Friday, 26 October 2007

Götterdämmerung, Royal Opera, 24 October 2007

Royal Opera House

First Norn – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Second Norn – Yvonne Howard
Third Norn – Marina Poplavskaya
Brünnhilde – Lisa Gasteen
Siegfried – John Treleaven
Gunther – Peter Coleman-Wright
Hagen – James Moellenhoff
Gutrune – Emily Magee
Waltraute – Mihoko Fujimura
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Woglinde – Sarah Fox
Wellgunde – Heather Shipp
Flosshilde – Sarah Castle

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Keith Warner (director)
Stefano Lazaridis (designer)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)

It would be a poor Götterdämmerung indeed – believe me, they do exist – which failed to excite and to inspire, given the work’s position as the culmination of the Ring. I mean this not only in terms of being the finale, but also in the sense that this is where the tetralogy’s entire network of themes, musical, dramatic, and intellectual, come to a head. Some are resolved, some remain defiantly unresolved, perhaps even incapable of resolution; for, in the words of Carl Dahlhaus, ‘It is precisely in order to radicalise conflicts – so that “resolutions” are ruled out – that dramas are written; if not, they would be treatises.’ This was not a definitive Götterdämmerung, if such a thing could exist; it was not even a great Götterdämmerung, although there were some very good things in it. But it was a creditable culmination to a cycle, which, I am happy to say, has in many respects confounded my expectations.

The production was largely back on course, after its below-par attempt at Siegfried. There were too glaring exception to this, the first relating to the end of the first act. Hagen’s continued presence on stage, following the move from the Hall of the Gibichungs to Brünnhilde’s rock, did not augur well. We all know that in a sense he is ‘still there’: his dramatic shadow hangs over the rest of the act, and the music could hardly make this clearer. Actually to have him on stage added little, except confusion as to where the action was taking place. But this was as nothing to the final scene (in which, needless to say, he remained on stage). Anyone who did not know what was supposed to be going on would have been utterly confused, since we had Siegfried as himself, wearing the Tarnhelm, and Siegfried transformed by the Tarnhelm into Gunther, on stage at the same time. All of the singing came from – audibly and visually – from the former Siegfried. This was logically incoherent, and the whole mess could easily have been avoided by following Wagner’s directions. To add insult to injury, the magnificently brutal orchestral conclusion was ruined by having Hagen get up from his chair, and bang it down on the floor a bit closer to the centre of the stage. I have no idea what this was intended to symbolise I have no idea, but it seemed merely bathetic. With the orchestra screaming Hagen’s malevolent presence, we have no need of any such stage business.

Siegfried’s Funeral March was also, visually, a disaster. It would have been far better blacked out to let the orchestra have its say. Instead, we had the perennially un-heroic Siegfried of John Treleaven get up and wander around the stage to no particular effect, before haplessly falling over. From my seat, I could also see him get up once again and canter off stage, an especially unfortunate moment. Given that this, along with the closing bars, is one of the greatest moments in the entire cycle for the orchestra to speak of what is going on, what has passed, and what may come, it would not seem unreasonable to avoid such distractions, even if they were less haplessly acted than was the case here.

Otherwise, the action was generally well handled. A highlight – perhaps the only highlight – from the production’s previous run remained: the statues of the gods, their role in proceedings, not least during the oath-swearing of the second act, and their final immolation, symbolising Warner’s Feuerbachian reading of the entire Ring as truly the twilight of the gods. The increasing desperation of Götterdämmerung’s sorry characters, as they engage in ever-unanswered rituals, shone through with commendable clarity. For Brünnhilde actually to deliver her Immolation Scene benediction lullaby, ‘Rest, rest, you god!’, to the Wotan statue, wrapped, as it were, in swaddling cloths, was a most convincing prelude to the burning of Valhalla. And the utter confusion of location that had previously disfigured the third act had received necessary attention, so that now we were no longer baffled by what was happening where, let alone why.

It was clear even before Götterdämmerung that John Tomlinson’s presence on stage had inspired much of the rest of the cast to greater heights than they might otherwise have reached. His absence was certainly felt, but several performances nevertheless impressed. The Norns and Rhinemaidens were uniformly excellent, both singly and corporately, although the direction of the latter irritated somewhat, emphasising girliness over their symbolic status in terms of the natural world. (I was not at all sure what much of the audience found amusing during the first scene of the third act: jumping in and out of the Rhine did not strike me as intrinsically hilarious.) Lisa Gasteen was recovered, and gave a heartfelt performance as Brünnhilde. She may not scale the heights of some of the great singers of the past, but she sings musically and with dramatic credibility. Peter Sidhom’s brief appearance as Alberich left one wanting more, his bitterness palpably transferred to Hagen, in which guise James Moellenhoeff impressed. He does not have the sheer blackness of tone of, say, Karl Riddersbusch; but there could be no doubting his evil. Both musically and physically his was an extremely powerful portrayal; we should hear more of him. Last time around, I had thought Mihoko Fujimura a good Waltraute, but had not shared in the quite excited reaction to her from many. This time, I thought her truly excellent. Her attention to the text – both verbal and musical – was most impressive, as was the way she transmitted this dramatically. One shared in her pain, and thereby in that of Wotan, who had sent her. The confrontation between Waltraute and Brünnhilde was properly moving, all the more so for its failure, Brünnhilde blinded by the delusions of love and her attempts to perpetuate it beyond its natural life-span.

Emily Magee looked the part as Gutrune, and acted extremely well. Her interaction in stage terms with Hagen was appropriately disturbing. Yet her voice lacked focus and sometimes was simply out of tune. Once again, however, the real weakest link was Siegfried. There was little progress in John Treleaven’s part from Siegfried; indeed, I thought his voice sounded still uglier. It might seem vindictive to recapitulate the criticisms I made in my previous review, so I shall simply refer the reader there. One cannot fault Treleaven for effort, which was there in abundance, but he simply does not have the wherewithal for the role. However – and this is a criticism of casting as much as of him – whilst there are many reasons for the characters and even the audience to wish the Volsung hero dead, vocal quality should not be one of them.

Much of the drama, of course, lies in the orchestra, perhaps more so in Götterdämmerung than in any of the preceding dramas. For the most part, the orchestra of the Royal Opera sounded magnificent. There were a few slips, which may perhaps be ascribed to tiredness, but rarely were they of great importance. Antonio Pappano’s conducting was not immune from the fits and starts characteristic of earlier efforts, but nor was it disfigured by them, as had previously been the case. His command of the score has improved enormously, as has his communication to the fine players in his orchestra. The end of the Immolation Scene, sadly, was something of a disappointment. Whilst the orchestra sounded gorgeous, almost Straussian, the direction was uncertain. Although Wagner’s meaning is unclear, or at least ambivalent – Patrice Chéreau astutely called the ending ‘oracular’, counselling ‘mistrust and anxiety’ – this needs to be conveyed positively, rather than merely sounding as if one has lost one’s way. Nevertheless, much of the rest of this final act was very well shaped indeed, after having taken a little time to find its bearings.

The chorus was, without reservation, excellent. I am not sure that I have ever heard it on better form. The vassals matched those of Haitink, which is praise indeed. The strength of individual lines and of the choral mass complemented each other, rather than standing in opposition, as can often be the case. The acting of chorus members, and indeed their direction, was first-rate too.

Whilst this was not a great Ring, then, there were very good and even excellent aspects to it. As I said at the end of Das Rheingold, no one who heard Haitink’s truly great traversal of the cycle will ever forget that; no one would think of comparing the performances to the advantage of the present. However, the progress made from earlier performances has been more than I could ever have reasonably expected. Much of the credit for this lies with Pappano, who has clearly devoted a great deal of time to a task of extraordinary complexity. The production has, with some exceptions, gained greatly in clarity, and there have been individual performances of considerable stature, Tomlinson’s possessing undeniable greatness. If one considers that, for a Ring to be successful, it must have changed one, and led one to marvel anew at Wagner’s staggering achievement, then there was a great deal of success.

Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice – Arditti Quartet, 23 October 2007

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Webern – Six Bagatelles, op.9
Nono – Fragmente-Stille, an diotima
Schoenberg – String Quartet no.2, op.10

Arditti String Quartet (Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan, Ralf Ehlers, Lucas Fels)
Claron McFadden (soprano)

The South Bank Centre’s Nono festival continued with a concert from the Arditti Quartet, long the acknowledged standard-bearers for serious contemporary string quartet music. Each of the three works performed during this concert may justly be considered to have changed the face of twentieth-century string quartet writing, and indeed to have proved influential beyond the realm of the quartet or even of chamber music. Much, then, was promised, and the promise was fulfilled.

Schoenberg’s preface to Webern's Six Bagatelles has often been quoted, but I think it is worth quoting from once again, since it so perfectly – ironically, given the final sentence quoted – encapsulates the essence of this enduringly extraordinary work:

Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly. Each glance can be extended into a poem, each sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a single indrawn breath, such concentration is only found where self-pity is absent. These pieces (as, indeed, Webern’s music in general) will only be understood by those who believe that through sound something that can only be expressed in sound can be said.

The Arditti’s performance seemed to me to have everything: pin-point precision was married to great depth of expression. Every note counted, as it must, both in itself and in terms of its relationship to every note around it, both horizontally and vertically. The mood swings of each of the ‘bagatelles’ – these are no more ‘trifles’ than those of Beethoven’s late sets – were registered, sometimes quite shockingly so, yet nevertheless without exaggeration. Perhaps most importantly of all, the underlying unified pulse was present throughout, irrespective of the subdivisions within the varied beat. This is as crucial to Webern as to Beethoven and Wagner, or indeed as to Nono and Schoenberg.

Since the Webern piece is close to unique in having in some sense prefigured Nono’s sole essay in quartet form, it provided a perfect introduction to Fragmente–Stille, an diotima. It should have come as no surprise that Nono’s preferred interpreters of the work – favoured over its dedicatees, the LaSalle Quartet – gave so fine, well-nigh definitive, a performance, but equally this should not detract from the Arditti’s achievement. Although the time-scale is utterly different from that of Webern, the concentration allied to a greater architectural span is not so very different. Once again, every note registered, but this is not straightforwardly pointillistic music; to register truly, there must be a sense of conflict between fragmentation and combination, and this was unerringly present. This was a performance that gave the lie to claims of political disengagement in late Nono, of which Fragmente–Stille may be said to be the harbinger. For the construction necessary from the Hölderlin-inspired fragments – Hölderlin’s letters to Diotima are quoted in the score, to be ‘sung’ inwardly but never outwardly by the players – is a perfectly political act, an act of hope, of forging a whole from the almost impossible fragments, from silence as well as from notes. Nono appears to be saying that, for there to be hope, which there must be, the string quartet, along with the symphony surely the most venerable of all Classical forms, must be rethought, rebuilt, and ultimately rejoiced in. All four players, individually and collectively, must engage in this enterprise – and so must the audience. For this to be possible requires a great technical and communicative achievement on the quartet’s part. The Arditti Quartet’s success was palpable, not least in the audience’s rapt attention. Throughout the thirty-five minute span of the work, I do not think I noticed a single cough or shuffle, let alone whispered conversation. Nothing was quite inaudible, but there is much to stretch our ears. Nono’s attempt to rescue the difficult art of listening was not in vain, for the work and performance that resulted were of rare beauty indeed.

Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet is, of course, one of the most celebrated works in the history of music, the work in which Schoenberg, feeling ‘the air of another planet’, bade farewell to tonality. A great achievement – perhaps too great an achievement? – of this performance was the sense of liberation imparted by the break with tonality. I ask whether this was too great, since Schoenberg, like Berg, though unlike Webern, did experience regrets, and there was something of a sense here of the first two movements at least being preliminaries to the undoubted triumph of the final Entrückung. There was nothing especially wrong with the performance of the first movement, but it seemed just a little generalised in its post-Brahmsian development. The second movement, marked Sehr rasch, exhibited a mixture of similarly slight greyness with more richly-coloured and daringly-shaped performance, ’cellist Lucas Fels shining especially in these respects. I have nothing but praise for the final two movements, in which the participation of the excellent soprano, Claron McFadden, really seemed to engage the players. Her pointing of the words and vocal lines, poised midway between Lieder-singing and a more operatic approach, seemed to me perfectly judged. The import, both literally and more metaphorically, of Stefan George’s words could not have been more strongly projected, without ever sacrificing musical concerns for ‘effect’. Likewise, the quartet sounded inspired both by her participation and by Schoenberg’s gradual move towards suspension of tonal processes during the Litanei and then the new world so unforgettably announced by the words, ‘Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten’. This was not, of course, a world that rejected the past, but one which incorporated it. The same could be said of the Arditti’s performance of the two vocal movements, so precariously and yet rewardingly poised between late Romanticism, Expressionism, and already hinting at something yet newer to come.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Siegfried, Royal Opera, 21 October 2007

Royal Opera House

Mime – Gerhard Siegel
Siegfried – John Treleaven
Wanderer – John Tomlinson
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Woodbird – Ailish Tynan
Erda – Jane Henschel
Brünnhilde – Iréne Theorin

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Keith Warner (director)
Stefano Lazaridis (designer)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)

Antonio Pappano’s conducting has not only improved vastly from previous years’ performances; it has also improved considerably during this cycle. Siegfried received a commanding reading. It was not flawless, although there were fewer orchestral slips than in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre; it did not possess the gravitas of Haitink, nor the chamber-music subtlety of Karajan, let alone the all-encompassing metaphysical drama of Furtwängler. Yet the orchestra sounded far more impressive in its rich and varied sonorities and in its dramatic range. The ebb and flow of narrative and commentary were surely navigated throughout, with none of the uncertainties that had characterised earlier attempts. For the first time, the orchestra could justly be said to have assumed the role allotted to it by Wagner, namely that of the Greek chorus. As he wrote, in a letter of 1849, ‘the heroes of absolute music … and especially Beethoven, have raised the expressive potential of music, notably through their handling of the orchestra, to the level of a completely new artistic force which had earlier scarcely been dreamt of.’ Such a force was now very much more than a dream, and never more so than in the extraordinary Prelude to Act III, in which by musical means alone Wagner prepares us for the turning-point – peripeteia in Aristotelian terms – of the Ring as a whole: Wotan’s renunciation of the Will. Contrapuntal clarity and the dramatic interplay between the host of motifs summarising the god’s predicament were combined with a propulsion that paid tribute indeed to the excellent Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

On stage, however, things were more mixed. I felt that the production, in particular that relating to design, rather lost its way. It began well enough, with scenes from Siegfried’s childhood and upbringing, although they did not necessarily complement the music of the Prelude, which should surely be the starting point for whatever is to happen on stage. Then, for some reason, the action of the first act took place around a crashed aeroplane. I could not understand what this was doing in Mime’s cave, nor why the Wanderer should emerge from it. Had he been there all along, watching? Perhaps, but none of this was made clear and it all seemed highly unnecessary. Equally baffling was the appearance of Fafner, supposedly invisible in his cave, as the giant we had seen in Das Rheingold rather than as a dragon. I could have understood if he had simply donned the Tarnhelm later and turned into a dragon, or indeed remained ‘in reality’ a giant throughout, pointing to the possibly illusory nature of the Tarnhelm’s promises. But we had Siegfried referring to a dragon’s jaws and teeth he could see, and a little while later a sudden, arbitrary transformation into the form of a dragon. This was rather unfortunate, since the dragon was one of the most convincing I have seen. The less that is said about the forest’s animal figures being wheeled around on trolleys the better, apart from noting that, to begin with, one of the trolleys conspicuously failed to move.

Perhaps oddest of all was the more or less empty stage for the final scene. This could have worked perfectly well in a more minimalist production, but here seemed unmotivated, as if the money had run out. All we had was a wall, which occasionally revolved, with a door, which occasionally opened, and a few images of clouds. I suppose, at a pinch, it might be claimed that this was a humanistic simplicity born of the removal of divine clutter and the reintroduction of ‘purely-human’ love into the world, but that was not how it seemed on stage. Siegfried and Brünnhilde floundered somewhat, as if in search of props. There was not even any sign of fire, which seemed especially odd given its undeniable reality when Wotan had put Brünnhilde to sleep, supposedly in the very same place, at the end of Die Walküre. Discovering the Valkyrie, it seemed, might have happened to anyone, rather than only to a hero without fear. The bad old confusions of place and (dis-)continuity, endemic to the earlier stages of the Ring dramas, had returned with a vengeance.

This might have mattered less had it not been for an equally signal, some would say fatal, flaw: the casting of Siegfried. Now the question might come back: ‘whom would you cast?’ I should have to admit that I have no idea, but what I can say is that John Treleaven is simply not up to it. Many would-be Siegfrieds lack the vocal power and sheer stamina for the role. Treleaven actually possesses these; indeed, his voice was as strong at the end of the final duet as it had been at the outset. The problem is that he has none of the vocal quality. One might politely refer to a Heldentenor bark, but in reality this is coarse and often downright unmusical singing. His vowels are all over the place and so, far too often, is his tuning. And his stage presence, is, to put it mildly, un-heroic. Siegfried is Wagner’s charismatic hero par excellence, the character who, at least at this stage, bids fair to conquer the world. Such prospects never entered one’s head here.

Elsewhere, Phillip Ens was adequate as Fafner, but little more than that. Gerhard Siegel’s Mime was well sung and acted, although it lacked the pathos that can make one sympathise all too readily with Mime’s miserable lot. As Michael Tanner has written, the problem with Mime is ‘not, as is usually alleged, that Wagner draws Mime too unsympathetically, but rather the reverse. He conveys to us what misery it is to be Mime, and thus tends to elicit our protectiveness.’ Had it not been for the orchestra, I should merely have wished that Mime and Siegfried could have hurried up with their dialogue, and perhaps finished each other off. Ailish Tynan did not seem even to attempt the purity that the role of the Woodbird demands, appearing – both vocally and visually – as a rather strange girl who had somehow wandered in from the set of another opera. (The production certainly did not help.) Jane Herschel once again impressed as Erda, although I felt she did not quite possess the gravitas evinced in Das Rheingold. Peter Sidhom was every bit as impressive as he had been in that Vorabend; his is certainly an Alberich that demands to be seen – and heard. The dejection and venom were all there, as was an astute handling of the sometimes extreme chromatic twists of his line. Lisa Gasteen was still suffering from a heavy cold, so Iréne Theorin took a step up from her Walküre Helmwige. In the circumstances, she did very well, and was a far more convincing stage and vocal presence than Treleaven. However, I often felt that the vibrato needed to be toned down a little, and sometimes rather more than that.

That leaves the crowning achievement of this Ring so far, which I cannot imagine being matched, let alone surpassed: John Tomlinson’s Wotan. In his guise as the Wanderer, Tomlinson is fully able to build upon his years of experience in the role. This worldly-wise traveller and observer, poised to relinquish joyfully what he had once resolved out of anger, ought to have eaten Siegfried for breakfast. His dismissal of Erda and her realm of Fate was truly awe-inspiring. The attentiveness to every vocal and verbal nuance is too easily taken for granted, as is the towering, Lear-like stage presence. Should there be just one thing we shall all remember from the present production, let it be Tomlinson.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Die Walküre, Royal Opera, 19 October 2007

Royal Opera House

Siegmund – Plácido Domingo
Sieglinde – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Hunding – Stephen Milling
Wotan – John Tomlinson
Brünnhilde – Susan Bullock
Fricka – Rosalind Plowright
Gerhilde – Geraldine McGreevy
Ortlinde – Elaine McKrill
Waltraute – Claire Powell
Schwertleite – Rebecca de Pont Davies
Helmwige – Iréne Theorin
Siegrune – Sarah Castle
Grimgerde – Claire Shearer
Rossweisse – Elizabeth Sikora

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Keith Warner (director)
Stefano Lazaridis (designer)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)

This performance, like that of Das Rheingold, was almost unrecognisable from the first run, when the cycle was being mounted one drama at a time. I have just looked back at my notes from 2005, and see that I considered the first act to have been considerably worse than the second and third. On this occasion, I should say that it was less strong, but nevertheless it stood far removed from the catastrophe, which, despite reasonable singing, had previously ensued, the scene set all too well by a storm-Prelude that almost fell apart, followed by the most sluggish, formless reading I had ever heard of this wonderful act. On this occasion, the Prelude now really sounded like a storm, with the strings in particular shining, as they would throughout. The string chamber music, narrating the early stages of recognition for the Volsung twins, was beguiling indeed. There was a much greater sense of coherence, although there remained certain awkward corners. Antonio Pappano now seems far more willing to take the lead, as a Wagner conductor must, rather than to follow the singers as a mere accompanist. If the architecture is not all quite standing as it should yet, it is mostly there, which certainly could not have been said the first time around. It was a pity that the direction of the act’s tumultuous conclusion rather held fire, seeming a little unsure of where it was going. A few days previously, I had seen the same passage from the Boulez-Chéreau DVD; that torrid reading had known its direction all too well, the curtain coming down only just in time.

The three on-stage characters of the first act were sharply portrayed. The baritonal heft of Plácido Domingo’s tenor is just right for Siegmund. If anything, it seems to have become more pronounced since I last heard him assume the role, at Bayreuth in 2000. He took a little time truly to hit his stride, but this is all relative. He can sing and act both musically and heroically, and he always does; there is never anything approaching a weak moment. Moreover, for all the complaints one sometimes hears about his German, his diction was superb: I could hear every word he sang, which was not always the case elsewhere. Eva-Maria Westbroek did not fall into the trap of depicting Sieglinde as too passive a vessel. Hers was also a thoroughly musical portrayal throughout, and her eagerness to learn more about her mysterious guest was palpable. Stephen Milling’s Hunding was duly brutal, a representative of the bourgeois society Wagner wished revolution, in the guise of Siegmund, to sweep away forever. I thought his stage whisper – perhaps suggested by the director? – a mistake, however, both musically and dramatically. Whilst there was not much sense of the broader environment in which this act took place, the production worked well enough, and was certainly not intrusive.

Act II of Die Walküre is one of the sternest Wagnerian tests. Bernard Haitink, Pappano’s predecessor at Covent Garden, was well-nigh peerless here, but if Haitink’s profound symphonic understanding was an impossible act to follow, there was for the most part a good sense of direction. The orchestra, moreover, sounded generally in very good health, generally providing a true Wagner sound, despite the slightly disconcerting number of errors from woodwind and brass. John Tomlinson rose magnificently to the occasion. Projection of every word and every note had clearly been deeply considered, and the whole was very much more than the sum of its considerable parts. Here was a searing portrayal of Wotan’s predicament: ‘In my own fetters am I caught: – I, most unfree of all men!’ The protector of the laws has attempted to circumvent, or to pervert, those laws in the name of freedom, whilst continuing to wish to retain his legal authority. Yet Tomlinson brought home to us that this is very much a human as well as a political tragedy, which will result in Wotan being forced to sacrifice his cherished offspring. Rosalind Plowright was less impressive as Fricka than she had been in Das Rheingold. Her voice was sometimes rather thin and colourless, though she looked every inch the part of custom’s upholder, clad in duly Victorian costume. Susan Bullock, the (very) last-minute replacement for Lisa Gasteen, sounded a little impersonal at first, though never dramatically at sea, which, given the circumstances, would have been quite understandable. There was a certain Nilsson-like steel earlier on, which for me works better with Isolde than Brünnhilde. However, in retrospect, Bullock appeared to have been intimating the profound transformation in Brünnhilde’s condition, as she takes the upward path from divinity to humanity. In Feuerbach’s words, ‘If you recognise that there are sins in God, you will be free of them.’ This certainly seems to have been a guiding principle of Keith Warner’s production, an idea emerging far more clearly during this cycle than previously.

The Todesverkundigung (‘Annunciation of Death’) scene was quite moving indeed. Bullock and Domingo rose magnificently to the occasion, and Pappano handled the musico-dramatic progression very well. Here there could be no doubt as to Siegmund’s heroism, a heroism all the more impressive than that of Siegfried, for it is founded upon bravery rather than fearlessness. It is this that makes Siegmund’s rejection of Valhalla exceptional, since he does so in full knowledge that the best he can hope for is nothingness. Warner had the upward ladder (leading, I assume, towards the hereafter) snap at this point, rendering scenically explicit the anti-theological point. In the words of Feuerbach’s Thoughts on Death and Immortality:

And if the whole world wished to be divine, and to go to heaven –
which I cannot believe,
for there still are some brave men –
I would stay outside,
I would not go in.

There could then equally be no doubt as to the beginning of Brünnhilde’s conversion. So moved was she by Siegmund’s love for his sister-bride that there truly seemed that she could do no other than defy Wotan – or at least defy his stated decision. Tomlinson was almost overwhelmingly powerful in the consequent expression of anger and guilt, as he smashed Siegmund’s sword and then slew Hunding, Fricka’s slave. Having Fricka observe this denouement, chillingly satisfied in her victory over adulterous spontaneity, heightened the drama.

The third act was also excellent, although there were once again a few too many orchestral blemishes for comfort. They jarred all the more, especially during the Magic Fire Music, given the generally high level of orchestral performance; once again, the slips were be the province not of the strings, but of the woodwind and to a lesser extent the brass. The Magic Fire Music was also hindered a little by uncertain shaping from the conductor, which resulted in occasional disruption to the music’s flow and a few very odd balances. Nevertheless, Pappano despatched the rest of the act with considerable aplomb. After a peculiar directorial opening to the Ride of the Valkyries – strobe lighting mixed with ineffectively ritualistic moves – the scenic realisation settled down, albeit without any particular insights. (The fire at the end was, admittedly, rather impressive.) The Valkyries all sounded in fine voice, both individually and in combination. Sieglinde’s farewell was nothing less than magnificent, Westbroek once again emphasising her love-inspired heroism, which can often fall by the male-dominated wayside. And the confrontation and reconciliation between Wotan and Brünnhilde was quite something. Tomlinson searingly expressed Wotan’s anguish, born of the clash between the treacherous bonds of Wotan’s world of contracts and domination, and the power of love that Das Rheingold had so forcefully denied. Bullock came increasingly to personify that love, which Die Walküre had seen blossom and yet which had also been so viciously defeated. This was a heartfelt farewell indeed.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Das Rheingold, Royal Opera, 17 October 2007

Royal Opera House

Woglinde - Sarah Fox
Wellgunde - Heather Shipp
Flosshilde - Sarah Castle
Alberich - Peter Sidhom
Wotan - John Tomlinson
Loge - Philip Langridge
Fricka - Rosalind Plowright
Freia - Emily Magee
Donner - Peter Coleman-Wright
Froh - Will Hartmann
Fasolt - Franz-Josef Selig
Fafner - Phillip Ens
Mime - Gerhard Siegel
Erda - Jane Henschel

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Keith Warner (director)
Stefano Lazaridis (designer)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)

What a difference expectations make! When I had last heard Das Rheingold at Covent Garden, it had been at the beginning of the Royal Opera’s preparations for these complete cycles. Then I had been fortunate enough, on the occasion before that, to have heard Bernard Haitink conduct the Ring in semi-staged performances at the Royal Albert Hall: one of the greatest musical experiences of my life. To have said that the Covent Garden performance, with much the same cast, broadly the same production, and the same conductor as the present cycle, had disappointed would have been to put it mildly. The good news is that things have improved considerably, doubtless helped by the lowered expectations, although the improvements remain real and substantial.

Talk about removing the clutter from the production proved to be more than mere spin. On this occasion, Keith Warner’s vision shone through far more clearly, less unencumbered by the designs than had previously been the case. We are only at the beginning of the cycle, of course, but it seems that the overarching idea is a good one, with firm grounding in Wagner’s intentions. Standing with its intellectual roots in the thought of Ludwig Feuerbach and other Young Hegelian writers, this Ring bids fair to tell a tale of supersession of the rule of the gods, first created by men but subsequently coming to rule over him, by man. The Young Hegelian critique of religion informed attacks from writers of the subsequent generation, such as Marx, Bakunin, and Wagner, on other aspects of the pervading alienation they witnessed, notably with regard to the state and economics. And so, as the commentator Peter Wapnewski has written concerning the entry of the gods into Valhalla, ‘The gods are on dangerous ground, but they fail to recognise the fact, dazzled as they are by their own splendour, their foolish arrogance, and their delight in illusions. They are participating in a glorious, richly costumed dance of death.’ Where before, confusion had reigned, and it was difficult, even for those of us who flattered ourselves we ought to know what was going on, to determine this, a relatively streamlined presentation now aids our understanding. The final scene’s dance of death is brought out in all its illusory, deceiving and self-deceiving pomp, whilst Loge, with his coruscating criticism, detaches himself from his masters and begins to play with the fire that will consume them and their fortress of politico-religious deceit. Musically, however, this discrepancy could have been depicted more strongly, the orchestral triumph appearing rather unmediated. It was too beautiful, although the Rhinemaidens’ lament certainly made its point, as had the mysterious intervention of Jane Henschel’s fine Erda.

Much of the earlier action worked well too. The first scene, ‘a complete tragedy in miniature’ (Warren Darcy), told a story, again far more clearly than before, of Alberich, spurned by the Rhinemaidens on account of his ugliness, brought to a stage of frustration at which he would foreswear love in order to win the Rhinegold. Peter Sidholm’s characterisation of Alberich before the Fall was most impressive, in that here was an eager, bumbling dwarf, driven by what Wagner called his liebesgelüste (‘erotic urge’), not the monstrous tyrant of the third act, nor the embittered prisoner of the fourth. Indeed, Sidholm acknowledged all these stages of Alberich’s tragic progression, with no harm done to more purely musical considerations. The Rhinemaidens too impressed, perhaps more individually in vocal terms than when in chorus. But their role as amoral sirens – a just state of affairs must be created rather than merely discovered in Nature – was well portrayed. Their movement now seemed less uncertain. I am not sure that Wotan’s presence, observing events, added much to our understanding, but nor was it especially distracting. Much orchestral colour was brought to the fore, suggesting that Pappano had learned well his lessons as sometime répétiteur to Daniel Barenboim, whose Wagner has always exhibited greater colouristic tendencies than his ‘Teutonic’ reputation might allow. Yet there lacked a sense of true stillness, of a sound that had always been there, with the crucial opening E flat, the subsequent development of the Prelude therefore falling somewhat short of the spontaneous generation that is its lifeblood. Dynamic contrasts were not as great as they might have been, much of the orchestral direction tending towards what Pierre Monteux tellingly dubbed the indifference of mezzo forte. This of all scenes needs more gradations of light and shade. On the credit side, the music flowed far better than on the Rheingold’s first outing, in which perennial stops and starts had prevented the musical melos from ever really announcing itself.

The crucial transition between the first two scenes, in which the ring motif metamorphoses into that of Valhalla, showing Alberich and Wotan to be dialectically related in their pursuit and acquisition of power, was not heard to best effect. A particularly jarring moment came with what should have been the magical – in many senses – first statement of the Valhalla motif proper: the harps and tubas were simply not together. It sounded as if the latter were late, rather than the former early, but rhythmic vagueness made it difficult to tell with any certainty. The rest of this first statement was not delivered without blemish either.

Thereafter, the music settled down and again was far less subject to stops and starts than had been the case the first time round. The gods’ heavenly residence was clearly a place of wealth and illusion, which is as it should be. The influence, in terms of a frankly plutocratic portrayal, of Patrice Chéreau’s legendary Bayreuth production was no cause for shame; any production of the Ring must by now come to terms with its predecessors, and will profit from considering reception history as an integral part of its own message. The Zeus-Hera relationship of Wotan and Fricka was well observed. John Tomlinson’s Wotan was as much of a stage presence as it always has been, and his keen attention to the text and its implications cannot be commended highly enough. There is sometimes a more pronounced wobble to his voice than was once the case, but the dramatic truthfulness is such that this is really only a matter for pedants. Tomlinson is so immeasurably superior to Bryn Terfel in the role that the Royal Opera should be thanking its lucky stars that the latter so gracelessly withdrew at very short notice. Rosalind Plowright correctly resisted the temptation to make Fricka too much of a monster: her interest in the ring, once Loge informs her that it might tie her husband more closely to her was sharply characterised by a telling shift in vocal quality.

The prospect of a fine Loge stealing the Rheingold show is always a distinct possibility. It certainly happened at the English National Opera, where Thomas Randle was more or less the only positive aspect of an otherwise execrable production, both scenically and musically. Here, Tomlinson’s Wotan was far too strong to cede the stage to Philip Langridge’s quicksilver Loge, but this was a fine performance. His busy stage action was well directed by Warner; the combination of this with his vocal modulation presented a Loge who was, perhaps more than any I have seen, the very incarnation of instrumental reason. Any tendency towards caricature was firmly resisted, but he remained an outsider. The contrast with Franz-Josef Selig’s lovelorn Fasolt, the only character who truly gains a hold over our emotions in this frigid world, did credit to both artists. Other parts during this scene were sung well enough, without any particular insights. It is, however, worth adding that the insights to be gleaned from deliberately cipher-like parts such as Freia and Froh are few and far between. Will Hartmann certainly beguiled in a properly ineffectual fashion in the latter part, which is probably as much as one can expect. His pseudo-oriental (Orientalist?) garb was puzzling, but did no great harm. Phillip Ens’s Fafner, the ‘pure seeker after power’ (Deryck Cooke) ought really to have been more imposing, both here and, more crucially, in the final scene.

Nibelheim might be considered more controversial. This is not straightforwardly the realm of capital as would generally be understood and certainly as Wagner intended. However, if one takes a broader view of economic power being a form rather than the determining form of power – that is, somewhat vulgarly, if one tends towards Wagner’s proto-Nietzschean will-to-power rather than to Marxian dialectical materialism – than one can see this portrayal of a dark world of cruel scientific experiments as far from entirely out of keeping. This was a development of Wagner readily comprehensible to students of the post-Freudian Marxism of the Frankfurt School, and of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment in particular. It seemed to me to have much in common with Warner’s fine Covent Garden Wozzeck, which dwelled on a similar theme. It is certainly one with which Wagner, and the later Wagner in particular, would have sympathised, given his increasing hostility towards scientific domination. For once, the Tarnhelm’s transformations of its wearer were credible on stage, although, sadly, the Tarnhelm music lacked the rootless, phantasmagorical mystery, born as much of its instrumentation as its harmony, which is so vital to full expression of its seductive horror. Sidholm’s Alberich, as I have already mentioned, was a man transformed by his new status, and his interactions with Gerhard Siegel’s creditable Mime, and with the visitors to Valhalla, were strongly portrayed, as also they would be during the final scene. If Siegel’s Mime was not a portrayal that burned itself into the memory, it wisely heeded Wagner’s warning that Mime must never lapse into caricature, and paid due attention to musical as well as stage considerations.

The two other transformation scenes, descending to and ascending from Nibelheim, lacked somewhat in dramatic impact, although the purely scenic realisation was well handled. Pappano is not a natural Wagnerian, but his reading of the score has improved almost out of recognition. There is still something of a sense of adhering too much to the leitmotifs as signposts, rather than understanding leitmotif technique, in Carl Dahlhaus’s words, as ‘the binding together of a music drama through a dense web of motivic connections from within’. It was not sufficiently clear that Wagner’s writing is to a considerable extent symphonic, or at least post-symphonic, nor that the entire network of interrelated themes may be seen to derive from the individualisation of, to quote Wagner himself, ‘a few malleable Nature motifs’. Yet the dramatic flow was significantly superior, both on stage and in the pit. Haitink will never, I am sure, be forgotten by those of us who heard him, but this was, all considered, a better Rheingold than I had dared hope.

Monday, 8 October 2007

LSO/Davis: Haydn, The Creation, 7 October 2007


Haydn: The Creation (sung in German)

Sally Matthews (soprano)
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Dietrich Henschel (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

Let there be no beating around the bush: this was a magnificent performance. I am beginning, or perhaps more than beginning, to run out of superlatives concerning Sir Colin Davis's music-making with the London Symphony Orchestra. This was fully the equal, however, of either of the previous two concerts held in celebration of his eightieth birthday. It vied in quality with a recording I had previously thought untouchable, that of Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic in this work. Indeed, were one to combine elements of both, I believe we should find ourselves but a hair's breadth from perfection. The additional good news is that the performance was being recorded.

This was very much Sir Colin's reading, beholden to no school or orthodoxy. The astonishing 'Representation of Chaos' was played with a mysterious, veiled quality, not from the strings, who minimised rather than eschewed vibrato. This we hear far too often nowadays, or rather we hear it for the wrong reason: on account of some dubious 'historical' dogma. Here, it was done for good musico-dramatic reasons, with sensitive application of vibrato rather than pseudo-ascetic self-denial. The creative act removed the veil, engendering orchestral playing that was sweet yet never cloying, incisive yet never brash, and supremely well-balanced throughout. As ever with Davis, the woodwind provided especial delight. (My Seen and Heard colleague Melanie Eskenazi recently suggested that this might have roots in Sir Colin's upbringing as a clarinettist, and I am sure this must be true.) Those three flutes at the beginning of the Third Part of the oratorio truly represented an annunciation of Paradise. Yet the rest of the orchestra was every bit as good. Whilst I admire the aforementioned Karajan recording greatly, I think Davis here had the edge in terms of careful yet never fussy differentiation of light and shade. Every line told, as did its combination with every other line. This was the Davis of his greatest Mozart achievements - and, of course, the Davis of those wonderful recordings of Haydn symphonies. If only there were more...

Comparisons, I know, are odious, but the soloists did not match the perhaps unmatchable team Karajan had at his disposal. Ian Bostridge presented a finely detailed Uriel, keenly responsive to the sound and meaning of the German text. His reading was not without its mannerisms, especially at the somewhat tremulous outset, but it was nevertheless a commanding, if undeniably 'English-tenor-style' performance. He can hardly be blamed for not being Fritz Wunderlich, the beauty of whose tone so ravishes under Karajan. Their reading of 'Mit Würd und Hoheit angetan' is one of the most beautiful things I have heard, never beautiful for its own sake, but as a supreme expression of Enlightenment humanism. By comparison, this aria was rather plain, although the surprise of its miraculous, Schubertian modulation did register. Likewise, Sally Matthews could hardly be expected to ravish as did Gundula Janowitz. Hers was nevertheless perhaps the finest of the soloists' performances. Where she might have been accused of a little mannerism, in her comely portrayal of Eve, there is ample justification in the text, especially the musical text. Moreover, she handled the difficult coloratura not just with technical aplomb (Janowitz had a few difficulties here, I recall), but with truly musical colouring. Dietrich Henschel, however, proved a variable soloist. There were ominous insecurities of tuning in his opening recitative. This problem lessened, although it never quite abated. He pointed the words carefully, but his tone was sometimes rather dry and lacked character in comparison with his colleagues, let alone with Walter Berry and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Raphael and Adam on the Karajan recording).

I can happily report, however, that the London Symphony Chorus was superb. This was, without exception, the finest choral singing I have heard in The Creation. It boasted everything: weight and lightness, warmth and clarity, and a keenness of response that would even put most smaller choirs to shame. Above all, it was wonderfully human. In this, Davis certainly had the edge over Karajan's far from negligible Wiener Singverein, still more so over one highly-regarded professional choir in another recording, whose performance is so clinical that it might be computer-generated. The singing was beautifully moulded, yet never self-consciously so. More importantly, it was truly exultant, as close to fulfilment of Haydn's challenge to praise the Creator as we shall have the fortune to hear this side of the heavenly host. The heavens really were telling the glory of God, and Haydn's work was truly enabled to display the firmament. This was a memorable performance indeed, which, unless something horrendous should happen in terms of its transfer to disc, should eagerly be acquired by all those who love what is perhaps Haydn's greatest single work.

CSO/Muti: Prokofiev, Falla, and Ravel, 6 October 2007

Royal Festival Hall

Prokofiev: Symphony no.3 in C minor, Op.44
Falla: The Three-cornered Hat, Suite no.2
Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole
Ravel: Boléro

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

This was a splendid concert, full of orchestral colour, which acted as a showcase for numerous strengths of both orchestra and conductor. That the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of the world's greatest orchestras can hardly have been in doubt even before, but there could be no doubt having heard it at the Royal Festival Hall. It is in many respects a very American sound, with gleaming strings, great precision of attack, and of course its celebrated brass section, but it never sounded anonymously 'international' as some bands of that ilk can. Muti is of course a brilliant conductor, 'old school' and all the better for it. I was put in mind more than once of the orchestral command exercised by two former music directors in Chicago, Fritz Reiner and Sir Georg Solti. Yet there was none of the brashness that could sometimes characterise Solti's work.

Prokofiev's Third Symphony packed quite a punch from the very outset. Those thumping initial chords made a duly screaming impact, not only with their volume, not only with their dissonance, but also with the supremely judged balance, which allowed more colours to emerge than has often been the case in performances of this work. This was achieved without any lessening of the impact of brass and percussion. If the opening overshadowed the rest of the first movement, this is attributable to Prokofiev rather than to the performance, which did everything he could conceivably have asked. It does seem to me that there is something of a mismatch between the musical material, initially conceived for the masterly Fiery Angel, and symphonic form, but probably the best course of action is to consider a surreal succession of often garish images, rather than to worry too much about formal shortcomings. The repose of the slow movement was certainly welcome. Muti's command of the long, almost vocal lines impressed, as did the varied solo contributions. The violin glissandi and other ghostly aspects of the scherzo came across with unusual vividness, and never at the expense of the clearer form of that movement. Much the same could be said of the well-nigh faultless finale, whose marriage of grotesquerie and harmonic side-slipping lyricism was portrayed with both a keen ear for colour and balance and an impressive sense of theatrical effect. This symphony is not often performed, but I can safely say that I have not heard a superior performance.

In the second half, we moved to Spain. The second suite from Falla's ballet, The Three-cornered Hat, received an equally committed reading. Rhythms were acutely pointed, as was their marriage to harmonic progression. The array of colours on offer was kaleidoscopic, with warm and sultry moments caught in vivid relief against the backdrop of the dance. As with every section of the evening's programme, there was never the slightest doubt that the musicians knew precisely where they were going; they acted as perfect hosts during our colourful tour.

The Ravel items were, if anything, more impressive still, partly, I suspect, on account of their being whole works, and partly on account of the still greater scope they offered for colouristic differentiation. In this respect, orchestra and conductor wanted nothing. The emphasis may have been more brazenly 'Spanish' than French performances of the old school might have offered, but there is nothing wrong with that. There was certainly none of that wateriness in the strings that has often characterised readings of that school. Precision was at the very core, as it should be, since Ravel has none of Debussy's ambiguity; not for nothing did Stravinsky dub him a Swiss watchmaker. The ostinato rhythm of the Rapsodie's 'Prélude à la nuit' pulsated with a winning combination of persistence and languor, whilst Ravel weaved his colouristic and harmonic magic above. And the cumulative effect of Boléro can rarely have been better achieved - even if that very success did point to the undoubted monotony of the work. Thank goodness for that final harmonic wrench to E major, without which I might have been driven mad.

As an encore, Muti and the CSO offered a blistering account of the Overture to Verdi's La forza del destino. It exhibited all the virtues outlined above, and moreover boasted a flexibility born of the conductor's immersion in Verdi's music. To return to the beginning, its opening evocation of fate packed just as much a punch as had the barbarism of the Prokofiev symphony, yet the celebrated melody that followed (forever associated in my mind with the films Jean de Florette and Manon des sources) was as tender as one could imagine. Even for a Verdi sceptic such as myself, this provided a worthy culmination to the evening. The repertoire exhibited not a trace of Teutonic profundity, but our musical heritage possesses other aspects demanding attention, attention which paid off handsomely in this case.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice - opening concert, 1 October 2007

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Nono - Incontri
Schoenberg - Chamber Symphony no.1, Op.9
Nono - Variazioni canoniche sulla serie dell' op.41 di Arnold Schoenberg
Nono - 'No hay caminos hay que caminar ... Andrej Tarkowskij'

London Sinfonietta
Diego Masson (conductor)

How wonderful for the Southbank Centre to be celebrating Luigi Nono! It is about time someone did, the only other major retrospective of his work in this country of which I am aware having been at Huddersfield in 1995. This series will reach its climax next May with the British premiere of Prometeo, his 'tragedy of listening'. For this concert, we were treated to three varied works, plus a masterpiece from his posthumous father-in-law, Arnold Schoenberg. Proceedings had commenced even before the concert, with a conversation between Christopher Cook and Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, the composer's widow (and Schoenberg's daughter). She provided an informative and at time moving insight into her late husband's beliefs and methods, not least his instruction from Bruno Maderna, who had encouraged him to compare responses compositional problems in composers old and new, for instance Gabrieli and Webern, Ockeghem and Schoenberg. Hermann Scherchen also emerged as a hero of the tale. We also heard a most sympathetic account of the heady days of 1950s Darmstadt, not as some quasi-totalitarian Ministry of Serialist Truth but as a place of openness, experimentation, and - perhaps most interestingly - as a meeting-place for those who had survived the horrors of fascism with the post-war avant garde. Tradition and its development played a much greater role than myths of a 'year zero' have allowed.

The concert began with a few words from the pianist John Constable concerning the recently deceased London Sinfonietta flautist, Sebastian Bell, to whom the concert was dedicated. Berio's brief Autre fois, composed for flute, harp, and clarinet, in memory of Stravinsky, was performed - most beautifully - in Bell's honour.

We then proceeded to the 'encounters' of Nono's 1955 Incontri, for twenty-four instruments. The two independent structures of which Nono wrote, emerged independently of one another, through differentiation of rhythm, melody, harmony, and timbre. And yet they came together too, unable to escape each other, and producing something more through their encounters. Post-Webernian lines and combinations, and extreme dynamic contrasts were well judged by Diego Masson and his expert players, both in terms of individual clarity and a whole that was more than the sum of its parts. This is partly a matter of mathematics - what music is not? - in terms of the ratios between the two structures, but also of development, of sympathy, of a refusal to repeat oneself which Nono shared with Schoenberg. One felt a true sense of musical and political unity, of the hope in social solidarity which Nuria Schoenberg-Nono had already spoken as a hallmark of Nono's oeuvre.

Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony has long been a Sinfonietta speciality. This was a performance which evinced long familiarity with a work that is for these players 'standard repertoire'. The confidence with which the string soloists projected their lines meant that there was no chance of one of this work's greatest pitfalls presenting itself, namely the strings being overshadowed by the piquant wind. (The opposite pitfall tends to occur in the later, inferior version for full orchestra.) In its contrapuntal clarity and the propulsion of its harmonic progression, this was a model performance, expertly guided by Masson. My taste often tends to veer towards Schoenberg performances that emphasise a little more his Romantic inheritance, but the bracing, relentless modernism of this reading afforded an equally valid perspective and, given the circumstances, was perhaps more apt. My sole cavil was that the 'slow movement' did not really emerge as distinctly as it might. If one thinks of the Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor, whose form Schoenberg's work so closely resembles, one realises what is gained by a stronger sense of four distinct movements within the one-movement sonata form of the whole. The conclusion, however, was duly thrilling, without ever degenerating into a headlong rush, as can often be its fate.

The interval afforded an opportunity to observe the progress of work from Kingston University students on a wall of protest in the foyer, inspired by the final work on the programme. We too were encouraged to offer reactions to the music in the guise of postcards for colouring, which would then be displayed. This certainly contributed to the buzz of the occasion, to a genuine rather than manufactures sense of the excitement of an event - which the beginning of this festival certainly should have been - so different from the often dreary conventionality of more 'mainstream' concerts.

Nono's greatest homage to Schoenberg, his Canonical Variations on a note row from the Ode to Napoleon, received an extremely fine reading. All the virtues of the Incontri performance were once again present, as was a definite sense of narrative progression, of moving towards and then beyond the final variation's statement of the row. Where 'Darmstadt', as we somewhat misleadingly and monolithically have come to call it, has tended to be portrayed as tolerating Schoenberg mostly for having prepared the way for Webern, here we heard an avowedly post-Webernian serialist employing the Webern inheritance - the sighs of instrumental fragments, the constructivist tension between certain intervallic relations - of earlier variations to build up to a more or less explicit tribute to one of Schoenberg's most unambiguously 'political' works. The almost Romantic beauty of the orchestra, albeit never without a necessary astringency - reminded us of Nuria Schoenberg-Nono's conception of Darmstadt as a continuation of European tradition. (Failure of many of the participants thus to root themselves, rather than outright antipathy towards Cage, was why Nono had eventually left, she explained.)

'No hay caminos, hay que caminar ... Andrej Tarkovskij' represented late Nono (1987). Inspired by a mediaeval wall inscription from a Toledo monastery - 'Traveller, there is no pathway, only travelling itself' - this work triumphantly refuted claims that Nono's later work lost its political edge. There was still here the humanist emphasis upon creation and the utopian hope of a better society, no matter what difficulties life and this world might present, which had marked Nono's earliest works. What was new was the spatial experimentation, a product of practices old (consider Gabrieli) and new (think Stockhausen), with additional instrumentalists positioned around and in between the audience, responding to and furthering the 'main' orchestra on the stage. The slow, still Webern-like beauty of so much of this work received the fullest contrasts with the sudden eruptions from beyond. This was an unpredictable procession, for there are no paths, only travelling. The audience was compelled by the extremes of expression to listen more closely, and thus the smallest variations in timbre and pitch registered with the utmost forcefulness: violent and beguiling, the two attributes gaining in intensity through collision with one another (rather like the two structures of Incontri). This was tribute indeed to a truly committed performance from Masson and the London Sinfonietta. Their belief in Nono was truly infectious, in the best sense, and bodes well for the festivities to come.

Mozart: Uchida/LSO/Davis, 30 September 2007


Mozart: Piano Concerto no.27 in B flat, KV 595

Mozart: Requiem Mass in D minor, KV 626

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Marie Arnet (soprano)
Anna Stéphany (mezzo-soprano)
Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
Darren Jeffery (bass)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

In the second of the LSO concerts celebrating Sir Colin Davis's eightieth birthday, he turned his attention to Mozart, one of the composers with whom he is most closely associated. It would be no exaggeration to describe him as perhaps the greatest living Mozartian. Since nowadays we must be grateful to be spared Mozart on period instruments or at least, performed according to something erroneously called 'period style', the competition is not fierce. But Sir Colin is undoubtedly one of the great Mozart conductors of any era, and in this sense the rivalry would be intense indeed. Not that there is any need to think in terms of 'competition': the greater the number of musicians who can perform the most difficult music of all, the better.

It almost goes without saying that the performances were excellent, which they were. However, I did not feel that this was Davis at his very best. I wonder whether, at least in the beginning, this may partly be attributed to the orchestra. Certainly, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House responded far more keenly from the outset, in Davis's recent Così fan tutte. Here, the opening of Mozart's final piano concerto was slightly tentative, with a little edginess amongst the violins. This is a fragile work indeed, but fragility is a different thing from tentativeness. Mitsuko Uchida's contribution, however, was well nigh faultless. Her beauty and subtlety of touch seems ideally suited to Mozart, and perhaps to works such as this in particular. Here there are no festal trumpet and drums moments; all is elegy, even when, indeed perhaps particularly when, the sadness lies in the major mode. The opening of the slow movement was delectable indeed, as were the woodwind responses. This sounded like true chamber music. The delicacy of the 'hunting' 6/8 finale - the apparent contradiction is quite deliberate - sounded as it should: a memory of former times, and therefore tinged with ineffable sadness. Davis guided the proceedings, but after the slight initial awkwardness, the level of orchestral playing was such that on occasion he appeared - this may of course be deceptive - to have little to do, beyond benign encouragement. This he was well placed to offer. Uchida's 'encore' began as a reminiscence of Don Giovanni, but soon metamorphosed into 'Happy Birthday', joined by the orchestra - and a cake.

It was refreshing to have a performance of the Requiem unencumbered by editorial 'improvements', which celebrated the fine job that Süssmayr accomplished. We shall never quite know the truth about this work, which adds to its fascination, but the mastery points to Mozartian inspiration at almost every turn. Sir Colin's forthright approach to choral Mozart was much in evidence here, although there were instances of the greater flexibility that has characterised some of his more recent essays more generally in Mozart performance. (It is interesting to note that he now seems to favour greater flexibility of tempo than he does in Beethoven.) The singing of the London Symphony Chorus was more or less beyond reproach; that of the soloists was perfectly adequate but, sadly, far from memorable. It seemed as though there had been a decision to engage young soloists: admirable in itself, but the character of experience would not have gone amiss, especially in a work we all 'know' so well.

The orchestra, however, was not remotely tentative here, sounding truly galvanised in all sections. Yet on occasion there was a slight relentlessness, which might have been alleviated by a more differentiated sense of light and shade. Even the Day of Judgement should be allowed its moments of hope, and equally important, its moments of truly Mozartian ambivalence. This was a relatively minor reservation however, for one truly felt the presence of the Angel of Death. As so often in Davis's recent conducting, the angel of Klemperer - just think what a Mozart Requiem would have been like... - seemed present too.