Saturday, 12 February 2011

Living Monteverdi: Janet Baker and Raymond Leppard; Thomas Allen and Hans Werner Henze

Ottavia's lament from L'incoronazione di Poppea, the greatest (surviving) opera of the seventeenth century, indeed probably the greatest before Mozart:

And here, on stage at Glyndebourne, in a role Dame Janet was surely born to play, Penelope, from Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria:

The entire performance may be seen on DVD.

How distant those days seem - and how I wish I could have known them at first hand - when Monteverdi's music was performed as music, as part of a living, dramatic tradition, rather than as a dry archaeological exercise or a mere freak show. (Nikolaus Harnoncourt was a different matter entirely, but he is probably as unfashionable today as Leppard.)  Perhaps our only hope, and it is a slim one, is for composers again to re-imagine Monteverdi's music. Here is the Prologue from Henze's tremendous realisation. Has Monteverdi's music ever sounded so utterly of the Mediterranean? Sir Thomas Allen, Ulysses in this 1985 Salzburg Festival production, discussed it with me in a 2009 interview (for which, click here). Jeffrey Tate conducts the ORF Symphony Orchestra, and what a splendid supporting cast we have too:

In March, we shall see what ENO makes of Ulisse...


Zerbinetta said...

But why is re-imagining Monteverdi our only hope? What's wrong with current HIP practice? I think Poppea is one of the greatest operas, period, without rewriting it.

The recording quality here is bad, but this is what I mean:

Mark Berry said...

Thank you for posting the link! Having listened to it, I have to say that the vocal performance, though not unattractive in itself, sounds to me far more mannered than anything of which earlier artists have been accused. Others will doubtless feel differently. But I shall address the more fundamental points, to try to explain why I think as I do.

1. 'Rewriting it'. The forms in which the score - and the very concept is highly problematical for music of this time - are various and incomplete. Therefore almost every edition has involved some degree not so much of rewriting as writing; if the editor/realiser/conductor does not engage in that, one is not going to experience what Monteverdi wrote, let alone what he expected, let alone what he might have liked to hear, given greater resources.

2. Even if there were somehow to be discovered a musical text one could establish in the mode of a definitive edition, performance of that would be utterly antithetical to the expectations of the composer, in that his music was intended as the basis for a performance to be realised - i.e., precisely what non-puritans such as Leppard, Henze, and indeed Harnoncourt have attempted.

There is no evidence whatsoever that Monteverdi saw himself as writing a work for a particular ensemble with which he would have been presented for a particular theatre, e.g., in Venice. Were his works to be performed elsewhere, they would be performed with the instruments available wherever that might be. Even on their own pseudo-historical terms, the authenticists could therefore not stand further from the composer's intention.

3. Even if 'authenticke' performances were what they often claim to be, our experiences are in almost every way so utterly different from those of Monteverdi's audiences and/or what Monteverdi might have expected of his audiences, that distortion will be still greater. We cannot unhear 'The Rite of Spring' or the sound of the modern orchestra, and why should we wish to do so? History as well as musical performance should always be a matter of re-imagination, a dialogue between past and present. What has come in between is not an impendiment, but a spur.

Mark Berry said...

4. The attitude of many 'authenticke' performers has equated so closely to religious fundamentalism, decrying anything that others have done or might do, declaring that theirs is the sole righteous way and others must be spurned, that they deserve challenging. Why should they wish to prevent those of us who wish to hear something different from doing so? Why should we permit them to do so? Gustav Leonhardt and Reinhard Goebel decrying Furtwängler's Bach as 'disgusting' tells one a great deal about the motivation and mindset of such performers. I have no wish to discuss their performances one way or the other, but I think their comments 'disgusting' in themselves. They do not seem to me worthy of gathering up crumbs from under the table of a great musician such as Furtwängler.

Moreover, many musicians have therefore felt unable in the present climate to perform 'early music'. Granted, they ought to show greater courage, but they would be so assured of a vituperative response, and perhaps damage to their careers, that one could understand why. Raymond Leppard became so sick of the sniping that he left England for the United States. There is nothing wrong with crossing the Atlantic, of course, but by his own admission, he felt hounded out, which is surely a sorry state of affairs. Sir Colin Davis has expressed regret that it has become almost impossible for 'non-specialists' such as himself to be perform works he would dearly love to conduct - and which many of us would love him to conduct - such as the B minor Mass or the 'St Matthew Passion'.

Even Pierre Boulez, who has often been willing to take on opponents on difficult territory, to put it mildly, has spoken of his regret that 'specialists' have made it impossible to perform early music in a mainstream setting. When many of us see the programmes Boulez presented during the time when he performed earlier repertoire, we feel great sadness that it is no longer really possible to create such fascinating connections between music of all periods within a concert. Monteverdi and Dallapiccola; Bach and Schoenberg; Webern and Ockeghem: such programming potentially has a great deal to tell us in both directions.

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Mingardo as Penelope! '

While I agree with all of your points, I would never discount a performance solely on the grounds of being "HIP". Within "HIP" I find there is a broad array of performance practices. Of greater imporance is the conductor's intention. Is it to recrate a perfomance from 400 years ago (impossible) or rather to use period instruments to (as you say) re-imagine the music?

I would consider John Eliot Gardiner's (recent) Bach performances on period instruments to be an example of the second type. I find his interpretations to be in fact be quite romantic. And might I add extremely enjoyable!

I prefer to consider period and modern instruments a happy alternative and judge an individual performance/performer on its own merits. There are plently of good and bad examples in both categories!

Finally, thank you very much for your blog which I read regularly and is one of the more insightful I have come across!

Mark Berry said...

Thank you for your kind words! Gardiner's conception of Bach does seem to have changed somewhat, and in many people's view for the better. Certainly the singing of the Monteverdi Choir nowadays seems more yielding; there was a time when it veered dangerously close to the computer-generated. Moreover, I have always admired Gardiner's first recording of the Monteverdi Vespers. I'd rather listen to the Bach performances of, say, Karl Richter or Fritz Werner, but I have no desire to prevent others from listening to Gardiner or whomever else; it is that latter point that has most angered me really, the insistence from some - as I said, Harnoncourt was always different - that theirs was the only true way. The arrogance of someone such as Norrington, for instance, let alone the utterly unhistorical claims concerning vibrato, incline me never to listen to another note of his performances.

Zerbinetta said...

I don't think that kind of dogmatism is nearly as rampant as it was 15 years ago. Most period practice musicians are honest about the degree of guesswork involved, as well as the accommodation to modern audiences, which as Anonymous says above, is not radically different from what Henze is doing. And the scholarship has advanced a great deal since the Leppard era, and I don't think those advances should be ignored. Regardless of any propaganda, I enjoy what can be broadly termed HIP performances for their rhythmic flexibility, attention to text, and harmonic sensitivity.

I can't stand Norrington, by the way. I find Jacob's insistence on elaborate wind parts in Monteverdi irritating, though there are some good things in his recordings too. Usually like Christie, Curtis, Suzuki, Minkowski, and Alessandrini.

Evan Tucker said...

I've been reading your blog for years and your opinions are invariably intelligently argued and well informed. But I have to take issue with some of the arguments you make here.

Responding to various points you've made:

2. It is quite likely that part of the reason -though certainly not the whole - Monteverdi's scores exist in incomplete form is because it was Monteverdi's intention to write and rewrite for particular situations, expecting that he must leave certain decisions to the inevitability of practical limitations. As composers have known from the beginning of time (including Wagner) he had to know that even the best singers and musicians would deem it necessary at times to depart from the printed score.

4. While I certainly agree that the dogmas of certain authentic performers approaches fundamentalism, much the same can be said of many musicians who are not of the HIP movement. You cite Boulez's opposition to the authentic movement as a source for antipathy toward them, and perhaps rightly so. But as you partially acknowledge, there is no living musician with a more illustrious history of religion-like dogmatism in his opinions. As a violinist, I think I can be said to oppose the Norrington- notions of banishing vibrato as much as anyone, but is that any worse than the disdain in which many musicians hold the authentic movement? True puritans like Leonhardt and Bruggen set out to eliminate diversity in performances of the music they performed. But paradoxically, the movement they bequeathed has given the music world (at least in performance styles) greater diversity than it ever had in the past.

Mark Berry said...

Zerbinetta, I'm glad we agree about Norrington. I'd never impose a litmus test concerning anything, but he tempts me... The stated position of someone such as Jacobs seems to me utterly untenable - though, as Stravinsky certainly showed, one can propound, perhaps even subscribe to, an untenable aesthetic and still create something worthwhile. I simply cannot understand how one can be so dogmatic as he is on the one hand - rubbishing pretty much every Mozart performance that has ever gone before, on tempo grounds alone - and then introduce/impose so much else. His performances may or may not be any good - I really cannot stand them - but he should have the grace, indeed the honesty, to justify them on performing grounds rather than spurious 'scholarship'.

Evan, first many thanks for your continued readership: these things are very much appreciated - and necessary, otherwise this would all merely be a form of self-indulgence. Re (2), I agree absolutely: that is why it seems to me either wrongheaded or disingenuous for some people to decry the choices artists such as Leppard and Henze have made in the light of the forces at their disposal. Re (4), let us hope so: Hegel's cunning of reason might win out after all...

Anonymous said...

Lookin' good, Sir Tom. ;)

I love this opera, and I loved this production when I saw it, despite the fact I was totally steeped in, and intoxicated with HIP at the time.

I love singers who can convincingly switch between styles, and along with Rolfe-Johnson and Langridge (and Anne Murray, who absolutely kicked Baroque butt as Minerva in this production), Allen is among the best. His phrasing and ornamentation were phenomenal, and he was singing things like Wolfram and Onegin in the same year.

Robert Tear was in this, too, IIRC, another of that rare crew of intelligent, curious chameleons

I have no problems with Henze's realization, either-- I find at many years remove, now, my problems are more with Tate, whom I find a bit leaden. It's gotta dance.

As for how it looked-- well, long live the '80s. ;) Not only do you get to see a future knight of the realm almost naked, but in another scene, he was subjected to a Bruce Springsteen-Born-in-the-USA style headband. ;)