we might actually be there, and yet there is no delimitation. This could be anywhere, and even the period is unclear – without a hint of post-modernist incongruity. There is plenty of action to watch, more doubtless than one can take in from a single viewing, and yet none of it is gratuitous, none of it distracts. We witness the faithful creation and development of a world we can imagine, rightly or wrongly, as if that matters, Janáček himself creating when sketching and developing his opera from Dostoevsky. Richard Peduzzi’s fine set designs are likewise sufficiently realistic and sufficiently abstract, so much part of the action that one cannot conceive of ‘production’ and ‘designs’ separately. (My mind inevitably went back to the triumph of the Centenary Ring, one of the few DVD opera stagings I am happy to watch again and again.)
 
The coup de theatre, for Chéreau is nothing if not a man of the theatre, comes at the end of the first act, in which a collapse both physical, intellectual, and metaphysical arises, rubbish falling from above – but is there even an Above in a sense Dostoevsky would have understood? – to create pointless ‘work’ for the prisoners thereafter. Is there a hint that this debris might relate to the learning of books, and to the horror of their destruction in authoritarian societies?  I felt so, but perhaps that was just my own reading; either way, Chéreau’s staging and its exemplary revival under Peter McClintock allow us the openness of our own interpretations, again up to a point and without the reactionary chaos of ‘anything goes’. From the House of the Dead has been criticised as having little in the way of plot, even little in the way of ‘opera’. It is surely the composer’s most radical work – which is saying something. Chéreau’s production enables the musical performance to examine and to project its dramatic dialectic between individual character and collectivity, and to show not only its radicalism but also the deep humanity which ultimately places it decisively in the tradition of his earlier works.
 
That relationship between individual and choral collective was powerfully, indeed unforgettably, achieved by the artists themselves on stage. It is, more than usual, not only invidious but more or less impossible to single out members of the cast in such a work and performance. However, the men to whom Janáček more or less briefly grants prominence might usefully be mentioned. Tom Fox’s Alexandr Petrovič seemed just as the composer might have thought of him: noble, ‘different’, compassionate.    The role of Aljeja, the young Tatar, was taken by the tenor, Eric Stoklossa, rather than the more usual mezzo. Stoklossa nevertheless conveyed the character’s youth and vulnerability, without a hint of sacrifice to the integrity of musical delivery. The brutality of the third-act monologue and the horror of its outcome were conveyed powerfully, again with just the right balance between the specific and the universal, by Štefan Margita’s Filka and Pavlo Hunka’s Šiškov. Laidslav Elgr’s Skuratov offered a subtle development of character the work’s detractors would have one believe never present, again perfectly in keeping with Chéreau’s overall vision. Ales Jinis made a strong impression indeed as the prisoner taking the roles of Don Juan and the Brahmin in the second-act plays, his charisma hinting at a homoeroticism which may or may not be ‘there’ in work and setting (irrespective of intention?) The presentation of those two plays was exemplary throughout, all concerned pulling off the trick of convincing portrayal of amateur dramatics with knowledge of the darker forces at work. In that sense, the resentful violence of Vladimír Chmelo Small Prisoner and the frail wisdom of Heinz Zednik’s Elderly Prisoner framed the action and its parameters tellingly.
 


Sir Simon Rattle showed himself at his curtain call deeply appreciative of the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin. Rightly so, for theirs was playing at a level one might have expected them to reserve for Daniel Barenboim. Initially I wondered whether the sound were a little too ‘Romantic’, almost Brahmsian (ironically, given Rattle’s own rather odd way with  Brahms). But I rightly doubted my doubts and was quite won over; for one thing, this ‘old German’ sound is arguably very close to what Janáček himself would have heard and had in mind. One heard Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, even perhaps the Second Viennese School; and yes, one heard Janáček. Rhythms were tight and musically generative, but this was a different, less overtly modernistic composer than one sometimes hears. There is room for several Janáčeks, of course, or rather several manifestations, each shedding light upon the other. Indeed, we may then hear the intimate relationship between ‘late Romanticism’ – itself a deeply problematical concept, which often obscures as much as it enlightens – and ‘modernism’, ‘German’ and ‘Czech’. The final march chilled as it told of a compassion Janáček manages to imply as dialectically responsive to its Fatal inhumanity.
 

Last but certainly not least, indeed arguably foremost, was the contribution of the chorus. Its delivery of words and music, its portrayal of individual and collective, its situation as background and foreground, its clear commitment to work and performance: all of these and more were exemplary throughout. Janáček’s conception of this strange, visionary work emerged in disconcerting triumph. The ultimate test was passed: however difficult the message, I wanted to see it again immediately.
 

 
 
 

Monday, 15 December 2014

Turandot, Deutsche Oper, 12 December 2014

Deutsche Oper, Berlin
 
Turandot – Catherine Foster
Altoum – Peter Maus
Calaf – Kamen Chanev
Liù – Heidi Stober
Timur – Simon Lim
Ping – Melih Tepretmez
Pang – Gideon Poppe
Pong – Matthew Newlin
Mandarin – Andrew Harris
Prince of Persia – Aristoteles Chaitidis, Jan Müller
Two Girls – Elbenita Kajtaz, Christina Sidak
 
Lorenzo Fioroni (director)
Claudia Gotta (revival director)
Paul Zoller (set designs and video)
Katharina Gault (costumes)
 
Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (chorus master: William Spaulding) of the Deutsche Oper
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Ivan Repušič (conductor)

 
Production shot from first staging:  © Bettina Stöß, 2008 

The Deutsche Oper has a very fine production of Turandot on its hands. Lorenzo Fioroni leaves us in no doubt what a magnificently vile opera it is, homing in quite rightly upon Puccini’s sadism, drawing out its political implications, and playing down, though far from entirely obscuring, the work’s deeply problematical Orientalism, which otherwise has a tendency to impede appreciation of what is still more repellent in the work. Put another way, this staging stands as distant from Zeffirelli and mindless school thereof, that is, from what has given opera in performance so bad a name, as Puccini does from Donizetti and the other drivel that has given Italian opera so bad a name and which, sadly, has in may houses relegated Puccini’s œuvre to the level of at-best-anodyne productions, cynically relied upon to boost the accursed box office.
 
Fioroni sets the action in a reasonably generic totalitarian state. There is enough of an imaginary ‘China’ hinted at, should that be important, but it is not central to the production. An enfeebled Emperor – or is he? is his present state partly a ruse de guerre? – presides, with the help of Turandot, a deeply sinister junta or Politburo (according to taste), and thuggish security services on the street, who meet out casual, or rather less-than-casual, physical punishment to those who would step out of line. Turandot appears to be calling the shots – almost literally, in some cases; for instance, when, following the solution of the riddles, she hysterically reaches for and uses her gun – but, as in all such cases, the dynamics of power and violence are not entirely straightforward. The crowd seems submissive, largely cowed, relishing yet fearing the brutality, but who knows? Ping, Pang, and Pong are now less an offensive and/or irritating addition, but political opportunists. They, like everyone else, do what they need to survive; they are not inhuman, but necessity and the promise of reward ensure collaboration and perhaps more than that.
 
Theatre is extremely important here. What we see enacted and re-enacted takes us to the heart of the problem, as indeed it does in Gozzi’s original tale. Ritual is enforced but also permits of certain criticism. Ping, Pong, and Pang, those crucial ministers – more crucial, I think, than I have seen before – employ the costumes and customs of theatre to show the people and us what the rules are and what the outcomes will be. Their tableaux involve impersonation, most notably in the case of a gender-subverting portrayal of Turandot herself, veiled and later preparing for a wedding; they also, inevitably, remind us all of the likely bloody outcome of any challenge to the system. And yet, they shift, chameleon-like, when the new order comes: a new order brutally signalled by the death of the Emperor and, most chillingly of all, Calaf’s stabbing of his father immediately after. Regime change has come upon us – and the courtiers, whatever their sly mocking when unseen, will adapt and most likely prosper.
 
The most shocking violence, of course, whether in work or production, is that suffered by Liù. Her enslavement, born of both social position and gender, is clear from the outset, when Calaf briefly forces himself upon her, making a great deal more sense of his actions in the third act. It is power in all senses that he wants; a moment of regret is all that is therefore necessary. Yet her figure, hanging in front of the action throughout the rest of the act, reminds us of the cost and the barbarism. ‘Love’, whatever that means, may claim to have won, but we know that it is merely a form of power, or rather that it is perhaps the most deadly form of power at all. (Coincidentally or otherwise, Wagner’s discovery of that truth during the writing of the Ring comes to mind.) The cruelty of the score, of its ritualisation and exploitation, is at one with what we see. For a view of the violence as not only instrumental but concerned with degradation of the body for its own sake chimes very much with Puccini’s fabled sadism. This, then, is a fidelity to the work that draws out what is present in it, a fidelity greater than that which the cheerleaders of a naïve Werktreue seem capable of understanding.
 
It was a pity, then, that Ivan Repušič’s conducting was not up to the same standard. There was nothing too much to worry about, but this was competent and, sometimes, a little frayed rather than clearly directed. The Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper played magnificently, though, so the occasional blurring did not detract so very much in practice. Nevertheless, a more incisive, indeed brazenly modernistic touch would have heightened the disturbed and disturbing sensations further. Choral singing lay almost beyond praise. William Spaulding’s training of the Deutsche Oper Chorus is well known, but still deserving of the highest plaudits; so, of course, is the contribution of the choral singers themselves. Keenly directed on stage as they were here, the heft, clarity, and meaning of their musical contribution was very much of a piece with their ambiguous yet threatening dramatic role. This was a mass that more than stirred musically, hinting perhaps at trouble to come for the new regime?
 
In the title role, Catherine Foster offered a committed dramatic portrayal, sadistic yet clearly hinting at great problems, personal and political, lying behind the sadism. If one could hardly empathise, one could begin to understand – which is just about all one can ask with this repellent character and her actions. Intonation was not always all it might have been, but for the most part there was dramatic compensation. Kamen Chanev’s Calaf was not dramatically subtle; such seems, alas, to be the way with the role. But the production, for which revival director, Claudia Gotta, surely also deserves plaudits, offered depth to what, in purely vocal terms, was an impressive performance. Simon Lim’s Timur was deeply felt, however, attention to words and musical line impressing throughout. Likewise, Heidi Stober’s Liù, which gained in resonance – in more than one sense – as the evening progressed. As the ministerial trio, Melih Tepretmez, Gideon Poppe, and Matthew Newlin all offered cleverly considered performances, alert to the shifting circumstances on stage and responding accordingly. The company and the performance as a whole proved more than the sum of its parts. A DVD release would be invaluable, especially for those misled – often understandably so – by more typical, inert presentations of Puccini.
 

Friday, 12 December 2014

Tenebrae/ECO/Short - Handel, Messiah, 10 December 2014


Cadogan Hall

Grace Davidson (soprano)
Martha McLorinan (mezzo-soprano)
David de Winter (tenor)
William Gaunt (bass)
 
Tenebrae
English Chamber Orchestra
Nigel Short (conductor)
 

Time was, etc., etc. Now we account ourselves fortunate to have the opportunity to hear any Handel, even the Messiah, on modern instruments. But of course, things are not quite so simple as that. Not just Baroque, not just Classical, but even Romantic music and beyond have been increasingly surrendered to the strange hybrid of allegedly ‘period style’ – in reality, as Richard Taruskin has long argued, a thoroughly contemporary style – and a mixture of instruments from any combination of periods that appears to suit those performing. One London conductor has, for instance, recently, bizarrely used ‘period’ trumpets alongside modern horns (and strings) in Haydn, in performances whose principal purpose seems to have been to rush through the music as quickly as possible, with occasional distending of tempo apparently just ‘because he can’. The meaningless of post-modernism – and this is where Taruskin’s critique seems to me to have things quite the wrong way around – has been the victor, not modernism.
 

There was nothing so extreme here, thank goodness. But it was difficult not to suspect that the English Chamber Orchestra’s string playing was somewhat hampered by instructions at odds with their modern instruments. Modern, that is, save for the bizarre appearance of ‘period’ kettledrums, which certainly made an impact but an impact which seemed intended for another performance entirely. It was far from clear, either to me or to the violinist friend who attended with me, that what the violinists were doing with their right hands was compatible with the actions of their left hands. Lower strings seemed better off in that respect. Playing was generally reasonably cultivated, but surely would have been far more so, had the players been encouraged to rejoice in the capabilities of their instruments. It was notable that leader Stephanie Gonley’s violin solo in the penultimate ‘If God be for us’ – not the happiest of choices in the version of the work offered in performance – was far freer in style, greatly to its and our benefit.
 

Nigel Short’s tempi were sometimes a little on the fast side, but there was nothing unduly objectionable in that respect. For instance, if ‘Ev’ry valley shall be exalted’ was more energetic than we are used to, a convincing enough case was made for the decision. Although a small choir, twenty-strong, Tenebrae was perfectly capable of making a full sound, not least in ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs,’ which emerged furiously, and the (relatively) mighty conclusion to the final chorus. Alas, the ‘Hallelujah!’ was largely disrupted for me by a man a couple of rows behind, who insisted on jangling loose change in his pocket throughout its course, a strange updating of the custom of a segment of the Viennese public to jangle keys in order to disrupt Schoenberg’s concerts. The freshness of the choral voices had been immediately apparent in ‘And the glory of the Lord,’ and continued to give considerable pleasure and enlightenment.
 

Finest of the vocal soloists was an outstanding Martha McLorinan, described in the programme as an ‘alto’, although she sounded more of a mezzo. It was a pity that she was not given more to sing. She edged closer to Handel’s operas in the B sections of ‘But who may abide the day of his coming?’ and ‘He was despised and rejected,’ although never too much. There was contrast and continuity, then, and Charles Jennens’s text was ably communicated. Alas, the contrast between McLorinan and the strangely pop-like – I said we were in post-modernist territory! – delivery of the soprano, Grace Davidson, was especially glaring during their duet, ‘He shall feed His flock.’ Davidson made little of the words there and elsewhere. Although her light soprano might initially have sounded attractive enough, both it and her performance lacked any greater depth. Her coloratura was correct but strangely robotic. Tenor, David de Winter, opened promisingly. His first accompagnato, ‘Comfort ye, my people’ was splendidly imploring, gaining in strength as it progressed, the following aria nicely variegated. However, despite a gloriously lingering ‘Thy rebuke hath broken His heart,’ the aria, ‘Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron’ proved somewhat strained. There is a good oratorio voice there, though, without doubt. So is there in the case of bass, William Gaunt, whose attention to both words and music impressed throughout; moreover, he was not afraid to employ fuller tone on occasion.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Aimard/LPO/Jurowski - Stravinsky, Birtwistle, and Messiaen, 6 December 2014

Royal Festival Hall
 
Stravinsky – Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Birtwistle – Responses: Sweet disorder and the carefully careless, for piano and orchestra (UK premiere)
Messiaen – Oiseaux exotiques
Stravinsky – Orpheus
 
 
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

 
The final event of Birtwistle’s eightieth anniversary year, at least for me: the British premiere of his new work for piano and orchestra, Responses, first performed in Munich this October, by its dedicatee, Pierre-Laurent Aimard. To grant the work its full, somewhat cumbersome title, replete with subtitle after a collection of architectural essays by Robert Maxwell, Responses: Sweet disorder and the carefully, careless, is certainly better understood as a work for piano and orchestra rather than a piano concerto as such. The contrast with the (relatively) recent Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is strong in that and many other respects. That said, Birtwistle, in a programme interview with Jonathan Cross, does refer to this work as ‘my new concerto’.
 
Later in that interview, Birtwistle remarks: ‘When one thinks of a concerto, one usually expects the orchestra to play some of the tune, then the soloist to play some of it. It’s the same material. This is not the case in my work. Rather, it’s a dialogue: the soloist is asking questions.’ Hence Responses, and that is certainly how it sounded, from the opening pulsating E – as Cross notes, that pitch a typical starting-point – onwards. Yes, there is questioning, and yes, this is definitely a piece for piano and orchestra, no ‘mere’ ensemble here (eight double basses, three percussionists, two harps, and so on). Piano chords sound, especially, I suspect, in Aimard’s hands, like ghosts stranded between the nineteenth century and Birtwistle’s own modernism. The orchestra glistens, machine-like: again highly characteristic. There seem to be some intriguing echoes of Messiaen, presumably part of the reason for programming the work with Oiseaux exotiques. And there is dramatic insistence, especially from the brass, sounding against longing, string-based melancholy, in what seemed to me very much post-Minotaur fashion. There is frenzy, with something of the Dionysian to it. (Although I suspect this merely to be coincidence, I was a couple of times, especially with respect to the percussion, put in mind of the Maenads’ Hunt from Henze’s opera, The Bassarids, albeit in a more fractured, more ritualised fashion.) Less a cadenza, more a brief soliloquy, one piano passage brings on a sense of momentary stillness, against which piano and orchestra seem to wish to escape; it is a more arduous task, however, than it initially might seem. The idea, or perhaps better, practice of hocketing is clearly instantiated – and, of course, dramatised. I had a sense of spatial games within the orchestra, without the actual movement of, say, Theseus Game. Gabrieli reimagined for a ‘conventional’ orchestra and soloist? Theseus Game reimagined in a world after The Minotaur and the Violin Concerto? Perhaps. Or maybe it is ‘just’ another exploration of particular material. In truth, of course, there is no need for either/or here. Jurowski and the LPO offered excellent performances, as of course did Aimard; it is always difficult to judge, of course, from a first hearing, but I had the sense that this was how the work ‘should’ sound.
 
Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques received a mesmerising account, its hieratic opening recalling the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, with which the concert had opened, though the language is unmistakeably Messiaen’s own. The piano is more clearly a concertante instrument here; indeed, much of its role is taken up with cadenzas. Ironically, the dialogue here seemed more overtly, or at least more straightforwardly, responsorial. Orchestral colours sounded as vivid as they could to one who is not a synesthete. The naïve, elemental quality to so much of Messiaen’s music registered just as powerfully as the complexity of his ‘enormous counterpoint of birdsong’. Not least, this was a riotous and ecstatic performance. Aimard played his part – superlatively – from memory.    
 
 
On either side came works by Stravinsky. Symphonies of Wind Instruments has long held fascination for Birtwistle – and indeed for many of the rest of us. In Jurowski’s performance, it opened just as it should: angular, spiky, hieratic, aggressive. Echoes of the Rite of Spring were perhaps unusually apparent in the contrasting material. Neo-Classicism seemed to shoot forth, yet also to withdraw; this, one felt, was more than often being read as a ‘transitional’ work. Soldier’s Tale puppetry and Œdipus Rex gravity, life and desiccation: it was in its very particular way, and whatever Adorno may have thought, as dialectical as Beethoven. Moreover, it sounded very much as a curtain-raiser to a drama.
 
Orpheus brought another different variety of ensemble, this time a smaller, well-nigh ‘Classical’ orchestra. The grave beauty of the opening truly sounded as the scenario has it: ‘Orpheus weeps for Eurydice. He stands motionless…’. Already, there were to be heard in this work (1946-7) intimations of The Rake’s Progress, yet seemingly without its polemical aggression. Orpheus’s violin solo inevitably rekindled memories of The Soldier’s Tale (again) and indeed the Violin Concerto. Rather to my surprise, I also fancied I heard a balletic kinship with Prokofiev. Perhaps it was Jurowski’s ‘Russian’ conducting? I cannot help but feel that some of the later music finds the composer a little on auto-pilot, but maybe it is more a matter of the ultra-neo-Classical æsthetic still presenting problems for me. At any rate, other of Stravinsky’s works from around this period seemed unusually present: the Symphony in Three Movements, Dumbarton Oaks, the Concerto in D. The LPO offered frozen beauty in the final scene, those descending harp scales ritually yet newly combined with lines from horns and trumpet. ‘Orpheus is dead, the song is gone, but the accompaniment goes on.’ That comment from Stravinsky, cited in Anthony Burton’s programme note, was perhaps not without relevance to Birtwistle too.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera, 5 December 2014

 
Royal Opera House
 
Sailor – Ed Lyon
Isolde – Nina Stemme
Brangäne – Sarah Connolly
Kurwenal – Iain Paterson
Tristan – Stephen Gould
Melot – Neal Cooper
King Marke – Sir John Tomlinson
Shepherd – Graham Clark
Steersman – Yuriy Yurchuk 
 
Christof Loy (director)
Julia Burbach (associate director)
Johannes Lieacker (designs)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
 
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)
 
Images: ROH/Clive Barda
 

 
 
 
Christof Loy has established rather a nice line in taking on works he admits he dislikes, or worse, and ignoring them whilst claiming to direct them. The ne plus ultra was surely his Salzburg Frau ohne Schatten, in which he set aside Strauss and Hofmannsthal completely in favour of his own banal story in which ‘an emerging young singer, sheltered and pampered by her well-to-do family is asked to take on the role of the Empress for a complete recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten.’ That was more or less it. His Royal Opera Tristan does not go so far as that, though his Lulu came close; nevertheless, his words speak for themselves. Loy, we read in the programme, cannot ‘really equate the couple’s position as outsiders with a Schopenhauerian denial of the world’. Wagner and many others since have managed to do so, but obviously what matters is a director’s inability or unwillingness to understand the work; that, after all, is what he is paid for. ‘Character direction which is rich in detail and specific’ is what interests Loy most as a director, which is why, he says, he had generally steered clear of Wagner, notorious, the reader will doubtless agree, for his inability to characterise. Tristan, however, seemed to Loy, who, it is once again worth reminding ourselves, the most important figure in all of this, something of an exception. It does not seem that he necessarily wished to traduce the work, then, but he has certainly misunderstood it. Of all Wagner’s works, it is perhaps least of all concerned with what he claims to interest him, and most concerned with metaphysics.
 
So much, then, for the misconception, but how does it play out in practice? Music and the arts in general are, after all, littered with examples of great works founded upon questionable æsthetics. Not too badly, to start with; indeed, I began to think that either my unfavourable memories from 2010 had played tricks upon me or that there had been radical revision. Julia Burbach was listed as an associate director and I think she probably has mitigated a few of Loy’s most irritating excesses; the supremely irrelevant canoodling between Brangäne and Kurwenal, for instance, seems toned down, although it is not, alas, eradicated. A good part of the first act is relatively abstract – pretty much always a good thing in Tristan – or at least may be seen as such with a degree of good will (towards Wagner, if not Loy). Then, when they have a little break, Tristan and Isolde are all over each other. What is the problem with that, one might ask? There seem to be two principal problems. One relates to the specificity of the setting, even if we are not quite sure of what that specificity is. In some building – a palace, perhaps? – awaiting her wedding and thereafter facing the consequences, Isolde manages somehow to escape for long enough to take off her wedding dress and be mauled by Tristan for a while. Still more oddly, she manages to do so for longer still during what may or may not be the wedding reception in the second act. Were there less specificity, this would not matter; playing fast and loose with time and location would not be an issue, and we could accept the overarching mythological claims. Here, however, we are just aware that it is at best rather trivial – Tristan for those who would prefer EastEnders, although a real soap opera viewer would doubtless expect more external action sooner – and often puzzling or downright nonsensical.  
 
The other brings us to the heart of Loy’s error, or, perhaps better, to the heart of Wagner’s – remember him? – work. Wagner’s action is resolutely metaphysical: not exclusively so, but the physical matters only insofar as it draws us towards, or in Schopenhauer’s terms, represents, the metaphysical drama. Since there are no metaphysics in Loy’s view, all we have is an extremely prolonged soap opera, tinged with the occasional aspiration towards Ibsen. Ironically – unknowingly, I suspect – Loy’s acknowledged inability to deal with Schopenhauerian denial of the world seems to have led Loy him to stage the second act as conventional ‘opera’, rather as Wagner acknowledged he could have written it, set against a backdrop of a brilliant court ball, ‘during which the illicit lovers could lose themselves … where their discovery would generate a suitably scandalous impression and the whole apparatus that goes with that.’  Wagner, of course, rejected that possibility he aired for a second act in which almost nothing but music happens. And even when external action intrudes, Wagner came to regard it as of lesser importance at best. His prose sketch had, for instance, drawn to a close, Götterdämmerung-like, with the words, ‘The bystanders are profoundly moved,’ concluding, ‘Marke blesses them’. However, when, in 1859, he summarised the work’s concerns for Mathilde Wesendonck, Wagner went so far as not only to omit the King’s  forgiveness, but also Tristan’s agonies at Kareol; they no longer mattered to him. True action, the Handlung of his own description, now lay in the noumenal world: ‘redemption: death, dying, destruction, never more to waken!’ Such, needless to say, was not what we were permitted to experience here. I should be the last person to claim that, as a general rule, production must exhibit some illusory, disingenuous Werktreue. However, in this particular case, it does seem that a staging of Tristan will not work unless it follows Wagner’s lead. Not for nothing did Nietzsche call it the opus metaphysicum. I know that I was not the only one in the audience looking back fondly to Herbert Wernicke’s comprehending, yet largely uncomprehended, production for this very house.
 
Wernicke’s production had of course been fortunate indeed to have Bernard Haitink, one of the greatest Wagner conductors of our age, in the pit. Haitink, as we know from his Bruckner and Mahler, is a master of large musical structures, and so he proved here. Antonio Pappano seems to have been thinking in similar terms to Loy, with not dissimilar results. Indeed, the scrappiness of the orchestral playing made it markedly inferior to Pappano’s previous accounts, let alone to Haitink’s. Missed entries, thinness of string tone (had I not seen the section with my own eyes, I should have sworn that it was considerably smaller), wavering intonation: none of those helped. More grievous still, however, was Pappano’s seeming inability to let a musical line, let alone a paragraph or some greater structure, unfold. The seemingly arbitrary nature of his beat was mirrored in the aimless meandering of the score. It seemed for the most part very slow; whether it was by the clock, I am not sure. The lack of direction was the problem, though, especially during the second act, which at times seemed almost to grind to a halt. Pappano gave the impression of following rather than leading the singers; that is not, to put it mildly, a recipe for success in Wagner.
 
 
Isolde (Nina Stemme)
Where, however, this Tristan did score over Wernicke and Haitink was with respect to those singers, who, as a cast, are deserving of considerable praise. Nina Stemme offered everything we have come to expect of her as Isolde. With her, words and music formed an indivisible whole; Wagner’s æsthetics emerged triumphant in a variegated reading that yet always belonged to a conception greater than the moment. She even presented us with Nilsson-like angry sarcasm in the first act. Stephen Gould proved a dependable Tristan. Despite a few passages of dubious intonation in the third act, he stayed the course and provided us with as many of the words and notes as it is reasonable to ask. (Haitink was cursed by his Tristans in particular.) Sarah Connolly, at least in the first act, did not offer as rich-toned a Brangäne as I had expected; indeed, Stemme sometimes sounded more the mezzo. Connolly’s reading seemed more focused upon words than line, but without unnecessary disruption of the latter. Iain Paterson offered an intriguingly boisterous, yet at the same time most sensitively sung, Kurwenal. The role seemed to fit him like a glove. Only John Tomlinson’s Marke disappointed. All Wagnerians owe Tomlinson gratitude for his extraordinary years of service, but, undimmed stage presence notwithstanding, the vocal flaws now render such an outing ill-advised. I was most impressed by Neal Cooper’s Melot; before consulting the programme, I had assumed this to be a German tenor. He is, we learn, covering the role of Tristan here and will sing it next year at Longborough. Impressive! Ed Lyon's Sailor was finely sung in very sense. Graham Clark made his typically characterful mark as the Shepherd; as, perhaps more surprisingly, given the brevity of his part, did Jette Parker Young Artist, Yuriy Yurchuk as the Steersman.

 

Friday, 5 December 2014

Biss/Philharmonia/Valčuha - Strauss, Mozart, and Humperdinck, 4 December 2014

Royal Festival Hall
 
 
Strauss – Don Juan, op.20
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.9 in E-flat major, KV 271
Humperdinck – Hänsel und Gretel: Suite
Strauss – Der Rosenkavalier: Suite
 
 
Jonathan Biss (piano)
Olena Tokar (soprano)
Kai Rüütel (mezzo-soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Juraj Valčuha (conductor)
 
As Strauss year draws towards a close, the Philharmonia under Juraj Valčuha offered a rather lovely pendant, two of his own works – the Rosenkavalier Suite sort of counts – paired with excerpts from an opera whose premiere he conducted, and an early masterpiece from the composer he, rightly, adored above all others. I still have two major performances to go: both Der Rosenkavalier and Elektra in Dresden (on which I shall report back soon), but this certainly kept me going in the meantime.
 
So extraordinarily accomplished and characteristic is Don Juan that we can forget how early a work it is; indeed, Strauss was only three years older than Mozart was when he composed his Ninth Piano Concerto. There was certainly nothing jejune to this account from Valčuha’s and the Phiharmonia. The opening was precise, not pedantic, its vitality and indeed vitalism aided by the greatest orchestral clarity and cultivation. Immediately afterwards, Valčuha displayed a commendable, meaningful flexibility that marked out this performance as integrative, in a well-nigh Wagnerian, musico-dramatic sense, rather than streamlined and shoehorned. Perhaps there was the occasional transition which might have been smoother still, but that is really to nit-pick, and perhaps to attempt a trade off with the keen sense of drama achieved. There was a beautifully judged early sunset, always a pertinent Straussian test; this was noble, without a hint of sentimentality, just as the Lenau-Strauss hero should be. A deep string sound worked wonders, passages with violas, cellos, and basses together reminding us that there are gains as well as losses to the now-unfashionable arrangement that has them seated together. Horns at that moment, followed by violins in all their Straussian glory, told us what mattered about this hero. His materialist death, in all its necessary instrumental detail, could not eclipse that memory.
 
As Jonathan Biss was about to come on stage for the concerto, Mitsuko Uchida crept into the Stalls: quite an endorsement, by any standards. The visible keenness of her listening and the generosity of her response would almost have been worth the price of admission in themselves. I was perhaps a little less enamoured with Biss’s performance, although there was certainly much to admire. Valčuha proved himself an expert ‘accompanist’, the opening to the first movement at least as alert as that to Don Juan. The Philharmonia offered wonderfully cultivated playing once again, deftly shaped by the conductor. Biss responded with clear, at times even pearly tone, my principal reservation about this movement simply being the tempo: was it perhaps a little too hurried? One might argue that this is a young man’s music, but I am not sure what that proves; in any case, does not all of Mozart’s music fall into that category? There was no quarrel to be had, though, with the shaping of phrases. Form was very clearly defined; particularly noticeable was the sense of kinship with older concerto forms in the orchestral tutti. Although the second movement was again on the swift side, it did not feel hurried. Operatic sadness and import were well judged. Likewise, there was a fine sense of musico-dramatic impetus, bringing us perhaps closer to Strauss than one might have thought, and certainly reminding us of another of his enthusiasms, the operas of Gluck. Above all, harmonic rhythm was understood and communicated. The finale lifted the spirits with a good nature to rival Haydn’s. Although its minuet was certainly graceful, Biss was perhaps a little cool. There was no doubting, however, his technique; repeated notes, for instance, were an object lesson in performance.
 
It would take a sterner, steelier soul than mine to resist the call of those opening horns in the Overture to Hänsel und Gretel, especially when so tenderly played – the German weich seems so apt here – and so warmly responded to. I was drawn in, just as if in the opera house. Valčuha thereafter served up a lovable pot pourri, perhaps not quite so symphonic as when I heard Sir Colin Davis conduct the opera at Covent Garden, but that is a comparison unduly odious. Olena Tokar, whom I had previously admired in Das Liebesverbot in Leipzig, and Kai Rüütel, whom I heard as Echo in this opera at its Royal Opera revival, both impressed in the opening duet and beyond. Voices and characters were sharply differentiated, Valčuha showing himself to be an operatic ‘natural’. (He is, I later learned, due this season to conduct Parsifal in Budapest, Turandot in Naples, and Jenůfa in Bologna.) And yes, your stern Beckmesser melted in the dance song. The Sandman’s Song followed, Tokar benefiting from breathtaking orchestral stillness at its opening; this certainly had that necessary sense of magic. The sincerity of Tokar’s delivery, when she told of angels bringing down sweet dreams from heaven, brought at least one tear to my eye. Following the Prayer, the siblings left the stage for the concluding Dream Pantomime, whose shaping was undoubtedly symphonic, Wagnerian brass and all. If Valčuha lingered just a little long towards the end, it was a fault readily forgiven.
 
For all one might suspect there to be affinity, what struck with the opening of the Rosenkavalier Suite – yes, I am afraid, the wretched 1945 assemblage, to whom no one ever seems to have owned up – was difference. A glistening edge returned to the orchestra. Romanticism was dead; modernist phantasmagoria – and what phantasmagoria! – was enthroned in all its assiduously pictorial glory. There was no doubt what was being depicted in the Prelude’s thrusting and afterglow. Even without voices, the Presentation of the Rose was well handled. Valčuha could not paper over some of the later cracks, but I am not sure that anyone has ever been able to do so. At least we got to enjoy the luck of the Lerchenaus with a decent swagger and lilt.
 
I hope that we shall hear more from this conductor, both in the concert hall and in the opera house. Both ENO and the Royal Opera would be well advised to offer him engagements.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Queyras/Melnikov - Beethoven, 30 November 2014


Wigmore Hall

Cello Sonata in F major, op.5 no.1
Cello Sonata in G minor, op.5 no.2
Seven Variations on ‘Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen,’ WoO 46
Cello Sonata in A major, op.69

Jean-Guihen Queyras (cello)
Alexander Melnikov (piano)
 

My only regret connected with this concert was that teaching rendered me unable to attend its successor the following evening, when Jean-Guihen Queyras and Alexander Melnikov completed their survey of Beethoven’s works for cello and piano. This was splendid chamber-music-making: no particular ‘points’ being made, but simply, though in reality not at all ‘simply’, excellent communication and exploration of fine music.
 

The first sonata, op.5 no.1, opened in light, understated fashion, which yet told of tensions beneath the surface, this first movement introduction pregnant, as any Beethovenian introduction should be, with possibilities. Energy was pent up ready for the exposition proper, the tempo strikingly yet convincingly flexible. Sharply pointed, sharply directed, that exposition and indeed the performance as a whole were imbued with a crucial sense that every note mattered. Influences of Mozart and Haydn were certainly felt, but Beethoven’s identity remained unmistakeable. Expansiveness was relished but direction was maintained. Queyras proved both lithe and lyrical, Melnikov properly protean. The second movement was playful, with a keen sense of response between the players. A fleet tempo never moved towards being garbled, as it might have done in lesser hands. Balance was never a problem, even when Melnikov occasionally made an almighty noise. Formal roots may have lain in Haydn, but again there was no mistaking the composer.
 

The companion sonata, in G minor, followed. This is a key that inevitably brings Mozart to mind, and the introduction to the first movement certainly seemed haunted, though never overwhelmed, by his ghost. There was a tragic impulse, laudably never hurried, to the main body of the movement too. Major mode passages were given their due, but one heard them in the light of the tonic key. Motivic working and harmony worked in tandem to propel the sonata’s progress. The second movement offered tonal and, again, playful relief. There was grace aplenty, Queyras’s lyricism especially appreciated, but above all a sense of response to tensions previously explored. Not, of course, that that response was too readily accomplished, but accomplished it was.
 

The ‘Bei Männern’ Variations received a cultivated performance. Inventiveness, more in an eighteenth-century than Diabelli-like fashion, was the hallmark of work and performance, the latter detailed without being fussy. The variety of ‘voices’ Queyras extracted from his instrument was noteworthy, both in itself and for its expressive use. The sadness of the minor-mode variation, the scherzo-like quality of its successor – again, that playfulness! – and the rapt ornamentation of the sixth: all those qualities and more served both to differentiate and to dramatise.
 

The greater complexity of the op.69 Sonata in A major was apparent from the outset, enjoining the listener to still greater effort, the performance however an excellent guide to such effort. Simplicity of building blocks and complexity of what the composer does: such was the dialectic to be explored here. Melnikov took more of an obvious lead in the second movement, though not at Queyras’s expense. Rhythmic command proved crucial for both, the incessant quality of Beethoven’s writing unfailingly communicated. The finale opened as if the slow movement we had yet to hear. It was a surprise well concealed until the moment of telling. And even then, contrast between music of differing pulse was very much at the heart of the performance. Dynamic contrasts and transitions worked similarly. There was ultimate musical exultance, but it remained of a reflective character.

 
 
 

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Philippe Sands, A Song of Good and Evil (premiere), 29 November 2014


Purcell Room
 
Vanessa Redgrave and Philippe Sands (narrators)
Laurent Naouri (bass-baritone)
Guillaume de Chassy (piano)
Nina Brazier (director)

 

A Song of Good and Evil received its premiere as part of the Southbank Centre’s Literature Autumn Festival 2014. It is a piece difficult, perhaps impossible to classify – a point not entirely without relevance to its subject matter. Perhaps it is better simply to describe. With the help of pictures, music, and narration we learned of the intersection of three lives in Lemberg/Lvov and Nuremberg: the lives of two lawyers, Hersch Lauterpacht, Rafael Lemkin, and Hans Frank. Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin studied at the University of Lemberg or Lwów (the city had, yet again, changed its name and indeed country, in the very few intervening years); both, indeed, were taught by the same jurist. Frank visited as Governor-General in August 1942. All three would be crucial figures at the Nuremberg Trials, Frank of course meeting his death as a consequence, Lauterpacht and Lemkin leading advocates, indeed international legal originators, of the concepts of crimes against humanity and genocide. The conflict between the two concepts, between protection of individuals and that of groups, was clearly explained – and, in a postscript, pursued in more recent years. Frank, it should be added, was certainly in some sense responsible, and held by Lauterpacht and Lemkin to be responsible, for the deaths of their relatives.
 

Such, apparently, is part of the material for a book by Philippe Sands, to be published in 2016. This piece also offered opportunity for reflection on the role of music, always so crucial to German culture and to German reflection upon culture. We all know how indelibly pieces of music can become associated with particular times, places, and events. There is something truly disconcerting about the thought that both Lauterpacht and Frank derived inspiration and solace from Bach’s St Matthew Passion during the final days at Nuremberg. Laurent Naouri, fresh from Thursday’s performance of Pelléas et Mélisande, and jazz pianist, Guillaume de Chassy offered musical excerpts and in some cases whole performances, one of which was ‘Erbarme dich’ (usually, of course, heard from a mezzo, but sounding not at all out of place in a moving, direct performance). Opening with Ravel’s Yiddish ‘L’enigme éternelle’, one of his two Mélodies hébraïques, we ended with what, in context, we could hardly fail to consider a call for universal human rights in Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. Along the way, other music included a snatch, albeit for piano alone, of Prokofiev’s Overture on Hebrew Themes, the beginning of the slow movement of the Pathétique Sonata (played by Lautenbach’s wife when they met), some Bach-Busoni (‘Ich ruf’ zu dir’), Paul Misraki’s Insensiblement (heard by a reporter in a French café when news of Frank’s execution reached him), and other pieces.
 

Perhaps the most controversial inclusion was a setting by Frédéric Chaslin (‘in the style of Richard Strauss’) of Wer tritt herein, so fesch und schlank? Strauss set the words in praise of Frank in 1943, but the music seems to have been lost. It is difficult to imagine it being sung often, even if it had survived. Chaslin’s setting did a passable imitation of Strauss, without truly convincing, but then that was not really the point. It was difficult, however, to feel that Strauss, described as a ‘friend’ of Frank was being treated entirely fairly; we might have been informed of the cat-and-mouse game the Nazi authorities played with him, or at least of his Jewish grandchildren. But then, one has to admit that there are far more deserving recipients of our sympathy than Strauss.
 

The material was well selected and presented. Sands and Vanessa Redgrave shared the narration; it was certainly quite a treat, even in such difficult circumstances, to hear Redgrave’s way with words. Naouri proved himself adept in various languages and styles, as did his pianist. A sobering, fascinating, and in the best sense provocative evening.