Monday, 30 November 2009

Holzmair/Haefliger - Winterreise, 29 November 2009

Wigmore Hall

Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)
Andreas Haefliger (piano)

This was the third and, most likely, last of my three Winterreisen this year, following Thomas Quasthoff and Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, and Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach, also at the Wigmore Hall. All three were very different performances, and not necessarily in ways I might have expected. Quasthoff and Barenboim, insofar as I could discern, given a supremely objectionable audience, proved the most Classical in outlook. Goerne and Eschenbach, not without their intimations of the twentieth century, might nevertheless be considered the most Romantic in their approach. To my surprise, it was the highly dramatic performance of Wolfgang Holzmair and Andreas Haefliger that took us deepest into the expressionist realm.

Holzmair’s general approach to the cycle is quite unlike any other I can recall. From the first words of Gute Nacht, one heard a directness of speech akin to poetry reading, the speech rhythms of Wilhelm Müller’s verse replicated in a fashion one might expect more of Mussorgsky or Janáček than Schubert. I might be tempted to call the performance operatic, were that term not so sullied with inappropriate Italianate connotations. Musico-dramatic then, for Wagner more than once came to mind: roles as diverse as Amfortas, Mime, and Tannhäuser. Perhaps it is the lightness of Holzmair’s baritone helps one think in terms of tenor roles; at any rate, this is a very different voice from that of Quasthoff or Goerne. Holzmair is not at all an artist to subordinate drama to musical beauty. Some might feel affronted that he does quite the opposite, and there is a degree of loss, but no single performance can be all-encompassing. He is unafraid to make sounds which, considered in themselves, might be ugly: again Wagner and indeed Schoenberg are not so far off the mark here. It also seems to me – and I wonder if I am being merely fanciful – that there is something specifically Austrian to Holzmair’s reading; certain vowels sound far more Viennese than hochdeutsch. Haefliger, moreover, proved anything but a reticent partner. At times, his part sounded well-nigh orchestral: more so, interestingly, than that of the conductor Barenboim.

This winter journey, then, was bleak from the onset of Haefliger’s insistent tread to Gute Nacht. Moments of repose, of beauty even, were rare. Risks were taken, for insistence the extreme rubato in Die Wetterfahne, suggestive of the possibility that the weather-vane might turn any which way. The wind, after all, ‘plays with hearts inside’. Occasionally such risks did not quite pay off; for instance, there were moments in Gefrorne Tränen and Rückblick when the performers were not quite together. Yet the dramatic end was always paramount, never more so than in the frozen rage of the final stanza to Erstarrung, or the freezing wind from voice and piano in Der Lindenbaum. A truly terrifying crescendo upon the words, ‘Und der weiche Schness zerrint,’ ensured that even the possibility of a warmer wind brought no consolation. Again, this might well be considered one-sided, and is far from the only path to follow, but it worked.

Frühlingstraum, a rare opportunity for Schubert’s aching beauty to manifest itself, was almost unbearable, the return to the major mode for ‘Ich träumte von Lieb’ und Liebe’ heartbreaking. In his harmonic preparation, Haefliger knew precisely where he was taking us – and why. Der greise Kopf was very slow – but again, it worked. In the piano prelude to Letzte Hoffnung, there was an almost pointillistic, Webern-like quality to be heard: no surprise, if one consults the score, for it even looks like late Brahms or Webern. A modernistic, fragmentary quality informed both of the first two stanzas, rendering all the more shocking Holzmair’s desperate lyricism when considering that the leaf might fall to the ground. A couple of songs on, and if you found Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau hectoring, you would certainly have felt the same of Holzmair’s Der stürmische Morgen. Yet this was a particular conception of a particular song. In Täuschung, Haefliger once again conjured up a fleeting image of beauty – Täuschung (delusion) indeed – seemingly derived from, or at least related to, the piano impromptus in its rhythmic and harmonic pointing.

This could only be a momentary distraction, however, from the ineffable sadness characterising Der Wegweiser. Here, Holzmair exhibited a prayer-like calm, beseeching someone or something in the second stanza: ‘I have, after all, done no wrong...’. Yet what does that someone or something care about that? The spareness of the piano writing in the final stanza sounded closer to late Liszt than I have ever heard before: chilling. After that, the sad dignity of the chords in Das Wirtshaus was almost more than I could take, though Holzmair managed to ratchet up the tension still further, with a bare honesty of expression far removed from conventional beauty at the end of the song. Der Leiermann brought a direct, deathly simplicity, which chilled to the bone. Rage – and what rage there had been! – was gone. As ever, Holzmair brought one so close to the verse itself, music almost negating itself. I was terrified. Even the inevitable return – had they ever gone away? – of the coughers could not quite disrupt the awestruck silence that ensued.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Alceste, Chelsea Opera Group, 28 November 2009

Cadogan Hall

Herald – Jonathan Sells
Coryphaeuses – Sophie Junker, Amy Payne, Paul Curievici, Jonathan Sells
Evandre – Paul Curievici
Alceste – Cécile van de Sant
High Priest of Apollo – Matthew Hargreaves
Oracle – Simon Wilding
Admète – Peter Bronder
Hercule – David Stout
Infrenal Deity – Simon Wilding
Apollo – Jonathan Sells

Chelsea Opera Group (guest chorus master: Robin Newton)
Nicholas Collon (conductor)

How welcome to hear Gluck’s Alceste at all, let alone in so creditable a rendition, for which many thanks must go to the ever enterprising Chelsea Opera Group. However revered Gluck might be by those of us who hope against hope that opera might be concerned with drama rather than vapid vocal display, the composer arguably receives the rawest deal of all the great musical dramatists in terms of performance. The COG’s history is of course littered with important performances, not least Colin Davis’s early Mozart and Berlioz, so it is perhaps to be expected that its attention might turn to such a cause. Rather to my surprise, I discovered that the group had mounted Alceste once before, under Lázsló Heltay, in 1983. I assume that was also the 1776 French version; performances of the original, Italian version, in many respects quite a different work, are extremely rare indeed. In any case, a generation is quite long enough to have waited and we can but hope for more Gluck from this stable.

Following the previous night’s ENO Messiah, quite the worst production of anything I have seen this year, it proved something of a relief to be able to concentrate on the music in the form of a concert performance. (And no, this does not contradict what I said above concerning opera as drama, though it is a sadness that one should have to say it.) I had heard Nicholas Collon only once before, in quite different repertoire, Berio’s Différences, but I hope and expect that there will be many other occasions. This was for the most part a Classical rather than a proto-Romantic Gluck, whatever the foreshadowings of Berlioz in the score. Collon, however, showed that this could be achieved without any of the condescension and unpleasantness of the ‘historically-informed’ – actually, anything but – brigade. Gluck’s vigour and dignity, his Winckelmann-like ‘noble simplicity’, and above all his concern for dramatic truth, were well served here. One felt very much that this was a French work, a tragédie lyrique in direct descent from Rameau; one could also hear that Idomeneo and, in the Oracle’s pronouncement, the Commendatore were only just around the corner. Rhythmic and harmonic impetus was maintained throughout, without any recourse to exhibitionistic shock tactics or otherwise frenetically driving the score. If the tragedy did not overwhelm in the way it might with a conductor such as Riccardo Muti, it is only fair to remind oneself that Muti had the forces of La Scala, whilst the Chelsea Opera Group is an amateur organisation.

Indeed, despite the odd fluff – more than that, sadly, in the case of the horns – the orchestra put many jaded professionals to shame. There were some truly wonderful moments, for instance the beautiful, melting oboe solo in Alceste’s ‘Grands Dieux, du destin qui m’accable,’ and the extraordinary piercing violin figuration during the Act I Scene III priests’ chorus. ‘Perce d’un rayon éclatant’ (‘Pierce with a shining ray’) – and it did. Orchestra and priests combined here in the Temple of Apollo to elicit a duly terrifying effect. There was a nice swing to the opening scene of the second act, in which premature rejoicing for the sparing of Admète’s life was heard once again from both orchestra and chorus. Collon ensured that ‘life’ here contrasted with the tragedy of impending sacrifice from the first act, heightening the tension between appearance and the reality that tragedy is still very much with us. The ballet music was not perfect, but more important than a few smudges was the character imparted to the dances: they too, indeed they particularly, must be compelled to take on dramatic character. In Gluck, the aspiration must be for nothing to be extraneous – which is perhaps why the closing divertissement, much of it in any case by Gossec, was omitted.

The choral singing, as I have already more than hinted, was generally of a very high standard: full-bodied yet in no sense lacking in clarity, one in the eye for those insisting that the latter require a paucity of forces. There was much to commend in the solo singing too. Cécile can de Sant could hardly be expected to erase memories of Janet Baker and Jessye Norman, or Kirsten Flagstad in the Italian version, but she showed herself fully committed to the draining title role. To begin with, she occasionally sounded a little forced; perhaps it was a matter of adjusting to the acoustic of a small hall such as the Cadogan. It was noticeable that she remained in character throughout, her eyes and stance reflecting her predicament even when she was not singing. When she was, she combined style and dramatic projection to very good effect. She had, moreover, the inestimable advantage of good French. Peter Bronder was less impressive as Admète. Whether again he was simply trying too hard for the acoustic, I do not know, but he often sounded uncomfortably loud, hectoring even. There could be no doubting his dramatic commitment, but shouting something does not in itself render it ‘dramatic’. David Stout made a bluff, good-natured Hercule, a role absent in the Italian original. Also notable was Matthew Hargreaves, as a suitably stentorian High Priest of Apollo. There were, indeed, no disappointments in any of the smaller roles. Special mention should be made of Paul Curievici, whose plangent, expressive tenor was put to stylish use as Evandre and a Coryphaeus. A member of the Guildhall’s Opera Programme, I do not doubt that we shall hear more from him.

Chelsea Opera Group will present two further operas in concert this season, both at the Queen Elizabeth Hall: La traviata on 21 February and Guillaume Tell on 23 May.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Messiah, English National Opera, 27 November 2009

The Coliseum, London

Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Catherine Wyn-Rogers (contralto)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Brindley Sherratt (bass)
Harry Bradford (treble)

Deborah Warner (director)
Tom Pye (set designs)
Moritz Junge (costumes)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Leo Warner, Lysander Ashton, and Tom Pye (video)
Kim Brandstrup (choreographer)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Laurence Cummings (conductor)

Just when I had begun to wonder whether ENO had gained a certain edge over its Covent Garden neighbour, along came this. Deborah Warner’s staging of Handel’s Messiah does not, as she admits in the programme, entail ‘turning it into an opera’. Apparently, she has introduced ‘a visual element which is a quite different process to dramatising it’. I am not sure what she means by this; more importantly, I am not at all sure what it was that we saw on stage. The ‘narrative thread ... woven clearly through the three parts of the evening’ – does Handel’s work not already possess a narrative thread of some import? – eluded me, though, goodness knows, I tried. What I saw was an extraordinary mixture of pretentious irrelevance and bizarre literalism, united only by their common thread of banality. Much to my astonishment, what remained of the audience seemed to love it.

The first part I found straightforwardly incomprehensible. Opening with some metropolitan video footage – all of the filming was very well presented, though its end remained dubious, to say the least – the first ‘scene’, as I suppose we should call it, appears to show John Mark Ainsley leaving orders of service on some makeshift pews, whilst other people in everyday dress go about their daily business. Somehow having a woman do the ironing and someone else look at a computer screen is held to illuminate ‘Comfort ye ... Ev’ry valley shall be exalted’. Lots of other people in everyday dress – all different, attesting to considerable effort on Moritz Junge’s part, however dubious the end... – come on to mill around for the first chorus. And I must not forget the hyperactive child who runs around for a great deal of the proceedings. Whether he is doing Warner’s bidding or his own thing, I neither know nor care. Doubtless some people, sentimental at the very mention of children and animals, found this winning; I wished I had a revolver to reach for. For some reason, the child collects in the pieces of paper almost as soon as Ainsley has handed them out. Perhaps this signals that we are not going to proceed along the usual track; perhaps it signifies nothing at all. We see a photographed scene from a school nativity play for the nativity itself. From time to time, depictions of Christ and other ‘ordinary’ faces appear on screen. Nothing seems to bear any relation to anything else. I can only assume that these are various facets of the ‘community’ to which the programme makes repeated reference: good for New Labour-style ‘inclusivity’, ‘access’, and other such buzzwords, I suppose.

The second part is worse still. Banal dance routines become more common. (Again, they seem very well delivered by the dancers; it is certainly not their fault.) The opening numbers feature a strangely literalistic, albeit bloodless, representation of scourging and so forth, whilst members of the ‘community’ look on. ‘All we, like sheep,’ displays lots of people scurrying up and down escalators at what appears to be Liverpool Street station. ‘Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron’ appears to show a camp display of conjuring: more ‘community entertainment’ perhaps? After that, the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus simply has people walk around and hug each other, as if it were a particularly lame Home Counties celebration of New Year’s Eve, before all coming together – ‘community’? – at the front of the stage, to face the audience. To have ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ sung from a life-support machine is risible enough, but then slowly to have the sun rise and other people get up from their hospital beds, as we hear of the Resurrection of the dead, is downright offensive in the banality of its ‘response’ to the text: a bizarre form of secular, content-free televangelism. People I had not seen before venture on stage towards the end of the final ‘Amen’ chorus. One resembles the late Bea Arthur; another, I was unsure whether this ‘character’ were male or female, is a Clare Short lookalike.

Is there any good news (let alone Good News)? The singing was better than the staging. Catherine Wyn-Rogers was excellent, even if I missed a deeper contralto sound, such as one used to hear. Sophie Bevan was very good too: singing ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ lying in a hospital bed was, in its way, impressive. Ainsley, however, was underpowered – try Jon Vickers for size here – and his feyness in the aforementioned ‘Thou shalt break them’ was merely embarrassing. Brindley Sherratt made a reasonable job of the bass part, though he could sometimes sound constricted, and struggled with ‘The trumpet shall sound’. (Unfortunately, its middle section was included, as were many of the traditionally ‘optional’ numbers.) Treble Harry Bradford was a most welcome addition, taking on the ‘Nativity’ numbers with musical intelligence and winning purity of voice. All soloists displayed excellent diction. The choral singing was often surprisingly ragged, especially amongst the female voices. Thus what should be the real location of ‘community’ amounted to very little.

Last and, in a way, least was the lamentable conducting of Laurence Cumming. Never have I heard the slow introduction to the Overture sound so lacking in import and, indeed, rhythmically slack. Tempi were either rushed or drawn out almost beyond endurance, with no apparent justification in either sense. The ‘Pastoral Symphony’ sounded unrecognisable, over in less than the twinkling of an eye. To make the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus so underwhelming requires a perverse skill, I suppose, but not one deserving of wider dissemination. Perhaps most infuriating of all was the reduction of what has so often proved to be a fine orchestra to the sound of an especially malnourished ‘period’ band. I could not see how many musicians were in the pit, but they sounded few; what managed to emerge was thin gruel indeed. Devotees of ‘period style on modern instruments’ will doubtless hail this achievement; I cannot understand what the point of using modern instruments would be, if one is intent upon ignoring or suppressing their manifold advantages. Weird kettledrums and short-breathed, out-of-tune brass sounded as if they actually were period instruments. The difficulties experienced by the trumpeter in ‘The trumpet shall sound’ seemed to confirm that beyond reasonable doubt.

Recently, Warner seemed entirely to miss the point of Brecht in her National Theatre production of Mother Courage. The weird rock-star presentation of the anti-heroine was embarrassing enough, but the attempt, magnificently realised by Fiona Shaw, to render her sympathetic was at best misguided. Again, a largely middle-aged, middle- class audience lapped it up. Now Warner seems entirely to have missed the point of Messiah, the clue perhaps lying in the work’s title. Strangely enough, the opening curtain displayed dictionary definitions of the word and a brief etymology; perhaps the director might have taken the trouble to read them, or even, perish the thought, the text and the score. Warner says that she is ‘not someone who would be queuing for the choral society’s annual performance in the local church’. Perhaps if she had shown a little respect for what used to be, and perhaps still is, a true sense of ‘community’, she might not have gone so wildly astray. I know which queue I shall join next time.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Elias Quartet and friends - Mendelssohn, 25 November 2009

Hall One, Kings Place

String Quartet no.2 in A minor, op.13
String Quintet in A major, op.18
Octet in E-flat major, op.16

Sara Bitlloch (violin)
Donald Grant (violin)
Martin Saving (viola)
Marie Bitlloch (violoncello)

Magnus Johnston (violin)
Claudia Ajmone-Marsan (violin)
Ettore Causa (viola)
Alice Neary (violoncello)

From quartet to quintet to octet: upwards by opus number, though the quintet was composed in 1826, the year after the octet. That surprised me, for, never previously having heard the quintet, I should, from the evidence of my ears alone, have placed it earliest. (The octet was written earliest of all, in 1825.) With the possible exception of the opening gossamer counterpoint to the quintet’s scherzo, nevertheless lacking in the magic of its octet counterpart, I could not hear anything that truly announced Mendelssohn’s voice. The players of the Elias Quartet, plus violist Ettore Causa, caught the neo-Mozartian tone of the first movement’s opening, an apparent reversion to a stylised view of eighteenth-century decorum. This Allegro con moto was stylishly performed, without straining for non-existent depth, though the development sounded more Romantic in tone. There was nothing four-square to this account, which remained fluid in tempo: a hallmark of all three performances. The intermezzo, an 1832 replacement for the original minuet, is pleasant but anonymous, the composer’s attempts to dig deeper failing to convince. With the finale, Mendelssohn again sounded most convincing when reverting to a Mozartian or early-Beethovenian idiom. The performance was full of life, the counterpoint clear, and phrases were well turned. However, I cannot imagine rushing back to the work, not unless Mozart’s towering masterpieces in this form were somehow to vanish.

The players caught well that soft-centred version of Beethoven which characterises the introduction to the A minor quartet: akin to a non-metaphysical ‘Muß es sein?’. Transition to the quicksilver Allegro vivace was impressive, inner parts from Donald Grant and Martin Saving pulsating with life. Romantically impassioned as much of the movement sounded, it was not always entirely clear where it was heading. This was, I suspect, in good part a consequence of Sara Bitlloch’s habit, beautiful though her portamento sounded, of acting as a soloist rather than one amongst musical equals. The second movement, moreover, brought a goodly number of distracting sniffs from her chair. As a whole, this Adagio non lento did not sound so effortlessly simple as it might. There was nevertheless a splendid build up of contrapuntal intensity and a warm, Romantic sound. The intermezzo was charming, haunting even, evocative of a magical woodland scene, despite the occasional drifting apart of first violin and colleagues. Its central Allegro di molto section was less individual, but that is Mendelssohn’s fault. It was a good decision to take the finale attacca. Though I am not sure that the musical material is robust enough to take such a full-blooded approach, the players erred on the right side in that respect. The closing Adagio section, which should revert to the mood of the quartet’s opening, sounded somewhat distended.

It is the octet, of course, that is the masterpiece here. There was much to praise in this performance, yet again, the leader sounded far too much the soloist, as if she were performing in an unusually Romantic performance of the composer’s beloved violin concerto. Again, fluidity of tempo was welcome and again the inner parts – more of them here – were impressive in their vitality. There was a sense of greater, indeed symphonic scale, if without the final degree of structural cohesion that the music demands, and which members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra had brought to this work in a stunning performance at this year’s Proms. The Andante was simply too fast in its basic tempo, but at least it was not modishly rigid. However, those depths revealed at the Royal Albert Hall in August were skated over. I was delighted and relieved, during this movement, to witness an heroic member of the audience (the occupant of seat B2, just in case he is reading) turn round in exasperation at the antics of the inanely chattering occupants of C1 and C2, and finally shut them up. Such selfishness is utterly unacceptable. The scherzo was a fizzing success, though nevertheless marked by Sara Bitlloch’s soloistic approach. Donald Grant’s performance revealed itself as the more subtle and chamber-oriented. It was unfortunate that the cello opening to the finale lacked incision, but thereafter the movement received a forthright, full-bloodedly Romantic account. If anything, I wondered whether a degree more Classical poise might have been in order. At least there was nothing staid or precious to it. These were promising accounts, then, which will doubtless develop in musical maturity.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Cherevichki, Royal Opera, 20 November 2009

(Set design: Mikhail Mokrov)

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Solokha – Larissa Diadkova
The Devil – Maxim Mikhailov
Chub – Vladimir Matorin
Panas – John Upperton
Oxana – Olga Guryakova
Vakula – Vsevold Grivnov
Pan Golova – Alexander Vassiliev
The Schoolmaster – Viacheslav Voynarovskiy
Odarka – Olga Sabadoch
Wood Goblin – Changhan Lim
Echo – Andrew Macnair
His Highness – Sergei Leiferkus
Master of Ceremonies – Jeremy White

Principal Dancers – Mara Galeazzi, Gary Avis
Dancers of the Royal Ballet – Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani, Cindy Jourdain, Kirsten McNally, Pietra Mello-Pittman, Bennet Garside, Kenta Kura, Ernst Meisner, Johannes Stepanek
Cossack Dancers – Ivan Furgala, Arron Jones, Greg Smith, Bruce Tetlow

Francesca Zambello (director)
Mikhail Mokrov (set designs)
Tatiana Noginova (costume designs)
Rick Fisher (lighting)
Alastair Marriott (choreography)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Chorus of the Royal Opera House (chorus master: Stephen Westrop)
Alexander Polianichko (conductor)

Alexander Polianichko’s enthusiasm, when I interviewed him, for Tchaikovsky’s Cherevichki was infectious. His advocacy of the score in the theatre proved equally strong. No one in the audience could have been in any doubt concerning the identity of the composer. The characteristic Tchaikovskian ebb and flow, the orchestral sound, the sheen and sweep of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House’s strings: all were present and convincing. The need of which he spoke to allow the singers to be heard was met, without reducing the orchestral contribution in stature – the ‘accompanying’ route of lesser conductors. If the work came across as somewhat sectional, that is because it is, but also a consequence of the audience’s irritating habit of applauding everything (that is, when people could be distracted from coughing and sounding their electronic devices).

For the problem really lies with the work itself. The Royal Opera House should be applauded for mounting its first ever production. (Apart from a Garsington production in 2004, that seems to be just about it in terms of British stagings – and even the Bolshoi does not have the work in its repertory.) Cherevichki certainly deserves its chance to step out from the shadows and is indeed a better work than many that hold their place in the repertory – anything by Verdi, for instance. But Eugene Onegin or The Queen of Spades it is not, let alone Mussorgsky. The score has its moments, especially during the ballet music, here superbly choreographed by Alastair Marriott and exquisitely danced, making for a definite extra attraction for opera-loving balletomanes – or should that be the other way round? Royal Ballet principals Mara Galeazzi and Gary Avis impressed greatly, as did members of the corps de ballet and the Cossack dancers, three of them members of the Zaporozhian Cossacks. The St Petersburg music of the third act – in Tchaikovsky’s terms, that is, for here the four acts were presented as two – has its moments as well, not least the courtly evocations of The Queen of Spades. But the evocations of fate do not seem to lead anywhere; unlike the symphonies or the greater operas, nothing really seems to be at stake. The Italianate passages tend towards Glinka or indeed Verdi. Moreover, the lighter moments, of which they are many, tend towards the nondescript; humour was never really the composer’s forte. I should have defied anyone to find amusing the concealment of Solokha’s admirers in coal sacks, or their emergence therefrom, but the audience reaction proved me wrong.(Few operatic comedies are actually funny, and even when they are, for instance Le nozze di Figaro or Die Meistersinger, their greatness lies in a true sadness that eludes the composer on this occasion.) What often emerges is a surprisingly nationalistic Tchaikovsky, with considerable folk-song reference, but one who finds it hard to convince. Often he will do so by insistence; here he flits around somewhat, without achieving the magical lightness of touch of so much of his ballet music.

The singing was mixed. Diction was generally good; even as a non-Russian speaker, I think I could have transcribed a good number of the words. Maxim Mikhailov showed that he could act as well as sing, as the Devil, though one might have expected a greater ‘presence’ in both senses. Larissa Diadkova exhibited more of this as the witch Solokha, though with a few vagaries of tuning. Sadly, there were more than a few in Olga Guryakova’s, especially during the first act, where she was all over the place. Some might find the generosity of her vibrato idiomatic; for the rest of us it was something of a trial. She came more into her own in the final act, but there were too many unpleasant memories by then truly to be convinced. Her beloved, Vakula, received a stronger performance from Vsevolod Grivnov, hapless by intent rather than by default. The massed array of deep Russian voices did not disappoint, and there were notable performances in St Petersburg from Sergei Leiferkus and Jeremy White.

Francesca Zambello’s production plumbed no depths, but that is hardly what the work is about. The direction of the characters was alert and musical. I do not know how much input Marriott as choreographer had here, but whoever was responsible for tallying words, gesture, and music deserves gratitude. (Such an alliance should go without saying, but tone-deaf stage direction is, sadly, more often the rule than the exception.) The greatest impression was made by Mikhail Mokrov’s stage designs and Tatiana Noginova. Their Ukrainian naïveté and, during the Petersburg scene, courtly opulence are richly evocative. It made perfect sense to learn from a programme article that Mokrov is an illustrator, for it is a children’s picture-book that is most often evoked. As in the case of the Mariinsky’s Tale of Tsar Saltan, brought last season to Sadler’s Wells, it is difficult for a jaded Westerner not to take these scenes ironically, but I do not think that is how they were intended. Young children will, I suspect, be enchanted by them, though whether they will have the patience for a three-hour opera, interval included, is another matter.

The opera, then, is no neglected masterpiece, but this is so rare an opportunity afforded by Covent Garden that it is well worth grasping. There are plans to broadcast it on BBC Radio 3 (Saturday 5 December, 6.30 p.m.) and on BBC 2 at some point over Christmas. It is also scheduled for release on DVD, ensuring that a larger audience will be able to judge for itself. One small matter: the Royal Opera has, understandably, used an English title, The Tsarina’s Slippers rather than the Russian for the ‘slippers’, Cherevichki. Richard Taruskin, who ought to know, counsels that they are not slippers at all, but ‘high-heeled, narrow-toed women’s holiday boots’. I can understand why The Tsarina’s or, as we hear in the text, Tsaritsa’s High-heeled, Narrow-toed, Women’s Holiday Boots might not have been thought the best title, but ‘boots’ rather than ‘slippers’ perhaps?

(For more pictures of the set designs, see my interview with the conductor.)

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

ASMF/Perahia - Bach and Mozart, 17 November 2009

Barbican Hall

J.C. Bach – Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, T 288/7*
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.17 in G major, KV 453
J.S. Bach – Piano Concerto no.3 in D major, BWV 1054
Mozart – Symphony no.38 in D major, KV 504, ‘Prague’

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Kenneth Sillito (director*)
Murray Perahia (piano, director/conductor)

We do not often hear the ‘London Bach’. Whenever I have done, this occasion included, I have willed a revelation, which has failed to occur. This particular sinfonia concertante, with two oboes, two horns, two violins, two violas, and cello as soloists, was pleasant enough, though the first of its two movements went on a bit. It would doubtless have made reasonable Tafelmusik, but it is difficult to imagine why anyone would care one way or the other about it; even the soloists’ display is severely limited. If one is to hear such music, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, essentially an orchestra of soloists, seems a good choice to perform it. From the opening bar, the ASMF sound was present; there were no concessions to ‘authenticity’, which would merely have made bland music sound unpleasant. Violin soloists reminded us of the sound we used to hear in Italian Baroque music, before Vivaldi was captured by the purveyors of bizarre shock-effects. But it was the four-squareness, the lack of drama, which was, if anything, the abiding memory of the first movement. After that, the succession of minuets bordered on the original. It was good to hear them taken three-to-a-bar and there was a welcome sense of the evening outdoors – a notturno – in the second minuet, for two oboes, two violas, and cello/double-bass. That second movement did not outstay its welcome; I cannot put it any more strongly. An overture, whether by J.C. Bach (Catone in Utica perhaps?) or, better, by Mozart or Handel, would have been a preferable choice.

It was thus a relief to welcome Murray Perahia and Mozart to the stage. Perahia’s recording of the G major concerto, KV 453, with the English Chamber Orchestra, fulfils Mozart’s sole absolute equirement, perfection. This performance was different, in some ways falling a little short, in others digging deeper. The ASMF has a different sound from the ECO, more streamlined, and a degree less warm, and so it proved here. I was unconvinced by Perahia’s opening statement, in which there was a surprising use of left hand staccato, or at least non legato, an idea which did not appear to be pursued. Thereafter, however, he revelled in the wonders, well-nigh Schubertian, of Mozart’s modulations, and phrases were turned immaculately. The woodwind soloists were truly magical. All I missed was greater warmth, though I do not wish to exaggerate, and perhaps greater body ( from the strings.

The second movement was a true Andante, not rushed, as is the fashion nowadays. Once again, the woodwind solos (from oboe, flute, and bassoon) were exquisite. Perahia employed considerable ornamentation in the piano part. I am no fundamentalist in such matters: it can work with or without. The important thing is that it convinces, as it did here. Without ever sounding Romantic, Perahia drew upon a wide-ranging dynamic palette. More importantly, his performance proved ever sensitive to, and indeed revealing of, the music’s tonal progression, even in the cadenzas (Mozart’s). Perahia’s immersion in Schenker has clearly paid dividends. This was true to a lesser extent in the orchestral performance; as so often, I felt that a separate conductor might have added something here. The opening of the finale put a smile on my face, just as it should: the theme is so utterly lovable. Perahia’s chosen tempo seemed just right. Links to Mozart’s variations for solo piano – so often underestimated, and I am not without guilt here – were sounded, not least with the contemporary set upon Gluck’s Unser dummer Pöbel meint, KV 455. The sadness of the minore variation registered; thereafter, we heard a more forceful pianist and a more Romantic performance. Everything had changed, just as it must. If one could account for the transformative effect of that extraordinary left-hand E flat in the coda, one would explain the mystery of music. Perhaps, then, it is as well that no one has, but Perahia certainly had its measure in performance, a performance whose import deepened as it progressed.

After the interval, we heard Bach’s – Johann Sebastian's – D major piano concerto. Clarity registered from the outset, as did an unusual prominence for the piano left hand. Perahia, quite rightly, decided to emphasise the bass line as the source for everything else to come. The first movement’s ternary form was clearly navigated, its ‘B’ section affording a welcome sense of relaxation, imparting both structural and affective meaning and dynamism. Profusion of melody, again springing from the basso continuo, was the hallmark of the slow movement. Occasionally, the violins sounded a little thin in tone, but that was not an undue distraction. The finale benefited from a tempo that allowed it dignity: no headlong rush here. That sturdy foundation absent from so much modern Bach performance was present, without in any sense impeding invention. I was put in mind more than once of Edwin Fischer, and one cannot say better than that.

Last on the programme was the Prague symphony. Despite the small forces, the first movement’s extraordinary introduction spoke with crucial gravity and grandeur, permitting the exposition fully to speak of the work’s proximity to Don Giovanni. I was intrigued, if ultimately a little irritated, to note the timpanist varying the sticks he employed. Whilst the sound of the harder ones soon palled, it was at least a relief to note that their use resulted from some judgement rather than from pseudo-historical dogma. Perahia’s long-term harmonic understanding – Schenker again? – was exemplified by the relaxation that permitted so radiant a beauty for the second subject (as of course, did the musicians’ performance). The repeat was taken, but in this music and in a performance such as this, I am the last to complain. Counterpoint was clear and meaningful in the development section. Both composer and conductor had so clearly learned their Bachian lessons; it was as if we were vouchsafed a taste in miniature of the triumph of the Jupiter finale. The almost unbearable tenderness of the second subject as heard in the recapitulation permitted a telling contrast with the magnificence of the closing bars.

Though on the fast side, the Andante flowed gracefully and yielded where appropriate. The mystery of its episodes’ sternness – or at least that of some of them – was revealed, even if it eludes explanation. Perahia probed harmonically, without underlining. The world of dramma giocoso returned for the finale, its opening insistent without the slightest hint of being hard-driven. Mozart’s woodwind once again cast their magic spell. I should be intrigued to hear how Perahia would conduct this work with a larger orchestra, but this remained a distinguished and, in many respects, subtly profound performance. The treat of the finale to Haydn’s Oxford symphony was well judged: excitingly fast, but still able to breathe; eminently musical, without point-scoring.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Tchaikovsky's Cherevichki: Interview with Alexander Polianichko

Photograph of Alexander Polianichko: Catriona Bass
Stage designs: Tatiana Noginova
Set designs: Mikhail Mokrov

20 November will witness the opening of the Royal Opera’s first ever production of Tchaikovsky’s Cherevichki (usually, though, according to Richard Taruskin, incorrectly, rendered in English as ‘The Tsarina’s Slippers’). Alexander Polianichko will conduct an almost entirely Russian cast, directed by Francesca Zambello. Mr Polianichko was kind enough to speak to me about work and production. I started by asking him how the rehearsals were going.

AP: Fantastic! They’re really great. Today, I think, was the second, yes the second, stage rehearsal, and we have already done half of the opera. We have been working hard on the balances, because, when you have the scenery, you have to remember that it can reflect sound and that the orchestra always prefers to play loudly...! It is a big orchestra, of course, Tchaikovsky’s orchestra: opera in the grand style.

MB: How many strings are you using?

AP: A minimum of six desks of first violins, down to four or maybe five double basses. It’s a big sound. And there is the chorus too: smaller than in Tchaikovsky’s time, a little, but that is a matter of costumes and so on – and also, though I can’t really say this, the crisis we have at the moment...

MB: No, of course, I understand...

AP: And it’s mostly a question of balance anyway.

MB: This is the first time Cherevichki has been done at Covent Garden.

AP: It’s not strange, because in Russia, it is not very popular as well. You know the recordings of Cherevichki? One of them, from the Bolshoi Theatre, is from 1947/48, under [Alexander] Melik-Pashaev. There is a later one from [Vladimir] Fedoseyev. And the recordings sound totally different, that one thirty or thirty-five years later. More recently, [Gennadi] Roshdestvensky recorded it in 2000.

MB: On Chandos?

AP: Yes, that’s right. The situation is very different from Onegin or The Queen of Spades. If people hear those, they can discuss whether the tempi are slow or fast, but in this case, it is such an unusual work, they don’t know.

MB: Which gives you a certain freedom, I suppose. There are fewer expectations; there is no real performing tradition.

AP: Yes, we can follow the types of voices we have, the characters on stage. What is really difficult to do is to make people realise that this is comedy. When you hear a Rossini overture, you know this is going to be comicIn this opera, so many moments do not sound comic; they sound desperate.

MB: There is sadness?

AP: Yes, it’s interesting, but it is part of the score. At the ends of the second and fourth acts in the score – though we are performing it just in two acts – there are beautiful scenes, these characters, this teacher, this is really comic. We need to show this, to make it funny.

MB: Have you discussed that with the director?

AP: Yes, Francesca realises this. And the costumes too, they really help with this. And I have to find a way through the music to show the comic side, to show the orchestra this.

MB: And to show the audience that the players are enjoying themselves.

AP: Of course: that’s very important. But they need to sound beautiful, and support the voices; they need to be light enough to do that.

MB: This all, I suppose, stands quite distinct from the ideas many people have of Tchaikovsky: sadness and tragedy. They are used to the symphonies, Onegin, and so on, and this will show another side to him, at least in part.

AP: Destiny, they know from the symphonies.

MB: Fate, which is always there, which suffocates.

AP: You know how important that is in the symphonies. It is always there. Perhaps you need to kill somebody or yourself. Lensky should die; Hermann should die...

MB: Everyone should die. It would be better if they had never been born – just as in Greek tragedy.

AP: Yes, exactly. And Mazeppa should die too. This is different, though, and so new to everyone. I was looking in a very big dictionary in the Covent Garden shop, there are more than a thousand operas, and there are only Onegin, The Queen of Spades, and Mazeppa, and that’s it. All these operas, the history of productions, but only three by Tchaikovsky, no Cherevichki at all, or operas like The Maid of Orleans. Cherevichki is a fantastic opera, though, and Tchaikovsky started his conductor’s career with it. It was his first ever conducting experience.

MB: And the father of someone rather famous took part in that performance, didn’t he? Fyodor Stravinsky, Igor’s father, as His Highness, the minister.

AP: That’s right. Historically, these first casts, it can be very strange: when Onegin was first performed, we don’t know who everyone was. We know that four professors from the Moscow Conservatory were in the orchestra, but not all the singers. And it was an extremely small orchestra then, a student production really. But in general, he knew what he wanted, and he had larger orchestras in the big theatres.

MB: The work itself, have you conducted it elsewhere?

AP: No, it is my first time. Unfortunately, even in Russia, it is not very often done. There is only one production, I think, at the moment, in Moscow, which I tried to see, but I haven’t been able to yet.

MB: Is that at the Bolshoi?

AP: No, not even there.

MB: It’s the sort of thing you might have thought Gergiev would have got round to doing, but even he hasn’t then?

AP: No, though he does so much: all repertoire, all composers. He does Glinka and everything onwards.

MB: Even Rubinstein’s The Demon recently, which he brought to London with the Mariinsky, though I couldn’t go. Going back to Cherevichki, there is ballet too, of course, so this is quite a rare opportunity for the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera to perform together.

AP: Which is quite strange for me, because this is how it ought to be; there is a beautiful ballet and a beautiful orchestra, and they should go together. Tchaikovsky wrote some numbers especially for the ballet, but this is not unique. There is a gopak in Mazeppa; the polonaise is a dance too, of course.

MB: As in Onegin.

AP: Yes. He creates dances in all of his operas; so much of his music is dance.

MB: Even in the symphonies, those waltzes.

AP: Exactly. It is such a pleasure here to see beautiful dancing and the choreography is wonderful, really interesting. What is really interesting for me is that we have started to use not only the music written for dance but some of the other music too.

MB: If you have the ballet dancers, you want to use them.

AP: Of course. And this is very typical of Russian operas. You know [Rimsky-Korsakov’s] Sadko? That sort of thing: it is fantastic.

MB: Like The Tale of Tsar Saltan, which the Mariinsky brought a little while ago to Sadler’s Wells.

AP: And there all of these operas by Rimsky-Korsakov. I remember a story I heard about Solti. Somebody asked him about which operas he had conducted, what he wanted to conduct, and he said that he had only scratched the surface. You go to the dictionaries, and there are hundreds and hundreds of operas, thousands and thousands, all in the libraries, covered in dust, like that of the Mariinsky Theatre. Many of these works, commissioned by the Mariinsky, they have only been performed one. Now we wait for them to be rediscovered.

MB: And rediscovery can be such an extraordinary thing, can’t it?

AP: Very exciting.

MB: When one thinks that Monteverdi’s operas had to wait three centuries to be performed once again – let alone those that have been lost, though who knows whether they might turn up in the libraries? And these are some of the greatest operas in the entire repertoire.

AP: That’s true. And I really enjoy Baroque music. I have a lot of experience with this music, in Russia, and here, with the English Chamber Orchestra and the Irish Chamber Orchestra. But the style: it has changed so much. If you go to a recording by Furtwängler, with nine desks of first violins, six desks of double basses in a Handel concerto grosso, that sounds wonderful. Now we hear people play on old instruments, with four desks of violins; it sounds completely different. But I very much enjoy this music; for me it seems to speak to the soul. Like all music, of course. Sometimes you can hear just a phrase [he sings a descending minor third] and everyone knows that it is sad. There is no explaining.

MB: Just feeling?

AP: Yes, just feeling. In music, all of us, all over the world, are in the same place. And the notes, whoever is playing them, are in the same place in the score, of course. This brings us together. It is an international language.

[Technical incompetence on my part ensured that two or three minutes went unrecorded but, during this time, we returned to Russia, first to Gogol, his story Christmas Eve being the source both for Cherevichki itself, and as Mr Polianichko pointed out, Rimsky’s Christmas Eve too, a subject to which we returned later on.]

AP: Ah, now the tape will have missed how to make the soup I told you about, the soup in the opera: it needs everything you can throw into it, dried fruit, apples, lots of vodka, and then you put it into the oven, keep it in a warm place.

MB: What about the women in the opera? Many people have said that Tchaikovsky has a rather one-sided view of female characters.

AP: Yes, but you need to remember, when all these people come up to Solokha, she is not a real witch to them, but she is a witch. There are many different characters in this opera, like the schoolteacher, and all of them like to be as close to her as possible, because you can feel a relationship between her and all of them. The orchestra is such an important voice; you can feel that someone is really in love. It is a magical score. We have to follow the characters and find the right expression for them.

MB: It sounds from what you have said as though the rehearsals are going very well.

AP: Yes, we have had two very enjoyable weeks; everyone has worked very hard. And now, Francesca continues her work after every rehearsal. She makes many notes, concerning how things can be made better, and so on.

MB: In something like this, you will never be finished. There will always be alterations, improvements, changes to make things fresh.

AP: Very much. If there are ten performances, then the best will be the eleventh. It’s always better, better, better, better ... Every time we take the stage, there are new details to bring out.

MB: The experience of the earlier performances comes into the later ones, and the desire to do something new.

AP: Yes, of course. You try to collect all the pieces of information, all the details, to concentrate on the characters, on beautiful singing, because there are so many wonderful arias. And what’s really interesting – again this is in the Russian tradition – is that there is joy and sorrow, sadness.

MB: Two sides of the same coin?

AP: One could not exist without the other. You can’t feel joy if you don’t feel sorrow. The end of this opera, act number four, it is just crying. Solokha and Oxana are sure that Vakula is dead. Mother and daughter: they are both in distress. The sadness that you hear in all Russian opera, and also the joy; think of Borodin’s Prince Igor. Mussorgsky too.

MB: Perhaps a little less of the joy in Mussorgsky?

AP: Mussorgsky was a genius. He used this contrast better than anybody. If you remember Boris Godunov, we have just heard a song about a mosquito [the ‘Song of the Gnat’] and suddenly – Boris Godunov...

MB: A musical shadow falls, as well as that of the character on stage.

AP: Exactly. Mussorgsky was a real genius. You know, he was also setting Gogol, in Sorochintsï Fair. It’s the same story, written in 1832. He was born in 1809 and was just 23. And everybody knew this: it was so popular. Rimsky-Korsakov: his Christmas Eve, from the same place. And I’ll tell you what the difference is between Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky used a librettist; his is written by [Yakov] Polonsky, and it is written in Russian. But Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky create their own librettos and use the original text. Polonsky’s libretto is in general, Russian, with just a few sentences from the original text, just a few words. And it’s a pity, because you lose some of the meaning of these words. It’s not all ‘correct’ Russian pronunciation, because south of Russia, a ‘g’ sound does not exist; it is always ‘h’. It is like in Bayreuth, in the south of Germany, it is very different from the north. The same in Czech: Janáček’s pronunciation.

MB: Very different in Moravia from in Prague.

AP: Yes, yes. So the sounds are very different, and this can be another comic side to the opera.

MB: Rather like the Viennese dialect in Rosenkavalier?

AP: Yes, that’s right. This is another thing to bring out. Of course you want to show the beauty of the score, but there are so many things to consider.

MB: The very essence of opera.

On which note, I thanked Mr Polianichko very much for his time and said how much I was looking forward to the first night, on 20 November.

For further details on The Tsarina's Slippers, and to book, click here.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Salzburg Festival 2010: preview

Sadly, I was unable to fly to Salzburg for the press conference announcing the 2010 festival, but the press office kindly sent me press releases on the dot. Surely a better contender than any other for the title of greatest music festival in the world, this year's Salzburg Festival will run from the opening concert (Daniel Barenboim as conductor and soloist with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in works by Beethoven, Boulez, and Bruckner) on 26 July to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra's concert with Sir Simon Rattle on 29 August (works by Wagner, Strauss, Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, Karita Mattila as soloist in the Four Last Songs). Strictly speaking, the festival finishes and closes a day earlier and later, with performances of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s mystery play Jedermann (‘Everyman’) in the cathedral square. Other spoken drama ranges from Sophocles, via Racine and Stefan Zweig, to the Young Directors’ Project, but I shall concentrate on the musical side of things.

The theme running through a number of the dramatic works, spoken and sung, is ‘Where God and Man Collide, Tragedy Ensues,’ from an essay by Michael Köhlmeier. Elektra, Strauss’s greatest opera, will benefit from the glowing Viennese strings, conducted by Daniele Gatti. A stellar cast – often a cliché, but surely a true one here – includes Waltraud Meier, Iréne Theorin, Eva-Marie Westbroek, and René Pape. Nikolaus Lehnhoff conducts. A new opera by Wolfgang Rihm, Dionysus, inspired, like the broader theme, by Nietzsche, will be conducted by Ingo Metzmacher (Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin) and directed by Pierre Audi. Metzmacher’s account of its intellectual genesis certainly tantalises. Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice – was there ever a more important opera? – will be led by, to my mind, the greatest Gluck conductor alive, Riccardo Muti. Joining the VPO will be Elisabeth Kulman and Genia Kühmeier, directed by Dieter Dorn. Patricia Petibon, Despina in 2009’s Così fan tutte, will essay the title role of Lulu, with a cast including Michael Schade, Michael Volle (Covent Garden’s recent Dr Schön too), and Franz Grundheber. Marc Albrecht conducts the Vienna Philharmonic and Vera Nemirova conducts. Mozart has but one opera this year, Don Giovanni, in a revival of Claus Guth’s production, this time with Yannick Nézet-Seguin conducting the VPO; Christopher Maltman and Erwin Schrott head another starry cast. Nézet-Seguin will also conduct the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, with Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala as the star-cross’d lovers. Finally, Edita Gruberová’s many admirers will have the opportunity to hear her in concert in the title role of Norma, with the Camerata Salzburg conducted by Friedrich Haider.

Rihm will also be honoured in a series of concerts, ‘Continent Rihm’. Performers include the Arditti Quartet, the Hilliard Ensemble, the Ensemble Modern, Metzmacher and his Deutsches SO Berlin, and the VPO under Christoph Eschenbach (Ernster Gesang, with Tzimon Barto as piano soloist) and Riccardo Chailly (Gesungene Zeit with Anne-Sophie Mutter).

Last year’s Liszt-Szenen give way to Brahms in 2010. Works by Brahms will appear with related works by an extraordinary range of composers: Isaac, Biber, Bach, Reger, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, Janáček, Shostakovich, Ligeti, Kurtág, and Jörg Widmann, his Intermezzi being premièred by András Schiff. Other contributors to the series include Valery Afanassiev, the Zehetmair Quartet, the Balthasar Neumann Choir, and Angelika Kirchschlager.

Anniversary composers Schumann and Chopin will also loom large. Philippe Herreweghe will conduct Camerata Salzburg in a cycle of the Schumann symphonies, whilst Ivo Pogorelich will perform both of Chopin’s piano concertos. Evgeny Kissin includes both composers in his pair of recitals. Other pianists, such as Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman (Chopin) and Grigory Sokolov (Schumann) will opt for one or the other. Piano-lovers are clearly in for as much of a treat as opera-lovers.

Other chamber music includes a brace of concerts from Martha Argerich and friends from Lugano, artists such as Frank-Peter Zimmermann, Gidon Kremer, Afanassiev, and a mouth-watering combination of Zimerman and the Hagen Quartet (Schumann and Grażyna Bacewicz). Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach once again perform all three Schubert song cycles (their Wigmore Hall Winterreise is reviewed here). Other song recitals will be given by Anja Harteros/Wolfram Rieger, Rolando Villázon/Hélène Grimaud, Kirchschlager/Ian Bostridge/Julius Drake, Philippe Jaroussky/Jérôme Ducros, and – my own pick – Jonas Kaufmann with Helmut Deutsch, in Schubert, Schumann, and Mahler.

The Vienna Philharmonic, hard at work in the pit in so many of the operas, will give its customary series of symphonic concerts, some of which have already been referred to above. Other conductors at the helm will be Muti (Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible, with Gérard Dépardieu) and Bernard Haitink (Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony). In addition to the Berliners, visiting orchestras will include the World Orchestra for Peace under Valery Gergiev (Mahler’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies), the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mariss Jansons (Bartók, Mussorgsky, and Stravinksy), and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra under Bertrand de Billy (Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, with Fanny Ardant). The Mozarteum Orchestra’s traditional series of Mozart Matinées continues, soloists including Fazil Say and Diana Damrau.

This is but a brief overview. I can only urge you to save your pennies for what promises to be the most memorable festival since the 2006 Mozart anniversary, in which all of the composer’s operas were performed. For further details, click here.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Writing German History

Paper given at the Modern European History Seminar, University of Cambridge, 25 October 2009. Three generations of German historians - Professor Richard Evans, Professor Christopher Clark, and myself - were asked to speak for fifteen to twenty minutes on the subject of 'Writing German History,' in part as a response to Richard Evans's inaugural lecture as Regius Professor of History (now published in expanded form by Cambridge University Press as Cosmopolitan Islanders).

Please forgive me for starting with a brief quotation in German. I hesitate to do so, given that so many of my audience will speak German incomparably better than I do and some will not do so at all. But that is beside the point, for I wish to employ these words as a starting point, from which one might travel in various directions, including translation and its complexities, thus granting a brief impression of the process of studying and writing German history.

Ich bin friedlos.
Ich bin durstig nach fernen Dingen.
Meine Seele schweift im Sehnsucht,
den Saum der dunklen Weite
zu berühren.

Following a significant orchestral introduction, which I wish I had had time to play, it is with a setting of those words that Alexander von Zemlinsky opens – or should that be opened? Much hangs on the tense, in terms of how we historically consider works of art – his Lyric Symphony of 1922-3. They might be translated as follows, though there would doubtless be more potential English versions from around this table than there are seats:

I am restless.
I am thirsty for things that are far away.
My soul wanders out in longing,
to touch the hem
of the dim distance.

In a romantic, indeed mystical, way, such thoughts approach why one might wish to study, to explore another culture or other cultures, or at least decline to cordon off one’s own culture. Like many of the respondents in Richard’s book, it never occurred to me to confine myself to English or British history. At school, my soul would always wander out in longing, grateful for the occasional glimpse of life across the Channel, on what is sometimes still called ‘the Continent’. It ws a bit like regional news: if important enough, it should make the national or international news; otherwise, another cat stuck up a tree was unlikely to set my pulse racing. Whilst I am very happy to write German history, I have no wish to be nationalistic about that; European history, world history, or best, history in that ‘dim distance’ is the common endeavour.

But let us look a little more closely at the words set by Zemlinsky and the context for the Lyric Symphony, or Lyrische Symphonie. First, Zemlinsky only set the words. They were already in translation, by one Hans Effenberger, from the original writer’s own somewhat loose – I am told – English translation from Bengali. That original writer was Rabindranath Tagore. How many instances of the soul wandering out in longing, of the dim distance, might one tot up there? It might be a useful conceit, an immanent one if you will, to help consider the work itself. Its words – but what, of course, of its music? – offer a way to consider its genesis and to its performance and reception. The first performance was conducted by the composer himself, and who was he? Zemlinsky was born in 1871, the son of a Viennese of Slovakian-Catholic descent, who had the year before converted to Judaism and of a mother who was the daughter of a mixed Muslim and Sephardic marriage. There is plenty, indeed almost suspiciously too much, to go on here then – and it is not difficult from these facts alone to imagine why the composer might have felt some degree of alienation.

That first performance took place in Prague’s German Theatre, not the better known National Theatre. The German Theatre had opened in 1888 with a performance of Die Meistersinger and would during the 1930s provide something of a refuge for artists who had fled the Third Reich. Our initial starting point of the opening of the Lyric Symphony could thus lead us in all sorts of interesting, suggestive directions, which might inform the work and be informed by it. This, for me, is the very essence of historical engagement and which tells us something not only about the source itself, in the historical sense and the sense of source as origin, but also about what it is we might be doing when we write history. The sheer volume of artistic production and the great claims made on behalf of art by so many Germans suggest that an artistically-derived or at least artistically-inspired method might be fruitful.

Let us return to those words Zemlinsky set. One might think them nonsense. How can a soul touch a hem, let alone a hem of the distance, dim or otherwise? One might think them interesting in artistic, cultural terms but think that they hardly enlighten the nature of historical study, certainly as construed in so-called scientific terms. Yet mysticism cautions us against literalism; it invites us to make connections, suggesting that we consider a culture as a whole and in relation to other cultures, and also to consider how cultures might not be wholes. We are invited to employ that most precious of the historian’s tools, the imagination. By this, I do not mean that we should make things up. But even with modern history, however that might be defined, we are faced not only with far too much that we do, or can, know, but also far too much that we do not know. Considering non- or only partly-verbal sources can encourage one to make other sorts of connections even when returning to words; they might be good connections or bad, but I think them no less valid on account of their provenance. Since a good part of my research has involved musical history, I have perhaps become especially aware of the limitations of words – and both the problems and opportunities of notes, of images, and so forth. One cannot always make logical deductions and even if one can, allusion and other forms of connection might have at least as much to tell us.

I shall now turn to the second of my two examples, Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, which I have just been re-reading. A passage struck me when, on the train a few days ago, I was beginning to think about this paper. In chapter twenty-six, Adrian Leverkühn, Mann’s fictional composer, is visited by the Devil. Leverkühn protests that the Devil has sought him out ‘here in alien Italy’. The composer would have suffered such a visitation in his home town of Kaisersachsern, in Wittenberg, on the Wartburg; ‘even in Leipzig I would have thought you credible. But surely not here, under a heathen Catholic sky!’ The Devil replies that Leverkühn values him too low, in so limiting his sphere. ‘German I am, German to the core,’ he says, ‘but then surely in an older, better sense, to wit: cosmopolitan at heart. You would disallow me here and make no account of the old German yearning and romantic itch to travel to Italy’s fair shore!’

How many resonances does that immediately conjure, the Italy of the German imagination? One might pursue that with Goethe’s Italian Journey, for instance. In Rome, Goethe claimed truly to have found himself, but it was in southern Italy, including Greece, where, equally importantly, he first encountered Greek architecture. He would take Winckelmann to task for having failed to understand, the difference. If we took that route, we might come to consider The Tyranny of Greece over Germany, as the title of one venerable book has it. Whom one might think about then? Perhaps it would be easier to ask at whom one might not look. But it might be worth spending some time with Nietzsche and his opposition between Apollo and Dionysus, that discussion, incidentally, owing far more than most Nietzsche scholars realise to Wagner, before returning, refreshed and informed, to Mann and Doktor Faustus. One could, in other words, use the intellectual journey – here caricatured to excess – either to inform work on the text with which one started or as a route to quite other aspects of German or other history.

Leverkühn was in many respects modelled upon Schoenberg, greatly to the annoyance of the composer, a fellow exile in Los Angeles. The musical material relied upon advice from Theodor Adorno, yet another of Mann’s Los Angeles neighbours. Schoenberg had little time even for Adorno’s advocacy – when conducting research in the Schoenberg archive in Vienna, I have read his furious marginal scribbling in Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music – let alone anything Schoenberg might consider less than due regard. He wrote to Mann in 1948, quoting an entry from an encyclopædia of the future, in which the author stated that Thomas Mann was clearly the inventor of the twelve-note method of musical composition and had had to endure the ‘unscrupulous’ exploitation of his idea by a now-forgotten composer called Arnold Schoenberg. As a result, editions and translations of Doktor Faustus still carry an ‘Author’s Note’ acknowledging Schoenberg’s intellectual property.

But intellectual property here, as in historical writing, is a problematical notion at best. Schoenberg elsewhere spoke more truly, more historically, when he insisted that his method of composition had developed from tradition, that his contribution had not represented a rupture, but rather a step in musical history neither smaller nor greater than any other. He stood on the shoulders of others, and not just other composers, just as we stand on the shoulders of others, and not just other historians. Mann’s meditation on and dramatisation of the course of German art and history, and their interaction has in some respects less in common with the constructivism of Schoenberg than with, say, the summative tendencies of musicians such as Wilhelm Furtwängler and Richard Strauss, struggling to deal with what might seem like the end of a line, or indeed with the ill tidings of Oswald Spengler, whom Mann had lapped up, comparing him to Schopenhauer. However, this connection between Mann and Schoenberg, a connection both biographical and intellectual – and exile counts as both – has much to tell us and much to suggest about the experience of war and its aftermath, shattered dreams of humanism, and so forth, in addition to consideration of the artists and their works themselves. I spoke of Mann as being engaged in dramatisation, and this is not a bad way to think of what we as historians are engaged in too, for dramatisation incites rather than settles, opens doors rather than closes them. We no more think of the end of history than the end of art. Dramatisation, composition, or writing and research inspired by artistic forms of production, can suggest something that might not necessarily be vouchsafed by the archives – and vice versa. This seems to me a thoroughly German notion: writing German history in perhaps a different, though I should argue complementary, sense from that our convenor intended.

We might of course have progressed or regressed in entirely different directions. Even if we had not taken perhaps the most obvious path of considering Mann, his novel, the ‘German catastrophe’ and the question of the special German path, the Sonderweg, even if we had still moved from the Devil appearing in Italy to Goethe and to a German opposition between Greece and Rome, we might perhaps have travelled a little further back, to consider this in terms of Enlightenment attitudes: the revival of paganism, as some would have it. We might have questioned that, asserting the fundamentally Christian nature of so much of the Enlightenment, especially the Aufklärung, whether Protestant or Catholic. (Recall Leverkühn’s assignation of his antagonist, rejected by the latter, to the world of Protestantism, to what Hegel considered the Teutonic world.) We might then have asked why Rome was perhaps more valued by the writers of the French Enlightenment, which could potentially have involved a consideration of how Greek thinkers, Aristotle in particular, had been co-opted by the mediæval Church into its ontology and thereby rendered partially suspect to those who would attack its successor. Better, surely, for a Voltaire to cite Marcus Aurelius, likewise that great historian, Edward Gibbon, much cited by Richard Evans in his Cosmopolitan Islanders? Contradiction exists and contradiction drives our endeavours.

Would this then have been German history, even if it started off as such? Not really, though it might well have been in the old, cosmopolitan sense of Germanness posited by Mann’s diabolical visitor. Would it even have qualified as modern history? It does not really matter. However, an awareness of oneself as a writer, as, in the terms of a number of German writers and artists, a mediator between Apollo and Dionysus, bringing some sense of order to the violent eruptions of history and the imagination, that self-awareness is perhaps the positive side of post-modernist conceptions of what it is to write history.

So once again, through a train of historical thought and research, albeit vastly simplified for the purposes of this paper, we have not only managed to impart a little historical understanding to a work, but perhaps, through a particular work – and it need not of course be a work: it could be some other historical source – have gained a little insight into the nature of historical research. The two are intimately, necessarily connected, unless one believes, which I certainly do not, that there is some thing-in-itself called ‘history’, which one can then apply to sources, problems, and so forth. Source criticism, or Quellenkritik, ought not only to be criticism of sources but by them. It is a chicken-and-egg situation – or, since we are dealing with German history and I myself have been so marked by this intellectual tradition, it is a dialectical reality.

In some ways, then, I am not at all sure that I have been writing, or trying to write, German history, though I have at least been trying to write history: something of which I am often reminded when discussing material with colleagues from other disciplines. For instance, a little while ago, I met someone who said that he was writing on Anselm and Derrida. My immediate thought and thus my immediate question was: what is or was – again that problem of tense with regard to texts – the connection? What does, or did, Derrida have to say about Anselm? How did he approach him? What sparked his interest? Was the relationship first-hand or more often mediated by other writers? Though I know precious little about either writer, such were for me the obvious questions. The non-historian – a theologian, I think – seemed bemused; he had simply thought it would be interesting to set up what he called a ‘conversation’ between Anselm and Derrida. By contrast, my imaginary connection of the two writers would surely have led me into the world of German history, not only because I know a little more about it, but also because immersion in that history has formed the very way I think.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Shaham/LSO/Tilson Thomas - Berg and Schubert, 5 November 2009

Barbican Hall

Berg – Violin Concerto
Schubert – Symphony no.9 in C major, ‘Great’, D 944

Gil Shaham (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra (conductor)
Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor)

First the good news: a good performance of Berg’s wonderful violin concerto, ‘To the memory of an angel’. The opening gripped, its kaleidoscopic opening fifths presenting a world of potentialities, a real sense of enquiring openness, even with a ‘classic’ work such as this – in short, penetrating to the very essence of serialism. With the entry of the superb London Symphony Orchestra woodwind, we were audibly in the sound world of Lulu. There were a few lapses in orchestral ensemble, but Michael Tilson Thomas ensured that the general direction was clear throughout. Gil Shaham imparted a refreshingly diabolical edge to his technically flawless rendition – without the Devil as comparator, how does one sense the angelic? – though later on, with his first statement of the chorale tune, I wondered whether something more chaste would have been appropriate. The woodwind, at any rate, sounded properly organ-like, and that section’s premonitions of the chorale earlier had once again helped in terms of long-term structural preparation. There was real fire to the opening of the third movement: a very Romantic conception from all concerned. Karen Vaughan’s spectacular harp playing deserves special mention. Returning to the final, Bach-infused movement, certain orchestral passages sounded a little uncertain, lacking Boulezian clarity, but the climaxes were well-handled, again in high Romantic fashion. There was a secular, even luscious halo of reconciliation at the close: not how one often hears these bars, but it seems a valid interpretative choice. Was, however, the distinctly lukewarm reception a reflection of concert audiences’ lack of adventure, even when it comes to the most ‘approachable’ member of the Second Viennese School’? The hall, it is worth noting, was rather less than full.

Then there came, I am sad to report, a truly dreadful performance of Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major symphony. Rushed and mercilessly hard-driven, it was difficult to tell whether this was out of ‘authentic’ considerations – particularly out of place in a work never performed, and perhaps never likely to be performed, during Schubert’s lifetime – or a desire to turn the work into an orchestral showpiece. (There was enough preening from the conductor to – well, you can fill in the blanks...) Certainly the LSO played well, but that was the only saving grace. What was particularly strange was that, given Tilson Thomas’s recent project of programming Schubert and Berg together with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, of which I assume this London performance to be an offshoot, Schubert can rarely have sounded so utterly distant from Berg – or indeed from Schubert.

The introduction to the first movement was taken at a rather brisk Andante, especially for those of us accustomed to Furtwängler’s way with the score. I dare say for those unlucky enough to take their cue from Roger Norrington et al., it might have sounded more mainstream. What also announced itself straight away was a lack of ebb and flow, a rigidity inimical to the fluctuations Schubert’s score demands. The ensuing Allegro was hardly ma non troppo, the tempo once again proving rigid, with no discernable relaxation even for the second group. The brashness of the LSO’s brass, visibly encouraged by Tilson Thomas, stood light-years away from Schubertian grace, likewise the bizarre prominence of the kettledrums. As for the weird podium antics, at one point they seemed to shade into a spot of disco dancing: at least as embarrassing as Fiona Shaw’s recent pop-star entrance on stage at the National Theatre, allegedly as Mother Courage. After that, the Andante con moto certainly had movement, but sounded more like a march than anything else, an impression underlined by warlike trumpets later on. The woodwind section was often sprightly, though sometimes shrill, and there was a little consolation to be had from a wonderful oboe solo. Phrase, however, succeeded phrase, with little sense of shaping a greater whole, just an apparent anxiety to rush through as quickly as possible. There was also an unappealing fierceness to the string sound, utterly devoid of Germanic glow. Though fast, this movement seemed to go on forever. If only Sir Colin Davis had been conducting...

It was quite an achievement to make the scherzo sound too fast, but achievement it was, less a matter of speed as such, as of breathlessness: no Austrian air to breathe here. The LSO just about kept up and played very well, but to what end? At the opening of the trio, Tilson Thomas broke his baton, perhaps not a bad metaphor for the performance as a whole. This movement actually possessed a little more grace, perhaps because the orchestra had been able to regain some of the initiative during the interruption to his beat. The finale worked comparatively well, with a tempo that made much more sense, though, with a few blatantly grandstanding exceptions, it remained unyielding. But it was all too late. When the conductor, on more than one occasion, turned almost so far as to conduct the audience – it certainly was not directed to the orchestra – this was only the most flagrant of such unnecessary displays. How utterly different from the undemonstrative success of Karl Böhm in this score! I was put in mind of a senior academic who, when presiding at dinner, would regale the assembled company with yet another ‘funny story’, jabbing his finger from time to time at individuals, in order to ask, to their incredulity, ‘Now you, are you listening?’ One learned to avoid evenings when he would be in the chair. I shall do likewise with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Schubert.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Maltman/Johnson - Die schöne Müllerin, 2 November 2009

Wigmore Hall

Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Graham Johnson (piano)

Only a few weeks ago, I heard Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis perform Die schöne Müllerin at the Wigmore Hall. Despite the many virtues of Lewis’s performance, I did not find that Padmore’s approach was for me. This performance, however, from Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson, was quite outstanding. Not least of its virtues was a keen sense of the work as a whole: fluid, through composed, with or without breaks between songs, and with a clear, yet subtle dramatic trajectory. Johnson’s lengthy experience with this cycle, indeed with all of Schubert’s and many other composers’ songs, told, as did Maltman’s combination of natural ability with Lieder and dramatic experience from the operatic stage. The latter’s sheer beauty of tone, never more so than in the final stanza of Wohin!, was never an end in itself, but it was finely deployed and much appreciated.

Das Wandern began as sprightly, as full of hope, of expectation in both parts as I can recall, Maltman every inch the lusty lad with ideas of himself as a journeyman. As early as Wohin!, the second song, Johnson ensured that one could almost see, certainly feel, the brook as a constant background and frequent dramatic participant. The imploring tone of our hero in Danksagung an den Bach, ‘have I understood you?’ he asks the brook, already betokened unease, though things could go either way, or indeed in many directions. And by the time that work was over, in Am Feierabend, both musicians hinted, and sometimes more than hinted, at the danger to come. If only ... the fair maid of the mill might witness his love. But would she? Could she?

Der Neugierige took us further, though also drew us back. The sparseness of the musical delivery in the first two stanzas ensured that the words could take centre stage, but the harmony continued to do the musical work, preparing us for the melodic desolation of love in the third and fifth. One almost wanted to tell the hero to stop now, but one also knew that it would be hopeless to do so, a predicament underlined by the ardent way in which he leaned into ‘Dein’ during the following song, Ungeduld. Anger and frustration increased as that song reached its conclusion. Yet ever more Maltman engaged our sympathy, employing his head voice to infinitely touching effect in Des Müllers Blumen. The apparent triumph of Mein! was clearly to be heard, but we knew that it was deluded, as did Johnson and Maltman. That the devastation of Winterreise was only round the corner was pointed up by Johnson’s shaping of the bass line in Pause. And Der Jäger showed, through absolute musical control on both musicians’ part, that everything was getting out of hand, that madness had descended.

That song proved a bridge to Eifersucht und Stolz, in which we found ourselves in quite a new world, that of almost Pierrot-like expressionism: truly terrifying. The deathly calm with which Maltman continued, in Die liebe Farbe, was no less so, looking already towards the grave, likewise the insistence of Johnson’s piano part. In the song’s dreadful colouristic counterpart, Die böse Farbe, Maltman could speak with a wisdom born, if not of age, then of telescoped experience; it chilled to the bone. Noises off from outside the hall might have derailed a lesser performance, but Trockne Blumen would not let one go, its quiet inexorability quite gripping. (It is all very well, and quite right, that the Wigmore Hall should counsel against coughing, but disturbance from the entrance can be just as disturbing.)

By the penultimate song, Der Müller und der Bach, we were unmistakeably in the territory of Winterreise. I sensed, whether intended or otherwise, an intriguing premonition in the opening stanza of the starkness of Mussorgsky. And the chilling sweetness of the brook itself drew us as well as the hero in. Des Baches Wiegenlied was unbearably sad; much more and I felt that I might have gone mad myself. The title’s genitive was made to tell by Johnson: the lullaby was that of the brook, heartless agent that it is. We are but leaves on a tree, or better, reflections in its still, cruel waters.

This recital will be broadcast next Saturday on BBC Radio 3, at 2 p.m.