Thursday, 31 August 2017

‘Programme’ and ‘Absolute’ Music for String Trio: Schoenberg and Bach

The string trio has in some ways a stronger claim than its more popular sibling, the string quartet, to be considered the summit of modern string chamber music. The Baroque trio sonata is a different beast, with or without continuo. However, during the early Classical period, two instrumental formations vied for favour, that of two violins and cello and that of violin, viola and cello. Haydn may have been the first to opt for the latter combination, which, a few exceptions notwithstanding, would eventually emerge victorious. Difficulties of balance and the restrictions of a three-part texture –mitigated from time to time by double-stopping – rendered the string trio a rarer beast and in many respects a greater combinational challenge. Mozart’s six-movement Divertimento in E flat major K. 563 remains a towering example; none should be fooled by the ‘light’ suggestion of ‘divertimento’. So does Schoenberg’s late String Trio, written in the context of a 20th-century revival of interest. Reger, greatly admired by Schoenberg, had written two, as had Hindemith. Webern had also pipped his teacher to the 12-note post by a couple of decades.

Developing Variation and a Reckoning with Memory

Responding to a commission from Harvard University’s music department for a 1947 symposium on musical criticism, Schoenberg’s contribution stood alongside works (for different forces) by Copland, Hindemith, Malipiero and Martinů – quite a symposium! One of Schoenberg’s fellow Californian exiles, Thomas Mann, recounts:

He told me about the new Trio he had just completed and about the experiences he had secretly woven into the composition – experiences of which the work was a kind of fruit. He had, he said, represented his illness and medical treatment in the music, including even the male nurses and all the other oddities [!] of American hospitals.

Schoenberg’s pupil and assistant, Leonard Stein, went further, telling Walter Bailey that Schoenberg ‘explained the many juxtapositions of unlike material within the Trio as reflections of the delirium which the composer suffered during parts of his illness’. ‘Thus, the seemingly fragmentary nature of the Trio’s material represents the experience of time and events as perceived from a semiconscious or highly sedated state. These unusual juxtapositions also represent […] the alternate phases of “pain and suffering” and “peace and repose” that Schoenberg experienced.’ We may or may not choose to follow quasi-programmatic cues and should remind ourselves that Schoenberg had conceived the basic outline of the work before his heart attack on 2 August 1946. Nevertheless, most of the actual composition took place in its aftermath, between 20 August and 23 September.
Such cues may at least offer a way in to what Michael Cherlin has described as music that ‘is full of abrupt and striking changes of texture and affect as musical ideas are broken off, interrupted by other ideas that are themselves interrupted’. Schoenberg’s method certainly extends beyond the programmatic; its concern with memory, alternating harsh dissonances and something reminiscent of, if not quite amounting to, tonality, may be understood in purely musical terms if we wish. The role of memory, as Cherlin has argued, relates not only to Schoenberg’s illness but also to one of his most esteemed precursors in this genre: Beethoven (albeit early, all four of his trios written and published prior to the turn of the 19th century). And yet, even here, biography intrudes, for if Schoenberg’s transformation of the fractures of late Beethovenian rhetoric are crucial both to formal outline and content – to adapt that slightly to Schoenberg’s own terms, to style and idea – then ‘for Schoenberg’, again quoting Cherlin, ‘Beethoven, and specifically late Beethoven, would have been nearly synonymous with the activity of deathbed composition’. Memory plays tricks, sometimes deliberately, mediating between youth and old age, then and now.

Waltzes from old Vienna, or rather fragments of such ‘remembered’ waltzes, likewise play a mediating role between the opposing forces of surface contrasts and unifying 12-note technique. That is a practice – or a way of understanding it – far from unique to this Schoenberg work; we might say much the same about Moses und Aron. The extremity of those contrasts remains, however, a crucial, almost neoexpressionist, aspect of the work. Indeed, one of the most intriguing characteristics of its form is its move away from the neoclassicism (broadly understood) that had characterized much of Schoenberg’s 12-note instrumental writing, towards the practice, familiar from Liszt’s Piano Sonata in B minor and Schoenberg’s own First String Quartet and First Chamber Symphony, of condensing four traditional sonata movements into a single sonata-form movement.

Here, that is perhaps more difficult to discern, at least on first hearing, partly because Schoenberg’s division of the work into three parts offers another equally important standpoint, related yet not identical. Its arch-like quality stands close to a favoured structure of Bartók, albeit without the symmetry, and, as was customary for Schoenberg, with the ‘developing variation’ he treasured in his ‘Brahms the Progressive’ at its heart (however much under attack). Three parts are interspersed with a first and second episode, those alternate phases of ‘pain and suffering’ and ‘peace and repose’ both characterizing and undermining the different sections’ identity. The complexity of the first bar alone, replete with tremolandos, harmonics, syncopations, sforzandos, and so on, sets the aural stage very well indeed, as well as any mere identification of the series. To the question as to whether the third part constitutes the recapitulation, further development, reconciliation or dissolution, the only possible answer can be: all of the above and more.

Structuring of Variation and the Snares of Biography

Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations have received a number of transcriptions and arrangements. Some have opted for supposedly Baroque forces and formations. Others have taken advantage of any number of modern possibilities, ranging from one of the earliest in 1883, by Josef Rheinberger (revised by Reger), for two pianos, to the 1938 orchestral version by Polish dodecaphonist Józef Koffler. More recent contributions have included two for string trio, from Dmitry Sitkovetsky (1984) and Federico Sarudiansky (2010). Sitkovetsky’s version came at a time of peak ‘authenticity’, when certain voices would frown upon any such reimagination. Following his 2009 revision, he recalled:

When I first wrote my transcription of Bach’s ‘Goldberg’ Variations for string trio, in 1984, it was both a labour of love and an obsession with the 1981 Glenn Gould recording. […] Generally, at that time, transcriptions were out of fashion and I recall that my own colleagues and managers were sceptical about such an audacious idea. […] Since then, my transcriptions have been played all over the world and moreover they have opened the floodgates of new interpretive possibilities for the piece, which have included solo harp, wind instruments of all kinds, saxophone quartets, Renaissance viols and even a fascinating concoction of Uri Caine, among many others.
The players of the Trio Zimmermann have decided to join that merry throng, offering an alternative to Sitkovetsky. Here they give a brief explanation:

As a string trio, we were originally exposed to Johann Sebastian’s Goldberg Variations, originally written for harpsichord with two manuals, through Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s transcription, which made it possible to approach this masterwork on other instruments. When the quite infinite world of the Goldberg Variations began to open up for us, we found ourselves captivated by the original text, with all its countless treasures and details. This intensive study moved us to develop a version for string trio, which, within the spectrum of possibilities available, represents neither an arrangement nor a transcription, but should serve the sole purpose of disclosing Bach’s score and the genius of his composition for harpsichord.

At the time of this ‘disclosure’, there remain sharp divisions amongst those who perform and listen to Bach’s music, although the climate is perhaps less polarized than once it was. Curiously, transcriptions now often fare better than ‘straighter’ performances on modern instruments – a ‘symphonic’ performance of the St Matthew Passion will swiftly be anathematized. What almost anyone will now agree on, however, is that, even if they does not like the way the music is being performed, the musical qualities of the work remain clear. The Trio Zimmermann offer yet another standpoint: something surely to be welcomed both in theory and in practice.

Ways to think about the Variations in question are at least as inexhaustible as ways to perform it; ideally, the two would enter into some sort of dialogue. The celebrated tale of the work’s origins, whether true, false or somewhere in between, will never leave the stage; why should it? Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, tells the classic version:

We have to thank the instigation of the former Russian ambassador to the Electoral Court of Saxony, Count Kaiserling, who often stopped in Leipzig and brought there with him the aforementioned [Johann Gottlieb] Goldberg, in order to have him given musical instruction by Bach. The Count was often ill and had sleepless nights. […] Once the Count mentioned in Bach’s presence that he would like to have some clavier pieces for Goldberg, which should be of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless night. Bach thought himself best able to fulfil this wish by means of variations, the writing of which he had until then considered an ungrateful task on account of the repeatedly similar harmonic foundation.

There is less to detain us interpretatively than in the case of Schoenberg’s delirium. This Aria and diverse variations – 30 of them, rounded off with a return to the Aria, the same sarabande, yet quite transformed by what has unfolded in the meantime – may certainly be understood without any recourse to imagining a sleepless count, unless we particularly wish to do so.

Bach’s structuring of the variations, each more concerned with the Aria’s bass line and harmony than with its melody, is as sophisticated as we might expect. Every third variation is canonical, the first at the unison, the second (Variation 6) at the second, and so on, until Variation 27 reaches the ninth. Variation 30 is not a canon but a quodlibet, confounding expectations with a humorous combination of favourite Bach family folksongs. While we may not find the intervention of ‘Cabbage and turnips have driven me away’ amusing, as was possibly intended, we can certainly admire Bach’s contrapuntal mastery.

There is much more, of course, to the internal structure, of which barely the surface can be scratched here. Ralph Kirkpatrick’s study of the work showed that genre pieces immediately follow the canons: Variation 4 is a passepied, Variation 7 a gigue, and so forth, with Variation 16 a full-blooded French overture (opening, as it were, the second half and offering further symmetry to the work as a whole). The variations following next but one after the canons (from No. 5 onwards) are characterized by Kirkpatrick as ‘arabesques’, swift flights of dazzling virtuosity of one variety or another. Crossing of hands, for instance, will necessitate a different strategy with a string trio, as we shall discover. Whatever the musical hardware, though, there is a special quality to the G minor variations (Nos. 15, 21 and 25), the final one unforgettably christened the ‘black pearl’ by Wanda Landowska – much to the chagrin of prosaic ‘authenticists’. In its chromaticism we might hear just a little of what led Schoenberg to declare Bach the first 12-note composer.

(This essay was first published as a programme note for the 2017 Salzburg Festival.)

Bayreuth Festival (5) - Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 27 August 2017


Hans Sachs – Michael Volle
Veit Pogner – Günther Groissböck
Kunz Vogelgsang – Tansel Akzeybek
Konrad Nachtigall – Armin Kolarczyk
Sixtus Beckmesser – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Fritz Kothner – Daniel Schmutzhard
Balthasar Zorn – Paul Kaufmann
Ulrich Eißlinger – Christopher Kaplan
Augustin Moser – Stefan Heibach
Hermann Ortel – Raimund Nolte
Hans Schwarz – Andreas Hörl
Hans Foltz – Timo Riihonen
Walther von Stolzing – Klaus Florian Vogt
David – Daniel Behle
Eva – Anne Schwanewilms
Magdalena – Wiebke Lehmkuhl
Night-watchman – Karl-Heinz Lehner
Helga Beckmesser (Harpist) – Barbara Mayr

Barrie Kosky (director)
Rebecca Ringst (set designs)
Klaus Bruns (costumes)
Franck Evin (lighting)
Regine Freise (video)
Ulrich Lenz (dramaturgy) 

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Philippe Jordan (conductor)


Whole-hearted approval from a typical opera audience, let alone a typical Wagner audience, in a production’s first run is rarely a good thing. There will be exceptions, of course. However – and I speak from experience, having struggled with some parts of Frank Castorf’s Ring the first time I saw it – if what you see is what you get, what will you see, or hear, a second time. As someone once said, or sang – and indeed, as someone once wrote: ‘Kam Sommer, Herbst und Winterzeit, viel Not und Sorg’ im Leben, manch ehlick Glück daneben, Kindtauf’, Geschäfte, Zwist und Streit: denen’s dann noch will gelingen, ein schönes Lied zu singen, seht; Meister nennt man die!’ Is there, as Brecht maintained, a ‘swindle’ inherent in art? One does not have to be a card-carrying Brechtian to say: yes, of course. Art conceals art, and nowhere more so than in Die Meistersinger; that is what the opera is about too, as well as the crucial element of reflection. There are different types of swindles, though. Ultimately, although Barrie Kosky’s new production of Die Meistersinger begins with promise, I fear that it turns out to be of a rather more disreputable variety. This, I am afraid, is Kosky – at his best, a fine director, although highly variable – at his most unsympathetic, his most cavalier; indeed, I should go so far as to say, at his most dishonest.


We start, part way through the opening Prelude, at Wahnfried. (Did not someone do something similar at Bayreuth not so very long ago?) For some reason, a date in the summer of 1875 is chosen and flashed in front of the stage. (Such ‘information’ is the extent of the video here, along with rather strained attempts at humour. An outside temperature is shown and many in the audience are helpless with laughter. I only wish that I were joking.) Wagner, Cosima, Liszt, and others assemble – as if this were something recounted in Cosima’s Diaries, but I am pretty sure that it is now. One of those others is Hermann Levi, apparently about to conduct Die Meistersinger at Bayreuth: before the Ring, it would seem, somehow, and thus before everything else. Never mind that the work was never conducted at Bayreuth in Wagner’s lifetime, whether by Levi or anyone else. The scenario gives Kosky the chance to invent an instance of anti-Semitism, anyway, by having Wagner and everyone else kneel for the opening chorale and genuflect. (As if Wagner would ever have done such a thing!) Levi is bullied into doing the same. Does it matter that that never happened? On one level, of course not. On another, not really, for we are not exactly short of instances either of virulent anti-Semitism on Wagner’s part or directed against Levi. On another level again, that of whether this be the right work, I am not sure: yes, with respect to Levi, it clearly should be Parsifal, but we can let that pass. On the final level, however, I think it does, very much. For Kosky’s conceit is to put Wagner, in the not entirely coherent guise of Hans Sachs, quite literally on trial. And Wagner receives neither a defence nor indeed a case against him that is anything other than a string of misrepresentations and fabrications. Yes, this is a staging, not a thesis, but I think it matters when the very clear implication is that much, at least, of what we are seeing is based on historical fact and, perhaps worse, upon critical Wagner scholarship.


Levi becomes Beckmesser as Wagner becomes Sachs. Somewhat oddly, Liszt becomes Pogner, as Cosima becomes Eva. That sub-plot, if you will – it should, of course, be the actual plot – does not work at all, even though Kosky admits, with varying degrees of clarity and coherence, that there is something of Wagner in Walther too. Wagner, after all, certainly did not have to rely on Liszt’s, or anyone else’s, permission to win his second wife; and it does not make obvious sense to have a younger version of himself snatch her from his older self. The problem, again, is that these things seem strongly implied; they neither cohere internally nor externally. The trial business is much more serious, alas. For after a great deal of first-act theatrical ‘business’ – more activity than real drama, I am afraid to say – Wagner’s villa recedes into the distance (again, quite filmic, in its way) just before the interval to reveal Wagner/Sachs on trial, in Nuremberg in – yes, 1945.


As it happens, I had been in Nuremberg just a few days previously. I had walked down the Strasse der Menschenrechte, a sign not only of true internationalism, of an order determined to defeat Nazism forever, but also reminding us of its resurgence since 1989. Names of Germans murdered on account of their ‘race’ since unification are movingly displayed on one monument. (Would that we might have something similar in the United Kingdom for our victims of ‘Brexit’ violence.) No country in the world has shown anything like the determination to come to terms with its past that Germany has, and no country is, I think, quite so clear that more, far more, still needs to be done. Vergangenheitsbewältigung works, but it is an ever-necessary process, not something ever to be completed. How about, then, we start blaming Wagner for everything? It is preposterous and, more to the point, very, very dangerous. Clearly it is very dangerous indeed simply to blame Hitler, to refuse to treat with National Socialism with the historical seriousness it deserves and demands, and thus to acquit the social and economic structures, as well as the other historical actors, who enabled Friedrich Meinecke’s ‘German catastrophe’ to happen. But to say that in any sense Wagner was responsible is to return to the thesis, if one may call it that, of what is perhaps the single most disgraceful book ever to be written about the composer: Joachim Köhler’s Wagner’s Hitler: The Prophet and his Disciple. Yes, Wagner’s Hitler, not Hitler’s Wagner. Köhler presented – and I am not exaggerating one iota – a monocausal explanation of the Second World War: Wagner. He has since, apparently, disavowed this book, although I should be surprised to hear that he had disavowed the royalties. It might as well have been Wagner and UFOs, only that would have been harmless by comparison.


Kosky nowhere in the ‘trial’ that ensues – rather hesitantly, for the second act, bewilderingly takes place on some grass that appears inside the courtroom – entertains the possibility that Wagner might not be guilty. Nowhere does he suggest that many Wagner scholars would dispute even the thesis that anti-Semitism is to be found within the dramatic works, let alone the ludicrous excesses of sensationalists such as Köhler, Paul Lawrence Rose, Marc A. Weiner, Hartmut Zelinsky, and so on. (Their ‘methods’, if one may call them that, are far closer to those of Goebbels than anything in Wagner, but never mind.) This is, quite clearly, although for reasons never explained, an entirely discreditable work by an entirely discreditable composer. I, presumably, am a Nazi too, for having dedicated so much of my life to the study of such discreditable, even murderous material. There are many more persuasive claims than those mentioned above for the thesis of anti-Semitism both in this and other works by Wagner; but frankly, when Kosky cannot be bothered to summon up a fair trial, I might as well leave naming them for another day too. So far, so disagreeable, but it is really the third act that takes the biscuit. Having told us – though very carefully, or very glibly, said nothing really – how wicked this all is, and having assembled all the paraphernalia of the courtroom ready for judgement, Kosky then cannot be bothered to pursue the case, such as it is, any further. Presenting Beckmesser as the victim of a pogrom at the end of the second act, replete with Stürmer imagery, horrifies – but lazily so. It has not been prepared, on the production’s own terms, let alone anything beyond them. What we then witness is a highly conventional –pretty much indistinguishable from David McVicar – ‘entertainment’ unfold in ‘pretty’, only slightly ironised (if at all) sixteenth-century costumes, bar or take the bizarre, disquieting appearance of caricatured 'Jewish' dwarves when Beckmesser is on stage. Otherwise, it just all happens within the courtroom; that is all. Thus Kosky both manages to construct a grotesquely unfair trial, and then to say that it never really mattered anyway.


It becomes glibber still. At the close, the courtroom recedes and disappears. The chorus reappears as an onstage orchestra and 'plays'. What Kosky seems to be saying is that most trivial of responses one sometimes hears to Wagner: ‘I hate the man, but love the music. Why can’t we just enjoy that?’ Well no, actually. For one thing, there is no ‘music itself’. One hardly need be a doctrinaire, or even heterodox, New Musicologist to appreciate that; this is, after all, a musical drama. If that is tainted, then yes, we do need to address that – unless, perhaps, you are going to remove the words completely, or at least their dramatic import. (I suppose, in a way, Kosky has a fair stab at doing that, if not quite in the way he thinks he does.) If the work and the composer have been put on trial, then at least let us see and hear the evidence. ‘Dann Tat und Wort am rechtem Ort,’ please; or at least let us have deed and word in a place whose sole intent, or at least result, is not seemingly to deceive.


It is a great pity, in part because the idea of constructing some sort of fairer trial would have been a genuinely interesting, worthwhile thing, not least at Bayreuth, but also because much, if not all, on the musical side proved genuinely worthy of celebration. Michael Volle gave at least as fine a performance of Hans Sachs as I have heard from him. Given his dual role as Wagner, that must stand as a still greater achievement in many ways than his Salzburg Sachs for Stefan Herheim (whose production remains quite hors concours). Such depth and sophistication in attention to word, tone, and gesture, would surely have delighted his alter ego. Likewise Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Beckmesser, in at least as great a performance (and in very challenging circumstances). Their dialogue during the second act was such as to be worthy of awards – in the spoken, let alone the lyrical, theatre. Günther Groissböck, so excellent a Fasolt earlier in the week, put all those earlier virtues to work in the role of Pogner, and Daniel Behle, Froh in that same performance, had greater opportunity, finely taken, to shine as David. Klaus Florian Vogt’s Walther is a known quantity; many dislike it on account of simply disliking his voice. I shall admit to having cooled somewhat on that count myself – maybe partly on account of having heard Jonas Kaufmann and Brandon Jovanovich – but he sang very well on his own terms, could always be heard, and dealt very well with a production that very much left him on the sidelines. Wiebke Lehmkuhl offered a likeable, musical performance as Magdalene. Only Anne Schwanewilms disappointed, quite miscast, it would seem, incapable of holding her line in the Quintet, and not only there.


The Bayreuth Festival Chorus’s contribution outstanding, as one might have expected, though no less worthy of comment for that. The ability of chorus members to combine such excellence in singing with highly detailed individual stage performances – always a Kosky strength – should also be praised to the rafters. If Philippe Jordan strayed too little from mezzo piano and mezzo forte in some sections of the work, his conducting nevertheless emerged considerably more variegated than it had in Paris last year. He generally handled the work’s corners skilfully, and showed a good rapport with the wonderful players of the Festival Orchestra, whose commitment could not be gainsaid. There were perhaps no great insights on Jordan’s part, but this is a very, very difficult work for a conductor to bring off; I am tempted to think it the most difficult of all, perhaps bar Tristan. If I still longed for the wisdom of Bernard Haitink, then I nearly always do in this work. And art, as it reminds us, must move on.


That is not, however, to say that just anything goes. ‘You see,’ Brecht wrote, ‘you can do lots of things with form, carry out all sorts of swindles and fake improvements which then simply exist in “external form”.’ There was ‘the “people’s community …; there was the “economic upturn”, the “economic miracle” thanks to rearmament. And, on paper, the people had a Volkswagen, though in the cold light of day it became a tank.’ Form, he went on, ‘plays a major role in art. Form isn’t everything, but it’s so substantial that neglecting it will destroy a work.’ Indeed – and so it goes for a production. It ‘isn’t something external, something that the artist confers on content, it’s so much a part of content that it often comes across to the artist as content itself.’ Except not – if one is perpetrating a swindle or a fake trial: not, perhaps, entirely unlike what I have just done to Brecht, yet that pales into insignificance when compared to what this production does to Wagner. What worries me most is that members of the audience, flattered and laughing along to Kosky’s jokes, will feel that Wagner – and they – have been acquitted. By all means let us have a trial, but let us not delude ourselves that we have had one here.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Bayreuth Festival (4) - Siegfried, 26 August 2017


Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
Mime – Andreas Conrad
Wanderer – Thomas Johannes Mayer
Alberich – Albert Dohmen
Fafner – Karl-Heinz Lehner
Erda – Nadine Weissmann
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster
Woodbird – Ana Durlovski

Frank Castorf (director)
Aleksandar Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Kasper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video) 

Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Marek Janowski (conductor)

Siegfried is now for me the highpoint in Frank Castorf’s Ring. It is surely the most difficult of all four parts to bring off, but Castorf’s – and his performers’ – grasp of the work’s epic quality may well be unsurpassed. One would at least have to go back – from productions I know – to Harry Kupfer, perhaps even to Patrice Chéreau. In Wagner’s drama, as in Castorf’s staging, so many of the Ring’s strands come together here – and how!

A crucial idea to the drama, to its realisation, and indeed to the epic tradition in which it so triumphantly yet challengingly stands is liminality. At a basic, or perhaps better immediate, level, the revolving stage does its work here. Forest or station? Both are quintessential liminal zones. The German Romantic forest has a long history, of course, extending back long before German Romanticism. Think of the invention of ‘Hermann’, a Teutonisation of Arminius: ‘Assuredly he was the deliverer of Germany,’ wrote the admiring Tacitus in his Annals. Arminius ‘had defied Rome, not in her early rise, as other kings and generals, but in the height of her empire’s glory.’ And for Romans, Germans such as Wagner, born in Leipzig in 1813, could substitute the French. Caspar David Friedrich contributed two paintings to an exhibition held in Dresden in March 1814 to celebrate the liberation of Germany from the French yoke, one depicting the imaginary grave of Arminius/Hermann. Wagner too rejoiced in the memory of those events in the Teutoburger Wald, even when he told Cosima in rather gloomy terms: ‘So far, we have been great in defence, dispelling alien elements which we could not assimilate; the Teutoburger Wald was a rejection of the Roman influence, the Reformation also a rejection, our great literature a rejection of the influence of the French; the only positive thing so far has been our music — Beethoven.’ The implication was, of course, that now things might change, although by then the strong, Schopenhauerian element in his world-view was already suggesting they might not. And so, enter the resigned Wanderer, more a hero than the rebel without a consciousness, Siegfried, born in that forest, and ignorant of anything beyond it, might ever prove in reality.

Castorf may be understood both to play on that characterisation and to question it. How, after all, could one not, concerned where – indeed knowing where – such Romanticism, even nationalism, might lead, or perhaps better, be understood by some to have led. And so, the fabled alternative Mount Rushmore presents a world in which socialism might appear to have won the day: Marx (great) – Lenin (good) – and then we on the Left do not quite know where to look when it comes to Stalin and Mao. Could we not have Adorno instead? The negative dialectic says no. Aleksandar Denić’s set design for the other side, Bayreuth (Al)exanderplatz station – S-Bahn, U-Bahn, post office, station restaurant, fountain, clock – is too real to be real. It is an astonishing sculpture and again an astonishingly apt liminal foil to the forest. What is more full of transience, more full of possibility, more full of the potential for foiling possibility, than a station? East Berlin seems to be going pretty well, or does it? Or is it East Berlin at all? It is what it is, just as those celebrated crocodiles are what they are. That does not stop us continually asking how, why, what, though. Like Mime, however, do we ask the questions whose answers we really need? Political leaders come and go above on the screens: is that Siegfried; is it Wotan; is it Mime? Or are they just faces of no one in particular, on to whom we (literally) project what we expect, what we want, what we have been led to believe? It is a question as much, perhaps for Honecker as for Merkel, for Lenin as for Stalin. And when actual projections of characters’ faces appear on Mount Rushmore again, what are we to make of them? Does it ‘mean’ anything that we see, or think we see, Siegfried’s face not on revolutionary Lenin or Mao but on ‘establishment’ Stalin, and Wotan (his eye damaged, yet playfully winking) on Stalin’s? Why do we insist on meaning at all? Have we not learned? Is Beckettian gloom perhaps all there is?

Maybe, yet there are other possibilities here we might grasp. Whether they are better or worse is for us to decide; perhaps Schopenhaurian renunciation would be better after all, but there is no short-circuiting of the question. Our supposed revolutionary hero, Siegfried, is a brutal figure by any standards. His Kalashnikov, heard to terrifyingly loud effect, should give us all pause for thought. Do we think of late Soviet, Brezhnev-era imperialism perhaps (Afghanistan?) or of our own, more fashionable heroes? We still all believe in Castro and Guevara, do we not? Meanwhile, oil continues to do its work; it always has, in West and in East. Patric Seibert, initially Siegfried’s chained bear, is literally covered in it. Alberich is still at large, watching and mocking – like the Wanderer and also like Mime. We draw connections between them; or perhaps we do not. It is up to us. And all the while, those awe-inspiring landscapes and cityscapes, with their wealth of associations, form our thinking, whether we like it or no.

Erda initially does not. But she must put on a show. The misogyny here of a newly revivified Wanderer – I am genuinely unsure as to whether the production participates in it, which is perhaps as it is uneasily should be – truly shocks. As soon as the tables turn – for Wagner, as soon as Wotan finally rejects Fate, but what does that mean here? – Wotan can treat the earth goddess as despicably as any other woman. There is no redemption for him here in the halting of a wheel’s turning; perhaps instead he transmutes it into post-Russian roulette. Desperate to have a piece of him, Erda debases herself in the now celebrated insistence on fellating the god. His response is to run after Siegfried and to leave her to pay the bill. She has even turned herself into one of his ‘favourite’ blondes, but to no avail. Nadine Weismann, giving a towering dramatic portrayal, quite unafraid to sound hurt, damaged, and cowed, cuts a movingly pathetic figure under the restaurant table at her last.

Will things go better for her daughter? Probably not. We fear the worst when she dons her wedding dress, sure that Siegfried will betray her. Our old friend, the Brazilian carnival Woodbird is still around, after all. But in an inversion of what we have seen in previous years, Siegfried returns to her and they embrace. Is Castorf reconciling himself somewhat with Wagner, with Romanticism? I admit that I felt a little disappointed – how much more powerful I found it for Brünnhilde to be left on her own, whilst Siegfried fucked the Woodbird. But perhaps that is the point. Perhaps we now stand at the point at which we need to deconstruct the ‘Castorf Ring’, which, like Wagner’s, we know too well. At any rate, Catherine Foster proved herself in glorious voice, movingly eloquent as events around her coincided with, commentated on her – or did not. She has unquestionably gone from strength to strength.

Stefan Vinke, in the title role, proved tireless, if not necessarily ingratiating. But then, how ingratiating should a Siegfried be? When one hears so many singers who are simply incapable of getting through the evening, one cannot but be grateful for one who can, and who continues to be heard. He was certainly unafraid to repel us dramatically; no fairy-tale Romanticism here. Andreas Conrad’s Mime was very much a plausible opponent, heightening the dramatic stakes. This was a tenor, as well as a character, who demanded to be heard – and was. Thomas Johannes Mayer was perhaps on occasion a little verbally bluff as the Wanderer, but acted the role to a tee. His callous dismissal of Erda, mentioned above, chilled more, I think, than any of his predecessors’. Other singers all impressed in their different ways, very much part of the company.

And if Marek Janowski’s conducting of the score was not so alive to its epic quality as, say, that of Daniel Barenboim, or to the great conductors of the past, there was, at its best, a quicksilver dramatic quality to be heard and, yes, to be experienced that had been lacking in swathes of Die Walküre. Was the scene between Alberich and Mime simply too fast, almost glib? Perhaps, but it is not difficult to come up with a reading, in this context, to justify such a portrayal of what Hans Mayer brilliantly dubbed an ‘evil stockjobbers’ satire’. If Karl-Heinz Lehner’s darkly dangerous, still alluring Fafner represented, to quote Mayer once again, ‘the world of shameless wealth, the concentration of capital as a sign of the rise of the middle classes … under which Wagner had to suffer so much,’ then there is again something to be said for a lack of majesty to his prowling around the station. So long, that is, as it retained musico-dramatic coherence, which it did; Janowski certainly knew where the score was going, even when he seemed a little impatient with it. Perhaps, then, that will prove the most intriguing dialectical legacy of all from Castorf’s Siegfried: seemingly having held the work to sometimes extreme account, it vouchsafed the possibility, even the plausibility, of new musical readings too.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Bayreuth Festival (3) - Parsifal, 25 August 2017


Amfortas – Ryan McKinny
Titurel – Karl-Heinz Lehner
Gurnemanz – Georg Zeppenfeld
Parsifal – Andreas Schager
Klingsor – Derek Welton
Kundry – Elena Pankratova
First Knight of the Grail – Tansel Akzeybek
Second Knight of the Grail – Timo Riihonen
Squires – Alexandra Steiner, Mareike Morr, Paul Kaufmann Stefan Heibach
Flowermaidens – Netta Or, Katharina Persicke, Mareike Morr, Alexandra Steiner, Bele Kumberger, Sophie Rennert
Contralto solo – Wiebke Lehmkuhl

Uwe Eric Laufenberg (director)
Gisbert Jäkel (set designs)
Jessica Karge (costumes)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Gérard Naziri (video)
Richard Lorber (dramaturgy)

Bayreuth Festival Chorus (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Hartmut Haenchen (conductor)


One of the great advantages of the Bayreuth Festival is its Werkstatt principle. Not only do production planning and rehearsal take place in something at least approaching what a festival should be; there is also, crucially, opportunity to revisit, to rethink a staging the following year. Alas, I could see no sign whatsoever of Uwe Eric Laufenberg having done so. That his production of Parsifal is here at all is in itself rather contrary to the principles of the festival. It was brought in, almost off the peg, a production originally intended for Cologne yet never staged there (lucky Cologne!), following the summary dismissal of Jonathan Meese, supposedly over budgetary issues. Who knows what Meese might have come up with? I find it difficult to imagine that it would have been boring, at least, certainly not when compared with this.


For if the shock value of Laufenberg’s Islamophobia has somewhat dissipated, it has left in its wake still more grinding tedium and banality. The production, should one stay awake, remains offensive, but it is so ill thought through – what on earth was Laufenberg’s dramaturge doing, or why on earth was he not listened to? – that it is difficult to imagine anyone offering more of a gesture to jihad than a shrug of the shoulders and a series of mighty yawns. Were it not a dereliction of duty that might, at a pinch, court comparison with the production itself, I should be tempted merely to cut and paste what I said last year and then add something about the performances. As it is, I hope I shall be forgiving by quoting myself here, before moving on to attempt to say something slightly different: ‘Indeed, this may well be the most boring staging of the work I have seen in the theatre; take away its attempt at contemporary “relevance”, it might as well have been by Wolfgang Wagner or Otto Schenk. Its premise – seemingly contrived by a nightmare team of Richard Dawkins and Stephen Fry, “introducing” George W. Bush as dramaturge – would have been more offensive still, had it been presented with some degree of coherence; one should, I suppose, be grateful for small mercies.’


Monsalvat seems to be some sort of Christian community in Iraq, in which some refugees – patronisingly presented as quite without agency themselves – have taken refuge, pursued, or worse, ‘protected’ by Western soldiers. Good for the community, one might say, even if one did not hold with its beliefs. Indeed one might, but Laufenberg is made of sterner stuff. These people are cretins, who deserve only to be mocked, even pilloried. (Perhaps they like Wagner too, or would, given half a chance! Who knows? They might even have taken the trouble to read his writings on religion. Losers!) Why? Because – drum roll – they are ‘religious’. I use the word deliberately, since it is not a word anyone with any real interest in religion, let alone theology, would be likely to use in such a context. It is the bastard offspring of ‘superstitious’ to a third-rate philosophe. And so, in a reframing of the ritual at the end of the act, which might be interesting if it laid claim to anything other than the merely arbitrary, Amfortas is himself crucified and these ghastly, non-liberal people drink his blood. Christians, eh? Presumably Amfortas’s weird nappy is intended to convey quite how infantile this savagery is. Not the sort of thing our dinner-party crowd would do. You mean these people are not centrists? Golly: how outré! Well, we were quite right to invade, then, as Tony said… As for the misunderstanding – a schoolboy would have made a far better stab at it – of Kant and Schopenhauer, as in ‘Zum Raum wird hier die Zeit’: the first Transformation Music glories in a filmic zooming out from Mesopotamia to outer space. It would almost be funny, except again, it is merely tedious – and mind-numbingly stupid.


We then shift to the real enemy in the second act. Let us follow in the footsteps of Danish cartoonists and rail at a ridiculous caricature of Islam. It is a ‘religion’, after all, and probably even worse than Christianity. Indeed, definitely worse: there may be no women at Monsalvat, save, perhaps, for the odd refugee, but have you seen these poor Muslim women? Burkini types, no doubt. And indeed, the Flowermaidens, initially dressed ‘modestly’, can reveal their true selves, when, liberated by Parsifal as Western soldier, they reinvent themselves as ‘exotic’ belly dancers. Now our Western hero is interested: what sort of self-respecting woman would not want to display herself to the first passing colonial soldier? Strange, but at least those silly souls – oops: forgive the quaint theology! – have learned their lesson. When things get a little more heated with Kundry, Klingsor the ‘religious’ hypocrite self-flagellates in front of his collection of crucifixes. Amfortas has joined proceedings to give Kundry what she needs – very briefly: very, very briefly. (Or is it just a crass – sorry: ‘provocative’ – visualisation of her recollections? Who cares?) I had almost forgotten: above Klingsor, above the rest of the ‘action’ for both of the first two acts, sits a weird blue mannequin in blue PVC. He does nothing; maybe he cannot. No explanation is given as to who he is, or why he is there. I fear he might be God, or rather those whom the credulous worship as such. Have they not heard? He is dead! Christopher Hitchens told us so. He wanted to invade Iraq too.


The mannequin disappears at the beginning of the third act. Has something changed? Yes, the West has won. Parsifal returns to Gurnemanz and Kundry, who share a wheelchair, yet seem perfectly capable of walking when it is the other one’s turn. (What, after all, is an opera production without a wheelchair? No suitcase? Now that is brave!) The Flowermaidens can now do what they were itching to do all along: take all their clothes off and take a soft-porn ‘lesbian for straight men’ shower together. Islam is over, thank God (if you will pardon the expression!) So is Christianity – Judaism too. The final scene – the mannequin ‘mysteriously’ returns: perhaps there is a remnant now of ‘belief’ still to be eradicated – shows members of the three ‘faiths’ shed their differences, eradicate the barbaric ritual, and just get on together after all. Imagine: there are still some diehards who think the invasion of Iraq was not a good thing. There are some, even, who still read Aquinas…! And yet, I fear I have made all of that sound far too interesting. In between, for most of the time, are long stretches of nothingness, designs shamelessly ripped off from other stagings, other images. If only I could believe that were a knowing commentary on nihilism. Confronted with a choice between Laufenberg and Parsifal, Nietzsche, I am confident, would have had no hesitation whatsoever in choosing the work he so despised.


What a waste, then, of such excellent singers. Andreas Schager’s Parsifal is by now, for many of us, a known quantity, but that does not make his true, thoughtful Heldentenor any the less worthy of praise. He did what he could dramatically, but it was impossible not to wish one were seeing him again in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s brilliant Berlin staging. Tirelessly committed, ‘what he could’ remained impressive indeed: in a different league from last year’s Klaus Florian Vogt. ‘What Elena Pankratova could’ was likewise deeply impressive, as alert as she could be to the changing requirements and possibilities of her role. It would be a wonderful thing to hear her Kundry elsewhere, I am sure. Georg Zeppenfeld’s Gurnemanz is deeply considered in its blend of words and music; if only Gurnemanz could have offered some words of wisdom on an anti-theology so out of its depth that it could not even reach Wagner’s shallows. That Zeppenfeld continued to command attention tells us much of what we need to know concerning the quality of his performance. Ryan McKinny gave another fine performance as Amfortas, keenly aware of the transformation of the character – staging aside – between first and third acts. Derek Welton’s Klingsor was one of the best sung I have heard: no mere caricature, deeply musical in its malevolence. The smaller roles were all very well taken, knights and squires in particular far more than near-anonymous ‘extras’. And the choral contribution was truly outstanding. Every word could be heard – an achievement in itself – yet never at the expense of musical values. Translucent and weighty as required, even simultaneously, the Bayreuth Festival Chorus, clearly well prepared by Eberhard Friedrich, did everything that could have been expected of it – indeed more.

Hartmut Haenchen kept the score going, but had little insight to offer. He prides himself, apparently, on being fast, indeed as fast as possible. He probably achieved that, although a quick featureless performance will seem to last far longer than a considered, dramatically fruitful reading. There were times when his speeds reached levels of absurdity, not least since they were not in proportion to other sections. (That is a good part of the secret to good, let alone Wagner, conducting, as the Master’s essay, Über das Dirigieren, ‘On Conducting’, would have made clear. Boulez often lauded it, rightly so.) The orchestra ‘itself’ sounded wonderful; this is, after all, its acoustic par excellence. One could even imagine it, in Debussy’s celebrated phrase, ‘lit from behind’, even if Haenchen seemed more concerned to switch the lights off as quickly as possible, and rarely, if ever, to let the orchestra have its luminous head. To think, such a Kapellmeister-ish despatch stands as an heir (if not quite the immediate successor) to the revelatory performances of Daniele Gatti – or indeed, in a very different mould, to Boulez. And alas, to think: Laufenberg is likewise Bayreuth’s ‘successor’ to Stefan Herheim.


Friday, 25 August 2017

Bayreuth Festival (2) - Die Walküre, 24 August 2017


Siegmund – Christopher Ventris
Hunding – Georg Zeppenfeld
Wotan – John Lundgren
Sieglinde – Camilla Nylund
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster
Fricka – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Gerhilde – Caroline Wenborne
Ortlinde – Dara Hobbs
Waltraute – Stephanie Houtzeel
Schwetleite – Nadine Weissmann
Helmwige – Christiane Kohl
Siegrune – Mareike Morr
Grimgerde – Weibe Lehmkuhl
Rossweiße – Alexandra Petersamer
Frank Castorf (director)
Patric Seibert (assistant director and dramaturgical collaboration)
Aleksandar Denić (set designs)
Adriana Braga Peretski (costumes)
Rainer Kasper (lighting)
Andreas Deinert, Jens Crull (video)
Bayreuth Festival Orchestra
Marek Janowski (conductor)

Opera is such a difficult thing to get right: so many variables, so many contradictions. They are, however, part of its attraction and, when everything or most things in some sense come together, its greatness too. Not for nothing did Wagner designate the orchestra as his Greek Chorus: framer of, participant in, commentator and critic on the drama. During the first two acts of this Walküre, I found myself wishing that someone had told Marek Janowski. His reputation – largely amongst those who disapprove of treating Wagner as drama, with a fair sprinkling of pseudo-‘authenticists’ – is a mystery to those who know great Wagner conducting either of the present or the past. The best that could be said of the way he led these two acts – splendidly played, it must be said, by the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra – was that it was efficient. There were no catastrophes; we were not, thank God, on London’s Planet Pappano. But nor was there any great insight. What had come across as possible, even plausible objectivity in Das Rheingold, a very different drama, here merely sounded non-committal: a bit like those churned out Beethoven cycles certain fashion-victims excite themselves about. ‘Modern instruments and period style’ or some such nonsense: anything to avoid commitment, let alone a critical standpoint. Perhaps we should call it ‘Macron-meets-Vänskä’, or ‘music for the high street’; a few years hence no one will have heard of it, let alone listen to it.

I have never heard a less storm-like prelude to the first act; it proceeded smoothly, as if mowing a sufficiently, yet not excessively, watered lawn. As for the inconsequentiality of the orchestra during Wotan’s second act monologue, it sounded like recitative as understood by people who do not understand recitative. There is so much going on there: past, present, and future. It is one of the great turning-points of the entire Ring.  John Lundgren’s estimable efforts as Wotan notwithstanding, the tendency was more towards preparing a list for the weekly shopping. There is domesticating Wagner and there is that. Even the great climaxes were undersold – on the terms of the performance, let alone on other terms. I do not know what had been secreted in Janowski’s second-interval oranges, but it proved most welcome. If hardly Wagner on the level of a Barenboim, a Haitink, a Karajan, or a Furtwängler, we heard a much stronger sense of generative drama in the orchestra, more – if still not enough – of a dynamic range, and a greater willingness, occasionally at least, to let the Bayreuth strings have their head at climaxes. Woodwind solos also proved beguiling and, in a few cases, intriguingly curdling, Tristan not so very far away – as indeed the harmony tells us anyway.

I am not sure Frank Castorf’s production helped in that respect either. Although I found more to admire in it last year than I had in 2014 – I think! Again I shall re-read later – there was, at least in actual performance, a little too much generalised standing around and singing. I think I understand the reasoning behind it, or at least a possible reasoning behind it, and shall attempt to explain, but it seemed to me to need to be more forcefully projected. A post-Brechtian critique of Wagner’s (post-)Romanticism is apparent, but might have been much more so. And if we are going to deconstruct, even mock, ‘Du bist der Lenz’ and so on, we really need the orchestra – as well as the splendid singers – to be offering the case for the defence, or at least the material to be deconstructed. Alone, there is only so much even singers such as Christopher Ventris and Camilla Nylund can offer – although I loved the camera close-ups on Sieglinde’s knowingly exaggerated expressions as she prepares Hunding’s potions. (One need not agree that such plot devices are hokum to appreciate the accomplishment of both direction and interpretation – especially when allied to such singing.)

The scene-setting is good, indeed thought-provoking: both at the time and afterwards. An agrarian yet industrialising society is in many ways ideal, not least on account of little – or not so little – scenic complexities, contradictions, provocations. Hunding makes excellent sense: a barbarous killer in Victorian clothing, ultimately very much Wagner’s vision too. Sieglinde is his chattel; he plays with her, wishes to destroy her (refusing her initial greeting), and then forces himself upon her. Such is marriage. When a bookish Patric Seibert seemingly willingly – yet driven by what compulsion? – takes the caged place of farmyard fowl, becomes animalised, is rescued, and takes his place again as Azerbaijani oil is hit, all manner of possibilities present themselves. Life – and the mind – is never dull when he is on stage; perhaps it is no coincidence that we must wait until the third act for that. For Castorf’s intelligent, illuminating contradictions come into far greater relief then too – doubtless assisted by the greater orchestral canvas. The gods having adopted traditional, patriarchal guise and customs – Fricka with conjugally enforcing whip as much as Wotan, the lazy patriarch drinking shots and reading Pravda – inflict themselves and their continued oil project upon the world, but they might have done more strongly, more clearly. The lack of clarity in who Wotan here is to begin with does not seem to me an especially fruitful ambiguity, at least on this occasion. But perhaps the fault lies with me. At any rate, the shift to alternative historical and geographical paths – Baku, 1942, Hitler in pursuit of oil, such pursuit to be denied, thereby enabling the world of Siegfried... – retains its force, if more in retrospect than in the white heat, and/or Brechtian alienation, of the theatre.

It speaks extraordinary well, then, of Ventris and Nylund that they made such an impression – in almost ‘traditional’ terms – as they did. The Volsungs’ musical achievement was unquestionably theirs, not Janowski’s. Ventris’s ardent singing, verbal clarity, and verbal meaning were quite exceptional. I am not sure I have heard a better Siegmund.  Nylund’s Sieglinde, if lacking the final ounce or two of ecstasy in that third act solo, was nevertheless beautifully, thrillingly sung – and, insofar as permitted, acted. Following a surprisingly uncertain entrance – anyone can make a slip – Georg Zeppenfeld’s Hunding proved very much the dark, heartless foil. Again, he never forgets the importance of the words; nor will he let us do. Lundgren’s stage presence, again insofar as permitted, was godlike, the anger of his delivery palpable, indeed terrifying, especially during the third act; Castorf’s touch of undermining, childish petulance – a silly act with a bearskin, whilst Brünnhilde sings – proved a truer instance of what we surely should have seen more of earlier on. This was, by any standards, a commanding performance, sadly let down by Janowski during that crucial monologue. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s Fricka was probably the most chilling of the three assumptions I have seen and heard, as merciless in her instrumental reason as with her whip. And Catherine Foster’s enthusiastic, even lovable Brünnhilde was just the ticket for the character at this stage in her development. One felt with her as well as for her; we wish her well in her transition to humanity, such as it might be. The Valkyries were truly outstanding; one might have taken dictation, such were the individuality and clarity, within bounds, of their contribution. Almost all of them, I felt, might readily have been singing ‘larger’ roles; of course, Nadine Weissman is.

Perhaps, then, my expectations were unfeasibly high after the previous night’s Vorabend. And in a way, necessary contrast was provided here, at least on stage. Was it always quite the right sort of contrast, though? It may yet be that, reading back Siegfried and even Götterdämmerung into the staging here, more will emerge. Let us hope, though, that Janowski will be on final act form.