Monday, 12 November 2018

LSO/Roth - Ligeti, Bartók, and Haydn, 11 November 2018

Barbican Hall

Ligeti – Lontano
Bartók – Cantata profana
Haydn – Missa in Angustiis, ‘Nelson Mass’, Hob. XXII/11

Camilla Tilling (soprano)
Adèle Charvet (mezzo-soprano)
Julien Behr (tenor)
Christopher Purves, William Thomas (bass)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

For the second of my armistice anniversary concerts, I moved across town from the Royal Festival Hall to the Barbican. Vladimir Jurowski, the London Philharmonic Choir, and the LPO had set the bar high; François-Xavier Roth, the London Symphony Chorus, and the LSO proved more than worthy successors. Again, there was no nationalist sentiment in (aural) sight; instead, we heard another fine, thought-provoking programme, with much to savour in performance too.

Ligeti’s Lontano, music from afar, offered an introductory object lesson in listening and thus a lesson in humanity too. What ill ever came of listening? Alas, as we remember the victims of war, we know only too well what ill comes of failing to listen. Infinite subtlety in work, performance, and yes, reception offered a far greater strength to the masculinist posturing of militarism. How much we heard, making us realise how much we often fail to hear. The LSO seemed to act as a chorus of its own, speaking words, messages that we might well fail to understand – and which yet were no less real for that. Final silence at the close truly inspired awe: a lesson for us all, albeit unlikely to be heard by those most in need of hearing it, of listening.

For Bartók’s Cantata profana, the LSC, tenor Julien Behr, and bass William Thomas joined Roth and the orchestra. In this particular context, the ballad of an uncomprehending father sending out his nine sons to hunt, those sons thereafter, having been transformed to stags, unable to return home, a grieving mother notwithstanding, took upon resonances perhaps not originally ‘intended’, yet no less real for that. The transformation taking place in words and musical form alike, a story retold, both similar to and yet different from its original telling, invited further resonances both old and new. It certainly did in performances both thoughtful and exciting, in the grip of yet also liberated by musical and verbal narrative. Sinister yet inviting orchestral polyphony at the opening itself seemed to refer to a Bluebeard’s Castle revisited and yet forgotten – perhaps even an earthy successor to Mahler’s Klagende Lied. This was before, let alone after, the entry of the chorus, a world still more primæval. Who narrated? The forest? Humanity? Particular participants? All and none of those, one could imagine at different times, as a magical, fantastical, yet unquestionably ‘real’ narrative unfolded. Multifarious voices, vocal and orchestral, spoke to us, but did we listen? Emboldened by Ligeti’s example, we made the attempt. We were amply rewarded too, whether in Behr’s near faultless handling of the cruel tessitura of his part, in the dark chocolate of Thomas’s performance that yet lacked nothing in precision, or in the outstanding command of the Hungarian text and its musical elucidation from the chorus. Masculinity showed its tender side here too; the ultimate tragedy nevertheless, quite rightly remained one of incomprehension – even to the extent of knowing whether it were tragedy at all.

Haydn’s Missa in angustiis, the so-called ‘Nelson Mass’, offered a different musical and indeed verbal narrative, one which could nonetheless be related to much of what we had previously heard. In its journey from darkness to light, from plea for mercy to divine peace, it offered delight as well as hope, as well, perhaps, as the fear that such might yet remain tantalisingly out of our twenty-first-century reach. The ‘Kyrie’ could hardly have proved more urgent, Camilla Tilling first amongst solo equals, her coloratura duly thrilling. The variegated tone of the LSO here and elsewhere offered a point of contact with Colin Davis’s more ‘traditional’ Haydn with the same orchestra. His way is not Roth’s; nor is there any reason it should be. There was no doubting the integrity of his more ‘period’-influenced approach, which seemed simply to correspond to his understanding of the music rather than to the application of ideology. It outstripped in every respect the meanderings earlier this year of András Schiff with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in Haydn’s Harmoniemesse, which, whatever their external would-be ‘authenticity’, had shown little engagement with the actual material of the work. Roth’s command of form as dynamic structure was evident from this very first number, the return of the ‘Kyrie’ material as dramatically meaningful as the coming of any symphonic recapitulation.

The ‘Gloria’ had, to quote Haydn himself, my heart leaping for joy. Incisive, warm orchestral playing left plenty of room for darkness too. Behr and Christopher Purves offered finely judged responses to Tilling’s lead, mezzo Adèle Charvet’s subsequent ‘Gratius agimus tibi’ a further, properly symphonic development that lacked nothing in beauty of tone. And so it continued, Haydn’s setting our guide, the hallowed liturgical text remaining his – and our – master. If the opening of the ‘Credo’ were taken faster than one –at least I – might have expected, certainly faster than once would have been the case, it was certainly none the worse for that, likewise the ‘Crucifixus’ material. Once again, in the light of Ligeti’s invitation and, indeed, his invention, we seemed to hear so much more than might often be the case: for instance, a string quartet writ large in the ‘Et incarnatus’ section, those terrible sounds of war too, familiar and yet heard anew – just as they should be. There was no doubting Roth’s relish of Haydn’s invention in the vivid setting – depiction? – of the Resurrection, nor the superlative quality of choral singing, from which one might readily have taken dictation. Haydn’s good nature brought tears to the eyes; it could hardly have done so without such excellence of performance.

Awe in the ‘Sanctus’; emotional gravity in the ‘Benedictus’, further sounds of war and all, whose surrounding setting retained its roots in an older Austrian Baroque; an ‘Agnus Dei’ whose leisurely way brought due relief even as we continued to implore: all paved the way for a peace which, as ever with Haydn, passed both understanding and lazy assumptions as to what might be ‘fitting’. There were, then, lessons aplenty to be heard and, God willing, to be listened to too. Perhaps foremost among them was our continuing human need for a joy which, if hardly prelapsarian, might find good as well as ill in this, our created, fallen world.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

‘The Eternal Flame’: LPO/Jurowski - Debussy, Magnus Lindberg, Stravinsky, and Janáček, 10 November 2018

Royal Festival Hall

Debussy: Berceuse héroïque
Magnus Lindberg: Triumf att finnas till… (world premiere)
Stravinsky: Requiem Canticles
Janáček: The Eternal Gospel

Andrea Danková (soprano)
Angharad Lyddon (mezzo-soprano)
Vsevolod Grivnov (tenor)
Maxim Mikhailov (bass)

London Philharmonic Choir (chorus master: Neville Creed)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

If an armistice remembrance concert is to be held – and surely it is not unreasonable to do so, one hundred years on from 1918 – let it be programmed like this. Yes, official remembrance has, in the very worst sense, been politicised way beyond endurance for most of us in the United Kingdom. What once was more, if never entirely, a remembrance of lives lost, of the evil of war, has, especially since New Labour’s murderous forays into Afghanistan and Iraq, become a totalitarian exhortation to militaristic nationalism. The annual accusatory ordeal of poppy fascism, seemingly receding further and further back in October with every year, should have been abandoned long ago. This, however, had none of that; there was, mercifully, nothing nationalistic to what we heard here. Moreover, if most of the musicians on stage, both in the orchestra and chorus, wore poppies, then it was heartening to see a good few, Vladimir Jurowski included, wearing white.

Debussy’s Berceuse héroïque, his ‘heroic lullaby’, as originally conceived, ‘to pay homage to H.M. King Albert I of Belgium and his soldiers’, said much of what needed to be said. The dark, opening spareness of this London Philharmonic performance sounded as if Debussy, as if we, were remembering the malevolence, the violence, internal and external, of Allemonde, the doomed, fractured society of Pelléas et Mélisande. Maybe of Allemande too: a country about which our ‘musicien français’ showed a distinct lack of wartime understanding. Perhaps Busoni’s earlier Berceuse élégiaque would have proved more universal; perhaps that is partly the point. All of us fall short in our particularities, our proclivities, our prejudices; all of us can do better. The stifling seduction – nationalism does that too – of the soundworld was poignantly judged in a typically controlled performance from Jurowski that yet lacked nothing in atmosphere or drama.

I remain, alas, at a loss to understand what has happened to Magnus Lindberg. Is the composer of Triumf att finnas till… (‘Triumph to exist…’), premiered here, and the Second Violin Concerto, premiered three years ago, really the composer of Kraft? Lindberg’s new choral work sets, in essentially through-composed fashion, seven poems by Edith Södergran. I was delighted to encounter her poetry for the first time earlier this year in Unsuk Chin’s Le Chant des enfants des étoiles. Lindberg, quoted briefly in the programme, speaks admiringly and eloquently of Södergran’s verse and ‘its meditation on the transience of life … [a] defiantly positive affirmation of the joy of existence, the outpouring of one who refuses to submit to the hopelessness all around her.’ For him ‘it says something deeply essential about the tragedy of millions of young men who gave their lives in that useless slaughter.’ I wish I could have thought the same of his setting, which seemed on a first hearing to do little more than, well, set the verse, in a musical language that would have seemed unchallenging at the time of Södergran’s writing. At a pinch, the opening bars might have grown out of Debussy: I noticed in particular the writing for harp. The music, however, quickly grew into something more conventionally ‘late Romantic’. Some of its lush chordal harmonies might have been taken from Szymanowski, albeit without the complexity of texture. The word setting is likewise conventional to a tee, ‘Gloria! Seger!’ sounding just as one might expect. It was probably fun to sing, fun to play even: all quite pleasant. Is that enough? The London Philharmonic Choir, LPO, and Jurowski certainly gave a committed, commanding performance.

Another composer long accused of stylistic reversion was Stravinsky. Now, even in most of his neo-Classical works, we tend to hear what unites them with music from elsewhere in his career. Stravinsky always sounds above all like Stravinsky. Perhaps the same will prove true of Lindberg. At any rate, the late serial Stravinsky remains a rare treat, as rare in every sense as the music of Webern, to which it owes so much and from which it nevertheless remains quite distinct. Requiem Canticles I have longed for some time to hear ‘live’; it was unquestionably worth the wait. A smaller orchestra and chorus were joined by mezzo Angharad Lyddon and bass Maxim Mikhailov, all on fine form – even if, very occasionally, an orchestral line sounded on the verge of failing (nothing remotely on the scale of Robert Craft’s feeble performance in the ‘Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky’ set, though).

Rhythm and harmony revealed as great an affinity with the allegedly ‘different’ Stravinsky of The Rake’s Progress of a decade-and-a-half earlier as with other, more expected Stravinskys. The composer’s cellular processes were laid bare, not drily, but with an urgency announced from the off, as the purely orchestral ‘Prelude’ set string serial hounds of hell to their work. How individual the composer’s writing for strings always proves to be; how genuinely different his way of hearing these instruments seems to have been. If the ‘Exaudi’ seemed initially to have stolen a harp from Agon or Movements, the chorus reminded us this was the composer of the austere – until one truly listens – 1940s Mass. Ritual in Stravinsky is sometimes all, but it is ritual imbued with the keenest sense of drama. ‘Tradition’ was reinvented time and time again, in the ‘Dies irae’ – those trombones and timpani – in the ‘Tuba mirum’ – trumpets, trombone, bass, followed by a pair of ineffably Stravinskian bassoons – and beyond. Every interval, just as in Webern, counted. If the ‘Interlude’ offered fearful symmetries both in itself and in the work as a whole, a magic square write large, the ensuing ‘Rex tremendae’ reminded us that this work is, amongst many other things, a musical reliquary, every note a jewel, every silence its setting. Lyddon’s coloratura in the ‘Lacrimosa’ seemed to cast one ear back to Anne Trulove from the Rake, the purgatorial choral chatter of the ‘Libera me’ as startling, as incomparable as anything in the repertory. Its cold terror reminded us, had us remember. The bells of Stravinskian hereafter tolled, more to the point sealed the musical and theological structure, in the ‘Postlude’. This is music we should hear far more often.

Finally, joined by soprano Andrea Danková and tenor Vsevolod Grivnov, we heard Janáček’s cantata, Věčné evangelium (‘The Eternal Gospel’). Like Stravinsky, Janáček is almost always unmistakeable, certainly by this stage in his career. Obstinacy of motivic repetition and yet ultimate malleability spoke, even in the orchestral prelude, of Jenůfa and Katya Kabanova. There were times when Jurowski might, perhaps, have exerted less iron control or at least permitted a greater sense of the visionary. By the same token, however, there is much to be said for precision. If Grivnov (Joachim of Fiore) sometimes sounded a little parted, Danková, as the Angel, proved properly of another world. Grivnov’s closing solo in any case turned out to be a duly operatic reflection on what had passed, a mini scena of its own. Is there hope? Was Joachim’s kingdom of love dawning? Can it yet? Who knows? If here the eternal flame did not always quite blaze, flames are like that: often they will flicker. Blaze it certainly did at the close.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Così fan tutte, Guildhall, 5 November 2018

Silk Street Theatre

Guglielmo (Benson Wilson), Ferrando (Filipe Manu), Don Alfonso (Christian Valle),
Fiordiligi (Alexandra Lowe), Despina (Zoe Drummond), Dorabella (Carmen Artaza)
Images: Clive Barda

Fiordiligi – Alexandra Lowe
Dorabella – Carmen Artaza
Despina – Zoe Drummond
Ferrando – Filipe Manu
Guglielmo – Benson Wilson
Don Alfonso – Christian Valle

Oliver Platt (director)
Neil Irish (designs)
Rory Beaton (lighting)
Caitlin Fretwell Walsh (movement)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Dominic Wheeler (conductor)

Despina and Ferrando

Precisely where and when Così fan tutte takes place should be a matter of sublime indifference – or at least of individual taste. It is ‘about’ many things, but eighteenth-century Naples – should that actually be the less exotic yet still ‘othered’ neāpolis of Wiener Neustadt? – is not among them. Not intrinsically, anyway. These things can happen anywhere, at any time; these emotions, these physical and metaphysical truths are for many of us as close to universal as makes no matter. Nevertheless, the idea of a southern port city as a venue for touristic licence may well prove an apt setting for what is at dramatic stake. It helped Mozart and Da Ponte tread the fine line between realism and artifice that is surely fundamental to this, (one of) the very greatest of all operas; it also did to outstanding effect in Opera Holland Park’s new production this summer.  

Guglielmo and Dorabella

In a different way, or at least in a different southern port setting, so too does it in the Guildhall’s new staging. I only realised after the event – indeed upon starting to write this paragraph – that the director had been one and the same: Oliver Platt, albeit with a different design team. Perhaps, then, there was something after all to my hitherto innocent thesis of a common theme, notwithstanding the move forward a couple of centuries to the 19-80s to Alfonso’s Bar. Close to an American (West Coast? San Diego?) naval base, with all the potential for conflict between transience and long-term ‘home life’ that might imply, mood was superficially very different, likewise the consequences for particular directorial choices. Rarely, if ever, for instance, have I seen quite so raucous an opening scene, as the licentious ways of the naval boys (and at least one girl), their partners, and their would-be partners got under way, our quartet of lovers to be schooled taken from their number. That sense of a social context, however – a meaningful social context rather than a mere setting, ‘pretty’ or otherwise – remained common to both productions.

Don Alfonso and Despina

So too, again in different ways according to the different requirements of this particular production and performance, were the spatial, eminently musical visualisations of Mozart’s extraordinary and extraordinarily telling musical symmetries and oppositions. Così fan tutte is a labyrinth and a laboratory like no other, as worthy a successor to the experimental Bach of the cantatas as a precursor – a successor too – to Tristan und Isolde. Indeed, though Don Giovanni was the Mozart opera Pierre Boulez said he had long wished to conduct, yet never did; it is surely Così he should ultimately have come to, not least in light of his revelatory late recording of the Gran Partita, KV 361/370a. Whatever the ‘incidental’ detail of tequila shots, of entertainment in sombreros, of Despina the notary as Judge Judy, the fundamentals – related, not necessarily identical – were present both in Holland Park and at the Guildhall. So too was the existential devastation, the clear-eyed, merciless refusal to transcend, of the close.


For that to be the case, of course, one needs musical drama too – indeed, musical drama above all. This one took a little while to get going: perhaps more a matter of opening night nerves than anything. The Silk Street Theatre acoustic did not help, I suspect, not least when married to a certain, rather surprising heaviness of hand – tending, in the Overture, even to the brutal – from Dominic Wheeler in the pit. Throughout the first act, some of his tempo choices were distinctly odd: not so much in themselves – as a listener, one should always be willing to adapt, to rethink in that respect – as in relation to one another. (Once again, doubtless idiosyncratically, I thought of Boulez and his admiration for Wagner’s Essay on Conducting, not least the claims for proportionality rather than ‘absolute’ tempo therein.) The second act worked much better, though, blessed by some gorgeous woodwind playing, even if the strings were a little too often thin of tone.


There was much both to enjoy and to admire in the singing – as there must be, if a performance and production are to have the slightest chance of working their dramatic effect. Carmen Artaza’s dignified, often exquisitely spun line, trickily married – that tightrope I mentioned above between realism and articificality – to sparky, well-defined personality proved a particular joy as Dorabella. So too did the patent sincerity of Filipe Manu’s Ferrando, his second-act aria truly moving, Benson Wilson’s Guglielmo a swaggering yet not insensitive contrast. Fiordiligi will always prove a great challenge: one to which Alexandra Lowe rose with considerable success in a performance finely differentiated from Artaza’s, her soprano coloratura meaningful as well as accurate. Christian Valle’s Don Alfonso ruled the roost as he must, Zoe Drummond’s excellent Despina intriguingly disillusioned at the close. Called upon to do far more in the way of acting and movement than would usually be the case, members of the chorus impressed too, individually and corporately. This, as the cliché has it, was considerably more than the sum of its parts. After all, if ever there were an opera to demonstrate both the truth and depth of what might first appear to be, and indeed what might actually, be buffo cliché, it is Così fan tutte.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Szeps-Znaider/LSO/Jordan - Mussorgsky, Szymanowski, and Tchaikovsky, 25 October 2018

Barbican Hall

Mussorgsky: Night on the Bare Mountain
Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no.2, op.61
Tchaikovsky: Symphony no.5 in E minor, op.64

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

I was about to say that the LSO excels in music such as this, but then it tends to excel in pretty much any kind of music, especially given the right conductor. Nevertheless, its trademark precision was vividly on display in a duly wild – controlled wild – performance of Night on the Bare Mountain. It was fantastical too, Mussorgsky’s obstreperous lack of development in a Germanic sense largely vindicated; there are other ways for music to unfold in time. (Yes, I know what that says about my sense of musical gravity, about my construction of a centre and periphery; so be it.) There was ‘Russian’ soul too, especially from the lower strings. Philippe Jordan seemed to relish, as well he should, this Rolls-Royce of an instrument with which to play. Does it all quite hang together, or did it on this occasion? I am genuinely not sure. It was fun, though.

The sound Jordan and/or Szymanowski conjured from the orchestra for the latter’s Second Violin Concerto was no less fantastical, but cooler, darker, less opulent: definitely a later Szymanowski than that of the First – and indeed of much of his most popular music. Its hard edges glistened, whilst Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider – he has reverted to the fuller version of his surname – spun a more typical, yet no less alluring golden thread. At least that was the early balance of play; one of the fascinations of this fine performance was the constant shift in such relationships, even in standpoints and perspectives. A different, later mode of definition endured: when those great washes of sound came, they were more golden than kaleidoscopic, more damask than magic carpet. This was a dramatic world born in the Tatras Mountains rather than Sicily. Earthy mazurka rhythms, spellbinding solo virtuosity, a languor closer perhaps to Lulu than to Pelléas, definitely of a world following King Roger: these were not mere incidental points of interest but crucial to the revelation of musical structure in time. It is a structure, a work sui generis and sounded as such. Szeps-Znaider’s Bach D minor Sarabande encore proved impressively variegated, even febrile: here was something still more vulnerable, with a little of the viola or even the cello to its musical soul.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony opened with a tone more rounded than that we had heard in Mussorgsky. That is, of course, partly a matter of writing, but also of performance. Superlative clarinet duo playing from Chris Richards and Chi-Yu Mo would not be the least of the LSO delights on offer here and throughout. Many thanks should also go to the telephone improvisation at the close of the first movement introduction. Jordan imparted a sense of urgency, of fate, to the exposition proper, the LSO cultivated and incisive. Soon, however, that drive tilted into the merely hard-driven, not helped by the congested Barbican acoustic. (How desperately we need a new hall!) If only his structural grasp or communication had been so unfailingly excellent as the orchestral playing. It was certainly not without merit, notably eliciting a fine sense of return at the onset of the recapitulation and true defiance in the closing bars. Nevertheless, the music found itself on several occasions driven or held back without evident reason: this in a Tchaikovsky symphony more in need than any other of a Brahmsian mind.

The slow movement’s horn solo (Guglielmo Pellarin) proved delectable, yet was ‘only’ first among wind equals. Save for a few passages of excessive moulding, Jordan shaped Tchaikovsky’s music well here. Had he let it sing more freely, it would have proved more moving still. The waltz was graceful, finely detailed, if not especially warm, although again the Barbican surely had a hand in that. There was no denying, however, the richness of the LSO string sound at the finale’s outset. Very much on the fast side, it nevertheless worked in a straightforward fashion. A little more relaxation might not have gone amiss, but this was perhaps the strongest of the four movements. If its virtues could have been read back into its predecessors, the first movement in particular, it would surely have been to the benefit of the whole.


Monday, 22 October 2018

Quatuor Voce - Beethoven and Ligeti, 21 October 2018

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven: String Quartet no.10 in E-flat major, op.74, ‘Harp’
Ligeti: String Quartet no.1, ‘Métamorphoses nocturnes’

Cécile Roubin, Sarah Dyan (violins)
Guillaume Becker (viola)
Lydia Shelley (cello)

It was with an introspective, almost world-weary introduction that the Quatuor Voce opened this Wigmore Hall Sunday morning concert – until, that is the first, but not the last, of Beethoven’s sforzandi disrupted yet ultimately confirmed that mood. A sense of hard work continued until the exposition proper of the so-called ‘Harp’ Quartet, which rightly came as relief but not, given Beethoven’s extraordinary motivic concision, relaxation. A furious yet still introverted development, save perhaps for the ‘harp’ music itself, prepared the way for the return, so much of which it coloured and indeed generated; dialectical contradictions and all, it was properly a second development. Just as important was a sense of humour. A songful slow movement was situated somewhere between earth and heaven; the more one listened, the more was going on, intellectually and emotionally. A hard-driven scherzo certainly offered contrast, if not quite the sense of exhilaration for which some of us might have wished. Its trio’s brazen modernity ultimately proved, for me at least, more invigorating. An apparent glance back to the eighteenth century from the variation finale’s theme offered further contrast, but nothing is ever quite so easy as that in Beethoven. Not the least virtue of this performance was that, even if one might not have agreed, it drew one in to listen. I have heard more ‘sublime’ accounts of op.74; this, however, made no apology for its difficulty.

Ligeti’s First String Quartet had originally been programmed to come first. I have little doubt that reordering was the right thing to have done. Although there was nothing to complain about and much to praise in the Beethoven, it was this that received the more intense performance, truly grabbing one by the throat and not letting one go. The weird unease of Ligeti’s opening scales here sounded almost as if an inversion of Wozzeck’s drowning. There was perhaps something of Bartók’s night music to the melodies and fragments heard above. Brief community in fury prior to dialectical breakdown, and so on, had one inevitably think of Beethoven’s methods too. Here, as the quartet progressed, we heard not only reinvention of quartet writing – many composers have accomplished that in one way or another – but also reinvention of quartet tradition, a far sterner task. One reheard Beethoven, Berg, and Bartók – as well as Ligeti. The Tempo di valse section’s loucheness offered ample opportunity, well taken, for both relishing disintegrative tendencies and keeping them in check; such is surely the game. There was humour too, as in Beethoven, perhaps even an additional sense of anarchic craziness. What a mind, what an ear!

As an encore we heard Hamza El Din’s Escalay (‘Water Wheel’), part of a current project, ‘Itinéraire’, in which the Quatuor Voce looks at links between written and oral melodies. If insubstantial, it had atmosphere. The Ligeti was the thing.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Mariani Piano Quartet/Watkins - Charlotte Bray and Emilie Meyer, 16 October 2018

Purcell Room

Charlotte Bray: Invisible Cities (2011); Beyond (2013)
Emilie Meyer: Piano Quartet no.2 in G major
Bray: Oneiroi (2013); On the Other Shore (2014); Zustände (2016)

Philipp Bohnen (violin)
Barbara Buntrock (viola)
Isang Enders (cello)
Gerhard Vielhaber (piano)
Huw Watkins (piano)

In Aix this summer, I heard – and enthused about – Charlotte Bray’s new work for solo viola, In Black Light. I was therefore very keen to hear a concert back here in London, largely of her music; moreover, I was certainly not disappointed. Invisible Cities, the first piece on the programme, is also for viola, albeit with piano. Barbara Buntrock and Huw Watkins gave a performance full of nervous energy. Its first movement of four, marked ‘vivid, frenetic’, certainly proved vividly variegated, opening with memorable contrast and synthesis – I think – of post-Schoenbergian harmonies with jazzy-Gallic syncopation.  ‘Unnerved, intimate’ is the marking for the second movement and so again it proved, with an intangible yet unquestionable sense of development from its predecessor. Buntrock truly dug into the strings, preparing the way for what I hope it is not too Romantic to describe as organically developing third and four movements, the latter climactic in both anticipated and unanticipated ways. Piano repeated notes offered counterpoint according to various understandings, viola harmonics seemingly generative of new yet related material, music and performance (piano and pizzicato viola) eventually fading into nothing.

Beyond, for solo violin, was sensitively and indeed commandingly performed by Phillip Bohnen. It offered a nicely elegiac pendant to the preceding, longer work, considerable use of the violin’s lower register offering both continuity with and difference from the viola. Further continuity was to be found in an equally keen sense of longer line, silence included: again in a fashion reminiscent of, yet never to be assimilated to, much Austro-German Romanticism.

Emilie Meyer’s 1857 Piano Quartet in G major proved the only disappointment. Such was not a matter of performance, the Maniari Piano Quartet doing everything one could reasonably have asked for. Although we could enjoy a lovely chamber music sound, there was little to the work 'itself'. In the traditional four movements, it fared best when songful: pleasant enough, if hardly individual of voice. A few scattered passages aside, for instance the opening of the scherzo, the composer struggled to impart much in the way of formal dynamism or even coherence. What might have passed muster as background music overstayed its concert hall welcome.

Following the interval, however, there was to be more Bray – and most welcome it proved. First up, Watkins returned to perform Oneiroi for solo piano with what seemed to me an ideal match of passion and humanity. According to the composer, ‘its muse was principally other music, that of Hans Werner Henze and Oliver Knussen particularly’. Ghosts of Henze’s piano music I certainly heard: perhaps again that post-Schoenberg inheritance, or maybe that is just me? There seemed to be at work a fruitful, generative dialectic both in work and performance between (surface?) freedom and tight, underlying organisation.

On the Other Shore, for solo cello, received a fine performance from Isang Yenders. In Bray’s words, it ‘represents an idea … of observing something from afar whilst not able to get close to it’. That comes very close to what I imagined I heard: a sense of intimacy at distance, of coming into and falling out of focus. As with the earlier piece for solo violin, both the long line and its possible constructive allusions and illusions came strongly to the fore.

Finally, we heard Zustände for violin, viola, cello, and piano, performed by the Mariani players. Its three movements take inspiration from various ‘states’ – as in the title – of ice, the first ‘Brittle, frozen, slowly disintegrating’, the second ‘Freely, fiercely independent’ as a ‘majestic, lone iceberg’, the third ‘Bright, alert,’ located, we are told, ‘within the highly energised, at times threatening, environment of an ice field’. There was certainly icy tension to be heard at the opening, imbued with a paradoxical, productive sense of desire, albeit thwarted, to suspend time. It moved, and rightly so. The piano was silent for most of the second movement, which seems to rise, aptly enough, from the cello line up. It is glacial, perhaps, in a way not dissimilar to some of Bartók’s music. Bray describes the final movement as ‘varied and unpredictable’. Once more, so it sounded in performance before I had so much as looked at the programme note. Control of material and the expressive means to which such control is put were never remotely in doubt. Zustände and other solo and chamber works (Beyond, Invisible Cities, and On the Other Shore included) may be heard on a new RTF Classical CD: on this basis, highly recommended!

Monday, 15 October 2018

Passion, Music Theatre Wales, 13 October 2018

(sung in English)

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Images: Clive Barda
Jennifer France (Her) and National Dance Company Wales

Her – Jennifer France
Him – Johnny Herford
Dancers – Cyril Durand-Gasselin, Nikita Goile, Ed Myhill, Julia Rieder, Malik Williams, Queenie Maidment-Otlet

Michael McCarthy, Caroline Finn (co-directors)
Simon Banham (designs)
Joe Fletcher (lighting)

Sound Intermedia (sound design, after original concept by Thierry Cudoys)
London Sinfonietta
Geoffrey Paterson (conductor)

Ten years ago, I saw one of the first performances of Pascal Dusapin’s Passion at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Now, Music Theatre Wales and National Dance Company Wales give the opera its first United Kingdom production – in an English translation by Amanda Holden from the original Italian: the first time, I believe, that a Dusapin opera has been performed in translation. (I shall admit to a slight disappointment that it was not in Welsh: maybe next time.) The premiere took place two nights earlier in Basingstoke; I saw this resourceful, imaginative dance staging at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Titles might not have been a bad idea, but there is always something to be said for making an audience listen, or at least encouraging it to do so. (There was, alas, some extraordinary distracting behaviour from a few bad apples on this occasion, one woman near me aggressively scratching herself like an alley-cat throughout, another apparently running a tombola from her handbag. Such highly distracting goings on did not appear to be part of a directorial Konzept; perhaps, however, I was missing the point.)

Dusapin’s Orpheus or rather Eurydice, opera, the lovers abstracted to Her and Him, Lei and Lui, with shadowing support from ‘The Others’ (Gli Altri), takes its place in perhaps the most venerable of all operatic traditions. Orpheus, son of Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry, and, according to some tellings of the legend, Apollo’s too, tamed animals, even charmed Hades itself, through performance on his lyre – here suggested, yet perhaps not merely to be identified with, the oud, Rihib Azar’s part and performance evocative, generative, and questioning towards the close. Orpheus’s purview – and that of Greek mousikē more generally – was greater than what we, in an age cursed by specialisation, might consider to be ‘music’: he was poet, enchanter and prophet; he communicated the qualities of all the Muses through his identity as a musical performer. Where, however, is Eurydice in all that? As ‘traditional’ a supportive figure, a victim, as ever? Here she is granted, or better she assumes, newfound agency. As Dusapin, quoted in the progamme, put it: ‘I sincerely wanted to do something with this myth, and yet I wasn’t really attracted to a story where a woman dies, engulfed by flames, sacrificed by the stare of an impatient man … So I thought: “What if the woman knew? And what if she suddenly decided not to go back towards the light?”’ Just as composers from Monteverdi to Birtwistle have retold, remade the myth in the light of their own concerns, the concerns of their times too, so have Dusapin and a splendidly integrated team of performers.

Johnny Herford (Him) and National Dance Company Wales

Worthy successors to the not inconsiderable team of Barbara Hannigan, Georg Nigl, Ensemble Musicatreize, Ensemble Modern, and Franck Ollu, Jennifer France, Johnny Herford, EXAUDI, the London Sinfonietta, and Geoffrey Paterson offered an outstanding musical performance, ably shadowed, incited, and criticised by a fine team of dancers. One had little doubt that the Sinfonietta and Paterson were not only presenting what one was ‘supposed’ to hear, but in the emphatic sense performing it, bringing it into life and revealing its form in the dramatic here and now. Comparisons make little sense in the case of an artist such as Hannigan; perhaps they do far more rarely than many of us would care to admit. France’s performance had us believe in this particular Eurydice, her particular concerns and ‘character’: what could be more feminist than that? Herford cheerfully yet wistfully consented to and furthered a remodelling of Orpheus’s role that leaves us all the richer. With none of Nigl’s sometimes disconcerting idiosyncrasies, he – as indeed did the rest of the team – suggested that we are all the richer for this recent chapter in the progress of the myth. A subtly raucous – yes, that is intended – duet between trombone and oboe; a recognisably celestrial yet menacing glimpse of heaven; a (false?) witness of the clavecin ‘past’; an approach to an expected final unison that proved not to be such at all: these and many more such moments attested to the fleeting quality of memory, the necessity of multiple standpoints in and of the present.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Porgy and Bess, English National Opera, 11 October 2018


Images: Tristam Kenton
Sporting Life (Frederick Ballantine) and ensemble

Porgy – Eric Greene
Bess – Nicole Cabell
Crown – Nmon Ford
Serena – Latonia Moore
Clara – Nadine Benjamin
Maria – Tichina Vaughn
Jake – Donovan Singletary
Sporting Life – Frederick Ballentine
Mingo – Rheinhaldt Tshepo Moagi
Robbins, Crab Man – Chaz’men Williams-Ali
Peter – Ronald Samm
Frazier – Byron Jackson
Annie – Sarah-Jane Lewis
Lily – Pumza Mxinwa
Strawberry Woman – Nozuko Teto
Jim – Njabula Madlala
Undertaker – Whitaker Mills
Nelson – Thando Mjandana
Scipio – Olufemi Alaka
Detective – Stephen Pallister
Policeman – Christian Hurst
Coroner – Neil Kelly

James Robinson (director)
Michael Yeargan (set designs)
Catherine Zuber (costumes)
Donald Holder (lighting)
Dianne McIntyre (choreography)
Luke Halls (video)

Actors, Chorus
Orchestra of the English National Opera
John Wilson (conductor)

Serena (Latonia Moore)

In a new production by James Robinson, conducted by John Wilson, ENO performs Porgy and Bess for the first time. On the opening night it was very well received, in many ways rightly so – although I had my doubts too, especially earlier on. I shall come to those later, but first let me say what a joy it was not only to hear such an array of fine vocal performances but also to see such fine, committed, sincere acting from an ensemble of singers and actors, many making their debuts with the company, brought together specifically for this purpose.

If there were occasional slight shortcomings, not least a little too much occluded diction from Nicole Cabell as Bess, they were more than made up for by that strength of ensemble. Cabell’s performance was otherwise strong – strong in portraying vulnerability, even helplessness, that is – and was well matched by the humanity of Eric Greene as the ‘cripple’, Porgy. Nmon Ford’s toxic masculinity, as we should now call it, as Bess’s former lover, Crown, proved an object lesson in the marriage of words, music, and stage presence. The drug dealer Sporting Life’s insidious, irredeemable amorality, his ‘lowlife’ quality, to borrow from the text, was memorably captured and communicated by Frederick Ballentine. Tichina Vaughn and Latonia Moore sang their hearts out and wore their not uncomplicated consciences on their sleeves as Maria and Serena. I could doubtless continue down the cast list, but should end up merely replicating it.

Porgy (Eric Greene) and Bess (Nicole Cabell)

There was no gainsaying, moreover, the excellence of the ENO Orchestra, which was surely enjoying itself greatly. Likewise no one could argue with the results obtained from them by John Wilson: a film-score sheen second to none, and certainly not just from the strings. At least no one could in terms of getting what he wanted, something I have little doubt would and should be considered ‘authentic’ by those who care about such matters. For me, however, there were times when something a little more variegated would have been welcome. It is a lengthy opera, too lengthy for its material; generally slow tempi, married to almost unrelievedly opulent sound, exacerbated rather than relieved. There were, of course, passages of great incisiveness too. A few more gradations in between would have done no harm. Or would that actually have been possible? I cannot, I am afraid, hear this to be the masterpiece some claim it to be. Even if it were cut considerably, that still leaves something of a problem in a ‘symphonic’, better connective, ambition on Gershwin’s part that is at best intermittently realised. He is surely more a composer of songs than a symphonist, or indeed a post-Wagnerian musical dramatist, whatever apologists might claim to the contrary. Moreover, musical characterisation is often weak, at least earlier on. By the second act, the composer seems to have progressed considerably. Earlier on, he seems far better at communicative atmosphere, at dramatising events. 

There are many opera scores, however, that fall short of Figaro, Parsifal or Wozzeck. We tend for the most part to take them for what they are, rather than exercising ourselves unduly about what they are not. (Or if we do not, it tends to be indicative of some other problem we have with them, whether intrinsic or of taste.) More of a difficulty, I think, lies in the libretto and, more generally, in the (doubtless well-intentioned) racial and gender stereotyping – one might well put it considerably more strongly than that – of the work as a whole. It is there that a production should come into its own, offering a critical stance or at least an awareness of the problems. Robinson’s blithe production, however, almost screams ‘Made for the Met’. (This is a co-production not only with New York but Amsterdam too.) It is well executed, not least on account of Dianne McIntyre’s choreography, but appears either stuck in a time warp or better suited to expectations geared towards a ‘West End spectacular’. Following the ineptitude of ENO’s current Salome, there is something, indeed much, to be said for basic, wholesale competence. That is surely, though, no excuse for flattering an audience into thinking this a matter of harmless ‘entertainment’.

Crown (Nmon Ford) and Bess

Mine will, I am sure, be a minority report – and I repeat that there is much in a straightforward fashion to enjoy, should enjoyment be one’s sole or principal criterion. As the opera is what it is, so am I who I am. I increasingly find it difficult to take theatrical performances that might well have looked splendid half a century ago and might even do so on film now, yet which claim to be of the here and now. Too much dramatic water has passed under the bridge. Moreover, whilst I try to keep an open mind, my ears are not the same as everyone, or indeed anyone, else’s. When, for instance, I hear the banjo song, ‘I got Plenty o’Nuttin’,’ I think, doubtless idiosyncratically, of Blaze’s ballad from Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse. That says nothing about either, if a little about me. Why mention it, then? Only as a banal illustration of our coming to artworks – not only to artworks - from different standpoints and situations.

Perhaps, knowing as I do of Schoenberg’s admiration for Gershwin – more circumscribed than some would allow, yet no less genuine for that – I wanted too much to listen with (post-)Schoenbergian ears and found myself a little disappointed. It has real virtues and certainly stands several notches above the fashionable bloated nonsense of Korngold and friends. Any reservations I entertain are unlikely to prevail over someone who finds more in the work than I do, nor am I seeking to persuade, merely to try to account for my own more equivocal reaction. Perhaps I should find more in a subsequent performance; perhaps it is simply not for me. If it is for you, and if you do not mind what is to my mind an absurdly ‘traditional’ style of staging, then you will find much to enjoy. I cannot help but wish, however, that the production had shown the courage to adopt so much as a point of view or to interrogate the work, to ask what it might fundamentally be about. That, surely, would have been to take it as seriously as Gershwin’s ambition demands.