Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Director Tom Cairns and Thomas Adès interviewed before tomorrow's world premiere of The Exterminating Angel

Photo: SF/Anne Zeuner

(Interview and synopsis below: courtesy of Salzburg Festival. I shall be reviewing the final performance in the run on 8 August. Following the 28 July premiere, there will also be performances on 1 and 5 August.)
Thomas Adès, when did you first encounter Buñuel’s film El ángel exterminador, and how long have you been playing with the idea of using it as the basis for an opera?

Thomas Adès: The idea goes back at least fifteen years, to a time before I began to compose The Tempest. I saw the film when I was thirteen or fourteen, when I think there was a Buñuel season on the BBC. My mother is a historian of art, especially Surrealist art, with Dalì and Buñuel particularly being part of her work, and so I encountered these things early on. I was strongly attracted to Buñuel’s films. Possibly at that age I didn’t like El ángel exterminador – shot in black and white and rather dry – as much as the more colourful, more ‘Pythonesque’ ones, like Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie or Le Fantôme de la liberté (still probably my favourite), but the film stayed with me to the point of obsession. When these ideas to write an opera come to me, it’s not so much a conscious thing – the process is more like a seed that gets dispersed in the wind and either lands where it can grow or doesn’t; a sort of germination process.

But at some point you must have said to yourself: this film could make a good opera. Where does its potential for this lie? What makes it so suited to being translated into the medium of music or musical theatre?

Thomas Adès: In a way, El ángel exterminador is an operatic story in a very pure form, because every opera is about getting out of a particular situation. But in Buñuel’s film, whatever the mechanism is that gets us from A to B, it’s switched off: the guests know that they should go home – they have children who are waiting for them, things to do, etc. – but they don’t go. Even when they are starving and in despair, they’re incapable of doing so, although the doors are open. When you’re writing an opera, the composer’s job is to write music that gets you from moment A to moment B to moment C – as it were from one room into another room into another, eventually arriving at a destination. Every piece of music is looking for an exit, and the fun thing in this opera is that the characters are looking for an exit the whole time but keep coming back into the same room, though right at the end they do find it, at least temporarily.

The film is very musical in another way, too, because there’s an underground river of meaning which is not exactly what the people are saying. This river links the spoken lines and runs through the entire situation, but only occasionally surfaces. So the film has an unspoken subtext all the way through. 5

Tom Cairns: As is the case with all Buñuel’s later films, El ángel exterminador does not have a film score. The silences between the spoken lines, scenes and situations lend themselves perfectly for music. Silence is a wonderful thing, obviously, but music can perhaps convey this underground river even better.

Did your work on The Exterminating Angel begin with musical ideas – also as far as the overall structure of the work is concerned – or did you initially devote yourself solely to the libretto?

Thomas Adès: The first steps are always very mysterious. At first one is dealing with individual notes, or two notes. It’s rather like watching an embryo develop, the difference being that you might understand the DNA of this tiny cell later on and see how it relates to everything else. Rather the larger structure eventually develops from trying to link these cells together. My image of music as a natural process, as a living, growing organism, is a fairly precise analogy of an opera and the way in which it is created. It wouldn’t be truthful to start at the beginning by sketching this enormous shape, especially for a piece like this where the movements of this underground river are so complicated from line to line. Tom Cairns and I worked for years on the libretto, and it went through at least six different drafts before a note of music was written. You need to have a strong sense of the overall architecture in order to find the specific character of the music.

Tom Cairns: We’ve been working on the libretto since 2009. It was about deciding at the outset what the opera could be as an entity in itself. We agreed fairly quickly on what we could do to reshape the film and turn it into this particular art form. The libretto went back and forth several times, and in fact it ended up becoming much closer to the film than I’d imagined. In order to get the piece into a shape that was feasible on stage, we had to amalgamate a few characters – the seventeen guests of the Nobiles in the film become twelve in the opera. Since sung words take more time than spoken words, some of the text had to be reduced. Other original scenes were added.

Thomas Adès: Once I started writing the music, this in turn inevitably demanded numerous changes.

While you were working on the libretto, were you already considering where you would make use of the specific possibilities that musical theatre offers – particularly ensembles? For example, did you plan right from the beginning to make an ‘Enchanted’ ensemble out of the scene where the guests are being introduced to one another?

Thomas Adès: No, these decisions were taken as I was composing, for example, when I noticed that a line spoken by one person is actually a communal utterance. In the case of the guests being introduced to one another I suddenly saw an opportunity given by the Spanish word ‘encantado’: for an English-speaking person it is of course slightly odd to say 6

‘enchanted’, but thanks to its double meaning – ‘pleased to meet you’ and ‘spellbound’ – the word underlines that the figures are under a sort of spell and that the story has something of a fairytale.

Tom Cairns: Later, towards the end of Act Two, we refer to it again, when the Doctor passionately cries out: ‘We are not “enchanted”. This is not a magician’s house!’ He’s desperate to bring the mysterious situation under control and pull it back into his medical-rational approach to life. He is desperate at that point and in the most dreadful emotional state because he can’t control the situation. Scientific analysis is useless.

Thomas Adès, you have made various passages in the libretto into small solo scenes or mini-arias that show the figures – their character or emotions – in a different light from the film. During their captivity in the drawing room the guests are transformed from elegant, cultured people into something close to barbarians. While Buñuel depicts this process from a distanced, almost documentary perspective, it’s especially in these solo passages that you take us up close to the characters, sometimes in a very moving way. For example, we encounter the rather decadent Silvia de Ávila in Act Three cradling a sheep’s cadaver in her arms while she sings a ‘Berceuse macabre’, believing she is rocking her little son Yoli to sleep.

Thomas Adès: I think music demands these moments in opera – moments where things don’t proceed in ‘real time’, but where the action stops and the music comments on the emotional meaning of what is happening. In order to give some of the characters these static moments we’ve also made use of poems by Buñuel from the late 1920s, that is, from his very early, Surrealist phase.

Buñuel puts the people into a situation where their personalities as they are when they first encounter one another eventually break down or turn into something else. Buñuel plays with this façade. In the opera, the music supports the private personality behind the façade on the one hand (and lets us feel empathy with the characters), but on the other it also supports the other force which is pulling them into a kind of shared nothingness. Music can be powerfully levelling, because it tends to want to resolve everyone into the same place. The whole process is heightened in the opera. The music is a sort of destiny the characters are subject to. Sometimes it feels as if the music is responsible for keeping them in the room, and in the end it’s the music which releases them.

Often the music knows more than the people. When for example the guests arrive at the mansion and then – a physical impossibility – arrive again through the same door, we hear the same music but in altered form: it contains more sinister undertones, conveying a slight sense of things not happening quite at the right time or in the right order. When the guests have walked into the house the music occurs again in the orchestra, and this time you can sense that they are leaving reality behind, perhaps even that reality itself dissolves behind them. 7

Is the phenomenon of disintegration that the guests experience outwardly and inwardly reflected in your score?

Thomas Adès: When you think of something becoming a ruin or disintegrating, it is important that you can read its structure up to the last minute to a certain extent. The ‘double’ arrival of the guests and the dinner go by quite quickly, but in the rest of the opera I go over small moments of the music from these scenes and dig deeper and deeper into the musical material. Towards the end, when the guests are handing round scraps of meat around the burning cello, the music from the start reappears in a more complete form – Tom had the brilliant notion of letting the guests become a little like they were before and let them say things like ‘I prefer my meat à point.’

Tom Cairns: They’re suddenly at a dinner party, just like the old days – and ultimately they are reassuring themselves with this interaction…

Thomas Adès: …something I find very moving.

The music that you associate with the world of elegant social ritual, here and at the beginning of the opera, is the Viennese waltz, often coupled with lush chromatic harmonies.

Thomas Adès: What interests me about the waltz is the seductiveness of this music. I often feel that the waltzes by Johann Strauss are saying: ‘Why don’t you stay a little longer? Don’t worry about what’s going on outside.’ So in the context of our opera the waltz becomes very dangerous… When panic breaks out among the guests in Act Two, I have layered motifs derived and distorted from various Strauss waltzes over one another in a Fugue of Panic, transforming them into a kind of whirlpool.

Against that you have Leticia, whose music is mostly from another world. Her music takes over at the end and releases the guests from their strange captivity.

This takes us back to the irrational basic situation of the plot: the inability to leave the drawing room although there are no visible obstacles. In a brief text written by Buñuel to precede the film when El ángel exterminador was first shown in Paris he stated that ‘perhaps the best explanation’ for the film was that ‘rationally there is none’, but conceded that the film was open to multiple interpretations.

Tom Cairns: I’ve come to think very much like Buñuel, which I suppose is inevitable. I don’t feel the need to rationalize the situation. It feels almost normal to me that the guests can’t get out. I now don’t see it as irrational.

Thomas Adès: For me, the question is actually: Why can anyone ever leave a room?

Why is it Leticia who realizes how or rather that she and the others can leave the room? 8

Thomas Adès: The fact is that the servants, by some kind of instinct, know before everyone else that they have to leave the house. The host and some of the guests are aristocrats, but there are many hints that Leticia originates from a world closer to that of the staff – not least her higher sensitivity to what is happening to them.

Tom Cairns: Leticia is somehow aware of the situation long before the other guests. That’s possibly why she hurls the ashtray through the window in Act One – a first instinctive attempt to let air in from outside as she feels a strange atmosphere encroach on the room.

Thomas Adès: There is the idea that the humbler their origin, the more understanding a character will have of the power of the exterminating angel. This may be why Eduardo and his fiancée Beatriz – who don’t appear to be particularly privileged – choose to taken their own lives rather than become victims of the exterminating angel.

But who or what is the exterminating angel of the title? The film was originally going to be called something else and wasn’t renamed until during or after the shooting. Buñuel later said that he had sensed a ‘subterranean connection’ between the title El ángel exterminador and the content of his film.

Thomas Adès: In a way, the exterminating angel is an absence – an absence of will, of purpose, of action. Why do we ever do anything? The film poses this question in a very pure form, and the answer is: because otherwise we would be at the end, with death and extermination. You could say that extermination is what we’re fleeing from when we leave a room, when we do anything at all. In a way, the opera throws me back on how miraculous it is that we can and must act, indeed that we are alive at all. (In fact I find conducting it is surprisingly exhilarating – I’m starting to think of it as ‘The Exhilarating Angel’.) In this story the force that makes us act has been turned off, like a switch. The people no longer know why they should go home; they have forgotten what they are. The Doctor with his scientific, rational conception of the world tries in vain to control the phenomenon by giving it a pathological label – a Buñuel joke, diagnosing it as ‘aboulia’. On the one hand Buñuel conveys the impression that the force stopping the guests from leaving lies within themselves, but on the other, with this title, he takes the step of saying: let’s pretend that there is such a supernatural, destructive force, a mythical figure which makes it impossible to act. For me, once the exterminating angel has taken possession of the guests, the only possible outcome is the complete breakdown of society and the imposition of martial law – and ultimately the end of the world.

In the interlude after Act One you convey this dimension of the events in the drawing room in a very disturbing way. The music recalls the unsettling concluding sequence of Buñuel’s film, where demonstrators or revolutionaries are gunned down by the police. 9

Thomas Adès: Yes, it’s the first hint of that in the opera. Incidentally, Buñuel was obsessed by the drums of Calanda – his home town, where during Holy Week they would drum for three days and three nights – and I had thought for years about putting them in the opera, until I suddenly realized that the very judgemental interlude after Act One has the same rhythmic structure as the – unusually long – drumming rhythm in Calanda. So the drums naturally went in, which immediately brought the military quality I was looking for.

The exterminating angel also makes its presence felt in the opera with a very special sound…

Thomas Adès: It’s the first time I’ve ever used an electronic instrument in a piece: for me, the Ondes Martenot has the same relationship with the acoustic instruments of the orchestra as the exterminated world without life has with the world that does have life, without the exterminating angel. The Ondes Martenot becomes a symbol, the voice of this exterminating angel in the sense that the instrument is heard whenever a figure says something that contributes to the situation of immobility. Sometimes the Ondes Martenot almost forces things, for example, when the people outside are trying to make the little boy Yoli go into the house: the Ondes Martenot intervenes and it’s as though it frightens him into running away.

The Ondes Martenot has a beautiful, delicious sound. One has to bear in mind that although the exterminating angel is a terrifying, destructive force – an absence, a negative – it also possesses something very attractive and alluring. So the Ondes Martenot is like the sirens of Greek mythology, saying: ‘Stay!’

The bells with which the piece starts and which also sound at the end function as a sort of herald for the exterminating angel. You could say that bells are a kind of music which stays in the same moment all the time. Buñuel often used bells in his films, and especially here in Salzburg I’m struck increasingly by their extraordinary nature: they’ve been ringing for centuries, rang long before we were here and will ring long after we’ve gone. Bells are a form of eternity appearing in the river of time, an expression of the unchanging. They are saying: here is this moment again, and again, and again, and it is still the same, and so are you.

Let us return to the person who frees the guests from their state of paralysis: in the opera Leticia is given an even more central role than she has in the film. You’ve made her the prima donna of the opera performance the guests have been attending, whereas in Buñuel’s film the singer is a different figure, and after the dinner, in the drawing room, the guests plead with Leticia in vain to sing for them. Not until the end of the opera, when Leticia entreats the others to repeat their utterances and actions of the first evening, does she actually sing, and it’s as if her aria releases the guests from the room.

Thomas Adès: There is an idea that is present in the film but very easy to miss as it is not underlined by Buñuel – the character of Leticia, the ‘Valkyrie’, who almost never speaks, does not say ‘I want to go home’ at the crucial moment at the end of the first evening, as 10

though she has forgotten her line; and it is almost as though this condemns them all to be trapped. I saw an opportunity to link this to the operatic soprano character whom we fused with Leticia, and have the missed line actually be a whole aria.

Where did you take the words for this aria from?

Thomas Adès: I have amplified a Jewish aspect here that is referred to only glancingly in the film – in an anti-Semitic line spoken by Raúl when the ashtray flies through the window (and which we have removed): ‘Some Jew passing by.’ The text of Leticia’s aria at the end of the opera is taken from an early twelfth-century Zionide of Yehuda Halevi, who wrote of his longing for Jerusalem in Spain. In the original it says ‘Zion, do you ask of my peace, who longs for yours?’, so I changed this to ‘My home, do you ask of my peace…’. Perhaps Leticia may have experienced this larger dimension of homesickness and exile. The return to Jerusalem is the ultimate image of returning. Buñuel also was very much an exile, which made him a figure of legendary power within Spain. There are also elements in Halevi’s text that link to the Surrealist imagery in El angel exterminador: the scattered sheep, the idea of eagles’ wings, the idea of ‘the chosen’.

There’s also a subtext of Jewish exile in the figure of Blanca, who is a musician as well, and like Leticia does not belong to the aristocracy. Her aria is based on the children’s poem ‘Over the Sea’ by Chaim Bialik, the father of modern Hebrew literature, with a very similar subject to Halevi’s Zionide. And the variations that Blanca performs on the piano in Act One are of course not really by Paradisi but my own variations on the Ladino song ‘Lavaba la blanca niña’, which has an unassuageable harmonic structure very typical of Jewish music of longing and bereavement.

And Leonora, with her obsession with the Kabbalah, completes our trio of ‘witches’.

Long stretches of the music of Act Three have an obsessive and dissonant, if you like irrational, quality. Leticia’s aria comes as a release, also in musical terms. It’s striking that it contains not a single half-tone or tritone, intervals that have occurred very frequently up to this point.

Thomas Adès: Actually, there are no dissonances in Leticia’s aria at all, at least not if you look at it from the perspective of a time so far back that it’s long before the rules of our traditional harmonics were established. I wanted this aria to have something of the quality of music from the twelfth or thirteenth century, because it can sound as strange to us as music that is very dissonant.

Music has a tendency to arrange itself either in terms of patterns or cycles. On a tiny scale, in a single bar, as well as on the huge scale of an entire opera there is always the possibility to decide not to be part of a pattern. This is part of my musical make-up, and I think it’s very much part of the action in The Exterminating Angel. We have figures trapped within cycles of thought and others who, like Leticia, fight against the cycles and patterns. To arrive at a real musical resolution, the patterns and cycles have to be subdued, recombined by the composer’s hand to produce a new doorway, if you like. And that’s exactly what Leticia does at the end, but of course then her aria just becomes another dominant waiting for resolution… (laughs)

At the end of the opera, the bells – which you described as staying in the same moment all the time – ring, here in combination with a repetitive musical form that constantly returns to the beginning, one which you’ve used several times in your works: the chaconne. To a line from the text of the Requiem the chorus repeatedly sings the same seven bars that it has already sung in the large ensemble before Leticia effects their release – the scene in which the guests take the decision to kill Nobile, their host, as a sacrifice, and which has a lot in common with the ‘delirious’ second dream sequence in the film.

Thomas Adès: Obviously, depending on how it’s written, a chaconne can have the quality of constantly not going through a door. When the chorus begins to sing that line from the Requiem off-stage, I want to convey the feeling that it’s been singing it forever and that it will go on forever after. That’s why this music returns at the end of the opera in a heightened form. With this chaconne – as opposed to the chaconne in The Tempest – my idea was that it never ends; that it just goes round in a spiral, down and down. My opera starts without a clear beginning – the bells one hears could just be the bells from outside (especially here in Salzburg) following one into the auditorium – and it has no real end. The score does not end with a double bar.

Buñuel’s film also has an open ending; it’s in the nature of the story. The final scene of the opera, however, differs from the film in several respects.

Tom Cairns: The final scene of the film takes place in the cathedral. The idea is that the guests have returned to the bourgeois or aristocratic world they had left – they’re back in their elegant clothes, they’re duly humbled, and of course they have to give thanks for their release – and then everything starts again from the beginning. For me, personally, this repetition is the least important part of the end. It’s the bigger issue that really matters: that there is no escape. We felt that this could be delivered within the context of our piece just as well without relocating the last scene, perhaps even more effectively. Ultimately we – that is, the audience in an opera house – are not that far removed from the people we’re watching on stage in The Exterminating Angel, very close in some cases; so why not ‘release’ the guests straight into the theatre, into the auditorium? At that moment they become other characters in a wider dramatis personae which now includes the members of the audience.

Thomas Adès: The feeling that the door is open but we don’t go through it is with us all the time.

Interview by Christian Arseni


Act One

At the mansion of Edmundo and Lucía de Nobile guests are expected for dinner, but strange things are happening. The butler, Julio, fails to stop Lucas the footman from running away, and the maids Meni and Camilla also attempt to leave. The Nobiles arrive after attending a performance at the opera. Among their guests are the evening’s prima donna, Leticia Maynar, and the conductor, Alberto Roc, with his wife Blanca, a famous pianist. Meni and Camila finally escape along with some other servants when the guests go into the dining room.

At dinner, Nobile toasts Leticia, whom brother and sister Silvia and Francisco de Ávila jokingly call ‘the Valkyrie’. Lucía announces a first course of Maltese Ragout, which the waiter spills spectacularly on the floor. Not everyone finds this funny, least of all the elderly Señor Russell. Lucía decides to postpone her other ‘entertainments’, and a performing bear and a number of lambs are removed to the garden. The rest of the servants flee the house despite Lucía’s protestations. Only Julio remains behind.

In the drawing room Blanca performs a piece on the piano. A young engaged couple, Eduardo and Beatriz, dance, and Leonora flirts with her physician, Doctor Conde. When he declines to dance, she kisses him instead. The Doctor confides in Raúl Yebenes that Leonora is gravely ill and does not have long to live. Blanca’s performance ends to general acclaim and compliments. The guests encourage Leticia to sing, but Señor Roc protests that she has performed enough for the evening.

A number of guests prepare to depart, while Roc falls asleep. In the cloakroom Lucía gives her secret lover, Colonel Álvaro Gómez, a fleeting kiss. The guests become lethargic and distracted – although it is now very late, none of them attempt to leave. Nobile is confused but behaves graciously, offering beds to anyone who wishes to stay. Señor Russell and the Colonel are horrified as some guests remove their tailcoats, but eventually they lie down like everyone else to sleep either on sofas or the floor. Eduardo and Beatriz retreat to a private corner to spend their first night together.

Act Two

The guests wake the following morning. Silvia announces that she slept very badly. The Doctor examines Russell: the old man is dying. Julio is supposed to prepare breakfast but reports that no supplies have arrived at the house. When Lucía tries to take some of the ladies to her bedroom to freshen up, they do not make it past the threshold of the dining room. Blanca is worried about her children, but even she and her husband are unable to 13

make the decision to leave. Silvia finds the unusual situation amusing, particularly as she knows her son is in good hands with his private tutor, Padre Sansón. A further attempt by the guests to leave fails when Julio approaches with coffee and the leftovers from the previous evening’s dinner. Leticia entreats the butler not to enter the drawing room, but in vain. Blanca is desperate, while Raúl sees no reason to over-dramatize the situation. Francisco complains he cannot possibly stir his coffee with a teaspoon. When sent to procure coffee spoons, Julio also seems to have become a prisoner in the drawing room.

Evening approaches. Russell’s condition has worsened: he has fallen into a coma and needs urgent medical attention. Panic spreads among the guests: there is nothing more to drink, the outside world seems to have forgotten about them – and why did the servants leave the mansion the night before for no obvious reason? The Doctor pleads for calm, although even he seems to be losing his composure. Raúl becomes aggressive and holds Nobile responsible for the situation. Francisco is at the end of his tether and resists all attempts at pacification. Russell suddenly and unexpectedly regains consciousness, expressing his relief that he will not live to experience the ‘extermination’. Beatriz is troubled by the thought of dying amidst all these people, rather than alone with Eduardo. Blanca, Silvia and Leticia share a strange experience in the walk-in cabinet, which has been repurposed as a toilet.

During the night Russell dies. The Doctor and the Colonel haul his corpse into the cabinet, witnessed by Eduardo and Beatriz.

Act Three

Police guarding the mansion drive back a crowd of people who try to come to the aid of those imprisoned inside. Although some people break through the police ranks, nobody is able to enter the house.

In the drawing room Julio and Raúl burst a water pipe and the guests rush desperately to quench their thirst. Tormented with hunger, everyone’s behaviour becomes increasingly irrational. Blanca combs only one side of her hair, driving Francisco to hysterical desperation. When Francisco is unable to find the pills for his stomach ulcer, he immediately presumes that someone has hidden the box. Raúl goads Francisco about his relationship with his sister and triggers a volley of insults between the two men. Nobile tries to keep the peace, but this merely earns him recriminations. Leonora, who is in great pain, expresses her longing for the assistance of the Doctor and the Virgin Mary. Francisco is nauseated by Blanca’s smell and once again loses his nerves.

In her delirium Leonora sees a disembodied hand wandering around the drawing room. Trying to stop it, she stabs Blanca’s hand with a dagger. In the walk-in cabinet, Eduardo and Beatriz decide to die together. Señor Roc appears to molest Leticia, but Raúl accuses the Colonel instead. Nobile is injured during the ensuing scuffle. The lambs from the garden wander into the drawing room and the roaring of the bear terrifies the guests. 14

The army has quarantined the mansion. Padre Sansón appears with Silvia’s son, Yoli, and the people demand that the boy be sent inside. Despite encouragement from the crowd, Yoli is unable to get into the house.

The guests have slaughtered the lambs and cook them on a makeshift fire. Leonora recalls a premonition she had on the evening of the opera performance and attempts a magic ritual with Blanca and Leticia. It fails and she claims that innocent blood is needed. The bodies of Eduardo and Beatriz are discovered in the walk-in cabinet. During the course of yet another quarrel, Raúl hurls Francisco’s box of pills over the threshold of the drawing room. Silvia no longer takes any interest; cradling the cadaver of one of the lambs in her arms, she thinks she is rocking Yoli to sleep.

The bear appears across the threshold. Gradually the idea takes hold among the guests that a sacrifice is needed to secure their liberation: Nobile must be killed. The Doctor and the Colonel try in vain to make the others reconsider. Nobile declares that he will sacrifice himself of his own free will, but Leticia interrupts him. She says she has realized that at this moment each one of them is in exactly the same place as when their strange captivity began. With her encouragement the others hesitantly repeat the actions and dialogues from that moment. When Leticia is then asked to sing once again, this time she actually does so. Together they approach the threshold – and they are able to cross it. The guests and the crowd outside the mansion encounter one another. Their freedom will not last long.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Terror in Munich: Munich Opera Festival (1) - Der fliegende Holländer, Bavarian State Opera, 22 July 2016

Nationaltheater, Munich

Daland – Matti Salminen
Senta – Catherine Nagelstad
Erik – Wookyung Kim
Mary – Okka von der Damerau
Steersman – Dean Power
Dutchman – Johan Reuter

Peter Konwitschny (director)
Johannes Leiacker (designs)
Michael Bauer (lighting)
Werner Hintze (dramaturgy)

Chorus and Extra Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Søren Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Asher Fisch (conductor)

Nationaltheater, Munich. Image: Felix Löchner

‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.’ It is, perhaps, a line quoted too often; yet, even though it may not have been entirely accurate on this occasion, it came to my mind. Its accuracy might be questioned in several respects. Although the Bavarian State Opera eschewed Wagner’s Tristan-esque revision – rightly, in my view, that working better for Tannhäuser than The Flying Dutchman – this was not Götterdämmerung. Moreover, the end, as we experienced it, came more as silence and alienation than a whimper; close, then, but probably not quite the same. More important still, in retrospect – hindsight was inescapable on this particular occasion – the real catastrophe, or rather news of it, came after the end of the performance, the ‘real world’, as is far too often the case at the moment, offering the keenest of tragedy. So perhaps I should start again; I shall not, however, since I should like to start at the end, indeed feel compelled to do so, lest tales of Mrs Lincoln and her critique of the evening’s dramatic proceedings hover too close for comfort. For this was an evening – thank God – never to be repeated, one that even the most ambitious of stage directors would have struggled to envisage, let alone to create. Without in any sense wishing to minimise Peter Konwitschny’s achievement in this typically arresting, provocative, yet ultimately deeply, if not unrelievedly, sympathetic production, only Karlheinz Stockhausen, and before him Richard Wagner himself, might have come anywhere near this – and even then, not so very near.

The music stopped, then, just before the final bars; the lights fell. Silence fell too, the singers looking uneasily at each other: splendidly acted, I remember thinking. Then, following that caesura – inevitable memories of Konwitschny’s celebrated Meistersinger, even for those of us who only heard tell – we heard the final bars, albeit from what sounded like a distant, wind-up gramphone. I even wondered whether it might have been Konwitschny père’s recording, rendered more ancient, not that that matters. Redemption, then, was undercut not only by Wagner’s Tristan-less ending. (I am skating over the more complex issues of earlier versions, but that is not really the point here.) It was ironised – few directors manage to ironise Wagner successfully; Konwitschny does – by hearing it as something we all knew, all expected, were more or less hearing in our heads anyway, and yet then did not hear as we should. It was a little like King Marke’s appearance in Die Meistersinger: meaningful, consequential, a modernist rather than a post-modernist quotation.

Then we spilled out onto the Max-Joseph-Platz, quite unaware of Munich’s terrorist lockdown. My telephone had no reception; I could not contact a friend, to see whether he had been there or not. (It later transpired that he had not.) Many of my fellow opera-leavers seemed puzzled. We could not, for instance, enter a restaurant on the other side of the square; although a few people in there were eating, the doors were locked. Whilst trying to find out what was going on, I eventually received a call from my father, to check that I was safe; he began to explain, and armed police came into view. I learned after that those who were less quick on their feet than I had been were unable to leave the Nationaltheater for quite some time. I, however, had little choice but to try to walk back to where I was staying, armed police and other advisors pointing me and others first in one direction, then in another, often seeming to disagree with each other. Meanwhile, so far as I was aware – this was not the case, but it was what everyone seemed to think at the time – the U-Bahn was closed, since one of several gunmen (there was, of course, only one) had gone down there, armed. Walking past Odeonsplatz station was a little frightening, then; but it was the eeriness of the evacuated beer festival in the square – when I had walked to the opera, it had been full of beer, music, Dirndls, Lederhosen – that, if anything, chilled more. Having spoken to my brother too, I made it back to my host’s, who filled me in on events unfolded and unfolding – and immediately poured me a much-needed drink.

I learned much later that what I ‘should’ have seen and heard – Barry Millington had sent me his review of the production, but I had not read it at the time – was Senta, clearly furious with the Dutchman for not having trusted enough, setting one of the quayside barrels ablaze and mount her own act of terror. The explosion I ‘should’ have heard – unlike Wagner’s music, I did not know it – never came; darkness and alienation, nevertheless curiously, chillingly effective, did. No wonder so many onstage ‘acted’ confused; they had not, it seems, been acting at all. Presumably many had suspected a technical problem. The Bavarian State Opera had, it seems, decided to pull the explosion. For those in the know, was this perhaps a bit like ‘hearing’ Mahler’s missing third hammer-blow in the Sixth Symphony? (Thank goodness this was not a Mahler evening: that really would have been too much.) And so, the business of interpreting, reinterpreting, a particularised version of Konwitschny’s staging – never, let us hope, to be repeated – truly got under way; or at least it did in the odd couple of seconds between replying to anxious Facebook and Twitter messages from friends. (Why, they wondered, had I not replied? Most of them had no idea, of course, that I had been in the theatre for nearly two-and-a-half hours, without an interval.) I shall never forget the non-bang and the gramophone whimper, nor the further step our wretched world made towards Götterdämmerung.

Let me turn, though, to what I had seen and heard before. My memory and my experience are doubtless coloured by the ‘other’ events of that night. Nevertheless, what I saw and heard was impressive indeed, on its own terms. Our friends at Against Modern Opera Productions – how chilling it was to see, that very night, them railing, as if Hitler had never fallen, against ‘degenerate’ artists – might even have liked, had they not seen the word ‘Konwitschny’, the realistic designs from Johannes Leiacker, with which the mise-en-scène opens. For it is a (German) Romantic, even Gothic landscape that provides the backdrop. Apart from anything else, this is a ghost story: every one of us, every society, is overwhelmed by ghosts from our pasts. So too, of course, is opera. Nevertheless, ships are definitely ships; the sea and sky are definitely the sea and sky. The Dutchman’s crew, moreover, are most definitely Golden Age Dutchmen. The painterliness is, in one sense at least, ironic. AMOP would not have ‘got’ that; representations and their deconstruction would have gone unnoticed, uncomprehended. They would surely, though, have noticed the heightened venality not only of Daland, but his crew too (modern Norwegians, but as yet, not with an overwhelming Wagnerian clash between ghostly visitors and the ‘present’). Daland’s pockets of a few golden chains; the Steersman crowns himself with a golden crown; the other lads eagerly join in the bonanza: there is much jewellery to be had from the new ship’s Cardillac-like cargo, unless, as one of Wagner’s less-eagerly acknowledged forebears might have advised him, ‘L’or est une chimère’. A chimera of another variety haunts the Dutchman: the Angel in white who visits the stage. This Dutchman is a man, with sexual fantasies of his own; they distract him, pave the way for tragedy; they lead us to the second act.

Our opera-as-Pegida acquaintances would certainly have started screaming degeneracy, at the deliberate scenic contrast when the curtain rose upon that act. This is a swish health club, in which the wheels that spin are those on the exercise bicycles. Mary leads the class, the girls engaged in the uneasy camaraderie and rivalry of the mindless heteronormative pursuit for an ‘ideal’ physical form to please ‘the’ men they have either hooked or would like to hook. (Or is it the other way round?) Spinning, one might say, takes more than one guise: old visiting new, new visiting old; connections abound. Senta does not fit in; she arrives late for the class, and is far more interested in her Romantic painting. Erik is a creepy yet impatient voyeur: no mere innocent he. Yet it is Senta’s disruptive presence, encouraged by the reappearing Angel, that ultimately, prophetically, proves the turning point. It sets in process the Brechtian – house lights on – lecture to the audience she and the Dutchman give at the close of the act. ‘Romantic love? Yeah, right…’ Everything, then, is set up to fail, as it increasingly does during the third act, modernity and caricatured Old Dutchmen engaging in violent combat, the past, as it so often is, victorious – not least because the present refuses to learn from it. And then – well, you have heard the rest. Explosion there comes – on this occasion, came there not.

The cast was distinguished. Catherine Naglestad trod to powerful, even searing effect the line between, on the one hand, twin incitement to Verfremdung and terror, and on the other, heartfelt, Romantic or neo-Romantic ‘feminine’ suffering. Her top notes – and not just her top notes – thrilled; we were reminded that the female redemption problematized by Konwitschny, by us more generally, is, not only in Wagner but in so much opera, often effected through vocal presence. Johan Reuter traced this complex Dutchman’s mood swings with great skill; we sympathised with, even followed, his distractions and his demons. Matti Salminen’s final Daland – so, at any rate, I was informed – was a bluff yet knowing performance, a fine tribute to a great artist. Wookyung Kim came close to stealing the show with his sensitively sung, far-from-pushover Erik. Okka von der Damerau imparted dramatic as well as ‘merely’ musical meaning to the role of Mary, and Dean Power proved as appealing and as intriguing a Steersman as I can recall having heard. Choral singing was wonderfully full-blooded too. All, then, engaged with Wagner’s work as living drama.

The Bavarian State Orchestra was, unsurprisingly, in its element here. Its playing encompassed all manner of shades from darkest, grimmest of musical tragedy to echoes of Mendelssohn and Weber, apparently – if only apparently – more blithe, even fairy-like. This was orchestral Wagner as outstanding as one might hear from Daniel Barenboim’s Staatskapelle Berlin. Asher Fisch might have benefited from a more Barenboim-like sense of the work’s melos; or at least he would have done for me, my preference being very much for a more ‘musico-dramatic’, less ‘number-opera’ approach to the work. The latter is, of course, perfectly justifiable in theory, but it tends, unless more strongly incorporated into a sense of an unbroken whole, to make parts of the work drag – especially when, as here, numbers such as Senta’s Ballad, are taken so slowly. Fisch undoubtedly knew what he was doing, though; he had me, on more than one occasion, rethink, rehear. The waltzing at the end of the first act – perfectly in keeping with fantasies venal and sexual, visually as well as musically realised – pointed far into the musico-dramatic future, to Strauss as well as to the integrative tendencies of later Wagner. The Flying Dutchman is in some ways the most difficult Wagner drama of all to bring off musically; no one would have been seriously disappointed, if at all, by this performance.

The rest was silence; until, that is, it became the noise of chaos.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Esfahani - Bull, Kalabis, D’Anglebert, Borup-Jǿrgensen, Saariaho, Kidane, and Scarlatti, 19 July 2016

Wigmore Hall

John Bull – Chromatic Pavan and Galliard, ‘Queen Elizabeth’s’
Viktor Kalabis – Aquarelles, op.53
Bull – Fantasia XII
Jean Henry d’Anglebert – Pièces de clavecin: selection
Axel Borup-Jǿrgensen – Tarocco, op.124
Saariaho – Jardin Secret II, for harpsichord and tape
Daniel Kidane – Six Etudes (new version)
Scarlatti – Sonatas: in F major, Kk518; in G major, Kk259; in G major, Kk260; in A major and E major (Barcelona MS 1964 nos 34 and 31); in D minor, Kk516; in D minor, Kk517

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord).

One would be hard put to find a more varied programme from any instrumentalist today, or indeed in the past. It was indicative of Mahan Esfahani’s typically venturing spirit – and achievement – that this harpsichord recital, sadly my final visit to the Wigmore Hall of the 2015-16 season, was listed under both its Early Music and Baroque Series and its Contemporary Music Series. I think we can forgive him for the lack of Chopin and Liszt. Instead, we heard intriguing juxtapositions, the intent not, insofar as I could tell, didactic, but willing or, perhaps better, permitting the listener to make what connections and contrasts he or she would. Where unapologetically modernist artists such as Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Maurizio Pollini would more often than not present us with a guiding, almost Schoenbergian Idea behind a programme, Esfahani’s approach might be considered more post-modern, which is not in any sense to imply unconsidered, far from it.

What a joy it was to start with John Bull, whose waywardness clearly attracts Esfahani. The Chromatic Pavan and Galliard seemed almost to look forward to Purcell, albeit with a knack for surprising one that made me think not so much of English contemporaries or successors, but of Gesualdo. (Would that we had more keyboard music from him!) There was great flexibility to the performance, but flexibility with reason that always announced itself. Both dances seemed to gather up complexity as they developed – in a fashion that, doubtless fancifully, put me in mind of Schoenberg and his school. Viktor Kalabis’s Aquarelles, which I had also heard Esfahani play at a Milton Court recital a little more than a year ago, opened with an intriguing hint of Poulenc (the Concert champêtre), but developed – that word again – in a very different way. There was perhaps more than a hint of Shostakovich to the second, marked ‘Andante’; what struck me, though, more than any mere correspondence, was the sense conveyed of what lay between and beneath the notes. There was an intimacy in the spareness of halting progress. The third and final piece proved kaleidoscopic and adamant in its rhythm, in turns and also together. Bull’s Fantasia XII emerged from it as if a cousin, which then proceeded upon its own, highly virtuosic, wonderfully realised way.

Five pieces from Jean Henry d’Anglebert’s 1689 collection followed: a ‘Prélude’, an ‘Air d’Apollon du Triomphe de l’Amour,’ an ‘Air ancient: Ou estes vous allé,’ ‘Les Songes agréables d’Atys’, and the ‘Passacaille d’Armide’. The opening Prélude was gravely rhetorical, or should that be rhetorically grave? And yet, it sounded full of light and shade. The airs were sung gracefully, kinship and differentiation both perceptible. The Lully ‘Passacaille’ was imbued with proper grandeur and impetus, which yet proved capable of more tender yielding.

The first half closed with two pieces of what we might consider to be Scandinavian modernism. First was Axel Borup-Jǿrgensen’s Tarocco. Its twists, turns, and above all, guiding thread were communicated with a winning sense of adventure. Logic and fantasy were revealed not so much as in competition but as two sides of the same musical coin. Kaaija Saariaho’s Jardin Secret II I found harder to get on with, but the fault may well have been mine. It opened in almost concertante fashion, but the relationship between harpsichord and tape seemed to be in a state of constant, or at least continuing, flux. Some of the rather strange electronic noises – the work was written using IRCAM technology – puzzled me in themselves, but that was perhaps the point. I was delighted, in any case, to have the opportunity to hear such music – music, I must admit, I had not even known existed, and which the ‘Early Music’ crowd would not touch with an authenticke bargepole.

A new version of Daniel Kidane’s Six Etudes, an earlier version given in that 2015 recital, opened the second half. Before looking at the programme, I was struck by the varying transformative techniques running throughout these six beautifully crafted miniatures. I was then delighted – and relieved – to see the composer’s own reference to an ‘inbuilt transformative aspect [which] also adds a playful nature to the pieces’. That was certainly how it sounded here, particular ‘problems’ set up – as is traditional with a ‘study’ – and explored within certain restrictive parameters. Cellular is probably not quite the right word – I have had no opportunity to read the score – but I am not sure that it was entirely the wrong word either. And yes, it was great fun to welcome back the hotel reception bell, wryly described by Kidane as ‘an external pitch’, in the sixth piece.

Finally, we heard several sonatas by Scarlatti. That in F major, Kk518, offered characteristic insistence but also variety of figuration, clearly, meaningfully brought out in performance. The turn to the tonic minor was splendidly, even heartrendingly, inward in quality. G major (Kk 259 and 260) proved warmer and, in the first sonata, perhaps gentler, also, I think, more exploratory. The second of those two sonatas offered relatively extrovert contrast, surprising both harmonically and melodically; Esfahani proved an expert judge, moreover, of its rhetoric. The two sonatas from a Barcelona manuscript, discovered by Barry Ife, may well have been receiving their modern premieres. They sounded very much as a pair here, their different key signatures notwithstanding: contrast and kinship, as in earlier works in the recital, were both apparent and to be questioned. There were, even by Scarlatti’s standards, some striking disjunctures to be relished in the E major sonata. The D major Sonata, Kk516, seemed at times to evoke the world of John Bull in its manner, at least before highly contrasting material took it along a quite different path. It struck a note of melancholic relief, Esfahani, having heard some of its material performed by Spanish folk musicians, taking it at a significantly slower tempo than marked. Keyboard fireworks returned in the closing D minor work, Kk517. And then, it was time for another, charming surprise: a Richard Rodney Bennett encore, Little Elegy.


First Night of the Proms: Gabetta/BBC SO/Oramo - Tchaikovsky, Elgar, and Prokofiev, 15 July 2016

Royal Albert Hall

Tchaikovsky – Fantasy Overture: Romeo and Juliet
Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85
Prokofiev – Cantata: Alexander Nevsky, op.78

Sol Gabetta (cello)
Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)
BBC National Chorus of Wales (chorus master: Adrian Partington)
BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Adrian Partington)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Sakari Oramo (conductor)

What to make of the unannounced decision to open this concert with the Marseillaise? I am sure it was well intended, and perhaps should leave it at that. Music, especially avowedly political music, has associations, though, and what many, but not all, English and French listeners might understand as solidarity following the previous night’s carnage in Nice, might sound rather different to a listener from, say, the Maghreb. Nationalism is, after all, a big part of the problem – as London has rediscovered with a vengeance over the past few weeks. The issue of ‘national anthems’ is fraught too; ours, in the (Dis)United Kingdom is about as divisive as it could be, eliding membership of a nation with monarchism and thus necessarily defining republicanism as a foe within. French revolutionaries, insisting on national sovereignty, offered a not entirely dissimilar binary opposition: that, ultimately, led to the execution of Louis XVI, who, having a veto, could not be part of the nation, which, in a time of emergency, led to one particular conclusion. It also led to – well, we know the rest. Returning to the Royal – yes, Royal – Albert Hall, applause at the end heightened the oddness. If the opening number were a sign of respect, however problematical – and that is how I took it, standing like everyone else – then why would one applaud? Might an aestheticised version of the anthem, for instance that of Berlioz, not have been another option? I felt conflicted, then, but I seem to have been in a minority; many were clearly inspired by the hope and solidarity they felt had been afforded.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet sounded, in this context, especially dark in its fatal opening bars. The introduction took its time, pace gathering with a proper harmonic foundation; Sakari Oramo is far too musical a conductor to whip up artificial ‘excitement’. The Allegro sounded turbulent indeed, counterpoint nicely Berliozian (should that not be too much of a paradox). The BBC Symphony Orchestra played the ‘Love’ theme gorgeously, without a hint of vulgarity. On more than one occasion, the harp stole our hearts, although so, to be fair, did the BBC woodwind. Tension between programme and material was productively explored, so to enthral and indeed to move all the more. There could certainly be no doubting the strength of the partnership between the BBC SO and Oramo.

Sol Gabetta joined them next for the Elgar Cello Concerto, with equally fine results. In the first movement, the Moderato material proved very much the child of the preceding Adagio, transition emotionally as well as technically seamless, whilst remaining a transition nonetheless. Much the same might be said of the transition between first and second groups; although the mood lifted in some respects, it remained dependent (secondary, one might say) upon what had come before. It was not all doom and gloom, by any means; Elgar’s Mendelssohnian inheritance came sparklingly to life at times. Underlying sadness, however, remained inescapable. The background of German, even leipzigerisch, Romanticism was also present in the scherzo; it sometimes came into the foreground too, albeit without banishing unease entirely. Elgar’s modernity, even modernism, was as unquestionable as its roots. (Applause and bronchial outpourings were most unwelcome at the movement’s close.) There was nothing morose about the Adagio, although it certainly sounded deeply felt. It was, rather, passionately songful, with wonderfully hushed tones too to relish, both from Gabetta and the orchestra. Dialogue and incitement were the generative order of the day in the final movement. Light and shade were expertly judged, likewise harmonic motion. Kinship with Elgar’s symphonies was clear, although, by the same token, this was decidedly later music too, almost an English cousin to Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin. Ultimate weight was placed on the finale, and rightly so. Gabetta returned to the stage, following justly warm applause, to perform Pēteris Vasks’s Dolicissimo, her solo vocal as well as instrumental; this was an auspicious Proms debut indeed.

The second half was given over to Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky Cantata, based on the composer’s score for Eisenstein’s film of that name. Its nationalism can hardly fail to make one uneasy too; Stalin is quoted in the Proms programme as having declared to the director, ‘Sergey Mikhailovich, you’re a good Bolshevik after all!’ Not that Stalinism by this stage had so very much to do with Bolshevism, but anyway… Prokofiev, awkwardly for many of us who admire him, often, although not always, seemed to flourish in such circumstances. Those who would have us believe that art is somehow removed from politics could not be more wrong; more to the point, their protestations could not be more pernicious. However much one might want to wish away awkward questions, such as over the Marseillaise, one cannot – and should not.

The opening orchestral number, ‘Russia under the Mongolian Yoke’, was cold yet colourful, just as it should be. The ‘Song of Alexander Nevsky’ revealed choral forces (both the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC National Chorus of Wales) both weighty and clear. Prokofiev’s homophonic writing helps in the latter respect, of course, but only helps. The ‘patriotism’ and militarism of the words – ‘Ah, how we fought, how we hacked them down!’, ‘Those who invade Russia will meet death,’ etc. – is all the more perturbing when performed with such musical conviction as here. An impeccably post-Mussorgskian orchestral opening announced ‘The Crusaders in Pskov’, the dissonances of course quite Prokofiev’s own, harking back to The Fiery Angel and forward to Romeo and Juliet. Even here, in ‘socialist realist’ land, there is some of the bite of the more youthful composer’s acerbity – and so there was in performance. Echoes of Boris Godunov sounded all the more strongly as the number progressed. One could hear what must have attracted Claudio Abbado to this music.

The following chorus, ‘Arise, Russian People’, provided a not un-Mussorgskian contrast. Motor rhythms in particular rendered the composer’s identity unmistakeagble. Glockenspiel and xylophone offered the most enjoyable of rejoicing later on. ‘The Battle on the Ice’ is the longest number in the cantata; here it proved very much the musical and emotional heart too. Its introduction was not only atmospheric, but atmospheric in a filmic way. Oramo brought out the glassy violas at dawn to strike a proper chill. Still more chilling was the barbarism of war proper, those motor rhythms and grinding dissonances once again proving the engine of progress; the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony hovered not so far in the musical future, whilst Mussorgsky’s shadow was, once again, rarely far from the aural stage. Eisenstein came to the eyes of our imagination. Olga Borodina walked onto the stage for ‘The Field of the Dead’, seemingly as an angel of death. And yet she sounded, in her ineffably Russian fashion, a note of consolation as well as one of tragedy. This contralto-like rendition held the hall spellbound. The final chorus, ‘Alexander’s Entry into Pskov’, struck a more difficult note. Now is not the time, to put it mildly, for patriotic rejoicing in London, and disconcerting it sounded, even when of a ‘foreign’ variety. It was magnificently done, though, chorus, orchestra, and conductor alike clearly relishing their musical task. Perhaps they had succeeded in putting the words to one side.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Piemontesi - Mozart, 13 July 2016

Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata no.1 in C major, KV 279/189d
Piano Sonata no.2 in F major, KV 280/189e
Piano Sonata no.3 in B-flat major, KV 281/189f
Fantasia in C minor, KV 475
Piano Sonata no.14 in C minor, KV 457

Francesco Piemontesi (piano)

The Wigmore Hall’s Mozart Odyssey continued with four piano sonatas and a fantasia from Francesco Piemontesi. Piemontesi is a thoughtful artist; even when his way would not be mine, there can be no doubting the integrity of his performance. And so it proved here; although I had my doubts concerning aspects of the earlier sonatas, especially his insistence, at times, on playing them in a fashion more ‘Baroque’ than ‘Classical’ – umbrella stylistic terms that throw up more questions than they answer – Piemontesi offered his own performative justifications.

The first sonata, in C major, KV 279/189d, opened with an Allegro that was taken very fast indeed. I was intrigued and, to begin with, not a little perplexed by the way Piemontesi had right-hand arpeggios sound more like ornaments than fully-fledged elements of the melodic line; I had never thought of them like that, but on reflection, could imagine why someone might. He used very little pedal indeed, in a light, almost Glenn Gould-like performance (albeit with more affection than Gould was ever able to summon up for Mozart), this movement in particular often sounding Scarlatti-like. Its development section, however, proved instructive in the pianist’s highlighting, without exaggeration, how the material differed from (i.e., developed) what we had heard before. The Andante was, again, taken pretty fast. Nevertheless, it flowed rather than being rushed. I should not have minded a little more indulgence, especially when it came to quasi-vocal melodic leaps, but the legato was to die for, likewise some wondrous, hushed moments. If the lack of sentimentality in the finale was, in itself, again admirable, I sometimes longed for a more conventionally pianistic treatment, especially in the first group, the second yielding somewhat more, as did the development section.

The F major Sonata, next in Köchel’s catalogue, whichever version, immediately sounded, to my ears, better reconciled to the instrument. Perhaps that is partly the work itself, although other pianists (Barenboim, Uchida, et al.) might beg to differ. The first movement was not without its ‘Baroque’ or ‘pre-Classical’ elements – another can of worms from which I shall in cowardly fashion shy away – but why should there not be? Terraced dynamics, for instance, certainly have their place here. I admired Piemontesi’s refusal to tone down his fortes; if one has a modern piano, one should use it. The ravishing second-movement siciliano was given its full due, rhythmically, harmonically, offering the greatest pathos, sharply characterised. It was ‘vocal’ yes, sometimes in a well-nigh Gluckian way, but ultimately, incontestably instrumental. Piemontesi’s ear for the longer line proved impeccable too, without that in any sense shortchanging rhetorical gestures. Like the finale of its predecessor, the third movement proved Haydnesque, Piemontesi especially alert to its motivic dynamism.

There was, again, a sharp opposition between first and second subjects in the first movement of the B-flat major sonata. Was it too sharp? Perhaps. However, a stern development section, and a splendidly integrative recapitulation conveyed retrospective justification. The slow movement flowed, though not so quickly as that in the first sonata. It was poised, quite without a sense of being hurried, or harried; it subtly yielded too. Piemontesi’s navigation of competing tendencies in the finale dazzled; this was as convincing a feat of integration as I have heard in this music.

First edition of the C minor Fantasia (Artaria), closing bars

In the second half, we heard the great C minor Sonata, preceded, as it often is, by the Fantasia, here without a break – and indeed, without the final bars of the Fantasia (rather a good way of doing it, if one must). Piemontesi’s long-term harmonic ear (Furtwängler’s Fernhören) really came into its own here, the possibilities of the opening phrases almost audible at the outset. His legato touch, anything but unvariegated, helped with that too, of course. There was no doubting that this was music of quite another order when it came to emotional and intellectual weight. Mozart’s tour of the tonal horizons truly enthralled – and it all sounded, as great Mozart playing does, so easy! The first movement of the Sonata following on as it did registered as some kind of release in context, although the chiaroscuro afforded by the E-flat major of the second subject asserted different tonal priorities. Wisely, Piemontesi took the first but not the second repeat, the turn to the tonic minor in the recapitulation properly heartbreaking. And so, the music subsided. (Applause suggested some thought that the end of the Fantasia!) The slow movement, one of Mozart’s very greatest, emerged both as great instrumental scena and as something that could only ever have been conceived for, let alone realised by, the piano. Again, line and integration were beyond reproach; above all, they were felt as utterly necessary. The richness of Mozart’s harmonies suggested the C minor Piano Concerto, even Don Giovanni, whilst the turn to A-flat major inevitably brought to mind – as it always does to me under the fingers – the slow movement of Beethoven’s op.13. That section proved, quite properly, both contrast and intensification. The finale sounded, without melodrama, a note of unrelenting tragedy; even in the major mode, intensity of performance and awareness of context did their tragic work. Mozart’s music sounded, as it should, both close to and distinct from Beethoven.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Fischer/Levit - Beethoven, 6 July 2016

Wigmore Hall

Violin Sonata no.9 in A major, op.47, ‘Kreutzer’
Violin Sonata no.10 in G major, op.96

Julia Fischer (violin)
Igor Levit (piano)

How I wish I had been able to attend the earlier two concerts in this series of three, in which Julia Fischer and Igor Levit performed all ten of Beethoven’s violin sonatas – or rather, sonatas for piano and violin, as any self-respecting pianist will tell you. On the basis of this, the final concert, it would have been a series to remember. Hänsel and Gretel at the Royal College of Music – it was so good, I saw it twice – intervened however, and without the mediæval saint’s gift of bilocation, I had to make, as a less than sainted sometime Prime Minister once put it, ‘tough choices’.

First, then, was the Kreutzer Sonata. Beethoven famously described it in his sketchbook as having been ‘written in a very concertante style, almost like that of a concerto’. To which instrument, though, was he referring? Perhaps to both? He was not, of course, but that is how, in a very positive sense, it sometimes sounded here, without losing anything of its virtues as chamber music. Fischer’s violin playing married to near-perfection bracing physicality – she is one of those players from whom one really can feel the bow touch, and rather more than merely touch, the strings – with an irreproachable intellectual grasp and communication of the music. Not that there was any showmanship to her playing, but this was a performance – which crucially, and which so many Beethoven performances fail to do – communicated, indeed had us experience the formal dynamism of the work. So too did Igor Levit, surely one of the finest pianists of our age even at this stage in his career. (I do not, I hasten to add, make such claims lightly.)  Moreover, the balance between horizontal and vertical concerns, more, although far from exclusively, a matter for the pianist, never failed to satisfy, indeed, in true Beethovenian fashion, to bludgeon, if with charm as well as violence, itself into the consciousness. The first movement introduction was as full of expectancy as any to a symphony by Haydn or Beethoven, the Presto proper emerging from it in the way that, since Beethoven and Romanticism, we have felt compelled to call ‘organic’. There was fury, yes, but never was the music harried. Far too many players – often, still more, conductors – seem to equate ‘excitement’ with playing in as fast and unyielding manner as possible; Fischer and Levit showed far greater maturity, in every sense. Beethoven perhaps made even more of a revolutionary impact upon variation forms than upon sonata forms. (Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but consideration of the Diabelli Variations suggest that it might not be.) And yet, in the slow movement, we heard, if nothing so banal as mere relaxation, then the sublimity of music that happily, even gratefully, acknowledges its Classical predecessors as much as, perhaps more than, the Romantic future. There was urgency, not in the sense of playing everything, or indeed anything too fast, but founded upon the harmony: Levit’s commanding caress of the bass line has sometimes to be heard to be believed. But Fischer too understood how much the ever-changing relationship between violin and piano contributes to harmonic motion. Melody and its variation should not be, were never, forgotten, but they were inconceivable without harmony – which is just as it should be. The finale grabbed one by the scruff of the neck, and again made one listen; every note could be heard, without that tending to the slightest of pedantry. Rather, it made one marvel anew at Beethoven’s inspiration.

The performance of the G major Sonata, op.96, was every bit as fine. It is a remarkable work, perhaps still more remarkable, although far less popular, than the Kreutzer. I think of it as inhabiting a similar world to the Eighth Symphony, another work unable to escape, quite unjustly, the shadow of its predecessor. (Beethoven is said to have accounted for that by the Eighth being ‘so much better’ than the Seventh.) One must certainly listen intently and without prejudice, willing to hear what Beethoven writes rather than what one thinks he might have written. Fischer’s opening trill was not only a thing of beauty in itself; it was, even before we heard the rest, clearly a harbinger. Not only did the first group emerge from it, one had a sense, in performance, that everything else did too. Levit’s voicing of chords was quite magical; I had a sense that, as Donald Tovey once wrote of Liszt, it would have been impossible for him not to make a beautiful sound at the piano. So often a progression, a phrase, would seem to look to the starry skies of the Fourth and Piano Concertos. And again, one heard, experienced, as well as simply knowing intellectually, the fundamental (as it were) role of harmony. Levit can make quite a noise with the piano: there is certainly no authenticism here, from either pianist or his Steinway Model D. But, as with Fischer, it is never for show. The slow movement and scherzo both assumed their own character, motivic working properly generative, and complemented, challenged each other as that truly extraordinary transition – as concise and as imbued with meaning as anything in Webern – demands. One might say much the same about the relationship between the scherzo itself and its trio, the magic of the former’s turn to the major relished without exaggeration. What I said about variation form in the Kreutzer surely applies still more so to the finale here. That was certainly what I felt after listening to this performance. Fischer and Levit proved expert guides to the intertwined paths of melody and harmony, not just within variations, but still more so between them, so that unity was as unquestionable as it would have been in a sonata form movement. Interruptions during the final variation – above all, the fugal writing, which reminded one of Levit’s prowess in Bach – pointed towards what we generally consider ‘late’ Beethoven, but the character of movement and sonata as a whole sounded entirely its own, inseparable from performance.