Monday, 31 March 2008

Haydn, Berio, and Bartók, VPO/Mehta, 31 March 2008


Haydn - Symphony no.22 in E flat, 'The Philosopher'
Berio - Sinfonia
Bartók - Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116

Swingle Singers
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta (conductor)

It is always a joy to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in Haydn. Indeed, perhaps the best live performance of a Haydn symphony I have ever heard was of no.103, the 'Drum Roll', under Zubin Mehta, at the Proms in 2005. If this performance was not quite at that level, it nevertheless remained very good. I was a little surprised at the complement of strings (, wondering whether 'authenticism' has even reached Vienna, but then reflected that this is probably a large band for relatively early Haydn in 2008. There was certainly not a hint of any of the ugliness of tone and other mannerisms we must generally endure nowadays, just a show of good musicianship, at the service of the music and music in general, rather than trying to prove an at-best-dubious point. The sense of a work on the cusp of the Baroque and the Classical was nicely caught, especially in that extraordinary first movement with its stately melancholy. Here, as throughout, the wind instruments - two French horns and two English horns - were, to put it simply and accurately, perfect. The echo of the former by the latter in the 6/8 finale had to be heard to be believed, likewise the ineffable beauty of the horns in the trio of the third movement. Moreover, the strings showed, especially from the second movement onwards, that, in spite of their small number, they lacked nothing in drive, nor in cultured musicianship. A harpsichord continuo was employed. Whilst I remain sceptical of the need of this, it did no harm and was indeed excellent of its kind. I can find nothing really to criticise in Mehta's direction, in which nothing was over-'interpreted'; instead, everything sounded supremely natural.

I shall be delighted to be corrected, but I cannot imagine that the Musikverein has witnessed many performances of Berio's Sinfonia, and still fewer from the jewel in its crown, the VPO. And despite his longstanding advocacy of the Second Viennese School, Mehta is not a conductor I especially associate with post-war new music, though this may simply be ignorance on my part. At any rate, it was good to hear this partnership tackle what must now have become one of the great modern orchestral classics. I do not think that this performance was the last word on Sinfonia, but the orchestra sounded perfectly at ease with its demands. Indeed, it almost sounded like the repertory work it ought to be, but is still not - quite. It was only with the superlative second half of the concert that I realised in retrospect that a certain something had perhaps been lacking; however, I should not wish to exaggerate. There were certainly many moments to savour: everything from the wonderful percussion section, and the first time I heard the first flute, whose playing was beyond compare (as it would be in the Bartók). Hearing the Rosenkavalier quotations from the Vienna strings sent an apposite shiver down my spine. It did Mehta great credit that there were no awkward corners whatsoever, as there had been just occasionally at last year's Proms performance. Common to both performances were the Swingle Singers, who once again proved extremely fine, if anything even better on this occasion. The hushed, all-vocal opening bars of the fourth movement were quite magical. There was, however, a problem in terms of hearing the words. This may have been owed to where I was sitting - above the orchestra and towards the back - and one does not expect to hear every word, but it was a pity. I do not, however, think that this was a consequence of the performance as such. The reception from the audience was less than rapturous - two elderly ladies sitting behind me talked throughout much of the performance - so it served right those who had gracelessly and immediately risen to their feet for the interval that they missed the two Bach encores the Swingle Singers performed. The second, the Badinerie from the B minor Orchestral Suite was taken breathtakingly, almost absurdly, fast, but was great fun nevertheless.

I have heard the VPO once before in Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra, under Boulez, and had wondered then whether this was simply a work in which the orchestra would fail to sound idiomatic. It was not that it had been a bad performance, but it had ultimately fallen some way short of the best. Perhaps the musical partnership had not been quite right, however wonderful the VPO often sound under Boulez. There was no such worry on this occasion, for here one had ample cause to recall that Bartók's musical outlook was formed and nurtured in Austria-Hungary. The large string section sounded as only it could, albeit with no compromise regarding rhythmic exactitude. Every section of the orchestra sounded at its tremendous best, both solistically and in terms of blend where required. The woodwind 'night music' of the third movement and the blazing - but never crude - brass in the fifth particularly stick in my mind, but that does not reflect upon anyone else. Mehta showed himself perfectly at ease with the score - as with the Haydn, he conducted from memory - and, the very occasional exaggerated rubato apart, was largely inobtrusive in the best sense. Obvious direction came where necessary, rather than seeming imposed. What can often seem frenetic, not least during the finale, here did not, which I appreciated for more than simply being a change. For excellent all-round musicianship, I am not sure that I have heard a better Concerto for Orchestra.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

The Gambler, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 23 March 2008

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

General – Vladimir Ognovenko
Polina – Kristine Opolais
Alexei – Misha Didyk
Baulen’ka – Stefania Toczyska
Marquis – Stephan Rügamer
Blanche – Sylvia de la Muela
Mr Astley –Viktor Rud
Prince Nilski – Gian-Luca Pasolini
Baron Wurmerhelm – Alessandro Paliaga
Potapytsch – Plamen Kumpikov
Casino Director – Gleb Nikolsky
First Croupier – Gregory Bonfatti
Second Croupier – Robert Hebenstrett
(plus other gamblers, etc.)

Dmitri Tcherniakov (producer, designs, costumes)
Elena Zaitseva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

This was not quite the Berlin première of Prokofiev’s first completed opera, which had taken place a few days previously, but the second performance came close enough. It does Daniel Barenboim and the Staatsoper Unter den Linden great credit that, not only should they have undertaken such an important task, but that it should have formed the centrepiece of the company’s 2008 Festtage. Barenboim clearly believes in the work, for it receives a co-production with La Scala, again under his baton. Such commitment was triumphantly vindicated by a fine performance and production. During the first act, there were occasions when I wondered whether this might be a work more compelling musically than dramatically, but my doubts soon disappeared. The Gambler might not be quite so consistently gripping as The Fiery Angel, but it is a fine work, which deserves far greater exposure. It was given here, as has almost always been the case, from the first performance onwards, in its second, revised version, completed in 1928.

Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin were on top form throughout, banishing memories of their somewhat disappointing Meistersinger. The orchestra proved fully equal to Prokofiev’s sometimes strenuous demands, unleashing a kaleidoscopic riot of colours. Rhythmic precision was impeccable, as was the inexorable forward narrative drive of the score. Where a few days before, the orchestra had sometimes sounded carelessly loud, little concerned with the events on stage, here orchestra, conductor, and soloists proved that good singers are perfectly capable of making themselves heard over considerable volume from the pit, so long as musical understanding is present and apparent. There was never any doubt that Barenboim was a sure guide, both to details and to the greater structure. We should hear more of him in Russian repertoire: a Tchaikovsky Sixth last summer was nothing short of magnificent.

The huge cast was very strong; I could not name a single weak link. Everyone seemed to appreciate the particular demands of Prokofiev’s declamatory style, which once may have seemed ‘anti-operatic,’ but like that of Mussorgsky or Janáček, with whom Prokofiev has much in common, now sounds unforcedly naturalistic. Misha Didyk displayed not only great stamina in the title role, but an exemplary command of musical line and subtlety in deployment of his considerable vocal resources. Likewise Kristine Opolais as his beloved Polina. Both could act too. Sylvia de la Muela put in a splendid turn, as much acted as sung, as the demi-mondaine Blanche, callously and casually deserting Vladimir Ognovenko’s carefully-observed General when the money ran out. Stephan Rügamer also judged to a tee his fair-weather friend act as the Marquis. A truly stage-stopping moment came with the arrival of Stefania Toczyska in the guise of Baulen’ka, come to disabuse the General of the imminence – or indeed possibility – of his inheritance. Here one felt one was truly in the presence of a star, albeit a star playing a role rather than presenting herself, as too often can be the case in the operatic world. Toczyska exhibited great vocal power, often commendably held in reserve, but also considerable thoughtfulness in her projection and modulation; her exchanges with Polina were genuinely heartfelt. Baulen’ka’s retinue of servants was powerfully directed to enhance her imperious majesty.

Here, as in much else, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production was of great assistance, working closely with the musical performance. For instance, the climactic gambling scene in the fourth act was simply stunning in terms of its integration of a myriad of solo voices into a quasi-choral whole, without ever sacrificing the sense of this being a multiplicity of individuals. But equally powerful – and impossible to dissociate from the musical direction – was Tcherniakov’s careful direction of each of these individuals, once again in some sense part of an emerging mass, but never just that. The various non-singing actors throughout added a sense of place and ongoing activity, without seeming gratuitous, as can so often be the case in such situations. Tcherniakov’s designs were equally impressive. Most of the action took place in what I suspect would modishly be termed a ‘design hotel’, its modern, stylish business setting the perfect foil for the financial dealings taking place. The casino itself in the fourth act imparted a due sense of extravagance, but at the service of the drama rather than for its own sake. One could well understand, after the madness of this scene, why Polina would ultimately reject Alexei’s winnings, and thus why the opera takes the course it does. This, then, was a powerfully conceived performance at every level; it served Prokofiev’s drama very well indeed.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Daniel Barenboim, Lang Lang, et al., 22 March 2008

Philharmonie, Berlin

Ravel – Ma mère l’oye
Liszt – Réminiscences de Don Juan
Bartók – Sonata for two pianos and percussion

Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Lang Lang (piano)
Torsten Schönfeld (percussion)
Dominic Oelze (percussion)

The piano four-hand version of Ravel’s Ma mere l’oye is the original, but I admit to wondering during this performance whether, at least for an audience, it has been superseded by its subsequent version for orchestra. It is another matter for performers themselves, for which the work is a joy to explore. In any case, it received a good, if not outstanding performance from Daniel Barenboim and Lang Lang. It was not always clear that the performers were equally matched, with the latter often sounding somewhat heavy-handed. The waltz of Les entretiens de la belle et de la bête lilted nicely, however, and Le jardin féerique possessed a grave, understated beauty.

I had not heard Liszt’s Réminiscences de Don Juan in the two-piano version before. Indeed, ardent Lisztian though I be, I admit that I was unaware of its existence. Lang Lang is clearly on surer territory in such repertoire than he had been during the Brahms First Piano Concerto two nights before. This is not to say that his performance was flawless: there was the odd slip and, more seriously, a little more playing to the gallery than might have been warranted. He would do well to remember that Liszt adopted super-virtuosity in order to beat mere piano virtuosity at their own game and thereby to restore musical virtues. Barenboim proved no mean virtuoso himself, although there were admittedly moments when a certain technical fallibility showed. On the whole, though, this was an enjoyable performance, if not the extraordinary one some elements of the audience seemed to believe they had heard.

The towering masterpiece on the programme was Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion. It probably received the best performance, not least since the two pianists were joined by two outstanding percussionists from the Staatskapelle Berlin, Torsten Schönfeld and Dominic Oelze. I could not fault their performance, whether in rhythmic precision, in finely judged dynamic contrasts, and perhaps above all in their fine contributions on tuned percussion. Barenboim was clearly if unobtrusively leading the performance, which undoubtedly benefited from his guiding hand. On the other hand, Lang, despite the undoubted quality of his performance in pianistic terms, seemed very much intent on playing his own part and did not appear to be listening so closely to his fellow performers. Certainly Schönfeld and Oelze were the superior chamber musicians.

As an encore, Barenboim and Lang offered the Andante from Mozart’s Sonata for two pianos, KV 448. This made me wish that they had performed the work in its entirety, in place of one of the first-half works. Once again, Barenboim took the musical lead, hardly surprising for one of the supreme Mozartians of our time. This performance was poised, stylish, and sometimes meltingly beautiful. It is something of an irony that Lang Lang, so touted as a Romantic lion of the keyboard, should have shone most here, not least through relative self-effacement; it also imparts hope, given that there can be no sterner musical test than the music of Mozart.

Iphigénie en Tauride, Komische Oper, Berlin, 21 March 2008

Komische Oper Berlin
(sung in German, as Iphigenia in Tauris)

Iphigenia – Geraldine McGreevy
Orestes – Kevin Greenlaw
Pylades – Peter Lodahl
Thoas – Jens Larsen
A Greek woman – Karen Rettinghaus
Diana – Erika Roos
A Priestess – Mirika Wagner
A Scythian – Matthias Spenke

Barrie Kosky (producer)
Klaus Grünberg (designs)
Alfred Mayerhofer (costumes)
Werner Hintze (dramaturgy)
Franck Evin (lighting)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Komische Oper Berlin
Daniel Mayr (chorus master)
Paul Goodwin (conductor)

Handel is notoriously said to have declared that his cook knew more about counterpoint than Gluck did. This may or may not be so: I am not sure that we know anything about the cook’s contrapuntal skills and it is true that Gluck’s art is rarely contrapuntal in nature. That said, whatever the musical beauties of Handel’s operas, themselves hardly overflowing with contrapuntal devices – his oratorios are another matter – Gluck’s reform operas, which Handel could not in any case have known, are vastly superior as musical dramas. Gluck may not be the greatest of composers considered in a purely musical sense, but as a musical dramatist he is one of the greatest – as Berlioz and Wagner both recognised. The problem has been that opportunities to appreciate this in the theatre, at least in remotely satisfactory conditions, have been few and far between. With this extraordinary production, the Komische Oper may have helped to change that.

If Gluck’s reforms are in many ways a prelude to Wagner – note the number of times Gluck is cited in Wagner’s Opera and Drama – then this production took seriously the claim of Iphigénie en Tauride to be considered as a Gesamtkunstwerk. (This connection was perhaps heightened by the fine German translation, credited to Bettina Bartz and Werner Hintze. I recalled the Gluck-Wagner Iphigenie in Aulis, and much to my surprise barely registered the loss of Nicolas-François Guillard’s original text.) Production and musical performance – melded into a single act, without a tension-breaking interval – clearly worked in tandem. Barrie Kosky, as a fascinating programme interview made clear, is clearly that rare thing: a producer with musical understanding. He was therefore fully able to work in the spirit of the celebrated, landmark preface to Alceste, ascribed to Gluck but actually penned by his librettist, Ranieri Calazbigi:

I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments; and I believe that it should do this in the same way as telling colours affect a correct and well-ordered drawing, by a well-assorted contrast of light and shade which serves to animate the figures without altering the contours. Thus I did not wish to arrest an actor in the greatest heat of dialogue in order to wait for a tiresome ritornello … nor to wait while the orchestra gives him time to recover his breath for a cadenza. … I have sought to abolish all the abuses against which good sense and reason have long cried out in vain. … Furthermore, I believed that my greatest labour should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity …

Beauty, simplicity, ‘naturalness’, reason, and above all dramatic truth are the order of the day. Style and idea are identical; or at least such is the claim.

This is not to claim that there was anything unadventurous about Kosky’s production; nothing could be further from the case. From the moment the curtain rose, we knew that we should be in for a rough ride: our first sight was that of a prisoner hanging upside down, swinging from the ceiling. After the brief minuet, ‘Le calme,’ Gluck plunged us straight into the drama by an orchestral storm, both real and representative of Iphigenia’s inner demons from her dream: psychoanalysis almost beckoned. (The ghosts of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, and others would appear later on, observing and sometimes participating as elderly men and women, the frailty and degeneration of their bodies powerfully highlighted in their underwear.) Louis Petit de Bachaumount had written of the première in his Mémoires secrets: ‘The opera was much applauded; it is a new genre. It is really a tragedy … in the Greek style.’ Gluck, it seemed, had discovered the ever-elusive ‘secret of the ancients’. If so, it was renewal rather than restoration, and so it also proved in Berlin. Welcome to the Abu Ghraib of Tauris, in which Iphigenia and her priestess are compelled under threat of death – visited summarily upon those who demur – by Thoas’s regime to accomplish many of its murders. The Scythian-American soldiers, kitted out in costume designer Alfred Mayrhofer’s camouflage fatigues, prefer to spend their time in more inventive forms of violence, such as the ‘degrading’ torture – is there a non-degrading form? – of the newly arrived Orestes and Pylades, hooded, stripped to their underwear, urinated upon, with cigarette butts forced up their anuses. Other soldiers take photographs for private or public consumption. (Now where have we heard of that before?) This then was an urgent drama for today, and Gluck’s music – often seen as being purely Classical, whatever that might mean – was more than equal to the task of its expression, not least in the Scythians’ menacing choruses. Yes, they could sing as well as act.

This went for the rest of the cast too. The tyrant himself was given an almost – but not quite – larger-than-life treatment by Jens Larsen. His participation in and incitement of the orgy of violence was truly shocking. Geraldine McGreevy in the title-role perhaps sounded a little shrill at times, but hers was a powerful music portrayal. One felt almost infinite compassion for her and for her predicament. As her brother, Kevin Greenlaw was also very fine; his baritone and stage presence seemed ideally matched. Peter Lodahl was perhaps the best of all as Pylades. His is a beautiful tenor indeed, whose tones tugged on the heart-strings, but this was always at the service of the drama, never preening. There was a touching, simple innocence at the heart of his portrayal, which was just what Gluck – and the production – required. The homoerotic nature of his relationship with Orestes was apparent – how could it not be? – without being emphasised, for this production had other concerns. At the musical helm was Paul Goodwin, who presided over an urgent, which is not to say unduly frenetic, account of the score. Here, and this was surely encouraged by the production, there was no question of treating Classical music with kid gloves; this was Calzabigi’s music restored to its ‘true office’. Yet this was not a restriction but an opportunity to explore profound psychological depths. Every section of the orchestra was on top form in the opening storm, its driving strings and furious woodwind having their roots in Rameau but blazing a trail towards Berlioz. This continued relentlessly, not least in Gluck’s richly orchestrated recitatives, until the deus ex machina of Diana. If I went out of my way to find something at which to cavil, I might opt for this. She did not appear on stage, which is fair enough, but her voice sounded amplified. This sounded not so much other-wordly as crude. No matter: this remained a visceral account of a great opera.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Messiaen and Bach, DSO Berlin/Metzmacher, 21 March 2008

Philharmonie, Berlin

Messiaen – Les Offrandes oubliées
Bach – Cantata: ‘Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen’, BWV 12
Bach – Cantata: ‘Christ lag in Todesbanden,’ BWV 4
Messiaen – Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence divine

Julia Kleiter (soprano)
Angelika Kirchschlager (alto)
Andreas Weller (tenor)
Alfred Reiter (bass)
Steven Osborne (piano)
Valérie Hartmann-Clavérie (ondes martenot)
Rundfunkchor Berlin
Simon Halsey (chorus master)

Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor)

This was the first in a series of four concerts combining works by Bach and Messiaen over the holy weekend. Messiaen’s Les Offrandes oubliées is an early work, written in 1930. Although one could hear the influence of Franck and perhaps Dupré, that most personal of voices was nevertheless clearly apparent. In the alternation of very slow music with eruptions of joy, this was also typically Messiaen. The orchestra sounded surprisingly ‘French’ in tonal quality, especially the strings. Occasionally, I wondered whether in the very high notes at the end, a little less vibrato from the violins would have helped intonation, but this was barely a problem. This early ‘méditation symphonique’ provided an excellent curtain-raiser for an impressive concert.

The first Bach cantata took a little time to settle, although the oboe soloist was first-rate even in the opening sinfonia – and also as obbligato in the alto aria, standing to perform, as a participant in an unfolding drama. Angelika Kirchschlager, here described as an alto rather than a mezzo-soprano, was so expressive in her recitative that it almost sounded like arioso, leading into that wonderful aria, ‘Kreuz und Kronen sind verbunden’. Her imploring tone upon the words ‘Christen haben alle Stunden/Ihre Qual und ihren Feind,’ was deeply moving. The rock-solid continuo of ’cello, double bass, and organ should also be commended. Alfred Reiter, in the bass aria that followed, sounded ever so slightly dry, but this should not be exaggerated. His diction was superb. Andreas Weller suffered a little from a catch in his throat, but nevertheless handled Bach’s unsparingly melismatic writing well. The trumpet chorale accompanying his aria was plangent but steadfast in the surety of faith: perfectly judged. By the time of the closing chorale, the choir sounded in better shape than its somewhat tentative opening chorus had suggested, fuller in tone though able to scale back where necessary.

Christ lag in Todesbanden sounded brighter than it often does, which is not inappropriate for what is after all an Easter rather than a Passion cantata. Here the strings sounded more at ease than they had during the previous cantata, less afraid to use vibrato and even some longer bows. The brass both underpinned and crowned the texture. Kirchschlager and Julia Kleiter shone in their beautiful duet, as did Kleiter and Weller in theirs, imparting an almost Handelian lyricism to Versus 6. Whatever slight problems had troubled Weller in the previous work had now vanished, as was also proved in his mellifluous solo. Likewise Reiter had lost his hint of dryness, and sounded almost Sarastro-like in his solo. The choir handled both homophonic and contrapuntal sections with aplomb, marking a fine performance all round.

Messiaen’s wonderfully bizarre Trois petites Liturgies had the second half to itself, and received a splendid performance. The slight inhibitions some of the orchestra had exhibited during the first half were banished. Augmented by very fine percussion, the DSO Berlin was on very good form. So were the ladies of the Rundfunkchor, who even had a reasonable stab at sounding French. Steven Osborne was luxury casting indeed on the piano, but this definitely paid off. His command of rhythm and colour was dazzling, helping to make this a memorable performance indeed. Equally fine was Valérie Hartmann-Clavérie: the ondes martenot was far more audible than can sometimes be the case, and this really helped to express Messiaen’s ecstatic response to the presence of the Lord. Her glissandi and vibrato were especially notable. At the helm was Ingo Metzmacher, whose guidance had unsurprisingly been more at a remove in the Bach works. Metzmacher clearly has a strong feeling for Messiaen’s music, and revelled, as he had in the first work on the programme, in its moods and colours.

Brahms, Schoenberg, and Wagner: Lang Lang/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim, 20 March 2008

Philharmonie, Berlin

Brahms – Piano Concerto no.1 in D minor, Op.15
Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16
Wagner – Tristan und Isolde: Prelude and ‘Liebestod’

Lang Lang (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

It is not pleasant to write a damning review, but this performance of the first Brahms piano concerto was dreadful. Despite – or perhaps on account of – the hype, this was the first occasion on which I had heard Lang Lang. One should not build too much upon a single hearing, but at the very least I doubt that I shall ever wish to hear him in Brahms again. If I strain to find something to be said in its favour, the performance was technically correct – as it should be, for no pianist who cannot encompass the notes has any business performing the work, although he can readily be forgiven for omitting the odd note here and there. However, it did not for me yield a single musical insight; it did not appear remotely comprehending of Brahms in general or this concerto in particular. It was perhaps Brahms for those who prefer Rachmaninov. There were, it was true, moments of pianistic – in the worst sense – beauty, especially the trills, but they were in no sense integrated into the musical argument. How could there be, when there was none? The first movement might just about have passed muster, since it was dull rather than truly vulgar; the second movement, however, was something else. Lang Lang’s opening statement here had to be heard to be believed. The bizarre ornamentation – surely it was not a slip of the fingers? – and café-pianist spreading of the chords came as close to unforgivable as any musical performance I can recall. Much of the movement was taken not only at so wilfully slow a pace, but without any sense of a basic pulse, that it was distended almost beyond endurance. The third movement could only be an improvement after that, and I suppose it was, but again it placed empty virtuosity – in Brahms of all composers! – above musical substance. If there were one conductor who could have reined in this pianist it ought to have been Daniel Barenboim, but he seemed generally content to follow. The orchestral part of this truly symphonic concerto was thereby short-changed, although it was not without its moments of beauty, especially from the woodwind and the gorgeously rich second-movement ’cellos. As for the encore, it was even worse. Liszt’s transcription of the ‘Liebestod’ – his coinage rather than Wagner’s – from Tristan und Isolde was reduced to a level of vulgarity beneath the emptiest of Donizetti. There was simply melody, pulled around outrageously, and an utterly inappropriate sparkling of ‘accompaniment’. If Lang Lang did not understand Brahms at all, he somehow managed to understand Wagner even less. His ‘soulful’ facial expressions were perhaps even more irritating than they had been during the concerto. Much of the audience lapped it up.

Thank goodness then for the second half! Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin sounded rejuvenated. Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces, one of the pinnacles of the twentieth-century repertoire, received, as so rarely they do, a performance fully consonant with their stature. Every section of the orchestra shone, in terms of attack, rhythmic precision, tonal security, ensemble, and sheer beauty – though never for its own sake – of sound. There was a delicate sense of chamber music when required, not least from the string principals, and equal vastness of orchestral voice when that was necessary. In Barenboim’s hands, the work sounded like a drama without words, which in many senses it is. There was a clear sense of a narrative unfolding, from the astounding violence – matching anything in the Rite of Spring – of the first movement Vorgefühle, through the shimmering Klangfarbenmelodie of the third, to the brave new world of the fifth’s ‘obligato recitative’, which casts its shadow over so much of its century. The fourth movement’s peripeteia truly sounded like a turning point, and the aching beauty of the second’s reminiscences of things past conjured up a canvas that belied the relative brevity of the work as a whole. Barenboim ensured that each movement had its own soundworld and story to tell, but never at the expense of its place in the work as a whole. In this reading, the pieces sounded as the symphony, albeit without voices, that Schoenberg planned yet never completed, subsuming it into the also-unfinished Die Jakobsleiter. We were also reminded that he was every bit as great an orchestral colourist as Debussy, something for which he is all too rarely given credit.

The Tristan extracts also showed conductor and orchestra on form, far more so than in the previous night’s sometimes casual Meistersinger. My suspicion is that this – along with Parsifal – is more Barenboim’s piece than Die Meistersinger. At any rate, there was an absolute surety of the journey to be taken, married to a gorgeousness of orchestral sound akin to Nietzsche’s ‘voluptuousness of hell’. Wave upon wave surged, until repose was finally granted. The strings’ vibrato was perfectly judged, the unendliche Melodie omnipresent. Indeed, I could find nothing at which to cavil. If this was a swifter, less ‘metaphysical’ reading than one might have expected from a disciple of Furtwängler, then it was all the better for telling its own tale.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 19 March 2008

Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin

Hans Sachs – James Morris
Veit Pogner – René Pape
Kunz Vogelgesang – Paul O’Neill
Konrad Nachtigall – Arttu Kataja
Sixtus Beckmesser – Roman Trekel
Fritz Kothner – Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Balthasar Zorn – Peter-Jürgen Schmidt
Ulrich Eisslinger – Patrick Vogel
Augustin Moser – Peter Menzel
Hermann Ortel – Yi Yang
Hans Schwarz – Bernd Zettisch
Hans Foltz – Andreas Bauer
Walther von Stolzing – Burkhard Fritz
David – Florian Hoffmann
Eva – Dorothea Röschmann
Magdalene – Katharina Kammerloher
Ein Nachtwächter – Alexander Vinogradov

Staatskapelle Berlin
Staatsopern Chor Berlin
Eberhard Friedrich (chorus master)
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Harry Kupfer (producer)
Hans Schavernoch (designs)
Buki Schiff (costumes)
Franz Peter David (lighting)
Roland Giertz (choreography)

This was a frustrating Meistersinger: in many ways good, but it could easily have been better. The Prelude to Act I surprised me and did not augur well. It combined a somewhat uninflected smoothness of line with a surprisingly hard-driven quality. The combination put me in mind of Karajan on an off-day, a comparison which annoyingly continued to suggest itself to me throughout the performance, especially the first two acts. Like Karajan even at his most unappealing – and I speak as an admirer in general – Daniel Barenboim would not have been capable of allowing the performance to fall below a certain level. There was, for instance, no doubt that he had command of the work’s structure. (If only one could have said that of the conductor during the Royal Opera’s Ring.) But the trick, if one can call it that, of Wagner conducting is to combine over the drama’s vast span a Furtwänglerian Fernhören with attention to detail, so that command of both short- and long-range aspects – and the reality is far more complex than this, involving numerous intermediate stages – dialectically heightens the effect of the other. One can look more synchronically at both score and performance, and see an equally important, related but distinct, problem for the conductor to address. Wagner, as Pierre Boulez has written, ‘refused to sacrifice expressiveness to polyphony, endowing each part in the polyphonic web with such expressive power that there is almost a conflict of interest: everything sings and sings “unendingly”’. Not only balancing but in a sense also heightening that conflict is the conductor’s task. This requires an almost superhuman attention to Boulez’s ‘everything’.

As so often with Barenboim, perhaps drawing upon his expertise in both French music and Mozart, there was some beautiful highlighting of woodwind detail. There were times, however, when Barenboim and his orchestra simply sounded careless. Anyone can make mistakes, but there were more than one would have expected, perhaps most glaringly from one of the horns just before the Trial Song. More seriously, there were times when Barenboim sounded insensitive not only towards the singers, but towards the stage events as such. (With regard to the former, surtitles would doubtless have mitigated the problem, but, whilst I have seen them here in Parsifal and Tristan, there were none on this occasion, for an opera whose conversational exchanges are far more rapid.) Pierre Monteux once referred so tellingly to ‘the indifference of mezzo forte’; here, especially during the second act, there was too much indifference of harsh orchestral forte. Whilst there were moments when the Staatskapelle Berlin sounded its usual, burnished self, there were too many when it did not. Indeed, the moments when the performance moved up a gear brought into heightened relief what had been missing, for instance when we heard the ’cellos' rich mahogany of the Prelude to Act III, itself beautifully paced, and subsequently the conjuring up of an appositely Tristan-esque ecstasy in the triangle between Sachs, Eva, and Walther. Perhaps conductor and orchestra had allotted more time to rehearsal of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, the new opera for these Berlin Festtage. This may be understandable, but Die Meistersinger does not play itself.

René Pape had originally been slated to play Hans Sachs. His attention to text and line was exemplary as Pogner, but I cannot have been the only member of the audience wishing that he had taken on the greater role. James Morris was therefore in something of an invidious position. He was strongest in the third act, but for much of the second act, he surprisingly seemed to struggle to establish the force of personality that must be clear by this stage. It is here, not in the final act, that Sachs comes into his own. Company stalwarts, Roman Trekel and Hanno Müller-Brachmann shone as Beckmesser and Kothner, offering more rounded portrayals than is generally the case. In this, they were certainly assisted by Harry Kupfer’s production. Beckmesser rightly emerged early on as an impressive if limited figure, his subsequent ridiculousness brought on by hubris rather than intrinsic. Kupfer brought an interesting ambiguity to Kothner: insisting upon the Tabulatur, but visibly on the side – in terms of stage placement as well as inclination – of Pogner and Sachs during the Trial Song, watching and listening, even if he did not quite understand. This was characteristic of a laudable characterisation and differentiation granted to the Mastersingers as a whole. Their corporate identity did not preclude individual personality, a fine example of this being Peter Menzel’s keenly observed Augustin Moser. Moreover, their reactions developed. The sense of fear was palpable as Walther began to sing; they were uncomprehending and threatened, but only later vicious, once Beckmesser’s marking had encouraged them. Choral contributions were good, if not at the outstanding level I have heard before in this house.

Burkhard Fritz sang well enough as Walther, with an appropriately baritonish Heldentenor, but there was something a little too generalised about his enthusiasm and boisterousness, which did not always tie in with the events portrayed. He was a little too much the spoilt child when things did not go his way at the end of Act I. Stolzing, one must not forget, is a Junker, not a young Siegfried. His clothes, however, justly marked him as an outsider, the latest in Wagner’s long line of flawed charismatic heroes. As his intended, Dorothea Röschmann often sang beautifully, but audibly struggled at times. It is difficult to surmise what she thought she was doing at the climax of the Quintet, when suddenly she forced her voice to stand out from the blend of the others, so as to conclude with a cadence more suited to Puccini than to Wagner. The effect jarred, to put it mildly. Her Magdalene, Katharina Kammerloher, shone at her first appearance. Again, Kupfer should receive some of the credit for this portrayal as far more than the usual crone. This was a girl with a sense of fun, visibly – and audibly – attracted to David. It is a pity that her subsequent appearances were more anonymous. There was no such problem with Florian Hoffmann’s wonderful David, who both looked and sounded the boyish part. He was bright within appropriate limits, ardent without cloying, and evinced an attention to the verbal and musical text that far exceeded some more senior members of the cast.

A guiding principle of the production, although not obsessively emphasised, was that of conflict between old and new – and the shades of grey in between, as I have already commented with regard to Kothner. Boulez once remarked, concerning the only Wagner music drama he has never conducted:

… the Romantics rediscovered the Gothic style. At the end of the nineteenth century there were Gothic churches in profusion. This was the most striking example of stylistic reference. On the other hand, although in The Mastersingers there is no end of references to the Minnesänger and to the forms of sixteenth and – even more so – fifteenth century music, Wagner’s music actually has nothing to do with the historical truth about the town of Nuremberg. This is why I feel really ill at ease when people try to depict the historical town on the stage when it is absent from the music.

Kupfer did not go so far as to present a Meistersinger ohne Nürnberg. Indeed, Nuremberg was present throughout, replete with Cranach, stained glass, and banners (including King David and his harp), although never with quite such exuberant delight as, say, in Graham Vick’s Breughelesque production for Covent Garden. What instead we had, which perhaps better served Boulez’s general point than the absence of the historical town he himself advocated, was a staired centrepiece, serving, subtly altered in different guises as the Katharinenkirche – today, of course, Katharinenruine – as the balcony of Act Two, as a staircase to Sachs’s workshop, and so forth. The shape of this centrepiece suggested to me a ruined tower, perhaps even Berlin’s own celebrated image of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche, and thereby seemed to allude to the devastation of the ‘German catastrophe’. This may, however, have been my imagination rather than the director’s intention; it does not really matter. A sense of the modern city was superimposed, by virtue of the skyscraper backdrop to the second act and first part of the third. This cleverly suggested, rather like an affectionate Adorno – if that can be imagined – the tension between Wagner’s thoroughgoing adoption of modern technical and technological means and his harking back to a pre-modern age of guilds, corporations, an age prior to excessive division of labour. Sachs, it will be recalled, is both poet and shoemaker. The utopian quality to this lost age, if it ever existed, was gently suggested by the joy of the Festwiese scene and its processions, giant figure of Death, flamethrowers, acrobats, and all.

To be utopian, however, cuts both ways, for a utopia cannot exist. Kupfer did not travel very far down the deconstructionist route, but the presentation was finely nuanced. There was a nice touch to the inability of Sachs to find someone on whom to bestow the Festwiese garland, following Walther’s refusal. Eventually, he placed it on the floor. A sentimental path would have been to give it to Beckmesser, but this would have been to rehabilitate him unduly. Instead, and with considerable poignancy, the defeated town clerk walked over to it and looked at what might have been, excluded from the general rejoicing without being ostracised. Indeed, during Walther’s singing of the Prize Song, Beckmesser had occasionally displayed grudging approval, taking note and even nodding, without the banal prospect of a wholesale conversion. It was a pity that the musical performances did not always match the production, for had they done so, this could truly have been a Meistersinger to cherish.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Punch and Judy, Music Theatre Wales at the Royal Opera, 17 March 2008,

Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

Punch – Gwion Thomas
Choregos/Jack Ketch – Jeremy Huw Williams
Pretty Polly/Witch – Allison Bell
Doctor – Nicholas Folwell
Lawyer – Peter Hoare
Judy/Fortune Teller – Carol Rowlands

Michael McCarthy (director)
Simon Banham (designs)
Ace McCarron (lighting)

Music Theatre Wales
Michael Rafferty (conductor)

Birtwistle season is upon us in London. Last week, the Nash Ensemble and Andrew Watts pieces from his Orpheus Elegies at the Wigmore Hall, and next month will see the world premiere of The Minotaur at Covent Garden and the English National Opera’s Punch and Judy at the Young Vic. The Royal Opera House pre-empted ENO, by inviting Music Theatre Wales to revive its production of Punch and Judy in the Linbury Studio, as part of the ROH2 programme. Whilst two productions of Birtwistle’s tragicomedy might seem excessive to some, the prospect of comparison is for many of us enticing indeed.

Punch and Judy was first performed forty years ago at Aldeburgh. Imagine the reaction! Britten, it seems, was none too pleased; accounts differ, but he is said to have walked out. We approach the work from a different standpoint, of course, and it is impossible for many of us not to consider Birtwistle’s subsequent œuvre in the light of this early cause célèbre. The preoccupation with ritual tellings and retellings, enactments and re-enactments, of myth has been a running thread throughout his career, and not only in terms of the stage. Punch and Judy remains, however, a violent, even shocking piece of music theatre, crucial for anyone for whom musical drama is a living art form rather than a platform for x and y to sing in the nth revival of Tosca.

Birtwistle directs that a five-piece wind ensemble should be placed on stage. Here, the entire fifteen-strong orchestra was placed immediately behind the puppet booth, which framed most of the action. Simon Banham’s designs and Michael McCarthy’s production were generally straightforward and all the more powerful for that. This is not, I think, a work that really partakes of ambiguity, at least not in that sense. Colours, costumes, and movement all complemented the ritual of Birtwistle’s music and Stephen Pruslin’s fine libretto. The latter is surely one of the great opera texts; it could hardly have been more consonant with the composer’s own interest in both the mechanics of musical theatre and in verse-refrain forms, the latter of which dates back to the 1959 wind quintet, Refrains and Choruses. Cycles, repetitions, symmetries are mirrored in the music – and were here attentively presented in the production too. There was no attempt to shy away from Punch’s violence, for instance in his murder of the baby with a syringe and his knifing of Judy, but never did one have the impression of sensationalism. (David McVicar would have profited from taking note in his recent Salome.) This was real violence, in a sense all the more real for its ritual artifice. The immediacy of the Linbury’s space measurably heightened the dramatic tension.

The singing was mixed. None of it was bad, but I did not find Peter Hoare’s Lawyer and Nicholas Folwell’s Doctor as impressive as the rest of the cast. Their interpretations seemed a little generalised and they sometimes had difficulty making themselves heard above the small but loud orchestra. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to warm to Pretty Polly, but Allison Bell brought a marvellous technique to the role, which needs just that to fulfil its sometimes stratospheric demands. Carol Rowlands proved a powerful musical actress as Judy. Gwion Thomas might have strayed a little close to undue caricature at times – although this must largely be a matter of taste – but he vividly inhabited the central role of Punch. Perhaps finest was Jeremy Huw Williams as Choregos, the Puppet Master. After an ever so slightly unsure start, his was a scintillating performance, both musically and visually, alert to the demands of the text and highly successful at projecting them. The ensemble pieces all worked very well: slower numbers, such as the Passion chorales, penetrated to the heart of the strange lyricism that is just as much Birtwistle’s hallmark as the violence. In this, the cast was greatly aided by the orchestra of Music Theatre Wales and by Michael Rafferty’s authoritative conducting. Totally secure in rhythm and orchestral balance, whilst still sounding newly minted, the transformations from freneticism to haunting, almost antique beauty were faultlessly conveyed. The drama lies just as much here as on stage proper, and no one could have been in any doubt as to that.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

SCO/Anderszewksi: Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven - 15 March 2008

Barbican Hall

Mozart – Symphony no.21 in A major, KV 134*
Haydn – Piano Concerto in D major, Hob.XVIII:11
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.1 in C major, Op.15

Scottish Chamber Orchestra
David Watkin (director)*
Piotr Anderszewski (piano/director)

When was the last time you heard Mozart’s Symphony no.21? I dare say that it would most likely be some time ago, at least in concert. What might sound like a conventional concert programme – Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, although how often does one actually hear the three together in an orchestral concert? – was actually rather imaginative. Certainly one would be unlikely to suspect from such a combination that Haydn and Beethoven would provide two concertos, and Mozart a symphony.

The last of the eight symphonies Mozart wrote in Salzburg between December 1771 and August 1772 made an excellent curtain-raiser, and not just that. It was, unusually, directed from the ’cello of David Watkin, which actually makes quite a bit of musical sense if one is to do without a conductor, for the key to understanding Classical music is the bass line. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, as one would expect nowadays, was cut down to very small forces. The horns, as throughout, were natural instruments, but fortunately the consequent rasping was not over-emphasised. The strings were sparing with vibrato, although thankfully it was not eliminated altogether, after the perverse, indeed unlistenable example of Roger Norrington. There was a rather unfortunate passage during the slow movement, in which the absence of vibrato exposed all the more unmercifully the lack of precision in intonation, but this was an exception. As a whole, this Andante fared least well, long held notes being sometimes subjected to that toothpaste-squeezing effect so fashionable amongst the authenticists. It may not be necessary to enlist the Vienna Philharmonic to play with the perfection that even early Mozart demands, but it helps. Much of the rest of the performance was pleasing stylish, although there were moments in which I found the articulation a little forced. The minuet was taken with a due sense of style, far from the hurried approach currently fashionable, and the string pizzicati of the trio were especially notable in their unanimity and expressivity. That movement’s minor mode excursus had a welcome hint of the Sturm und Drang, though rightly but a hint: this is early Mozart, not Haydn, and should certainly not sound bizarre. Throughout, Mozart’s two flutes – the SCO’s Alison Mitchell and Elisabeth Dooner – sounded heavenly.

Haydn’s D major Concerto, whilst the most popular of his piano concertos, is heard less often than it might be. Likewise, there was no doubt that this second work was by Haydn, not Mozart, for which much of the credit must go to Piotr Anderszewski. Let there be no doubt about it: Anderszewski is a great pianist. His reading of the score was muscular and in no sense prettified, although this in no sense precluded moments of heartstopping delicacy. Anderszewski clearly understood the tonal plan of each movement and of the work as a whole, and communicated this to both orchestra and audience. Haydn’s vicaciousness was to the fore from the very opening of the first movement. In general, the strings employed more vibrato than they had during the Mozart symphony, although there were passages, again especially during the slow movement, which sounded rather too ‘authenticist’ for me. The Rondo all’Ungarese was full of incident: Anderszewski teasingly brought quirky harmonies and rhythms to our attention, without unnecessary underlining. As for the cadenzas, I assume that they were the pianist’s own. The first, from a more or less Beethovenian axis, looked back towards Haydn and forward into the nineteenth century, though harmonically no further than Schumann or perhaps Brahms. The second pointed forward a little further, largely to good measure – there was a lovely reminiscence or presentiment of Chopin – although there were a couple of moments about which I was a little less sure. Still, I should prefer experimentation a hundred times over pastiche. Playing with so small an orchestra meant that the piano part was more dominant than it might otherwise have been. This had advantages, as it also would in the Beethoven concerto, in that heard Anderszewski’s rock-steady bass line throughout; but I also missed a fuller orchestral sound and a greater sense of partnership. Having a separate conductor would have helped in this regard too.

Perhaps surprisingly, I felt this less in Beethoven’s first piano concerto. Indeed, the opening tutti was the most obviously ‘conducted’ passage of the evening, and greatly profited from the greater inflection this brought. Thereafter, there were passages which would have benefited from an additional pair of hands, which is no especial reflection upon Anderszewski; I can only think offhand of Daniel Barenboim as a pianist with absolutely no need of a conductor in this repertoire. Some of the music, perhaps especially during the finale, sounded a little sectional: partly, I suspect, on account of the lack of dovetailing a conductor would have brought. The structure was certainly clear, but transitions might have been more elegantly moulded in this respect. Anderszewski was vigorous with his hand movements when he was not playing, but I gained the impression that the orchestra was for the most part quite happily playing by itself – and rather well. My general preference would be for a larger orchestra as well as a conductor in this music, but the smaller forces of the SCO brought considerable detail to the fore, especially in the woodwind, whose contributions had a quality of Mozartian Harmoniemusik. As in the Mozart, the string pizzicati in the slow movement were magical. Barnaby Robson was simply outstanding on the first clarinet, as Anderszewski generously acknowledged during the applause. The natural brass and period timpani sounded as they do; many seem more partial than I to their sound. Anderszewski’s pianism seemed to me utterly beyond criticism. The Rondo was taken at a cracking pace, which set the pulse racing without ever sounding hard-driven. Even during the quietest of passages, which could be melting indeed, the pianist displayed a marvellously rounded fullness of tone. Throughout the work, he generated excitement and heart-stopping lyricism in equal measure. I should love to hear him in this piece with a conductor, if only to ascertain precisely what difference would be made. As for Anderszewski’s melting Bach encore, it would have imparted balm to the sternest of souls.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Nash Inventions, Wigmore Hall, 12 March 2008

Wigmore Hall

Turnage – Returning, for string sextet (London première)
Birtwistle – Pieces from Orpheus Elegies, for countertenor, oboe, and harp
MacMillan – Horn Quintet (London première)
Goehr – Clarinet Quintet (world première)
Colin Matthews – The Island, for soprano, alto flute, horn, piano, harp, viola, and cello (world première)

Nash Ensemble
Claire Booth (soprano)
Andrew Watts (countertenor)
Gareth Hulse (oboe)
Lucy Wakeford (harp)
Paul Watkins (conductor)

This concert proved a marvellous way to highlight the Nash Ensemble’s continuing commitment to new music. Five works by British composers were performed, four of which were receiving some sort of première, two of them of the world variety. Indeed, the ‘early music’ was Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Orpheus Elegies, which dates back all the way to 2003-4. All five composers were present, along with a number of other significant figures from the ‘new music world’.

Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Returning (2007), for string sextet, provided a relatively easy ‘way in’ to the music, although I doubt that many in the audience would have been unaware of what was on offer. It was evidently a genuinely felt offering for the composer’s parent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, which, although it could hardly have been said to have strained at the bounds of compositional technique, utilised the sextet forces admirably and worked to a clear narrative plan. The marking ‘Almost as if frozen’ described the opening perfectly. Thereafter, the music appeared to thaw, with proliferating instrumental underneath the predominating high melodic line. Gathering in intensity – in both work and performance – the somewhat frenetic climax subsided again, although, as Anthony Burton pointed out in his programme note, less to freeze than to thaw. Much of the music sounded, in harmony and in texture, recognisably in a tradition of English string music.

There did, however, appear to be a world of difference between this sextet and the masterwork Orpheus Elegies, from which Birtwistle selected eleven of its twenty-six movements, each based upon one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. Birtwistle’s original intention had been not to set the texts, but ‘simply to let them influence the instrumental music,’ with a quotation at the end of each movement, rather like the ‘titles’ to Debussy’s piano Préludes. But the texts would not leave the composer in peace, so he decided to include some of the sonnets, or at least lines from them, and to introduce a countertenor. This performance will have provided many in the audience with a curtain raiser for London’s forthcoming operatic Birtwistle events: two (!) productions of Punch and Judy and the world premiere of The Minatour. Indeed, Andrew Watts will be singing in the latter. Here one was in the presence of an utterly personal voice, with never a note wasted. The composer spoke of ‘the problem of the combination of oboe and harp: how do you avoid making that combination sound like occasional music?’ I hardly need add that there was no chance of that happening here; Birtwistle may write incidental music, such as that to the National Theatre’s Oresteia, but there is nothing remotely occasional about his compositions.

The combination of oboe and harp, with countertenor for four of the elegies, proves every bit as vigorously haunting as one would expect from this composer’s pen. The oboe, Birtwistle explained, is ‘the voice of Orpheus,’ the countertenor the narrator, and the harp represents Orpheus’s lyre, although he added the caveat, ‘very generally speaking’. Whilst there is an undeniable element of such role-playing – hardly surprising in the work of a born musical dramatist – what also struck me was how it did not seem at all fanciful to gain an overall impression of regaining the ancient music we have lost: not in any reconstructive or even restorative sense, but as a reimagination of the primæval world of the Orphic lyre. Violence and beauty are fiercely present, with the countertenor providing an appropriately unearthly timbre and also a link to the world of the Baroque aria, presenting a single emotion rather than development (think of Alexander Goehr’s The Death of Moses). Indeed, the way no.13 (Sonnet II) subsided into a silence both earthly and unearthly, following the words ‘in den Himmel, den ihr Hauch nicht trüht,’ was quite spell-binding, for which equal credit must be granted the performers. The coruscating harp glissando upon the word ‘mädchenhandig’ should have banished any suspicion that Rilke’s feminine Lament (Klage) might cloy. No.8, which ends with the words ‘Sieh, die Maschine’ was almost onomatopœic in its mechanical quality, to which both instruments contributed equally (again, nothing ‘occasional’ here!) Gareth Hulse’s oboe almost seemed to speak in the scherzo-like no.23 (‘Ordne die Schreir, singender Gott!’): this could have been a refraction of the memory and afterlife of Orpheus himself. The concision of no.24 put me in mind of Webern: everything that needed to be said was said and then it stopped. And the memory of the only occasionally – in a very different sense – but most movingly relieved monotone of the vocal line of the second half of no.20 (Sonnet V) will remain with me for a long time. To be ‘hearers and a mouth for nature,’ in that sonnet’s words, was what Birtwistle truly accomplished in inimitable fashion.

James MacMillan’s Quintet for horn and string quartet (2007) provided quite a contrast. This was an exciting, extrovert work, which relished the hunting resonances of the horn, of which the splendid Richard Watkins took full advantage. The turbulently striking opening grabbed one’s attention from the outset, as towards did the singing of the richly full-toned viola line of the equally splendid Lawrence Power. A theatrical effect was attained by having the horn player leave the ensemble whilst the quartet continued to play, to be answered from offstage by a haunting horn call, almost reminiscent of Mahlerian Nachtmusik.

The second half brought us the concert’s two world premières. With Alexander Goehr’s quintet for clarinet and string quartet (2007) we returned to the ‘Manchester School’, although it is not clear that the music of Goehr and Birtwistle ever had much in common. If Stravinsky acted as godfather to much of the latter’s music, it is Schoenberg who has exerted so much of an influence over the former, not least via Walter Goehr, himself a Schoenberg pupil. (It is characteristic of a composer who has been so generous with his time and experience to younger composers and to other musicians that, when I spoke to him before the concert, he was far more concerned to enquire after my current research on Schoenberg than to talk about himself and his works.) And beyond Schoenberg, of course, lies Brahms. Brahms is liable to come to mind in any clarinet quintet, but I did wonder whether this single-movement work in twelve sections was in some sense a homage to that most richly autumnal of composers. There was certainly an almost Brahmsian beauty to the string writing, married to an equally characteristic post-Brahms/Schoenberg integrity of motivic working out. This was the case both for work and performance, in which, astonishingly, every line was made to tell as if the Nash Ensemble were presenting an established masterpiece. (I firmly believe from this first hearing that the work will prove to be just that.) The tenth section, an almost Bachian sarabande, provided a still centre to the work’s progression. Once again, the synthesis between counterpoint and Classical form evoked Brahms, or rather an historically mediated memory of his tradition’s concerns. Interestingly – and somewhat enigmatically – the composer himself referred to the inspiration of masses by Josquin and Ockeghem, which, he wrote, ‘probably accounts’ for the quintet’s ‘rather austere and motet-like character’. This, I must admit, was not at all how I heard the music, which I found warm, classically dramatic, and not at all austere.

The final work was Colin Matthews’s The Island (2007), also based upon Rilke, in this case his Neue Gedichte. The three poems of Rilke’s North Sea ‘Insel’, in Stephen Cohn’s excellent translation, are set as a continuous span with instrumental interludes. The vocal line, here treated to a commanding and apparently perfectly judged rendition by Claire Booth, is frankly melodic. At first, it soared above the instrumental ensemble, whose role was definitely to accompany, albeit with a beautiful array of colours and harmonic shifts. Occasional echoing of the vocal line, for instance by the richly expressive alto flute and sweet-toned violin, gradually blossomed into a greater independence for the ensemble, fully exploited during the two evocative interludes. The dark piano chords at the close of the second poem, ‘Upon the outer dyke a sheep appears/larger than life and almost ominous’, were themselves as ominous as the tolling of funeral bells. By the time we reached the third poem, there was a sense both of maintaining the impetus of instrumental development and of completing the cycle by returning or, perhaps better, renewing the opening mood. We had moved on from a tide that ‘wipes out the path across the flats’, to encompass, without forgetting, something ‘outside the course of galaxies, of other stars or suns’. As in every work this programme comprised, the Nash Ensemble and friends did the composers prouder than one might have thought possible.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Eugene Onegin, Royal Opera, 10 March 2008

Royal Opera House

Tatyana – Hibla Gerzmava
Olga – Ekaterina Semenchuk
Madame Larina – Diana Montague
Filipievna – Elizabeth Sikora
A Peasant Singer – Elliot Goldie
Lensky – Piotr Beczala
Eugene Onegin – Gerald Finley
M. Triquet – Robin Leggate
Trifon Petrovich – Jonathan Fisher
Zaretsky – Vuyani Mlinde
Guillot – Richard Campbell
Prince Gremin – Hans-Peter König

Steven Pimlott (producer)
Elaine Kidd (revival director)
Anthony McDonald (designs)
Peter Mumford (lighting)
Linda Dobell (choreography)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Renato Balsadonna (chorus master)
Jiří Bělohlávek (conductor)

This was a splendid night in the theatre. The late Steven Pimlott’s production – its revival dedicated to his memory – is set firmly in nineteenth-century Russia, so may be considered ‘traditional’ in that sense, albeit without scenery that is opulent for its own rather than the drama’s sake. However, this does not preclude thought-provoking dramatic engagement. Each of the principal characters is allowed to develop rather than being shoehorned into an irrelevant concept. Tatyana’s progress, if progress it be, from country girl to Princess Gremin is splendidly handled, as are Lensky’s descent into mental instability and Onegin’s more complex path. Yet the lack of irrelevant concept does not betoken a lack of concept tout court. Key to the entire production is the reintroduction of Tatyana’s dream, present in Pushkin but excised – at least in explicit terms – from the opera. By portraying this, replete with fantastical animal-guests, on stage, during the entr’acte to the second act, we gain a real sense of the realist/anti-realist dichotomy pervading the opera. How much of the following ballroom scene, into which the dream so unnervingly yet convincingly merges, is ‘real’ and how much Tatyana’s – or even our – projection? Tchaikovsky’s score has of course been doing this all along, with its web of foreshadowing and reminiscence, formed from the dramatic kernel of Tatyana’s Letter Scene. Psychoanalysis beckons, as was made clear in a programme note by the late Malcolm Bowie.

The subtlety of musical reference was well served by Jiří Bělohlávek’s conducting, attentive to the implications of memory without feeling the need to hammer this home. Occasionally I missed a greater sense of urgency and a little neurosis – this is Tchaikovsky – would not have gone amiss, but Bělohlávek’s relative understatement had its own compensations. After a slightly shaky start, the orchestra was excellent, although I could not help but wish that it had been given its head a little more often. Allowing the singers to be clearly heard, as they always could be, is fine in itself, but the orchestral score is no mere accompaniment, especially given its crucial role here in Freudian Traumdeutung. Bělohlávek’s conducting was of course too subtle to sound simply as accompaniment, but ecstasy and anger need to be heard too.

That said, there was a structural sense of everything radiating from the undeniable ecstasy of the Letter Scene, in which the orchestra sounded at its unforced best. Hibla Gerzmava, a couple of short-breathed phrases notwithstanding, shone here as Tatyana. She was superior in every way to her predecessor, Amanda Roocroft, whose flawed vocalism in particular had proved a fly in the ointment during the production’s first run. Gerzmava, by contrast, sounded just ‘right’: secure and focused, yet passionate where required. Much the same could be said of Ekaterina Semenchuk’s fine Olga, who really came into her own during the ballroom scene. If only the character did not disappear so abruptly from the action. Diana Montague and Elizabeth Sikora both impressed as Madame Larina and the old nurse respectively. Hans-Peter König delivered a marvellously secure – in terms of music and character – account of Gremin’s aria. Choral and dance contributions were all of an appropriately high standard too.

However, despite the lamentations of more than a few critics, this opera is Eugene Onegin, not Tatyana Larina. Another fine aspect of the production was its recognition that, viewed as a whole rather than simply from the perspective of the first act, Onegin is at least as important as Tatyana and becomes more so. As crucial as their relationship is that between Onegin and Lensky. Tchaikovsky may identify most closely with Tatyana, but his homosexuality pervades the work in another, more subtle way than simply as a projection of his own character and experience onto hers, important though this remains. The romantic friendship, jealousy, and the tragedy of societal convention are a far more complex affair than a dour, literalist reading of the text would suggest. There is, moreover, no contradiction between this and the centrality of Tatyana's dream-projection, quite the opposite. Both production and score hint rather than render explicit, which seems quite appropriate, given the experience of the nineteenth century. (This is not to say that a more overt approach would not work, but it is not the only way. However, to ignore the issue seems to me at best unimaginative and at worst repressive.) I assume that this was the undertow of the suggestive scenic backdrop at the opening: Hippolyte Flandrin’s study in male beauty, Jeune homme nu assis au bord de la mer, although I do think that the connection might profitably have been made just a little clearer. More importantly, the direction and portrayal of the two principal male roles were excellent. Piotr Beczala was an ardent Lensky, poetic and increasingly insecure and indeed unhinged, yet without caricature or crudity. The timbre of his tenor is undeniably Italianate, but this did not seem to matter.

And then there was Gerald Finley’s Onegin. His was a wonderful portrayal, encompassing gracelessness and gracefulness, withdrawal and sexual charisma, loyalty and betrayal. If Finley lacked the Slavic quality of Dmitri Hvorostovsky, his predecessor at Covent Garden, then Tchaikovsky is too big to be confined to national boundaries. Musically I do not think he could have been faulted, but the identification was such between musical and dramatic means, that the question only presented itself to me in retrospect. Score and performance gave the lie to a claim made in a programme note by Mark Fitzgerald, that that wonderful moment at which Onegin, now realising his complex predicament, reprises Tatyana’s music from the Letter Scene, suggests ‘a shallowness of character and a person unworthy of the attentions of the exalted Tatyana’. Where Fitzgerald discerned shallowness in the altered orchestration, Finley and Bělohlávek quite rightly identified something darker, more urgent, both in timbre and foreshortening. This was a powerful moment indeed, and may be counted as an intensification rather than an unworthy repetition of the original music. Such an understanding, it seems to me, penetrates to the heart of this fine Onegin.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

LSO/Gergiev: Schoenberg and Mahler, 7 March 2008

Barbican Hall

Schoenberg - Chamber Symphony no.1, Op.9
Mahler - Symphony no.7

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

'Gergiev's Mahler', as the London Symphony Orchestra has dubbed its Mahler cycle, has not received the most positive reviews. This was the first concert in the series I have intended, and I must admit that I was rather fearing the worst. However, I have to say that I was favourably surprised. This may not have been 'great' Mahler in the sense of a performance whose memory will mark one indelibly for the rest of one's life, but it was for the most part very good, and certainly represented a welcome change from the highly proficent yet interchangeable, ultimately soulless performances that now seem to be put forward as any international orchestra's calling-card.

I really did fear the worst at the opening of Schoenberg's first chamber symphony. Balance is always a problem in this work: if I remember correctly, Karajan thought it impossible. The strings have to work very hard to avoid being swamped by the wind - the opposite can be true in the inferior, infrequently performed version for full orchestra - and here, not only were the horns far too loud, but the strings sounded thin indeed. However, with a few exceptions, this fault was soon rectified, and the ensemble improved greatly. I did not feel that this was an interpretation that had quite settled, but there were some very interesting touches. For instance, the second subject received a considerable slowing down, such as I have not heard before, but which worked very well. One might well do this in Brahms, so why not in the music of his greatest disciple? Furtwängler probably would have done. As the music hurtled towards its conclusion, it did not seem out of control, but quite rightly one felt that it would not take much for this to be the case. The final chord almost always sounds perfunctory, or at least it does to me. I cannot help feeling that Schoenberg should have marked it to be held, but he did not, and Gergiev is not to be blamed for that.

Again, the very opening of Mahler's Seventh Symphony did not seem to augur well. The brass sounded somewhat coarse, but in retrospect this puzzled, for it was not a general characteristic of the performance. Mahler might have written 'Nature roars!' but I do not think he meant it quite like this. The first movement was perhaps the weakest of the performance: there were occasional problems with balance, and not every twist and turn sounded persuasive. This should not be exaggerated, however.

More generally, one characteristic of which Gergiev made the most throughout was the march-like quality of much of Mahler's music, especially in the first Nachtmusik, but not only there. This put me in mind not so much of Shostakovich - although the cliché of a (sort of) Russian conductor making Mahler sound 'Russian' is always tempting - but of Mahler's own Second Symphony. The musical connections are stronger than ever I had realised before. (Gergiev will conduct the Second in April, although unfortunately I shall be unable to attend.) Another great strength was Gergiev's ability in depicting and expressing those astonishing transformations of vista - physical and metaphysical - that are Mahler's hallmark. The slickness of so many contemporary Mahler performances was but a distant memory; on this occasion, there was a true sense of the numinous, aided of course by the prowess of the LSO.

A number of solo contributions were very fine, especially guest leader Andrew Haveron and mandolin-player James Ellis in the second Nachtmusik, and Andrew Marriner in the final clarinet solo. The weirdness of Mahler's undermined and undermining serenade was splendidly captured. There were also all sorts of weird and wonderful contributions in the scherzo not least from the splendid percussion section.The movement's marking, Schattenhaft, really made sense on this occasion. The bizarre nature of Mahler's instrumental combinations was brought to the fore, not only, as one might have expected, recalling Berlioz, but also casting a shadow far into the modernist twentieth century. And the finale was terrifically exciting, at what seemed a faster pace than usual, but never too frantic. Daylight had finally arrived, in a duly dazzling and more than a little perturbing fashion. The mock-Bachian (in some sense Meistersinger-ish) counterpoint was unusually emphasised, which underlined the Seventh's kinship with Mahler's Fifth Symphony. I do not think one could reasonably fault the orchestra - nor the conductor - here at all, although it will be interesting to read the experience of other critics.

This was not the post-Adorno Mahler Seventh of Pierre Boulez, in which the contradictions of the musical material stand brazenly to the fire; nor was it the surprisingly winning Brahmsian Seventh of Daniel Barenboim. There was often something a little rough and ready to the orchestral sound, which rather surprised me from the LSO; this reading certainly lacked the timbral sophistication that Boulez achieved in an unforgettable performance with the same orchestra a few years ago. (It also, however, lacked the unfortunate split opening horn call of that performance.) Nevertheless, I felt this was a considered, if still-evolving interpretation, which is to be applauded. I am hoping to attend the performances in this cycle of the eighth and ninth symphonies, and am now very much looking forward to discovering these final instalments in 'Gergiev's Mahler'.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Simon Trpčeski, Wigmore Hall, 4 March 2008

Wigmore Hall

Chopin – Piano Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op.35
Debussy – Children’s Corner
Prokofiev – Old Grandmother’s Tales Op.31
Prokofiev – Toccata in D minor, Op.11
Prokofiev – Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major, Op.83

Simon Trpčeski (piano)

Simon Trpčeski possesses a phenomenal technique, but is also clearly a fine musician with a mind of his own. Chopin’s second sonata received a commanding reading, a couple of slips in the scherzo notwithstanding. Trpčeski has an extraordinary fullness of tone: undoubtedly pianistic, but also highly suggestive at times of orchestral colours. This, one could tell, was someone born to play a Steinway (and Rachmaninov). The first movement was big-boned, at times almost Beethovenian in its sound, although there is of course nothing Beethovenian about Chopin’s remarkably original handling of sonata form. There was a true sense of a cortège to the Marche funèbre, which somewhat surprisingly put me in mind of the ‘Bydlo’ from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The middle D flat major section of this movement was especially notable. Taken at a daringly slow pace, there was a daring spareness of texture allied to the noble singing tone that was Trpčeski’s throughout the recital. The Presto final movement sounded less spare, less flickering, than is generally the case, but certainly worked well in Trpčeski’s bolder interpretation of its moto perpetuo. Indeed, there was a sense in which it therefore seemed more of a ‘finale’ than is often the case with a movement that bewildered Schumann and Mendelssohn amongst others.

The six movements of Debussy’s Children’s Corner were sharply and winningly characterised. Trpčeski’s Debussy is not a composer of (post-)impressionist hazes, but paints in bold, primary colours. This is Debussy for the Steinway, not the Erard. I do not wish to imply absence of variegation. ‘Jimbo’s Lullaby’ was softer in touch and approach than, say, its predecessor, ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’, which fairly rattled through Debussy’s affectionate parody of Clementi’s tedious keyboard exercises. Yet mystery was not to the fore of this pianist’s agenda. Occasionally, for instance in ‘The snow is dancing’, I felt this as a lack, but there were compensations aplenty, not least from Trpčeski’s tightness of rhythm, which did not preclude well-considered rubati from time to time. This is a pianist of aristocratic poise, as he would also show in the first of his encores, the first Arabesque. The part-writing was as clear as it would have been with Maurizio Pollini, but with a more Romantic, less modernistic tone. In ‘Golliwogg’s cake walk’, the gently mocking quotations from Tristan und Isolde were wonderfully handled: full of character, yet integrated into the general musical argument.

Prokofiev perhaps fared best of all. The Old Grandmother’s Tales sounded duly nostalgic, pining for a Mussorgskian ‘Mother Russia’ that no longer existed, if ever it had. The ‘whiteness’ of Prokofiev’s piano writing – irrespective of key – was married to a wonderful, vocal projection of line. This was followed by a simply spellbinding Toccata, which never relented and yet never lost that extraordinary fullness of tone. I have long treasured Pollini’s recording of the seventh sonata as hors concours, but upon the evidence of this recital, Trpčeski is a serious rival. Indeed, his tone and more general post-Romantic approach are arguably more appropriate than the crystalline modernism of the Italian pianist. (In practice, of course, there is absolutely no reason why one should choose; I simply mention Pollini in order to signal the level of pianism at which Trpčeski is operating.) The mechanical – war-like? – quality of some of the first movement’s rhythms was once again projected with an orchestral fullness of tone. This did not soften the hints – and more – of barbarism, but rather heightened the tension. The pianist’s singing tone and length of line present in the middle Andante caloroso could not have been more impressive. And the barbarism of the final Precipitato exceeded that of the Toccata, which in retrospect at least now sounded jejune. The relentless 7/8 rhythm put me in mind of the wilder reaches of Bartók (in whose music I should love to hear Trpčeski), and once again this was miraculously accomplished without the slightest hardening of tone. There was an abandon which perforce had to remain controlled, but one might never have guessed so as the sonata was hurled towards its barnstorming conclusion. Trpčeski had the measure of that strange marriage between percussive and lyrical writing, which stands at the heart of Prokofiev’s writing for his own instrument.