Saturday, 24 March 2018

'Voices of Revolution, Russia 1917’: Abduraimov/Gulitskaya/Philharmonia/Ashkenazy: Mosolov, Prokofiev, and Glière, 22 March 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Mosolov: The Iron Foundry, op.19
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto no.3 in C major, op.26
Glière: Concerto for coloratura soprano and orchestra, op.82
Glière: Suite: The Red Poppy

Bezhod Abduraimov (piano)
Nadezhda Gulitskaya (soprano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

The title of the concert series is perhaps slightly misleading: ‘Voices of Revolution, Russia 1917’. It is perhaps also slightly belated, although one might argue that we are now living in the year following the centenary date itself of the October Revolution. No matter, as Martin Sixsmith, former BBC correspondent in Moscow and series advisor, explains, the intention is to explore ‘works by composers who had very different reactions to the Bolshevik Revolution of autumn 1917, with a selection of music that revolves around themes of idealism, propaganda and repression.’ Moreover, as Sixsmith and Marina Frolova-Walker proceeded, in an enlightening pre-concert talk, to discuss, the three composers on offer here certainly acted very differently in that respect:  Alexander Mosolov an archetypal figure of early Soviet modernism, Prokofiev an exile who eventually returned, and Reinhold Glière a purveyor of dubious ‘socialist realism’.


Glière simply wanted instructions from whomever was in charge so that he could get on with his (hack) work. As Frolova-Walker explained in the programme: “‘just tell us what to do”, … he said at one official meeting.’ When no ‘formalists’ were available for consideration, he passed the Zhdanov test and won the 1948 Stalin Prize, as he would again in 1950. He had also done so in 1946, for his 1943 Concerto for coloratura soprano, which struck me as rather more than hack work. Indeed, the conception itself, whilst not entirely original, remained unusual, even if the neo-Romantic language did not. Nadezhda Gulitskaya, a late substitution for Ailish Tynan, proved fully up to its demands, contributing more than a little glamour as well as necessary precision of a pitch to a work whose undeniable charms might otherwise have palled, however excellent the contribution of the Philharmonia Orchestra under Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor of all four Philharmonia concerts). Let us be kind and say that the opening phrase merely displays a strong resemblance to a theme from Die Walküre (think of Brünnhilde’s ‘War es so schmählich’); there are only so many notes in the major scale, and there are in any case worse models for a melody than Wagner. The music proceeds somewhat in television-score-ish fashion, save for the imaginative vocalise, and certain moments beyond: for instance the soprano’s duetting with clarinet. The second of the two movements, a neo-Tchaikovskian waltz, seemed a bit odder, but it was a welcome opportunity nevertheless to hear a work hardly overburdened with performances.

The opening, quite un-Wagnerian theme


The Red Poppy, even in its suite version, is likely – I hope – to remain more of a rarity. Almost socialist realism avant la lettre, or at least long before its necessity, it was apparently the first Soviet ballet on a properly contemporary socialist realist theme: an imperialist one at that, Russian sailors venturing ashore to rescue victims of nationalist China’s capitalism. Bizarrely, and perhaps still more disturbingly, the United States later took it up, following the alliance between Roosevelt and Stalin, exchanging American sailors for Russians, and Japanese victims (of something else, I presume) for Chinese. It begins colourfully, cartoon-like, clearly being relished on at least one level by players and conductor alike. Yes, I suppose one would expect pentatonic writing – but really, it here soon extends here beyond a harmless joke. ‘I’m not racist, but…’ Glière was nothing if not eclectic – reactionary eclectic, though – and a bad Johann Strauss waltz entered to provide ‘balance’. It was all gorgeously played, solos as well as full orchestra, as I suppose they should be. The Naxos performance below is harder-edged, rather to the music's - and our - benefit, I think. This was fascinating to hear, once; but I cannot, even without its highly problematic Orientalism, imagine wanting to repeat the experience in a hurry.


Mosolov’s Iron Foundry is, of course, well known – if relatively little heard in concert – as a signal-bearer for Soviet musical modernism. The Philharmonia’s performance under Ashkenazy was every inch the match for the Glière items. For me, at least, the music, as well as the politics, are – and, in performance were – far more compelling. Riccardo Chailly once recorded it alongside (more) acknowledged works of international modernism, Prokofiev’s Third Symphony and Varèse’s Arcana. Here one could certainly here why. I thought also of the former’s Pas d’acier, the irony being of course that such high water-marks of Prokofiev’s own modernism were decidedly non-Soviet works. The size of the orchestra struck one visually, its volume aurally. Here was a factory of an in music, a worthy successor – indeed, a superior work, I think – to Honegger’s Pacific 231, replete, to quote Frolova-Walker, ‘with a kind of heroic “hymn to labour” in the horns’. Tremendous stuff!


So too is and, once again, in performance was, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, in C major – not in F major, as claimed in the programme leaflet handed out on the day. It is the most Classically proportioned of Prokofiev’s five essays in the genre, with three movements of more or less equal length, but in this performance as well as in this context, its relation to its own time sounded more than typically apparent. Bezhod Abduraimov’s pounding of the piano – and Ashkenazy’s of the orchestra too – reminded one just how radical Prokofiev’s percussive treatment of the instrument can, and most likely should, seem. Bartók is not the only pioneer in this respect. But Parisian neo-Classicism welcomed the work with open arms too; the C major ‘whiteness’ of the close also came strongly to the fore, alongside magical, silvery premonitions of Cinderella. That said, the finale’s status as complement to the first movement was also clear in retrospect. That first movement sounded as if taken at a relatively swift tempo: no bad thing. However, I am not sure that it actually was; the feeling was at least as much a matter of energy from soloist, orchestra, and conductor (who, of course, played the piece more than a few times himself). The central theme and variations proceeded briskly, again not too briskly, and again emerged all the stronger for it, rhythms nicely sprung: the basis, so it seemed, for much of the melody and harmony with which they worked. Its darker, almost cinematic, side was not neglected: again, I thought, an instance of ‘period’ interest in a strong rather than antiquarian sense. Shadows of Scriabin still registered too, in a truly brilliant performance. I hope to hear more from Abduraimov, even if his Schubert encore sounded closer, intriguingly so, to Prokofiev than to the ‘source’.


King's/Parry - Lenten Choral Music, 21 March 2018

Cadogan Hall

Palestrina: Stabat Mater
Tallis: Lamentations of Jeremiah (Part 1)
Poulenc: Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence
Lassus: Stabat Mater
Byrd: Ne irascaris, Domine; Civitas sancti tui
Brahms: Warum ist das Licht gegeben, op.74 no.2; Schaffe in mir, Gott, op.29 no.2

Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Ben Parry (conductor)

Time was I could hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge almost any evening I chose, at least during term time. (If I remember correctly, Mondays were reserved for the mixed voice King’s Voices.) Not that I did, of course: I tended to go to my own chapel services more than others’; I also tended to prefer the services down the road at St John’s, less packed with tourists and thus seemingly less of a ‘concert’. I also preferred, in many ways, the more ‘Continental’ sound of St John’s to the typically ‘English’, whiter sound of King’s. Nevertheless, it was always quite an experience, first to set foot in that masterpiece of late Perpendicular Gothic – pay no heed to its cultured despisers, the same sort who will tell you that St Paul’s is a monstrous hybrid – gowned (and thus in slightly better seating than the non-Cambridge congregants), and to hear that celebrated choir, which, through radio and other recordings, I had known for so long before my time in the city that was essentially my home for fifteen years.

Ben Parry, an old boy from the choir and Assistant Director of Music at King’s, substituted for Stephen Cleobury, who was recovering from a bicycle accident. Parry certainly knew the choir and how to play to its strengths; it is difficult to imagine anyone having been disappointed, even in the almost diametrically opposed (to its echoing Chapel home) acoustic of Cadogan Hall. If some tempo choices, perhaps especially in the closing Brahms motets, seemed chosen more to help the boys than on ‘purely’ musical grounds, there is no great harm in that. The business of a collegiate (or other) choral foundation, after all, is far more than providing concert material; indeed, that is not really its business at all. Perhaps those works by Brahms, Warum ist das Licht gegeben? and Schaffe in mir, Gott, the latter a setting of part of Luther’s translation of the Miserere (Psalm 51), will have flowed more readily, especially in the relationship between different sections, and indeed have benefited from surer intonation, but there was much to enjoy, especially in their respective closing sections.

Two settings of the Stabat Mater, by Palestrina and Lassus, opened the concert’s two halves. Both were nicely shaded, without jarring (to my ears, without any) anachronism. The performance of the former imparted, when called upon, a real sense of ‘dec and can’ (decani and cantoris) antiphony in a different setting. It perhaps sounded closer to Monteverdi than often one hears, less ‘white’ than I had expected. Whatever the Council of Trent’s suspicion of the poem, I was struck by the essential simplicity, however artful, of the music and by the guiding role of words. Lassus’s setting came across as darker, a little more Northern perhaps. (He was, after all, Kapellmeister in Munich.) Within the context of an undoubtedly ‘Anglican’ performance, full of tone yet not too full, the sound seemed – or maybe it was just my ears adjusting – to become a little more Italianate as time progressed.

Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence offer a challenge, not least intonational, to any choir, and are more often heard with older (female) voices. In these forthright performances, there was – rightly, I think – no great attempt made to ape other performing traditions, but there was nevertheless sometimes a harshness, even perhaps, in the closing ‘Tristis est anima mea’, an anger, we do not necessarily associate with the choir. The shading of ‘Vinea mea electa’ was intelligent, fuller than Anglican reputation would have you believe. If intonation proved far from perfect, especially in the opening ‘Timor et tremor’, nor should one exaggerate; one always knew where the music and indeed the text were heading.

The music of Tallis and Byrd is home territory for King’s – albeit here without the trebles. Naturally, in their absence, countertenors came more strongly to the fore. Parry wisely made no attempt to do too much in terms of word-painting in the Tallis; the words speak for themselves, and did so here especially on the Lenten cries for ‘Ierusalem, Ierusalem’ to return to her God. The two Byrd motets offered, for me, the highlight of the concert. Without a hint of blandness or routine, there was simply – or not so simply – that ineffable sense of ‘rightness’, of ease with the music, the composer’s recusancy notwithstanding. Music and words spoke freely, in greatly satisfying performances. As we heard in both, ‘Sion deserta facta est, Jerusalem desolata est.’ And yet, there was comfort to be had, if not in the wilderness and desolation of Jerusalems heavenly and earthly, then in their artistic representation – which is doubtless as it should be.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Tristan und Isolde, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 18 March 2018

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Images: Monika Rittershaus

Tristan – Andreas Schager
King Marke – Stephen Milling
Isolde – Anja Kampe
Kurwenal – Boaz Daniel
Melot – Stephan Rügamer
Brangäne – Ekaterina Gubanova
Steersman – Adam Kutny
Young Sailor, Shepherd – Linard Vrielink
Tristan’s Mother – Kristin Becker
Tristan’s Father – Mike Hoffmann
English horn (onstage) – Florian Hanspach-Torkildsen

Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, set designs)
Elena Zaytseva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Tieni Burkhalter (video)
Tatina Vereshchagina, Detlef Giese (dramaturgy)

Berlin State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Raymond Hughes)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Tristan (Andreas Schager) and ensemble

No one doubts the supreme challenge presented in performing Tristan und Isolde. After seventy-seven rehearsals, the intended 1861 Vienna premiere had to be abandoned. A work that had taken less than three years to write took more than double that, as John Deathridge has observed, to ‘overcome prejudice about its viability. … Strasbourg, Karlsruhe, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Dresden, Hanover, Stuttgart, Prague, and Vienna: in the end none of these opera houses would touch it.’ When Munich finally did, in 1865, Wagner’s Tristan, Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, died after just four performances. Wagner’s foes, political, aesthetic, and ‘moral’, seized on the opportunity to claim, ludicrously, that Tristan, rather than typhus was the agent of death. If audiences today avoid quite such high (melo)drama, more often than not they meet the curse on the other side of Wagner’s melodramatic coin: ‘only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, - I cannot imagine it otherwise. This is how far I have gone!! Oh dear! – I was just in full career! Adieu!’

The twin dangers of unviability and necessary mediocrity were avoided in this outstanding performance from the Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, and a cast headed by Andreas Schager and Anja Kampe. When I last heard Barenboim conduct Tristan, in 2010, I observed that this, ‘of the three Tristans in the theatre’ I had heard him conduct, had ‘surely [been] the best, above all in as searing a first act as I have ever heard, reminiscent of Karl Böhm at Bayreuth.’ This proved a more powerful musical experience still, and quite different. Yes, the first act was ‘searing’, but it had little in common with Böhm, save perhaps for the visceral, overwhelming quality to the close, which left me in quite a state of shock: not so far from Wagner’s ‘perfectly good ones … bound to drive people mad’. Barenboim now appears to be hearing Tristan more overtly through ears transformed by his recent Parsifal performances – or at least leading us to do so. (Perhaps it is not entirely a coincidence that they too have been collaborations with Dmitri Tcherniakov – and Schager, and, oneyear, Kampe too.)

Some people have, apparently, been complaining that his tempi were ‘slow’: do they really want a ‘fast’ Tristan? I fear that, unconsciously or even consciously fearful of Wagner’s ‘perfectly good,’ they actually might. Perhaps sometimes they were. I have no idea, not being a clock-watcher. More importantly, there were ample space and tension, for the ebb and flow of Wagner’s Schopenhauerian Will to find orchestral representation. For, still more than Parsifal, the music of Beethoven – and Barenboim’s recent Beethoven, as heard in a life-changing symphonic Proms cycle with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – made its harmonic mark. The ‘growth’ of harmony from the bass line, even when, indeed particularly when, Wagner’s extreme chromaticism tugs away from it, ensured both musicodramatic comprehensibility and a placing between Beethoven and Schoenberg, yet reducible to neither. The Staatskapelle Berlin might almost be taken for granted in this, so inveterate is its Wagnerian excellence; it should not be. Without its dark, ‘German’ tone, ‘traditional’ and yet probing so many of those new musical worlds seemingly born in this score, we should come nowhere near The World as Will and Representation at all, still less to a ‘perfectly goodTristan.

Isolde (Anja Kampe), Brangäne (Ekaterina Gubanova)

Likewise Barenboim’s excellent cast, crucial to far more than the ‘surface’ role Schopenhauer’s aesthetics might suggest. Schager again might readily be taken for granted. (Remember when we had no such Heldentenor? It was not so long ago.) His was certainly the finest account of the role I have heard in the theatre, fully worthy of comparison with the great, doubtless mythologised performances of the recorded past, although again certainly not to be reduced to them, nor indeed to comparisons therewith. If the seemingly infinite vocal resources Schager can call upon to make his way through the third act monologue – it was to that in particular that Wagner referred in his letter – suggest Lauritz Melchior, there was none of the laziness or, at least, somewhat cavalier attitude that could afflict the latter’s work. Schager can sing the part and he does, but dramatically it needs to be hard work; we need to feel, to share in, Tristan’s struggle, even as it frightens, repels us. We did, in this, a performance for the ages. Kampe’s Isolde was perhaps not on quite so grand a scale; nor did it need to be. She offered her own detailed portrayal, again matching ‘musical’ and ‘dramatic’ imperatives – as if they might ever formally be separated! – to a degree it would be difficult to match, let alone to surpass. Boaz Daniel and Ekaterina Gubanova offered far more than support as Kurwenal and Brangäne, the latter’s ‘operatic Lied’ approach, unfailingly sensitive to words and their implications, without permitting them to override the imperatives of the musical line. King Markes rarely disappoint: what a gift of a role it is in a more traditional sense. Nevertheless, Stephen Milling’s depth of tone and grace of character impressed greatly. Amongst a strong ‘supporting’ cast, Linard Vrielink’s beautifully sung Young Sailor and Shepherd stood out.

There remains, however, another common danger, increasingly common, to contemporary Tristan performances – more strictly, to productions. That is of missing the point of the work entirely. I hope it will not be taken that I am referring in some generic reactionary fashion to the ‘creator’s intentions’. However, Tristan seems in practice to prove unusually resistant to attempts even to question what it might be ‘about’. The idea of the work being shoehorned, for instance, into a justified protest against anti-immigration policies hardly bears thinking about. Tristan is certainly not in any emphatic sense ‘about’ its ‘characters’, insofar as they be characters at all; it seems to come closer than any other of Wagner’s dramas to that all-too-celebrated description of ‘deeds of music made visible’. Prior to Tcherniakov’s staging, I had yet to see what might broadly be termed an ‘interventionist’ staging that worked.

King Marke (Stephen Milling), Tristan, Melot (Stephan Rügamer), Kurwenal (Boaz Daniel)

Does Tcherniakov change that? I hope it is not unduly pretentious – it may already prove a little late to sound that alert – to say I think it too soon to tell. What I can say is that his production has made me think about the issues involved like no other: an achievement I think worth lauding in itself. By contrast with his perhaps atypical, unquestionably brilliant Parsifal – the best I have seen since Stefan Herheim – we return to Tcherniakov’s homeground of the unpleasant rich. Fair enough: with kings, queens, and princes, that is what we are dealing with. Elena Zaytseva’s costumes and Tcherniakov’s own set designs – in the first act, a true luxury vessel, replete with ‘bespoke’ anything you might care to mention; in the second, a ‘tasteful’ Jugendstil indoor forest ‘theme’ we want to hate, yet secretly want – instantly evoke the excesses of a corporate, materialistic world we know only too well. The third act by contrast retreats to a homely comfort zone for Tristan, an old moneyed boy who never grew up (haunted, as his monologue tells us, by the circumstances of his birth, visions of his parents appearing in his delirium).

Is that all too specific, though? Does it fall into the trap of making Tristan about the trappings of wealth? Not really, for there is an intriguing, deadly game afoot. Tcherniakov does not treat the lovers as identical, as two mere parts of ‘Tristan and Isolde’. He does not accept Wagner, let alone Schopenhauer, at face value. Instead, he implicitly, even explicitly, criticises some of their (neo-)Romantic premises. Is Tristan, perhaps even Isolde at times, actually mocking whatever it is they play out? It is not always clear, but there is a degree of unnerving alienation to the proceedings that intrigues, questions, even (metatheatrically?) frightens. A woman fainting in the second act seems to fall into their trap, or is she in on the game too? Or, perhaps most important, is this a critique of the game we play, when we sit around, almost as Nietzsche’s ‘Wagnerians’, ‘disciples – benumbed, pale, breathless!’, both at the performance, enraptured, and afterwards, discussing how singular this work is, how it refuses directorial interventionism? The question of aestheticisation is live, just as in the Staatsoper’s newproduction by Hans Neuenfels of Salome, which I saw the previous evening: a fascinating, provocative pairing. Who, both productions seem to ask, is the Wagnerian now, whether on or off stage? The English horn player on stage (the excellent Florian Hanspach-Torkildsen) perhaps asks us something similar, his deeds of music rendered unusually visible.

Shepherd (Linard Vrielink), Florian Hanspach-Torkildsen (English horn)

Tcherniakov seems to me on balance to succeed where many others have failed, presenting an element of alienation that holds work and musical performance at arm’s length, without descending into mere reductionist banality. In the separation of ‘work’ and staging, even of musical performance and staging, the two become problematically, rather than mystically, reengaged. Romanticism is decisively rejected, whether in work or reception. It need not always be, perhaps, but it is here – and fruitfully. For instance, Karol Berger has recently argued that that is, part way through Tristan’s monologue, it ‘is clear thus far … that the escape from the separating illusions of Day into the unifying truth of Night remains Tristan’s goal, but a goal he cannot accomplish in Isolde’s absence, since they need to escape together.’ Perhaps. I should certainly allow, at least, that that was Wagner’s intention, most likely even what he thought he had achieved. The work here, though, I think, knows better than its creator. Wagner’s need to ‘transcend’ at the close already betrays the relative poverty of such Romanticism, just as Mozart’s terrifyingly clear-eyed coda to Così fan tutte does (more knowingly, I think, although that may be debated).

Tristan and Isolde

Tcherniakov’s treatment of the so-called Liebestod – Wagner’s own ‘Verklärung’ is worth fighting for against Liszt’s well-meaning misunderstanding – seems to me of particular interest here, sharing, even intensifying the ambiguity of work, conception, and tradition. Tristan’s room returns to darkness, Isolde having cocooned herself with him, safe from prying eyes – whether ours or those on stage. The prior onstage separation between Shepherd and his instrument, the scenic and the musical, seems thereby at a remove almost to have been overcome. We could believe in what she is doing, she doubtless could too; but we do not, and we doubt whether she does. Wagner’s reconciliation is false. Which returned this listener at least to one of the most searching – as well as, on occasion, utterly wrong-headed – of Wagner’s critics after Nietzsche: Theodor Adorno. On the final page of his Essay on Wagner, we read: ‘Tristan’s curse upon love [Minne] is more than the impotent sacrifice intoxication offers up to asceticism.’ It is rather music’s rebellion against its own ‘constraint of Fate’. In that rebellion, music will often benefit from enlisting the services of ‘drama’, and vice versa. Negative dialectics indeed.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Salome, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 17 March 2018

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Annika Schlicht (Herodias's Page), Oscar Wilde (Christian Natter), Salome (Aušrine Stundytė)

Herod – Gerhard Siegel
Herodias – Marina Prudenskaya
Salome – Aušrine Stundytė
Jochanaan – Thomas J. Mayer
Narraboth – Nikolai Schukoff
Herodias’s Page – Annika Schlicht
Jews – Dietmar Kerschbaum, Ziad Nehme, Linard Vrielink, Andrés Moreno García, David Oštrek
Nazarenes – Adam Kutny, Ulf Dirk Mädler
Soldiers – Arttu Kataja, Dominic Barbiere
A Cappadocian – David Oštrek
A Slave – Corinna Scheurle
Oscar Wilde – Christian Natter

Hans Neuenfels (director)
Philipp Lossau (assistant director)
Reinhard von der Thannen (designs)
Kathrin Hauer (assistant stage designer)
Sommer Ulrickson (choreography)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Henry Arnold (dramaturgy)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Thomas Guggeis (conductor)

‘These Germans: they are obsessed with sex.’ Such were the puzzling words I heard from an irate Frenchman in the queue behind me for the cloakroom at the close of this performance of Salome. Far be it to suggest that ‘the French’ might also have a reputation for an interest in such matters, but I could not help but wonder whether, if he were weary of at least implicit sexual context onstage, Salome were really the opera for him. As it happens, Hans Neuenfels’s excellent new production, provocative in the best sense, is far more concerned with the absence of sex, sexual repression, the ultimate inability to perform, and, following Oscar Wilde in particular here, the aestheticisation of such problems, than with sexual display or fulfilment. Prudishness and aversion take many forms, however, as Neuenfels also suggests.

For Wilde is placed, increasingly literally, centre stage. Not having looked properly at the cast list, let alone the programme, beforehand, I had not realised that this would be so. Instead, as intended, it gradually became clear that the actor, whose role I could not quite place, either in the work or more laterally, was Wilde himself. The neon sign, ‘Wilde is coming’, had announced it clearly enough,’ I realised – just as Jochanaan announced one who would follow him. Not that the accomplished, mesmerisingly versatile Christian Natter, in this entirely mute role, is made up to resemble the playwright: we are, let us give thanks, at a level of drama beyond the caricature of the impressionist. Eventually the green carnation gives the game away: the only instance throughout the entire evening of a colour on stage that is not black, white, or red (typically sharp, meaningfully coloured designs by longtime Neuenfels collaborator, Reinhard von der Thannen). But before that, a world of Victorian sexual repression, that of the society from which Wilde sprang, has been constructed. Its imperialism is nodded to, in very British Empire uniforms for the soldiers: let us play at governing the Middle East, with catastrophic consequences to be seen to the present day and beyond.

Jochanaan (Thomas J. Mayer), Herodes (Gerhard
Siegel), Herodias (Marina Prudenskaya)
More to the point, John the Baptist, foreteller of Christianity – perhaps, in this reading, more so than Christ himself, certainly more of a hypocritical moral fanatic – is encased in what Neuenfels calls ‘a phallus or rocket of indignation, a constant appeal to obdurate, concealed, packed away carnality. This results in a constant ban, a threat.’ The traditional cistern is gone, but as Henry Arnold, Neuenfels’s dramaturge points out, Strauss wrote to Ernst von Schuch, conductor of the first performance, that Jochanaan ‘should be understandable without a voice pipe. Maybe he could sing through a gaze veil (a hole in the wall, invisible to the audience) with his head two feet above the floor so that he sees the conductor and can sing directly to the audience. This is very important.’ Take that, alleged ‘respecters’ of ‘the composer’s intentions’. What is it that our proto-ayatollah objects to? In a sense, it does not really matter, for such things are more matters of opportunism than anything else, as the ‘religious Right’ backers of Donald Trump testify more clearly than ever. What Neuenfels opens up is the possibility of a more thoroughgoing exploration of gender and orientation. Salome herself becomes a significantly gender-bending figure, her absurd, ultra-stylised (which is, crucially, to say aestheticised) Victorian bustle transposed onto others, Wilde and Jochanaan chief amongst them. Who dresses up? Who dresses whom? With what intent?

Wilde, Salome

When Herod commands, or rather requests, ‘Dance for me, Salome’, does he too want as much of an aesthetic as a sexual experience? Do we err to distinguish the two? (Given recent reports of sexual abuse by conductors, the question seems especially relevant now.) He has his own reasons, as such ‘immoral’ rulers tend to, in many ways far less objectionable than those who loudly trumpet their ‘morality’; he is weak more than anything else, as signalled by Herodias’s theft of and refusal to return his ring of kingship. Make of that gesture, so rich in symbolism political and sexual, what you will. Meanwhile Wilde, increasingly confident, perhaps as in his play, in his denunciation of denunciation, allows his homosexuality to become clearer – and, more important still, to acquire greater dramatic agency. When he dances, as angel of death, with Salome, a game of omnisexual sadomasochism unfolds, the poet’s leather harness-corset (which?) and what he does with it speaking a thousand words (back at least as far as Neuenfels’s brilliant Salzburg Così fan tutte, a work Strauss, a true Mozart connoisseur, so adored).

But, in a world of such repression, what does one put in the place of sexual freedom? Aestheticism, of course, in Wilde’s case – and, surely, in Strauss’s too, throughout his career. Ever the student of Nietzsche rather than Wagner, Strauss believed in art above all else: indeed, perhaps only in art. Thus the constructions we place on stage, and the very constructions we make of them in our minds too, play their part in a similar game, perhaps even identical, at the very least related – depending, most likely, upon who we are, even how we feel on the night. Salome – sometimes a girl, sometimes a more progressive, perhaps older, woman with something of the caricatured lesbian to her, sometimes perhaps a surrogate for the young man Wilde, on and off stage, may be seeking – focuses her own aesthetics upon her construction of Jochanaan, who sometimes resembles what she thinks she wants, yet in other respects could hardly be more distant. The pent-up rage in which she smashes one of the multiple, ‘beautiful’ busts arranged on stage for her delectation following the dance is both a genuine act and a ‘work of art’, or at least an aspiration thereto, in itself. Has anyone learned of ‘love’ then? It seems unlikely. We have nevertheless learned a good deal about the lengths to which many of us will go in order to prevent ourselves and others from doing so.

Wilde, Salome

Thomas Guggeis, originally scheduled to conduct but one of these performances as assistant to Christoph von Dohnányi, ended up conducting them all. He did a very good job, the Staatskapelle Berlin seemingly very happy to play under his leadership. The weird musical world in which dances do not dance and non-dances do came across with considerable dramatic power. I have heard more outrageously, or at least phantasmagorically, coloured performances, but no single performance is likely in itself to respond equally to the manifold possibilities of Strauss’s score. There can be little doubt that this young conductor is a musician of great accomplishment, nor that we shall be hearing much more from him. What an opportunity, though, to have fallen to him!


If tonal beauty were your thing, then Aušrine Stundytė’s Salome would most likely not be for you. Is the problematisation of such priorities, though, not one of the dramatic themes, at least possibly, of work and production? She certainly entered into the role with dramatic gusto and considerable stage presence. One heard, moreover, many more of the words, words moreover imbued with true verbal potency, than will often be the case. Thomas Johannes Mayer’s Jochanaan likewise navigated intriguingly between such polarities, offering a solution, however provisional, suited to his character and his portrayal. Looking at the royal couple from the other side of that (doubtless too) crude opposition, Gerhard Siegel and Marina Prudenskaya offered formidably sung performances, more so than one will often hear, without sacrifice to the drama. Nikolai Schukoff’s astute, enigmatic, vocally ravishing Narraboth was perhaps the single most impressive performance of all.

Narraboth (Nikolai Shukoff), Salome, Jochanan
Images: Monika Rittershaus

Indeed, at the time, one rather resented Narraboth’s being elbowed aside by Wilde – which is surely the point. And yet soon we did not, for criticism of society, his, Salome’s, and ours, becomes all the more necessary. Until the drama, musical rather than scenic, less closes than stops. It could be Wozzeck, almost, except in its aestheticism, it is anything but. Wozzeck does not die of boredom; Salome does, but whose? Patriarchy remains, but do we care - truly care, as opposed to claiming to?

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Bernd Alois Zimmermann at 100

Today is Bernd Alois Zimmermann's 100th birthday. Click here for my appreciation of his life and work in Sunday's New York Times. Full of links to recommended performances too: I hope that might be of help to some of you.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Mozartists/Page - Haydn, Applausus, 15 March 2018

Cadogan Hall

Haydn: Applausus, Hob. XXIVa:6 (UK public premiere)

Ellia Laugharne (soprano)
Elspeth Marrow (mezzo-soprano)
Thomas Elwin (tenor)
John Savournin (bass-baritone)
David Shipley (bass)

It is not every day one attends a Haydn premiere, even if only a UK public premiere. Haydn’s Applausus, written 250 years ago, for the fiftieth anniversary of a Cistercian Abbot’s vows, seems never to have been performed again until 1958, for a BBC studio recording under Harry Newstone, the soprano one Joan Sutherland. (She must have relished the coloratura!) Despite a few performances elsewhere in the meantime, and three recordings, it does not seem to have been performed in concert in this country until now.

Was it worth the wait? Unquestionably, although I fear that contemporary audiences, longing for superficially ‘exciting’ substitute film music, will not necessarily react kindly or even comprehendingly to a celebration of monastic virtues on a suitably monastic time-frame. There is no plot of which to speak; the work might almost be characterised as an allegory without an allegory. There can certainly be no questioning the quality of the music in this cantata. (Would it fare any better if we called it an oratorio, the two terms being more or less interchangeable? Hummel, after all, recorded The Seasons as an ‘oratorio’ in his 1806 catalogue of the Esterházy collection.) Conductor Ian Page offers sage advice, moreover due food for thought, when he writes, ‘If an aria is beautiful, why should it bother us if it lasts for more than ten minutes? If the same line of text is repeated a couple of dozen times, how do these repetitions affect us as we consider and contemplate the text? How should we best prepare ourselves for the experience of listening to a complete performance of the work?’ It would be interesting to know how it would fare in an abbet such as that at Zwettl, in Lower Austria, for which it was written. How would the acoustic and the visual experience of the architecture shape our experience? In the meantime, though, this concert hall experience gave a fine account. So too did Classical Opera’s splendid documentation, the concert programme a model of its kind, with an excellent note by Page, as well as an important reproduction of a letter by Haydn concerning the work.

By way of an introduction to the opening recitativo accompagnato, we heard, as seems often to have been the case in the work’s relatively few performances, the first two movements of Haydn’s Symphony no.38 in C major. Hand on heart, my preference remains for modern instruments in such music, but it is always good thing from time to time to revisit one’s preferences and prejudices, and I found much to jolt me from ‘modern’ complacency in the sound, especially from the wind instruments. The Mozartists, Classical Opera’s ‘period’ band, certainly sounded preferable to my ears to the current, peculiar fashion for mixing and matching modern and period instruments. Even the echoes of the second movement, marked by a certain intonational fragility, were well shaped enough to render that fragility more touching than anything else. And there was something to the sound, here and elsewhere, that brought the music close to the world of the eighteenth-century – and not just Haydn’s – Missa solemnis figuraliter, trumpets, drums, and all. The opening of that first recitative, moreover, seemed to speak of Handel, even if this were similarity rather than influence as such. (The period of Handel’s true influence on Haydn, nurtured by Gottfried van Swieten’s Vienna concerts of alte Musik, lay a good few years in the future.)

By the time we reached the first quartet, ‘Virtus inter ardua quaerit habitare,’ there was, moreover, little doubt concerning the quality of the soloists either. The coordination and blend of their often highly melismatic writing was second to none. Ellie Laugharne’s silver-toned soprano and Elspeth Marrow’s richer mezzo proved well matched and contrasted; Thomas Elwin’s fresh, truly Mozartian – for that matter, Haydnesque – tenor proved fully equal to the extraordinary challenges Haydn afforded him, especially later on in two highly ornate arias of truly ‘heavenly length’. John Savournin’s bass-baritone and David Shipley’s bass likewise offered a pleasing degree of comtrast, the former truly coming in to his own in the rage aria, ‘Si obtrudat ultimam,’ the latter ably handling the fascinating tonal plan of the first aria of all, ‘Non chymaeras somnitatis’. Harpsichordist Steven Devine and violinist Steven Devine offered fine solo work too. Throughout, one could only marvel at the care lavished by Haydn on this more or less unknown music, never to be heard again in his lifetime. Page’s tempi were judicious; this is not music to be hurried, let alone harried, nor was it in practice.

The closing chorus, here taken as quintet, is an ‘Amen’ in all but name – and words. It is a delightful one at that, and proved a true culmination, a point of arrival. ‘I hope,’ Haydn wrote in the aforementioned letter, ‘that this Applausus will please the poet, the worthy musicians, and honourable revered Auditorio, all of whom I greet with profound respect.’ It certainly pleased this member, honourable and revered or otherwise, of the Auditorio, who hopes against hope that he will not have to wait too long until the next audition.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Jake Arditti/Arditti Quartet - Sciarrino, Hurel, and Andre, 12 March 2018

Wigmore Hall

Salvatore Sciarrino: Sei quartetti brevi (1967-92)
Philippe Hurel: Entre les lignes (2017, UK premiere)
Mark Andre: iv 13 (Twelve miniatures) (2014-17, UK premiere)
Sciarrino: Cosa resta (2016, UK premiere)

Jake Arditti (countertenor)
Irvine Arditti Ashot Sarkissian (violins)
Ralf Ehlers (viola)
Lucas Fels (cello)


First, some early music – certainly by the Arditti Quartet’s standards: Sciarrino’s Sei quartetti brevi, the first of which was written in 1967, dedicated to Franco Evengelisti, added to with five further pieces in 1991 and 1992. Perhaps such a conception inevitably brings to mind Webern, at least for those of us with a centre of gravity in still earlier music, but it was only really in the second piece (that which was written first, in 1967) that he came strongly to mind in musical terms, at least in performances such as these, typically free of nostalgia. That intimate post-Webern riot – if you cannot imagine such a thing, just listen – was preceded by an opening movement of bowed whispers, transforming over its course, febrile yet always with a sense of a ground from which to take flight, into a language, perhaps even a world, of its own. A focused yet variegated – dialectics aplenty here! – third movement, suggestive at times almost of electronic sounds had in that respect much in common with the fifth piece, its short-wave radio intimations charmingly reminiscent of Stockhausen, even if only coincidentally. The ghostly swarming between of the fourth piece in between seemed in retrospect, again if only coincidentally, to prepare the way for a final movement in which I sensed something sung, somehow ‘behind’ the harmonics, and yet which was imaginatively recreated by them. Perhaps we had reached the air of ‘another other planet’.

At the close of the recital, we turned or returned to some early music refracted – or so, on occasion, it seemed, the air of the Italian Renaissance both palpable and yet not. In Sciarrino’s Cosa resta, Jake Arditti’s countertenor, finely balanced between the unearthly and the earthly, led us through the inventory of Andrea di Sarto, as accounted for after his widow’s death in 1570: first straightforwardly so, reminding me – doubtless only because I had just heard it from English Touring Opera – a little of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, then more playfully, mysteriously, broken and prolonged, as if cleansed and invigorated by the air of the post-war avant garde. Recitative, almost, followed by arioso, almost, eventually blooming into something quite different: there was a true impression of back and forth, not only between eras but within the text, verbal and musical. Instruments would sigh, imitating and developing ideas from the voice, from the words. At other times, especially towards the close, something intriguingly mechanistic emerged; perhaps significantly, that came perhaps as resistance to something more ‘sung’, less ‘spoken’. Performances from all concerned, not least Jake Arditti, were as engaging as the work itself. I look forward to hearing the items for soprano and mixed octet that surround this piece to form Sciarrino’s Immagina il deserto. There was certainly much scope for imagination, of the desert and beyond, here.

In between, we heard works by Philippe Hurel and Mark Andre. Hurel’s Entre les lignes, like the first Sciarriano and the Andre, a UK premiere, was forestalled for a minute or so by an electronic contribution from an unwitting audience member. No harm was done and a little amusement afforded when Irvine Arditti asked: ‘Is that a Sciarrino telephone? If so, I want one.’ Contrast with the Sei quartetti brevi proved considerable, not least in terms of initial volume and directness of attack, which would surely have more than drowned out any audience contribution. The other thing that immediately struck me was that Hurel seemed to be working very much more within the generally accepted tradition of string quartet playing: the sound, if not the language, of Schoenberg and Bartók, for instance. (I was then gratified later to see his words quoted in the programme: ‘I made no attempt to explore string techniques; those I have used belong to the familiar vocabulary.’) Had I not known better, I might have believed the intensity of polyphony arose from more than four instruments. The relationship between harmony and counterpoint again seemed to spring from tradition, without being reduced to it. And yet, ultimately, the programming also spoke of possible connections to, or at least similarities with, the preceding Sciarrino work. Dialectical contrast between often clearly demarcated sections, and in internal, cumulative narrative played against one another. A highly dramatic work and performance seemed to grow out of the physical and intellectual nature and potentialities of the instruments.

Andre’s ‘iv 13 (Twelve miniatures)’ belongs to a ‘long series of solo instrumental and chamber pieces, iv,’ on which the composer has been working since 2007. These pieces were composed between 2014 and 2017, and given their first performance by the Arditti Quartet last year. The soundworld, at least at times, seemed to me closer to Sciarrino than to Hurel. Sometimes towards, if not quite at, the edge of audibility, they seemed occasionally to hint (not necessarily a case of influence) at Nono too, perhaps also, as Paul Griffiths suggested in his note, at Lachenmann. Extended techniques were certainly the order of the day here: bowing on wooden dampers, retuning and ‘mistunings’ (Griffiths), col legno playing, and so forth conspiring to create, in the composer’s words, ‘a music of disappearance’. Its ‘presented compositional spaces breathe, disappear, and leave behind shadows, traces, which is how this intimate piece works musically and eschatologically.’ Whispered confidences certainly spoke of a kinship, if only in this particular programming context, with Sei quartetti brevi. It seemed both to bring various tendencies in the programme together and yet also to question them – just as one might have expected from the ever-excellent Arditti Quartet.  

Sunday, 11 March 2018

From the House of the Dead, Royal Opera, 10 March 2018

Royal Opera House

Luka Kuzmič – Štefan Margita
Nikita, Big Prisoner – Nicky Spence
Čekunov, Small Prisoner, Cook – Grant Doyle
Prison Governor – Alexander Vassiliev
Alexandr Petrovič Gorjančikov – Willard White
Guard – Andrew O’Connor
Antonič (Elderly Prisoner) – Graham Clark
Skuratov – Ladislav Elgr
Aljeja – Pascal Charbonneau
Šiškov (Pope) – Johan Reuter
Drunk Prisoner – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Šapkin – Peter Hoare
Prisoner (Don Juan, Brahmin) – Aleš Jenis
Prisoner (Kedrill) – John Graham-Hall
Young Prisoner – Florian Hoffmann
Prostitute – Allison Cook
Voice – Konu Kim
Čerevin – Alexander Kravets

Krzysztof Warlikowski (director)
Małgorzata Sczczęśniak (designs)
Felice Ross (lighting)
Denis Guéguin (video)
Claude Bardouil (movement)
Christian Longchamp (dramaturgy)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)


Astonishingly, this new production of From the House of the Dead is not only the Royal Opera’s first, but also Krzysztof Warlikowski’s house debut. Better late than never, I suppose, and past omissions are hardly the fault of the current regime. Another important first is presented in a first full outing for this critical edition of the work, including Janáček’s proper libretto, including dialect, Russian, and even, apparently, a little Ukrainian, as part of his own translation from Dostoyevsky. Such things matter, of course, although how many of us in a (presumably) largely Anglophone audience can, hand on heart, claim to notice them all? Some will, and I am grateful to my friend and colleague, Geoffrey Chew, who certainly will do, for having alerted me in the first place to the use of the new edition.

Ultimately, though, opera lives in performance. The conductor, Mark Wigglesworth observes in a programme note, there is ‘a curious tension in today’s operatic culture between the musical priority of the performers, which typically tries to be one of complete fidelity to the composer’s instructions, and a dramatic expectation that pieces are simply springboards for a director’s limitless imagination.’ Such a tension may prove productive, as here, yet it also requires deconstruction of its own, as indeed Wigglesworth proceeds to acknowledge. It is often in those cracks that one perceives chinks of light, or to quote Janáček himself, ‘the spark of God … “A mother gave birth even to him!”,’ perhaps ultimately thus even of redemption. In this outstanding performance and production, one of the finest things I have seen at Covent Garden for a while, the interaction between freedom and determinism, such as one might readily associate more with, say, Schoenberg, in Moses und Aron, comes to influence and be influenced by work, dramatic ‘content’, performance, and the oracular mystery of ‘opera’ that arises from the dialectical relationship between them.

It has been worth the wait for Warlikowski. Patrice Chéreau, in his justly lauded production, originally conducted by Pierre Boulez, but which I saw in Berlin under Simon Rattle, presented the work relatively straightforwardly, perhaps even in the very best sense ‘traditionally’. Warlikowski, however, offers a post-Foucauldian queering of the work, engaging in more explicitly conceptual fashion with power, ‘justice’, and ‘punishment’ in an age of activist and intellectual intersectionality. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term, has always insisted that intersectionality was fundamentally concerned with power rather than mere identity; the line is not always absolute, of course, and identity will often prove a response to power relations, but we do well to remember that, especially when ‘centrist dad’ types – who, predictably seem to have hated the staging – as much as unrepentant reactionaries will rail against ‘identity politics’ and indeed against the very idea of intersectionality as well as the word. ‘Citizens of nowhere’, one might say, against ‘very fine people’; or is that our white privilege attempting to trump, as it were, deeper, more serious, still more violent problems and battles within society with our own? It is not either-or; that is part of the point, or should be. The coercive apparatus that sets us against one another, within and without formal incarceration returns us to Foucault, whom we see on film at the beginning, not only to have his ideas confirmed, but also to challenge them. As with Janáček and Dostoyevsky, we need them and yet have also moved on. In the agony of that alienation lies our drama too.

And so, alongside Foucault, we also see - and perhaps more to the point, watch - actors and singers – what, if anything is the difference? – at sport and not. Prisoners are no more the same than non-prisoners. Are we merely looking, or are we engaging in surveillance? At least indirectly we all are, and if our gaze is directed to the stage, we also know, even if we deny, that we are watching each other too. Anyone driven to distraction by the call ‘see it, say it, sorted’ on railway carriages over the past few months, will know how little it might take to have been incited by the ‘duty’ to bring to ‘justice’ so as to be facing such ‘justice’ itself, which as Foucault pointed out, was and always had been spectacularly unsuccessful in its alleged project of ‘rehabilitation’. In the contemporary American prison in which the action unfolds, the intense physicality and to us, most likely a largely white, bourgeois audience, the ‘danger’ of such, especially when as here non-white and/or non-binary faces crop up,  replicate or, perhaps better, recreate hierarchies outside of the system.

That places the arrival of Gorjančikov in an interesting light. To a certain extent he is ‘one of us’. We can probably imagine ourselves more as political prisoners than as some of the ‘others’, more as items on, say, Amber Rudd’s lists of foreigners than as murderers or drug dealers. We are offered a way in, but also a way to differentiate ourselves, as we do both inside and outside, to reaffirm our respectability, perhaps even to sympathise with or at least to acknowledge as ‘necessary’ the brutality we see on show from the prison officers – and hear in the chains of Janáček’s score. Are we ultimately ‘do-gooders’, or just armchair reformers, if indeed we care at all? Might we even extend that critique to the performance and to the work itself and to that redemptive claim, the ‘spark of God’, in which we so desperately wish to believe?

Other hierarchies recreate themselves, although not necessarily identically. In a world of often (although let us not assume too much a priori) toxic masculinity – Šiškov, after all, killed his wife, upon realising that she still loved Filka/Luka – where is the space for women? Their near-absence on stage is one of the many things that makes this work so singular in Janáček’s œuvre; the harshness of the score is not only a harshness of the tundra. Here Warlikowski doubles down, doubtless controversially, not only allotting the trouser role of Aljeja to a tenor, but revealing, or rather concealing, the Prostitute – still sung by a Woman – as a drag queen, heightening elements of the ‘show’ which, after all, lie at the heart of the play within a play here. Such, after all, may be one of the ways of dealing with prison life. Or is it, instead, a reassertion of male privilege, a banishment of women? It does not take long before our thoughts touch upon the repression of trans women, men too, not least again on account of their absence too. Is this all intentional? I have no idea, although I suspect that some at least of it is. The production, however, offers the space for such reflection; indeed, I should argue that it demands it.

All that would be diminished, or unachievable, were it not for a fine, committed ensemble cast – there is no room, thank God, for ‘stars’ here – working with so impressive a chorus, orchestra, and conductor. I find it difficult to believe that the opera has ever been better conducted than by Wigglesworth, who inspired the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House to the very top of its form. The sound world was just right, less golden, more steely than the Staatskapelle Berlin under Rattle. Yet it seemed to grow out of an emphasis upon specifics, upon details, upon those gnawing rhythmic and melodic cells. This was not an abstract ‘approach’ foisted upon the work, quite the contrary. Certainly one heard, or fancied one heard, the intimacy of connection between language(s) and music. That held even when the language we heard was not at its sharpest (not necessarily, I think, a matter of nationality). I am really not in any position to comment further and shall leave that to Czech speakers; I think, unsurprisingly, that I detected some variation, but would always have had to resort to the titles in any case. The richness of what even post-humanists tend to fall back on calling ‘humanity’ is on show here, yet so is its commonality, not least in resistance to oppression. Singling out particular artists seems more than usually beside the point, but Štefan Margita, Nicky Spence, Ladislav Elgr, Pascal Charbonneau, and delightfully, Graham Clark all made very strong impressions, as did Allison Cook as the Prostitute.

Here, though, more than ever, one remembered, saw and heard dramatised that oft-cited section of a 1927 report from the Czech newspaper, Lidové noviny. Dostoevsky’s novel had appealed to Janáček, and so it does to us, because ‘“in each of these criminals there is a spark of God”. The new opera has no main hero. Thus its novelty lies in its collectivism.’ Is that not a collectivism we need as much as ever, perhaps still more so?