Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Zukerman/Staatskapelle Berlin/Shani - Elgar and Mussorgsky, 13 January 2020

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Elgar: Violin Concerto in B minor, op.61
Mussorgsky-Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition

Pinchas Zukerman (violin)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Lahav Shani (conductor)

Strange though this may sound to the uninitiated, Daniel Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin now stands second to none in contemporary Elgar performance. Barenboim’s long association with the composer has latterly seen an Indian summer, much of which I have been privileged to hear. This evening, in the fourth of the orchestra’s seasonal subscription concerts and the third to include music by Elgar (!), it was time to hear from Barenboim’s similarly long-term associate, Pinchas Zukerman, and a more recent associate, Lahav Shani, with whom the orchestra already seems to be on good terms.

The opening tutti certainly suggested a similar affinity on Shani’s part for the composer: passionate, urgent, and flexible as required, as idiomatic as it was ‘objectively’ convincing. The Staatskapelle, moreover, played as if it were playing for Barenboim himself. Tender, noble, rich, and dark: one could not reasonably have asked for more. This was a Romantic rather than a modernist Elgar, but there is nothing wrong with that. There would have been little virtue in attempting to present a performance someone else, let alone Barenboim, would have given. Zukerman’s entry suggested something similar, his golden, even glamorous tone recognisable of old. There was something, moreover, intriguing, not just here in the first movement but throughout, to the Brahmsian confrontation of soloist and orchestra we heard: these interpreters again very much their own men. Sadly, the charms of what increasingly sounded more like aggression on Zukerman’s part began to pale. Not only was he sometimes out of sync with the orchestra in his passagework – however craftily Shani covered up for him – but the unyielding, squarer quality of his playing was less than suggestive of much in the way of musical sensitivity. At its best, the glamour was irresistible, but was it Elgar? The slow movement fared better, roots in German Romanticism clear and meaningful. It was taken very slowly, but was none the worse for that. Shani, however, was still doing most of the real work. The finale was probably better forgotten. By turns unduly deliberate and running away with itself, it never settled down and threatened to seem interminable. There were wonderful moments, but the golden thread proved sadly elusive. A pity.

I felt no such reservations or difficulties concerning the second half: Pictures at an Exhibition in Ravel’s orchestration. Insofar as I had any at all, they related as ever to Ravel’s enterprise itself; even on that count, I had fewer than usual. Shani, seemingly liberated, conducted without a score, leading a performance full of incident but also possessed of long-term coherence. The opening Promenade had a similar urgency to the opening of the Elgar, yet rightly opened the door to music of very different qualities. ‘Gnomus’ boasted depth of string tone and agility in equal measure, colour, and above all mystery. There was not a little of that to ‘Il vechhio castello’ too, Gallic suavity – also heard later, in ‘Limoges: Le marché’ – balanced by occasional hints at an intriguing post-Mozartian sensibility. ‘Bydlo’, however, was more Russian, Ravel’s crescendo and diminuendo notwithstanding. (Surely he had to do something along such lines anyway. Mussorgsky’s strategy could hardly have worked as it did with orchestra.) Its shadow darkened the following Promenade and seemed also to inspire the portrait of ‘Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle’. Antisemitic? Undoubtedly, yet we lose something if we sit too sternly in judgement. Wagnerian brass turned Russian as we toured the catacombs. The spirit of Boris Godunov appeared not for the first time in the unease and sheer malevelonce of ‘Cum mortuis in lingua mortua’. Baba Yaga’s arrival took one’s breath away, Shani’s insistence on motor rhythms strongly suggestive of Prokofiev. Perhaps perversely, I missed the piano most for ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, though there was no doubting the excellence of the playing, nor Shani’s command. Ravel’s cunning hints at Boris-like orchestration made their point in any case.

Levit - Muffat, Rzewski, Kerll, and Busoni, 11 January 2020

Pierre Boulez Saal

Images: Peter Adamik

Muffat: Apparatus musico-organisticus: Passacaglia in G minor
Rzewski: Dreams II
Kerll: Passacaglia in D minor
Busoni: Fantasia contrappuntistica

I have heard a good number of ambitious musical performances, ambitions fully realised, from Igor Levit, ranging from his Wigmore Hall Beethoven sonata cycle to a landmark modern performance of Henze’s Tristan in Salzburg. None of those, however, would outstrip the ambition, again fully realised, of this, his Pierre Boulez Saal debut recital, culminating in Busoni’s Fantasia contrappuntistica, a work which, he owns, is a ‘borderline piece’, which ‘takes me to the limits of my abilities – mentally, intellectually, physically’. Those limits, if limits they were, were thrilling to explore.

Two seventeenth-century passacaglias, from Georg Muffat and Johann Caspar Kerll, rarely if ever heard on the modern or indeed any other form of piano, proved not the least of the recital’s achievements. Georg Muffat’s G minor piece, from his 1690 Apparatus musico-organisticus, revealed kinship with music from contemporary clavecinistes, early keyboard composers (Frescobaldi came to mind more than once), and later composers from Bach to Brahms, and perhaps even beyond to Busoni. Delicate, responsive, variegated in a developmental sense, Levit’s performance had one feel as well as observe the composer’s balance between detail and longer line: not so different, after all, from Beethoven. Harmony was relished; harmonic motion was meaningfully conveyed. So too were the surprises Muffat sprang for us: no underlining, ‘just’ musical understanding and communication. It had all the inevitability of Hegel’s owl of Minerva taking flight, yet none of that old bird’s baggage. Levit’s performance of Kerll’s piece had all the virtues of his Muffat and likewise all of its particularity. Voice-leading, quite without narcissism, was nonetheless to die for. Its directed freedom created form before our ears. We travelled from intimacy to exultancy, the latter never failing to nurture continuation of the former from within.

In between came Frederic Rzewski’s 2014 Dreams II, written for Levit (and previously heard by me at the Wigmore Hall in 2015). Its four movements did, whether as work or performance, what they said in their titles – ‘Bells’, ‘Fireflies’, ‘Ruins’, ‘Wake up’ – without conforming to mere expectation, without questioning as well as fulfilling. Indeed, questioning seemed to be very much part and parcel of their fulfilment. The first movement seemed to relate both to Debussy and to Webern, but that was never the point, not even the starting point, in a performance of calibrated drama. Increasingly seductive warmth proved anything but antithetical to crystalline clarity. Febrile and flickering, the second movement burned with mercurial heat. The pianist’s riveting virtuosity once again spoke from apparently Debussyan roots, yet who speaks or thinks of roots in relation to fireflies? Rzewski’s ‘Ruins’ seemed known – ruins tend to – yet the more one listened, the more one realised one had not known them at all. Again, ruins tend to be like that. Their (re)discovery was a wayward process that built on the previous two movements, yet was very much its own thing. The final movement was shaped, dramatised as keenly as Beethoven – or Muffat. Somehow, it seemed already to be hinting at Busoni, not least in its dynamic form and its toccata-like qualities. In its improvisatory reminiscence-cum-creation of whimsical childhood memories it spoke too of dreams, of their magic, of their power.

Like Doktor Faust, Busoni’s fantasia has the quality of a summa, even a summa theologica. Levit’s ‘Preludio corale’ seemed already to encompass the entirety of his instrument in considerably more than mere compass. Questing, like Faust, like Busoni, to bring order out of chaos, the process was never complete, yet no less real like that. Good German (convert) that he was, Busoni believed in werden rather than sein. Beethoven and Liszt flashed by, the pianist-composer’s battle with Bach but one of the dramas, the theologies at stake here. With lightly-worn – insofar as possible! – virtuosity and veiled clarity, Levit proved a sure guide, though whether to the inferno or to paradise was rightly never clear. Busoni’s Sonatina seconda from two years later (1912) hung in the air, suspended, yet somehow also flayed alive. The fugal path was soon upon us, the first of Busoni’s four a further, developmental prelude in miniature (not-so-very miniature) Transition was, it seemed, everything; so too was that journey to the limits of which the pianist had spoken in the programme. Alternative paths to a twentieth century that never quite was, Schoenberg be damned, opened up before us in the Intermezzo and Variations. This, it seemed, was veritable necromancy, but whose? What was the cadenza, and what was the following fugue? The answer was, on one level, perfectly clear; yet it seemed to miss the point entirely. Transition, again, was all. Neo-Lisztian peroration pointed more to the impossibility of completion than Bach could ever have done. If a ‘point’ there were, perhaps it was that. Or perhaps it was the melting encore, the Bach-Busoni Chorale Prelude, ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland’. Mephistopheles does not always have the last word.

Beat Furrer, Violetter Schnee, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 10 January 2020

Images: Monika Rittershaus

Silvia – Anna Prohaska
Natascha – Elsa Dreisig
Jan – Gyula Orendt
Peter – Georg Nigl
Jacques – Otto Katzameier
Tanja – Martina Gedeck
Dancers – Uri Burger, Alexander Fend, Gernot Frischling, Annekatrin Kiesel, Victoria McConnell, Filippo Serra

Claus Guth (director)
Étienne Pluss (set designs)
Ursula Kudrna (costumes)
Arian Andiel (video)
Olaf Freese (lighting)

Vocalconsort Berlin
Staatskapelle Berlin
Matthias Pintscher (conductor)

Silvia (Anna Prohaska), Tanja (Martina Gedeck)

The word Gesamtkunstwerk should probably be retired – especially with respect to Wagner, who, not that one would know from 99%+ of the ‘literature’, barely used it. Or perhaps it should not, so long as we separate it from Wagner and acknowledge a broader context and understanding, both preceding and following the Master of Bayreuth (or, better, the ‘artwork of the future’). For Gesamtkunstwerk retains a certain ‘ideal’ force in many respects, just as do, say, ‘epic’ and ‘postdramatic’ theatre, both of which will generally be understood partly as reactions to it. In 2020, any serious consideration of one, be it theoretical, practical, or both, will almost certainly entail consideration of the others. This evening, the first of two revival performances of Beat Furrer’s 2019 opera, Violetter Schnee, elicited such thoughts of quasi-Adornian Rettung in that I found it difficult as well as undesirable to try to separate Claus Guth’s production from either work or performance. Whether you call that a Gesamtkunstwerk matters little; however, depending on your standpoint, perhaps the idea’s modernist heritage will. At any rate, I shall not attempt to dissect, but rather to give an impression of the whole, illusory or otherwise.

Those of us who spend a good deal of time in museums and art galleries will have been familiar, perhaps too familiar, with the scene of the opening. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Die Jäger im Schnee enjoys – and suffers – a painting’s usual fate, at least when not snowed under by visitors. However, one visitor, Tanja (played in distinctive, declamatory fashion by actress Martina Gedeck), takes more notice, becomes immersed, affording the starting point for something, like snow, difficult and undesirable to pin down: an aesthetic, but perhaps also a dramatic, odyssey. That, at least is how it might seem; or does the world that emerges from the painting, breathtakingly constructed from enlargement and development of its detail by Guth’s team (Étienne Pluss, Ursula Kudrna, Arian Andiel, and Olaf Freese), actually exist first, and give rise to her visit, perhaps to the painting too? Apocalypse deferred or frozen in both soon seems neither to have been deferred nor frozen at all.

Winter snow may be an object of aesthetic contemplation for us: more so than ever in an age of ecological catastrophe in which we rightly fear that soon we may never see it again, or we may see little else. It is too for the cast, led by spellbinding performances from sopranos Anna Prohaska and Elsa Dreisig, pure, seductive, and dangerous as the falling and driven snow. Yet it is also for them the key to catastrophe; any attempt to distinguish seems once again to miss the point. Where some characters, if one may call them that, acknowledge that - Otto Katzameier's Jacques most consistently – others seem, or is that just us as spectators, more partial. A house in which characters are trapped, from which they continually escape to the rooftop to experience the snow that will claim them soon enough, offers form, visual, dramatic, even musical; or so we imagine. At any rate, its confines, like those of the score, those of the stage, those of the opera house, both permit and prevent our eyes and ears zooming in on detail – as in (imaginary outsider?) Tanja’s (imaginary?) gallery. 

Furrer’s word-setting acknowledges and extends partiality and wholeness of experience, yet also calls them into question. Its metrical intricacies do not merely mirror the snow; do they perhaps in some aesthetic, even aestheticising sense, incite or create it? Shifting orchestral timbres, Klangfarbenmelodien for an age in which snow might eventually turn violet, seem at times to form the basis for pitch, rhythm, and other parameters, at other times to carry on regardless: like snow, like humans lost therein. What about the meantime? Those humans might ask each other that, but do they, and what would be the point? Maybe there is no meantime, for the end is soon upon us. Guided by Matthias Pintscher’s typically expert direction of the superlative Staatskapelle Berlin, we know and yet do not know that the magic of a Gesamtkunstwerk, of nature, of art, of aesthetic contemplation, of activism, have passed before us and yet also have not. Sun will come, will vanquish – and it does. Viole(n)t snow and life? Certainly. Why? Who knows and who cares? Frame and stage remain: faithful reflection, artifice, or both? 

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Hänsel und Gretel, Deutsche Oper, 4 January 2020

Images from the 1997 premiere: © Bettina Stöß

Peter – Noel Bouley
Gertrud – Heidi Melton
Hänsel – Jana Kurucová
Gretel – Alexandra Hutton
Witch – Andrew Dickinson
Sandman, Dew Fairy – Flurina Stucki

Andreas Homoki (director)
Wolfgang Gussmann (designs)
Silke Sense (revival director)

Children’s Chorus (chorus director: Christian Lindhorst) of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

A lovely way to open my operatic year: a new—to me—production of an opera of which I never tire, Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. Andreas Homoki’s Deutsche Oper production was first seen in 1997 and has clearly done sterling service for a mixed audience of children and adults. (There are matinee performances intended more specifically for families, but there were plenty of well-behaved—often far more so than the adults—children on the evening I attended.) There are clearly limits to what will be thought of as appropriate for such a production. In no sense does Homoki’s team, including revival director, Silke Sense, come close to what remains for me the finest exploration of the work’s dark side: Liam Steel’s 2016 Royal College of Music production. But then, that is not what they are trying to do. The story is told directly, without kitschy evasion or indeed kitsch of any variety. It offers an apt sense of wonder, colour—perhaps heat too, at least metaphorically?—increasing from the relatively drab, humdrum house from which the children have started. Clowns offer a hint or two of menace as the creatures of the forest: clowns always do. The witch is clearly a tormented soul as well as tormentor, a point concerning which, like others, one can make what one wishes. Children doubtless will have done: in no sense being condescended to in the recreation of ‘childhood’ many adults, declining to face up to their own anxieties and fears, wish upon their presumed charges.

I should have to go back, I think, to Sir Colin Davis at Covent Garden to recall so finely conducted a performance. Donald Runnicles and the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper did Humperdinck proud not only in presentation but in exploration. Here in the orchestra, one might say, we heard the most fruitful and challenging musical drama. It would be difficult, no impossible, and certainly perverse to play down Humperdinck’s Wagnerisms. Even when they verge on outright plagiarism they do not fail to charm—unlike those of many successors. To hear a performance, however, in which the conductor makes so much of the weblike connection of motifs that one fancies one might be hearing the work of The Master himself is a rare treat indeed. So too is to hear quite how much Humperdinck’s score owes—or can be made to owe—to the yearning of Tristan as to the more obvious candidates, above all to Die Meistersinger. What to make of that? There are psychoanalytical possibilities aplenty, for those willing to take them. Does that not after all penetrate to the heart of what fairy tales have to offer? Speaking of seduction, who could resist the polished tone, dark or golden by turn, of this orchestra at something approaching its best?

Jana Kurucová and Alexandra Hutton made for an engaging central pair: well contrasted and yet also complementary, as adept with stage business as vocal line in construction and development of character. Heidi Melton surely falls into the category of ‘luxury casting’ for their mother, Gertrud, and what a welcome luxury this proved to be, Wagnerian antecedents present for those who wished to consider them, yet perfectly scaled—not necessarily scaled down—and imbued with abundant warmth and humanity. Noel Bouley’s Peter sounded a little out of sorts toward the close, but it was nothing too serious. Andrew Dickinson’s Witch intrigued: no mere caricature, though ultimately an enigma. Flurina Stucki as the Sandman and Dew Fairy, together with the children’s choir and movement choir, all contributed to the evening’s enchantment. Next operatic stop: across town for something rather different, Beat Furrer’s Violetter Schnee.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Mozart and Beethoven, 31 December 2019

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Mozart: Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, KV 466
Beethoven: Symphony no.9 in D minor, op.125

Elena Stikhina (soprano)
Marina Prudenskaya (mezzo-soprano)
Andreas Schager (tenor)
René Pape (bass)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

It is difficult to imagine many people missing 2019, save for any comparisons drawn with 2020. Such is the basis on which many of us have been operating since 2016. Alas, civilisation’s relentless downward slide, at least in the Anglosphere, still shows no sign whatsoever of being arrested; quite the contrary. We have music, though, and we have Beethoven in particular. Moreover, not only will 2020 be his anniversary year, it will be that of the Staatskapelle Berlin, celebrating its 450th anniversary. The orchestra’s traditional New Year performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony thus seemed more than usually apt—and, dare I say, more than usually welcome too. On coming to the stage, Daniel Barenboim paid tribute to the recently departed souls of Peter Schreier and Harry Kupfer, to whose memory this New Year’s Eve concert was dedicated.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B-flat major, KV 450, had originally been advertised to precede the symphony. It would have had splendid numerical resonance and would surely have disappointed no one, but the D minor Concerto, KV 466, another journey from D minor to major, arguably made better sense still. The sound and spirit of the Staatskapelle Berlin, dark and cultivated in equal measure, spoke unmistakeably of tragedy, perhaps of anger and loss too. Balance, though, proved equally important, both in this first movement and throughout—as within the orchestra and between orchestra and piano. Versicle and response; chamber and orchestral music; Beethoven and beyond: such apparent oppositions turned out to be complementary, collaborative. Mozartian perfection ultimately brooks no dissent. Phrasing was exquisite in the best sense: quite without self-regard, presenting this extraordinarily developmental music ‘as it is’. Beethoven’s cadenza proved just the thing for this performance. What knowledge, experience, and drama Barenboim poured into it, without sacrifice to essential simplicity.

The slow movement opened in tones of balm, consolation, even forgiveness: unfathomably deep, without apparent effort. An unfortunate memory lapse at the onset of the G minor episode, Barenboim apparently lost in reverie, was recovered from, serving perhaps as a reminder that we are all human. At any rate, the finale opened as urgently as ever I have heard it, perhaps more so. On a knife-edge, frankly terrifying, this was music that spoke less of Figaro’s forgiveness than of Don Giovanni’s defiance and retribution. It was also, ultimately, as richly comedic—in the proper sense. Given another strange disjuncture between piano and orchestra, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that the preceding movement’s mishap had continued to distress Barenboim as soloist. The cadenza's intensity, however, sounded all the greater for it.

The Ninth Symphony likewise opened in vehement, tragic mode, albeit more elemental. Motivic and harmonic insistence seemed both to do battle with motivic and harmonic development and to depend on each other: just as it should be. The suspended strangeness of the opening to the first movement development was little short of astounding, similarly the rawness of return. Tension held, indeed increased, to the end of the movement likewise had to be heard to be believed. Violas took us down to Hades; woodwind suggested an alternative, rendering Beethoven’s final tragedy all the more awesome. A scherzo both ghostly and raucous, inexorable yet never unyielding, found contrast and complement in a haunted trio that tried to console yet knew it was too early. Incarnation and communion characterised the slow movement; mystery, the sweetest of mysteries, came down to and dwelled among us. Unfolding with all the time in the world, it seemed already to embrace those millions of whom we should hear more later. It flowed like the mightiest yet also the gentlest of rivers, its source still discernible in Haydn, yet leading us down to the metaphysical sea.

The urgency of Beethoven’s search for the human voice seemed to recall the urgency of the opening of Mozart’s finale. Horrors and hopes of the past year(s) flashed before us. The advent of the theme proved almost too much to take; Beethoven and these wonderful musicians offered succour. This was everything, or so it seemed. René Pape’s cry of ‘O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!’, free yet perfectly judged, might have had one wish ‘if only…’. For now, at least, though, one could and must believe. Impetus and line: these and more were in Barenboim’s gift and were readily, hungrily received. There was something almost Mahlerian to the apparition of Heaven before us. There was no question, moreover, with these soloists and this choir of failing to hear the words and feel their meaning. Andreas Schager’s proud delivery in the Turkish March was followed by a string-based battle royal, both human and divine. Trombones both rich and tender on ‘Seid umschlungen’ sounded, rightly, archaic, of then, of now, and perhaps also of a hope for a future. The company not only of heaven but of Europe and all humanity could resound and did. However fleetingly, alle Menschen wurden Brüder.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Opera and concert tally for 2019

Wonderful to have attended so many concerts of contemporary music this year, not least in order to welcome so many women composers to the list, some for the first time. No apologies for Beethoven, Wagner, Mozart, et al.; nor for four absorbing encouters with the music of Helmut Lachenmann, although it was at least as delightful to add to them three with the music of Olga Neuwirth.

Beethoven, Wagner 11

Mozart 10

Haydn, Schumann, Strauss 6

Bach, Brahms, Mahler, Tchaikovsky 5

Bartók, Berlioz, Handel, Lachenmann, Ligeti, Prokofiev, Puccini, Schubert, Stockhausen 4

Boulez, Debussy, Dvořak, Janáček, Liszt, Messiaen, Olga Neuwirth, Rameau, Ravel, Saint-Saëns, Schoenberg, Varèse 3

Anahita Abbasi, Benjamin, Berg, Bruckner, Cage, Elgar, Peter Eötvös, Franck, Henze, Purcell. Rebecca Saunders, Wolf 2

Hans Abrahamsen, Louis Andriessen, Birtwistle, Berio, Annesley Black, Blow, Britten, Cherubini, Chopin, Anne Cleare, William Cole, Chaya Czernowin, Dallapiccola, Dukas, Enescu, Falla, Ashley Fure, Zeynep Gedizlioğlu, Gershwin, Glinka, Gérard Grisey, Martin Grütter, Alexandre Guilmant, Emily Hall, Gavin Higgins, Toshio Hosokawa, Dani Howard, Gottfried Huppertz, Betsy Jolas, Kodály, Korngold, Stephan Koncz, Thomas Larcher, David Lang, Philip Lawton, Oliver Leith, Lutosławski, Philippe Manoury, Vicente Martin y Soler, Martinů, Benedict Mason, Mendelssohn, Cathy Milliken, Monteverdi, Misha Mullov-Abbado, Mussorgsky, Otto Nicolai, Nono, Mithatcan Öcal, Offenbach, Guillem Palomar, Paisiello, Poulenc, André Previn, Rachmaninov, Sunleif Rasmussen, Johann Adam Reincken, Hermann Reutter, Rossini, Rzewski, Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti, Salieri, Jonathan Scott, Tom Scott, Scriabin, Donghoon Shin, Sibelius, Valentin Silvestrov, Miroslav Srnka, Josephine Stevenson, Stravinsky, Giles Swayne, Telemann, Ustolvskaya, Errollyn Wallen, Weber, Webern, Stevie Wishart, Xenakis, Zemlinsky, Vito Žuraj 1

Concert tally for 2019

Here, as promised, is my tally of concerts (not operas, for which click here) attended during 2019. I think I have included everything, even those not reviewed, but may have forgotten or miscounted the odd thing. One composer is counted once per concert, whether for three minutes of Webern or three hours of Messiaen. Opera performances in concert fall under opera, but individual arias etc. are listed here. It is encouraging, I think, to see such a variety of contemporary composers featured and to see Haydn's music, which one can never, ever hear enough, at joint second. (No slight to Schumann intended.) A consolidated performance list of operas and concerts will follow. In the meantime, Happy Beethoven Year!

Beethoven 11

Haydn, Schumann 6

Bach, Brahms, Mahler, Mozart 5

Bartók, Lachenmann, Ligeti, Schubert, Stockhausen, Strauss 4

Boulez, Debussy, Liszt, Messiaen, Prokofiev, Ravel, Schoenberg, Tchaikovsky, Varèse 3

Anahita Abbasi, Berlioz, Bruckner, Cage, Dvořák, Elgar, Peter Eötvös, Franck, Olga Neuwirth, Rameau, Rebecca Saunders, Saint-Saëns, Wagner, Wolf 2

Hans Abrahamsen, Louis Andriessen, Benjamin, Berg, Berio, Annesley Black, Chopin, Anne Cleare, William Cole, Dallapiccola, Dukas, Enescu, Falla, Ashley Fure, Zeynep Gedizlioğlu, Gershwin, Glinka, Gérard Grisey, Martin Grütter, Alexandre Guilmant, Emily Hall, Toshio Hosokawa, Gottfried Huppertz, Betsy Jolas, Kodály, Stephan Koncz, Thomas Larcher, David Lang, Philip Lawton, Oliver Leith, Lutosławski, Philippe Manoury, Vicente Martin y Soler, Martinů, Benedict Mason, Mendelssohn, Cathy Milliken, Monteverdi, Misha Mullov-Abbado, Nono, Mithatcan Öcal, Guillem Palomar, Paisiello, Poulenc, André Previn, Purcell, Rachmaninov, Sunleif Rasmussen, Johann Adam Reincken, Hermann Reutter, Rossini, Rzewski, Domenico Scarlatti, Salieri, Jonathan Scott, Tom Scott, Scriabin, Donghoon Shin, Sibelius, Valentin Silvestrov, Miroslav Srnka, Josephine Stevenson, Stravinsky, Giles Swayne, Telemann, Ustolvskaya, Errollyn Wallen, Weber, Webern, Stevie Wishart, Xenakis, Vito Žuraj 1

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Opera tally for 2019

Wagner 9
Mozart 5
Handel, Puccini 4
Janáček 3
Berlioz, Henze, Strauss, Tchaikovsky 2
Benjamin, Berg, Birtwistle, Blow, Britten, Cherubini, Chaya Czernowin, Dvořak, Gavin Higgins, Dani Howard, Korngold, Mussorgsky, Otto Nicolai, Offenbach, Olga Neuwirth, Rameau, Prokofiev, Purcell, Saint-Saëns, Alessandro Scarlatti, Zemlinsky 

A visit to Bayreuth is odds-on to provide a Wagner victory in this annual tally; so it was in 2019. (No such visit being planned in 2020, perhaps someone else will have a chance.) Mozart is likewise a hardy perennial here; I certainly have no desire to bring that state of affairs to a close. This is the first time, however, that Handel has made the top three (or four). Also worth noting is the equal balance of three apiece for contemporary male and female composers. Long may that continue!

Concerts and a complete tally will follow in the New Year, so as not to jinx a further couple of concerts planned.

Barenboim - Beethoven, 20 December 2019

Pierre Boulez Saal

Piano Sonata no.1 in F minor, op.2 no.1
Piano Sonata no.2 in A major, op.2 no.2
Piano Sonata no.3 in C major, op.2 no.3
Piano Sonata no.4 in E-flat major, op.7

Daniel Barenboim is no stranger to the Beethoven piano sonatas, nor indeed to performing all thirty-two in a series. (Why do we call them ‘cycles’? It makes no more sense to me than the non-laundry-usage ‘Ring cycle’, but anyway…) This is, however, the first time he will have performed them in chronological order. Alas, I shall be unable to attend all of the eight concerts, but shall report back as and when possible.

First up, naturally, were the three opus 2 sonatas. To say that the F minor, no.1, takes its leave from Mozart’s C minor Sonata, KV 457 – ironically, Beethoven’s minor key par excellence – is only to state the obvious. Barenboim, however, not only brought out that kinship most strikingly in its opening figure; he also dramatised the first-movement exposition’s trajectory—arguably the movement’s, even sonata’s as a whole—in moving away from that starting-point, via late Haydn, to become more Beethovenian, as we understand the term. Romantic flexibility, founded on harmony, grew as we reached the point of return, upon which we fully appreciated how much had changed—and would continue to change. The closing bars, rightly, owed much once more to Mozart, without ever being reduced to origins.

Beethoven’s early slow movements offer a stern, very particular test for musicians. How to communicate that long line, that hearing in a single breath, while paying due attention to what may be ornate figuration but is certainly not ornament, and alongside that dialectic, to convey a simple sublimity and sublime simplicity quite different in nature, if not necessarily degree, from any music that has passed before? Perhaps needless to say, Barenboim passed that test triumphantly, his triumph lying in a reconciliation between private and public, starry skies and fathomless depths, we all know to be necessary, yet is rarer to hear in practice than we might hope. Beethoven, helps, of course, but one must show oneself ready to listen to and understand him; Barenboim most certainly did. The Innigkeit of the minuet seemed already to look forward to Schumann, alternating in another typical dialectic with proud obstinacy. A euphonious trio wished to be Mozart, so it seemed, yet also knew that it was already too late. Backward neoclassical glances to Mozart also characterised the finale, balanced, however, by an unnerving, well-nigh Chopinesque manic intensity such as was heard at the opening. To ask which won out would be to miss the point, and Barenboim knew it.

The first movement of the A major Sonata mixed Haydnesque wit with a gruff vigour and exultancy that could be no one else’s other than Beethoven’s. Also present were a particular style and idea of virtuosity that looked forward to the piano concertos, not least in the role played in motivic development and, beyond it, sonata form itself. Barenboim surveyed the extraordinary—truly extraordinary—emotional canvas of the slow movement with both a lifetime’s understanding and what might be thought, however erroneously, a young man’s urgent need to bear witness. He made no attempt to smooth over the shocks, nor to lessen crossed-hand yearning for resolution, all of which and more always played their part in Beethoven’s greater dramatic plan. A scampering scherzo nevertheless lacked nothing in the motivic engine of insistency. Its trio combined ardour, intimacy, and ultimate grandeur. Affectionate and boisterous, a puppy-like fourth movement proved every inch a finale in character and structural role.

The opening bars of the C major Sonata laid out with admirable clarity a conspectus, harmonic and motivic, for the movement to follow. Invited in, how could one fail to accept? The maturity of the development section proved especially striking: it is there in the score, of course, but it still needs to be brought out in performance. It might almost have been a symphony, but for the instrument (a considerable ‘but’, in theory and practice). The strange Adagio proved plainspoken in the best sense: honest, unarguable, disdaining anything remotely redolent of vanity. It eschewed the merely ‘popular’ in favour of the human. Controlled caprice, testing the limits of how far music might stray from the tonal centre, characterised the scherzo. The trio drew on hints already given in the scherzo—and less ran than sang with them. The finale sang too, of and almost from a paradise Mozart had known. It asked whether Beethoven, let alone the twenty-first century, might briefly know that paradise again and left tantalisingly open that possibility; until furious reaction came, that is, reaction that was necessarily still related to what had gone before. Wonder lay in liminal passages as much as in those extremes and in the magical thread with which Beethoven and his interpreter bound all together.

A first-movement exposition of immediacy, potentiality, grandeur, and—especially in the second group—incommensurable dignity announced that the op.7 Sonata in E-flat would be of a different nature again. How far Beethoven and we had come already! The development did what it should, developing all those and more, deepening and yet becoming still more direct as required. Syncopations truly told, nowhere more so than in the second development of the recapitulation. Again, the slow movement’s breadth of canvas struck one immediately. Much was related to what we had heard in each of its three predecessors, yet with palpably greater mastery and, yes, sublimity. It went somewhere, so it seemed, that no one previously, not even Beethoven, had so much as dreamed of. The third movement was sung as a good-natured riddle that held within itself its own solution, so long as one listened. That in turn necessitated a trio reaction of passion as yet unspoken. The finale is a movement of surpassing loveliness; so it sounded here. Surpassing moral worth too; so Barenboim revealed here. Its leisurely progress was justly loved, yet never too much, bringing forth as it must a necessary, vehement, dialectical reaction. It sounded as the most human of music in the most human of performances, both immediate and mediated.

Friday, 20 December 2019

Semele, Komische Oper, 18 December 2019

Jupiter – Stuart Jackson
Juno – Ezgi Kutlu
Cadmus – Philipp Meierhöfer
Semele – Sydney Mancasola
Ino – Karolina Gumos
Athamas – Terry Wey
Iris – Georgina Melville
Somnus, Priest – Evan Hughes

Barrie Kosky (director)
David Merz (Spielleitung)
Natacha Le Guen de Kerneizon (set designs)
Carla Teti (costumes)
Johanna Wall (dramaturgy)
Alessandro Carletti (lighting)

Chorus of the Komische Oper Berlin (chorus director: David Cavelius)
Orchestra of the Komische Oper Berlin
Konrad Junghänel (conductor)

Oh, terror and astonishment!
Nature to each allots his proper sphere,
But that forsaken we like meteors err:
Toss'd through the void, by some rude shock we're broke,
And all our boasted fire is lost in smoke.

William Congreve’s libretto—to my mind, perhaps the finest Handel set—makes clear what is at stake in Semele. So too, working along strikingly similar lines, does Barrie Kosky’s production. That one comes to appreciate the achievement of both, in collaboration, of course, with one of Handel’s finest dramatic scores and a highly talented cast, when all has drawn or is drawing to a close is surely just as it should be. The owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk; here, though, it is a dusk and, possibly, a dawn formed by Semele’s ashes, more of a prequel than one might initially have expected—certainly than I expected—to Henze’s The Bassarids, also staged here at the Komische Oper Berlin in an excellent production by Kosky. Kosky had taken over the production when the originally scheduled director, Laura Scozzi, had fallen ill. Presumably many of the designs were already in place, but they are put to good use. Speculating over who did what is fruitless; either one knows or one does not, and ultimately, even if one knows, so what? What I saw certainly sense to me, minus the occasional irritant that is more concerned with style than anything substantial.

To return to the cited chorus text, however, also returns us to the beginning—and thus to the overall set design that frames the action as a whole. We are invited into an eighteenth-century building, some of the room’s detail clearly apparent, other aspects left for us and for the drama to fill in. An ash heap, reminiscent perhaps of a mound in Kosky’s Castor et Pollux signals, at least in retrospect, where the action is heading, yet also, more importantly, represents the traumatic intrusion of the gods into the world of men and women. That tragedy of a genuine love between Jupiter and Semele, as opposed to the comedy of Semele’s vanity and comeuppance, of a love that is essentially fated never to be, lies at the heart of the production. Adopting the time-honoured procedure—somewhat Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe—of entering, in this case, being dragged through a fireplace portal to an alternative world, Semele briefly attains happiness, as notably does Jupiter, albeit in something destined not to last. The cosmic Toryism—think of Pope’s Essay on Man—that decrees all shall now their place in a well-ordered universe will not permit such a transgression for long.

Nor, of course, will its guardian Juno, here less a wronged woman, though at some level remaining that, but a woman with agency, desires, and power, all of which she will use in self-defence and attack. So do she and Iris, in a highly erotic scene, bring Somnus into play. Sacerdotal purple for her dress nonetheless makes clear her status, as does the same colour for Jupiter’s socks, which betray his true nature even when he has otherwise taken human form. And so, when tricked into demanding Jupiter assume his true, thunderbolt nature, Semele seals her fate, becoming ash, as we see had all along been foretold. She sits above the fireplace, her status reassumed, a ghost—as too, ironically, are Jupiter and Juno—at the wedding of Ino and Athamas, with the proviso, signalled by Congreve and the priestly chorus, that Bacchus will ultimately ‘crown the joys of love’. Or will he? As we know, things never turn out quite as they should—and the tragedy of The Bassarids awaits.

Sydney Mancasola shone in the title role, the whole performance building up to a bravura performance of her final air, ‘No, no, I’ll take no less/Than all in full excess!’ That full excess, alas, was to be truly hers, but was also seen and heard to characterise an exuberant performance from beginning to end. Stuart Jackson, whom I heard only seven years ago at the Royal Academy of Music in Haydn’s La vera constanza, is now rightly treading larger stages. Here he treated to us a finely, often poignantly sung and acted performance of Jupiter, who truly met his match in Ezgi Kutlu’s fiery Juno. What a joy it was to hear a mezzo here in the line of Marilyn Horne. Karolina Gumos and Terry Wey offered a well matched, nicely contrasted Ino and Athamas, while Evan Hughes’s darkly alluring Somnus justly threatened to steal the show in his scene with Juno and Georgina Melville’s spirited, stylish Iris. Choral singing—and acting—was first-rate throughout, Kosky and his singers fully rising to the task of Handel’s ‘objective’ commentary that yet involves itself, in the line of ancient predecessors. Though I could not help but wish that Konrad Junghänel had permitted greater warmth from the strings, his tempi and general direction proved well variegated, supportive of singers without being reduced to mere accompaniment; and, just as important, strongly suggestive of the panoply of character, emotion, and action on display here. It was clear that all had collaborated to render this, once again, a company achievement from the Komische Oper that was significantly greater than the sum of its considerable parts.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Garanča/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Schumann, Elgar, and Debussy, 16 December 2019

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Schumann: Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, op.97, ‘Rhenish’
Elgar: Sea Pictures, op.37
Debussy: La Mer

Elina Garanča (mezzo-soprano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Three composers in whose music Daniel Barenboim has long excelled, with the Staatskapelle Berlin on outstanding form: what could go wrong? Nothing, I am delighted to report. This proved a wonderful concert, opening with the finest live performance I have been privileged to hear of a Schumann symphony, in this case the ‘Rhenish’. Eschewing fashionable notions of small orchestras—if you cannot achieve requisite balance with a symphony orchestra, you probably should not be conducting one at all—Barenboim offered a full-sized Staatskapelle, from eight double basses to sixteen first violins. It sounded magnificent: dark and golden, blazing and intimate as required. Attention to finest detail did not preclude voicing of longer line; nor did forward drive hamper infinite flexibility. The first movement developed with a purpose born in Beethoven: throughout, not only in that section conventionally known as the development. It headed, convincingly, unanswerably, to and from a point of Mendelssohnian exhaustion, the difference being that that point here comes significantly later than the onset of the recapitulation. In a nutshell, Romantic style and idea and their formal realisation in time were as one.

The second movement brought a similar, yet different, combination of warmth of familiarity and freshness of rediscovery: like a sunlit riverside walk along a favourite path, once the skies have cleared. A contrapuntal bed, on which further melodies were lovingly sung and shaped, afforded great joy. The movement’s climax, looking forward already to La mer, felt like a great tidal wave. Its subsiding and Barenboim’s expert handling of that subsiding were, however, every bit as important. As Romantically beautiful, and all the more innig, the central movement proved truly the heart of symphony and performance: led, so it seemed, from the very heart of the Staatskapelle, its dark-hued violas. Trombones in the fourth movement were as tender as they were sacerdotal, as solemn as they were luminous, setting the scene for this great ‘Cologne Cathedral’ processional. Barenboim and his orchestra captured to a tee the necessity of sentiment without sentimentality: somewhere between Beethoven and Mahler. Ultimately, we were awestruck. Thereafter we could depart in peace, cheered and edified by a final movement that took a different route from earlier, one that was yet equally fresh, equally invigorating: Rhenish balm, then, for a bruised soul.

Elgar’s Sea Pictures, with Elina Garanča as soloist, followed the interval. How to rid one’s memory of Janet Baker? Is that even possible? Garanča faced an unenviable task, but life goes on. She took a little while, I think—maybe I was the one taking a little while—to settle in. These are not easy English words to sing, set as they are, even for a native speaker. There was, however, even during the first song, something winningly, intriguingly instrumental to her tone: not that she did not pay attention to the words, far from it, but that there was an emphasis more on line. One could readily overlook the odd mispronunciation, such as ‘vile’ for ‘veil’, especially once communication of syntax and scansion improved. I loved, for instance, the truly Elgarian pride, hinting at wounds beneath the surface, of ‘The new sight, the new wondrous sight!’ in ‘Sabbath morning at sea’. Likewise the nobility—inevitable, if hackneyed, word in this context—of ‘Where corals lie’, enigmatic, intimate, and inviting; and also of ‘The Swimmer’, Garanča truly riding the waves in response to the heady, not un-malevolent steam built up by Barenboim and the orchestra, her cries of ‘love’ achingly tender. Throughout, one could not have wished for more skilful, understanding orchestral playing and overall direction. One felt the proximity to Wagner and, less so yet still present, Strauss: the latter, for instance, in the final chord of ‘Sea slumber song’. Barenboim’s pointing of instrumental entries could hardly have been bettered, even by the likes of Barbirolli. And dare I say it, the orchestra sounded more variegated, as well as more darkly dramatic, than any English orchestra I have heard in this music. Wagner, rightly, was the abiding musical presence—that is, after Elgar himself.

Something similar might be said of La mer, only substituting Debussy for Elgar. ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ took us from a dawn with all the ambiguity of Allemonde, and still greater orchestral mastery. The path taken was as finely detailed as it was sure in retrospect, as sea-deep as it was translucent of surface. Even the ‘vagueness’ was not vague. It was difficult not to conclude that Pierre Boulez would have nodded his head approvingly. The glorious climax was truly something aurally to behold. ‘Jeux de vagues’ proved more forward-looking: looking forward, indeed, to the composer’s own Jeux. There was melody in the myriad of colours, so perfectly balanced, that we heard; and vice versa. Ultimately, quite rightly, nothing could be pinned down, for these were waves and their games. ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ seemed to unite varying tendencies and take them first: these are, after all, ‘symphonic sketches’. We heard at its opening a deeply complex, well-nigh Boulezian malevolence—harking back in a sense to Elgar’s, yet very much looking forward to the later twentieth century and even to the twenty-first. The mystery of Debussy’s combination of clear and shimmering, brazen and submerged, was rendered immanent. What does it mean? Why ask? It was—and is. And how!