Friday, 27 February 2009

Ronan Collett, Iain Burnside - 26 February 2009

Hall One, Kings Place

Schubert – Frühlingssehnsucht
Schubert – Geheimes
Schubert – An Schwager Kronos
Schubert – An die Entfernte
Schubert – An Emma
Schubert – Die Sternennächte
Schubert – Gruppe aus dem Tartarus
Schubert – Wanderers Nachtlied I
Beethoven – An die ferne Geliebte, op.98
Butterworth – Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’
Schumann – Freisinn
Schumann – Der Soldat
Schumann – Die Lotosblume
Schumann – Venetianische Lieder I and II
Schumann – Was will die einsame Träne
Schumann – Zum Schluss

Ronan Collett (baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano)

This should have been a recital of Beethoven songs, many of them rare indeed, by John Mark Ainsley and Iain Burnside, part of Kings Place’s ‘Beethoven Unwrapped’ series. ’Flu, however, intervened, leaving Ronan Collett to step in at twenty-four hours’ notice. It would, of course, have been entirely unreasonable to expect anyone to be able to replicate such a programme, but it is a pity that this overlooked aspect of Beethoven’s output will now however to await another occasion. The audience should have been grateful to Collett for saving the day, and it was, yet it becomes difficult to assess such a performance. On the one hand, it seems unfair to judge it as if this were something on which the musicians had been working for some time; on the other, it would be patronising not to apply critical standards. Perhaps the best thing is to report as usual but to bear in mind the circumstances.

The Schubert group opened with a song from Schubert’s final ‘cycle’, Schwanengesang. Collett’s voice imparted to Frühlingssehnsucht an apt sense of excitement and expectation. The head voice provided a touching contrast, even if, on ‘hinab?’, the tuning was a little awry; this was rectified on the crucial ‘Warum?’ and ‘und du’ of the following stanzas. A slight sauciness was applied to the Goethe setting, Geheimes. Both Collett and Burnside, playing with admirable clarity, conveyed due urgency in the portrayal of time as coachman in An Schwager Kronos, another Goethe song. There clearly was no time to lose and Collett reached dynamic levels not previously heard. Sometimes during this group, as in An Emma, the notes were not always perfectly centred, but that song inspired a mood of forlorn stillness from both artists. A richer tone was permitted for Gruppe aus dem Tartarus. Menace from voice and piano conveyed an appropriately hellish menace, followed by tender recovery in the first Wanderers Nachtlied.

An die ferne Geliebte was all that remained of Beethoven. The youthfulness of the poems – Alois Jeitteles was a twenty-year old medical student – struck a chord with Collett. Whereas sometimes in the Schubert settings, I had the impression that, in a few years’ time, the voice would sound more settled, here this was less of an issue. Perhaps nerves had settled too. Collett drew the listener in, commencing a real narrative with the opening of Auf dem Hügel sitz ich spähend. Burnside showed himself keen to the developmental nature of his part; a story is to unfold. Indeed, there were nice touches in the piano part throughout, not least in conveying that obstinate persistence we know so well from the sonatas. Both artists were alert to quicksilver changes of mood. Moreover, that nobility which is so very much Beethoven’s was apparent in both parts, as was a reminder that we are not always so very far from Schubert. The combination of grace and unsettling undercurrents played their parts here. With the return of the opening material, there was a sense not only of return, but also of what had changed. Hope there remained for reunion with the narrator’s distant beloved. Collett, it may be noted, is no stranger to this cycle, having performed it with Mitsuko Uchida, no less, at the Berlin Philharmonie, as part of her residency there.

Collett’s diction had been impeccable throughout, and would continue to be so. Nevertheless, it seemed with the Butterworth songs, that there was a more instantly communicative quality when he sang in English. There were occasional intonational slips but the tone was also richer. Wistfulness was apparent, though this was not overdone; there was vigour too, as in Think, no more lad. The head voice was put to good use in the opening of Is my team ploughing? This contrasted with a full tone in the following lines, the contrast setting up a continuing alternation: rather like a dialogue between past and present, or dead and alive. Burnside proved secure and imaginative as an accompanist throughout.

The Schumann songs also had that quality of more unmediated communication, so perhaps it was not so much a matter of the language, after all. Burnside’s rhythmic security provided a sure foundation for the vocal line, especially in the first of the Venetianische Lieder, where the rhythm is so crucial to capturing the sense of a gondolier’s song. Both artists carefully differentiated this from the second such song, in which a brighter tone was employed. In Der Soldat, a setting of Hans Christian Andersen, we heard pain and anger, although there was a recurrence of the occasional wavering in tuning. In Die Lotosblume and Was will die einsame Träne, the two Heine settings, I sometimes missed that ironic bite that a more mature voice might impart, but the beauty of Heine’s verse shone through nonetheless. With Zum Schluss, the performance did what the title suggested; there was a proper sense of conclusion, rather as in the similarly titled epilogue to the piano Arabesque. A quiet dignity pervaded this final song. For the encore, we remained with Schumann and Rückert. Du meine Seele received just the right degree of youthful tenderness and impetuosity. This song really played to Collett’s strengths.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Der fliegende Holländer, Royal Opera, 23 February 2009

Royal Opera House

The Dutchman – Bryn Terfel
Senta – Anja Kampe
Daland – Hans-Peter König
Erik – Torsten Kerl
Mary – Claire Shearer
Steersman – John Tessier

Tim Albery (director)
Michael Levine (designs)
Constance Hoffmann (costumes)
David Finn (lighting)

Chorus of the Royal Opera House (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Marc Albrecht (conductor)

The Flying Dutchman seems as ill-fated at Covent Garden as its eponymous hero is in Wagner’s drama. I do not remember anything much about Ian Judge’s production, last seen in 2000, but I do remember some of the worst Wagner conducting I have ever had the misfortune to encounter, courtesy of the incomprehensibly esteemed – at least in some quarters – Simone Young. Marc Albrecht, whose work I had greatly admired last year in Munich for The Bassarids, was not so bad as that; at least he did not sound as though he was learning the score en route. On the evidence of this performance, however, he is no Wagnerian, which is distinctly odd, given that the very qualities standing him in such good stead in Henze’s opera should have done so here too. That is why I wonder whether Albrecht’s decidedly stop-start, non-‘music-drama’ approach was deliberate: a revisionist attempt to direct us to (a handful of) the opera’s sources rather than to explore what it became. The Wagnerian melos – I do not believe it in any way illegitimate to employ terms Wagner had yet to coin – was nowhere to be heard. Instead of a guiding symphonic thread, there was merely a collection of numbers strung together, connected by carelessly-constructed – in performance, that is – orchestral passages. A backward-looking approach might have worked in theory, I suppose, at least for those more charmed by the hangovers from Italian opera than inspired by the extraordinary dramatic journey on which Wagner here truly commences. Even then, quite why one would wish thus to reduce the work’s stature would remain a matter for the psychoanalyst. In reality, however, all that was accomplished was to make a taut, concise score drag interminably. The gains that ought to have accrued from the rightful decision to perform the work without an interval – in this case, I do not think the alternative is even worth considering – were squandered by a performance that married drawn out, lifeless slow passages with caricatured Solti-like, or Solti-lite, excitability. There were also serious lapses of coordination between stage and pit, especially when Solti-lite came to the fore. Given the wrongheadedness of the conducting, it was perhaps surprising to note that the orchestra itself was on rather good form. A few slips notwithstanding, there was a commendable richness of string tone, complemented by some splendid contributions from the brass. Orchestral execution in the Overture was of a high standard, yet it appeared to go on forever; without the requisite implacability of line, it veered dangerously close to an operatic pot pourri. Sadly, this set the tone for the rest of the performance.

There were a few other straws at which to clutch. The choral singing was excellent, for which great credit must go to Renato Balsadonna’s preparations. Anja Kampe, barring the occasional overly-operatic exaggeration, shone as Senta, at least insofar as the production allowed her to do so. Hers was a powerfully musical and dramatic portrayal, within the constraints with which she had to work, signalling a vast improvement upon her Act II Isolde under Vladimir Jurowski last December. If Kampe sings as well as this at Glyndebourne in the summer, Jurowski’s Tristan might turn out to be something quite special. Torsten Kerl was not a bad Erik, but there was nothing unforgettable about his performance, quite unlike Klaus Florian Vogt in Vienna last year. Kerl was musical but somewhat anonymous: perhaps fair enough for the role, but Vogt showed what can be done with it. It is difficult to imagine Kerl as the Glyndebourne Tristan he is slated to become. John Tessier made a good job of the small role of the Steersman.

Otherwise, the cast was disappointing. Bryn Terfel doubtless suffered from the bizarre lack of interest shown by the production in its central character; indeed, one sensed an understandable bewilderment concerning the nature of his role. One could hear without straining every word of the text he delivered, which makes a welcome change from many interpreters. Nevertheless, his was a performance that poorly repaid the Royal Opera’s forgiveness in having him back, following his crying off the Ring. When he sang, there were passages not entirely lacking in his former vocal beauty. Much of the text, however, was either despatched in an irritating ‘ghostly’ whisper or simply barked. No one seemed to have told him that Italianate musical values were to be the order of the day, since his phrasing was as choppy as the North Sea. Hans-Peter König made something of Daland’s venality but a richer tone would have been appreciated. Poor Clare Shearer, made up like Nora Batty, made little other impression as Mary.

This brings me to Tim Albery’s production, perhaps the greatest disappointment of all. Its sole virtue was seen during the Overture, with a surprisingly effective suggestion of wind and rain upon a makeshift stage curtain. As mentioned above, the figure of the Dutchman seemed to hold no interest for Albery. Wagner’s myth was brought down to the level of dreary realism, which appeared to aim at social commentary, yet spectacularly – or, better, wimperingly – misfired. This was Wagner as deflated EastEnders. So far as I could discern, the production seemed more interested in portraying a slice of life in a community randomly relocated to a time and place irredeemably unfashionable: was this 1970s Grimsby? I say ‘irredeemably,’ since redemption, or even its denial, did not seem to figure at all. Senta merely seemed silly – and most probably a little mad, though not too much. This was no study in hysteria; it was just a bit gloomy. For some reason – or rather, as it seemed, for none at all – she brought on to the stage a toy ship during the Dutchman’s monologue. It would remain there in subsequent scenes, serving most confusingly as a substitute for the picture to which Senta sings her Ballad. The nondescript costumes of the sailors and the tarty yet unrevealing garb of their girls seemed somehow to suggest a Carry on Sailing meets Play for Today, and yet it signally failed to amuse, let alone to proffer any insights. The attire of the Dutchman’s crew appeared to suggest the nineteenth century. Again clutching ever more desperately at straws, I wondered whether some kind of opposition was being posited between (relatively) modern times and the period of composition. If so, nothing was made of it.

Harry Kupfer unforgettably portrayed the Dutchman as Senta’s dream. This was not even interesting enough to be a nightmare.

Monday, 23 February 2009

LSO/Davis - Mozart and Berlioz, 22 February 2009

Barbican Hall

Mozart – Piano concerto no.18 in B-flat major, KV 456
Berlioz – Te Deum

Richard Goode (piano)
Colin Lee (tenor)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

This, rather to my surprise, was chamber-scale Mozart, with only eight first violins and the other strings scaled down accordingly. Whether this corresponded to the wishes of Sir Colin Davis, Richard Goode, or both, I can only surmise. It is not that, save for an occasional thinness of string tone, there was anything wrong with the LSO’s performance, far from it. But the balances and crisp tonal quality were at times more reminiscent of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Sir Neville Marriner than of Sir Colin’s typically more full-blooded approach. That said, there were moments of sheer magic, such as the ineffably beautiful Harmoniemusik of the Andante, when it was abundantly clear who wielded the baton. Goode proved an exquisite Mozartian. Not only were there some truly melting solo passages; his structural command and elucidation were second to none. For instance, he emphasised, through colouring and discreet ornamentation, yet without didacticism, that the so-called double exposition of the first movement is better understood in terms of ritornello form, albeit refreshed by the experience of newer sonata forms. Indeed, whether as soloist or chamber musician, Goode shone throughout. Davis’s operatic experience was apparent in the opening tutti of the slow movement. This was very much a minor-key scena; I thought immediately of the Countess. Goode’s entry resembled that of an intelligent singer, whilst lacking nothing in his pianism. The chromatic harmonies were heart-rending yet never vulgarised. This is Mozartian variation form at its most perfect – and for once, it sounded so. The coda brought an almost Gluckian note of restrained, noble tragedy. High spirits surfaced in the hunting finale, but this is Mozart, not Haydn, so the musicians ensured through careful shading that the good humour was not untroubled – and not only in the minor-mode episode that looks forward to the D minor concerto, KV 466. Mozart can be even sadder in a major key than a minor key, as Davis and Goode are well aware. This was a distinguished performance, if not quite what I had expected.

Davis is as renowned for his Berlioz as his Mozart. Expectations were therefore as high for the Te Deum as for the concerto; I am glad to report that they were amply fulfilled. There is something very curious about this work. One can tell that Berlioz clearly did not believe a word of the text. Instead, he seems to be attempting a ceremonial piece for the civil religion of the Rousseuvian Enlightenment – or the Revolution. There is no straining to believe, as in Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis; rather, the hallowed canticle becomes a vehicle for something distanced and secular. There was quite rightly no piety, cloying or otherwise, to this performance; it was admirably straightforward in its rejoicing.

The opening hymn was exultant, the brass superlative here and throughout. Far from sounding overloaded, the Barbican Hall’s acoustic sounded fulfilled in the wonderful, awe-inspiring mass of instrumental and choral sound that enveloped us. The four pairs of cymbals at the end of the ‘Tibi omnes’ were a sight and a sound at which to marvel. There were more delicate moments too, of course, such as the ravishing woodwind evoking the angels earlier in that hymn, or the combination of organ and pizzicato strings, soon joined by positively Mendelssohnian woodwind, in the opening to the prayer, ‘Dignare, domine’. The organ sounded, as it should, from behind the audience and was clearly, given Davis’s signals behind himself, being played there too. However, some of the softer registrations betrayed a little too clearly the instrument's electronic nature. Colins Lee and Davis imparted an unexaggerated sense of the operatic to the prayer, ‘Te ergo quaesumus’. One could readily imagine the melody and accompaniment to have been extracted from Benvenuto Cellini. The female voices of the London Symphony Chorus were on very good form for their interventions here. Indeed, the choral singing was generally of a very high standard, my only cavil being that, occasionally when singing more softly, some of the men sounded, sad to say, a little old. However, the boys of Eltham College sounded glorious in the final ‘Judex crederis’. How could one ever be confounded, as the text might have us fear, in the presence of so jubilant a peroration? One could almost hear the bells pealing, even though they are nowhere to be found in the orchestra. The great climax was almost deafening, but thrilling in the best sense. This will be the latest work to join Davis’s Berlioz series for LSO Live. Such a performance certainly merits preservation, even in the face of fierce recorded competition from Sir Colin himself.

Friday, 20 February 2009

VPO/Mehta - Haydn and Bruckner, 19 February 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Haydn – Symphony no.104 in D major, ‘London’
Bruckner – Symphony no.9 in D minor

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta (conductor)

The best live performance of a Haydn symphony I have ever heard came a few years ago at the Proms: no.103, from the Vienna Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta. If this performance of Haydn’s ‘London’ symphony did not quite stand at that level, it was nevertheless very good indeed. Hearing Sir Simon Rattle conduct Haydn and Mozart with the same orchestra at the end of January had made me wonder whether even the Viennese had taken on a few tricks from the authenticists’ casebook. I need not have worried; the present performance made it clear that such concessions must have been exacted by Rattle though gritted teeth as desirous of period dentistry as ‘period performance’. In other words, the VPO under Mehta, a conductor more attuned to its traditions, sounded as glorious as of old.

The strings were of a reasonable size for a large hall ( one of those things that ought to be a matter of course, yet is nowadays increasingly rare. From the outset, the warmth of their vibrato, the delight of the occasional portamento, and the sheer cultivation of the playing were a joy to experience. The first movement’s powerful introduction led into a decidedly moderate-paced Allegro. I had no problem with this, though dogmatists doubtless would, but there was, I admit, just a little stolidity to this movement. Balanced against that – indeed more than balanced – was Mehta’s refusal to adopt extra-musical shock tactics, instead relying upon purely musical means. The Andante was taken at what was perhaps a surprisingly brisk pace, though it never sounded hurried. Mehta and the Viennese players demonstrated that contrapuntal clarity need not mean sacrifice of warmth and body of tone; indeed, it could be enhanced. The minuet was rightly taken three-to-a-bar, allowing for a good balance between poise and a Klemperer-like sturdiness. For the opening of the trio, the oboe solo and pizzicato strings below were as close to perfection as I could imagine, likewise the ensuing contributions from other woodwind instruments. There was a Beethovenian purpose – we are, after all, but a stone’s throw away from Beethoven – to what is often condescended to as a little light relief. The finale was fast but not so much that it ran away with the performers, this not least thanks to Mehta’s absolute rhythmic security. Again, there was a rightful impression of closeness to Beethoven but also a sense of fun, though never of demeaning slapstick. Where many conductors will emphasise the drone bass in an overly rustic sense, here we were reminded of origins but equally of their transformation into music of intellectual brilliance. The climax, when it came, was the more satisfying for the lack of exhibitionism; once again, the means and the thrills were purely musical.

Mehta dedicated the performance of Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony to the memory of producer, Christopher Raeburn, news of whose death had reached him and the orchestra upon their arrival in London. Such ‘heavenly music’, in Mehta’s words, seemed a fitting tribute – and so was its performance. The ominous opening ex nihilo inevitably reminded one of that to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but also cast a glance back to the introduction to the opening to the Haydn: a perfect fifth, yet, without a third, not at all clear whether D major or D minor. The first of several apocalyptic orchestral unisons was remarkable for the orchestra’s richness of tone, still more apparent in the material of the second group. Mysterious string tremolandi provided a firm and yet shifting foundation, above which woodwind and noble brass could weave their solo magic. Mehta, a conductor with great experience in the music of the Second Viennese School, was not afraid of those harmonies that point their way towards Schoenberg; nor, however, were they unduly sensationalised. Hints of Parsifal, and not only the more ritualistic outer acts, added to the sense of unfolding drama. At the conclusion to this movement, there could be no doubt that this was a drama of cosmic proportions. Implacable ensemble and rhythmic security characterised the terrifying scherzo. Mehta’s reading was deliberate, as it should be, but never plodding. And then, of course, came the great Adagio, with a sense of completion that would have made any thoughts of a fourth movement superfluous. The opening lament from the violins seemed to look forward to the violas in the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. Tonality, as in the Mahler, evolved rather than appearing as a given. The ensuing Dresden Amen inevitably brought Parsifal back to mind, and throughout Mehta and the VPO reminded us of the equally important influence of Tristan. Clearly they revelled in the luscious harmonies – and who could not? – but there was also a proto-expressionist queasiness to some of the more advanced language, which counselled against easy solutions. If victory there were to be, it would be hard won. For there was soon a sense of something so ineffable as to make even Messiaen seem hopelessly earth-bound. The orchestra’s fullness of tone, without ever the slightest hint of brashness, fitted Bruckner like a glove; the players’ ability seamlessly to blend could not have been more apparent. Even when the brass might have raised the dead incorruptible, there was no striving after mere effect. But after that terrible climax, the silence – whether of faith or of nihilism – was equally unnerving. Romantic attempts to console would follow, but whether it was too late remained – and in this most crucial sense the symphony remained ‘unfinished’ – an open question. Bruckner’s vision may render consolation impossible; at any rate, the concluding bars were numinous to a degree.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Tiberghien/Britten Sinfonia - Debussy, Richard Harrold, Thomas Adès, and Fauré, 17 February 2009

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Debussy – Sonata for violoncello and piano
Richard Harrold – Ink (British premiere)
Thomas Adès – ‘Court studies’ from The Tempest
Fauré – Piano trio in D minor, op.120

Cédric Tiberghien (piano)
Jacqueline Shave (violin)
Caroline Dearnley (violoncello)
Joy Farrall (clarinet)

Each of the Britten Sinfonia’s lunchtime concerts presents a newly commissioned work alongside other chamber or ensemble works; each, moreover, is curated by an established British composer, who selects a younger composer as recipient for the commission. Last month, we had Oliver Knussen and Ryan Wigglesworth; this time, it was the turn of Thomas Adès and Richard Harrold.

Harrold’s Ink had been premiered in Krakow at the weekend, so this was its second performance. Scored for violin, ’cello, clarinet, and piano, it is described by the composer as a ‘neo-baroque study of rhythm and asynchrony’. In the busy opening section, it was unsurprising therefore that it was Stravinsky who sprang to mind, especially the Stravinsky of Dumbarton Oaks. The performance was appropriately metronomical: Stravinsky’s peculiar vision of Bach has a great deal to answer for. A slower section follows, characterised by slow, somewhat mysterious piano chords, whose harmonies were sometimes suggestive of Debussy and perhaps even Schoenberg. Cédric Tiberghien’s beautiful touch and discreet legato pedalling served this music extremely well. The other three instruments develop this material, soon rejoined by the piano, enabling the music to gather pace and the opening, angular voice to be restored. Harrold’s quoted ‘asynchrony’ most strongly characterises the concluding bars: slower again, but with disruptive outbursts. This was well-crafted music, well performed, even if it was difficult to detect an individual voice. That said, this was my first encounter with Harrold’s music, let alone with this piece, so perhaps my ears need time to adjust. So young a composer has, in any case, plenty of time in which to develop.

Adès certainly can lay claim to a distinctive voice. Yet I have often wondered, as again I did here, what he is actually saying with it: shades of Schoenberg’s ‘A Chinese poet speaks Chinese, but what is he saying?’ There is an accomplished, self-conscious brilliance to this music, ‘transcribed ... freely’ for the same forces as Harrold’s piece, from The Tempest, but what lies behind the facade? I had asked myself much the same about Adès’s opera, although the instrumental suite naturally avoided the mother work’s vocal infelicities. Even when the harmonies begin to sound more reflective, they soon become predictable. There is, of course, a playfulness typical of the composer’s work – and very well captured by the performers – but, whilst playing on the ruins of tonality is all very well, it is hardly sufficient in itself.

At least, however, Ades’s music evinces more bite than that of Fauré. A self-conscious distancing from Teutonic tradition is very much part of Adès’s persona – but there might be more worthy candidates for inclusion in such a programme than Fauré’s late piano trio. It goes nowhere in particular, for quite some time. Again, it was well performed, once Caroline Dearnley had – quickly – surmounted some early intonational difficulties. Yet the blandness of the harmonies, even in the final Allegro vivo, which at least boasts greater rhythmic interest, is for me the abiding memory of the piece. It ought to appeal to those members of the English musical establishment who devoted vast swathes of programming time last year to a forlorn attempt to convince the rest of us – and perhaps even themselves – that Vaughan Williams was anything but a minor composer. (It will not, since Fauré was not English.) Tiberghien’s pianism proved on its own terms most impressive, whether in the rippling opening of the first movement or the relatively more virtuosic passages of the finale.

Such musicianship was far better served, however, by Debussy’s ’cello sonata, with which the concert had opened. Tiberghien’s alternation between the virile and the feline perfectly captured the ambiguities of the first movement. Both he and Dearnley showed keen ears not only for the composer’s harmonies but for their rhythmic and structural implications. Shades of old France – Debussy was by now signing himself ‘musicien français’ – were apparent without emblazoning them. The ensuing Sérénade was, if anything, still more impressive, its haunting uncertainty sometimes blossoming into lyricism, yet with appropriate hesitation. Dearnley’s pizzicato and Tiberghien’s bass-register staccato proved a good match, so as not only to imitate but also to blend. Rhythmic control in the finale was impressive, as the sonata reached a duly exciting, yet unexaggerated conclusion. If Tiberghien unsurprisingly remained the musically dominant partner, Dearnley’s performance also impressed, especially when her instrument was singing upon the upper reaches of the A string. The sonata was for me the definite highlight of the concert.

This concert was recorded for subsequent broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Birtwistle - Down by the Greenwood Side/Benjamin - Into the Little Hill, ROH2, 14 February 2009

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Sir Harrison Birtwistle – Down by the Greenwood Side

Mrs Green – Claire Booth
Father Christmas – Pip Donaghy
Saint George – Wela Frasier
Bold Slasher – Robert Hastie
Dr Blood/Jack Finney – Julian Forsyth

George Benjamin – Into the Little Hill

Claire Booth (mezzo-soprano)
Susan Bickley (soprano)

The Opera Group
John Fulljames (director)
Soutra Gilmour (designs)
Jon Clark (lighting)
Jami Reid-Quarrell (choreography)
Mick McNicholas (projection designs)

London Sinfonietta
George Benjamin (conductor)

As fiascos go, this opening night deserves reognition. My observation has nothing to do with the works or the performances; indeed, one must feel a great deal of sympathy for the artists involved. It was clear that things were not going quite to plan when, following rather a late start, the interval scene-changing – which did not look as though it involved very much – continued long after everyone had been reseated. Then, part of the way through the first of the two parts of George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill, everything suddenly stopped. To begin with, it was not clear, at least to me, that this was not intentional. Much of the work had been shrouded in relative darkness in any case, but eventually an announcement informed us that the theatre had suffered a power cut. These things happen: bad luck but probably no one’s fault. The protracted scene changes made me wonder, though. We sat in the darkness for some time, until another announcement was made. It would take another ten minutes, so could we patient? Fair enough and, given the absurd Health-‘n’-Safety regimes under which we all must now (New) labour, one could understand why we were told we should have to stay in our seats rather than repair to the bar. Eventually a further announcement was made, to the effect that everything was being done to rectify the situation, it was firmly intended that the performance should resume, but this was going to require more time. With the help of ushers and their torches, we should now make our way to the bar, where a complimentary drink would greet us. What then happened, or rather did not happen, was the most annoying aspect. Although we had been told that further updates would be afforded us in the foyer, the management fell silent. So far as we could tell from the outside screens, nothing had been solved on the stage. ROH2 really needs to get its act together. Eventually, one hour after the performance should have finished, I cut my losses and headed back to King’s Cross. Needless to say, First Capital Connect, or whatever it styles itself nowadays, then added to the ‘experience’, having cancelled a good number of trains on account of what is euphemistically termed a ‘winter timetable’.

For what it is worth, Birtwistle’s Down by the Greenwood Side received a good performance, alert to so many of the preoccupations that have informed the composer’s subsequent work, especially the often-violent re-telling of myth and its transformation when viewed from differing perspectives. Apart from one forgivable slip, Claire Booth handled the only sung role with the expected, yet still commendable facility. The actors all seemed secure in the placing of their lines and performed well on stage. Michael Nyman’s weirdly unsettling text was audible and meaningful throughout. Benjamin conducted the London Sinfonietta with evident appreciation of the score’s Stravinskian antecedents: The Soldier’s Tale loomed very large. A little more violence would not have gone amiss but on the whole this was a sound musical account. John Fulljames set the action in a derelict children’s playground. Mrs Green was a bag lady and the rest of the cast had more than a little of the vagrant to them. Perhaps this is where we can still catch a glimpse of a non-idealised English past: certainly better this than the blandness of Vaughan Williams and the cow-pat school. The ritualistic non-realism of the direction, within this ‘realistic’ setting, suited the work very well. Artificiality can often be more ‘real’ than the reactionary ‘story-telling’ some opera-audiences apparently desire.

After Birtwistle’s music-theatre piece, Benjamin’s chamber opera started off well. Little of the action is staged – at least in the fragment we saw. Indeed, the recounting of Martin Crimp’s political fairy-tale parable by two female singers seemed more akin to a cantata than an opera. Again, one might say that artifice is problematised and exploited. Benjamin, both as composer and as conductor. drew beguiling sonorities from the London Sinfonietta. And once again, Stravinsky did not seem so very distant, especially when one heard the cimbalom; nor, on at least one occasion, did Berg. The singers seemed at home in his idiom, far from ungrateful to the human voice. The production did not amount to much more at this stage than projection of key words and phrases on stage. But then, of course, proceedings came to a halt. I hope that subsequent audiences will be more fortunate and look forward to hearing from them.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Jerusalem Quartet, Haydn, 10 February 2009

Wigmore Hall

Haydn – String Quartet in C major, op.33 no.3, ‘The Bird’
Haydn – String Quartet in G minor, op.74 no.3, ‘Rider’
Haydn – String Quartet in F minor, op.20 no.5
Haydn – String Quartet in G major, op.77 no.1

Alexander Pavlovsky (violin)
Sergei Bresler (violin)
Amihai Grosz (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (violoncello)

This was another wonderful instalment in the Wigmore Hall’s Haydn bicentenary celebrations, presenting all of the composer’s string quartets from op.20 onwards. The programmes are, in refreshingly non-bureaucratic style, taking different forms. For instance, the Hagen Quartet performed all six of the op.76 set over two evenings, of which I caught the second. By contrast, the Jerusalem Quartet presented a selection of four quartets ranging across Haydn’s career. One appreciates a certain degree of technical development, it is true; more noteworthy, however, is the sheer inventiveness and matching of form to content in all four of these works. The Jerusalem Quartet’s excellent performances certainly furthered that appreciation.

Op. 33 no.3 has been nicknamed ‘The Bird’. The lively voicing of the opening movement’s acciaccaturas imparted an incidental avian pleasure; more importantly, the players were alert to the context of those crushed notes, which by turn amused, intensified, and beguiled. Here, as throughout the recital, the movement’s form was clearly delineated, yet in a sense that heightened the import of the apparently ‘incidental’. Even in 1781 – and arguably considerably before this – Haydn was pre-empting Beethoven, as we heard in the song-like scherzo. Mozartian parallels – or foreshadowing – came to the fore in its trio, scored for just the two violins. By the same token, one never felt that this was anyone other than Haydn himself. The beautiful Adagio proved endlessly melodic, not least in Alexander Pavlovsky’s increasingly ornate – written-out – ornamentation of the repeated first section. In this, he was aided by excellent harmonic and melodic support below the first violin line. The Presto rondo finale brought not only a change of mood and tempo, but also, as throughout the concert, a true sense of the tempi of individual movements being proportionate to one another and therefore an understanding of the quartet as a whole. What I slightly missed here was a somewhat greater earthiness but that was an extremely rare reservation to most distinguished quartet-playing.

With the ‘Rider’ quartet, its key of G minor might lead one to expect a closeness to Mozart. The triple time of the first movement might initially suggest shades of the minuet of the great G minor symphony, KV 550. Haydn’s muse develops, however, into something quite other, combining relative tragedy – certainly not on the scale of Mozart – with a charming rusticity in the major-mode second subject, here swung delightfully. The pulse of the slow movement sounded just right. A great number of conductors could learn from the practice of chamber music, given the present tendency to rush similar orchestral movements, likewise from the Jerusalem Quartet’s natural, unassuming rubato. Their sweet-toned vibrato was indicative of an eminently musical approach that rejected bogus notions of ‘authenticity’. The players presented a Gluckian noble simplicity, whilst at times looking forward to Schubert in their plumbing of emotional depths that have often, unthinkingly, been denied to Haydn. Progressive ornamentation was beautifully handled, in a fashion that heightened the emotional intensity of Haydn’s great Largo assai. The sun could shine through in the G major minuet – and it did. By contrast, its trio brought sterner moments and an intelligent handling of its chromaticism, always sure of where Haydn’s harmonies were leading us. A serious note was struck with the onset of the finale, but soon grace and high spirits quite rightly jostled for our attention. Pavlovsky’s solos were despatched with great élan, yet as ever ‘only’ as first amongst equals.

The F minor quartet, op.20 no.5 gave us a taste of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang, albeit tempered by a keen sense of the tightness of the composer’s construction. Every note sounded rightly essential. Tension in the opening Moderato’s development was revealed as inherent in the compositional material, not as some ‘expression’ somehow to be ‘applied’ to it. The bursting forth of the recapitulation likewise sounded absolutely necessary, leaving us full of expectation for the ensuing minuet. Here, once again, the give and take of the players’ rubato sounded as natural as could be; indeed, not once in this recital did I detect the slightest hint of any mannerism. The nicely lilting trio brought tonal relief with its major mode. With the ensuing siciliano rhythms of the Adagio, we were once again granted the opportunity to hear first violin flights of fancy above, exquisitely performed by Pavlovsky. In the fugal finale, counterpoint was clear yet never ‘abstract’. Figuration that in some senses might look back to the Baroque sonata da chiesa nevertheless sounded very much of the Classical period, melding seamlessly into the musical argument.

With the first movement of op.77 no.1, the players immediately captured the almost – but not quite – Mozartian mood of a charming serenade-march, before demonstrating to us that the real thing is the development of Haydn’s material. The Adagio is yet another of Haydn’s great slow movements. Here, I was especially struck by Kyril Zlotnikov’s rich-toned ’cello underpinning to the movement’s harmonic momentum. In its expansiveness, this movement, especially as performed here, projected an inerrant sense of the unfolding of a great tonal plan, almost the musical equivalent to the wondrous eighteenth-century revelations of Newtonian science. The dying away at the movement’s close was exquisite. In the minuet and trio, we again hear Haydn stealing from music’s Beethovenian future. The rhythmic security and confidence of the Jerusalem players stood them in good stead for the good-natured humour of the trio. Finally, we came to the truly singular Presto, in which the Lydian colouring of the principal theme almost makes one wonder whether this is Bartók rather than Haydn. The performers wisely did not exaggerate this aspect, letting the music speak for itself; grotesquerie would have been quite out of place. Yet the insistence of that astonishing sharpened fourth nevertheless shone through. This remained, of course, quartet music, but the players did not shy from conveying an entirely appropriate kinship with some of Haydn’s contemporary symphonic finales. What a joy it was to hear Haydn performed with such zest and musical intelligence as here!

Monday, 2 February 2009

Salzburg Mozartwoche (4): Mahler Chamber Orchestra/Harding - Pintscher, Mozart, and Boulez

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg

Matthias Pintscher – Transir: concerto for flute and chamber orchestra
Mozart – Lucio Silla, KV 135: ‘Il tenero momento’ and ‘Pupile amate’
Mozart – La clemenza di Tito, KV 621: ‘Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio’
Boulez – Mémoriale (...explosante-fixe... Originel), for flute and eight instruments
Mozart – Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551, ‘Jupiter’

Magali Mosnier (flute)
Susan Graham (mezzo-soprano)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor)

This final concert of the Salzburg Mozartwoche was clearly intended as a summation of some of the festival’s principal themes, including as it did three of the four featured composers; only Haydn was missing. Matthias Pintscher showed in Transir, his concerto for flute and chamber orchestra from 2005-6, what a resourceful, intriguing, and successful composer he is. Inspired by the idea that the flute in one form or another is one of the most ancient of all musical instruments and by its close relationship to and extension of human breath itself, Pintscher has written that he wished to explore the ‘particular aura’ of the flute as an instrument. This comes across in the work, as do the prehistoric antecedents. Before the soloist even enters, we hear noises from the orchestra that one might characterise as almost flute-like, or perhaps as straining towards the flute-like. Then we hear the flute work towards – and sometimes veering beyond? – a conventional tone, through Berio-like extended techniques, evoking the mists of time and yet remaining very much of our own. Violent, exotic sounds emanate from the orchestra, riotous sections recalling to me Boulez’s ongoing Notations. It is as if we are hearing a dialogue between soloist and orchestra that in some sense represents the creation of music itself. ‘Liminal’ is a word sorely over-used but it seems apt here. Moreover, Pintscher utilises all sections of his chamber orchestra to marvellous effect. The young players of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra clearly relished this opportunity and impressed, as did Daniel Harding, with rhythmical exactitude. There is a great sense of drama: incipient, immanent, and imminent, and the ending leaves us in response. What next? The young French flautist, Magali Mosnier was in her element throughout, displaying an astonishing technique fully worthy of a piece premiered by Emmanuel Pahud.

So did she also in Boulez’s Mémoriale, which I had been fortunate enough to hear in a Proms performance last summer from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Twice within a matter of months: I may be deluding myself but I do sense a broader popular response recently to Boulez’s music. Once again, the composer was in the audience to receive applause, although he seemed only just to have arrived, still wearing a scarf and overcoat. Febrile, almost glassy strings at the opening hinted at the work’s electronic origins. Mosnier’s trills were extremely beautiful – and very modern-‘flute-like’. It was as if Pintscher had prepared the way for an almost classical statement of the instrument’s charms and capabilities.

In between the Pintscher and Boulez works, we heard three Mozart arias from Susan Graham. The first two came from the early, yet in many ways astonishing, opera seria, Lucio Silla. From the opening of her first recitative, ‘Dunque sperar poss’io di pascer gl’occhi miei,’ Graham displayed fine diction, musicality, and dramatic flair. I was less enamoured with the vibrato-less string accompaniment. Thankfully, vibrato was permitted in the aria itself, ‘Il tenero momento’. I cannot deny that I should have preferred more, but at least we were not subjected to hair-shirt sonorities. Graham’s coloratura was dazzling, not least in its clarity, whilst the woodwind chuckled away delectably. And the heroic nature of Graham’s mezzo proved a fine substitute for the castrato voice. I was impressed by the way that Harding treated this as grown-up music, helping it sound as close to Gluck and yet as distinctly Mozartian as it truly is. ‘Pupille amate’ provided contrast, presenting Mozart in seductive triple-time mode. He can certainly move the listener, even at this stage in his career. Hushed tone was employed here – unlike the previous night’s G minor symphony – for expressive rather than narcissistic purposes. Sesto’s aria, with its celebrated clarinet obbligato, received at least as fine a reading. This may have been Mozart closer to Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s example than I prefer, but it was coherently so. Harding’s projection of the orchestral part was virile rather than merely vexed (Rattle). Moreover, the tempi seemed just right – and dramatically flexible. Graham likewise presented no contradiction between the musical line and dramatic projection. Such was the vividness of her portrayal that one would have had a very good idea what the words meant, even if one lacked acquaintance either with the Italian language or with La clemenza di Tito. This was exemplary Mozart singing.

The final work in the concert and the final work of the festival was, appropriately enough, Mozart’s last symphony, the Jupiter. Whatever reservations I might voice, this was on the whole a performance I enjoyed greatly, and certainly a performance that far outshone the aforementioned Rattle fortieth. Despite a slightly smaller orchestra (nine first violins to the VPO’s ten), there was often a much fuller sound. This was doubtless partly a result of the smaller hall – why do many conductors fail to recognise that a larger hall requires a larger orchestra? – but also of Harding’s more direct, vigorous style. There was nothing ascetic, let alone condescending, to this. One was keenly aware of trumpets and drums: a hallmark of Mozart in his rejoicing mode of C major. Whilst vibrato was occasionally somewhat on the low side, it was thoughtfully varied rather than dogmatically eliminated. Sometimes, the MCO strings sounded delightfully sweet. Moreover, there was a wonderful, almost Abbado-like sense of the players listening and responding to each other, although Harding projected a more dominant personality than his mentor has often been wont to do.

The structure of the first movement was admirably clear and there was a true sense of return for the recapitulation. I was not sure about the occasional rhetorical pauses Harding imposed. In fact, I was sure: they were disruptive. Otherwise, there was a good sense of line, at least with respect to musical paragraphs, and phrasing was consistently stylish. There were a few imperfections of ensemble from the second movement’s muted violins, but the haunting veiled quality achieved made that a price worth paying. This Andante cantabile was not slow but nor was it rushed; rather it flowed. Magical woodwind solos were a particular highlight. If on occasion, some of the music was a little too moulded, that was as nothing when compared to Rattle’s exaggerations. Harding’s minuet was boisterous rather than stately; it was rather fun, but is that what it should be? Its chromatic harmonies were nicely handled though. The trio was similar, though the minor-key episode exuded an apposite vehemence. However, I did not care at all for the pause imposed prior to the return of the minuet; the music was simply left hanging. Normally, I should not have cared for the second-time observation of repeats; Mozart’s music, however, is so rich, that I was quite happy to hear it as much as possible. The great finale was contrapuntal in character from (almost) the outset. Mozart’s learned Fuxian side fuses imperceptibly with his expressive energy to produce something quite astonishing here – and for the most part, this is just how it sounded on this occasion. Harding’s Jupiter was festal; this is, of course, C major. It exhibited a fine swagger – and why not? And perhaps most importantly, it was urgent. Harding – and his orchestra – also displayed a good ear for oft-overlooked orchestral detail, without making it seem like perverse point-scoring. A true sense of dramatic purpose characterised the movement’s sweep and here there were no disruptions to the greater line. The second repeat was taken, which in most Classical symphonies seems at best a waste of time, but in this case is quite justified on account of the coda. There was a strange instance of flute ornamentation during the recapitulation, which was not a slip, since it happened on the first and second time around. Where I felt a slight sense of anti-climax, oddly enough, was in the astonishing coda with its quintuple invertible counterpoint. There is much to be said for permitting the contrapuntal miracle to speak for itself but Harding might just have pushed it a little more dramatically, especially given the added tension arising from the second repeat. In that context, the blaring of the trumpets sounded rather overdone. Nevertheless, this remained an estimable, winningly youthful account.

Salzburg Mozartwoche (3): Daniel Barenboim and Elena Bashkirova - Mozart and Schoenberg, 1 February 2009

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum, Salzburg

Mozart – Five variations on an Andante, for piano, four hands, KV 501
Schoenberg – Three piano pieces, op.11
Schoenberg, arr. Webern – Five orchestral pieces, op.16
Mozart – Fantasia in C minor, KV 475
Mozart – Piano sonata in C minor, KV 457

Elena Bashkirova (piano)
Daniel Barenboim (piano)

There was one and only one sense in which this solo/duo recital proved a disappointment. The promised performance of Boulez’s first book of Structures failed to materialise. An opportunity to hear this high water-mark of serialism from any performers, let alone from pianists who show a great commitment to contemporary music without in any sense being ‘specialists’, is a rare one indeed; it would surely have been a highpoint in the Salzburg Mozartwoche’s coverage of one of this year’s featured composers. Why it was replaced I can only speculate but I am sure that, if there were any difficulties, it was better to cancel than to present an unready performance.

Instead, Daniel Barenboim and Elena Bashkirova presented Webern’s 1912 transcription for two pianos of Schoenberg’s Five orchestral pieces, op.16, a rarity that in any other context I should have welcomed with open arms – and indeed, once over the initial disappointment, did here. In this of all works, much is lost in transcription, especially in Farben, the locus classicus of Klangfarbenmelodie. Any number of pianos cannot begin to suggest, let alone truly to express, that astoundingly original and, more important, beautiful rethinking of melody through transformation of tone-colours. One is made to listen to the harmonies, of course, which are far from without interest, although they sound a little like greyed Debussy in this context. Otherwise, however, there is a great deal to be learned from Webern’s transcription. It is not of especial interest in itself; it is certainly not the kind of reimagination that Schoenberg visited upon Bach or Brahms, let Handel or Monn. One can only guess at the rage with which the composer would have reacted to such impudence. Webern, however, acts with typical fidelity to his teacher and allows one to hear all sorts of compositional details in new light, just as one does in, say, Liszt’s transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies. Barenboim is an experienced Schoenbergian and one of the world’s greatest interpreters of this very work in its original version, as I had experienced last year in Berlin. The pieces’ structure was lain bare but so was their enthralling dramatic drive – and their symphonic unity. Peripetie did just what it should, provided a (tragic?) turning-point and the ominous nature of Vorgefühle was almost as powerful as it might have been with orchestra. Barenboim was very much the senior partner, which one would expect, but which nevertheless led to occasional underplaying of certain parts. This should not be exaggerated, though, and is in any case an extremely minor equivocation.

Barenboim also played Schoenberg’s Op.11 pieces, one of the greatest piano works of the twentieth century. Once again, he proved alert both to the pieces’ particular characteristics and to their overarching unity. One can really only sense the latter once dusk has arrived and the owl of Minerva has taken flight, but one certainly did here. The violence of the third piece was expressed as much through understanding of its compositional originality and complexity as through pianistic virtuosity, although the latter was certainly in evidence too. And the daringly slow tempo for the second piece was triumphantly vindicated by Barenboim’s Wagnerian command of line and of harmonic implication.

At the opening of the concert, we had heard Mozart’s G major variations for four hands, one piano. This was in many respects an estimable account: eminently musical and with great clarity of structure. Occasionally I thought that some of the earlier variations might have been more vividly characterised, perhaps through greater dynamic contrast. Perhaps Bashkirova and her husband should play piano duets together a little more often.

Certainly, Barenboim impressed far more in the solo piano works by Mozart that made up the second half. The C minor Fantasia received a commanding reading, one which I really could not fault. Here Barenboim drew on a far more varied dynamic palette, which partly of course reflects the nature of the work. But this was never for mere effect; dynamic and tempo variations were always in accordance with the melos of the work. The often tricky balance to be struck between structural integrity and a sense of improvisation never seemed remotely a problem on this occasion. Indeed, the dialectic between these two poles was a fruitful source of musical and dramatic tension. So as to forestall applause, Barenboim launched immediately into the C minor sonata. Whilst it is perfectly permissible to play the two works independently, it would be perverse to do so when they follow one another. This performance was every bit as fine as that of the fantasia, although unsurprisingly less improvisatory in its nature. Otherwise, it exhibited many of the same virtues. The cantabile line in the Adagio achieved the perfection that Mozart demands but so rarely receives, whilst the outer movements were not only exciting but profoundly aware of what it is – can one even begin to put it into words? – that makes Mozart in a minor key so very special. The composer’s sometimes extreme chromaticism was allowed to speak for itself: savoured but not exaggerated. We were already close enough to the Schoenberg we had heard during the first half. The tragic drive that is so very much Mozart’s own was faultlessly presented – and experienced. What a tonic after the previous night’s G minor symphony!