Sunday, 29 June 2008

Brahms: the Romantic - Philharmonia/Maazel, 28 June 2008 (2)

Royal Festival Hall

Brahms – Variations on a theme by Joseph Haydn, Op.56a
Brahms – Ein deutsches Requiem, Op.45

Heidi Grant Murphy (soprano)
Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Philharmonia Chorus
Philharmonia Voices
Philharmonia Orchestra
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

With this concert, the Philharmonia and Lorin Maazel’s series, ‘Brahms: the Romantic’ reached its conclusion. It is perhaps a pity that none of the smaller vocal and choral works, or indeed the serenades and concertos, were included, but one cannot have everything. After a somewhat sluggish Third Symphony, I rather feared for the Haydn Variations. However, the statement of the St Anthony Chorale struck quite a different note. Deftly articulated and winningly phrased, it was followed by a series of well-characterised variations. The third, for instance, was rather swift – quite a relief! – and struck an aptly serenade-like note. Indeed, throughout the wind were pleasingly characterful. Christopher Cowie’s solo oboe shone in the fourth, as did the violas, once again commandingly led by the excellent Joel Hunter. There followed a lively, rhythmically taut fifth variation and a perky sixth with excellent horns. The seventh variation was graceful, without being skated over; Kenneth Smith was especially notable on the flute here, as once more were the oboe and violas. Hushed, confiding violins in the eighth led us into a noble finale, which exhibited both grace and a good sense of rhythmic and harmonic momentum. The whole orchestra, not least David Corkhill’s triangle, was permitted to shine in the final peroration. This was a fine reading of a work that often receives far less.

There could be no complaints of sluggishness in the German Requiem either; if anything, Maazel’s speeds may have erred on the other side. Certainly the opening sounded a little hasty, although one could appreciated a splendidly cultivated sound to the lower strings. Whilst the second movement, ‘Denn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras,’ was also on the fast side, it possessed a convincing sense of onward tread, although I found its ending somewhat perfunctory. It was only really the conclusion to the third movement, ‘Herr, lehre doch mich,’ that proved something of a scramble: a pity really, given the convincing role the preceding pulsating of the tonic pedal had played in providing an apt sense of security to the musical events above. In general, the orchestra did an excellent job, ably directed by Maazel. For instance, one could well imagine the woodwind section in the first movement as purveyors of funereal Harmoniemusik, should the near-contradiction be permitted. There was a true sense of passage from darkness into light in the transition to the fugal section of the second movement: the brass section was resplendent and the organ (Malcolm Hicks) added a great deal too. The same could be said of their role in the sixth movement, ‘Denn wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt’, although the raising of the dead incorruptible was a little rushed; the section, ‘Tod, wo ist dein Stachel? …’ was much better in this respect. It is quite a tribute to successful orchestral balancing that one could clearly hear the Beethovenian piccolo (Keith Bragg) above all of this. Violins sounded especially sweet-toned in the consoling fourth movement, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohunungen’, although, after a slightly galumphing fugal section, it was a relief to return to the preceding mood of a celestial Liebeslieder waltz. Schützian trombones were given a welcome opportunity to shine in the final movement, ‘Selig sind die Toten’, an invitation they accepted wholeheartedly. The harps added a welcome glimpse of something hereafter at the very end, whilst they had sounded strangely prominent in the first movement.

What of the singing? The combined forces of the Philharmonia Chorus and Philharmonia Voices sounded very good on the whole and proved attentive to the demands of the words as well as the music. There was, for example, a wonderful filling out of tone on the word ‘Freuden’ (‘joy’) in the first movement, although the sopranos here could occasionally sound a little shrill. The first return of the opening material in the second movement (and parallel passages) again provided a good, full sound from both chorus and orchestra, splendidly underlain by the kettledrums. I mentioned the somewhat effortful contribution from the chorus in the Handelian fugal section of the fourth movement, but this was very much the exception. The other shortcoming – although I am not sure whose fault this was – was a couple of cases of slight disjuncture between chorus and orchestra in the final movement. However, this movement on the whole evinced an apt sense of reprise, return, and yet progress too, in coming to terms with whatever loss may have afflicted us. Heidi Grant Murphy was adequate as a soprano soloist. I have heard worse but she was overly tremulous, if appropriately maternal. Many of her words, especially later on, were incomprehensible, which was a pity, since Maazel had enabled her movement, the fifth, ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’, to flow rather nicely. She was not much of an angel. Simon Keenlyside, on the other hand, brought an expected Lieder-singer’s attention to detail to his contributions; this may have been anticipated but was no less welcome for it. There was an occasional slight dryness to his tone, but this was only remarkable on account of the richness that characterised the rest of his part. In the third movement, there was a true sense of him narrating, with the chorus providing Bachian commentary; in the sixth, he proved ardent and eloquent. If this performance did not provide an unforgettable, implacable, Klemperer-like statement, then it boasted many excellent qualities, notably the contributions from the orchestra and from Keenlyside.

Brahms: the Romantic - Philharmonia/Maazel, 28 June 2008 (1)

Royal Festival Hall

Brahms – Symphony no.3 in F major, Op.90
Brahms – Symphony no.4 in E minor, Op.98

Philharmonia Orchestra
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

This was the second of three concerts entitled ‘Brahms: the Romantic,’ with Lorin Maazel now conducting the Philharmonia, having previously presented the series with both the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. The size of the orchestra encouraged: none of this miniaturist nonsense concerning a supposed re-creation of Brahms in Meiningen, as if that were the only orchestra with which he worked. Even if it had been, that would have precious little to tell us today. Rather we had a ‘standard’ Romantic string section of proportions Nor was there any hint of the frankly ludicrous non-vibrato approach trumpeted by Roger Norrington. In other words, music rather than dubious ‘historical’ claims – which, in fact, are characterised by a complete lack of historical understanding – came first. Division of the first and second violins – a practice the ‘authenticists’ have outrageously claimed as their own, as if Furtwängler and countless other conductors had never lived – was not followed, but Maazel showed that one can still register the interplay between them without a fully antiphonal physical separation. He also showed that there are passages which can benefit from having the lower strings seated further away: a salutary reminder to those of us who are too ready dogmatically to favour the alternative.

The fullness of the Third Symphony’s opening wind chords was most encouraging, as was the subsequent richness of the lower strings: one might have been in Dresden. There were fine contributions from the principal oboe (Christopher Cowie) and the pizzicato strings. However, the first movement as a whole was surprisingly sombre, not least on account of its slow tempo. There are of course all sorts of ways to understand Allegro con brio, but I felt that this performance often lacked both components of its job-description. Added to that, there were numerous instances of slowing down, with the result that the music almost ground to a halt. Somehow the structure remained admirably clear, as it would throughout both symphonic performances, but drama was often lacking. Maazel wrote in the programme that a conductor ‘conversant with the sonatas, trios, quartets et al., can learn to eschew rhetorical flourishes, saccharine pulping of phrases and maudlin dawdling’. There was not much of the first two qualities but I can only wish that he had followed his own advice with regard to the third. The opening of the second movement was better. Clarinets and bassoons sounded positively Mozartian in the opening, attentively answered first by a pair of horns and then by lower strings. The violins sounded silky-smooth when they finally entered. Although the general tempo was again rather slow, it was ruminative and yet forward-moving; it did not drag. This allowed some gorgeous – if at times a little Tchaikovskian – sounds to emanate from the orchestra, not least from the ’cellos. They also took the lead at the opening of third movement, with the first violins once again silky in their response. This was a case when the orchestral seating truly paid off. Horn (Nigel Black) and oboes solos were especially remarkable for their warmth. The movement retained its intermezzo-like character despite the slow speed, although it was a somewhat sombre example of its kind. The opening of the finale brought with it some much-needed tension, yet the movement soon became a little too stately. The celebrated quiet ending sounded exhausted rather than peaceful, in spite of a splendidly ominous kettledrum roll from Andrew Smith. Maazel’s interpretation on clearly resulted from a considered approach, if sometimes a little exaggerated in that respect; yet its sombre, even somnolent quality was not really successful, at least for me. Brahms sounded sapped of his vitality – and this in a work in which I at least think of him as standing close to the spirit of Haydn.

The Fourth sounded very different and was on the whole more successful. Those celebrated opening thirds, from which the whole of the symphony’s Schoenbergian developing variation results, sounded a little too sectionalised. I certainly have nothing against underlining the legacy for Schoenberg, Webern, and even Stockhausen, but the intervals form part of greater structures too. The analytical approach began to pay off more clearly, however, when one heard far more of the crucial inner parts, for instance the violas, than is often the case; this aided rhythmic impetus as well as motivic development. It is worth remarking here the outstanding contribution from the violas throughout, and that of their guest principal, Joel Hunter; one could see as well as hear the dynamic leadership he offered to his colleagues. The icy tragedy of the first movement’s conclusion was extremely well judged. However, the opening of the Andante moderato sounded a little too stentorian; the horn solo sounded far more beguiling the second time around. That said, the contribution of pizzicato strings was faultless; moreover, when the violins took up their bows against the plucked lower strings, they truly took flight. Full vibrato intensified the strings’ consoling role. At times, however, the movement dragged a little, as was highlighted by the vigorous opening of the scherzo. This movement sounded magnificent; every section shone, and one should not here forget the crucial contribution of the triangle. Tension was maintained throughout, which continued into the finale. There was an ominous tread from the very beginning, although this was occasionally imperilled thereafter by excessive sectionalisation. (At least the great passacaglia’s structure was crystal clear.) That said, there was a majesty to the slowest sections that impressed on its own terms; to the rest, there was a vehemence that ultimately struck the right sort of tragic note.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Alfred Brendel's final London recital, 27 June 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Haydn – Variations in F minor, Hob.XVII/6
Mozart – Sonata in F major, KV 533/494
Beethoven – Sonata no.13 in E-flat major, ‘Quasi una fantasia,’ Op. 27 no.1
Schubert – Sonata in B-flat major, D 960

Alfred Brendel (piano)

Alfred Brendel’s final recital in the city that has become his adopted home could never have failed to be a very special occasion. The warmth of his reception and of the almost innumerable standing ovations at the end attested to that. There is no need to worry oneself asking how this would have stood up to scrutiny had it been ‘just another recital’; it was not. Yet, circumstances notwithstanding, Brendel delivered piano-playing and musicianship of the highest order – that is, at a level quite different from the relatively disappointing performance of Mozart’s C minor piano concerto with the LSO and Bernard Haitink earlier in the month.

Then I had felt that Brendel only really came into his own in his encore; here, we were treated to a fine account of Haydn’s F minor variations, which captivated from the supremely well-judged rise and fall of the opening theme (and its repetitions) onwards. The use Brendel made of its dotted rhythms in itself provided a master-class in attention to detail: not merely articulated for their own sake, but also providing subtle rhythmic impetus and highlighting motivic connections. In this, he was aided by impeccable control of line, the sole upset being a nervous-sounding slip during the second half of the first theme. Rubato was more present than one might have expected, yet never drew attention to itself, serving instead a greater strategic plan. The maggiore theme – this is a masterly set of double variations, in F minor and F major – brought an exquisite grace, especially in Brendel’s handling of its characteristic septuplets, and also a sense, which penetrates to the very heart of the Classical style, that oscillation between tonic minor and major presents two sides of the same tonal coin. To that end, pathos was not overdone in the return to F minor for the syncopated first variation; it nevertheless shone through with dignity. The trills of the first major variation told melodically: there was no question of Haydn’s variation form being merely ornamental. When in the left hand, these trills formed a strong foundation for the right hand’s developmental flights of fancy. Likewise, the arpeggios at the close of the second minor variation were given their true melodic worth rather than being treated simply as figuration. Brendel’s wonderfully-judged fermata when the repeated minor theme broke off to introduce something quite new, in the guise of the variations’ finale, pointed to an unerring sense of dramatic timing. He similarly brought a heart-stopping moment of stasis immediately before the noble coda.

In the Mozart sonata, the opening Allegro had a fast tempo indeed: faster than I might have preferred, although I admit that it never sounded merely rushed. There was also a commendable flexibility when required. Brendel imparted a duly Bachian quality to Mozart’s decidedly ‘late’ counterpart, without sacrifice to what turned out to be the complementary rather than opposing demands of the Mozartian cantilena. It was clear, moreover, that Brendel was able and willing to relate the style of the piano sonatas to the rest of Mozart’s œuvre. There was a true sense of orchestral entry to the left-hand chords (beginning in bar 82) underlying the triplet runs. During the exposition repeat, I felt that we had entered into the world of opera, through Brendel’s sharp characterisation of the themes and their presentation. The left hand’s presentation of the first subject announced the arrival on stage of a buffo baritone somewhere between Figaro and the Count. And the world of the concerto returned with the opening of the development section, reminding us that Mozart’s style is always dramatic. That difficult final chord of the development was disappointingly anti-climatic, but the fresh impetus of the recapitulation – no mere repetition here – more or less straight away made one forget such a niggardly complaint. The counterpoint was integral to the dramatic flow, never sounding ‘additional’. A wonderful sense of exaltation in the closing triplet arpeggios brought the movement to a close. The Andante, quite rightly, brought not repose but emotional intensification in a movement of extreme chromaticism. (A watch alarm irritated but could not unduly disrupt.) Relative relaxation had to wait for the brief moment of the opening of the second subject. The exposition repeat had considerable ornamentation lavished upon it, including some entirely convincing syncopation. If one is going to do this, this is how it should be done. Duly vocal leaps at the conclusions of the exposition and recapitulation reminded us once again of the proximity to Mozartian opera, as did the sense of yearning in the return of the second subject. In between, however, Mozart – and Brendel – had taken us, during the development, very close to Tristan, with even greater harmonic instability, and yet expert hands leading us towards the climax. With the recapitulation, we could relax somewhat, although the sometimes heavy – yet never unduly so – ornamentation provided its own intensification. The rondo finale began in contrasting fashion with a telling suggestion of the music box. Semiquavers flowed, as Mozart demanded, ‘like oil’, yet with a winningly impish quality too. Heightened drama came with the turn towards the relative minor. Syncopation was truly made to tell through Brendel’s underlying rhythmic security. In the lead up to the cadenza, we were once again – unsurprisingly – reminded of Mozart’s piano concertos. The control and mastery of both composer and pianist was then displayed in its flowering of mock-fugal counterpoint. After this, the clarity and grace of the deceptively straightforward coda – extremely difficult to voice satisfactorily – rounded off a very fine performance.

The expertly handled rise and fall of the left-hand phrases in the opening theme of the Beethoven sonata pointed to the connection with Haydn. Even the ringing of a mobile telephone – let us hope that the culprit will have something very nasty in store during the after-life – could not detract from what was once again a supreme display of thoughtful musicianship. Climaxes were not merely exciting but, more importantly, rapt in their sublimity. Brendel proved himself alert to the subtitle, ‘Sonata quasi una fantasia’, for the C major outburst imparted a sense of (controlled) improvisatory fantasy and, indeed, of formal boundaries already beginning to break down: there is much that is ‘late’ in earlier Beethoven. A fierce passion, allied to unerring and rhythmic formal control, characterised the second movement, leading us surely into the sublimity of the Adagio con espressione. Once again, the rise and fall of phrases was expertly judged, as were their integration into the formal whole and harmonic momentum. The tension thereby produced became almost unbearable until the music sounded transmuted by trills, which in turn led us into the fourth movement. This brought a perfect sense of release, and also gave voice to Beethoven’s and Brendel’s twin senses of humour, not least in the voicing of the counterpoint. Sterner moments lacked nothing, however, in necessary weight. The arpeggios were here as exultant as they had been in Mozart, although they sounded, quite rightly, more complex in Beethoven’s fuller textures. The return of the sonata’s opening theme marked a return to that earlier rapt sublimity – and also a sense of true homecoming, the opening of the fourth movement now understood in retrospect as a false culmination. The Presto coda rounded things off perfectly. Almost everything had been said; now everything had.

With Schubert, we came to the second half – and to the final member of Brendel’s quartet of Classical gods. Schubert’s final sonata could not fail to impart something of a valedictory quality to proceedings, but Brendel was determined that this quality should not be exaggerated. The opening Molto moderato was certainly not fast; nor, however, was it an existentially devastated, overly-laden-with-pathos counterpart to Winterreise. Instead, it emerged as remarkably clear-sighted. There was stoical vehemence in the forte restatement of the first subject, as we were led into the second, but there was nothing hysterical to it. It was left to the second subject, in F-sharp minor, to impart a sense of the tragic, albeit without a hint of anything maudlin. The development section brought with its triplets an appropriate sense of strenuous working out. We had a sure guide, however, to its wondrous harmonic explorations, the pianist’s rhythmic command as crucial in this respect as his tonal understanding. The left hand trills were clear and yet brooding, their positioning truly made to tell. And the second subject emerged defiant in the recapitulation, before yielding to what Brendel, quoted in the programme note, has aptly described as a feeling of being ‘blissfully fatigued’. ‘Clear-sighted melancholy’ (Brendel again) characterised the second movement. There was, however, also a sense of something very close to the unfolding of tragedy, which emerged through that very quality Brendel cited. Brendel refused to linger, always heading forwards. The central section was songlike, yet it sang defiantly. That most miraculous of Schubert’s modulations, from C-sharp minor to C major, heralded, as it must, the opening up of a new world before our ears – and perhaps our eyes too – unbearably tantalising in the brevity of its epiphany. We were thereby, however, enabled to reach some sort of peace in the justly equivocal C-sharp major conclusion. In the programme notes, Nick Breckenfield characterised the Scherzo as reintroducing ‘the hustle and bustle of daily life’. This was certainly how it felt on this occasion. One could almost see, let alone hear, the operatic chorus of maids chattering and attending to their business, by way of contrast to the previous dramatic and metaphysical revelations. Brendel’s description – ‘soaring and playful’ – was equally true of his reading. Yet I am sure that I heard – perhaps even despite his efforts – darker undercurrents, which simply could not be banished. This is a weak B-flat major, not unlike that of Mozart’s final piano concerto. The Trio was ‘muffled and obstinate’ (Brendel), the pianist’s handling of its sforzandi reinforcing its strange obstinacy. The finale, unlike the other movements, followed without a break. That defiance on which I remarked earlier was once again present, yet so too was a rare beauty through grace: a word, which may here be appropriately understood in a theological as well as a secular sense. I shall quote in full Brendel’s summary: ‘“Fatigue and resignation”? No, rather: graceful resolution, playful vigour. Ironic twinkle; generous singing line; stubborn pugnacity. Surmounting of C minor fixation after the ninth assault: precious moment of self-abandonment. Assertive coda.’ This Schubert, then, would not go quietly into the night. Yet there was also, as there had to be, a profound ambivalence, a reluctance or indeed inability to sound a note of Beethovenian triumph. Schubert and Brendel here looked into the abyss and somehow also managed to console. And then, in the coda, they laughed too.

In normal circumstances, such would have been quite enough. Here, however, we were treated to no fewer than three encores. The slow movement from the Italian Concerto reminded us of Brendel’s all-too-infrequently credentials as a Bachian. In its unending melody and its unrelenting tragic nobility, it was as if Edwin Fischer were once again amongst us. Liszt’s Au lac de Wallenstadt was beautifully controlled, reminding us of the sterling efforts Brendel has made throughout his career to restore Liszt to the position that is rightly his. It was a hymn to the Romantic conception of Nature, whose final note faded as exquisitely as the previous voice-leading. To conclude, however, we simply had to hear Schubert’s G-flat Impromptu, and we did. The bass undercurrents reminded us of the trills in the first movement of the Schubert sonata. Romantic passion was present in the central section, yet it was not unbridled and was all the stronger for not being so. The return of the opening material was ineffably moving. There was no need to attempt to dissociate performance from occasion, for the two were as one. So too were composer and pianist.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Mutter/LSO/Previn, 22 June 2008

Barbican Hall

Mozart - Serenade in G major, KV 525, 'Eine kleine Nachtmusik'
Mozart - Symphony no.39 in E-flat major, KV 543
Brahms - Violin Concerto in D major, Op.77

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
André Previn (conductor)

This was a wonderful concert. The LSO sounded on better Mozartian form than I have heard it for a long time, certainly more so than under Bernard Haitink earlier this month and arguably even than under Sir Colin Davis at the beginning of this season. As if this were not enough to surprise me, I was also surprised by the fact that, reduced to chamber-size, with a smaller body of strings than under Haitink or Davis, it boasted a fuller and arguably more cultured sound. André Previn has long been a fine conductor of Mozart and Haydn, although rarely if ever has he been duly acknowledged as such. (Present-day mania for the 'authenticke' does not help.) Although I am perhaps more difficult to impress in Mozart's music than in that of any other composer, I was certainly impressed here. Mozart does not, one might say, require many things, only perfection; he certainly leaves nowhere to hide. Eine kleine Nachtmusik received no condescension, such as the musical nouveaux riches might accord it. Instead, it was given a straightforward, yet charmingly attentive account. No 'points' were being made; rather, a delightful example of Mozart's serenade style was played with grace, affection, and a beguiling sense of the Salzburg the composer had left behind. The warmth of the LSO's string section erased memories of that slight acid, which, somewhat surprisingly, had affected it under Haitink. Previn showed how the second movement could gracefully flow without being subjected to the perverse fast speeds of so many contemporary, modish performances. Likewise, the minuet can - and should - be taken three-to-a-bar, without any sense of dragging; this simply requires musicianship. The final movement was taken relatively slowly, yet it never seemed too slow and we were thereby permitted to savour the true Mozartian grace.

Similar virtues characterised the great E-flat major symphony, for which the strings were of course joined by woodwind, brass, and kettledrums. The surprise of the performance was that hard sticks were used for the latter. I should have preferred this not to have been the case; however, they were not used in the typical aggressive, exhibitionistic style of the 'authenticists' and this was my sole cavil. The relatively small number of strings had no trouble in sounding almost as warm in bloom as their Viennese counterparts, whilst the woodwind led us into a veritable garden of sonorous delights, especially during the third movement's trio. Tempi throughout were expertly judged; there was little in the way of rubato, but there did not need to be. Sterner moments, for instance the extraordinary minor-mode outbursts in the slow movement, were given their due, yet remained integrated into the whole; likewise, the strong, measured introduction to the first movement, whose unerring sense of direction governed the entire movement, indeed the entire symphony. Again, Previn did not seem out to make points, to present 'his' interpretation; yet, at the same time, this did not indicate a lack of imagination, merely a willingness to let this miraculous score speak (more or less) for itself.

Anne-Sophie Mutter was on exceptional form for the Brahms concerto. There could be no doubting the virtuosity and musicianship of her response to that violin concerto which I am tempted to describe as the greatest of all. Her tone was without fail expertly modulated to the requirements of the score, without this precluding great excitement. Moreover, she was -audibly and visibly - able and willing to engage in chamber music with the orchestra's principals when required. The same must be said for her dialogue with the conductor and orchestra as a whole. Mutter and Previn must have performed the concerto a good many times together and it showed; however, this appeared to inspire rather than to suggest any sense of routine. The lengthy phrases and paragraphs of the first movement were expertly handled, with an unerring sense of their place in the greater whole. Previn showed that there is absolutely no need to rush and, indeed, every reason not to do so, so long as one knows what one is doing. Needless to say, the cadenza was flawlessly despatched. In the second movement, there was an interesting impression of a Schumannesque intermezzo, suggesting delicacy, intimacy, and repose rather than the more typically weighty response to the score. Both approaches, it seems to me, can work, but I was fascinated to hear a somewhat lighter reading that worked rather than skimming over the musical surface. I had been about to claim that the gypsy fireworks of the finale were electric - although never in a shallow, merely virtuosic sense - when I realised that some metaphors were better left unmixed. The give and take between Mutter and the orchestral strings was often breathtaking, whilst all musicians' sense of the movement's harmonic progression ensured that Brahms's unerring sense of form won through. May we hear her - and Previn - in London again soon!

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera, 16 June 2008

Royal Opera House

Prima Donna/Ariadne – Deborah Voigt
Composer – Kristine Jepson
Music Master – Sir Thomas Allen
Dancing Master – Alan Oke
Wigmaker – Jacques Imbrailo
Lackey – Dean Robinson
Officer – Nikola Matišić
Tenor/Bacchus – Robert Dean Smith
Zerbinetta – Gillian Keith
Harlequin – Markus Werba
Scaramuccio – Ji-Min Park
Truffaldino – Jeremy White
Brighella – Haoyin Xue
Naiad – Anita Watson
Dryad – Sarah Castle
Echo – Anna Leese
Major Domo – Alexander Pereira

Christof Loy (director)
Andrew Sinclair (revival director)
Herbert Murauer (designs)
Jennifer Tipton (lighting)
Beate Vollack (choreographer)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Mark Elder (conductor)

Of the three occasions on which I have now seen this production of Ariadne auf Naxos, I enjoyed this the least. It still had its good points but there was in general less focus than upon either of the previous outings. Christof Loy’s production had been the first of Antonio Pappano’s new regime at Covent Garden. As such, it had made a considerable impression, with smart theatrical values lavished upon an extremely well-chosen work: in some senses, the ultimate ‘opera about opera’, which manages both to celebrate and gently to send up all of our ideas concerning what the art-form is and what it should be.

The opening scene, in which the house of the ‘richest man in Vienna’ is displayed, the ground floor gradually rising to reveal beneath stairs the multifarious preparations for the forthcoming entertainment, remains a considerable coup de théâtre. However, the recurrence of a problem from the very first night, in which the change of scenery had necessitated an interval longer even that that planned, seemed less excusable and more irritating on a second revival. The point of the production is surely that, by mirroring in the Prologue the surroundings of the Royal Opera House itself, the audience realises that the attitudes being expressed on stage relate to its own preferences and opinions. To quote Horace, as so many have since, ‘Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur’ (‘Change but the name, and the tale is told of you’). If attention is unduly drawn to the stage machinery, especially the on-stage lift, in itself, then the work is vulgarised; one can step out to the foyer during the interval, should one really wish to watch a lift in action. It seemed to me, then, that the tightness of Loy’s original production was lost in Andrew Sinclair’s revival. The Personenregie seemed at times somewhat aimless, more so in the Opera than in the Prologue. This applied especially to Zerbinetta’s troupe. The original delight one had taken in the inappropriate juxtaposition of the antics of a motley commedia dell’arte crew with Ariadne’s opera seria was replaced, at least at times, with a sense of the arbitrary. For one thing, the choreography sometimes seemed straightforwardly embarrassing, rather than representing embarrassment. I was also puzzled by an inconsistency, which I assume must have been there all along, although I do not recall it. It was not clear why Zerbinetta’s men all changed into white tie and tails at the end of the Prologue, in order to appear on stage, only to emerge on stage during the Opera dressed quite differently. I then realised that the other characters also emerged alternatively attired. If the preparation we had witnessed had not indeed been preparation at all but something quite separate, dissociated from the following entertainment, then Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s finely-wrought interplay between Prologue and Opera was considerably slighted.

Musically too, this was a less impressive performance than had previously been the case. Pappano’s direction of the initial performances remains one of the best things I have heard him do, although it was eclipsed by the subsequent wisdom of Sir Colin Davis. Mark Elder received extremely warm applause on arriving in the pit, which was perhaps a response to the news that he too will soon be a musical knight. His view of the work, however, did not really seem to have settled; it certainly lacked coherence. There were moments, often the most Romantic ones, at which everything, or almost everything, came together and sounded glorious, not least the daringly slow speeds at which some of the Composer’s most beautiful music was taken. During the Opera, however, some stretches of the score merely sounded inappropriately slow, even dragging. The earlier stages of the Prologue, moreover, often sounded rushed and there was little sense of a greater symphonic whole. Insofar as one may consider the orchestra separately from its direction, it generally sounded good, though not outstanding. There were some magical Mozartian moments from the woodwind and the strings, when given their head, soared as if they were no longer of chamber-sized proportions. On the other hand, there were a few rough edges and minor slips.

The cast also proved more mixed than on previous occasions. Sir Thomas Allen approached perfection in reprising the role of the Music Master. Every word and every phrase were made to tell, although it was a pity that he was saddled with a silly wig. Jacques Imbrailo presented a vivid, wonderfully camp cameo as the Wigmaker; this Jette Parker Young Artist deserves to go far. I was less sure about the Scaramuccio and Brighella, who were adequate, no more. As for the rest of Zerbinetta’s troupe, Jeremy White acted well and sang reasonably, but Markus Werba was truly first-class. Possessed of a charismatic and most imaginatively dark stage presence, he proceeded to lavish a Lieder singer’s attention to verbal and musical detail upon his part. He may be renowned as a Papageno, a role he assumed splendidly for the Salzburg Festival under Riccardo Muti, but I should now dearly love to hear – and to see – him as Don Giovanni. He and Allen outshone the rest of the cast, which is not really as it should be. It was nevertheless fun to have Alexander Pereira, director of the Zurich Opera, add another wryly nonchalant - and on this occasion, unscheduled - appearance as the Major Domo to his roster; it was also good to see the health fascists confounded by having him smoke on stage. Gillian Keith seemed to grow into the character of Zerbinetta during the Opera, having sounded a little too anonymously light of voice in the Prologue. She delivered her coloratura fearlessly but wanted the depth of character that many artists have brought to this most delightful of roles. Kristine Jepson was no Irmgard Seefried. Her closing moments, in which the Composer appears finally to be voicing Strauss’s own beliefs, were movingly delivered, yet too many of her earlier lines were curiously lacking in shading. It is a cliché to describe Bacchus, or indeed any of Strauss’s tenor roles, as thankless, yet it is and they are. Robert Dean Smith sounded better than many, although there were uncharacteristic moments of strain after Bacchus’s arrival. He rose splendidly, however, to the demands of his final peroration. Deborah Voigt, however, delivered rather less than I had expected. She proved a convincing Prima Donna but an oddly wayward Ariadne. There were moments at which her soprano sounded truly glorious: both secure and lustrous. There were also far too many passages in which not only was her vibrato unflatteringly wide but she was also simply out of tune. I have heard her in a number of Strauss roles; this was by some degree her weakest.

Of course, one must try to make the best of what circumstances throw at one. Such is the message of the Prologue. Yet, despite those three truly estimable performances to which I have referred, the sheer enchantment of Ariadne deserved better than it generally received here; its intricate constructivism needs surer hands on the directorial and musical tillers.

Lott/LSO/Haitink, 15 June 2008

Barbican Hall

Mozart - Symphony no.25 in G minor, KV 183
Strauss - Das Rosenband
Strauss - Wiegenlied
Strauss - Ruhe, meine Seele!
Strauss - Freundliche Vision
Strauss - Die heiligen drei Könige
Strauss - Ein Heldenleben

Dame Felicity Lott (soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

I was not entirely convinced by the programming here. This was the second of the LSO's Mozart and Strauss concerts under Bernard Haitink, part of a larger series vacuously entitled 'Pairs'. (Another 'pair' of composers had been Schubert and Bruckner.) The LSO's management seems a little too keen on these series-for-their-own-sake, since the concert also slotted into the 'Great Conductors' category. No one in his right mind would deny that Bernard Haitink was a great conductor; likewise, no one remotely interested in music would need to be told that he was. In any case, there was a sense of the 'Little' G minor symphony being tacked on to the beginning of a Strauss programme, which might have been better off with, say, Don Juan as a similarly substantial curtain-raiser. Alternatively, we might have heard in addition to the symphony a Mozart concert aria, thus highlighting the symphonic and vocal works of the chosen 'pair' of the composers. Mozart was, of course, a great influence on and inspiration to Strauss, but not especially in the works performed on this occasion.

At any rate, the symphony received a good performance. The orchestra, as in the preceding Mozart-Strauss concert, was perhaps a little more slimmed down than necessary, sounding more like the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields than the LSO. That said, there were no irritating 'period' mannerisms, for which we must nowadays be eternally grateful. Tempi were uncontroversial. We should again be most grateful for the fact that Haitink took the Minuet three-to-a-bar. The LSO's woodwind burbled beautifully during the Trio, putting one in mind of the Salzburg - and subsequent - serenades. And the finale was a true Allegro, with enough but never too much Sturm und Drang, to bring the work to a fine conclusion.

That said, there was a distinct transformation of aspiration and achievement in the Strauss items. Felicity Lott did everything one could have asked. She imparted grace, beauty, and line to individually-tailored, truly heartfelt readings of each of her songs. One could discern every single word, so that, although the Barbican had considerately printed texts and translations in the (free) programme, those of us knowing Strauss and/or German never needed them. Hers is not, of course, a Jessye Norman sort of voice, yet there is plenty of potential, fully realised here, to soar above the orchestra when required. The contribution from Haitink and the LSO was truly beyond compare. I have never heard an orchestral contribution so full of lustrous tone and meaning. Several times, perhaps especially during the Freundliche Vision, I was reminded of just how great a Wagnerian Haitink is and how much we miss him. The direction imparted to the songs and the un-self-conscious moulding of the various instrumental lines was an object lesson in something far too elevated to be relegated to the category of 'accompaniment'. The only thing missing was Morgen! To my delight, Lott and Haitink performed it as an encore, which, more or less immediately - not least thanks to guest leader Sebastian Breuninger's exquisite solo - brought tears to my eyes.

Haitink brought all of these qualities - and more - to the fine performance of Ein Heldenleben. Whatever slight acidity the LSO's strings had acquired in the previous concert's Alpine Symphony had now evaporated (or however one might characterise such disappearance). Indeed, all sections of the orchestra were on top form, as once again was the guest leader. I wondered whether his solos were on occasion just a little too wayward, but then thought again: Pauline was more than a little inclined in that direction. It almost goes without saying, but should not, that Haitink proved a sure, symphonic guide to a score that can easily sound sprawling in lesser hands. Here its proportions were almost Classical, albeit with a clear lineage in the colouristic and formal experiments of Liszt's symphonic poems, which Haitink recorded superbly many years ago with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. One is never going to rid Ein Heldenleben of bombast; nor should one even try, since it is integral to the very idea of the composition. (The number of those who somehow fail to appreciate Strauss's irony is legion.) Yet this was never empty display; it was tailored to the musico-dramatic line of one of the very finest of Strauss's symphonic poems, all the sharper for Haitink's predictable yet still laudable refusal to play to the gallery.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

Brendel/LSO/Haitink: Mozart and Strauss, 10 June 2008

Barbican Hall

Mozart - Piano Concerto no.24 in C minor, KV 491
Strauss - Eine Alpensinfonie

Alfred Brendel (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

This was always going to be a special occasion: one of Alfred Brendel's final London performances and in collaboration with none other than Bernard Haitink. Yet I felt the occasion was perhaps greater than the performance itself, when it came to the Mozart C minor piano concerto. There was certainly nothing wrong with the performance, aside from a slightly acidic quality to the LSO's violins. I wondered whether this was an unlikely sacrifice towards the false god of 'authenticism' but its continuation in some at least of the Strauss suggested not; the paucity of strings, from ten first violins down, was disappointing in this respect, however. The woodwind generally sounded beautiful, even if they lacked the last ounce of Viennese individuality. String articulation was on occasion slightly fussy, although one would generally hear far worse today. Perhaps it was the fault of where I was sitting, rather further forward in the stalls than might have been advisable, yet the orchestral blend left a little to be desired. There was no question that Brendel and Haitink both understood the piece inside out but there remained a want of passion, of drive even, especially during the first movement. Recall Beethoven's passion for this work and his claim that no one in his own age could have written it. Structurally everything was as sound as one would expect, save for a surprising slowing down, noticeably rectified by a somewhat abrupt resumption of tempo, in the final movement. Brendel's touch was its usual truthful self: not plain but simply revealing the music, apparently in itself. There were even hints of old masters such as Schnabel and Edwin Fischer, both of course great Mozartians. The opening of the slow movement was an especial highlight in this regard. Yet it seemed to me that he only reached his heights in the encore, the Schubert A-flat major impromptu, D.935/2. Here a lifetime's wisdom was distilled and Brendel's powerful imagination was given freer rein. Every note was made to tell, intellectually and emotionally. The final bars were moving as only Schubert can be - and only when performed like this. This in itself was more than worth the price of admission.

Haitink gave a very strong account of Strauss's Alpine Symphony. The work has had so many detractors that one might be tempted to wonder oneself. Even Karajan once claimed to conduct it for the epilogue alone and one can almost understand what he meant, whilst at the same time hearing that he did no such thing. By all means criticise Strauss for moral shortcomings but his compositional mastery here cannot be gainsaid. What An Alpine Symphony needs however is a truly symphonic account, which pays heed to or at least corresponds with its originally-intended subtitle, 'The Anti-Christ'. This it received here. Haitink refused to indulge the score - and goodness knows, there are enough temptations to do so here; the result was that its archlike structure emerged all the more clearly and meaningfully, with the pictorial elements very much taking a backseat. This is not to say that they were absent, for how could they be? The appearance of the waterfall was as beautiful as I have heard, yet the refusal to linger paid off handsomely. The extraordinarily tricky solo violin figurations were superbly handled, as the LSO's upper strings gradually acquired a greater bloom. Woodwind instruments were generally beguiling, with the oboe solo at the summit especially moving. And the brass, with but one brief movement of relative crudity, were resplendent throughout, not least in the case of the mass of hunting horns. However, when night fell, the structural strength of Haitink's reading reminded us that the day's journey had been primarily metaphysical - or, rather, in properly Nietzschean terms, anti-metaphysical.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

LSO/Gergiev: Mahler, 5 June 2008

Barbican Hall

Mahler – Symphony no.10 in F sharp major: Adagio
Mahler – Symphony no.9

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

‘Gergiev’s Mahler’ has raised more than a few critical hackles. I had only attended one concert previous to this, that of the Seventh, and, given the general reception awarded to earlier performances, had found it rather better than expected. I should in no sense have described it as a great performance, but it signified a considered, if still evolving, interpretation. Would that I could say the same of these performances.

I shall admit that I am yet to be convinced of the validity of nowadays presenting the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony by itself. One can present just about any movement by itself if one wishes, but it does not necessarily make for satisfying listening. Now that we know at the very least Mahler’s conception for the rest of the symphony, it seems odd that many conductors who appear, for instance, to have no difficulty in conducting Mozart’s Requiem, in whatever completion, still baulk at performing this far more ‘completed’ work. That terrible cataclysmic dissonance towards the end of the Adagio needs to be resolved, but will only achieve resolution in the symphony’s final movement. It can, I suppose, be left hanging prophetically, but one might say the same of many symphonic first movements. Or it might be underplayed, so as to permit some sort of scaled-down resolution within the Adagio. If I were to be excessively charitable, I might possibly entertain the proposition that this is what happened in Gergiev’s performance; I fear, however, that I should be clutching at some very thin straws indeed. The climax never came, which was emphatically not the fault of the trumpeter, who performed impeccably. He utterly lacked support and the performance utterly lacked terror. In a generally disappointing Adagio-only performance a few years ago at the Proms, Pierre Boulez had at least managed that. At any rate, the Barbican performance left nothing to be resolved, so the problem vanished into thin air. Nor had the rest of this reading been stronger. The opening, Parsifalian viola line was assiduously micro-managed; one could see and hear this. Here and upon any of its reprises – including that on the violins towards the very end – it was laboriously shaped rather than sinuously sung. The balance was often very odd, especially when brass entries overpowered the strings: quite an achievement in so string-saturated a movement. This was less of a problem when the Hauptstimme fell to the horns but, in general, it did not even sound perverse, merely careless. There were a couple of incidents of positive note. Guest leader, Anton Barakhovsky’s solos were taken exquisitely, here and elsewhere. There was a telling febrile intensity, almost Webern-like, to the violins, as they prepared the way for the would-be chords of terror. That, however, was about it. I was about to say that we should have been thankful for Gergiev’s fastish tempo, in that the performance finished sooner than would usually have been the case, but I suspect that this made little difference in practice.

The Andante comodo of the Ninth opened hesitantly: not, it seemed, a hesitancy born of interpretative choice, but merely out of unsteadiness. Matters did not improve when Gergiev once again resorted to fussy and arbitrary moulding of lines. Balances were once again odd: whether by design or omission was difficult to tell. The movement was often extremely rushed; the climaxes in particular were never given time to tell. There was little sense of the movement’s architecture. And the brass sounded as if they were playing Shostakovich rather than Mahler. This was a characterisation I had resisted during the earlier performance of the Seventh, suspecting that it would lazily have relied upon the cliché of an almost-Russian conductor understanding too much through the prism of the Soviet composer. Here, however, it was almost impossible to overlook. Military marches made their presence felt in quite the ‘wrong’ sort of sense: merely cheap rather than ironically so. For me at least, Mahler cannot now fail to be understood in terms of his legacy to the Second Viennese School and, indeed, to its successors. This is what continues to inspire in his music, not occasional correspondences with the dead end of ‘socialist realism’. As Boulez remarked in 2000, 'Well, Shostakovich plays with clichés most of the time, I find. It's like olive oil, when you have a second and even third pressing, and I think of Shostakovich as the second, or even third, pressing of Mahler.' On account of all of the above, what has often with good reason been accounted Mahler’s single greatest movement – I feel that I should attach ‘allegedly’ to the word comodo – felt tediously extended, again despite its sometimes frenetic pace.

The second movement started more promisingly, with the second violins really digging into their strings. Gergiev’s antiphonal division of the violins certainly paid off here. I initially thought there was a splendid sense of rhythm; this soon, however, became rigid in a fashion utterly inimical to Mahler and more akin to the worst of Toscanini’s Beethoven. There was something unpleasantly and indiscriminately aggressive to the entire movement, when a Ländler should surely be the most yielding of dances. Once again, I began to suspect a Shostakovich-inspired parody of Mahler.

The Rondo-Burleske came off better, perhaps because the general approach was more suited to this particular movement; what had seemed brazenly inappropriate was not necessarily so here. Even the shriekingly militaristic piccolo and percussion were not entirely out of place. Biting counterpoint was well projected, with a welcome note of sarcasm, and for perhaps the only time in the entire concert, there was a hint of new metaphysical vistas opening up during the middle section: a frustrating hint of what might have been. The harps sounded gorgeous and added suspense, as did shimmering violins. Even the helter-skelter rush at the end did not matter too much.

Then, however, we reverted to the bad old story. Indeed, the opening line exhibited precisely the same fussy micro-management as that of the Tenth had. The strings as a whole exhibited a good, full tone, securely underpinned by splendid double-basses, but then the principal horn entered, bringing with him the air of another planet, albeit that of DSCH rather than ASCH. The horn player in question was none other than David Pyatt, who has few if any rivals in the world today, whether technically or musically, so I can only assume that his brazen entry was a case of following orders. I have certainly never heard him play with such Russian-sounding vibrato – and yes, I tried to resist the cliché but this is genuinely what I heard. Some of the high violin lines might have been from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; there was not the slightest hint of standing only a stone’s throw, if that, from Berg. Gergiev’s direction was urgent in the wrong sense; in fact, it was simply hard-driven. He seemed to have forgotten that this was an Adagio; at times, it seemed barely to be an Andante. Had it not been – thankfully – for the strings’ vibrato, I might have wondered whether the spirit of Roger Norrington had taken possession of the conductor’s body. This was, I think, less a matter of tempo as such, although that played its part, as of a strange reluctance to yield. At any rate, I found myself saying under my breath: ‘Come back Leonard Bernstein. All, and I mean all, is forgiven!’ A couple of the climaxes were at last a little more yielding; yet by now, this merely sounded arbitrary, unmotivated by anything that had preceded them. The movement drifted on to its conclusion. Despite some beautifully hushed string playing, it was all too late; nothing could have salvaged this performance. Much of the audience appeared to differ, waiting for a considerable number of seconds in silence, albeit a silence punctuated by a generous number of coughs, as Gergiev’s hands remained frozen in mid-air. This seemed as arbitrary as the climaxes. As members of the audience stood to applaud, I resolved that it was high time to leave the hall, resorting to memories of Sir Simon Rattle’s great performance of this great work with the very same orchestra in 2000. I realised that, on the present occasion, not once, during a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and part of his Tenth, had I been moved. There had clearly been something very wrong either with the performance or with me.