Friday, 20 July 2018

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (2), Ariadne auf Naxos, 14 July 2018

Théâtre de l’Archevêché

Images: Festival d’Aix-en-Provence 2018 © Pascal Victor / artcompress
Music Master – Josef Wagner
Major-Domo – Maik Solbach
Lackey – Sava Vemić
Officer – Petter Moen
Composer – Angela Brower
Tenor, Bacchus – Eric Cutler
Wig-Maker – Jean-Gabriel Saint Martin
Zerbinetta – Sabine Devieilhe
Prima Donna, Ariadne – Lise Davidsen
Dancing Master – Rupert Charlesworth
Naiad – Beate Mordal
Dryad – Andrea Hill
Echo – Elena Galistkaya
Harlequin – Huw Montague Rendall
Truffaldino – David Shipley
Scaramuccio – Emilio Pons
Brighella – Jonathan Abernethy
The Richest Man in Vienna – Paul Herwig
His Wife – Julia Wieninger
Katie Mitchell (director)
Chloe Lamford (set designs)
Sarah Blenkinsop (costumes)
James Farncombe (lighting)
Martin Crimp (dramaturgy, including additional dialogue, translated by Ulrike Syha)
Joseph W Alford (movement)

Orchestre de Paris
Marc Albrecht (conductor)

Ariadne auf Naxos is in many ways the ultimate opera about opera. (Or should that be Moses und Aron?) Many, perhaps most, operas would seem to be ‘about’ Orpheus and his art in some way or another. (In a shameless plug, I should add that such is the subject, or at least the starting-point, for a chapter on operatic culture I have written for the soon-to-be-published – i.e., proofs already checked – Routledge Research Companion to Musical Modernism, edited by Björn Heile and Charles Wilson.) It would be far from absurd to claim that an artwork can fail to be ‘about’ its art form, its genre, itself in one sense or another; or would it? Always we seem to be brought back to those oppositions, those dialectics, that haunt, arguably determine Western history and culture, whether we like it or not. Yet Ariadne seems to take it all in, the ‘business’ as and the ‘art’, the artists and the characters, the metanarrative and the narrative, ultimately also the transformation that may or may not transcend – Hofmannsthal and/or Strauss? – as well as the manifold absurdities and frustrations at which one can only laugh, except that is, when one can only cry.

Productions can approach such a work – in practice, with the possible exception of Elektra, almost any work! – in any number of ways. There is nothing wrong with emphasising one strand, one particular reading: single-mindedness has its place, just as much for, say, a Hans Neuenfels as for a Furtwängler or a Klemperer. (The idea of a Klemperer Ariadne in particular intrigues, not least on the basis of his Pulcinella Suite, but I digress – and I have no Music Master to restrain me or indeed to inflict cuts, justified or otherwise.) Ranking is a game for politicians and accountants – although donors perhaps have their place in this world too – but I am not sure that I have seen a production that has kept so many balls in the air at the same time, investigated their nature, and added a few of its own, as Katie Mitchell’s for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.

The Prologue comes across as relatively conventional: not in the sense of wanting ‘pretty’ frocks and so on, but it sets the scene, as perhaps it should, ready for the transformations to come. It is full of life, full of character; there is probably, as doubles would be the case in watching any ‘making of’ documentary, more than one can take in in a single viewing, yet by the same token there is no sense of overload. It is not ‘busy’ for the sake of it, as often seems to be a temptation – perhaps a valid one – here. One enjoys the splendidly camp yet undeniably successful and talented Dancing Master of Rupert Charlesworth: watch him rehearse his dancers and you will see that he knows his stuff as well as owning the room. One sees that room transformed into a stage and an audience – with, rightly, a flexible curtain of a barrier in between. Lights taken down and replaced suggest something afoot: a distinction being made between reception room and desert island. We are not yet sure, however.

Perhaps most important of all, we see and feel – this is a musical thing too, of course, but also in Mitchell’s staging – the emergence of Zerbinetta as a real person, as a human being, to an extent uncommon, perhaps even unparalleled, in my experience. The tenderness of Sabine Devieilhe’s performance is something; she can do the coloratura fireworks too, as we shall learn. So too, however, is the direction: her placing with (and not with) other characters at particular times, her reactions to them, leading up to a moment quite justified and yet also shocking: the furious slap she gives the Composer after his/her (self-)righteous words at the close. Has (s)he not listened to a word Zerbinetta has said? Most likely not; for even in a world such as Mitchell’s, in which gender is fluid, indeed performed, there is no doubting that masculinity rules the roost. Molière after all wrote Le bourgeois gentilhomme, after all, thus in a sense initiating or at least provoking this particular drama. In connection with that, it is perhaps worth noting that Marc Albrecht seemed particular attuned to the connections – and implicitly the contrasts – with Strauss’s incidental music too. His, overall, was a wise and splendid reading, never seeking attention for itself, yet fully aware of when the orchestra should soar – above all at the close. If an orchestra is unlikely ever to sound at its best outdoors, the Orchestre de Paris, a few scrappy string moments aside, offered warmth, clarity, and chamber-music responsiveness throughout. Albrecht’s gentle yet authoritative guidance nevertheless remained an absolute necessity.

Back, however, to the stage. (How difficult it is even to write about keeping all those balls in the air!) Already, in that Prologue, Mitchell and her team have slightly prised open the work (and its ‘work-concept’). The dialogue has not been quite as one remembered it, perhaps, although we all know how memories can play tricks. In ‘reality’, Martin Crimp has added some lines to fit what we see, some others have gone, and the surtitles seem to offer a further level of commentary and critique: never too much, but enough to have one wonder. Without returning to the 1912 version, with or without Molière – what a missed opportunity that was in Salzburg in 2012! – elements return or rather are rethought and transformed. The Richest Man in Vienna is there, in a dress, as his wife, who literally wears the trousers. They not only offer interjections, new yet rooted in memories of 1912, at least to begin with; they are offered opportunity to learn, to be transformed. Indeed, they interact with the ‘cast’ almost at will. It is, alas, not clear what, if anything, they have learned; audiences and patrons can be like that. Perhaps, though, it is too soon to tell, for which of us has not on occasion learned more from a performance than might initially have seemed to be the case? The final words, appropriately enough, are given to M. Jourdain’s successor: the experiment has been interesting, but it is unlikely to show the way to the future of opera. That, we may retort, and probably do, is at least as much up to us as up to you, however much you may throw your cash around.

Such is the metatheatricality. Perhaps the real truths of Mitchell’s, Hofmannsthal’s, and Strauss’s opera(s), however, lie in what is too often overlooked: what this Ariadne, partly the Composer’s, partly all manner of others’, does as an opera. Angela Brower’s Composer, beautifully, intelligently sung, has not left the stage; (s)he conducts, at times, although it is unclear whether anyone knows or cares. The Opera concerns, above all, Ariadne on Naxos. Lise Davidsen’s Ariadne proved one of the finest I have heard, possessed of an almost infinite dynamic range, subtly inflected, and endless reserves of breath for the longest of Straussian lines. I do not think I have seen – and this was surely Mitchell’s doing too – her suffer so greatly. The sheer misery of her condition shone through, long before it was revealed that she had been left with child, to be delivered and claimed by a rather nasty – should he not be just that? – Bacchus (Eric Cutler, who again can certainly sing the role). The taunts of Zerbinetta’s troupe – perhaps not intentional, yet no less hurtful for that – sting particularly in such a setting. Indeed, their erotic table-dancing, preening, and squabbling, stage realising words and music in properly post-Wagnerian fashion, seems rightly both beside the point and absolutely of it. When Bacchus offers Ariadne the choice of life or death, we have no idea what she will choose, nor for whom. Right up until the end, we fear she might use the revolver that is one of his ‘gifts’. Will she shoot herself, her child, him, someone else, the entire assembled company? In the end, she does not. A child has been born; so too has an opera. Perhaps, whatever our host may think and demand, the future or a future of opera has been too. We shall see and/or hear – or not.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence (1), ‘L’Alto à l’honneur’ – Loeffler, Bray, Liszt, Kodály, and Brahms, 13 July 2018

Conservatoire Darius Milhaud

Charles Martin Loeffler: Quatre poèmes, op.5
Charlotte Bray: In Black Light (world premiere)
Liszt: Romance oubliée, S 132
Kodály: Adagio for viola and piano
Brahms: Zwei Gesänge, op.91

Tabea Zimmermann (viola)
Andrea Hill (soprano)
Edwige Herchenroder (piano)

An oddly patchy concert, this: alongside the most unidiomatic professional Liszt performance I can recall and only intermittently successful Brahms, we heard a highly convincing world premiere and fine performances of two other works hitherto unknown to me: one indeed written by a composer of whom I had not previously heard. That composer was Charles Martin Loeffler, one of the works his Quatre poèmes, op.5 of 1893. Or should that have been Karl Martin Loeffler? So consumed with hatred, it seems, had the young Karl been for Germany that, even following his emigration to the USA, he would claim to have been born not Prussian but Alsatian and changed his name accordingly. Quatre poèmes was doubtless chosen because it would involve all three musicians performing in this concert, but it seemed to me on a single hearing fully to justify inclusion on merit. One heard, aptly enough, what seemed to be a largely yet not exclusively German sense of harmony with a more French taste in verse, melody, and sometimes texture too. The first song, a setting of Baudelaire’s La Cloche fêlée, seemed to mediate both as work and performance between Duparc and Brahms, Tabea Zimmermann’s viola-playing – Loeffler was an early enthusiast for the viola d’amore – becoming more Romantically ardent as the piece demanded or suggested. It offered development in a more conventionally instrumental sense, yet seemed also to have something of a Franco-Flemish (Franck, perhaps soon Debussy too) taste for the cyclical. It certainly convinced, moreover, as a response to the poem. The Verlaine ‘Dansons la gigue’ was gypsy-like – at least in a nineteenth-century sense – whilst also seemingly responding to Carmen in its more reflective moments. Verlaine was the poet for the remaining two pieces too. An atmosphere of general sadness, relieved somewhat by finely spun piano arabesques from Edwige Herchenrode, characterised ‘Le Son du cor s’afflige vers les bois’. The vocal line in the closing ‘Sérénade’, and Andrea Hill’s delivery of it, hinted at la vieille France, but this was no pastiche, instead a dramatic evocation of another time, ‘mandoline’ and all. I even fancied there were suggestions of the darker Ravel: presentiments, though, given the date. Fascinating: I shall be keen to hear more Loeffler.

I have always been keen to hear more Charlotte Bray too. The world premiere of In Black Light, for solo viola, furthered that keenness. It struck me as having some aspects of variational form – developing variation if you will, but also something more ‘traditional’ than that – within an overarching framework that has something of what would once have called a tone poem to it. Rhythms and intervals help generate style and idea. Following a grave opening of (relative) pitch extremes, a broad canvas emerges, upon which composer and performer alike offer a commanding variety of musical strokes: one section ‘jagged and fiery’ (Bray), another ‘a kind of broken waltz’, another ‘a mysterious pizzicato miniature’, and so on: related yet contrasting. The rhythmic profile is certainly sharp – and was certainly sharp in Zimmermann’s commanding performance, clearly highly attuned to the work’s contours and expressive requirements. The opening theme’s return did indeed sound, to quote the composer again, ‘urgently present and expressively charged’.

Liszt’s Romance oubliée has always seemed to me – perhaps unsurprisingly – superior in its piano solo version. That, however, is no reason to shun any of its others, especially when ‘actual’ Liszt chamber music is so thin on the ground, the composer’s tendency being, not unlike Wagner’s, to write chamber music within works for larger forces. The opening solo line certainly suits the viola, yet this proved for violist and pianist alike a strangely constricted performance, tentative to the point of incoherence. Kodály’s Adagio, first written for violin, then arranged for viola, proved much more Zimmermann and Herchenroder’s thing. Its darkly Romantic opening sounded almost Elgarian – at least to this Englishman. Zimmermann spun a rich, yet far from indulgent line, which enabled the material to develop in far from predictable fashion. If her pianist seemed very much the ‘accompanist’, she performed well in that role. As she did in the two closing Brahms songs; to begin with, indeed, we might have been about to hear a newly discovered sonata for viola and piano. Taken as a whole, though, those performances might have been more attuned to the songs’ form. Lack of direction, even meandering, married to a reticent way with the words (Rückert’s) from Hill sometimes made for heavy Brahmsian weather. If only they had been performed as if written by Loeffler.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

OAE/Schiff - Haydn, 4 July 2018

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Symphony no.94 in G major, ‘Surprise’
Piano Concerto no.11 in D major, Hob.XVIII/11
Harmoniemesse in B-flat major, Hob.XXII:14

Charlotte Beament (soprano)
Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano)
Nick Pritchard (tenor)
Dingle Yandell (bass)

Choir of the Enlightenment
Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment
András Schiff (fortepiano, conductor)

Many of the ingredients for a memorable concert were there, or so they initially seemed to be. Alas, ultimately what we learned more clearly than anything else was that the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s new Principal Artist, András Schiff, is no conductor. It is not clear that he is much of a pianist any more either. The latter surprised me: not because my recent encounters with him in the concert hall had been positive, far from it, but because various friends had thought highly of his recent turn to the fortepiano. (He has long played older instruments as well as the modern piano, but seems to be doing so rather more at the moment.) When one of them lent me a CD of Schiff playing Schubert on a period instrument, I shared some of that enthusiasm. The deathly seriousness of his recent piano playing, often not helped by bizarre programming more suited to recording of box sets than to the concert hall, seemed to be gone. Schiff seemed liberated by the possibilities, rather than restricted by the shortcomings, of the older instrument. Whether that were due to recording trickery, or whether this concert were an off-day, I do not know. However, I could not help but think that the other musicians would often have made a better show of things without him (and with another soloist). 

Each of the three works on the evening’s programme opened with great promise, the introduction to the Surprise Symphony’s first movement dark with potentiality. (The Creation’s ‘Representation of Chaos’ was not itself an act of creatio ex nihilo; it is inconceivable without Haydn’s symphonic introductions.) That came from the players, though, Schiff’s conducting either ineffectual or restrictively four-square. Oddly, or perhaps not so oddly to those more closely acquainted with the period-instrument scene, the willingness of the OAE’s players truly to play out, rather than to condescend to Haydn, had them sound closer to performances by the likes of Eugen Jochum or Colin Davis than to many more recent ones. Alas, however, the lack of formal dynamism and even control of the players soon made for a wearing experience. The Andante was on the fast side, yet far from unreasonably so. Otherwise it was business as usual: the more Sturm und Drang passages sounded magnificent in their way – they would have done still more so with a larger band – yet unduly regimented. The scherzo had Schwung, for which one could overlook a few too many intonational lapses. Soon, it became a bit too same-y, though: where was the development? Such was still more the case for its trio and for a merely hectic finale.

If the D major Piano Concerto opened with somewhat mannered string articulation, such is often the way now. I have heard far worse – whether from modern or period instruments. Quite why Schiff sometimes played continuo and sometimes did not is anyone’s guess. He certainly made things far worse as soloist, his phrasing often barely worthy of the word. Balance between the hands was sometimes straightforwardly odd; there is, of course, a greater difference between registers on such an instrument, but even so. His cadenza, based upon the Symphony’s Andante was thought hilarious by some, but they had reacted similarly the first time around too. In the slow movement, Schiff struggled to form a cantabile phrase at all, let alone to shape it meaningfully. The OAE was much better, needless to say. Episodes in the finale were weirdly unconnected; I was quite shocked how little harmonic understanding was on show here. Surely Schiff used to be better than that? The audience loved it, though, and was rewarded with an encore of the entire movement.

The introduction to the ‘Kyrie’ of the Harmoniemesse, surely one of Haydn’s very grandest, indeed awe-inspiring passages, sang with all the promise, perhaps even more, of that to the Symphony. Even here, though Schiff’s phrasing was often pedantic; the less he did, the better. Grainy woodwind reminded us why this mass has the nickname it does. Vocal quartet and choir alike offered consummately professional singing, often rather more than that: beautiful, if not especially mitteleuropäisch in style. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with an ‘English’ performance of Haydn: better that than unconvincing ventriloquism.

The ‘Gloria’ began, as many of the movements – I know we should not really call them that, but never mind – did, at a surprisingly slow tempo. I have nothing against that, quite the contrary, but much of it was a bit of a trudge. Charlotte Beament’s bell-like soprano was attractive here and throughout. The ‘Gratias’ section sounded too fast: more likely in relation to what had gone before than intrinsically. Indeed, proportional tempi were notable only by their absence. That said, nothing here can really mask the vigour and rigour of Haydn’s thematic working out; if that is not ‘symphonic’, then I do not know what out. Moreover, nothing did mask it. A four-square conclusion was less than overflowing with joy.

There was an old-fashioned Handelian sturdiness to the opening of the ‘Credo’: far from out of place, necessarily, in Haydn’s evocation of the Church as Rock of St Peter. Without greater forward impetus, though, such an approach will sound merely staid, as it did here. If you are going to adopt a Klemperer-like tempo – what it might have been to have heard him conduct this mass! – then it may help actually to be Klemperer, or at least more of a conductor than Schiff. Gorgeous woodwind in the central section, ‘Et incarnatus…’, was alas, supplanted, by increasingly wayward solo noises from ‘Ex resurrexit’ onwards. That would have mattered less, had there been more in the way of formal and/or theological insight from Schiff. Alas, it was by now clear that such would not be forthcoming.

The ‘Sanctus’ was spacious and less static, Schiff’s slow tempo notwithstanding. It too, however, was blighted by too much dodgy woodwind playing. Perhaps the players were tiring; it certainly sounded like it. It was no bad thing in the circumstances to have a swift ‘Benedictus’, although it verged perhaps on the silly. Nicely imploring invocations of the Lamb of God, as much orchestral as choral, gave way to bizarrely heavy, joyless cries of ‘Dona nobis pacem’. A pity.

Gens/Manoff - Gounod, Polignac, Massent, Duparc, Hahn, and Offenbach, 2 July 2018

Wigmore Hall

Gounod: Où voulez-vous aller?; Le Soir; O ma belle rebelle; Sérénade; Mignon; Viens, les gazons sont verts
Edmond de Polignac: Lamento
Massenet: Chant provençal; Elégie; Nuit d’Espagne
Duparc: Chanson triste; La Vie antérieure; Extase; Lamento
Reynaldo Hahn: Le Rossignol des lilas; Mai; Les Cygnes; Infidélité; Rêverie
Offenbach: Six Fables de La Fontaine: ‘La Cigale et la fourmi’, ‘Le Corbeau et le renard’

Véronique Gens (soprano)
Susan Manoff (piano)

It came as quite a surprise throughout much of the first half of this recital of French song, that it was the piano-playing of Susan Manoff that made the greater impression upon me than the singing of Véronique Gens. With the best will in the world, it could hardly be claimed that the songs of Gounod and Massenet are possessed of remarkably piano parts. And yet, from the prelude to the opening Où voulez-vous aller, it was often the piano that proved more communicative, that grabbed and retained my interest. Indeed, Manoff’s evident love for the music and for music-making in general proved so infections that I found more in the songs, especially Gounod’s, than I might ever have imagined possible. Whether it were her teasing, effortlessly ‘natural’ rubato in the Lamartine setting, Le Soir, the immediate establishment of a cradle rhythm, and her play therewith, in the Hugo Sérénade, or the unerring sense of line and shaping the song as a whole in Mignon, (sort of) after Goethe, it would have been more or less impossible not to warm to these performance. I certainly did not try. Likewise in the rhythms of Massenet’s  Nuit d’Espagne. ‘Generative’ might be thought too Teutonic a way of considering the music in a song like that; it was nevertheless the word that came to mind to this incorrigible Teutonophile.

Gens sometimes sounded reticent by comparison, rather as if she were holding something back for the second half. Perhaps she was. Not that there was nothing to admire. Above all, there was her ready way with the texts and her cleanness of line. A touch more vibrato might on occasion, though, have been welcome – at least to me. The tasteful sadness of Massenet’s Elégie prove eminently satisfying, though. In Edmond de Polignac’s Lamento, simple and well-formed, far more than a mere curiosity, both artists left one wanting more. The piano’s harmonic inflections nevertheless proved the key, or so it seemed.

If I found Gens at times a little ‘white’ of voice in Duparc’s songs – Vie antérieure in particular – that is more a matter of taste than anything else.  It remained, however, the piano parts in which I found, again to my surprise, the greater interest, at least until the Théophile Gautier setting, Lamento. Contemplation of the white tomb, as opposed to entombment itself, was very much the thing – until the high drama (relatively speaking) of the third and final stanza. ‘Ah! jamais plus près de la tombe je n’irai…’

Try as I might, I cannot summon up the enthusiasm shared by so many for the songs of Reynaldo Hahn, whether in the second half proper, or as encores. Nevertheless, I found myself well able to appreciate the darker undercurrents of a song such as Mai in performance. Likewise that ineffably Gallic regret – a cliché, I know, but what of it? – in Infidélité, another Gautier setting. Moreover, the way Manoff set up musical expectations through rhythm in the Hugo Rêverie reminded me very much of the opening Gounod set.

Offenbach’s cynical humour is probably just more appealing to me. I do not think I had ever heard his songs before. The two pieces from his Six Fables de La Fontaine, pretty much operettic scenas in their own right, made me keen to hear more. Gens now seemed far more at ease, more readily communicative. ‘She played humorously with the closing phrase of ‘Le Corbeau et le renard’ – ‘qu’on ne l’y prendrait plus’ – with no need to underline. The preceding ‘La Cigale et la fourmi’ closed with a true invitation to the dance. This was by now a true partnership, whether between soprano and pianist or grasshopper and ant.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Pelléas et Mélisande, Glyndebourne, 30 June 2018

Glyndebourne Opera House
Mélisande (Christiana Gansch), Pelléas (John Chest), Golaud (Christopher Purves)
Images: Richard Hubert Smith

Golaud – Christopher Purves
Mélisande – Christiana Gansch
Geneviève – Karen Cargill
Arkel – Brindley Sherratt/Richard Wiegold
Pelléas – John Chest
Yniold – Chloé Briot
Doctor – Michael Mofidian
Shepherd – Michael Wallace

Stefan Herheim (director, lighting)
Philipp Fürhofer (designs)
Tony Simpson (lighting)
Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach (dramaturgy)

Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Nicholas Jenkins)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Robin Ticciati (conductor)

Mélisande and Golaud

What might have been? Such was a thought that came to my mind more than once during this, the premiere of Glyndebourne’s new Pelléas et Mélisande. What might have been if Stefan Herheim had not changed his Konzept so late in the day? (I had actually forgotten about that until reminded during the interval, yet had already begun to wonder whether the production had been, especially for him, unusually rushed.) What might have been, had this magnificent statement of intent – one of the greatest opera directors alive – from Sebastian F. Schwarz’s intendancy not been followed by manœuvring to ensure that something more ‘English’ would thereafter prove the order of the day? What might have been, had this Pelléas been conducted by someone with a little more feeling for and understanding of Debussy’s score – it would not have been difficult – than Robin Ticciati? What, ultimately, might have been, were operatic culture in this country not so philistine and class-ridden? The good news – our lives are at present as full of good news as those we see in Pelléas – is that leaving the European Union will only serve to make everything far, far worse. C’est au tour de pauvres petites.

Mélisande and Pelléas

I was thinking, though – which is considerably better than not. Even if I could not help but wonder what Pelléas set on a spaceship would have been like – on the face of it, it sounds a brilliant idea – Glyndebourne’s Organ Room, from time to time a salle modulable yet never escapable, turned the action and responsibility squarely upon us, the audience. (If only the worst-behaved had noticed. Some laughed at the end. Laughed! It was not difficult to think of them as Faragistes.) It is specific, yes, but not exclusivist. Indeed, with its heavy wood-panelling in Philipp Fürhofer’s outstanding set design, it might almost be the Victorianised combination room of an Oxford or Cambridge college or even something from the Hanseatic world of Buddenbrooks. Ancestry and tradition weigh down on it, though, as seen on the severe wall portraits. It is about us, then, but also about how we have become who we are.

Geneviève (Karen Cargill), Mélisande, and Pelléas

‘Us’ in this sense means taking on aestheticism, asking ourselves as well as selfish fellow audience members what we think we are doing and why. These are people engaged in fruitless, fatal pursuits – but in this case they are also aesthetic pursuits. They try to paint new pictures and cannot. Why not? On account of tradition, or account of an aestheticism that has them retreat from lives, even try to turn their lives into art? It need not be either/or; it almost certainly is not. We see through their attempts at art, though: literally, for the paintings, if they exist at all, are beyond the fourth wall. Is not Mélisande, after all, a blank canvas? Men certainly tend to wish her so – as with Lulu. It is just a hobby, though, is it not? Something for rich people to do to while away their time, perhaps like building an opera house so that ‘your’ – the possessive is important – wife might sing in it. Pelléas might seem different; he is, here, an artist, a younger Debussyan dandy rather than the elderly huntsman trying to be something he is not and certainly was not. (Are Golaud and Pelléas to be identified with the composer? Perhaps, perhaps not. If you do not want ambiguity, this is not the opera for you.) But is he? Is he really? Or does he just wear summer clothes in a darkened room? Perhaps his aestheticised life is still more dishonest; perhaps ours are too. Perhaps, peut-être. ‘Je pars peut-être demain.’

We do that to children too, especially those of us who claim to be shocked by the very suggestion. Germaine Greer has fallen off the rails spectacularly in recent years, but her insight that we are all paedophiles still holds; indeed it holds more strongly than ever, if less so for those of us unburdened by ‘family’. And so, when Yniold – yes, I too had been mumbling that I should have preferred to hear a treble – is unmasked as a woman all along, with locks aspiring to those of Mélisande, we are obliged to ask ourselves questions. The violence we see, feel aestheticised and sublimated all around us suddenly becomes, as the interval comes, something we can no longer ignore. Those blows that never quite led anywhere come to seem something more than ‘boring’.

By the same token, however, should they perhaps not have become something a little sooner? When does representing boredom become merely boring? I am not sure that Herheim, usually a master at treading of multiple lines, does not trip, even fall, in this case. An object lesson in that respect was Christiane Pohle’s revelatory post-Beckett staging for the Bavarian State Opera. Meaninglessness was the thing there, not ennui as such; the production was all the better for it. I cannot help but wonder whether the negative reaction it received was laced with misogyny – and/or perhaps a journalistic lack of understanding of ‘modern’ theatre. It was, at any rate, difficult not to ask such a question in a work that focuses on abusive behaviour and yet here, at least, attempts to avoid addressing that behaviour.

Golaud and Mélisande

Later on, when it becomes more explicit, when we see that Pelléas and Mélisande literally stage their own death – is it actually a real death at all, or just an act – everything falls into place. Mélisande has already – in fact she did so straight away – ease(le)d out Geneviève. The family, closing ranks, would clearly avenge itself, so perhaps playing at Tristan and Isolde is all that it is left. It has not been an easy road; nor, surely, should it have been. However, just a little relief from the claustrophobia might actually render it more powerful. As things stand, there remains more than a little suspicion that earlier tedium is a handy, even suggestive excuse, yet perhaps nevertheless an excuse in part. Bloodied clowns certainly make their point; this sick Liebestod from the Theatre of the Absurd has still not left my imagination. Yniold, now herself, visits the Organ Room as a guest, an opera-goer. It makes the point, yes, but might it not be better left unmade?

Tradition is, after all, sometimes necessary, or at least helpful – as the Roman Catholic Church would rightly tell us. It often provides an important counterweight to literalism, to fundamentalism. Collective wisdom enables development; each one of us need not re-invent the wheel. (Aesthetes breathe a collective sigh of relief.) As Pierre Boulez pointed out in challenging – though not, as some have claimed, denying – tradition, ‘a strong personality will inevitably transform it [tradition].’ That still leaves the problem, of course, of what to do about personalities that are not ‘strong’ or do not wish to be. ‘Ne me touchez-pas! Ne me-touchez-pas!’ Is the conclusion here bleak or weak? Is it too easy to say that it is what we want it to be? Doubtless. Is it what we will make of it? By definition it more or less has to be, but is that simply to evade the question? And is that wrong? Debussy, after all, is the unsurpassed master of musical ambiguity.

Tradition, or at least learning, would certainly have benefited the conducting, at best featureless, at worst frankly jejune, we heard from Ticciati. Debussy’s genius shone through, although more the debt to Wagner than what distinguished him from the old Klingsor. That, however, was surely the doing of the London Philharmonic, drawing when it could on its vast reserves of operatic and symphonic experience. Alas, such uninspired musical direction  bleeding titbits of Wagner for people who dislike Wagner  did not help the singers either. Christopher Purves was presented as an older Golaud and sang as such: nothing wrong with it. His anger was wonderfully sublimated until it was not. It would have gained greater musical context, though, as would the rest of the cast’s, had there been – well, greater musico-dramatic context. Christiana Gansch and John Chest likewise offered good vocal performances as the doomed lovers, but something seemed to be missing. (Should something be missing? Perhaps. Again, however, it is a fine line.) Richard Wiegold was an undoubted hero of the evening, singing from a box whilst an indisposed Brindley Sherratt acted out the role of Arkel below. Karen Cargill offered rich-toned benevolence – I think – as Geneviève; as so often in this role, one wished there were more to hear.  There was much to admire from Chloé Briot, Michael Mofidian, and Michael Wallace, although it was difficult not to think that all concerned might have benefited from greater certainty and clarity elsewhere.

Was it worth it, then, to have annoyed the right people, bluff English purveyors of ‘common sense’? Of course. They will not like Pelléas anyway; if they think they do, it is because they have not remotely understood it and think of it as vaguely ‘beautiful’. Is it enough to have annoyed them? Of course not. Does this represent Herheim’s best work? No. Does the production stand in need of revision? Very much so. Does it also need a conductor with a little more idea what might be going on and what might be at stake? Still more so. And yet, I have been thinking about it ever since, and show no sign of stopping. In the meantime, hasten to see Barrie Kosky’s Berlin production and, should it ever be revived, Pohle’s Munich staging. There are always, as we æsthetes/æstheticists will tell you, great recordings too. Desormière or Karajan? Boulez or Abbado? Why choose? With Boulez, you can even see Peter Stein before he lost it. ‘What,’ you might ask, ‘is “it”,’? Such is surely part of what Herheim’s production is about – perhaps, peut-être, still more so than he intended.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Wild Plum Arts - Schaufer/Watkins, ‘The Class of 1938’, 29 June 2018

Wigmore Hall

William Bolcom: Songs from Minicabs (2009)
Joan Tower: Or like a … and Engine (1994)
John Harbison: North and South, Book I: ‘Late Air’ (2001)
Charles Wuorinen: Twang (1989)
Hedy West (arr. Michèle Brourman): 500 Miles (1961, world premiere of arrangement)
John Corigliano: The Passionate Shepherd to His Love (2017, world premiere)
Bolcom: Graceful Ghost Rag (1970)
Frederic Rzewski: War Songs no.1 (2008)
Gordon Lightfoot (arr. Brourman): Black Day in July (1968, world premiere)
Peter Yarrow (arr. Brourman): Sweet Survivor (1978, world premiere)
Corigliano: MetaMusic: ‘Dodecaphonia’ (1997); ‘Marvellous Invention’ (2001); ‘End of the Line’ (2008)

Lucy Schaufer (mezzo-soprano)
Huw Watkins (piano)

Wild Plum Arts is ‘determined to get new music written and performed. If you’re a composer,’ we read on the front page of its website,’ we would like to help you. If you’re not a composer, but you like new music or even the idea of new music, and you want to do something to support its creation, we hope you’ll help us to get this done.’ This late night Friday Wigmore Hall concert was its first concert. Highly enjoyable and interesting in itself, it also augured well for whatever the future might bring; to put it another way, your support would clearly both be appreciated and rewarded.

Co-founder Lucy Schaufer teamed up with pianist (and composer) Huw Watkins in a programme of music by American composers, all born in 1938, and all save one (Hedy West) still with us. Schaufer told us that this had been a dream of hers since she had been a student at Tanglewood; now that dream had become reality. Her engaging introductions, both to the concert proper and to many of the items not only informed and entertained, but drew the audience in, made the evening feel as much a gathering of friends – which, in many ways, is precisely what it was – as a public occasion.

‘I feel good’ from William Bolcom’s Minicabs was the first of several very brief Bolcom song contributions, the others ‘People Change’, ‘Food Song’, and the closing ‘Finale: Mystery of the Song?’ There was something of an American Poulenc to the wit on display, although the miniaturism told of something different. In these, as in the other songs we hear, Schaufer proved the consummate hostess, teacher, and confidante, Watkins very much her equal, her chamber music partner. Sometimes he had the field to himself, shining equally in the toccata-like Joan Tower Or like a … an Engine, Bolcom’s own  ‘Graceful Ghost Rag’ from Three Ghost Rags, and Frederic Rzewski’s  Wae Songs no.1, which served very well as an introduction to an over protest songs, Gordon Lightfoot’s Black Day in July, a response to civil unrest in Detroit’, ‘motor city’, and to Peter Yarrow’s (Peter as in Peter, Paul, and Mary) Sweet Survivor, wistfully looking back at those headier days.

The sheer variety of styles and motivations might have overwhelmed or made for a less than satisfying whole, yet such was not the case in the slightest. This was a programme in the best sense curated, both on paper and in the hall. Schaufer’s generosity of taste and spirit shone through, ensuring that even if, in the abstract, some of the music might not have been ‘your sort of thing’, you would most likely have been happy indeed to have your preconceptions challenged, perhaps even your mind and ears opened. And so, if all too predictably, the greatest find for me in abstracto proved to be Charles Wuorinen’s Twang, somehow both as knotty and as blinding in its clarity as the late Stravinsky (Webern too perhaps?) after which it seemed to take, neither I nor anyone else was listening in abstracto. Categories dissolved or transformed. This was an evening of song – and above all of song in performance.

Please do, at the very least, have a look at Wild Plum Arts’s website. Whether you feel able or willing to contribute to the long-term goal of acquiring ‘a secluded property in which to run an artists’ residence,’ or would just like to watch the composer interview videos – the two need not be mutually exclusive – it is surely worth a few minutes of your time. So too, I am sure, will the next concert be. For these artists, next stop is the Buxton Festival, thence to Ravinia.

Philharmonia/Salonen - Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, 28 June 2018

Royal Festival Hall


Waldemar – Robert Dean Smith
Tove – Camilla Tilling
Wood-dove – Michelle DeYoung
Peasant – David Soar
Klaus-Narr – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Speaker – Barbara Sukowa

Philharmonia Voices
Choirs of the Royal Academy of Music
Royal College of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and Trinity Laban Conservatore of Music and Dance (chorus director: Aidan Oliver)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

Opportunities to hear, let alone to conduct, Gurrelieder do not come along very often. Simon Rattle must have had more of the latter than most. What a way, then, for Esa-Pekka Salonen to approach his sixtieth birthday, with a work he had conducted so successfully with this same orchestra, the Philharmonia, in this same hall, not far off a decade ago. (That performance was recorded, and released on Signum Classics.)

The opening Prelude glistened, lacking nothing in warmth or almost pointillistic potential. Salonen was no more likely to wallow than Boulez might have done, and all the better for it. Here one heard – almost saw – water and ice. It flowed, ran, even stood with commendable flexibility, suggestive of a tone poem (which, in a way, it is, even when words intervene). Particularly intriguing was his orchestral balancing, subtle yet telling, highlighting yet never exaggerating the music’s darker undercurrents: pitch, timbre, harmony. The later Schoenberg is not so far away: one only has to listen. This was music after Götterdämmerung as well as after Tristan: unquestionably ‘after Wagner’, in far more than the most obvious ways.

Alas, Robert Dean Smith’s Waldemar often proved something of a trial. An older-sounding Waldemar is fine, repeated uncertainty of pitch rather less so. For much of the first part in particular, he was at best effortful, an especial pity when Salonen proved so adept at balancing those tone-poem, even symphonic tendencies (Pelleas und Melisande often came to mind) with the music’s roots in the song-cycle tradition. (Schoenberg’s first conception had been of a shorter cycle for voice and piano. Zemlinsky would recall that the songs ‘were wonderfully beautiful and truly novel – however we both had the impression that, on that account, they had little prospect of winning a prize.’) There was no denying the through-composed nature of Schoenberg’s writing, but nor is there, after all, in what we generally consider the very first song-cycle, An die ferne Geliebte. Fortunately, Camilla Tilling proved far more able than Dean Smith not only to ride the orchestra but also to make something of the words and phrases, although, to be fair, when foretelling his haunting, this Waldemar proved more convincing. There was plenty elsewhere to ravish: not least the combination of delicacy and splendour from Tilling and upper strings as Tove bade her love join her in raising golden goblets, Tristan-like, albeit with a decidedly æstheticist twist, to mighty, beautifying death (dem mächtig verschönenden Tod). It seemed telling and indeed touching, perhaps indicative of Salonen’s plans for the Ring, that the chords presaging and indeed furthering Tove’s departure from the stage echoed so clearly in combination of harmony and timbre the magnificent, malevolent world of Hagen.

Michelle DeYoung entered stage-right as if a figure from Klimt. (I know it is far too obvious an association, but demeanour and dress were so strongly suggestive that I shall indulge myself.) Jill Crowther’s English horn recalled to us an alte – or perhaps better, an ältereWeise. Yet even before the Wood-dove sang, Schoenberg’s interlude had proved a kaleidoscopic realm of love and terror, love as terror; she only put it into words – but how! – what we (mostly) already knew. DeYoung offered a song variegated dramatically as well as tonally, almost a little – well, not so very little – cantata in its own right. Her richness of tone against the darkness of harmony and orchestral colour both reminded us of Salonen’s and Schoenberg’s presentiments at the opening, whilst leading us to a shattering climax. Tod/death: after that, life could only fade away – or could it?

The opening of the Second Part quite rightly sounded as if a digest of what had gone before – only, as it would in one of Wagner’s narrations, be it verbal, orchestral, or both, with difference of detail, of standpoint, of import. Dean Smith proved more imploring than angry, but that worked in its way. The aftermath of Waldemar’s outburst was shockingly prolonged – in the best way – by Salonen. Monumental was the word for it.

Variegation again proved the key to the Wild Hunt. Neither here nor elsewhere was there any absence of power to the outstanding massed choral forces, but heft is not enough, nor did it have to be. Salonen ensured an array of colour, even when Schoenberg apparently confronted him and us with blocks of sound. The terror of the first ghostly cry, in reaction to, or perhaps oblivious to, the handsomely dark bass-baritone observations of David Soar’s Peasant, proved quite something: several leagues beyond anything to be heard or even imagined in Der Freischütz. The proper entry of the chorus sounded like nothing so much as Götterdämmerung on acid – which it essentially is. It was, however, the aftermath that truly chilled. So much is in Schoenberg’s scoring here, yet I do not think before now I had quite realised how much. Dean Smith at last recaptured something of Tristan’s delirium, movingly so, as the orchestra seemed to engage in act of self-dissolution – again, as much in timbre as in harmony, before reconstituting itself for what was yet to come.

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Klaus-Narr perhaps inevitably suggested Mime: even his orchestral ‘introduction’ seemed to do so. This seemed, however, a more ambiguous ‘character’ still, transformations in mood and/or self-projection of mood disconcertingly yet, in their way, honestly quicksilver. His reflections on – mocking of? – salvation rightly left one uneasy yet wanting to know more. ‘Dann muss ich eingehn im Himmels Gnaden… Na, und dann mag Gott sich selber gnaden.’ Sepulchral chorus and brass alike soon eerily set against piccolos, set the stage, so it seemed, for another orchestral rebirth, now very much an ensemble straining towards Pierrot lunaire. Nothing would ever be the same again – and perhaps, just perhaps, such had been the work of this ‘fool’.

Step forward Barbara Sukowa, as spellbinding as she had been for Salonen in 2009 – or indeed for Claudio Abbado on his Vienna recording. This Speaker was delirious, yet delightful; or was that our æstheticising something too close for comfort? Not only Pierrot, but a whole century’s worth of music thereafter flashed before our ears. ‘Still! Was mag der Wind nur wollen?’ Did these hallucinations, if that be what they were, speak of a bad or a good trip? Schoenberg, as so often, resisted the either/or. Violin and clarinet acknowledged Wagner once again, now the Siegfried-Idyll, paving the way to Schoenberg’s final, glorious, yet ultimately never quite convincing paean to the sun(god). We revelled in that final chorus, yet, whether or not we wished to do so, could never quite shake off those intimations of the ‘air of another planet’. The future was both upon us and not. Schoenberg’s time had come.