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.