Monday, 29 March 2010

Music and Politics in the Real World? Jerusalem Quartet - Mozart and Ravel, 29 March 2010

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.21 in D major, KV 575
Ravel – String Quartet in F major

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

I have never been to a musical performance like this, and hope that I shall never do so again. That could be the prelude to a savage attack; rest assured that it is not. It could be the prelude to a performance so unbearable in its intensity that, like Wagner’s fears for a great performance of Tristan, it would be injurious to one’s sanity. This, however, has nothing directly to do with the performance, excellent and – in the circumstances – almost incredible, but rather with events that unfolded in the concert hall. I do not wish to sensationalise; at the same time, I think it would be disingenuous not to deal with some at least of the issues that arose, not least since it would be a wholly inaccurate account of my experience, were I to put them to one side.

Arriving in the nick of time for the concert, I registered a couple of policeman outside the Wigmore Hall, along with someone who seemed to be handing out leaflets. Insofar as I gave the matter thought at all, I vaguely wondered whether this might be a Palestinian issue, but was in too much of a rush to consider matters further. The hall was packed: not always typical of a BBC lunchtime recital but, by the same token, not necessarily atypical either. Having greatly enjoyed the evening recital from these players (plus Lawrence Power) of Mozart and Debussy a couple of night before, I was very keen to hear the present programme. The Mozart D major quartet, KV 575, opened with many of the virtues heard in the previous programme’s Mozart works, albeit with a recognition of the greater profundity of the present work vis-à-vis the early quartet on Saturday. (Then we had also heard the G minor quintet, quite a different matter.) This was a fully mature conversation, all the more so given the imperative handed to the composer to write a prominent cello part. The commissioner, the King in Prussia – not of Prussia, as is often mistakenly claimed – was himself a cellist and had also engaged the services of the celebrated Jean-Pierre Duport as director of chamber music (hence Mozart’s Duport Variations). The consequence is, as Anthony Burton pointed out in his programme notes, that Mozart made ‘everybody in turn a soloist,’ heightening the contrapuntal interplay that was in any case characteristic of his late style. That was something clearly relished by all of the Jerusalem Quartet’s players; it would be invidious to single out any of them, though I cannot resist putting a special mention the way of violist, Amihai Grosz. (Not for nothing was this Mozart’s favoured instrument as a quartet player himself.) The tempo seemed just right, likewise phrasing and the timing and weighting of climaxes.

On to the Andante. The sweetness of first violinist Alexander Pavlovsky’s tone struck me immediately, but almost as quickly did the players’ perfect counterpoise between harmony and counterpoint: absolutely fundamental to Mozart, yet so abominably difficult to achieve. (And the pay off is that it sounds ‘right’, rather than impressive in the virtuoso sense.) This is not a movement I should expect to terrify, but then it did – or rather something quite horrifying occurred during the performance. A woman rose to her feet and made a noise. For a split second, I was unsure what it was; then I realised that she was singing – in a reasonably imitation of a trained voice. ‘Jerusalem’ was the first word, followed by ‘is occupied’. She proceeded to shout out denunciations of Israel, ‘an apartheid state’, the attack on Gaza, the use of phosphorous, and so forth, seeming to implicate the quartet, though it was not clear how. I did not note down everything word for word, so should prefer not to guess or to misrepresent. Bewilderment turned into commotion and the players had to stop. Members of the Wigmore staff came to her row in the stalls and led her out of the hall. After a certain hiatus, the performance resumed where it had left off. Some bars later, a further interruption occurred from elsewhere in the hall: a man, I think, this time, though I am not entirely sure of my recollection. To say that it was unnerving was an understatement; I can hardly imagine what it must have been like for the players. And what else might be in store? Might there be something more than heckling? The players, this time having left the stage, eventually returned and resumed the movement, making their way to the end. By this time, of course, many in the audience, myself included, must have necessarily had other thoughts in their minds. What issues did this raise, especially in the allegedly most ‘pure’ of Classical forms, the string quartet? Although I shall talk a little about this later, I thought it better at least to mention it here, since this was perforce very much part of my experience as a member of the audience. By this stage, however, the disruption of the work’s aura was complete; fear and anger were increasingly palpable.

The minuet was taken at a fastish tempo but without sounding hard-driven: again, a necessary but devilishly difficult task for Mozart performers. It was perhaps a little faster than I might have expected, given the general nature of the performance and my experience of the quartet’s general approach; I wondered whether this might be an attempt to make up time, given what had happened in the previous movement. In the circumstances, the players’ attentiveness to each other and general stylishness seemed little short of miraculous. The audience, one could sense, remained on edge; I certainly was. It was likewise remarkable how full of grace and genuine give-and-take the trio proved. But we made it to the finale, though no one knew whether the interruptions – I am trying to employ ‘neutral’ language, whatever the nature of my own feelings – had ceased. I should have noticed the fullness of sound in any case, I think, but given the circumstances, it resounded all the more, perfect to support that precarious balance or dialectic between harmony and counterpoint. The movement perhaps sounded a bit precipitate, but one could well understand why. I myself was willing the players to make it to the end before another intervention. It was not to be…

… This time proved, if anything, nastier. The music having stopped again, some members of the audience began to shout at the protestor: hardly unreasonable, though one man in particular seemed a little too eager for a fight, calling out personal abuse. One frustrated audience member, seated in front of the present protestor, turned and initiated some sort of physical contact, which was broken up when the protestor was led out. A man from a few rows behind shouted out, condemning the responding audience member’s behaviour. It was unclear whether the man now calling out were another member of the organised – I realise I am making an assumption here, but it can hardly have been spontaneous – group, or whether he were sympathetic and simply venting his opposition to such behaviour. My suspicion, and it is only that, is that the latter was the case. Eventually, Amihai Grosz spoke, attempting to address accusations – apparently levelled in the leaflets being dispersed outside – that the quartet was somehow supported by the Israeli government. He said that it was not, which was good enough for me, and referred to the fact that every Israeli citizen must perform military service. (There are conscientious objectors, of course, but let us leave that on one side.) At any rate, they were only musicians. (I shall come back to that.) The players were clearly uncertain as to whether to carry on, or as to whether they would be permitted to do so. It was a relief to have the hall's front of house manager now walk to the front and ask whether we wished the quartet to resume. There was no equivocation in the response, so the players did as they were asked. I do not know whether the broadcast, which had presumably made this an attractive, high-profile proposition for protestors, had ceased by then. An announcement that the only remaining audience was in the hall might have helped. Music won through, though, as the performance proceeded to its end. Applause was warm, to put it mildly. Some, myself included, stood.

Then Ravel. The cool, calm, collected nature of the opening seemed all the more remarkable on this occasion. Beautifully stylish, the performance pulsated with life, especially in the inner parts. This, someone such as Daniel Barenboim would doubtless argue, is what music can do. I differ from Barenboim concerning his understandable divorce of music from politics, but enough of that for now. Those, though, were thoughts that I could not banish from my mind, however much I wished to concentrate on ‘the music’. Something that sounded like anger – the relationship between music and the emotions, let alone their personification, is complex – understandably made itself sound, or at least I heard it, followed by a relative calm that could not quite be placid.

Interruption again… When the music resumed, Ravel’s apparent serenity was anything but. On this occasion, the unanimity of pizzicato in the second movement’s opening bars was all the more thrilling. Was that anger again one heard soon after? The Lent section was full of tension not necessarily in the music – or, again, this was how I heard it. Relief on completing the movement without extra-musical incident compensated somewhat. Shimmering background was the setting for a profound melancholy to the lyricism of the slow movement’s opening. Climaxes were rapt: surprisingly Romantic, but not inappropriately. I admit, though, that I found it impossible properly to concentrate. Perhaps one had to have to, as the players did. Again, this movement proved free of disruption, but I cannot have been the only one to fear that something was being kept in reserve for the finale. The disciplined violence of its opening bars would have told anyway, but certainly did now, likewise its searing lyricism. The courageous – in my view – players of the Jerusalem Quartet made it to the end. Once again many of us stood to applaud them.

I do not believe in art for art’s sake, in principle or phenomenologically. To attempt to remove art from the political sphere, or politics from art, goes against everything I hold dear. What, then, should one think about what happened? There is probably no one thing one should think – which may be the most important thing to remember. The protestors would doubtless claim that the disruption caused was as nothing compared to the events in Gaza. It is difficult to disagree. But is that the point? And were they on sure ground with respect to these musicians? So far as I could discern afterwards, the protestors’ grievance seemed initially to have been derived from a dubious website. Barenboim’s personal heroism is of course quite something, but should one expect such heroism from everyone, especially, dare I suggest, from musicians who do not have the luxury of being Daniel Barenboim? And what should one think if, for instance, one knew that performers supported something one found abhorrent? Is it not a good idea to rejoice in music’s capacity to heal? Or is that an illusory æstheticism? Again, there are probably no singular answers – and a lack of plurality is again a major part of the problem. My thoughts led me to that enigmatic shout of ‘Deutschland über alles, Herr Schuricht!’ at the 1939 performance of Das Lied von der Erde in Amsterdam under Carl Schuricht. Was that woman protesting? Was she a supporter or was she voicing sarcasm? How can one fail to feel horrified, whatever the response? The reader may discover for himself; the performance was recorded. These are all difficult questions, which is not to say that one should not attempt to answer them. However, one should guard against definitive answers, not out of some misguided desire for ‘moderation’, but because there is nothing more totalitarian than a simplistic response. The Jerusalem Quartet players acquitted themselves magnificently. I admired them before as musicians; I admire them now as men.

Extraordinary scenes at the Wigmore Hall

My review will follow as soon as possible, but in the meantime, notification of the events at today's BBC lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall. The Jerusalem Quartet's performance was continually disrupted my allegedly pro-Palestinian/anti-Zionist protestors, who stood up to stand/shout/otherwise heckle from positions within the audience. Details and some thoughts to follow...

Jerusalem Quartet/Power - Mozart and Debussy, 27 March 2010

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.4 in C major, KV 157
Debussy – String Quartet in G minor, op.10
Mozart – String Quintet no.4 in G minor, KV 516

Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler (violins)
Amihai Grosz, Lawrence Power (violas)
Kyril Zlotnikov (violoncello)

A surprising mini-renaissance for the early Mozart string quartets: the Zehetmair Quartet gave an excellent performance of the third just a week and a half before; now came an equally fine fourth from the Jerusalem Quartet. Even Hans Keller, who dismissed the early quartets as ‘on the whole, … quite abominable,’ conceded that the C major quartet was a ‘masterly miniature’. So it sounded here, fully on the scale of the oft-underestimated Salzburg symphonies. True Mozartians would know neither to make unduly extravagant claims for the early works, nor to deny the astonishing achievements to be discovered within; only Mozartian nouveaux riches would be so vulgar as to dismiss this work because it is not the Dissonance Quartet. The Jerusalem Quartet did not condescend: KV 157 emerged as far more than the overture its opening bars might initially, winningly suggest. Fundamental to the emergence of something more was the performance, each player listening attentively and responding to his peers: in short, exemplary quartet-playing. I wondered a little about the extent of the ritenuto at the end of the exposition second time around. Was this a little more than the music could take? In any case, if a fault this were, it was a fault that granted the work stature. The slow movement was never rushed, but nor did it drag, and, like the rest of the quartet, it emerged teeming with life, every line counting for something. The Presto finale fizzed, with more than a hint of the opera house, albeit without exceeding its Milanese scale. Most important, the Jerusalem players had discovered the secret of playing fast without sounding hard-driven: all too rare an accomplishment today.

Debussy’s sole quartet followed. Its relatively early date of writing can cause difficulties; those seeking to discover the overtly – or should that, in this composer’s case, read covertly? – impressionistic Debussy should seek elsewhere. Yet, despite Franckian and Russian antecedents, this could only really be Debussy. Not least of the Jerusalem Quartet’s achievements was therefore to place the work in its stylistic context. Tchaikovsky and Borodin were readily apparent influences, without overpowering that sensibility which can only justly be described as Gallic. Implications of the Franckian cyclical inheritance, whatever Debussy may later have said about ‘one of the more notable Flemish composers,’ were seen, or rather heard, through, especially the recurrence and transformation of the opening motto theme. Intimations of the interludes to Pelléas et Mélisande were present without being hammered home: like that work itself, quiet, though not always, in their intensity. The fleetness of the quintuple-time second movement was as noteworthy as the poise of its slow successor: as Debussy requests, Andantino doucement expressif. One could see as well as hear how Sergei Bresler on second violin altered his tone to echo and indeed to develop the veiled opening statement of Amihai Grosz’s viola. Here and elsewhere, a particular joy was to be had from those sections in which Kyril Zlotnikov’s cello led proceedings, the music reverberating from the bottom up. Rameau would have approved…

After the interval, the acknowledged masterpiece: Mozart’s G minor quintet, in which the players were joined by the excellent Lawrence Power as second violist. A natural, properly Mozartian flow was established from the opening bar of the opening Allegro. Mozart’s G minor daemon and its chromatic implications were voiced, but not to the exclusion of the good-natured lyricism of the second subject. A little more possession might have worked, but there is more room for more than one interpretative stance here, and the pay off would come in the recapitulation’s reiteration of the tonic minor, followed by the understated tragedy of the coda. It was a relief not to endure the dreadful exhibitionism that disfigures so much contemporary Mozart performance, likewise in the ensuing minuet and trio, taken at a relatively expansive tempo, and all the better for it in revealing the composer’s ravishing harmonies. The extra viola could truly be relished here. Again, I wondered whether a touch more vehemence might have added something, but this was greatly preferable to overstatement. It was a heaven-sent mercy to hear the slow movement at a tempo that again allowed the music to breathe: how close to Beethoven we stand here! The players furnished dignity and poise, emotion emerging rather than being externally and thus ineffectively applied. Schubert hovered in the introduction to the finale, and then release: a release, however, not infused with haste, but permitting detail to have its motivic place. From Alexander Pavlovksy’s sweet-toned but never sentimental first violin downwards, this Mozart struck a fine balance between urbanity and emotion, the latter present, but never obscuring the work’s structure.

Das Rheingold, Opéra national de Paris, 25 March 2010

Images: Opéra national de Paris/Charles Duprat

Wotan – Falk Struckmann
Donner – Samuel Youn
Froh – Marcel Reijans
Loge – Kim Begley
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Mime – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Fasolt – Iain Paterson
Fafner – Günther Groissböck
Fricka – Sophie Koch
Freia - Ann Petersen
Erda – Qiu Lin Zhang
Woglinde – Caroline Stein
Wellgunde – Daniela Sindram
Flosshilde – Nicole Piccolomini

Günter Krämer (director)
Jürgen Bäckmann (designs)
Falk Bauer (costumes)
Diego Leetz (lighting)
Otto Pichler (choreography)

Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

The beginning of a new Ring will always be an event but is perhaps even more so in Paris. The Paris Opéra itself has not presented a complete cycle since 1957, reaching only as far as Die Walküre under Solti in 1976 – and even then, the company was still exclusively ensconced at the Palais Garnier, as opposed to its present day split between the old theatre and François Mitterand’s Opéra Bastille. There have been more recent performances of the tetralogy, however, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and the Châtelet. The city so important to understanding Wagner, the city for which he notoriously prescribed a ‘fire cure’ and which punished him more than handsomely with the Tannhäuser debacle, has never been short of Wagnerians and has equally never been short of opponents. There is, of course, nothing more Parisian than an artistic ‘controversy’ (consider the Querelle des bouffons) or ‘case’: was Nietzsche more décadent than he knew? Perhaps surprisingly, that arch-controversialist Gérard Mortier never, during his reign at the Bastille rose to this ultimate challenge pour épater les bourgeois, but the new directorate of Nicolas Jöel and Philippe Jordan, the latter already a Wagner conductor of considerable experience, has. Das Rheingold and Die Walküre are presented this season; Siegfried and Götterdämmerung are scheduled for next.

I had felt somewhat nonplussed by earlier work I had seen from director Günter Krämer. At the 2002 Salzburg Festival, I was grateful enough for the chance to hear Strauss’s ‘cheerful mythology’, Die Liebe der Danae, still more so from the Staatskapelle Dresden and Fabio Luisi, but the production seemed to do little other than to present each act at a different stage of the work’s history: the 1944 dress rehearsal, the ‘true’ premiere of 1952, and the revival fifty years hence. Tristan, which I saw in Vienna in 2008, I found still less revealing: unobjectionable, but nothing more. By contrast, this Rheingold is really rather good: red in tooth and claw, as befits the least ambiguously socialist of all Wagner’s stage works. The staging is recognisably post-Chéreau – what could it mean to attempt to be pre-Chéreau? – and certainly shares ideas with other productions, but I see no harm in that. It generally works as a synthesis, and some of the greatest artists and thinkers have had abilities at least as much synthetic as ‘original’: for instance, Marx, who looms large here. (The programme misleads in straightforwardly describing Wagner (p.86) as ‘lecteur de Marx’. He may well have been; indeed, I should wager that he was. However, short of new documentary evidence coming to light, we cannot say for certain.) And Wagner as a thinker was certainly synthetic in tendency, if not always in achievement, nowhere more interesting than in the contradictions this might present.

Though we have seen the Rhinemaidens as ladies of the night before, the direction on stage makes this credible theatrically as well as a good idea. (I am trying not to shudder excessively at memories of the embarrassing pole-dancing experiment from Phyllida Lloyd for the English National Opera.) Alberich is a dwarf too, for those who treasure stage directions – and he certainly should be a misfit in a trivial world where one is judged solely on appearances. Krämer recognises that there is no golden age for Wagner: the composer, often even in this work a Schopenhauerian avant la lettre, presents an almost Hobbesian initial state of nature and a Fall that is anything but a felix culpa. That the post-lapsarian world is still worse than its predecessor does not detract from the latter’s amorality. Diego Leetz’s lighting works well in suggesting a Rhine of sorts. This first scene, then, seems to me a model of what Warren Darcy has called a ‘tragedy in miniature’.

I was disappointed at the abruptness of the scene shift that followed: at odds with one of the supreme examples of Wagner’s ‘most delicate and profound’ art of transition, that of Alberich’s ring into Wotan’s Valhalla. We see the site for the latter, though not of course the completed version, too early. What is being built is, with perhaps unduly heavy-handed reference to the Third Reich, GERMANIA, whose capital – in more than one sense – construction, grandiose as the drama’s conclusion, we witness as the evening progresses. Portrayal of the gods is imaginative. Their idealistic physique – muscles for the men, breasts for the women – is clearly constructed, in that they wear these, and one is intended to see that they are not ‘natural’. This certainly fits with Feuerbach’s conception, so important to Wagner, of religion alienating human qualities onto a projected godhead and thereby impoverishing life on earth. The appendages are lost when Freia and her golden apples are captured, and put back on upon her return to the fold. It is not quite clear to me, however, why Wotan does not suffer this fate. Loge, as so often, steals the show. Initially more than a little camp, the outsider, brilliantly portrayed by Kim Begley, soon throws caution to the wind as a fully-fledged drag artiste.

Nibelheim comes across well, especially its centrepiece golden globe hoard and the equally striking pendulum-like cutting mechanism that swings throughout. The wonder and tawdriness of the magic trick are presented in Alberich’s Tarnhelm transformations: we know that he is hiding behind the ball; yet we see and hear that others believe something else. Moreover, we witness the brute power wielded over the Nibelungs, since these are cowering characters on stage. Wotan’s wresting of the ring from the dwarf, one of the truly terrible moments in the cycle, most certainly is here: the violent, bloody loss of the finger realistic and prescient as Alberich’s curse itself. Then there are the giants. Initially they appear with socialist propaganda followed – this a coup de théâtre – by a threatening band of angry proletarians, who burst into the audience, dispensing red sheets, inscribed with Fasolt’s fundamental denunciation of Wotan: ‘Was du bist, bist du nur durch Verträge.’ (‘What you are, you are through contracts alone.) Not a bad agitprop slogan, and in a nice touch, Fricka peruses what seems to be a fuller prospectus of the workers’ programme. The subsequent portrayal of Fafner chills. A construction union boss, we see in the fourth scene that he is more inhuman than the gods, savagely wielding and employing his whip when duly strengthened by possession of the ring. (I could not help but think of the leaders of UNITE, drawing salaries not so very far off the executives they excoriate.) Also memorable, with attendant change of pace, is Erda’s scene, in which, clad as a Victorian matriarch, she slowly traverses the stage as she delivers her warning: simple but effective. She watches beforehand, which perhaps serves no particular purpose but, by the same token, does no especial harm.

Begley was perhaps the star performer, sardonic and with a perfect sense of timing, but the cast in general impressed. Peter Sidhom does not possess the largest of voices for Alberich, but he cleverly used what he has. Iain Paterson and Günther Groissböck clearly differentiated between Fafner and Fasolt, the vocal and scenic realisation properly increasing as the drama progressed. Qiu Lin Zhang suffered from bad intonation at her entry as Erda, but recovered with nobility. Falk Struckmann was variable as Wotan, always attentive to the words but sometimes a little underwhelming vocally, apparently pushing him to be a bit too much of an ‘actor’ on stage. Sophie Koch had something of the sphinx’s enigmatic quality to the god’s attractively sung and played consort: more interesting than something too overtly shrew-like. Marcel Reijans displayed an attractive lyric tenor as Froh. The Rhinemaidens were of somewhat uneven quality, at least in vocal terms.

Underpinning this all, however, was the first-rate orchestral contribution. The orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris sounded surprisingly – welcomely – ‘German’ in tone, doubtless in partial consequence of Philippe Jordan’s experience in German houses, not least the Berlin Staatsoper. The blend was impressive, sometimes reminiscent of Karajan’s favoured Wagner sound. This rendered the novelty – in historical terms – of Wagner’s brass writing telling, but subtly so. The only real disappointment was the feebleness of the anvils. For Jordan’s command of the work’s vast structure one could certainly forgive that. He certainly has the measure of the work’s ebb and flow, of the orchestra’s role as Greek chorus; I have heard him do nothing finer. Indeed, all told, this was the best Rheingold I have attended since Haitink’s tenure at the Royal Opera. Die Walküre is eagerly anticipated.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Birtwistle 75th birthday concert (including a Carter premiere) - Nash Ensemble and friends, 24 March 2010

Wigmore Hall

Birtwistle – Five Distances for Five Instruments, for wind quintet (1992)
Birtwistle – New work for oboe quartet (premiere of work-in-progress in its present state)
Birtwistle – The Woman and the Hare, for soprano, reciter, and ensemble (Nash commission) (1999)
Birtwistle – Duets for Storab, for two flutes (1983)
Carter – Poems of Louis Zukofsky, for soprano and clarinet (British premiere) (2009)
Birtwistle – Trageodia (1965)

Claire Booth (soprano)
Julia Watson (reciter)
Philippa Davies (flute)
Ian Clarke (flute)
Gareth Hulse (oboe)
Richard Hosford (clarinet)
Ursula Leveaux (bassoon)
Marianne Thorsen (violin)
David Alberman (violin)
Lawrence Power (viola)
Paul Watkins (violoncello)
Ian Brown (celesta)
Hugh Webb (harp)
Chris Brannick (percussion)
Lionel Friend (conductor)

Britain’s greatest composer since Purcell and America’s greatest composer to date: not a bad line-up for a concert – although, quite reasonably, the birthday boy had the lion’s share of the programme devoted to him. On first sight, it might be a sobering thought to realise that Harrison Birtwistle has reached seventy-five, but given that Elliott Carter’s contribution is a work written during his second century, there is no reason that it should be. At any rate, we were treated to a wide-ranging selection of chamber and vocal works, excellently performed by long-time champions and commissioners, the Nash Ensemble, and three guests: soprano Claire Booth, actress Julia Watson, and conductor Lionel Friend.

Five Distances, for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn, made for an invigorating start to the concert. The work was performed, as Birtwistle prefers, with the performers standing. The spatial implications, including the dramatic, of the semi-circle in which the players stand, ‘as far apart as is practically possible,’ were fully realised in the space of the Wigmore Hall. Extremity, proximity, and grouping have often been preoccupations of new music, sometimes harking back to early music, as Birtwistle himself has done from time to time, though certainly not with the slightest intention of neo-something-ism, let alone pastiche. Stravinskian antecedents are also clear, perhaps above all the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, though, by the same token, this does not sound ‘like’ or ‘inspired by’ Stravinsky. A composer does not stand in tradition, Birtwistle believes, but has tradition within him. Birtwistle’s instrumental palette provides an expressive kaleidoscope, as did the Nash players, who equally ensured that the music sounded lyrical through and through. (I cannot think of a Birtwistle work that is not, though this of course remains dependent upon high standards of performance.) As arresting as anything else in the performance was Richard Hosford’s final clarinet note, fading into nothingness.

The new work for oboe quartet – it is not clear whether it is to be called an oboe quartet – is a work-in-progress. Heinz Holliger premiered the first movement and will give the first performance of the completed work. In the meantime, Birtwistle has composed two further movements. That now temporarily placed second will most likely be shifted to become an introductory movement, whilst the finale will remain final when the fourth movement is composed. I was especially taken with the sharp rhythmic, almost Bartókian profile of the outer movements; perhaps chamber strings provide an inevitable reminder of that composer’s quartets here. A highly striking section of the first movement sets stabbing violin and cello pizzicati against sinuous lyricism from violin and oboe, proving contagious to the other instruments. Bartók again comes to mind in some of the solo violin writing: the Rhapsodies for violin and piano in particular. The short movement in between at the moment provides an interlude to explore further implications of some of the material, though it will be interesting to hear how its function is transformed by introductory placing. Moments of melancholy stillness provide winning contrast with sharp rhythms during the finale. Performance was committed throughout.

Concluding the first half was one of Birtwistle’s David Harsent settings, The Woman and the Hare: a Nash Ensemble commission. Claire Booth and Julia Watson sang and recited respectively, reproducing for the composer something of the Baroque distinction between aria and recitative. Song is the music of the recitation. More than once, I was put in mind of the sound-world of Gawain and perhaps even the early music-theatre piece, Down by the Greenwood Side. Ultimately apparent is a typically Orphic triumph, that of music. Once again, there could be no gainsaying the commitment of all performers, who imparted a sharp dramatic edge, which in turn provided for necessary reflection.

Duets for Storab were initially conceived as teaching pieces for two flutes, though the musical demands – quite different from typical virtuosity, as the composer has remarked – have tended to militate against successful performance from children. The combination of two flutes has something primæval to it; we are, after all, concerned with the most ancient instrument of all. Despite the Hebridean provenance of the title, there remains something inescapably English to Birtwistle’s landscape. There is, moreover, and certainly was in performance, a haunting sense of play from a mythological past. Anti-organic constructivism can be fun.

Before concluding with another highly constructivist Birtwistle score, the performers gave the British premiere of Carter’s Poems of Louis Zukofsky, for soprano and clarinet. I dare not comment on the words, given the programme’s stern warning: ‘All Louis Zukofsky material Copyright Paul Zukofsky; the material may not be reproduced, quoted, or used in any manner whatsoever without the explicit and specific permission of the copyright holder. A fee will be charged.’ The poet’s son, Paul, may be an eminent violinist, but he does not come across in this context as a friend of art. Any comments on Carter’s response will therefore have to be non-specific with regard to word setting. Booth clearly relished the contrast with The Woman and the Hare; now she could act truly as a reciter of sung verse. I was very taken with the second song, Alba, a Carter lullaby: sweet indeed. Its successor, Finally a Valentine – I hope I may at least give the title – had for me slight echoes of Webern, albeit utterly transformed into typical late Carter musical language. (The instrumentation is doubtless a contributor towards the Webern connection, if connection there be.) A little later on, The Rains proved coruscatingly brilliant in composition and performance. Daisy evinces the composer’s delight in the sheer sound of words and its implications. The exultance of the final song’s climax belonged to Zukofsky père, Carter, Booth, and Hosford. Some things, let us give thanks, cannot be copyrighted, or indeed reproduced.

Finally, the early Birtwistle masterpiece, Tragoedia, ‘a study in symmetry followed by significant asymmetry,’ as Stephen Pruslin put it in his programme notes. And that asymmetry is perhaps already a sign of Birtwistle’s signature re-examination of narrative from varying perspectives. Construction and constructivism in his hands resist the schematic – just as in great serial music. The soundscape is very different here, though of course there are things in common. But the Mediterranean calls, albeit the savage world of archaic Greece. Stravinsky again rears his head, as echoes of The Rite of Spring resound – again, fully assimilated. The harp acts as mediator between string quartet and wind quintet, the opposing groups of the Nash Ensemble making splendid work of their dramatic encounter, for here there is truly a sense of a crucible where the master musico-dramatist comes into being, instrumental work though this may be. Lionel Friend directed proceedings with dramatic purpose. There is no false reverence for tragedy: something rawer, more elemental is being enacted. Which could serve as comment upon so much of what was to come…

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

CPE and JS Bach - Hahn/Erdmann/Goerne/Munich CO/Liebreich, 23 March 2010

CPE Bach – Symphony in G major, Wq.173
JS Bach – Wer mich liebet, der Wird mein Wort halten, BWV 59: ‘Die Welt mit allen Königreichen’
Ich bin in mir vergnügt, BWV 204: ‘Die Schätzbarkeit der weitern Enden’
Ich lasse dich nicht, du segnest mich denn, BWV 157: ‘Ja, ja, ich halte meinen Jesum feste’
CPE Bach – Symphony in A major, Wq.182/4: ‘Allegro assai’
JS Bach – Der zufriedene Aeolus, BWV 205: ‘Angenehmer Zephyrus’
Liebster Jesu, mein Verlangen, BWV 32: ‘Hier meines Vaters Stätte’
JS Bach (arr. Mendelssohn) – St Matthew Passion, BWV 244: ‘Erbarme dich’

JS Bach – Orchestral Suite no.2 in B minor, BWV 1067: Overture
Sei Lob und Ehr dem höchsten Gut, BWV 117: ‘Wenn Trost und Hülf ermangeln muss’
Mass in B minor, BWV 232: ‘Laudamus te’
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 140: ‘Wann kommst du, mein Heil?’
Ach Gott, wie manches Herzeleid, : ‘Ich bin vergnügt in meinen Leiden’
St Matthew Passion, BWV 244: ‘Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder’
Orchestral Suite no.3 in D major, BWV 1068: Air
Der Friede sei mit dir, BWV 158: ‘Welt ade! Ich bin dein müde’

Mojca Erdmann (soprano)
Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Hilary Hahn (violin)
Munich Chamber Orchestra
Alexander Liebreich (conductor)

A strange programme, this, with the appearance of little true rationale, beyond boosting sales of a recently released CD, featuring Hilary Hahn playing violin obbligato parts in Bach vocal movements, joined by Matthias Goerne, Christine Schäfer, the Munich Chamber Orchestra, and Alexander Liebreich. Schäfer having fallen ill, Mojca Erdmann came to the rescue. But the true problem lay with a programme that remained very much less than the sum of its parts, made odder by the seemingly random inclusion of a symphony and a bit from CPE Bach. A golden opportunity to present some of the latter’s largely ignored vocal music was shunned, the early symphonic music sounding merely out of place by itself, even on the debatable terms of the programme as it otherwise stood.

As for the Emanuel Bach performances, the first symphony came off reasonably well: more than a little abrasive, but alas, one more or less has to expect that nowadays. The Sturm und Drang seemed overdone to me, feeling that I wanted to tell the conductor to calm down a bit, but the hyperactivity had a certain place as a curtain raiser. Likewise, the movement from the A major symphony had a sense of the theatre to it, akin to an operatic interlude. The problem was that this was hardly appropriate to the excerpts from Bach père. Admittedly, this was a movement from a secular cantata, itself seeming somewhat out of place amongst the sacred music, but even so, the change of register was odd. And whilst Bach have employed formerly secular music for sacred purposes, the words changed – which was not the case here.

The lack of coherence was underlined by the abrupt change of performance style following the orchestral introduction. As soon as Hilary Hahn came to the stage, the violin tone we heard was unambiguously ‘modern’, as opposed to period. For the most part, she played alone with continuo or occasional other obbligato appearances (flute and, very briefly, oboe), so the contrast was underlined further. Indeed, the lack of something to do for the orchestra for much of the time itself contributed further to the problematical nature of the programme. But Hahn’s performances – much more Academy of St Martin in the Fields than present-day Munich CO, though listen to old recordings to hear how the orchestra used to sound… – were impeccably presented, clean of tone but never clinical. In this, she had much in common with Erdmann’s bell-like soprano; the two worked well together. From their first joint appearance, in the aria from BWV 204, there was a sense of objectivity that was not chilly, but which rather permitted Bach’s doctrine, theological and musical, to speak for itself.

Matthias Goerne’s contributions, fine in themselves, seemed less connected to what the other soloists were doing, or vice versa. In the closing duet – one of only two – there was little interplay between the two singers, though that between baritone and violinist on the one hand, and soprano and oboist for the chorale, was noteworthy. Some of the most distinguished playing, though arising from quite a different school of Bach interpretation, came from the continuo performers, especially Rosario Conte’s theorbo and Kristin von der Goltz’s plangent, almost gamba-like cello. Tempi, in the first half pleasantly unsurprising, tended to the more eccentric in the second half. The ‘Laudamus te’, shorn from the B minor Mass, was absurdly fast, likewise Goerne’s ‘Gebt mir meinem Jesum wieder,’ which sounded merely petulant. Liebreich should listen to his Klemperer and Richter. What sounded as though it might be an interesting curiosity, Mendelssohn’s arrangement for soprano of ‘Erbarme dich,’ presented nothing that was characteristic of its arranger. There is no harm in hearing the aria for soprano, I suppose, and Erdmann sang it with expressive restraint, but one is so used to hearing a lower voice – Christa Ludwig an ideal here – that it is probably more an opportunity for sopranos than audiences.

Doubtless fans of the artists concerned – though presumably not those of Christine Schäfer – went away happy. The programme, however, failed to satisfy: not quite a collection of encores, but with about as much integrity. To have heard a selection of, rather than from, Bach cantatas performed by these musicians would have constituted a far richer experience. Even to have been permitted to hear the recitatives that would have prefaced the arias would have afforded a measure of context. That the programme notes acknowledged Deutsche Grammophon for texts and translations told us what we needed to know concerning priorities.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Cunning Little Vixen, Royal Opera, 19 March 2010

(sung in English)

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Vixen Sharp-Ears – Emma Matthews
Gamekeeper – Christopher Maltman
Fox – Elisabeth Meister
Schoolmaster/Mosquito – Robin Leggate
Gamekeeper’s Wife/Owl – Madeleine Shaw
Priest/Badger – Jeremy White
Harašta – Matthew Rose
Innkeeper’s Wife – Elisabeth Sikora
Pásek – Alasdair Elliott
Pepík – Simona Mihai
Frantík – Elizabeth Cragg
Rooster/Jay – Deborah Peake-Jones
Dachshund – Gerald Thompson
Forester’s Wife – Madeleine Shaw
Cricket – Peter Shafran
Caterpillar – Talo Hanson (front), Korey Knight (back)
Young Vixen – Eleanor Burke
Blue Dragonfly – Tom Sapsford
Spirit of the Vixen – Lyn Routledge
Chief Hen – Glenys Groves
Woodpecker – Amanda Floyd
Hare – Marnie Carr
Flies, Foxcubs, Other Children, Dancers

Bill Bryden (director)
William Dudley (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Stuart Hopps (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)

An enchanting evening at Covent Garden: what with this and The Gambler, things seem to be looking up, following a dispiriting spell in the Christof Loy doldrums. Indeed, the theatrical and musical magic woven here could not stand further removed from the pretentious dreariness inflicted upon new productions of Lulu and Tristan und Isolde. Bill Bryden’s production of The Cunning Little Vixen was first staged in 1990 but, twenty years on, it is yet to look tired. For this, William Dudley’s designs deserve a great deal of credit. There is to action and staging a crucial sense of life, in all its complexity, never more ambiguous than when it is apparently straightforward. The life-cycle, human or animal – should the distinction even be made? – is the guiding force, in every sense, of Janáček’s drama, and so, appropriately enough, one sees a huge circle on stage, which provides a treadmill for walking as well as a frame in which the first act’s acrobatic ‘Spirit of the Vixen’ may swing. Here, form is wondrously imparted to the Vixen’s dream, both for the eye and the ear. Humour, arguably more immediate, if less idiomatic, when sung in English, was present too, for instance in the portrayal of the clannish farmyard hens, large and contented, unable to heed the Vixen’s siren-voice of feminist revolt. It is, however, the interplay between wondrous machinery and Nature that penetrates to the very heart of the opera. This both highlighted such relationships in the score and put me in mind of another Royal Opera production: David McVicar’s Magic Flute – never more magical than when heard under Sir Colin Davis (available on DVD). Lighting (Paule Johnson), colours, and scenery ensure that Nature is present, overflowing in her abundance, without being domesticated or prettified; for there is wildness aplenty in Janáček’s score, and this must be reflected in the action.

It must, of course, above all be expressed by the orchestra, and so it was here. The name of Sir Charles Mackerras is so indelibly associated with Janáček’s music that one might take for granted his excellence. However, I doubt that even the most jaded listener – note that one must listen, rather than passively consume – could have done so in this case. The angularities of Janáček’s score, so often ironed out by conductors not so intimately attuned to the idiom, were immediate and telling, but they were always integrated into a longer line, never aggressive, let alone exhibitionistic, for their own sake: the opposing temptation to smoothing out. Equally apparent, and again never merely for their own sake, were the ravishing beauties of the score’s extraordinary sound-world – extraordinary even by Janáček’s standards. One example would be that utterly characteristic high string sound, split into several parts, which one might be tempted to call Straussian, but which is in reality quite different, if anything more akin to the Schoenberg of Gurrelieder. (Janáček was greatly interested in the music of the Second Viennese School.) Building of climaxes was masterly, above all in the great, pantheistic conclusion, so redolent, or rather prophetic, of the Glagolitic Mass. Life goes on, yet is transformed, transfigured. Tension had sagged slightly, I thought, both on stage and in the musical performance, during the first half of the third act, but this conclusion certainly compensated. As Sir Charles’s aforementioned knighted colleague sounds so effortlessly right in Mozart, so does Mackerras in Janáček. How odd, then, that this was the first time he had conducted the work at Covent Garden, though not quite so odd as the fact that Bryden’s production has no predecessors in the house. (Having said that, The Cunning Little Vixen received its Paris premiere as recently as 2008, and then in a production borrowed from Lyons.)

If Mackerras and the orchestra, which throughout played superlatively, a match for any other ensemble, were the brightest stars in the firmament, then they were ably supported by much of the cast. Most impressive of all was Christopher Maltman, whose Forester grew in stature, as he should, as the work progressed. The final transfiguration was as much his as the natural world’s. Elisabeth Meister, a Jette Paker Young Artist, had originally been slated to sing the roles of the Rooster and the Jay, but had to replace Emma Bell at very short notice, the latter having been rushed to hospital for an emergency appendectomy. Meister proved a winning replacement, moving in her love for the Vixen: an anthropomorphic fantasy, maybe, but an irresistible one. Sadly, Emma Matthews brought no especial individuality to the title role, though she did nothing especially wrong either. Many of the smaller roles, however, were sharply etched, most memorably Matthew Rose’s poacher, Harašta, Robin Leggate’s lovelorn Schoolmaster, and Jeremy White, both as priest and badger. The children, drawn from various London schools, did not disappoint either.

Performance in English did not disconcert me as much as I had feared. There is loss, of course, in terms of the music’s relationship to the language’s speech-rhythms, but this registered less than it had during ENO’s Katya Kabanova earlier in the week. Perhaps it was a better translation; there was certainly more opportunity, often very well taken, for wit. Banking jokes may be easy, but sometimes we should be grateful for any weapon we have. One gripe though: why start at 8 p.m.? It made no especial difference to me, but a 7.30 start would have been of help to those who had to travel out of London, or who simply wished to dine a little earlier. Such practical reservations should not detract, however, from a triumphant return to form for the Royal Opera.

The Cunning Little Vixen will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 15 May at 6 p.m.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Mutter/LPO/Morlot - Wagner, Brahms, and Bartók, 17 March 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Wagner – Lohengrin: Prelude to Act One
Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major, op.77
Bartók – Concerto for Orchestra

Anne-Sophie Mutter (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Ludovic Morlot (conductor)

This was an attractive programme, but the performances did not really ignite as they might have done, despite Anne-Sophie Mutter’s sterling efforts. The prelude to Act One of Lohengrin creates a problem of coming back to earth in Wagner’s Romantic opera. It is also rather difficult to programme in concert, in terms of what might follow; I am not convinced about it introducing Brahms. In any case, despite some beautiful, ethereal string playing from the London Philharmonic, Ludovic Morlot’s direction remained laboured, over-emphasising the bar lines, so that the requisite upward ascent never quite materialised. The orchestra was on excellent form, never more so than at the moment of full climax, trombones magnificent, but the players could only do so much by themselves. Coughers were especially prominent during the closing bars; clearly the Grail had done them no good.

The first thing that struck me about the Brahms concerto performance was the decisive brilliance of Mutter’s entry. (It is perhaps telling that the orchestral introduction made little impression.) Sweetness and steel were equal parts of her armoury here and throughout. The pin-point precision of her intonation, double-stopping notwithstanding, was awe-inspiringly consistent, and the expressive quality of her vibrato, nicely imitated by the orchestral strings, was equally apparent. However, the orchestra rarely sounded inspired even in this opening movement, and what direction Morlot had provided seemed fully dissipated by the advent of the Adagio. (In between, we had to endure precipitate applause.) And so, although the slow movement’s woodwind solos sounded beautiful in themselves, the context was lacking, especially prior to Mutter’s re-entry. A lack of orchestral focus persisted until the finale, where things picked up somewhat, the LPO sounding reinvigorated. Mutter’s virtuosity was jaw-dropping, likewise her purely musical command. However, it was still very much – sadly, too much – her show. Memories of her magnificent 2008 performance with André Previn and the LSO were certainly not effaced.

The second half was better. Morlot sounded more at home in Bartók and the orchestra sounded focused throughout; perhaps more rehearsal time had been allocated to the Concerto for Orchestra. The strong bass line manifesting itself at the very opening of the first movement proved a good augury and was matched by a greater general sense of direction and a fuller string sound. Again, there was something of a tendency to stress bar lines, but the orchestra by now seemed better practised in evasion. Morlot shaped the climaxes well, though. The second movement brought especially nice work from the various pairs of woodwind instruments: what skilful writing this is! And I was pleasantly surprised by the degree of strangeness to the sonorities with which the Elegia opened. Greater flexibility aided the sense of onward movement. Bartók’s brilliant joke in the fourth movement registered; so did its political and æsthetic edge. Now there are different reasons to wish to send up Shostakovich, not least amongst which are his canonisation by the smug victors of the Cold War and, still closer to home, his consequent ubiquity in the concert hall. Bartók’s derision still demands to be heard. The finale suffered somewhat from an unduly fast main tempo, which necessitated too much of a gear change later on, disrupting continuity. However, the string counterpoint registered clearly. Whilst not, then, an unforgettable performance, there was much to enjoy, especially given the opportunities for the LPO players to shine, just so long as one were not expecting the excitement and fulfilment provided by the likes of Iván Fischer.

Zehetmair Quartet - Mozart, Holliger, and Beethoven, 16 March 2010

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.3 in G major, KV 156
Heinz Holliger – String Quartet no.2
Beethoven – String Quartet no.16 in F major, op.135

Thomas Zehetmair, Matthias Metzger (violins)
Ruth Killius (viola)
Ursula Smith (violoncello)

This really was a splendid concert from one of the world’s great string quartets. Early Mozart, when it is performed at all, tends to be condescended to, but not here. Hans Keller’s dismissal of the early quartets as ‘on the whole, … quite abominable,’ could not have been better disproved. At first, I wondered whether the tempo for the first movement of KV 156 was going to prove too fast, but then I checked, to see it marked Presto; more to the point, nothing was rushed and the music was given space to breathe. Ever stylish, and ever attentive to each other, the members of the Zehetmair Quartet permitted a welcome sense of the outdoor serenade to permeate their reading. At times, their tone could veer a little towards ‘period’ sound, but never offensively so. Likewise, the Adagio, perhaps a little quick for the marking, never sounded rushed, for which the freedom of the players’ divination of the musical melos must be held responsible. Poised between the Baroque and Beethoven, the performance encompassed both moments of extraordinary stillness and instances of rhetorical boldness, whilst structure remained clear throughout. In the closing minuet, as elsewhere, not a single note was taken for granted. Contrapuntal interplay was very much to the fore, especially in the trio.

Heinz Holliger’s 2007 second string quartet, commissioned by KölnMusik for the Zehetmairs, followed the Mozart. It is a work full of ‘effects’ – retuning of strings, harmonics, playing on the bridge, and so forth – which yet never seem effects for their own sake. What might seem on paper like too much of a conspectus of techniques fits clearly and dramatically into a single movement structure, divided into six sections. The first is akin to a French overture, inspired by frescoes of angels’ music-making. Its contrary-motion glissandi certainly give a sense of the other-worldly, but equally apparent are glassy, angular energy and complexity of texture. The work, far from incidentally is dedicated to Elliott Carter) Next comes a Moderato section with a Hölderlin inscription, ‘… wie Wolken um die Zeiten legt …’ (‘… as clouds surround the times’.) The Zehetmair Quartet ensured a sense of the fragmentary – glimpsed through or beyond clouds? – which could yet, at least retrospectively, be pieced together. They made the most of Holliger’s post-Second Viennese School lyricism, a thread running throughout the quartet, presented with characteristic intensity. A chorale emerges in the form of an ‘embellished canon’, not unlike the emergence of the Bach chorale in Berg’s Violin Concerto, a work Holliger has recorded as conductor, with Thomas Zehetmair as soloist. There was to this section an unsettling stillness, as if one were viewing a lake, but a lake from an alien world. Neo-Bartókian night music follows, leading into the fifth, heterophonic section, which also carries the Hölderlin quotation: an extraordinary lyrical outpouring, as work and performance, overlapping entries creating greater intensity still. Finally comes the ‘singbarer Rest’ (‘singable remainder’), the phrase taken from Paul Celan. Whether consciously post-Holocaust or no, I sensed an effort and achievement to grant voice to the voiceless. The twelve parts are created by double-stopping and singing from each member of the quartet: a ‘human’ alternative to electronics? This may be fanciful, but I also was put in mind of mediæval music, Notre Dame even. Finally, voices of whatever kind faded into the ether. A wonderful work and a wonderful performance!

After the interval came Beethoven: his final quartet, op.135. The players adopted a more ‘modern’ sound than for Mozart, but there was still nothing comfortably ‘Romantic’ to their approach. Yet, if throughout, every note sounded considered, the approach never seemed self-consciously moulded. A Haydnesque sense of fun characterised the opening ‘Muss es sein?’ And as with Haydn, fun does not preclude something more serious, far from it. Such is the players’ sense of structure that the whole pretty much took care of itself, allowing one to concentrate upon motivic and dramatic incident; indeed, the work’s motivic integrity was powerfully portrayed, engendering an aptly late-Beethovenian dialectical tension between totality and fragmentation. Had Hegel been a composer, or Adorno a better composer, the music might have resembled this. Concision can present ‘difficulty’, as in the op.95 quartet, but not here, so convincing was the players’ presentation. A wonderful throwaway ending to the opening Allegretto made one ask once again, must it be? Who knows? Such is the shocking modernity of the scherzo that much of the music might have been by Holliger – except that Beethoven here perhaps sounds still more ‘new’. His truly extraordinary syncopations and harmonic clashes were relished but never exaggerated. A sense of alienation and yet equally of profound humanity brought one close to the world of the Missa Solemnis. The human spirit somehow can and did still triumph. In the slow movement, I was immediately put in mind of the final movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony, yet there was also something intriguingly veiled to the Zehetmairs’ presentation. And then the finale: there was no attempt to beautify, but Beethoven has his own strange beauty, and certainly did on this occasion. Stark, unvarnished, undoubtedly angry, the music is never impetuous; release, if only of a kind, will come – and the Zehetmairs ensured that it did. What sort of answer is this? Must it be? Again, who knows, but in this performance, the ambiguity of the Beethovenian oracle was now a recognition of complexity, not a signal of nonchalance. The ‘difficulty’ of Beethoven’s marking, Der schwer gefasste Entschluss, again brings one to the world of his late Mass. Should one even be here? There truly is no ‘newer’ music than late Beethoven.

Katya Kabanova, English National Opera, 15 March 2010

(sung in English)

The Coliseum

Katerina Kabanova – Patricia Racette
Marfa Kabanicha – Susan Bickley
Varvara – Anna Grevelius
Boris Grigoryevich – Stuart Skelton
Vanya Kudrjas – Alfie Boe
Tikhon Ivanich Kabanov – John Graham-Hall
Dikoy – Clive Bayley
Kuligin – Nicholas Folwell

David Alden (director)
Charles Edwards (set designs)
Jon Morrell (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Maxine Braham (movement)

Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)

What a week for Janáček in London, with Katya Kabanova opening here at the Coliseum, and Covent Garden’s revival of The Cunning Little Vixen opening on Friday! It is a pity, both in itself and for the sake of contrast, that the latter will be sung in English, but let us remain with ENO for the moment. One misses the Czech, even if one does not understand it: for music so dependent upon the language’s speech rhythms, it would be vain to pretend that there is not significant loss. The translation employed is on the plain side too. Still, there is far more justification on ENO’s part; opera in the vernacular is, after all, the company’s raison d’être.

David Alden’s powerful Jenůfa for the same company is succeeded by a successful, if not quite unforgettable Katya. There seems to be no particular Konzept, but an approach not significantly different from the earlier production highlights the nasty claustrophobia of the community: vaguely the time of composition, I think, but not distant from the ‘original’ setting. More than once, I thought of Peter Grimes, though Janáček’s opera is of course the superior work. What Alden manages to do is to stress the nature of what is, as ever with Janáček, akin to a spoken play, and to a considerable extent permit the story to tell itself. There is no distracting folksiness, quite out of place in this work; instead, there is a degree of abstraction, for which Charles Edwards’s stunning set designs and Adam Silverman’s equally stunning lighting must receive a great deal of credit. Deep shadows are cast throughout and the contrast between those of Katya and Varvara in the Kabanicha’s house, is telling, likewise the way in which they merge to form a single figure at prayer (even though neither of the characters is praying on stage). The starkness of the sets shading from grey into darkness packs a powerful dramatic punch, even if it means that the house is unfeasibly large and minimalist. The icon on the wall does its job, though, and it is a powerful moment when its owner turns it around, so that it will not see what she is about to get up to with Dikoy: a properly sado-masochistic, alcohol-fuelled relationship with a history, but never wearyingly explicit. Nevertheless, I could not help wondering: is Alden becoming, or has he already become, something of a conservative? Not that it especially matters, but there is nothing provocative here.

Mark Wigglesworth impresses in the pit. The opening bars were slower, more Romantically yearning than I can recall hearing, and he certainly exerts command over the generally fine ENO orchestra (a few slips aside). The razor-sharp rhythms that Sir Charles Mackerras brings to the composer were not always quite there, but this remained a creditable performance. For whatever reason, Janáček seems to bring out the best in the company. And who would complain about that?

I wondered to begin with about Patricia Racette, her opening lines proving somewhat tremulous. But she inhabited the role of Katya, made us sympathise, drew us in, and led us to the final tragedy. Her acting and singing were as one, so to concern oneself too much with odd vocal imperfections is arguably to miss the point. Her diction varied, however, and in this, she was not alone – a particular issue for me, given that the titles were not visible from my seat. (Again, if one cannot hear every word clearly, why not sing in the original language, and permit the sounds at least to be correct? And is not the provision of titles an admission of defeat?) There are no such problems however with Susan Bickley’s magnificent Kabanicha. In many ways, this is not a rewarding role; one can only guess at what has made her the way she is, given the lack of even the slightest glimmer of humanity. This is not the Kostelnička. (Perhaps she once too was a Katya? Who knows?) But her stentorian malevolence can rarely if ever have been so searingly portrayed as here. Felicity Palmer was equally fine last time at Covent Garden. Both artists elicited a terrifying chill upon the apparently unmoved thanking of friends and neighbours for their kindness. Anna Grevelius and Alfie Boe made for a splendid pair of successful lovers; their carefree attitude contrasted strongly with the twin complexities of Katya and Boris, whose vacillation Stuart Skelton captured to a tee. John Graham-Hall’s mess – in a positive sense! – of a Tikhon was exemplary: it is no easy thing to portray weakness on stage without resorting to caricature. Clive Bayley’s Dikoy seemed, not unreasonably, to have stepped straight out of Mussorgsky’s catalogue of mendicants: no subtlety there, but it is not clear that the role invites subtlety.

And thank goodness ENO had the dramatic integrity to present the work without intervals! To have to repair to the bar between acts is utterly unwarranted, yet all too often financial reasons seem to win out. To remain in the theatre throughout makes for the requisite intensity of experience, despite audience chattering that too often endured into the dramatic presentation. (Coughers, I regret to say, were out in strength, nowhere more so than a few bars in.)

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Martino Tirimo - Chopin, 12 March 2010

Hall One, Kings Place

Variations brillantes in B-flat major on a theme from Hérold's Ludovic, op.12
Polonaises, op.71: no.2 in B-flat major, and no.3 in F minor
Rondeau à la Mazur, op.5
Three Mazurkas, op.59
Ballade no.3 in A-flat major, op.47
Waltz in E-flat major, op.posth.
Two Waltzes, op.69
Two Nocturnes, Op.48
Etudes, op.10:
No.2 in A minor
No.6 in E-flat minor
No.7 in C major
No.9 in F minor
No.10 in A-flat major
No.12 in C minor
Three Mazurkas, op.posth.
Polonaise in A-flat major, op.53

I have doubtless been spoiled for Chopin recently, having been treated to twin ‘birthday’ recitals from both Krystian Zimerman and Maurizio Pollini. Nevertheless, this instalment of the Kings Place Chopin Unwrapped series – the composer’s entire œuvre – proved bitterly disappointing. Martino Tirimo is a much recorded and, it would seem, widely respected pianist but this was, I think, the first time I have heard him, live or otherwise. Laudable though his project to perform all of Chopin’s works may be, the impression was of a pianist whose (presumably) better days lay behind him.

I felt indulgent during the opening Variations brillantes, since it is difficult to care one way or the other about so vapid a work. (How could Chopin ever have descended so low?) But the performance was nevertheless disturbing; it sounded as though Tirimo were sight-reading and was littered with hesitations and errors. Despite their high opus number, the Polonaises, op.71, are early works: better than the dreadful Variations, yet of little more than documentary interest. The two we heard here were characterised by undue stiffness of rhythm. There was greater charm to the sixteen-year old composer’s Rondeau à la Mazur, a more individual, albeit flawed work. (It goes on a bit – all the more so in this performance.) But a greater freeness earlier on was most welcome, even if Tirimo’s performance later turned effortful, a word that often came to my mind this evening. Greater clarity of line was heard in the three Mazurkas that followed (op.59), though, especially during the first, direction seemed lacking and the central section again seemed effortful. A highly Romantic reading of the third surprised, not unpleasantly. Concluding the first half was the third Ballade. In general, it was technically secure – one would have hoped so, but this was not always to be taken for granted – yet heavy and plodding. The great climax sounded like laboured Liszt: odd for a pianist whose sympathies would seem more Classical.

The second half was better, though rarely impressive. The C minor Waltz, op.69 no.1, had its heavy-handed moments but showed more sense of direction. There was never, though, the sense of sovereign command that great Chopin interpreters display as if they can do no other. The C minor Nocturne was taken at a surprisingly swift tempo, or at least its opening was, for Tirimo made a meal out of the spread chord section. The central section of the companion Nocturne in F-sharp minor also dragged. For the selection of six Etudes from the op.10 set, only two really came off: best of all the F minor, given a full-blooded Romantic account, though the ‘Revolutionary’ Etude, despite a certain apparent caution, on the whole convinced too. The A minor Etude sounded like little more than a (none too successful) finger study, its E-flat minor successor – in Tirimo’s ordering – likewise lacking in song or poetry. The remaining pieces, those in C major and A-flat major, were gabbled. From the set of posthumous Mazurkas, I liked the sense of the untamed, the raw, in the C major piece, but that in B-flat major plodded along, its bar lines pedantically audible. To conclude with the A-flat Polonaise unwisely courted comparison - in practice, contrast - with Arthur Rubinstein. Suffice it to say that this account was often merely loud. The work hardly presents Chopin at his dreamiest, but even so… At least there was no encore.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Apollo et Hyacinthus, Rose Opera Company, 10 March 2010

Rose Theatre, Bankside

Oebalus – Andrew Boushell
Hyacinthus – Zoe Bonner
Melia – Eleanor Briggs
Apollo – Alison Nicholls
Zephyrus – Georgina-Rosanna Murray
Ensemble – Rebecca Ramsey, Chloe Morgan, Alex Mai, James Priest

Eleanor Briggs (director)

Rose Opera Orchestra
James Williams (conductor)

This is where it all began, with an intermezzo to accompany a five-act tragedy. Both intermezzo and tragedy, Clementia Croesi were written in Latin, their words penned by the Salzburg Benedictine Gymnasium teacher, Rufinus Widl. Here the Rose Opera Company performed Mozart’s contribution in the original Latin, without titles, and yet succeeded in communicating the plot, with a little help from one’s memory, one’s rusty Latin, and/or one’s programme synopsis (delete as appropriate). Opportunities to hear Apollo et Hyacinthus, KV 37, are unlikely ever to be frequent. Yet Mozart’s first opera is fully worthy of the occasional production, far more so than a number of works that bafflingly continue to hold the stage in our major opera houses. The present production, for a very small stage, made imaginative use of a small number of props, eighteenth-century costumes proving stylish and apposite.

Mozart, of course, wrote for boys, but here we had a mixture of young men and women. All of the singers had their strengths and crucially of them enunciated the text clearly, their diction an object lesson to many more established artists. If one singer stood out it was the multi-tasking Eleanor Briggs, not only the director of the production, but also the founder of the company, whose inaugural production this is. Her bright, flexible soprano coped extremely well with Mozart’s challenging coloratura. One wonders what on earth he thought he was doing writing such music for a cast aged between twelve and twenty-three, but the eleven-year old composer did not have a great deal of stage experience behind him. The arias were indeed generally well taken, the odd slip rarely detracting from the joy expressed in Mozart’s invention. He may not yet have developed his extraordinary genius for characterisation, but the music is surprisingly expressive, putting most of his contemporaries to shame. It was particularly impressive to hear such an estimable balance between individuality and blend in the ensemble singing.

Moreover, to prevent attention from waning during the recitatives was a signal achievement, for which James Williams, conducting from the harpsichord, must be awarded considerable credit. Indeed, his continuo realisation was consistently flexible and inventive. The only real blemish was the often scrawny and out-of-tune playing of the tiny orchestra, the strings in particular, which sometimes contributed to disconnection between band and stage. Whilst generally spirited, there were moments when one simply could not ignore painful intonation – perhaps a consequence of the cold temperatures on the site of Bankside’s oldest playhouse? Excavations continue beneath the temporary playing space, and the Rose Opera Company is donating the proceeds from ticket sales to the Rose Theatre Trust.

For further details concerning the Rose Opera Company, click here, and for the Rose Theatre, click here.

Jansen/Rysanov/Philharmonia/Luisi - Mozart and Schubert, 9 March 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Mozart – Sinfonia concertante in E-flat major for violin and viola, KV 364
Schubert – Symphony no.9 in C major, ‘Great’, D 944

Janine Jansen (violin)
Maxim Rysanov (viola)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Fabio Luisi (conductor)

I did not enter the Royal Festival Hall with especially high hopes, feeling disappointed that Christoph von Dohnányi had fallen ill. His last-minute replacement, Fabio Luisi, had recently been lauded in certain quarters for his Strauss and Bruckner. I had rather admired his conducting of Die Liebe der Danae a few years ago in Salzburg, also, as it happens, replacing Dohnányi, yet more recently, I had been somewhat nonplussed by an Edinburgh concert with the Staatskapelle Dresden. Luisi must have been having an off-day – or perhaps I was – since his conducting of Mozart and Schubert proved excellent, and I think it is fair to say that nowhere am I less easy to please than in Classical repertoire…

There were two other stars for the Mozart Sinfonia concertante, of course – well, three, since the brightest-shining of all is the composer of this imperishable masterpiece. It speaks extremely well of Luisi and his two soloists, Maxim Rysanov and Janine Jansen, that their musicianship ultimately returned the spotlight to Mozart himself. Everything sounded right: tempi, blend, sonority, character. That is not to say that there is one ‘correct’ way, but rather that the performance did its job in convincing one of its rightness for as long as it lasted – and a little while after. For the music does not play itself; it needs to be performed. The Philharmonia strings were of a decent size (, the orchestra providing clarity, warmth, and a weight that did not preclude lightness of touch where necessary, for instance in beautiful, unanimous pizzicato and truly ravishing woodwind passages. It is grossly unfair even to mention it, but the only thing I missed was that true Viennese sweetness now so indelibly associated – and justly so – with this music: think, for instance of one of Karl Böhm’s recordings. In the first movement, the tempo, as elsewhere, seemed just right: unhurried, but by the same token never dragging. The great opening tutti crescendo was flawlessly handled, in a way that would surely have impressed Mozart and the fine (considerably larger) Paris orchestra for which he wrote. In a concerto, however, one awaits of course the entry of the soloist(s), and from the outset, Janine Jansen and Maxim Rysanov impressed, not only attentive to each other, but with an obvious rapport; indeed, the frisson seemed almost sexual, by which I do not mean to imply anything beyond the performance, but performing with another musician always involved shared intimacy, at least if it is done properly. There was a clear contrast between violin and viola, but equally a fine blend. If anything, Rysanov’s part impressed all the more, if only because one is less accustomed to hearing a solo violist: I certainly was led to wish that Mozart had written a viola concerto, not least since he clearly adored the instrument.

The slow movement flowed, in the proper rather than the modern ‘fast’ sense, yet retained its dignity. Jansen’s opening violin solo sounded veiled, as if it were muted, yet it was not; Rysanov’s response was rich – in every sense – in melancholy, exquisitely voiced and shaped. When the major mode came, Mozart smiled through tears as only he can. Luisi’s role was crucial, in that he ensured an unbroken line from beginning to end, not in the sense of a lack of phrasing or articulation, but in the long-distance hearing (Furtwängler’s Fernhören) that makes of this movement a single aria. The ineffable sadness of the cadenza proved the emotional climax, its chromatic intensity almost unbearable; nothing could have been more distant than mere solo display. A truly Mozartian quicksilver change of mood was brought about by the Puckish finale. Fun can be beautiful – and beauty can even be fun; such is Mozart’s lesson, as taught to us here. Interplay between all musicians was once again exemplary. A fine performance indeed!

For Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major symphony, Luisi opted for a full, Romantic orchestra (strings: Thank goodness for that! He had no truck with the modern trend towards an absurdly fast introduction to the first movement. Instead, Schubert, quite rightly, looked forward to Bruckner, without foregoing the composer’s particular grace and charm. Cellos were suave, brass full of foreboding, and the oboe solo (Gordon Hunt) simply enchanting. The transition to the exposition was thrilling and arrival was decisive, underpinned by martial rhythm. I felt a certain regret – both times, since the exposition repeat was taken – that Luisi did not yield for the second subject, but this was part of his intriguingly, and ultimately convincingly, urgent account. The lightness of the opening to the development, woodwind in particular, suggested Mendelssohn, but the Philharmonia brass soon supplied military muscle, the scene set for battle, as kettledrum clouds underscored. Before we knew it, the recapitulation was upon us, but had battle been enjoined or deferred? Schubert’s goal-orientation is generally more ambivalent than that of Beethoven, and so it was here. Ambiguity continued into the coda, which sounded grand but unsettling: an apt summation of the symphony as a whole. In a sense, one might think of Furtwängler, but with very different means. The slow movement was taken relatively swiftly, but never sounded remotely trivial. Subtle rubato was employed where necessary, but onward, even martial drive won out. Cellos and double basses were especially important here in underpinning the rhythmic menace, whilst woodwind entwined gorgeously above: again, an unsettling combination. Consolation was to be heard, but would not quite endure. The climax was shattering, almost Brucknerian; I was truly shocked. After that, the sadness of cellos and oboe shone through, aided by Luisi’s astute relaxation of tempo. Resumption of the initial tempo could not remove the shadow cast; the urgency pertaining to the last terrified. The scherzo continued in a similar vein: urgent and graceful; it stomped, but with charm. There were odd bars in which ensemble and control lapsed slightly, only really noticeable in the face of such excellence elsewhere. The scale and oh-so-Austrian quality of the trio registered, but I felt that such might have been emphasised a little more, the music occasionally edging towards the neutral.

What to do for a finale? Ever since the Eroica, at least, this has been a great problem for the symphonist. Luisi drew Beethovenian parallels but equally emphasised Schubert’s own path. Command of line was all-important here and the conductor did not disappoint. Where Bruckner in the Seventh Symphony so signally failed, Schubert was permitted to succeed, resolving tensions without avoiding them. A motivic insistence clearly born of Beethoven sounded, but Schubert was never made to sound ‘like’ him. The one thing I missed here was the last ounce, and I only mean an ounce, of orchestral weight, so as truly to overwhelm prior to resolution, but the low unison blows nevertheless struck a Brucknerian terror into one’s heart. A stylish and intriguing touch, which somehow avoided mannerism, was the subtle diminuendo upon the final chord. The time for easy victory, if ever it had existed, was long gone in this understanding of Schubert.

It is a pity, then, that the audience seemed lacklustre in its response. For me, this was an extraordinarily memorable concert. Dresden may have lost Luisi, but I hope that London will hear more of him.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Orchestra of St John's/Lubbock - Handel, Bach, Alec Roth, and Haydn, 6 March 2010

Handel – Solomon: ‘Arrival of the Queen of Sheba’
Bach – Cantata no.51: Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen, BWV 51
Alec Roth – Departure of the Queen of Sheba
Haydn – Symphony no.44 in E minor, ‘Trauer’

Louise Wayman (soprano)
Orchestra of St John’s
John Lubbock (conductor)

There was much to enjoy in this, the third and final concert from the Orchestra of St John’s residency at Kings Place, which has sought to give a taste of the orchestra’s aversion to modish, ghettoising specialisation. ‘Specialists in nullity,’ was one of Boulez’s several dismissive remarks concerning the proponents of such an approach. For, as the OSJ’s founder and conductor, John Lubbock, comments:

More than forty years ago, when I set up this orchestra, many of my colleagues were doing very specialist things, like John Eliot Gardiner with his English Baroque Soloists and Christopher Hogwood with his Academy of Ancient Music, for example. We decided that we would go the other way, and play everything, from the late Baroque, to classical repertoire through twentieth-century works to the most contemporary music. So it’s that distinctive identity I wanted to communicate here: a good spread of all the different things we do, to show our versatility.

To that end, and what an increasingly rare blessing this is, the orchestra plays on modern instruments, albeit with chamber forces: perfectly appropriate for the venue, whose virtues Lubbock rightly extols:

I think Hall One is an absolute triumph – not only is it a beautiful hall acoustically and a pleasure for the audience to sit in, but it’s a pleasure to play in. The back stage facilities are second to none, and the technical and stage management team simply can’t do enough. We can get a thirty-seven piece orchestra on to the stage, that’s strings, thirteen [wood-]wind and brass, plus timps. That means we could do Beethoven symphonies. It’s ideal.

I am not sure that I harbour an overwhelming desire to hear Beethoven from such forces, but nevertheless the principle of a small hall requiring a smaller number of musicians holds – and for the most part worked well here. With strings scaled, there were only a few instances when the violins sounded undernourished. Moreover, there was none of that ghastly whining that passes for ‘Baroque style’ in fashionable quarters. Indeed, in the opening Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, an old ‘lollipop’ was made to taste, not through presenting an exhibitionistic attempt to be different or more likely ‘correct’, but by trusting Handel’s music to take care of itself, with a little assistance from Lubbock’s sensitive command. Dynamic contrasts and subtle shading played their part, as did a keen understanding of harmonic direction.

Bach may have been an exact contemporary of Handel, but his requirements are, in general, very different. Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen stands perhaps closer to Handel than many of Bach’s works, though even in this combination of rejoicing and vocal display, there is a great deal more at stake. Handel’s two oboes were replaced by Andrew Dunn’s trumpet: not so stunning as, say, Maurice André in such repertoire, but quietly impressive. And the orchestra retained something of its Handelian brightness of tone. Discreet organ continuo was provided by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent. Louise Wayman’s account of the soprano part grew in confidence. At first, she looked – and sounded – a little nervous, somewhat boyish in tone, but a greater level of engagement with the text was to be heard as the work progressed. Coloratura and ornamentation were generally well handled. Whilst verbal meaning was rarely stressed, there was a nicely imploring tone to ‘deine Kinder’ (the Lord’s children) in the aria, ‘Höchster, mache deine Güte,’ and greater use of vibrato in the ensuing chorale suggested the greater surety expressed in the text. Lubbock ensured that the recitative, ‘Wir beten zu dem Tempel an,’ sounded properly Bachian in tending more towards arioso. Indeed, the musical flow of the work was impressive throughout. If the final ‘Alleluia!’ were taken at a more sedate tempo than the blessed Elisabeth, there is much to be said for that. Admirable though Schwarzkopf may be here, there is a case for something a little more yielding.

The second half opened with Alec Roth’s Departure of the Queen of Sheba, written for the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in 1999, inspired by Ana Maria Pacheco’s painting, Queen of Sheba and King Solomon in the Garden of Earthly Delights. I am afraid I soon found myself wishing that the Queen would depart at least as quickly as she had arrived. That she took her time is doubtless in part owed to the programmatic concern, Solomon and his guest being loath to separate, but a little of this music would still have goned a considerable way. Beginning with a slowed down and otherwise somewhat varied version of Handel’s figuration, the lovers, offstage oboe representing the queen and English horn the king, soon commence their loquacious yet languorous dialogue. Unabashedly tonal, the mildness would not seem out of place in a television drama of a certain age or even a Merchant Ivory film: nothing to frighten away a Daily Mail reader, I should have thought. Vaughan Williams and Gershwin occasionally vied for attention, albeit with a little too much diluting to taste. There was nothing unpleasant; it was just blandly inconsequential. The performance, however, seemed to me excellent, not least from the soloists, Chris O’Neal and Alison Alty.

It was quite a relief, then, to turn to an invigorating performance of Haydn’s forty-forth symphony, the Trauer. Vigorous, urgent from the outset, Lubbock was clearly in his element, Haydn’s Sturm und Drang proving as tragic as and perhaps more single-minded than a great deal of Mozart. It is a rarer thing than one might expect to have someone so thoroughly understand Haydn’s language, not least in the demonstration that rhetoric and phrasing are anything but antithetical. The small number of strings made the first movement in particular glance back to the Baroque, especially if one thought of, say, Antal Doráti here, but the motival working out impressed upon one how, even at this stage, Haydn looks forward to Beethoven. The extraordinary ending to the exposition – repeated – in which the music subsides upwards, as it were, peers even further forward into the future. Die Jakobsleiter perhaps? And the intensity of the recapitulation’s chromaticism was fully, but never indulgently, expressed. Tragedy was again to the fore in the canonic minuet: intense, but never hard-driven. Just occasionally, the strings could sound a little thin, but they bloomed in the major mode of the trio, balm to the ears, and properly Haydnesque, in that there was little or none of the sadness, the smiling through tears, that Mozart would typically have brought to such a transformation. The Adagio was warmly affecting: poised without archness, the strings’ vibrato sensitively judged. Once again, I found myself thinking what a fine feeling Lubbock had for Haydn’s style, for the transformation in subjectivity that had taken place since the Baroque. The Presto finale brought fire and again did not confuse that with driving too hard. Its structure was as clear as its emotional import. Haydn proved – as if he had to! – that he is just as capable as Gluck at expressing the true nobility of tragedy. Why is everyone not queuing up to perform this magnificent music? One quibble: the conductor’s whistling throughout the symphony became a little distracting. This nevertheless remained an excellent performance.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Goerne/Deutsch - Schubert Lieder (II), 2 March 2010

Wigmore Hall

An die untergehende Sonne, D 457
Der Tod und das Mädchen, D 531
Die Rose, D 745
Erinnerung, D 101
Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen, D 343
Auf dem Wasser zu singen, D 774
Abendbilder, D 650
Nach einem Gewitter, D 561
Der Zwerg, D 771
Im Frühling, D 882
Die Blumensprache, D 519
Viola, D 786
An die Entfernte, D 765
Bei dir allein! D 866/2
Ganymed, D 544

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)

The second of Matthias Goerne’s and Helmut Deutsch’s Schubert recitals (see here for the first) was perhaps still more impressive than its predecessor, such difference as there was being in good part attributable to the higher quality of the verse. Franz von Schober’s tedious Viola was an exception, but Goerne and Deutsch gave it a better account than it perhaps deserved. What is one to make of Spring, the bridegroom, wresting his ice-weapon (Eiswehr) from Winter, or the ‘little breast’ of the violet? Quite a lot, perhaps; at least such instances amuse, unlike the catalogue of flowers, or the incomprehensible sounding of the snowdrop.

The recital opened as it meant to go on, however, with an appropriately leisurely An die untergehende Sonne, whose direction – sunset – was yet clear throughout. Death was given explicit form, indeed character, in Der Tod und das Mädchen. I find it impossible not to think of the quartet here, but Deutsch’s ineffable sadness to the piano prelude possessed its own character and prepared the way admirably for the maiden’s terror, so harrowingly and fleetingly portrayed by Goerne. Die Rose exuded the schöne Warme of Schlegel’s opening line, though death proved still more beautiful. And the whispers of dying breezes haunted Erinnerung too. What might happen after death can at best be glimpsed, which is perhaps what we did in the Jacobi setting, Litanei auf das Fest aller Seelen. Goerne’s beauty of tone rendered the ultimate repose a comforting, even seductive prospect, but this remained serious stuff: a litany, after all. The pregnancy of the pause before the final line, in which the hope of eternal peace is once again enunciated, was moving indeed. The piano is every inch the equal partner in the marvellous Auf dem Wasser zu singen. Here, Deutsch vouchsafed us intimations perhaps of Chopin, albeit within the content of still-Classical form. Deutsch’s projection of the vesper-bell in Abendbilder was an object lesion in meaningful tone-painting, which never once sought to draw attention to itself. Goerne’s drawing upon seemingly endless reserves of breath was equally impressive, as was the subtlety of his dynamic contrasts in Nach einem Gewitter. For the final number of the first half, we heard the Flying Dutchman-like Der Zwerg. Goerne turned Gothic storyteller, urgent and tender. The dwarf’s heart seemed almost literally to burn with desire for the queen, such was the intensity of the singer’s rendition. And the menace in the piano part managed both to suggest an orchestra and to remain impeccably pianistic in character.

Im Frühling is a truly lovely song, and so it sounded here. Its virtues are as much in musical form as in poetic response; Schubert’s modulations were given musical and verbal life. The advertised Stimme der Liebe was replaced, though I am afraid I know not by what. The generally lighter second half concluded with subtlety in its final three items. Goerne was not afraid to use his voice at something approaching, at least apparently, full throttle in the climaxes to An die Entfernte and Bei dir allein! At least as impressive, however, was once again the subtlety of his shading – and that of his partner. Mozartian poise and an almost Rococo-like melismatic flowering characterised the concluding Ganymed: not only beautiful in rendition but concerned with the essence and ambiguities of beauty itself. If it captured the heart, it also probed: a fitting tribute to Schubert himself.

Maurizio Pollini - Chopin, 1 March 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Preludes, op.28 (complete)
Ballade no.1 in G minor, op.23
Two Nocturnes, op.27
Etudes, op.25:
No. 1 in A-flat major
No.2 in F minor
No.3 in F major
No.4 in A minor
No.7 in C-sharp minor
No.10 in B minor
No.11 in A minor
No.12 in C minor

The greatest living Chopin pianist, indeed the greatest living pianist, for an all-Chopin recital on the composer’s (alleged) two-hundred birthday: how could it fail? Despite some reservations, or stronger, I heard from some of those attending, I had very few cavils with the performance, which on the whole I found stunning, especially during the second half. Yet this, sadly, was insofar as I was able to concentrate. On far too many occasions recently I have been driven to bemoan audience ‘interaction’. (How very New Labour!) To have Maurizio Pollini perform the complete Chopin Preludes with a background – or should that be foreground – of incessant coughing, shuffling, chattering, and even, God help us, walking around the hall, was a dispiriting experience. One woman in front of me was sipping from a plastic cup of wine! I comfort myself with the fact that I shall hear him perform the same work next month in Berlin, in a Chopin-Debussy-Boulez programme, when I hope to be able to reach a more considered view.

What I can say is that, a few, largely irrelevant technical blemishes aside, Pollini presented a dazzling prospectus of Chopin’s tonal journey. Each prelude was very much integrated into a greater whole: a homage to Bach, but equally a vivid demonstration of what piano and pianist can do. We heard not so much a set of character pieces but a more ‘objective’ – loaded word, I know – but a journey through the tonal and pianistic universe. This is not to say that none of the individual preludes possessed character. The A major and ‘Raindrop’ Preludes brought tears to my eyes in their noble, unassuming dignity, whilst the violence of the D minor Prelude looked forward to Pollini’s (almost equally?) beloved Schoenberg’s Op.11. Allegro appassionato indeed! Much of the audience, however, seemed merely to resent the lack of pauses in which to cough. I cannot imagine why, however, since those people carried on doing so anyway.

The proto-Schoenbergian – Brahmsian? – darkness of that final prelude was intensified in the G minor Ballade: a towering performance, more ‘Romantic’ or expressionist even, than much of the first half. The Devil-may-care attitude Pollini seemed to adopt was in many respects quite unlike that of his former crystalline self, perhaps more akin to the unpredictability of Daniel Barenboim. The two Op.27 Nocturnes, by contrast, were seductive in the extreme. Siren voices called and bewitched, yet they exuded authority by virtue of Pollini’s supreme formal command. I do not wish to exaggerate, but there was perhaps a slight lessening of bronchial pollution here; otherwise, I might have found myself with little to say at all. Normal service, however, was resumed for the selection from the Op.25 set of Etudes. Here, Pollini’s trademark éclat was once again on show, insofar as one could manage to concentrate. It was perhaps slightly odd to perform eight out of the twelve, but if selection there must be, it was done well here. The sense of Chopin marrying technical and musical innovation, till death them do part, was superbly captured, with prescient hints of Debussy’s late marriage of classicism and experimentalism. Again, there were a few – and I mean a few – instances of less than perfect execution, but only a Beckmesser would care. Typically generous with encores, Pollini expanded Chopin’s world with another study, a mazurka, and a scherzo. The Revolutionary Study should have brought the house down and did, though one can only assume that tuberculosis had already brought down many of those present.

What, then, is to be done about audiences, or rather about the selfish minority – at least, I hope that it is a minority – increasingly insistent upon ruining performances for the rest of us? Short of installing a Stasi-like system of surveillance and reporting, a tempting thought, it is very difficult to know. I was surprised to notice that the Royal Festival Hall had deleted the later part of Sir Ian McKellen’s pre-concert announcement; the audience was no longer requested even ‘to keep coughing to a minimum’. This may or may not have had any effect, but it seems odd. Allowing those who are ill, perhaps in practice just anyone, to return tickets on the day of the performance would surely be sensible. Perhaps we have to be more strenuous in our disapproval, mortally embarrassing though we English may find such direct action. At this rate, however, the full house achieved for Pollini will become a thing of the past, if those who care about the music begin to reject live performance in favour of the uninterrupted recorded version at home. A positive footnote, though: it was good to see Matthias Goerne in the stalls.