Sunday, 27 January 2013

LPO/Elder - Elgar, The Dream of Gerontius, 26 January 2013

Royal Festival Hall

The Dream of Gerontius, op.38
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Paul Groves (tenor)
James Rutherford (bass-baritone)
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)

This performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius had a great deal to recommend it. However, rather to my surprise, Mark Elder exhibited something of a tendency, especially later on, to sacrifice drama to beauty. Memories of Britten’s incendiary LSO recording continued to linger. The Prelude, like so much else of this account, clearly took after Parsifal. After a slightly bland opening, it blossomed richly, not least thanks to an excellent LPO viola section. (Violas, always at the very heart of the harmony, are far more crucial to the success of a performance than many realise, not least when it comes to Wagnerian and post-Wagnerian repertoire.) Splendidly implacable brass also gave a foretaste of travails to come.

Most of the first part proceeded splendidly thereafter. For instance, he chorus, ‘Be merciful,’ had a well-judged cumulative power, though I felt that there were times during Gerontius’s subsequent solo when Elder drove too hard, ringing the soul closer to Verdi than to Wagner. Amends were certainly made at the end of this part, however, when a slight tendency to linger proved entirely apt to the text. There were many details throughout to admire, not least excellent playing, again redolent of Parsifal, from the LPO woodwind. Elgar’s contrapuntal mastery told in Elder’s direction of the Demons’ Chorus; here drive was not at all out of place. The emergence of the ‘great tune’ was carefully prepared in the best sense.

Paul Groves proved a fine Gerontius, more at home than he had been in Das Lied von der Erde a few nights earlier. He offered sincerity, intelligence, and an excellent way with words. Perhaps it was too much to hope for the ringing tones of a classic Heldentenor on top of that; perhaps it was inappropriate even. After all, he had a good few ‘heroic’ moments, individually considered, and a degree of strain might well be argued to fit the text well. Sparing use of the head voice proved moving too. Initially I wondered whether something a little ‘more’, however indefinably so, might have been desirable from Sarah Connolly. However, it soon became apparent that consolation was developmental; the arc of her performance was fully considered and all the more powerful for it. ‘Yes – for one moment thou shalt see thy Lord,’ offered perhaps the most radiant singing of the evening, though I might equally have said that of her final solo, ‘Softly and gently, dearly-ransomed soul’. It set me thinking, not for the first time, how much Janet Baker’s repertoire seems to suit Connolly; one would never mistake the voices, but the Fach is clearly similar. (I should love to hear her as the Wood Dove in Gurrelieder.) Moreover, Connolly’s duetting with Groves relatively early on in the second part sounded as close to opera as Elgar would venture, The Spanish Lady notwithstanding. James Rutherford was a very late substitute for Brindley Sherratt, and brought off his parts with great aplomb, rich toned and full of presence. After the words, ‘To that glorious Home, where they shall ever gaze on Thee,’ I almost expected to hear a tenor respond, ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde!’

The London Philharmonic Choir and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge were also on excellent form. At the first entry of the Assistants, they sounded very much as the best of the English choral tradition. Evensong did not sound so very far away, though writ large of course. They managed lightness equally well, clearly encouraged by Elder, for instance in parts of the first ‘Praise to the Holiest’, in which elements of earlier Romanticism, Mendelssohn and perhaps Schumann, came winningly to light. A truly ringing conclusion to its successor, with the words ‘Most sure in all His ways!’ was a tribute to conductor, orchestra, and chorus. It was something of a pity that Elder’s caressing way with what followed made it seem a little too much of an anti-climax, but I should not exaggerate, for there was seraphic beauty to be experienced – ironically – from Clare’s Voices on Earth. As I said, there was a great deal to admire. And if Newman’s text may be difficult for some to take, ultimately it was redeemed by Elgar’s music – and by the performers.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Hannigan/de Leeuw/Quatuor Diotima - Schoenberg, Alma Mahler, and Berg, 24 January 2013

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Schoenberg – Four Songs, op.2
Alma Mahler – Four Songs
Berg – Seven Early Songs
Schoenberg – String Quartet no.2, op.10

Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Reinbert de Leeuw (piano)
Yunpeng Zhao, Guillaume Latour (violins)
Franck Chevalier (viola)
Pierre Morlet (cello)
Has Barbara Hannigan ever given a performance that did not stand at the highest level, technically, musically, and with the most exquisite taste in repertoire? I am sure she must have done at some point, but I am equally sure that I have never heard it. From what I think was the first time I heard her, singing ‘Djamila Boupacha’, from Nono’s Canti di vita e d’amore, to a 2011 Pli selon pli under Boulez himself, I have been spellbound. This was not the first time I had heard as the soprano for Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet; a rugged EdinburghF estival performance with the Arditti Quartet provided an interesting comparison with the present performance. Nor was it the first time I had heard her sing Berg’s Seven Early Songs, this concert having been preceded by a Berlin outing for Reinbert de Leeuw’s chamber arrangement, again conducted by Boulez. But which other sopranos would one be likely to hear not once but twice in this repertoire, let alone in the gorgeous unfolding of Boulez’s masterpiece?

We began with Schoenberg’s op.2 songs: a rare opportunity, though I really cannot understand why. De Leeuw featured in this first half as pianist, offering a highly intelligent ear – and equally intelligent fingers – to proceedings, Schoenberg’s harmonies in the opening ‘Erwartung’ already full of unexpected twists, never underlined but permitted ‘simply’ to speak for themselves. Echoes of the Cabaret Songs, in harmony if not in verse, also manifested themselves, seemingly without intervention, though we know how much art will often be involved in art’s concealment. Coolness and Romantic warmth were heard not to be mutually opposed, but in what, almost paradoxically, one might call a gentle dialectic. Hannigan’s diction and general way with Richard Dehmel’s words were irreproachable, the musical world created in response very much post-Tristan. It was Parsifal, and Kundry, Schoenberg seemed to be answering in ‘Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm’. Delicious near-blasphemies sounded, in work and performance, very much as if part of Klingsor’s armoury. ‘Oh, Maria!’ indeed. Somehow Hannigan managed to combine purity and eroticism on the final ‘Magdalena’. One needed a cold shower afterwards. The closing ‘Waldsonne’, the only one of the four songs not to a text by Dehmel, sounded almost pastoral, with a musically undulating quality set up in the piano and responded to in the vocal line. Longing and ecstasy were yet never far behind.

I wish I could enthuse about Alma Mahler’s music. Well, perhaps I do not, since I find her difficult to warm to as a person, but anyway, it is always a pleasure to make interesting discoveries of the unjustly neglected. However, I have never heard a work by Alma that has not suggested that, questionable though Gustav’s discouragement of her as a composer may have been in moral terms, it was no disaster for the history of music. No matter: doubtless Alma has her fans, and we are not exactly deluged with performances of her music. It is worthwhile hearing such pieces from time to time in order to remind ourselves that we do not need to hear from again for a while. Alas, the performance was not helped by a programme that referred to and printed the texts for the wrong songs. Much of the first song, Die stille Stadt was therefore spent, not unreasonably, by the audience trying to work out what was going on. We then heard, I later discovered, Laue Sommernacht, Ich wandle unter Blumen, and Licht in der Nacht, the only song actually present in the programme booklet, although there it was claimed we should hear it first. To be fair to Alma, the harmonies and range of expression were greater than I recalled; perhaps this was a mark of superior performance too. Certainly Hanningan’s contribution was committed, sensual, highly evocative. The music sounds more ‘late Romantic’, even decadent, than that of Gustav, perhaps closer to the world of Schoenberg’s op.2. If ultimately one can hardly claim the songs to be more than accomplished, there is a place sometimes for accomplishment too.

For all that, the gulf between talent and genius was immediately apparent upon hearing the piano introduction to ‘Nacht’, the first of Berg’s Seven Early Songs. Hallucinatory harmonies worked their way up through the piano, joined by a vocal line that, unlike those of Alma, is simply unforgettable. Hannigan’s performance combined beauty, danger, and sexiness. Musical form was expertly shaped by both musicians, ‘Und aus tiefen Grundes Düsterheit’ offering a proper sense of return. The final ‘Acht!’ was as much breathed as sung: dangerous stuff! De Leeuw brought to our attention the ‘involved’ Brahmsian quality of Berg’s piano writing in ‘Schilflied’, harmony and counterpoint already peering into the twelve-note future. A glorious, radiant account of ‘Die Nachtigall’ prepared the way for the central ‘Traumgekrönt, Hannigan’s nocturnal soaring, half-dream and half-nightmare, offering a presentiment of Lulu. Eroticism far surpassing that of Schoenberg: this could only be Berg. ‘Im Zimmer’ offered a glance back to a more innocent early Romanticism; well, perhaps. De Leeuw’s vast experience showed in the masterly building towards climax of ‘Liebesode’. Finally, in ‘Sommertage’, whilst still very much in the world of the Lied, we again seemed to be on the verge of the operatic stage, Berg’s destiny already manifest.

The intimacy of the opening to Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet took me rather by surprise, the tone adopted by the Quatuor Diotima far removed from the rich, heated late Romanticism more commonly adopted in this repertoire. It was not chilly modernism, either, but something more refined, even Gallic. Harmonics offered a portent of things to come, not just in Schoenberg’s music but even in the post-war avant garde. Great clarity permitted the counterpoint truly to be heard; there was not the slightest sense of congestion. If understated, the performance remained febrile. Crucially, the extraordinary concision of Schoenberg’s writing told; this might have been the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The stuttering hesitancy of the second movement’s opening seemed both to hail from late Beethoven and to denote something entirely new: rather like late Beethoven itself, one might say. Seemingly infinite rhythmic flexibility was a hallmark of the Diotima’s performance. Motivic construction was lain bare, though not drily; it truly involved. ‘Litanei’ opened with warm, yet anything but un-variegated, string consolation, offering a sense that this was indeed uncharted territory, the voice anticipated. When it joined the performance, it was not as interloper but almost as if another instrument, heightening and furthering a drama it was increasingly difficult not to consider ‘expressionist’. That is not to say that earlier sublety was lost, far from it. Stefan Georg’s words took on new meaning after having heard Schoenberg’s op.2, an interesting quirk, perhaps intended, of this performance. Kundry again seemed to be invoked in words and music: ‘Töte das sehnen, schliesse die wunde!’ Even before the voice entered in the final movement, there was a true sense of liberation, of that celebrated air of another planet. (The programme translation rather unfortunately had it, ‘I feel wind from other planets.’) Was tonality suspended or had it been truly escaped from? It seemed, as a sports commentator might have it, that there was everything to play for. Yet this new harmonic world did not detract from tightness of motivic working, either in work or performance; rather it was set in new relief. Hannigan’s delivery of that line was simply ravishing. Indeed throughout, Georg’s verse and Schoenberg’s notes were equally relished. ‘Ich lose mich in tönen, kreisend, webend...’ We certainly did lose ourselves in those tones. As ever, one wished that this would prove a world in which one might stay forever, yet equally one knew that that could no more be the case for Mozart’s world, or that of Tristan. There was a true sense of the Liebestod to Hannigan’s final lines, after which the quartet proper re-emerged, though it had always been there, not unlike Mahler’s music in Berio’s Sinfonia. This performance, quite rightly, looked ahead as much as back.

Hannigan will next be heard in London in February for Stravinsky’s Renard and Satie’s Socrate at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, again part of the Southbank Centre’s festival, ‘The Rest is Noise’. March will bring the British premiere of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. Again, they are performances to which discerning listeners would likely gravitate on repertoire grounds alone, but Hannigan’s presence will do them no harm at all.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

'Mozart Pictures - Pictures of Mozart', including two newly authenticated pictures

The following has just been sent to me by the Stiftung Mozarteum. Please accept my apologies for more or less copying a press release rather than sifting, editing, etc.; I am rather pressed for time but thought this would nevertheless be of interest.

Image: Wolfgang Lienbacher


Portrayals between wishful thinking and reality
Exhibition in the Mozart Residence, Makartplatz 8, 26 January – 14 April 2013
The exhibition is on display in all rooms of the museum and can be visited with the regular entrance ticket (admission: € 10; concessions: € 8.50, children € 3.50).

The Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation owns the largest collection of original Mozart portraits and for the duration of this exhibition they are complemented now by many valuable loans from all over Europe thus presenting a unique display of the familiar and also unknown images of Mozart. About 80 exhibits, half of them loans, are on display.

On show are portraits from the time of Mozart as well as types of pictures that evolved later. The present-day image of Mozart has very little to do with the portraits created during his lifetime. Nowadays we have an idealized image in mind which is often reduced to a white wig and red jacket.
For the first time almost all the authentic portraits of Mozart can be seen in the exhibition Mozart Pictures – Pictures of Mozart. Of 14 portraits created during his lifetime 12 are on show; 9 of these are owned by the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation.

Two new authentic portraits of Mozart are included. As a result of sifting through all the documents and sources, a miniature that was previously more or less disregarded has now been clearly identified as a portrait of Mozart dating from 1783. This is sensational because until now no portraits of Mozart from the last ten years of his life were known that show him en face (in full face). In addition a silhouette from the collection of graphic work owned by the Mozarteum Foundation has also been pre-dated to 1784 and is thus also one of the authentic Mozart portraits.

New information has also been gained concerning the famous “unfinished” Mozart portrait by Joseph Lange. Radiological studies made by the Doerner Institute in Munich early in December 2012 have shown that the famous “unfinished portrait” of Mozart was very probably “finished” during his lifetime. It comprised merely the head and shoulders, the unfinished parts were added later.
An exhibition catalogue has been published by the Anton Pustet Verlag Salzburg containing illustrations of all the pictures shown in the exhibition and a collection of essays reflecting the current state of research on the subject of Mozart portraits. Audio guides in German and in English assist visitors as they go round the exhibition.

The presentation by the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery Salzburg makes reference to the present. Two pictures by Marc Brandenburg and Bernhard Martin are to be seen.
In the vaults of the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation a small exhibition on the theme Mozart Portraits can also be seen. This exclusive exhibition is open once a week for one hour to the public: on Thursdays at midday (for a maximum of 25 persons).

The exhibition team of the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation:
Dr. Gabriele Ramsauer, Dr. Sabine Greger-Amanshauser, Dr. Christoph Großpietsch, Linus Klumpner Bakk.phil. Exhibition design: Thomas Wizany

Paasikivi/Groves/LPO/Elder - Webern, Schoenberg, and Mahler, 23 January 2013

Royal Festival Hall

Webern – Im Sommerwind
Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16
Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde (with first movement re-orchestrated by Colin Matthews)

Lilli Paasikivi (mezzo-soprano)
Paul Groves (tenor)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)
The opening to Webern’s Das Sommerwind sounded ‘harmonious’ in more than one sense, seemingly as much Webern’s answer to the Das Rheingold Prelude, an evocation of the most fundamental nature of tonal harmony itself, as something more programmatic, though that would come. Perhaps the Wagnerian antecedent lay in Sir Mark Elder’s emphasis; perhaps it has been there all along, and it had simply not registered so strongly in my experience before. At any rate, it intrigued, invited. Sweet-toned reminiscences of Mahler and Strauss, the latter in Till Eulenspiegel-like good humour, followed, the LPO woodwind principals gratefully taking their opportunity to shine. One would hardly have guessed the composer; indeed, one never would during the course of this piece preceding Webern’s life-changing, history-changing meeting with Schoenberg. Whilst some of the orchestration is already approaching the level of masterly, some is perhaps a little gauche, the instrumentation standing out a little too obviously. (But then, if we are comparing someone to Mahler and Strauss, or indeed the later Webern, the standards are stratospheric.) It was, however, a wonderful opportunity to hear the piece loving performed, with an apt summer glow most welcome in freezing London. This strange, quite uncharacteristic beginning to Webern’s extraordinary orchestral career has received tighter performances – inevitably, for instance, from Boulez – but a more rhapsodic approach does it no real harm. If it lingers, perhaps being the only piece by Webern that outstays its welcome, it nevertheless does not deserve a mobile telephone contribution during its closing bars. Shame upon the perpetrator!

The move to Schoenberg’s op.16 Pieces underlined the gulf between a fascinating early work and a towering masterpiece. Elder presented ‘Vorgefühle’ with commendable clarity, even if it emerged a little four-square. It gathered momentum nicely, however, and soon turned magnificently monstrous. Mahler on acid, haunted by ghosts of Brahms: what could be more Viennese than that? ‘Vergangenes’ was languorous, in a state of seemingly perpetual dissolution, yet nevertheless continuing. It seemed at times to prefigure the Klangfarbenmelodie of its successor – a cunningly highlighted link here in performance – and yet the background of a piece such as the First Chamber Symphony, op.9, with its tight-knit motivic writing, was equally apparent. Halluncinatory celesta tones (Catherine Edwards) almost stole the show, but in reality that instrument was only first amongst equals in a London Philharmonic Orchestra on fine form. And my goodness, what an astounding score this is! ‘Farben’ was mysterious, reticent, innig, to employ an indispensable, untranslatable German word. This performance sounded as if it were a laudable attempt to regain something of the piece’s initial revolutionary quality, not through aggression but through a subtler resolution to make us truly listen; Nono, Schoenberg’s posthumous son-in-law, would have understood. There was a true sense of loss when its brief stay was over. ‘Peripetie’ emerged very much in the mould of the first piece, ominously dramatic. Developing variation proved key to our aural understanding of ‘Das obligate Rezitativ’. Occasionally one might have wished for heightened colouristic awareness, especially earlier on, and a richer string tone after the fashion of that great Schoenbergian, Daniel Barenboim, but narration was as clear as in any conventional recitative. Again, we were compelled to listen. We emerged as if from a dream, shaken and uncertain.

I wish I had not read the programme first. That is not intended as a criticism of Gavin Plumley’s note, but rather because I wonder how I should have reacted to the first movement, had I not been aware that Colin Matthews had been commissioned by Elder to re-orchestrate it. Would I have noticed? I should like to think so, and am pretty sure that I should have realised that something was awry, or at least different. The difficulties tenors have this with this movement are notorious, and Matthews is quite right to point to Mahler’s tinkering both with other composers’ scores and his own. It sometimes sounded thinner, even shriller, though I think at times that might have been a matter also of Elder’s conducting; it also sometimes sounded restrained, even constrained, as if the fuller scoring were attempting to burst through its reduction. Without hearing Matthews’s work again, or better still seeing the score, I shall leave the matter by saying that I could not help but long for what Mahler wrote, not out of any fundamentalist Werktreue but simply because, vocal difficulties notwithstanding, it simply sounds more ‘finished’ – to me. As it was, the movement remained something of a shout for Paul Groves, though there could be no gainsaying his audible and visible commitment. I wished that Elder would relax a little at times, but that was a matter of degree.

‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ revealed first an excellent oboe solo (Ian Hardwick), suffused with melancholic longing, soon joined by equally splendid woodwind colleagues, and then by Lilli Paasikivi, her voice deeper than one often hears today, even in this repertoire. There was more than a touch of the earth-mother to her performance: rather wonderful, I thought. Elder paced the movement well and maintained its flow. Although there were a few instances of instrumental smudging, there was nothing too serious. The final stanza brought true passion, almost operatic, or at least a symphonic-song-shadow – I realise I am in danger here of succumbing to the Wagnerian selige Morgentraum-Deutweise disease – of Mahler’s work in the opera house. Groves contributed a winning, appropriate earnestness to the third movement, almost as if revisiting the Wunderhorn songs of Mahler’s (relative) youth, now invigoratingly set against orchestral chinoiserie and the LPO’s buoyantly sprung rhythms. Both orchestra and Elder were really at their best here, lilt and colour equally impressive.

‘Von der Schönheit’, by contrast, suffered from a curious tendency towards the rhythmically distended, making it difficult to discern Mahler’s guiding thread, undeniably incidental beauties notwithstanding. Paasikivi, however, was never less than engaging as a narrative and dramatic guide. Orchestral brashness and Elder’s driven conducting in the middle of the movement had it veer uncomfortably close to Shostakovich. Mahler should sound so much more interesting, so much more variegated, than that. Groves struggled with Mahler’s admittedly strenuous demands in ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, though again he threw himself headlong into the great challenge. Elder shaped the structure far more keenly than he had that of its predecessor. Pieter Schoeman’s sweet-toned violin solo was especially worthy of note.

The ominous tread to the dark orchestral opening of ‘Der Abschied’ said it all. Mahler’s sparing orchestration sounded close to the ‘real’ Webern’ – as of course it is. The warmth of Paasiviki’s tone would have melted the stoniest of hearts. An unmistakeable echo, both in vocal line and orchestra, of the Third Symphony’s Nietzschean ‘deepness’ of the world was to be heard as the world fell asleep: ‘Die Welt schläft ein!’ If only that had not occasioned a barrage of coughing from certain sections of the audience. Elder exhibited a commendable command of line, though there were times when I wished again that he would relax a little more. As the breeze ran through the shadow of the pines, we heard, however, a truly terrifying stillness, flute set against double basses, as the soloist implored: the pain of harren, of waiting. That line, ‘O Schönheit! O ewigen Liebens-Lebenstrunk’ne Welt!’ came forth with what I can only call exhilarating sadness, poised between the block rejoicing of the Second Symphony – a memory, though perhaps no longer attainable – and Webern’s Klee-like pointillism. The great orchestral interlude that followed was shaped by Elder with great understanding of Mahler the musical dramatist, thereby rendering all the more desolate what was to come. And yet, consolation, when it came, was properly, wondrously earned, not least by Paasikivi. It was Mahlers Verklärung; it was our transfiguration too.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Minotaur, Royal Opera, 17 January 2013

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Ariadne – Christine Rice
Theseus – Johan Reuter
The Minotaur – Sir John Tomlinson
Ker – Elisabeth Meister
Snake Priestess – Andrew Watts
Hiereus – Alan Oke
First Innocent/Young Woman – Susana Gaspar
Second Innocent – Nadine Livingston
Third Innocent – Justina Gringyte
Fourth Innocent – James Laing
Fifth Innocent – William Towers

Stephen Langridge (director)
Alison Chitty (designs)
Paul Pyant (lighting)
Philippe Giraudeau (choreography)
59 Productions (video)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master/second conductor: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

Hiereus (Alan Oke), Snake Priestess (Andrew
Watts), Ariadne (Christine Rice)
Image: Bill Cooper

If, first time around, in 2008, The Minotaur offered the obvious excitement of the premiere, it was now noteworthy how quickly it had settled into repertory status. Not that it has yet been performed elsewhere than Covent Garden, though it should be as a matter of urgency, but that its 2013 outing proceeded with the apparent ease one might expect of, say, The Magic Flute or Carmen. That is surely testament both to the excellence of the performances we heard as well as to the stature of Birtwistle’s opera itself.

Though it packs an undoubted musico-dramatic punch, The Minotaur is not perhaps the overwhelming experience, the assault upon one’s faculties, offered by The Mask of Orpheus. It arguably stands a ‘late’ or at least ‘later’ work, somewhat simpler – these things are relative, of course – and more direct (ditto). The unbroken thread of the score, a metaphor for Ariadne’s own thread, brings the work closer to conventionally understood operatic tradition. This is a more linear work than many, for though Birtwistle and his librettist, David Harsent, also play once again with ritual and repetition, re-telling is incorporated, expressed, almost Wagner-like, within an essentially linear narrative. The labyrinth, then, has order, clearly discernible, beyond the apparently senseless chaos of human-bestial existence, as symbolised in the person of the ‘half and half,’ Asterios the Minotaur. Whether to start here, with The Mask of Orpheus, with Gawain, with Punch and Judy, or elsewhere is not something about which to become unduly worked up; the choice would be akin to deciding or falling upon a Wagnerian baptism  of fire with Tristan or the Shakespeare-like entrée of Die Meistersinger, and so on. It is difficult to imagine, however, that anyone with ears to hear and with the slightest curiosity would not be hooked; my immediate response upon emerging from the theatre was to hope that I should be able to find a ticket for a subsequent performance.

Reworkings of myth proceed in typical Birtwistle fashion, though here of course the credit is at least as much Harsent’s. An especially interesting idea is the presentation of the bull who mounted Pasiphae as Poseideon; the Minotaur is therefore perhaps Theseus’s half-brother. (We still do not know, nor does he, whether Theseus be the son of Poseidon or the son of Aegeus.) It is, moreover, an excellent touch to tantalise us with Theseus’s future abandonment of Ariadne; it is stressed that they will board the ship together, but it is equally noteworthy that no one foresees her reaching Athens. The orchestra, meanwhile, acts very much in neo-Wagnerian style as Chorus, shadowing, intensifying, commenting upon the action. Perhaps there is something of Bach in the well-nigh obbligato quality of the alto saxophone identified with Ariadne – who in this retelling becomes perhaps a more compromised, even ambiguous character. She is not always ‘straight’ with Theseus; she even attempts to trick Fate, both by moving a pebble from one hand to hand. It takes a second try, moreover, before she acts truthfully towards the Snake Priestess. Things could readily have turned out otherwise, then, or maybe not, if one believes in Fate. At any rate, thinking about such matters, experiencing them through the drama, is unavoidable.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s conducting proved almost Classical, again contributing very much to the suspicion that this opera has already attained ‘classic’ status.  With an orchestra and chorus on top form, the musical drama, incisive, ominous, gripping, beautifully melancholic, spoke, as the cliché would have it, for itself. There was no need for any extraneous ‘excitement’ to be applied from without; this was a far more fulfilling, musically-involving approach. The battery of percussion spoke, of course, but so did the steely yet malleable tones of orchestral woodwind, and not just the saxophone. Choral baiting of the Minotaur truly chilled our blood, just as others’ blood will be spilled on stage.

Christine Rice offered a heartfelt, conflicted Ariadne, Johan Reuter a stolid – but deliberately so – Theseus, his heroism thoughtfully questioned. John Tomlinson, celebrating an extraordinary thirty-five years on the Covent Garden stage, seems to have made the role of the Minotaur just as much as his own as he did the Green Knight in Gawain. (Salzburg’s new production this summer will almost inevitably feature him.) It is a part well suited to his advancing years. Vocal perfection is not required; it might even be out of place. But dramatic presence and integrity most definitely are; the tragic plight of a creature created and rejected so cruelly by ‘humanity’ was searingly portrayed. Andrew Watts again caused consternation with the mysterious archaic babble of the Snake Priestess, tellingly translated by another old Birtwistle hand, Alan Oke. Elisabeth Meister made an equally fantastic impression as the chilling Ker, feasting on the innocents’ blood; it is a screaming harpy-like role, but a musically screaming one, especially in this assumption. There was, in short, no weak link in the cast, and it is a very strong cast indeed.

Stephen Langridge’s staging tells the story with clarity, aided by Alison Chitty’s straightforward yet imaginative designs. I cannot help but retain a niggling doubt that a more adventurous production might have brought out a good number more dramatic strands than we see here. Something more Mask of Orpheus-like or indeed Soldaten-like might have alerted the audience to dramatic layers that went unseen, if certainly not unheard. By the same token, however, there is nothing wrong with expecting and/or permitting the audience to do some ‘aural thinking’ for itself. Let us hope, in any case, that before long there will be alternatives, which will expand our imaginative understanding of the work.

Programme essays were for the most part particularly informative, pieces by Rhian Samuel and David Beard especially so, though it is slightly odd to read Samuel referring to The Mask of Orpheus as ‘Birtwistle’s early opera’; ‘earlier’ perhaps? Moreover, Ruth Padel’s piece is simply incorrect to claim that ‘Monteverdi’s first opera was Arianna’; it was of course Orfeo. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from the contributions taken as a whole. How splendid, then, to experience the Royal Opera House very much back on form – and on form in so many ways.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

What in Wotan's name is this?!

The Guardian appears to be offering an A-Z of Wagner during 2013. Fair enough: it is unlikely to be of great interest to those of us who are truly obsessed; it may, however, plausibly pique the interest of others. Yet the quality of entry 'A' for 'Alberich' does not bode well. Once again we hear about a work called the 'Ring Cycle'. Should not the newspaper's much-vaunted style guide inform its writers as to a correct form here? There are a few, but the 'Ring Cycle' is certainly not one of them. More to the point, should someone writing about Wagner not know at least the name of his magnum opus?

Wagner 'mainly' wrote the work 'backwards'? Oh no he didn't. I assume the claim that Alberich is (apparently) left standing at the end because Wagner forgot about him is intended to be amusing; there is, I suppose, no accounting for taste in humour. It surely cannot be intended seriously, given that Alberich in any case appears in Götterdämmerung.

However, most bewildering is this:

He [Alberich] has a brother called Mime, who is easily the most boring character in the Ring Cycle (Das Rheingold is followed in the sequence by Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung). Whenever Mime appears, take a toilet break.
Leave aside the inelegant language; leave aside the lack of italics, etc. Mime is 'easily the most boring character' in the Ring cycle? The character whose little, almost Schubert-like paean to old Nibelheim makes us realise what has been lost through Alberich's capitalisation? The character through whom Wagner's dramatic genius makes us feel the great misery of something akin to quotidian existence? The character who thereby actually becomes a credible focus for our sympathy, despite the very real evil of his proto-Nietzschean will to power? I can just about understand almost any reaction to Mime, but 'boring'? Surely one would simply have to hate Wagner to think so; in which case, might it not be better to desist from writing a Wagner A-Z? Perhaps once again, this is meant somehow to be amusing and/or ironic; I cannot imagine how or why.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

'Baroque' choral music: a few recording recommendations

Over on Twitter, someone I follow was seeking recommendations for a recording of Bach's Mass in B minor. Klemperer I offered without a moment's thought as a first choice, with Richter (in any guise) and Jochum (ditto) as alternatives. Not long after, one of my followers tweeted to say how much he had enjoyed listening to Klemperer, and asked if I might offer some more recording suggestions on here from time to time. Of course, the sensible thing to do would be to leave that until a time when I am less manically busy - the beginning of term, indeed pretty much all of term, tending to be less than ideal - but then I am not sure that any time is particularly relaxed, and work tends to expand to fit the time available. Here, anyway, are a few favourites from Baroque and Classical choral music, since the Bach question had me thinking about that repertoire. I have limited myself to one recommendation per work, with two exceptions, which will be explained or at least argued. (Bach's cantatas are a different matter again, since we are mostly dealing with selections.) I certainly do not expect everyone, or indeed anyone, to agree, but I hope that some of these favourites might be useful. Where possible, I have included links to Amazon, which might be helpful to those seeking to explore the recordings.

Monteverdi - Vespro della beate Virgine

Certainly not the earliest great choral work - in a sense it comes at the very end of the greatest era for choral music - but perhaps the first great concerted choral 'blockbuster'. To my mind, at any rate, it is the greatest single choral 'work' - a moot term in this context, I realise - before Bach. Ranging in style from the polyphony of Monteverdi's Renaissance forebears to the madrigalian and operatic sensuality he was furthering and forging, it really has something for everyone. I have adored it since studying it as one of my set works for A-level music. Well represented in the recording catalogue, to my ears it is perhaps on balance still best heard in John Eliot Gardiner's first recording, for Decca. Modern instruments are still employed, though Gardiner would soon forsake them, and the vocal soloists are a starrier bunch, though not inappropriately so, than on his subsequent recording. This Decca bargain also includes a number of other works by Monteverdi and his Venetian contemporaries.

Schütz - Geistliche Chormusik 1648

If not quite the acorn from which the great tree of German music grew, there is enough truth in that - just as there is in Haydn as the 'father of the symphony' - to perpetuate the myth a little longer. Heinrich Schütz not only brought the fruits of Venetian music (from his teacher, Giovanni Gabrieli) to Germany; he not only proved instrumental, if the pun be forgiven, in the founding of what we know as the Staatskapelle Dresden; he also wrote the greatest German choral music before Bach. This 1648 collection is as all-encompassing in its way, more modest but no less profound, as its Monteverdian predecessor.

Carissimi - Jephte

Regularly cited in the history books as an exemplar of the mid-seventeenth-century oratorio, this is a highly dramatic work, telling the Book of Judges story of Jephtha. This 2-CD set offers a variety of equally ravishing works by Giovanni Carissimi.

Purcell - Verse Anthems
No composer, not even Britten, has been quite so at ease, quite so idiomatic, with respect to English word-setting as Purcell. Add to that his gorgeous harmonies, a melodic gift that at times seems almost to presage Mozart, Purcell's fusion of Continental and English styles, and that melancholy which one struggles not to think of in a sense as 'English', and we have the English Orpheus, Henry Purcell. This beautifully sung album includes not only a fine selection of verse anthems - a form now indelibly associated with Purcell - but also other choral works such as the splendid Te Deum and the unforgettable Funeral Sentences, as Anglican in the very best sense as the Book of Common Prayer itself.

Bach - Mass in B minor

Klemperer, as I said earlier, remains, at least in many moods, the ultimate first-choice in a fiercely contested field. There is not the slightest trace of Romanticism to his typically craggy, monumental performance; not that there is anything wrong with Romanticism, but it is not Klemperer's Neue Sachlichkeit way. If one wanted to define musical integrity, one could do worse than start with this and Klemperer's Missa solemnis.

Bach, St John Passion

Eugen Jochum's more Romantic way with Bach - sadly, an envisaged Klemperer St John was never to be - pays particular dividends in this, the more vivdly 'dramatic', at least as the term is conventionally understood, of Bach's Passions. For drama as searing as Tristan and indeed as erotic, come here. Soloists, chorus, and orchestra are without exception superlative.

Bach, St Matthew Passion

I said, go to the St John Passion for drama as searing as Tristan and indeed as erotic; for drama that surpasses even Wagner in both respects, the St Matthew Passion beckons: to my mind, the single greatest work of art in existence. For a dramatic experience words cannot begin to describe, Willem Mengelberg's legendary 1939 Palm Sunday performance cannot be approached. The opening chorus tells us all we need to know about what is at stake; at least until we continue to listen. Sadly, no tragically, it is cut, which is why I offer the alternative of Klemperer's great tableau: a ritual dance of death so involving that it, equally, will change you for ever. Comparisons are utterly odious here in any case; every human being needs to hear both. Often, but not too often, for a world in which the St Matthew Passion may be heard on tap begs more questions than it answers.


Bach - Christmas Oratorio

This extraordinary set of six cantatas for the Christmas season, infinitely more 'seasonal' than Handel's Lenten Messiah, is perhaps best heard in the recording by that great Bachian, Karl Richter. Richter's Lutheran understanding informed all his Bach, but little, if any, is greater than this joyous performance. 'Stellar' hardly begins to describe the soloists.

Bach - Magnificat in D major

This Magnificat also exists in 'Christmas' form, in E-flat major, but for 'everyday' usage, not that Bach should ever be relegated to the status of Gebrauchsmusik, the D major version is the one to hear. Once again, Richter is impossible to beat, and may not be equalled. Even Haydn is not more joyous than this.

Bach - Cantatas

The greatest treasure trove of all, from which many works seem to have been lost forever. (And to think what some musicologists fret over!) One might miss other music; one certainly would; however, it would be perfectly possible to live happily on this spiritual bread alone. Haydn's symphonies are perhaps the only point of comparison, but we shall leave them for another day. Richter's set of one cantata for every Sunday and major feast should be a cornerstone of every collection. (However at the price currently being charged, you may be well advised to wait, or at least to assemble from the individual five volumes!) Would that he had been permitted to record every cantata. As a taster - relatively speaking - there is also the set of Advent cantatas, which might be added to as required. Ultimately, one has to hear every one, in which case my recommendation would be Helmuth Rilling's set. But many of the cantatas are best heard on individual recordings, of which a few are offered below. Perhaps this is something I should return to in greater detail, but rest assured that any of these recordings will truly change your life. 'Vocal' might be a better description than 'choral' for much of this music, but let us not split hairs.

Handel - Messiah

For the moment, at least, I shall tear myself away from Bach and turn to his great contemporary, Handel. Messiah remains, of course, his most celebrated, most loved, work, and there is nothing wrong with that, however atypical it might be of his oratorios. Beecham here is hors concours, but for those who cannot take the Beecham-Goossens reorchestration - and they will be missing out on a great deal - Sir Colin Davis is an unanswerable 'straight', and relatively small-scale, recommendation.

Handel - Saul

When I first heard Saul, I thought it the greatest music-drama in the English language. I have since heard Dido and Aeneas and The Mask of Orpheus, but Saul remains, at the very least, a great drama, far more typical of Handelian oratorio than the more celebrated Messiah. Handel's dramatic genius was never greater than in his construction of the character of Saul, flawed, tragic, yet ultimately understandable to us all. And the choral writing is superlative. Sir Charles Mackerras did nothing finer than this; one can picture the action through listening alone.

Handel - Israel in Egypt

This, again, is not typical, but Handel's choral writing does not come any more glorious than Israel in Egypt, double choruses and all. The grandeur that is all too often lacking from modern-day Handel performances is still captured in Simon Preston's recording, despite the relatively small forces: a lesson to us all.

Handel - Theodora

Handel's two final oratorios, Theodora and Jephtha are perhaps more moving than anything else he wrote. So as to try to keep this entry within reasonable bounds, I shall limit myself to Theodora here. (Arbitrary, I know, but there is plenty of material for a second piece, and doubtless for more than that.) This tale of early-Christian martyrdom never fails to move in Johannes Somary's recording, blessed by a cast including Heather Harper and Maureen Forrester.

That is all for now. However, as I said, there may well be a further instalment or two, or I may venture forth into any other period or genre.

Soli Deo gloria!

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Hugh/LSO/Sado - Elgar and Mozart, 13 January 2013

Barbican Hall

Elgar – Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85
Mozart – Requiem Mass in D minor, KV 626

Tim Hugh (cello)
Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
Daniela Lehner (mezzo-soprano)
Maximilian Schmitt (tenor)
Andrew Foster-Williams (baritone)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
Yutaka Sado (conductor)

This concert was the latest to fall victim to Sir Colin Davis’s continued indisposition, though the LSO website tells us that his recovery has him remaining hopeful that he will return to conduct the orchestra in March. Dedication of the concert to the memory of the much-lamented Principal Oboist of the LSO, Kieron Moore, who died in October 2012, was an admirable gesture. (Click here to read a beautiful tribute from Gareth Davies, LSO Principal Flute.)

The combination of Elgar and Mozart was of course an echt-Davis programme. It was difficult not to feel a little sorry for the substitute conductor, Yutaka Sado, for I do not think there is a conductor alive, with the possible exception of Daniel Barenboim, who would be likely to emerge unscathed from comparison with what might have been. That, however, might have worked both ways; prepared for the fact that it was not Sir Colin, I was prepared to be a little indulgent. Alas, Sado’s hapless conducting went from bad to worse. I should have called it Kapellmeister-ish, were that not a grievous libel upon everyone’s local Kapellmeister. The sub-Bernstein podium antics were bad enough, but given that they were not backed up by as much as a small fraction of Bernstein’s musicality, one could only wish that one of Davis’s previous substitutes, for instance Manfred Honeck, had been available.

The Elgar Cello Concerto did not fare too badly, the presence of Tim Hugh as soloist a definite advantage. Hugh opened with tone for which the easiest and, I think, most appropriate, adjectival cliché would be ‘aristocratic’, not nearly so full-blooded as Jacqueline du Pré (a comparison as odious as it is inevitable), perhaps more ‘French’, even Fournier-like, though none of that should be taken to prelude passion. The basic tempo for the first movement was on the slow side, perfectly reasonable, however, for Moderato. A warning bell sounded with Sado’s tendency to conduct bar-by-bar, but as yet there was nothing too grievous to worry about. Yes, he lacked Davis’s fluency; yes, the music sounded less ‘lived with,’; yes, one had the impression that the performance was really being led by the soloist, tempo variations certainly seeming to originate with him; yes, the waving around of arms seemed to be a sub-Bernstein affectation, with no discernible performative result; however, the night was young. And indeed, the beginning of the second movement perked up, with a lively sense of fantasy, the LSO woodwind impressing as so often. Was Sado settling in? Alas, towards the end of this short movement, he began to seem lost again, cello and orchestra threatening to lose touch with one another. The slow movement felt drawn out. I suspect the tempo itself was not unusually slow, but the lack of any sense of life in Sado’s conducting rendered the patient’s condition terminal. That said, Hugh’s solo line was finely shaped, despite a telephonic interruption towards the end. The finale was impetuous, after a fashion that sometimes intrigued, though it lacked the warmth and humanity Davis would surely have imparted. Its darkest moments, however, were handled well, with some baleful and/or malevolent sonorities produced by the orchestra.

That was at best, then, a curate’s egg, yet I was quite unprepared for the novelty of a performance of Mozart’s Requiem that failed so much as once to move. The Introit opened with excellent choral singing; indeed the contribution from the London Symphony Chorus was throughout beyond reproach. Heft and precision were equally impressive. The LSO’s playing was mercifully free of ‘authenticke’ affectation. Unfortunately, however much one might have wished it so, that was not nearly enough. Once again, Sado appeared to progress, if that be the word, from bar to bar, without a hint of the phrase, let alone the paragraph. The effect, here and elsewhere, was oddly neutral. Admittedly, dancing around on the podium did not help, yet, even though the disconnection between what we saw and what we heard seemed more or less absolute, that proved least of the irritations suffered. The ‘Kyrie’ was sturdy, almost propulsive, offering signs of hope, though hardly imploring, leading one to wonder whether Sado had any understanding of the words, let alone the music. There followed a manically, perhaps even maniacally, fast ‘Dies Irae’: faster, it seemed, even than Karajan, yet it was merely fast rather than furious. Again, choral singing was excellent, yet Sado gave not the slightest hint of understanding what might be at stake in this day of wrath; it akin to a bad parody of what Toscanini might have done to this great work.

The ‘Tuba mirum’ at least offered some good solo singing, Andrew Foster-Williams proving a spirited, if at times slightly bluff, bass, responded to by Maximilian Schmitt’s beautiful, Tamino-like tenor. Helen Vollam’s trombone solo was equally fine. Daniela Lehner’s mezzo seemed simply to be trying too hard, however, her tone forced. Elizabeth Watts sang and phrased her soprano line well; the lack of consolation, one felt, was to be attributed to Sado’s lack of a true guiding hand. Superlative choral singing in the ‘Rex tremendae’ nevertheless lacked a Mozartian to direct it musically. And if the ‘Recordare’ were fluent, it was fluency of an utterly mechanical nature. At one point, the conductor was close to kneeling, as if he were a bird about to take flight; would that one might have said the same about his ‘interpretation’. Had the mechanical quality been an evident interpretative decision, one might have queried such a Stravinskian path; Mozart, as Stravinsky ironically once put it, is surely ‘poorer’ than that. Alas, there was nothing so interesting, nothing so provocative, to be heard; extraordinarily, this ravishingly beautiful movement soon sounded merely monotonous. If anything, the ‘Confutatis’ was more band-masterly than the ‘Dies irae’: merciless, yet by default. Perhaps the nadir was reached at the ‘Lacrimosa’, all present and correct, yet bizarrely unmoving, as Sado plodded not just from bar to bar but beat to beat. If tears do not well up during this day of weeping, then something has gone awry; something most certainly had.

A perky ‘Domine Jesu’? I suppose that might have offered a point of view, albeit one challenging to fathom. Yet, again, that seemed more by default than anything else. The ‘Quam olim Abrahae’ section managed somehow to sound both impetuous and static, such was Sado’s apparent inability to communicate its harmonic rhythm. This might have been a sewing-machine pattern. By the time we had reached the ‘Hostias’, even the orchestra sounded somewhat lacklustre; I cannot say that I blamed it. There is always a danger of sounding bland in the (dubious) ‘Sanctus’; here, unsurprisingly, danger was courted, the ensuing ‘Osanna’ merely brusque. How I longed for some light and shade in the ‘Benedictus’. Were doggedness your thing, you might have found something to enjoy here; to me, it sounded more like the coming of a bulldozer than of the Holy Ghost. The ‘Agnus Dei’ offered more of the same, really. Chrous, orchestra, and soloists (well, most of them) deserved much better; so did Mozart. I had given up the will to die, let alone to live.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Hodges/Dierstein/Watts/Maxwell/Tunstall - Birtwistle, 9 January 2013

Hall One, Kings Place

Saraband: The King’s Farewell (2001)
Ostinato with Melody (2000)
Orpheus Elegies (2003-4): Elegies 1, 3, 4, 14, 6, 10, 15, 13, 12, 21, 22, 25, 9, 16, 20, 19
Gigue Machine (2011)
The Axe Manual (2000)

Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Christian Dierstein (percussion)
Andrew Watts (counter-tenor)
Melinda Maxwell (oboe)
Helen Tunstall (harp)
Kings Place is at the moment showing portraits by Adam Birtwistle. His father, meanwhile, was the focus of an excellent concert downstairs in Hall One. First up were two solo piano pieces, Saraband: The King’s Farewell, and Ostinato with Melody. The performances by Nicolas Hodges revealed a good deal that they had in common, of which the perhaps surprisingly post-Schoenbergian harmony was certainly not least. Onward tread and audible musical process were equally to the fore. The latter piece, written for Boulez’s seventy-fifth birthday – I remember the 2000 concert very well – seemed to present a dialectic between certainty and uncertainty, both principles simultaneously immanent. Birtwistle’s stopping and starting proved mechanical in the very best, highly characteristic sense.

Sixteen of the twenty-six Orpheus Elegies, for voice, oboe, and harp, followed. The composer says that they may be performed in any order, provided that number one be performed first, and number nineteen last. What I think of as Birtwistle’s realised archaism – both more real and more archaic than any ‘reconstruction’ – was hauntingly present from the outset. The adjective ‘elegiac’, if verging on the tautological here, really did seem the mot juste, though there is great variation between the elegies, each of which takes a line or sometimes an entire sonnet from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus. (How many fine musical works that poet has inspired!) For instance, the opening of no.4 offered a hint of the scherzando following its two predecessors, without disruption to the overarching sound- and dramatical world. Some elegies employ voice; some are merely identified by a line printed in the score. All three musicians, Andrew Watts, Melinda Maxwell, and Helen Tunstall, communicated their parts and the whole with hieratic vividness, the ‘reine Übersteigung’ (not ‘Übersteibing’, as the programme had it), the pure transcendence of Rilke’s first sonnet approached and verging upon instantiation. Watts also had to operate a couple of metronomes in two of the purely instrumental movements, adding after a fashion to Birtwistle’s ritual. The composer’s exploration of expressive capabilities of all three instruments, counter-tenor included, proved as searching and as successful as anyone might expect.

Gigue Machine for solo piano sounded every bit the gigue, every bit the machine. Again, it was Schoenberg – as well, of course as Birtwistle – who sprang to mind, the Baroque reimaginings of the op.25 Suite reinvented, consciously or otherwise. Mechanical intricacy was the order of the day, both in work and Hodges’s fine performance. Joined by percussionist Christian Dierstein, the pianist proved just as much at home, as did his partner, in an exhilarating account of The Axe Manual. Changing roles and weighting intrigued, percussion seemingly first ‘shadowing’ piano, and then vice versa, though of course it was never quite so straightforward as that; there were always ghosts, and ever-changing ghosts at that, in this machine and its manual. Drums offered a different relationship with piano from that explored with tuned percussion. The piano as an instrument showed itself both invariant and infinitely varied, echoing the certain/uncertain dialectic we had heard in the contemporaneous Ostinato with Melody. Instruments likewise merged and yet remained distinct. Rhythm of course was very much a guiding principle, both to work and performance, but far from the only one; Birtwistle’s melodic gift is every inch as remarkable, every inch as obstinately, bloody-mindedly ‘English’. Yet there has never been anything remotely insular about this country’s greatest composer since Purcell; shades of Stravinsky (Les Noces) and Boulez (Le Marteau and, I think, sur Incises) just as apparent and yet just as transformed as ‘Englishness’ or the distant yet present ‘archaic’.        

A post-concert discussion was notable primarily for the ease with which, once again, Birtwistle demolished the uncertain, meandering questioning of a certain, well-nigh ubiquitous journalist. The Minotaur now beckons at Covent Garden.