Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Levit - Beethoven and Rzewski. 24 May 2019

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven: Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, op.120
Rzewski: The People United will never be Defeated!

Igor Levit (piano)

Following Igor Levit’s Goldberg Variations two nights previously, we now relaxed with a little light music. A programme of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations – how often would that appear in the first half of a concert? – and Frederic Rzewski’s The People United will never be Defeated! (not, as I misnamed it in the former review, in a bizarre, unconscious Anglicisation, ‘The People United shall not be Defeated’!) evidently, quite rightly, thrilled pianist and audience alike, eliciting a rare Wigmore Hall standing ovation.

First, then, Beethoven’s thirty-three variations on what he may or may not have called a Schusterfleck (‘cobbler’s patch’), the latter theme taken faster than I can recall, yet fleet rather than harried. The first six variations had a sense of an exposition, only to have their parameters transformed, transfigured, blown to smithereens. Smiling yet serious – echoes, I thought of the G major Sonata, op.14 no.2 – the first variation proved beautifully variegated, though never arch. Who could not have smiled at the lovely, throwaway final phrase? Almost pointillistic Mendelssohn in the second was followed by a third variation as seductive as anything in Liszt, its whispered, Schumannesque confidences serving only to remind one that there is little, save in Chopin, that nineteenth-century Romantic piano music does not owe to Beethoven. By the time we reached the fourth variation, Beethoven’s transformative method was clear – and, just as much to the point, felt: not just between variations but within them. The Lisztian sense of two hands becoming one was duly apparent in the fifth variation, the sixth showing harmonic proliferation – variation form notwithstanding – well under way.

And so, the stage had been set for what we might think of – and surely experienced as – gigantic development and finale (i.e. development upon development). Beethoven and the idea of Beethoven so condition how we understand German and much other music thereafter – perhaps not Ravel, who spoke of ‘le grand sourd’ – that the very idea of musical development is well-nigh impossible to dissociate from his music. (And why should anyone try?) At any rate, I heard the remainder less as individual variations – and I suspect that was at least in part owed to the performance. All tendencies – modernist, Romantic, Classical, even Bachian – came more into their own, whilst at the same time combining to make the sense of a whole still stronger. Dialectics. Major and minor, oscillation between which Charles Rosen famously discussed as a hallmark of the Classical style, and other dialectical poles truly became the stuff of musical argument. Pauses, syncopations, a simple V-I progression all told: again in themselves and as part of something much greater. Can music go beyond the late Beethoven sonatas? If so – and many would say it does in the late quartets – it did here, just as the Ninth Symphony, in a rare meaningful performance, will beyond its eight predecessors. Indeed, I drew thematic and harmonic connections with the rest of Beethoven’s œuvre, with musical history more broadly; not for nothing did another great culmination, the Missa solemnis, come to mind. The array of contrapuntal procedures heard here, however, was far more developmental; this is not the alienated masterpiece Adorno discerned in Beethoven’s Mass. It is still a set of variations, after all. I am not sure, though, that I have ever heard this work sound so productively difficult and engaging.

A bold, confident statement announced Rzewski’s panoramic set of variations, immediately varied. Grand Romanticism, Webern-like pointillism, so much was more or less immediately thrown into the mix, direct and elusive. Here the opposites were more obvious, perhaps, but Rzewski’s – and Levit’s – aims here were different: the desire to give voice recalled to me, perhaps eccentrically, Henze’s song-cycle, Voices. Levit stretched the keyboard, it seemed, to many of its limits, to bring to life a very different world from Beethoven’s, one in which one might see and hear events in Chile on the television, one in which solidarity and class consciousness were both more advanced and more under siege, as well as entirely different in nature. The musical questions were different too – or were they? That there were no easy answers was not the least hallmark of this performance, as well as reflection upon it. Transcendental virtuosity was required – and received. Monumentalism too: perhaps in the opposite direction from Beethoven, Rzewski self-consciously returning at times to hyper-Romanticism. Equally present, however, was poignancy, never more so than in those whistled memories, never quite the same. There could be no passive listening here, any more than political quietism. Is the work ‘too much’? Perhaps, but some might say the same of Beethoven. And what does that really mean? Nothing, probably. Through the piano and through Levit, it seemed, both composers spoke; so too did humanity.

Friday, 24 May 2019

Levit - Bach, 22 May 2019

Wigmore Hall

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Igor Levit (piano)

With this outstanding performance of the Goldberg Variations, Igor Levit opened a series of three concerts performing celebrated sets of piano variations. To come are a pairing of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and Frederic Rzewski’s set on The People United will never be Defeated, and finally Ronald Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH.

It struck me from the opening bars of the Aria that this would be a very different performance from that of Levit’s Sony recording. This was to be a performance for here and now, the work rethought and reimagined. Every note of the Aria seemed considered, quite without pedantry, instead freshly discovered: if not prelapsarian – Bach is too human for that – then pristine. This reading proved freer, I think, certainly different, and was very much a reading for the piano, sustained as only this instrument can. Pianists imitating harpsichordists seem to me as misguided as vice versa; they can and should learn from each other, but learning is a very different thing from an attempt to imitate that will always be in vain.

The first variation’s release of pent-up energy made for an ebullient contrast, variegated within a logical framework. (Is that not the essence of Bach?) Its two succeeding variations had a strong sense of succession, the third in particular already integrative of tendencies within the music we had heard up to the point. A pleasing sturdiness characterised the fourth, a sturdiness that yet quested – and how, leading to flawless virtuosity in the fifth: a brilliant moto perpetuo through which, crucially, music was realised. Harmonic twists told without exaggeration in the sixth, laying the groundwork for a finely pointed seventh variation that released Bach’s own caprice (as opposed to being capriciously realised). By the time that we reached the ninth variation, the third of the canons, a grace that elicited reflection – where we had been, would be, but also very much what lay beneath the surface – was, quite rightly, the order of the day. Intimations of a Mendelssohn scherzo in the eleventh, a twelfth variation that spoke of strong kinship with that sturdy fourth, and a thirteenth that presented Bach as inspiration for Mozartian classicism, left-hand voicing that was loved and elicited love, with a spring in its step: the dizzying conspectus of ways in which we might think of, perceive, and respond to variations could not have been more immanent. Energy once more released in the fourteenth invited Levit – invitation graciously accepted – to take all the time in the world for the fifteenth variation: an invitation, as Schumann might have put it, to explore new paths, technical and expressive.

And so, the ‘Ouverture’ sounded very much as such: a fierce, Frenchified exterior heralding just such new beginnings that were yet old. From the seventeenth variation onwards, there was very much a sense of new territory broached within that logical framework: for instance, a twentieth variation whose caprice connected us with the world of the seventh; a twenty-first that sounded both more archaic and more Romantic; and a twenty-second that proved beautifully, reassuringly reinventive, an utterance from the Bach whose well-nigh divine judgement brooks no appeal. Lisztian display in the twenty-third variation and Mozartian (perhaps Beethovenian too) response in its successor prepared the way for Wanda Landowska’s ‘black pearl’, taken slowly, as only a piano can. Composer and pianist alike offered a personal response of pathos that yet revelled in a labyrinthine harmonic imagination that looked towards Mozart’s reimagings of Bach and Handel, even to Berg. This was a slow movement, an Adagio, in the emphatic sense.

Its successor, the twenty-sixth variation, might have sounded conventional by comparison – unless and until one listened. It really grew during its course, too, as did its successor in response; for by now, it was difficult not to think in Classical developmental terms as well as Bach’s own. The twenty-eight variation brought, even at this late stage, a true sense of ringing the changes, not least through Mozartian subtlety in the chromatic melodies of those crossed-hand lines. Heading towards apparent climax, the twenty-ninth variation was of course followed, surprisingly and unsurprisingly, by the rejoicing of the ‘Quodlibet’. It was a moment for taking stock, a time for Bach the Christian, non-exclusivist, synthetic, to remind us of the fathomless world of the church cantatas through good-natured, ‘domestic’ humour. (Beethoven would surely have nodded assent.) At least that was how it spoke to me: to others, it would doubtless have done differently. With the return to the Aria, we heard and felt something that was both the same as before and very much not. It was, rightly, unclear how and why: music, like so much else, is ultimately a mystery. There is no right and wrong, correct and incorrect: not, at any rate, in the way Thomas Beecham’s ‘drowsy armchair pedants’ would have it. Bach’s score had been beautifully, meaningfully brought to life; next time it would be different.

Monday, 20 May 2019

La Damnation de Faust, Glyndebourne, 18 May 2019

Glyndebourne Opera House

Images: Richard Hubert Smith

Faust – Allan Clayton

Méphistophélès – Christopher Purves
Brander – Ashley Riches
Marguerite – Julie Boulianne

Richard Jones (director)
Sarah Fahie (assistant director, choreography)
Hyemi Shin (set design)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Andreas Fuchs (lighting)

Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Aidan Oliver)
Glyndebourne Youth Opera
Trinity Boys Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Robin Ticciati (conductor)

There may be a case for staging Berlioz’s ‘dramatic legend’, The Damnation of Faust; it was certainly not made on this occasion. To be fair, here are arguments either way, not least with respect to Berlioz’s own wishes and practice, and there probably always be. This new Glyndebourne production, however, found itself stuck uncertainly, awkwardly, and most of all tediously, between various poles and possibilities. It seemed to lack belief in the work, or at least the wisdom of staging it as it stands, yet at the same time makes changes so half-hearted, arbitrary, and silly that one wishes it had not. Some of Richard Jones’s recent productions – for instance, anon-committal Bohème and a weirdly unfinished Katya Kabanova, both for Covent Garden have suggested running out of steam; this did nothing to dispel the impression.


Much might have been salvaged in the event of a stronger musical performance. Alas, the festival’s music director, Robin Ticciati failed to provide it. I have yet to hear a performance from him that was not at least disappointing. Here, Ticciati offered a masterclass in the perverse art of rendering Berlioz bland and tedious to the point of non-recognition; only the following evening, listening to Colin Davis’s classic Philips LSO recording, did I feel reassured that, yes, I did know the work after all. Such lack of orchestral colour and warmth – the LPO strings sadly wasted through well-nigh absurdist lack of vibrato –married to inability to marry harmony and pulse, on the rare occasion that the latter were discerned, seemed to indicate not so much an æsthetic as mere incompetence. Notes, bars, phrased, paragraphs, even numbers drifted interminably, until suddenly an abrupt, stiff minor – very minor – eruption would occur: quite arbitrary, yet doubtless considered ‘exciting’ by some. Many paths might be taken to ignite the flame of Berlioz’s Romanticism, from Davis to Boulez, from Munch to Markevitch; a prolonged damp squib leading nowhere at all was what we heard here. When it could be heard, the LPO woodwind sounded gorgeous, not least in solo work. Too much, however, was relegated to the status of a dull backing-track to events on stage, such as they were.

Singing was better, if often unidiomatic. French is a notoriously difficult language in which to sing, especially for non-Francophone singers, but this was not straightforwardly a matter of nationality. Many of Julie Boulianne’s words were indecipherable, for instance, and she only really came into her own after the interval. Both Christopher Purves and Allan Clayton enunciated far more clearly. If the latter were not ideally cast, straining at the top, there was little doubting his commitment. A few tricky French corners aside, Purves seemed most at home, a sorely needed energising presence. The chorus had a few rocky moments, its female voices in particular; many of the performance’s stronger musical virtues were nevertheless to be found there.


What of Jones’s production? It certainly acknowledged the difficulty in staging the work at all, incorporating additional texts, ‘derived from Goethe’s Faust’, by Agathé Mélinand. Derivation, however, was sometimes oblique – not only because they were, oddly, delivered in French. (Surely English translation would have made more sense in this context.) As with much else, I was left feeling that less or (considerably) more would have been better. Having seen Frank Castorf’s Faust (i.e. Goethe) at the Berlin Volksbühne and heard of his work with Gounod’s version, I could not help but find this both non-committal and unfinished. A half-hearted rearrangement, trying to undercut Marguerite’s assumption by following it with ballet music (the ‘Menuet des feux follets’) in which Faust and his devils rejoiced and bared prosthetic genitalia seemed more to proclaim, ‘let us show our feminist credentials’, than actually to do so. Otherwise, a strange domestication, speaking more by default than of conviction, ruled. Presumably the idea was to show an everyday life that might have been Faust’s and Marguerite’s, but never could have been. By all means question, even negate Faust’s – and Berlioz’s – Romantic questing, but it really needs doing with greater verve and belief. This was often as tired as Ticciati’s conducting.

It is difficult to imagine any Berlioz staging of this memorial year matching, let along surpassing, Dmitri Tcherniakov’s magnificiently uncompromising Paris reassessment of The Trojans. If one does, all the better. However, given the uncomprehending hostility with which that met from many, the world seems likely to continue to receive more of what it most likely deserves.


Sunday, 19 May 2019

Phaedra, Royal Opera, 16 May 2019

Linbury Theatre

Artemis (Patrick Terry), Hippolyt (Filipe Manu), Phaedra (Hongni Wu), Aphrodite (Jacquelyn Stucker)
Images (C) ROH 2019, by Bill Cooper

Phaedra – Hongni Wu
Hippolyt – Filipe Manu
Aphrodite – Jacquelyn Stucker
Artemis – Patrick Terry
Minotaurus – Michael Mofidian

Noa Naamat (director)

Southbank Sinfonia
Edmund Whitehead (conductor)

Hans Werner Henze’s penultimate opera, Phaedra has been fortunate indeed in London since its 2007 Berlin premiere. Astonishingly, this was the third time I had seen the work in London: first a Barbican concert performance; then the Guildhall’s excellent double-bill, coupled with the early radio opera, Ein Landarzt; now a staging at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Theatre, from members and one soon-to-be-member of its Jette Parker Young Artists Programme and the Southbank Sinfonia.

Hippolyt and Phaedra

I continue to find it an elusive, even enigmatic work, difficult to pin down – as often with Henze. There is nothing wrong with that, quite the contrary. Immediately obvious works that have little to reveal on subsequent encounters – Tosca, for instance, whatever its qualities – are not the most interesting. Layering of its libretto, by Christian Lehnert, is, for me at least, a little too self-conscious, indeed in that sense itself obvious; that of the score, however, continues to fascinate, both in itself and with respect to Henze’s lengthy career and well-nigh unmanageable œuvre. Conductor Edward Whitehead and the Southbank Sinfonia proved strong in their communication of the score’s textural layering, Schoenberg, Berg, Mahler, and Wagner lying behind or, perhaps better, beneath it, the orchestra’s lines seemingly summoned up like a refined Götterdämmerung oracle. I was put in mind of a remark by Henze from four decades earlier, from an interview with Die Welt given to coincide with the premiere of The Bassarids: ‘The road from Tristan to Mahler and Schoenberg is far from finished, and … I have tried to go further along it.’

Henze’s way was always, or usually, though, then to take up another path thereafter, perhaps resuming that earlier path some time later. We perhaps view his way with greater clarity now, or kid ourselves that we do. At any rate, other tendencies shone through too: Weill-like (Hindemith too?) wind and percussion; mesmerising saxophone lines that lured one seemingly to nowhere (a remimaging of Natascha Ungeheuer?); magical forest colours (König Hirsch); and, perhaps most tellingly, towards the close, when Hippolyt surprisingly, disconcertingly returns as Virbius, the transformational magic of Ariadne auf Naxos, Straussian reference clear, but kinship to Hofmannsthal’s ideas (perhaps via Elegy for Young Lovers) ultimately more meaningful. At its best, Noa Naamat’s staging seemed to take its leave from these circles, lines, interactions of musical and aesthetic meaning, a sense of eastern ritual (perhaps a little Robert Wilson, but less formulaic than his work has come) coming into contact and conflict with turning of the wheel. Comparison and contrast with the work of Birtwistle came to mind, as they had on my previous encounters with the work.


The singers all proved excellent. Though the work is called Phaedra, I do wonder whether Henze would have been better lending Hippolyt(us)’s name to it. (But then, arguably, Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie is similarly misnamed.) Filipe Manu, due to join the JPYAP next year, proved compelling indeed in the would-be title role, as vulnerable an object of contemplation and, later, as equivocal a vehicle of reinvention as Henze’s earlier Prince of Homburg. Was Hongni Wu’s Phaedra presented too vampishly in this production (not necessarily in performance)? Perhaps, but the deepening of her range of vocal colour throughout the evening offered compensation. Jacquelyn Stucker and Patrick Terry (the programme’s first countertenor) offered strong, detailed performances as Aphrodite and Artemis, whilst Michael Mofidian’s Minotaurus, richly sonorous yet equally careful of detail, left one wishing greedily that he had had more to sing, his persistent stage presence notwithstanding.

Why, then, did I emerge feeling slightly dissatisfied – or perhaps wondering whether I should have done? It may just have been a matter of how I was feeling on the day: it happens to us all. I do not think, though, that it was just that. Did the decision to introduce an interval get in the way? I think it did, making the work seem longer, more drawn out, more sectional than it is. I am not sure that the parameters within which Naamat’s staging had to operate helped in that respect. Though necessarily simple in scenic terms, it paradoxically seemed to dart around somewhat from scene to scene, perhaps through no fault of its own somewhat blunting the underlying ritual power of the score. Perhaps, alternatively, that was actually a reflection of the fragmentary qualities of the opera, of Hippolyt’s partial, flawed regaining of consciousness under his new identity. If I continue to find Phaedra enigmatic, Henze’s genre designation of ‘concert opera’ included, then that will doubtless say something about it, me, the performance, the production, or about any combination of the above. Such, after all, is opera.

Minotaurus (Michael Mofidian), Hippolyt

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Jerusalem Quartet - Bartók, 8 May 2019

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet no.1
String Quartet no.3
String Quartet no.5

Alexander Pavlovsky, Sergei Bresler (violins)
Ori Kam (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (cello)

This was the first of two concerts in which the Jerusalem Quartet would perform Bartók’s six string quartets. If there were slight frustration in my only being able to hear the first, it surely augured well for the second, which I look forward to hearing about, if not, alas, to hearing.

The particular, sometimes competing demands of early Bartók can prove difficult to bring off: no such problem here, in as fine a performance of the First Quartet (1908-9) as I can recall hearing. The opening chromaticism of the violin-duo opening signalled a strongly Schoenbergian presence: one, I think, that endured throughout the quartet and beyond it. For it was not only in the score, though there it certainly was; it was played as such, too, intense yet variegated, in an unmistakeably Austro-Hungarian performance. The Jerusalem Quartet players showed keen ears – and a keen collective ear – for form and structure, expressed without didacticism, born from and living through the notes and their connections. Contrapuntal procedures were invested with dynamism both intellectual and emotional. And how each instrument came into its own through that! New possibilities were signalled and taken in the second movement, which struck a fine balance at its opening between emergence from what had gone before contrast therewith. The finale brought to life a rhetorical disjuncture that had something of Beethoven to it: not in the banal sense of sounding ‘like’ Beethoven’s music, but in spirit, in reinvention. Bartók’s music already seemed to presage the world of Bluebeard, its dramatic flight a product of fierce conviction in performance.

If that final movement, even in the strongest performance such as this, seems nonetheless to go on a little, no one could seriously make such a claim concerning the Third Quartet (1927). Tonality here seemed less on the verge of suspension than beside the point – until it was otherwise. It was certainly motivic working above all that afforded the dynamism in this performance of the opening ‘Prima partie’: dialectical motivic working, that is, in the line of Bach and Beethoven. The music’s emotional intensity somehow seemed both greater and more sparing: surely testament to Bartók’s mastery of form and genre by this stage in his career. The slow-fast ‘Hungarian’ relationship of the first two movements likewise seemed brought to perfection: internalised and thus the more meaningfully expressed. The ‘Recapitulazione della prima parte’ sounded, rightly, not so much as reconciliation but as arbiter and moulder of memory. It was as new as it was old, paving the way for an explosive coda section, as richly developmental within its concise frame as the score from which this magnificent performance sprang.

The Fifth Quartet (1934) had the second half to itself. That uncompromising intensity, intellect and emotion as one, characteristic of both works so far persisted, reinvented itself here too in its first movement and beyond. The players afforded the first subject – I think we can safely call it that – great detail without the slightest suspicion of fussiness, strokes broad, fine, even both, or so it seemed. A pale delirium, increasingly less pale, characterised the response: just as involving, quietly and less quietly generative. Disjuncture and coherence, melodic line and complexity played out in a fashion that perhaps inevitably brought late Beethoven to mind. It made me long to hear the Jerusalem Quartet in Ligeti too. How strange the final poco allargando phrase sounded, yet also how right. I loved the sense imparted in the following ‘Adagio molto’ of a somewhat disoriented and disorienting hymn. (Again, Beethoven’s precedent seemed fruitfully, never oppressively, immanent.) It is ‘night music’, of course, but far more than that. So too is the fourth movement, whose harmony likewise remained fundamental in a not un-Classical way, very much providing a sense of the celebrated Bartókian arch. In between, the scherzo had held harmony, melody, and yes, of course metre in fruitful, riveting dialogue: Haydn for the 1930s. It was Beethoven’s ghost that again lightly haunted the finale, titanic effort to wield material together amply rewarded. But if there were unanimity of purpose, there was equally fierce independence of instrumental voice within that purpose and progress. For work, ensemble, and performance alike, this was emphatically a string quartet.