Saturday, 21 April 2018

LSO/Rattle - Grime and Mahler, 19 April 2018

Barbican Hall

Helen Grime: Woven Space (world premiere)
Mahler: Symphony no.9

London Symphony Orchestra
Simon Rattle (conductor)

No doubting the important performance here: the world premiere of Helen Grime’s Woven Space, commissioned by the Barbican for the LSO and Simon Rattle. Alas, Rattle’s recent way with Mahler and indeed with much central repertoire prior to Schoenberg continued: not so extreme as some performances, yet still highly mannered, and for the most part lacking in direction. The Barbican Hall does not help, of course: too small, the sound constricted, yet another indication of why London so desperately needs a decent large concert hall. Yet that would not, could not have changed the fundamental problems with the performance, lapped up, needless to say, by the audience. I was left longing for something along the lines of Bernard Haitink with the same orchestra.

The good news, however, was very good. Grime’s piece, in three movements, had apparently been offered in a sneak aural glimpse last autumn, the first movement, ‘Fanfares’ heard at the opening of the LSO’ season. Its opening éclat, hard-edged (tuned percussion and strings in particular), even icy, yet inviting, proved not only to be éclat, soon developing, perhaps not entirely unlike later Boulez. At the same time, there is something fantastical to it too, almost akin to a tone poem in the Dukas line; her Virga, written for the same orchestra in 2007, performed again by them in February, did not seem so entirely distant in that sense at least. Tautness of rhythm, unity of purpose from Rattle and the LSO could hardly be faulted. Bells and solo cor anglais – I could not help but think of Berlioz – may not have been reducible to a narrative; nor, however, did they rule it out. For there are fanfares, certainly, but as part of something more, be it a narrative as such or something which, in performance, fulfils a similar function: perhaps the structure by Laura Ellen Bacon, a 2009 Chatsworth Park aenclosure within an enclosure, after which Woven Space is named. There is stillness too, unease, I think, and consequently something darker. Fascinating in its multivalence – again, perhaps not entirely unlike Boulez’s Notations, albeit with a smaller orchestra – it must have whetted the appetite for more in September.

More we now heard. ‘Woven Space’ is also the name given to the second of the three movements. It seems to pick up, loosely – not, I think, necessarily in terms of material as such – from the ‘uneasy’ section of the first movement. There are similar sonorities, ‘hard’ and ‘softer’, yet this is no mere repetition. I fancied, looking ahead aurally, that some of the string lines, whilst more tangled, might be hinting at late Mahler, but perhaps that was nothing more than my own personal fancy. At any rate, the harmonies have little in common. There is a strong sense of descent, in the sense of downward motion, played out amongst three competing choirs, distinct yet not unvarying: roughly, strings, woodwind and percussion, and brass. What initially seems to be the still heart of the work reveals itself to be at least as much its dramatic cauldron. I liked the way it simply stopped once it had no more to say: less shattering than Wozzeck – what is not?! – yet perhaps in its line. ‘Course’, the third movement, presents different motion and different forms of motion: upwards, this time, swirling and perhaps even swarming, yet with other forces competing against that primary tendency. At a certain point, the tension built up starts to dissipate, preparing the way for a telescoped, binding (that woven structure again?) conclusion that is no mere return. New lines, new developments open up, or seem to: the uncertainty is part, I suspect, of the fascination. Again, the music stops; again, we are left wanting more.

I feared the worst at the very opening of the first movement of the Mahler, yet once the second violins entered, Rattle engendered a far greater sense of momentum. Indeed, the unease that pervaded roughly the first half of the movement, pervading in particular its progress, was enlightening in its suggestion of the implacable. Mahler’s music was made stranger without merely sounding perverse. We were made to listen, especially in its hushed, liminal passages, their exaggerations notwithstanding. Ultimately, though, it became clear that these were more passages, even sections, of interest than building blocks within a structure, let alone dialectics within its formal elucidation. The sense of connection, however complex, Rattle had brought to the first half generally eluded him here. The dawn of the recapitulation sounded duly monstrous in its combination of beauty and ugliness; alas, its disintegration proved all too distended.

The second movement proved strong of heft, yet heavy, in more than one sense, in stylisation. Fair enough, one might say, and initially I did. But do we not need something behind the parody of a parody, perhaps of a parody? At best, some of the Schoenbergian transformation of rhythms – seemingly, intriguingly, founded in rhythm and then extending itself to melody – had one listen anew. In the absence of Schoenbergian, or indeed other discernible method, though, the performance began to sound merely bloated. There is much to be said for problematizing repertoire in performance; Boulez, for instance, often did just that. Yet Boulez’s clarity of purpose, whatever one might have thought of it and its underlying ideology, proved once again elusive here. Structure and form less dissolved – an enticing, almost Debussyan prospect – than lost their way. It was above all the loss of impetus that concerned most, far more than slowness of tempo as such. Alas, I remained resolutely unmoved.

The ‘Rondo-Burleske’ fared better, especially to start with, as if the music had come back into focus: not tamed, thank goodness, yet with a guiding thread to help us through the labyrinth. The LSO responded, so it seemed, in kind. Again, later on, there seemed to be some loss of way, yet to a lesser extent. And so, when the violins dug into the opening phrase of the final ‘Adagio’, it seemed to mean something. Rattle could not resist moulding the theme that emerged, yet not unreasonably so. He certainly did not take the easy way through this movement, which is to be applauded; its extremities were acknowledged, without abandonment of a sense of harmonic motion. A passage in which string vibrato was withdrawn made its chaste point; so too did the relative rarity of giving the strings their heard. If the final goodbye were perhaps unduly prolonged – it takes a Boulez not to succumb – then such a reluctance is eminently comprehensible. Even here, though, I longed for the relative straightforwardness of a performance Rattle gave with the same orchestra round about 2000. There is much to be said for letting musical contradictions overflow into performance; Mahler should never sound too easy, let alone bureaucratic. At the same time, however, his music too needs its ‘woven space’.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Philharmonia/Salonen - Biber, Beethoven, and Chin, 15 April 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Biber: Battalia à 10 in D major
Beethoven: Symphony no.2 in D major, op.36
Unsuk Chin: Le Chant des enfants des étoiles (European premiere)

Trinity Boys Choir (director: David Swinson)
Philharmonia Voices (director: Aidan Oliver)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)


Excellent programming: worthy of Boulez, if hardly for the literal minded. (‘I think you’ll find [stroking chin] Beethoven didn’t know Unsuk Chin’s music, or Heinrich Biber’s. So … what are they doing together then? And … AND … why don’t you use period instruments? I rest my case!’) Any connections between the first and second halves were not necessarily explicit; this was not an overtly didactic programme (nothing wrong with that, of course). Nevertheless, I fancied I could hear certain pitches, certain turns of phrases, perhaps even certain rhythms, in both; and even if I could not, contrasts fascinated enough.

There was no doubting the avant-gardism of either of the first two composers. Biber’s Battalia opened in lively fashion, soon displaying the composer’s seventeenth-century extended techniques – ‘extended’, by the standards of many a twentieth-century composer too – with col legno playing and foot stamping in its opening ‘Sonata’. Members of the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen offered a splendidly cultivated, non-puritanical sound. (Certain journalists, having learned of a thing called ‘performance practice’ do not like that. They need rules to help them deliver a ‘verdict’.) Then, to take us all by surprise, lest we latter-day Friends of Karajan were becoming too pleased with ourselves, an ‘older, more ‘fiddling’ sound catapulted us back through time to the bizarre, Ivesian quodlibet of ‘Die leideriche Gesellschaft von allerley Humor’, horribly hilarious in its ‘wrongness’. (Would we think so, though, if we had been told it were twenty-first-century music?) Virtuosic solo passages for Mars – Martian?! – a slow aria whose twists surprised as if they were Purcell’s, a battle in which the post-Montverdian stile concitato (and again Purcell) came to mind, and a touching final lament for ‘Verwundten Musquetirer’: these and much more were presented with a relished concision suggesting that Webern had better look to his laurels – that is, had the concert-going public ever permitted him to collect them in the first place.

I freely admit that I had not previously found Salonen’s Beethoven very much to my taste, nor, perhaps more to the point, to my understanding. This performance of the Second Symphony, also of course in D major, proved very different, making me keen to hear more. Where previously I had longed for a more modernistic approach such as I suspected might have been his, here it was: not for its own sake, but emerging from score and programming alike, almost as if a Michael Gielen for our times. The opening chord struck me with its rasping natural trumpets; otherwise, there was nothing – thank goodness – especially ‘period’ about this. Salonen even showed that it is perfectly possible to hear dialogue between first and second violins without placing them on opposite sides of each other. The first movement was lively in a different way from Biber, yet suggestive nevertheless of some sort of kinship. Most notable of all was the real sense of return at the onset of the recapitulation, of joy in a Haydnesque, even Handelian manner. The sheer character of the coda made me smile, as it stormed the heavens in a twenty-first century remodelling of ‘tradition’.

The second movement struck an excellent balance between neo-Mozartian flow and the ‘late’ Brahmsian future. Gorgeous, never narcissistic, richness to the inner parts proved an especial joys; as often with the Philharmonia, I could not help but notice the playing of the viola section in particular. Mystery and tension in the minor mode were palpable. This seemed very much a precursor to the ‘slow’ movement of the Eighth, even though I am not sure that it actually ‘is’. The scherzo was sprightly without tending towards brutality, as too often it can (say, in the worst of Karajan). Its musical roots were in Haydn, whilst the Trio peered forward, more ‘modern’ in material and formal instantiation. The finale proved more brazen even than in Gielen’s hands. Yet it still had plenty of time to display woodwind charm and colour. It had space and impetus – which brings us to the second half.

Chin’s Le Chant des Enfants des Etoiles, jointly commissioned by the LOTTE Group and the Philharmonia, had received its world premiere in 2016 from the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra and Myun-Whung Chung, to whom it is dedicated. Written for children’s choir (here the outstanding Trinity Boys Choir), mixed choir (Philharmonia Voices, also on excellent form) and large orchestra, it reflects and even perhaps, whatever her intention or not, ‘expresses’ the composer’s longstanding interest in physical cosmology, setting related poems from writers ranging from Henry Vaughan (roughly contemporary with Biber, be it noted), through Blake, Octavio Paz, Shelley, to Edith Södergran, Fernando Pessoa, Juan Ramón Rimenez, Eeva-Liisa Manner, and others. The approach is not so literal-minded as to set them chronologically, but the work itself seemed both to reprise the exploratory historical path announced in the first half and to take it further, in dialogue with and yet not bound by those poems. Tension builds and eventually subsides, perhaps not unlike the life in each of us, every one a piece of stardust – or even of a star itself.

There was no doubting Chin’s grateful writing for voices, nor the intelligibility of most of the words. When one could not immediately discern them, it seemed that that was the point – or at least that intelligibility was not the priority. I was put in mind from time to time of Britten’s ability to write for a range of performers, not all of them professionals, not that, a prominent harp solo notwithstanding, the music sounded like his. Insofar as I could tell, the singers relished their task; such, at any rate, was the performative impression. I wondered whether the earliest sections trod water a little, but perhaps that was more a matter of my ears and mind taking time to adjust; having looked at the score since, I could not tell you why. At any rate, once the shimmering stardust really took flight – at least in my ears – it never looked back. An almost Messiaenesque ecstasy – not as pastiche, yet in spirit – was to be felt as well as heard. An organ cadenza seemed to usher in a world of experimental Gothic Romanticism: Prometheus unbound, or Unbound? Bells, a battery (Biber?) of percussion, gorgeous harmonies took us to climax, prior to a retreat, or perhaps better a twilight, the trebles intoning ‘M’illumino d’immenso’ in the final ‘Matin’. Was this work, was the programme as a whole, more than the sum of its parts? I am not entirely sure, and why should I be, after a single hearing? I tend, however, to think so. I should love to hear both again, if not to find out, then to further my thoughts on the subject. For art, like cosmology, is surely there to broaden our horizons, to stimulate us, not to provide an answer, nor to be ‘correct’.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Frederic Rzewski’s 80th Birthday Concert – Levit: Rzewski, Mendelssohn, and Mahler, 13 April 2018

Wigmore Hall
Rzewski: Ages (2017, world premiere)
Mendelssohn: Songs without words: op.19b/1, 4; op.38/6
Mahler (arr. Ronald Stevenson): Symphony no.10, ‘Adagio’

Igor Levit (piano)
With Dallapiccola I made a serious mistake. ... I missed a lesson because I had gone to visit some friends in London, and when I came back from London I found a letter saying that Maestro Dallapiccola felt that I was not the kind of student that he wanted, needed to work with, and would I please go somewhere else. And I realised that I had made a serious mistake ... I must have given the impression of arrogance ... And now, it’s one thing I’ve always regretted, because I certainly could have gotten a lot from that man if I had approached him correctly.
With those rueful, rather moving words, spoken in a 1984 interview, Frederic Rzewski described the foreshortening of his lessons from Luigi Dallapiccola. Reading them when writing a chapter on the latter composer’s Il prigioniero for my book, After Wagner, sparked my interest. The other principal spark, slightly later, came from the now celebrated recording and performances (such as this) of Rzewski’s The People United will Never Be Defeated by Igor Levit. Now, a little under three years later, Levit gave the first performance, on Rzewski’s eightieth birthday, of a similarly lengthy new piano work by the composer: Ages, commissioned by the Wigmore Hall with the support of Annette Scawen Morreau.
Size is not everything; in many ways, it is nothing. (Ask Webern – although concision there is, of course something.) It would nevertheless be vain to insist – and I shall not try – that the scale of canvas, the generosity and ambition of work and performance were irrelevant, for they were not. Ages seems in some sense to play – although the composer insists that ‘the music does not “mean” anything – with ideas both of the ages of man and ‘“ages” in the sense of epochs, or periods, of history: stone, ice, digital and so on’. In five movements, it would almost have made a concert in itself – although I am very glad that it did not, given the equally outstanding performances of Mendelssohn and Mahler following the interval.
The first movement, marked ‘Solenne, maestoso’ (according to the programme, that is: I have not seen a score), opened, both as work and commanding performance, with an opening blow, on the case and keys of the piano. Then came silence, followed by slow, diatonic chords in sequence (if I remember correctly!) Not for the first time late Liszt, in spirit although hardly straightforwardly in language or other musical writing, came to mind. A long diminuendo and responding crescendo led into a typically gestural, post-Webern splash, responded to in what sounded almost akin to Shostakovich-style humour. (Not for nothing, perhaps, has the pianist recently been devoting himself to Shostakovich’s Preludes and Fugues.) An aspirant tango came into aural view. And so on. I thought, here and throughout the work, of  a vast wall frieze – except that it passed us by, rather than vice versa. Maximalism of a kind and something more minimal, if not quite the latter’s –ism, played with each other, with us. Such, I think, was familiar from The People United; yet it was never quite the same, never retreading old ground. Moreover, Levit’s fullness of tone, whether in Rzewski’s furious outbursts or ‘maestoso’ progress, had to be heard to be believed. At one point, a slow, quiet phrase – perhaps foretelling the monodic lines of the Mahler Adagio in the second half – threatened to morph into the subject of the Art of Fugue. It did not; indeed, nothing one predicted ever quite happened. BACH? I think so, as indeed I would continue to think so throughout; but again, who is to say that certain intervals must refer to what we think they do? In some pieces, it is clear: here rather less so. Toys and whistles came and went, even old-fashioned video game (I think) cries and boings. I could not help but recall a notorious caricature of Mahler.
‘Free; slow, espressivo’ is the marking for the second movement. It seemed at times, especially to begin with, almost to be in the mould of a Russian mesto movement. Textures were very different, slowly transforming. Liszt, even Mussorgsky (‘Bydlo’) came to my mind briefly in the bass, the figure, whatever it ‘was’, swiftly transforming itself into a melodic (near-)sequence. Many such ‘Romantic’ gestures were to be heard, without suspicion of mere pastiche. Levit proved himself a handy percussionist, knocking on the piano’s case, in the third movement, marked ‘Robotic’. Such knocks eventually provoked, from underneath the keyboard, pitch resonances, returning him and us to the keyboard proper. There was something menacing, even dead, here to the knowing clichés: robotic, one might say. A cyber clockwork orange, perhaps? Moaning cries from the pianists, one suggestive perhaps of an air-raid signal, had one audience member seek refuge outside the hall. Our passions, of whatever sense, seemed momentarily united in the chorale, ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’. Was that Shostakovich again, not cited but suggested? Allusion or not? Figures we might have heard previously – the lack of certainty perhaps part of the point – led us into a lazy jazz ornamentation of Purcell’s Music for a While, which had, perhaps, been hinted at earlier. Coaxing that wonderful melody into a later, more chromatic pianistic world, Rzewski and Levit developed it in various ways, always at least a little surprising, whistled fragmentation included. There was even an organ-style ‘prelude’ to be heard. (Yes, I know that pianists used to ‘prelude’ too, but here the inner parts suggested a particular organist brand of legato, at least to this renegade organist.) A reckless cry of ‘Yee-ha!’ could not help but have political resonances as our ‘leaders’ prepared to bomb Syria.
The fourth movement, ‘Each note an age; glacial’, seemed aptly to have been around for a while (music for a while…) before it fully dawned upon us. At a (relatively) glacial pace, the music had me think once again about the question of certain intervals, their potential references, and how they might or might not fit together: Purcell and Bach in particular. Is an interval sometimes just an interval? Almost certainly. Quirky figures, perhaps self-consciously so, announced the final movement, ‘Too fast to last’, presumably in some sense the ‘digital age’. Levit’s digits certainly had a good deal of work to do here. I thought of Mussorgsky’s ‘Baba Yaga’, again from his Pictures. The wild woman eemed eventually to speak freely, but was that my fancy, my illusion? If this were a broken toccata, as I thought of it, by whom it had been broken? Ages were telescoping, perhaps telescoped. Repeated notes, fast, decreasing in volume, took us – or did they? – to a disembodied, again somehow Lisztian final chord.
The second part of the concert opened with three Mendelssohn Songs without words, heard in performances more delectable than I could ever have imagined. The E major piece, op.19b no.1, showed Mendelssohn to be every inch, every note the equal of Schumann. Likewise its successor, the fourth from the same book, revelling in the dignity of its harmonic progressions. A feather-light final phrase was simply to die for. It was again Schumann, if not quite, that I thought of in the ‘Duetto’, op.38 no.6. A good-natured contest between the world of the former’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien and a Lutheran, devotional character ensued.
Ronald Stevenson’s transcription of the first movement from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony fascinated; in Levit’s performance, it both thrilled and satisfied too. The opening, Parsifalian monody sounded almost as if in search of another Song without words, although it was soon clear that we were almost, yet never quite, in the world of Schoenberg. Without strings, Mahler’s harmonies perhaps sounded all the more radical, all the more of our time rather than his. (There need not be any such opposition; that, perhaps, is the more important point.) It was, at any rate, interesting to consider how much of a difference equal temperament made, or did not. Marionettes from the ‘Rückert’ symphonies and the Ninth’s ‘Rondo-Burleske’ did their thing as enigmatically as ever. When the monody returned, it was perhaps more suggestive now of Tristan; was that Mahler’s doing, his transcriber’s, his pianist’s, or the listener’s? Who knows? Such, in a sense, is the magic of music. I relished the way dances of death turned from Mendelssohn to Rzewski and back. Or did they? Were they deathly at all? A grand tremolo, perhaps inevitably, was employed for that horrendous chord. What else, however, could Stevenson have done? And again, there was something almost Lisztian to the serenity experienced in the shadow of that trauma. As ever, Mahler’s Adagio proved both complete, especially in so well-shaped a performance, and not. The next century of musical history was both immanent – and not. Mahler remains.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Hardenberger/ORF SO/Storgårds: Schuller, Zimmermann, and Dvořák, 6 April 2018


Gunther Schuller: Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee
Bernd Alois Zimmermann: Trumpet Concerto, ‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’
Dvořák: Symphony no.9 in E minor, op.95, ‘From the New World’

Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
John Storgårds (conductor)

Much – not all, but much – of the United States’s Western art music tradition is (Austro-)German in origin. ‘You would say that, wouldn’t you?’ might come the reply to someone awaiting publication of his Schoenberg biography. And yes, I suppose I should – yet not only on that count. Consider the (new) worlds of performance, composition, musicology, musical institutions: less so, now, of course, and rightly so; their roots, however, will often be found embedded in Teutonic soil. To appreciate that, one only need consider the childish, often downright bizarre anti-German sentiment encountered today amongst certain anti-modernist composers and musicologists alike. ‘I’m so daring to write/analyse a tune; Wagner/Schoenberg/Adorno/Stockhausen would never have let me do that.’ ‘Yes, neoliberalism has no tunes; you truly cannot move for total serialism in the world of the Culture Industry…’

Not that the traffic has ever been one-way, of course; more complex interchanges have deep roots too. George Whitefield Chadwick, trained in Leipzig and subsequently director of the New England Conservatory, which he re-organised on European lines, for instance instituting an opera workshop, pre-empted Dvořák’s use in his ‘New World’ Symphony of ‘negro’ pentatonic melodies in the Scherzo to his Second (1883-5) Symphony. Interestingly, however, Boston audiences reacted far less favourably than New York to Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony, the critic William Apthorp notoriously decrying its use of ‘barbaric’ plantation songs and native American melodies, resulting in a ‘mere apotheosis of ugliness, distorted forms, and barbarous expressions’, He might have been a typical Viennese critic ten years later, fulminating against Schoenberg; racism, after all, is common to both attacks.

Here in Vienna’s hallowed Musikverein, home to more than one such attack in the past, we had a splendid opportunity to hear some of that more complex interchange. Gunther Schuller, born in Queens, to German parents, has always struck me, albeit from a position of relative ignorance, as an especially interesting example of a musician, both performing and compositional, able to straddle ‘jazz’ and ‘classical’ divides; not, of course, that such a ‘divide’ has ever been so clear as many, for varying, even opposed, ideological reasons, might have claimed. In the work heard here, moreover, he turned to Paul Klee (a Swiss painter, of course, whom many of us are fond, sometimes all too fond, of comparing to Webern). Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee was heard for the first time at the Proms three years ago (almost), under Oliver Knussen. It was a joy to reacquaint myself with the music, and not only to find my admiration for it undimmed, in so fine a performance as this, from the ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra and John Storgårds, but also to observe it so warmly received in the hall which, just over a century earlier, had played host to the notorious Skandalkonzert, at which anti-modernist protests against the Second Viennese School had landed some of the participants in court. (Would that… No, I had better stop there.)

The first movement, ‘Antique Harmonies’, certainly had an air of the undefinable antique to it. That can cover a multitude of sins and virtues, ranging from Debussy to Birtwistle; there is little point in attempting definition of such a ‘mood’ or ‘air’. Fineness of orchestral balance surely helped, though. The following ‘Abstract Trio’ seemed almost to take us from Schoenberg to Stravinsky; I even fancied that I heard premonitions of the later work of Boulez in its motivic working. Coincidence, doubtless, if indeed that, but intriguing nevertheless, for this Old World listener. The cool jazz of ‘Little Blue Devil’ seemed almost as distilled as Mahler does in Webern; it was also just as recognisable. Muted trumpet set up a connection with the Bernd Alois Zimmermann work to come. Febrile, seething, yes, ‘The Twittering-machine’ indeed, came next, with perhaps a little touch of post-Webern Klangfarbenmelodie. A flute solo from above (rather than off-stage in the conventional, unseen sense) beguiled in ‘Arab Village’: simple, yet never predictable, with a true sense of narrative, almost as in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. ‘An Eerie Moment’ lived up to its name too, Webern perhaps distilling Stravinsky’s Rite, prior to the unsettling – did it or did it not unify what had gone before? – ‘Pastorale’, which again benefited from expert orchestral balancing by Storgårds and his players.

Zimmermann’s hundredth anniversary falls this year. (Click here for my feature on the composer in the New York Times.) There is jazz inspiration to his trumpet concerto too, of course, as well as that of the spiritual, ‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’. Zimmermann was adamant that the work, originally entitled ‘darkey’s darkness’ – thank goodness, from our twenty-first standpoint, that that was ditched – played with elements of progressive rather than ‘commercial’ jazz. I think that may be adjudged a perfectly reasonable claim. (We should always remain on our guard concerning what composers say their music may or may not ‘be’. Why might they be making such a claim?) So, at any rate, it sounded here, Håkan Hardenberger – who else? – joining the orchestra.

Varying ‘atmosphere’, almost as varying as that of the Schuller Studies, suffused this outstanding performance – played as the repertory work it almost is, and certainly should be. The long line, both for Hardenberger’s trumpet arabesques and for the orchestra, somewhere between ‘jazz’ and ‘symphonic’, was effortlessly maintained, or so it seemed – until, that is, it was no longer required. Controlled riot might then be the order of the day – or something else. Zimmermann’s later, more overt polystilism was almost there, already; perhaps it actually was instantiated, right there, right then. Rightly, neither score nor performance could be pinned down. And yet, there was ultimately, just as rightly, an almost Nono-like sense of bearing witness – even if one were never quite sure who, or what, the ‘subject’ might be. A hushed close did not comfort, nor should it have done.

And so, for the second half, we returned to the ‘New World’ Symphony, bastion of many a more conservative concert programme – despite its rocky initial reception in Boston. There was no routine comfort, however, to Storgårds’s performance. One really had the sense, as the cliché has it, that every note had been rethought – and it probably had. The introduction to the first movement sounded unusually dark, almost as if from Weber’s Freischütz Bohemian Woods. So did much of the rest of the movement, although the symphonic dialectic necessitating contrast, even at times negation, was not only observed but dramatised. Ultimately, a good deal of Brahms was revealed beneath the surface, although much that was not him, even opposed to him, too. Indeed, the contrast between first and second groups proved so great, especially in the exposition, as to sound almost Mahlerian. None of that was achieved at the expense of traditional lilt, which propelled rather than inhibited new worlds to come.

The second movement’s celebrated, all-too-celebrated cor anglais solo was taken beautifully, yet never just beautifully, likewise other solos. That Largo had all the time in the world to unfold, yet not a second more than necessary. It never forsook the quality of song, of Europeanised spiritual. Fast, insistent, almost brutally so, the Scherzo proved exhilarating, brought into still greater relief by (relative) woodland relaxation and charm. The finale proved a finale in the emphatic sense, as it must, with fury not only in the first but the second group too. Sometimes it can relax a little too much, but not here. Its dynamic telos was maintained until the end, as terse as the first movement, and yet, crucially, utterly different too. Brahms, again, remained, if never without ambiguity. This was a fine conclusion indeed, to an outstanding ORF concert. More soon, please!


Monday, 9 April 2018

Parsifal, Vienna State Opera, 5 April 2018

Amfortas – Jochen Schmeckenbecker
Gurnemanz – Kwangchul Youn
Parsifal – Christopher Ventris
Klingsor – Boaz Daniel
Kundry – Anja Kampe
Titurel – Ryan Speedo Green
Squires – Rachel Frenkel, Miriam Albano, Wolfram Igor Dentl, Peter Jelosits
First Knight of the Grail – Benedikt Köbel
Second Knight of the Grail – Marcus Pelz
Flowermaidens – Maria Nazarova, Lydia Rathkolb, Rachel Frenkel, Hila Fahima, Mariam Battistelli, Stephanie Houtzeel
Voice from Above – Zoryana Kushpler

Alvis Hermanis (director, set designs)
Kristīne Jurjāne (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Ineta Sipunova (video)
Silvia Platzek (assistant set designer)

Children of the Vienna State Opera Opera School
Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Martin Schebesta)
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

Parsifal continues its strange career in the opera house, both its ‘home’, Bayreuth, and beyond – the ‘beyond’ Cosima Wagner haplessly, hilariously attempted to prevent with her Lex Parsifal. (Note to pious New York Wagnerians: next time you appeal to the Master’s alleged intentions, consider your house’s role in confounding them.) Wagner’s desire, as expressed to Ludwig II, to protect the work from ‘a common operatic career’ is understandable. Indeed, Pierre Boulez, a highly distinguished interpreter and critic of the work as well as compositional successor, understood this very well when he approvingly noted Wagner loathing a system in which ‘opera houses are … like cafés where … you can hear waiters calling out their orders: “One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!”’ Bayreuth has veered from the very best, indeed the very greatest, in Stefan Herheim, to the very worst, with Uwe Eric Laufenberg’s festival of Islamophobia, bizarrely released on DVD whilst its predecessor languishes in the (virtual) vaults. I do not think I saw Vienna’s previous Parsifal, directed by Christine Mielitz; at any rate, I have no recollection of it. This first revival of Alvis Hermanis’s production had me wondering, however, whether it could have been any more vacuous.

Hermanis would not be my choice to direct anything, whether for his avowed Islamophobia – how he must have cursed Laufenberg for getting there first – or for the limitations of his craft, such as it may be. His Salzburg Liebe der Danae combined the two to an uncommon degree. I am astonished any theatre or opera house would still enlist his services, following his storming out of Hamburg’s Thalia Theatre on account of its having extended a welcome to refugees. What we have here, at seemingly great expense, is a series of impressive designs – with which, to be fair, he is credited too – and very little that could really be considered a production at all. There is just enough – again, to be fair – to permit one’s mind to work, to posit connections between what one sees, essentially tableaux from Vienna 1900. Yet, whilst I am certainly in favour of us all having to do some mental lifting, I cannot, hand on heart, say that my psychoanalytical thoughts had their roots in what I saw, whereas they unquestionably have done in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s outstanding Berlin staging.

The conceit, if we may call it that, is that two Wagners, Richard and Otto, shared the same, well, surname. Therefore the action takes place at the ‘Wagner Spital’ – alias Otto’s Steinhof psychiatric hospital. I wondered whether there might be a nod to Nietzsche and/or Thomas Mann on Parsifal, here, but suspect myself, perhaps unusually, of undue charity. A model of the human brain grows larger, amidst some books on shelves: ‘Durch Mitleid wissend…’? There is a half-hearted attempt, which nevertheless made me think, at pschyoanalysis, Kundry on Klingsor’s couch, in the second act, although it quickly becomes unclear, rather than fruitfully ambiguous, who, if anyone, amongst the characters, is analysing whom. Bits of Wagner’s (Richard’s) poem are flashed up above the stage from time to time; having hired someone for video, it must, presumably, have been necessary to find something for her to do. (Not her fault in the slightest, I hasten to add.) As for the final scene, in which a few Vienna 1900 celebrities join the chorus, bedecked in the most absurd winged helmets you will ever have seen, even as devotees of ‘Against Modern Opera Productions’, I simply gave up. The stage direction itself might as well have been a wet Wednesday’s revival of Otto Schenk.

Fortunately, musical matters were considerably better. The orchestra sounded better than I have heard it in Wagner for some time. It will always play well for conductors it likes: I can therefore only presume that, quite rightly, it likes Semyon Bychkov. The seamlessness of Bychkov’s account showed that, once again, as in, say, his Lohengrin, his Tannhäuser, and his Tristan, he both discerns and can communicate the Wagner melos. Some passages were thrillingly dramatic, not least an overwhelming close to the second act. Others seemed, perhaps, to tread water a little, but that may just have been my difficulty in dissociating what I heard from what I saw. No one, however, could justly have been disappointed with what (s)he heard here, those hallowed Vienna strings not far from the top of their golden game.

However, rather to my surprise, I found Christopher Ventris slightly disappointing in the title role – certainly no match for his 2008 self for Herheim and Daniele Gatti. Ventris can still sing the role, often beautifully, but his stage presence seemed almost tired, whether compared with ten years ago in the same role or indeed with his Bayreuth Siegmund last summer. Perhaps he just needed stronger direction; one can certainly sympathise. Anja Kampe’s Kundry proved thrilling, increasingly so as time went on, her laughter at Christ erotically chilling. Kwangchul Youn’s Gurnemanz has gathered wisdom over the years; this may have been the finest I have heard from him, utterly at ease in the role, without taking a single note or word for granted. At times, I found Jochen Schmeckenbecker’s Amfortas a little underpowered, even monochrome, but again there was much to be savoured from his way with the text, both verbal and musical. Boaz Daniel’s Klingsor had one wishing, as so often with this role, that it were at least a little longer. Choral singing, from boys, men, and women alike was excellent: clear, transparent, and yet weighty, having my mind flit back to Wagner’s work in Dresden, whether on his own, strange Liebesmahl der Apostel, or Palestrina’s Stabat Mater (which he edited, less interestingly than one might have hoped). There was, then, redemption to be had, but in a strictly musical sense.


Saturday, 7 April 2018

Dantons Tod, Vienna State Opera, 3 April 2018

Vienna State Opera

George Danton – Wolfgang Koch
Camille Desmoulins – Herbert Lippert
Hérault de Séchelles – Jörg Schneider
Robespierre – Thomas Ebenstein
Saint-Just – Ayk Martirossian
Herrmann – Clemens Unterreiner
Simon – Wolfgang Bankl
Young Man/First Executioner – Wolfram Igor Derntl
Second Executioner – Marcus Pelz
Julie – Alexandra Yangel
Lucile – Olga Bezsmertna
A Lady – Ildikó Raimondi
A Woman – Lydia Rathkolb

Josef Ernst Köpplinger (director, lighting)
Rainer Sinell (set designs)
Alfred Mayerhofer (costumes)
Ricarda Regina Ludigkeit (assistant choreographer)

Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Martin Schebesta)
Vienna State Opera Orchestra
Susanna Mälkki (conductor)


The major composer anniversary – in the strict sense, not including deaths – of 2018 is perhaps that of Bernd Alois Zimmermann. Zimmermann, alas, still needs all the help he can get, given a general silence from conservative, or rather reactionary, performing organisations. (I shall, however, shortly be reporting from an ORF Symphony Orchestra concert, including his Trumpet Concerto, ‘Nobody knows de trouble I see’.) Devotees of Leonard Bernstein will doubtless hear much of his music; whatever one thinks of it, it is hardly neglected. What, though, of other composers, still less celebrated? Anniversaries can prove genuinely useful in their case. Another hundredth birthday is that of the Austrian composer – often emphatically presented as such – Gottfried von Einem.

If hardly the most proselytising of houses for contemporary opera, at least since Mahler and Strauss, the Vienna State Opera certainly did its bit for Einem, including two world premieres. A staging of his first opera, Dantons Tod, written between 1944 and 1946 and premiered at the 1947 Salzburg Festival, thus has its roots in tradition: never a bad thing in Vienna – although ask Mahler for a second opinion on that. Offering works, whether entirely forgotten or just neglected, a new hearing is also never a bad thing. I am genuinely grateful to the State Opera for affording me, and indeed the wider world, the opportunity to see the opera in the theatre. Alas, I cannot say that I should rush to see, or indeed to hear, it again; yet far better that than the umpteenth revival of something whose place in the repertory remains a mystery to most of us in the first place. It has its cautious advocates, moreover, not least my friend and colleague Erik Levi, who, whilst voicing reservations, nevertheless ultimately describes it as ‘the most consistently impressive’ of Einem’s ‘operatic compositions’. If so, I am afraid I certainly should not rush to hear the rest. HK Gruber, another composer I have also so far proved incapable of ‘getting’, is one of many appreciative voices raised in the house’s handsome, invaluable programme documentation.

At the score’s best, there is enough imitation Hindemith and Stravinsky to keep the musical clock ticking over. I struggled, though, to discern an individual voice. Perhaps we become too hung up on that; this was, after all, a first opera. What I found more disconcerting, though – and not in a productive way – was the seemingly arbitrary musical progress. A bit of reheated Hindemith here, a slightly Stravinskian ostinato there, some competent if predictable choral exchanges there: what does it all add up to? It does not seem to be a declaration, avant la letter de Zimmermann, of exuberant polystilism. Nor do such changes, leaving aside a great deal of frankly nondescript writing, seem to have much basis in or relationship to the libretto, whose fashioning from Büchner by Einem and Boris Blacher again seems to dart all over the place for no particular reason.

It is not overly long, though: about an hour and a half. And there are a good few occasions to be impressed by a fine orchestra, chorus, and singers – which I certainly was. I cannot imagine – although how should I know? – that this would necessarily have been Susanna Mälkki’s first choice of opera to conduct, but she certainly did it proud, as did the Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera. A full, warm sound did not detract from precision. Pacing seemed ideal, as did the attempt to integrate obvious influences within a dramatic flow. I cannot readily imagine it being performed better. The opera is similarly unlikely to have a better Danton than Wolfgang Koch, whose attention to musical line and words showed all the care, and ultimately the charisma, he would have brought to Wotan or Amfortas. Jörg Schneider’s Hérault de Séchelles impressed throughout too, as did the dark-hued, forbidding Saint-Just of Ayk Martirossian. Olga Bezsmertna certainly made what she could of Lucile (Desmoulins), who threatened to become a far more interesting character than ultimately the work ever seemed quite to permit.

Alas, Herbert Lippert, as her husband, proved less than ingratiating of tone, without obvious dramatic recompense. Thomas Ebenstein seemed somewhat hamstrung by a strange, foppish conception of Robespierre (both in work and staging, I think), yet he did what he could. I could not help, however, but wonder whether the opera needed something more interventionist than Josef Ernst Köpplinger’s seemingly non-ironic musical-style staging. It might actually have been a West End musical version of A Tale of Two Cities. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with setting the work where it ‘should’ be, but there was not a great deal to glean beyond (too pretty) period costume. Might it not perhaps have been more illuminating to consider the context in which Einem wrote the work? The initial inspiration, after all, seems to have been the failed assassination attempt on Hitler in 1944. That would surely have been something to work with – not least for a non-Jewish composer posthumously honoured by Yad Vashem as ‘Righteous among the Nations’.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Turnage: Coraline, Royal Opera, 31 March 2018

Barbican Theatre

Coraline – Mary Bevan
Mother, Other Mother – Kitty Whately
Father, Other Father – Alexander Robin Baker
Miss Spink, Ghost Child 1 – Gillian Keith
Miss Forcible – Frances McCafferty
Mr Bobo, Ghost Child 2 – Harry Nicoll
Ghost Child 3 – Dominic Sedgwick

Aletta Collins (director)
Giles Cadle (set designs)
Gabrielle Dalton (costumes)
Matt Haskins (lighting)
Richard Wiseman, David Bruitland (magic consultants)

Britten Sinfonia
Sian Edwards (conductor)

This was not quite the premiere: that had fallen two nights previously. In many ways, though, I was very happy to be there for a more ‘ordinary’ performance: as it happened, a Saturday matinee. For one thing, it was good to have a sense of how children received Mark-Anthony Turnage’s fourth opera, expressly written for children, Coraline, and presented at the Barbican by the Royal Opera. I was charmed, for instance, to hear in the bar beforehand, an adult telling a child, perhaps his own, to remember that, ‘in the opera, we listen; we don’t sing along.’ Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, to sense a somewhat different audience excited about the prospect of a magical theatrical occasion, rather than to hear Soprano X, in order to complain that it was not Soprano Y, was refreshing enough.

Still more, perhaps, was the behaviour of the audience, far better than that of the entitled bunches who often fill our opera houses. They were not silent, but when the occasional question was heard from another row, it was pertinent and genuinely added to the experience. There was certainly none of the idle chatter that so often detracts from a performance. That immediately leads to the caveat that this was not necessarily intended for me at all: again a salutary lesson. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the piece and found the objections I came up with on behalf of a young audience – was it perhaps a little too long? – apparently confounded. There was certainly no sign of such. We do well not to speak on behalf of others, especially when they are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves.

The opera is based upon a children’s novella by Neil Gaiman, converted into an opera libretto by Rory Mullarkey. I suspect the original and various adaptations – film, musical, comic book, video game – will have been familiar to a good few of various ages in the audience. Not to me, however, so I shall have to refrain from comparisons. One of the things that struck me about the story as we encountered it here, however, is how much it had in common with other children’s story tropes – nothing wrong with that, for what piece of literature or theatre is unconnected to anything else? – and yet also how one, or at least I, could appreciate it for itself. Dissatisfaction with the mundanity of home and parents, escape to an alternative life and ‘reality’ that promise everything and are thus clearly too good to be true, and a renewed appreciation for what one has, allied to an overcoming of personal fears, stand at the heart of the story. But so do ‘incidentals’: curious neighbours, fun machines, body parts that operate on their own, and so on. A world that is both close to ours and yet is not is created; an audience experiences that creation and even, to a certain extent, reflects upon it. Drama has always done that, and always will. The devil tends to be in the detail, and here the detail seems to me good.

This is also opera, of course. Turnage, operating within a broadly post-Stravinskian sound- and rhythm-world, generally tonal, but not in any reactionary sense, gives no sense of condescending to his audience. Indeed, like many composers, he seems perhaps to be liberated by the particular requirements of the commission. (You may wish for everything in the world, as the story tells us, but you do not necessarily want it; nor will you necessarily get it.) Typical, yet far from stereotypical, dance rhythms, propel an action that is not merely of the stage; so, too, do different instrumental combinations and colours, different harmonies, different tonal mises-en-scène, if you like. This is not a score of the complexity of Moses und Aron, but it is not trying to be, nor is there any reason why it should be. After all, its subject matter is entirely different. It steers away from the artifice of much opera; word-setting is rarely melismatic, although nor is it always syllabic. Perhaps that is no bad thing for children. Whether or not, however, they would have had a ‘problem’, with something with which they suspect we might, that does not in itself dictate how a composer should write. The history of opera, after all, is littered, often productively, with aesthetic debates, even wars, in which composers, librettists, impresarios, performers, audiences, theorists, and others have triumphed on both, or many, sides. Such debates will often stimulate; they will never, however, offer more than a provisional word on anything. Ask Richard Strauss.

With a splendid cast such as this – all fine actors as well as fine singers, an ensemble in the very best sense – combined with a fine orchestra and conductor, musical magic will nearly always have opportunity to emerge: which I distinctly had the sense it did for many in the audience, not all of them young. If I do not dwell on the performances as such here, it is not intended as any disrespect; all were first-rate. But I think it is sometimes, perhaps especially in a ‘children’s opera’, a good idea to step back and to ask other questions too.

How, in any case, could anyone truly dislike a show boasting a couple of ‘magic consultants’? A serious point here, though: this, I think, would really have made a good introduction to many children – perhaps not just to children – to the magic of the theatre. (Again, I emphasise the caveat that, as a non-child, or at least far-too-overgrown child, I may not be the best placed to see.) There are plenty of other options, available, of course, but another one does no harm, indeed does good. Aletta Collins’s staging does not shy away from showing that this is theatre, not television, not film: we see what theatre can suggest, whereas more realistic media will often (not always, I know) will find themselves merely portraying. Coraline walks to another door in the building, and we see the set move around: no big deal for us, nor perhaps for the children, but who knows?  Lighting and costumes likewise take part in a degree of play between the realistic and something else. Moreover, I heard, in the row behind me, an adult explaining at the curtain call, how it was that there were fewer people on stage than there had been characters. The child seemed both to understand and to sense some of that magic we can all too readily for granted. Need it have been an opera, as I have heard some ask? Maybe not. But why should it not have been? And what might come next? It is not always ‘about us’. And perhaps we too have fears to overcome in terms of surrender to the theatre, to opera, to art.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Polyphony/Britten Sinfonia/Layton - St John Passion, 30 March 2018

St John’s Smith Square

Evangelist – Nick Pritchard
Christ – Neal Davies
Anna Dennis (soprano)
Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano)
Hiroshi Amako (tenor)
Ashley Riches (bass)

Britten Sinfonia
Stephen Layton (conductor)

This was the first time, I think, since having moved to London that I had attended a Bach Passion performance on Good Friday here. More often than not, I had been in Germany, either for a Passion in Leipzig (most recently in 2011) or for Parsifal (most recently last year). A change is as good as a rest, though – sometimes, at least. This proved an impressive, indeed moving, performance from a good cast of soloists, the chamber choir, Polyphony, the Britten Sinfonia, and conductor Stephen Layton. An eighteenth-century church, ‘Queen Anne’s footstool’, is a not inappropriate venue, of course; the warmth of the St John’s, Smith Square acoustic certainly helped balance a certain dryness in what one might characterise as an ‘period-ish’, rather English approach.

This was certainly not a Roman Catholic Bach in the vein of, say, Nikolaus Harnoncourt – but nor, after all, was Bach a Roman Catholic. Nor was it really a very German Bach we heard, or perhaps better, nor was it one of the many German Bachs we heard. What was more on my mind, than placing the performance within performance tradition, however, was the thorny matter of anti-Semitism. Such has, of course, been a preoccupation of British news reporting over the past few days. Moreover, having been working on the life and work of Arnold Schoenberg for quite some time now, musical and linguistic coding – as well as more overt violence – have been very much in my thoughts too. What do we do about a text, a sacred text no less, which, were it from anywhere other than the Bible, we might approach with greater apprehension? It is a particular problem with St John’s Gospel, and a particular problem within that, of the telling of the Passion. What, moreover, do we do about those turba choruses, in which Bach’s musical mastery, his extraordinary ability to characterise the crowd, add a further layer of discomfort? I do not know. I am certainly not saying that we should necessarily change the words, either of Bach’s work, or the Gospel; nor, however, am I saying that we should not at least consider making such changes on occasion. I do think, however, that, in a post-Holocaust age, in which the Church has been forced to confront long-standing anti-Semitism amongst its earthly sins, we cannot airily declare that there is no problem, that this is ‘just’ a work of art; nor indeed that a work of art, however ‘great’, is far too important to be implicated.

For those choruses truly proved the beating heart, Christian, (anti-)Semitic, or otherwise, of the drama that unfolded here. Taken generally, yet not unvaryingly, at quite a speed, there was fury in them? Whose fury, though? The (Jewish) crowd’s? Ours? If the latter, then what was our fury concerned with? Those who crucified Christ? And if so, what might that mean on earth as well as in theology? The changing role of Bach’s choir, after all, prompts us to consider our own relationship to it. When it sings the chorales – here, quite beautifully, and occasionally, arrestingly, a cappella – it seems to be ‘us’, as congregants and/or audience. We feel its pain, and/or it ours. It comments, like a Greek Chorus; and yet, also, like that Chorus, it participates. Not for nothing was it a crucial model, more so even than Handel’s oratorio choruses, for Schoenberg’s children of Israel in Moses und Aron.

Another particular strength, I thought, was a keen sense of soloists, almost as figures in an aural painting, coming on stage to portray and to reflect. That is what they do in their arias and other solos, of course, but it somehow came across both with particular differentiation and yet also interconnection on this occasion. I am not quite sure I can explain how or why; perhaps it was just that each of the soloists was on fine form. Lines were clean, yet far from un-emotional. There was, however, no attempt to impose ‘emotion’, least of all anachronistic or otherwise inappropriate, heart-on-sleeve emotion upon the music. All manner of approaches can work, of course, but this did – and it seemed, rightly or wrongly, to be something of a collective decision. Much the same can be said of the playing of the Britten Sinfonia, I think. I might sometimes have missed a little greater warmth, especially from the strings, but my ears adjusted soon enough, and I came to appreciate the performance very quickly for what it was, not for what it was not. Obbligato passages were always well taken, without a hint of narcissism. As voices seemed to emerge from the choir – even though they did not, at least literally so, in this case – so did instruments sound very much as if emerging from the greater instrumental collective. Guiding this all, with a determined dramatic presence, yet also due musical collegiality, were the wise presences of Nick Pritchard’s intelligent, finely sung Evangelist and, of course, Layton as conductor. 

This was, then, not just an observance, insofar as a concert can or should be; it also made me think. And all the time, I kept returning to the turbulence of that seething opening chorus – as, I think, does Bach. Wagner himself never wrote a finer, more complete, more troubling instance of music drama.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Britten Sinfonia (Voices)/Dougan - 'Easter Voices': works by Mozart, Stravinsky, et al., 28 March 2018

Milton Court

Andrea Gabrieli: Maria stabat ad monumentum
Stravinsky: Fanfare for a New Theatre
Mozart: Missa Brevis in F major, KV 192186f, interspersed with:
Stravinsky: Pater Noster and Ave Maria
Salonen: Concert étude, for French horn
Bruckner: Aequale no.1, for three trombones
Gesualdo: Two movements from Tenebrae Responsories for Good Friday
Stravinsky: Mass

Ben Goldscheider (French horn)
Britten Sinfonia Voices
Britten Sinfonia
Eamonn Dougan (conductor)

It was a little early, perhaps, to be hearing ‘Easter Voices’ in the middle of Holy Week. However, this was not especially an Easter programme – and, in any case, included two pieces from Gesualdo’s Tenebrae responsories for Good Friday. Given the continued vileness of the weather, a little foreshadowing of something warmer was in any case most welcome. (Yes, I know: I should hang my head in Lenten shame.)

Andrea Gabrieli’s Maria stabat ad monumentum functioned splendidly as an introit: Mary Magdalene weeping at the tomb, telling the angels ‘they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid Him’. It cautioned us against the adoption of anachronistic models of ‘expressiveness’. This is no heart-on-sleeve lament, nor was it in performance. Britten Sinfonia Voices, under Eamonn Dougan offered a warm, nicely flowing account, the choral sound recognisably ‘English’, no doubt, but there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Who on earth, or indeed beyond, knows what the composer’s ‘intentions’ were here, in any case? The very question most likely makes no sense. He would surely have been astonished to hear that the piece was being performed in a London ‘concert hall’ in 2018, let alone that someone was writing about that on a ‘computer’, that writing soon to be posted on a noticeboard on which, in theory, anyone on God’s earth would be able to read it, although most would not.

The same, of course, would go for Mozart, and parts of it would at least have been a stretch for Stravinsky. Their music formed the twin pillars of this concert, the rest of the first half given over to Mozart’s F major Missa brevis, KV 192186f, introduced by and interspersed with short pieces by Stravinsky, the second half offering pieces by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Bruckner, and Gesualdo, leading up to a performance of Stravinsky’s Mass. Both masses were written, ‘intended’ for liturgical performance, although Stravinsky would not have been so greatly surprised to hear of concert performance, however much he might have affected to disdain it, or indeed genuinely done so.

His 1964 Fanfare for a New Theatre heralded ‘the start of the concert proper’, according to Dougan, quoted in Jo Kirkbride’s booklet note. Written for the opening of the New York State Theater, it proved, as ever, blazing, uncompromising, in its forty-second-odd, post-Webern character, whilst at the same time having one wonder: might that actually be a passing reference to Monteverdi? Probably not: one just thinks of Orfeo anyway. In any case, no one time-travels quite like Stravinsky; no one ever remains so much himself. Stravinsky’s Pater Noster and Ave Maria, following Mozart’s ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ respectively, spoke, almost unmediated – or such was the trick. The composer would surely have approved. Choral blend was impeccable, the words highly audible. (Both were given in their later, Latin versions, as per their 1949 revision.) The former sounded a little more Russian, perhaps, as if a neo-Classical remembrance of the world he had left, the latter whiter still, with a strong sense of a musical ‘object’, a Stravinskian icon.

Stravinsky notoriously affected disapproval of Mozart’s early masses: ‘Rococo-operatic sweets of sin,’ he called them, having discovered some scores in 1942: ‘I knew I had to write a Mass of my own,’ he continued, ‘but a real one’. Give me a fake one any day – as well, of course, as Stravinskian ‘reality’. Classical sacred music, whether that of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, or others, less canonical, is woefully un-performed, with the signal exception of Mozart’s Requiem and perhaps, though only perhaps, the Mass in C minor. Granted, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis is not a work for every day. But many of Mozart’s and Haydn’s masses and other works are just that – or should be. Here we heard a small-scale performance of the Missa brevis: small choir, with soloists drawn from it, two violins, cello, double bass, chamber organ, and occasionally, those two Stravinskian trumpets.  This was, not unreasonably, the sound world, if hardly the acoustic, of the church sonata, slightly augmented. It worked well in a small hall with nothing of the ‘Rococo-operatic’ to it. One can always go to Salzburg’s churches for that.

Performances were again generally warm, if occasionally less so – an interpretative decision, no doubt – from the solo strings. Words again were crystal clear. I especially liked the rich timbre of Tim Dickinson’s bass, but all solos and ensembles were well sung indeed; a fine balance between solo line and blend. The culminatory nature of the ‘Amen’ in the ‘Gloria’; the learned counterpoint of the ‘Credo’, whose contrapuntal tag has one think, whether one likes it or no, of the Jupiter Symphony; the nimble ‘Osanna’ music; and the darkness of the imploring harmonies of the ‘Agnus Dei’, which yet hung over the concluding ‘Dona nobis pacem’: such were just some of the highlights of a lovely performance, well shaped, without interventionism, by Dougan.

Salonen’s 2000 Concert étude for solo French horn, a homage to his teacher, Holger Fransman, offered an equally refreshing opening to the second half, not least given the outstanding, indeed mesmeric quality of Ben Goldscheider’s performance. It acted here almost like a wordless second introit, Messiaen heard from another, related world. The twin requirements of a single line and, at times, multiple voices (various extended techniques, including singing a line in addition to that played) were handled beautifully and, more to the point, meaningfully. The first of Bruckner’s two Aequale followed from the gallery, rooted in tradition and yet, in both melody and harmonic implications, unmistakeably Bruckner.

Gesualdo’s weird chromaticism – is that the best way to think about it at all? – stood out, without undue exaggeration, in carefully unfolding performances of ‘Omnes amici mei’ and ‘Vinea mea electa’. The former proved, perhaps, more of an object, almost in the Stravinskian sense, the latter more developmental, opening in chaster fashion, yet blossoming. Is this how such music, such words ‘should’ be performed? Who knows? Again, the question is hardly the right one to ask. One could certainly imagine what might have fascinated Stravinsky in this composer’s music.

And so to his ‘proper’ Mass, with its non-string, wind orchestra. I was interested to read Dougan speak of ‘the more lush sound world of the winds and brass in the Stravinsky’, as compared to Mozart’s strings. I hear it the other way around – and did again. Although this was anything but a cold performance, an austere, even angular quality, with roots in Symphonies of wind instruments nevertheless manifested itself. We all have our own Stravinskys, I suppose; yet, as Boulez, once put it, Stravinsky demeure (the title of his Rite of Spring analysis).  Is there, was there, something ‘Oriental’, or at least ‘Orientalist’, in the opening wind and vocal arabesques of the ‘Gloria’? Or is/was that just recollections of Paris? Whatever it might have ‘been’, it was delightful. The ‘Credo’ perhaps spoke a little, yet only a little, more nostalgically, of a service from ‘home’ now once again viewed or heard as an ‘object’, its jangle of ecclesiastical Latin leading inexorably to a beautifully floated Amen. Intonation throughout was spot on, as it must be, truly permitting one to appreciate the originality of Stravinsky’s own heavenly host in the ‘Sanctus’ and the  imploring qualities of the closing ‘Agnus Dei’. As a surprising encore, another object of fascination, we heard Mozart’s Ave verum corpus motet, with accompaniment from the wind orchestra on stage: Mozart and Stravinsky, perhaps, united at last.