Thursday, 21 November 2019

‘A New Divan’: WEDO/Barenboim and friends – Schumann, Wolf, Mendelssohn, Palomar, and Brahms, 20 November 2019

Pierre Boulez Saal

Schumann: Myrthen, op.25: ‘Talismane’, ‘Lied der Suleika’
Wolf: Erschaffung und Beleben, Phänomen
Mendelssohn: Suleika, op.34 no.4
Wolf: Hochgeglückt in deiner Liebe
Guillem Palomar: Im Ocean der Sterne (world premiere)
Brahms: String Sextet in B-flat major, op.18

Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)
Waltraud Meier (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Volle (baritone)
Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (piano).

Ben Goldscheider (horn)
Michael Barenboim, Mohamed Biber (violins)
Miriam Manasherov, Sindy Mohamed (violas)
Astrig Siranossian, Assif Binness (cellos)


Two hundred years since Goethe published his West-Eastern Divan and twenty years since Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, among others, founded the orchestra that bears its name, we heard in this concert a celebration that, rightly, looked forward as well as back, the culmination of three days of events at the Barenboim-Said Akademie and Pierre Boulez Saal. It did not disappoint; indeed, it inspired hopes for the future of these projects, an anthological ‘New Divan’ from twenty-four poets included, that they should be anything but a creative culmination. To quote from Homero Aridjis’s poem for that collection, itself quoted in Mena Mark Hanna’s valuable welcome note in the programme booklet: ‘And life is re-created every day.’  

First, rightly, we looked to the past and present: to Goethe and his scandalously uncredited (by him, that is) co-author, Marianne von Willemer; also to Barenboim, a prince among Lieder-pianists, with three regular musical collaborators: Waltraud Meier, Michael Volle, and Dorothea Röschmann. Meier and Barenboim opened with two Schumann songs, one a setting of Goethe, the other of Willemer, both part of the Myrthen collection written as a wedding gift for Clara Wieck. Meier was declamatory yet variegated in ‘Talismane’, the ‘Lied der Suleika’ a confiding complement, just as communicative. Barenboim’s structural understanding proved just as enlightening as in any work for solo piano, likewise in all songs to come. Volle’s pair of songs were declamatory in different ways, his way with words—their sound, their meaning, their possibilities—a veritable master-class. The metaphysical intimacy of Wolf’s Phänomen was just the foil for the celebratory Erschaffen und Beleben. A different compositional as well as performative voice announced itself in Mendelssohn’s Suleika from Röschmann (Willemer again, of course). Line and sentiment were beautifully judged, neither performer remotely condescending to Mendelssohn, who rightly emerged as a full-blooded Romantic. A supremely vivid Wolf Hochbeglückt in deiner Liebe provided, in the best senses, a breathless conclusion to this section, Barenboim’s Lisztian exploits a reminder that his days as pianist may just be beginning.

We moved then to the evening’s premiere, Guillem Palomar’s Divan-setting, Im Ocean der Sterne. This was the first time I had heard music by Palomar, who studies at the Akademie with Jörg Widmann; I am sure it will not be the last. This was not only a strikingly accomplished song-cum-scena—why choose?—but an involving, affecting, and, much in the spirit of the evening as a whole, enquiring one too. Solo voice first—and in Volle, what a voice!—for the opening stanza: ‘Wo hast du das genommen? Wie konnt’ es zu dir kommen? Wie aus dem Lebensplunder erwarbst du diesen Zuner? Der Funken letzte Gluten von frischen zu ermuten?’ If one wanted a nutshell example of the difference between Goethe’s humanism and that of Schiller, familiar to musicians from, yes, that ode, one could do worse than start here. The music works up to the first line: first ‘wo, wo…’, and so on, and then up to the whole stanza, working with letter sounds as well as words, neither obscurely nor even enigmatically, but with a meaningful sense of joy in exploration. On ‘ermuten’ the instruments enter: first cello and horn, then piano. Performances from Ben Goldscheider, Astrig Siranossian, and Barenboim—mostly playing as a chamber musician, but just occasionally signalling an entry as primus inter pares—were not only excellent and tonally alluring, but spoke of understanding and the fondest of advocacy. Palomar’s setting showed as keen an ear for harmony as melody and word-setting, a surprising, post-Schoenbergian sense of tonality suspended rather than necessarily vanquished painting, even floating in an ocean of stars: captivating and enveloping in its instrumental as well as verbal drama. This was music, aptly enough, that seemed both to speak from a German tradition, not necessarily reducible to that, yet to look outward from that. Voice, piano, horn, and cello might not be the most usual of combinations, yet it sounded—however great the illusion—as the most ‘natural’ thing in the world. The closing horizon of illusory seas (‘Der Streif erlogner Meere’) edged us forward, so it seemed, even if we did not know to what. As Nietzsche put it: ‘We philosophers and “free spirits” feel, when we hear the news that “the old god is dead,” as if a new dawn shone upon us; … At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an “open sea”.’

Following the interval, we were offered the opportunity to sail once again in that sea, with a repeat performance: a lovely idea, which certainly furthered our acquaintance. Soloists all then took their seats in the audience, evincing the collegiality at the heart of this enterprise, for the final work on the programme. Something old, something new: what could fit that bill better than Brahms, in this case his B-flat major String Sextet, op.18? Six members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra demonstrated why chamber music should stand at the heart of any larger ensemble’s life and work. The Sextet’s movements proved varied yet coherent as a whole, the first flowing in Schubertian fashion, themes connected and characterised, structure ably yet undemonstratively delineated. The Hauptstimme, if one may call it that with hindsight, was especially noteworthy for its threading through different instrumental voices, Schoenberg meeting Schubert—which, after all, is not a bad approximation at all for Brahms. The recapitulation was a case in point: very much a second development, yet with no need to prove itself as such.

In the second movement, we heard a richer tone, something more defiant, fiercely compelling. Here were six Romantic voices coming together in the service of a greater whole, ethical implications abundantly clear for those who cared to consider them. Arresting sharing of lines alla Webern both harked back to the first movement and ventured forth to the unknown—in whichever way one cared to conceive of that. A good humoured scherzo wore neither its simplicity nor its complexity too light or heavy, even in the trio, which emerged as an heir to the simultaneous dances of Don Giovanni. For the grace of the finale, ‘Poco allegretto e grazioso’ after all, seemed to nod as much to Mozart as to Schubert, yet with an equally unmistakeable sense that those days were past. There were sterner, more passionate moments too, of course, all unfolding as it ‘should’ in a musical cosmos that encapsulated and unified the many strands not only of the evening’s concert but of the Divan project as a whole. Long may its voyage continue.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Tetzlaff/Lonquich - Brahms, Enescu, Webern, and Franck, 16 November 2019

Pierre Boulez Saal

Brahms: Violin Sonata no.2 in A major, op.100
Enescu: Violin Sonata no.2 in F minor, op.6
Webern: Four Pieces for violin and piano, op.7
Franck: Violin Sonata in A major, FWV 8

Christian Teztlaff (violin)
Alexander Lonquich (piano)

What could be more satisfying than a comprehending performance of a Brahms masterwork? Nothing—and this was certainly that. Intimate yet not withdrawn, the opening of the first movement to the A major Violin Sonata—and much else besides—always had much bubbling beneath the surface, sometimes bubbling over, even erupting. Shifting balance between violin (Christian Tetzlaff) and piano (Alexander Lonquich) were managed almost as if this were the work of one player rather than two: a true partnership. Apparently simplicity soon revealed complexity, balance between melody and harmony, horizontal and vertical finely judged, likewise ever shifting. Formal concision and expression were two sides of the same coin. An ‘Andante tranquillo’ whose lyricism again encompassed harmony as much as melody proved the perfect foil for a Vivace section whose shadow games spoke not only of playful melancholy but also the melancholy of play. This second movement’s through-composition was truly felt and expressed, no mere structural ‘feature’. Metrical dislocation in the finale, as elsewhere, told without the slightest exaggeration. Once again, line, tempo, and mood were perfectly judged for music as intense, in its own way, as anything in Schoenberg and as deeply indebted to Beethoven, as revealed here, as anything Brahms wrote. Such things need not be shouted from the rooftops, especially with Brahms.

George Enescu’s 1899 Second—again of three—Violin Sonata was next on the programme, in a similarly absorbing performance. Its first movement, ‘Assez mouvementé’, began to speak from another shadow world with similar command of line, both aspects related to what we had heard in Brahms yet also distinct. Lonquich wore formidable technical demands lightly and without sentimentality, with an elegance one might consider Gallic. Such demands revealed rather than concealed underlying harmonic rhythm. Tetzlaff likewise made light of what he was asked to do, simplicity of utterance, not contrivance, the order of the day. The lyrical trade of the second movement offered something similarly distinctive. ‘Brahms with a French accent’ would sell it quite short, yet as a starting point in this particular recital, it may yet have served a purpose. Here, as elsewhere, contours were expertly, meaningfully shaped. The finale proved as rigorous as it was passionate, the idiom of Enescu’s strange ‘Romanticism’—I think one may just about call it that—judged to a tee. Equally fine in judgement was Teztlaff’s witty sign-off, too consequential merely to be nonchalant, yet momentarily, partially suggestive of that.

If I have heard a superior concert-hall Webern Four Pieces then I must have forgotten—which seems unlikely. Without apparent effort, art concealing art, Teztlaff imparted such meaning to his opening perfect fourth (double-stopped), that by the time Lonquich’s piano chord responded, one might almost have reached the end of a conventional first thematic group. The nine bars of the first piece present an entire drama of their own and were presented as such. Webern’s second piece emerged as a scherzo on acid, each note again the equivalent to a hundred in so much other music. The third announced itself as a drama of pitch and proceeded to be a drama of much else too, almost a Mahlerian world in itself. As in Beethoven, as in Brahms, a Webern finale’s victory needs to be won—and how it was here. All composer and performers asked was that we listen; it is difficult to imagine why, in circumstances so propitious, anyone would have declined.

For the final work on the programme we returned to A major, to César Franck’s Violin Sonata. What struck me most clearly from this sympathetic, refined, often ardent performance was, without disregard to certain affinities, the very different nature of Franck’s formal concerns here. The danger—I am not sure any performance can entirely avoid it—is that the music begins to speak with a certain sameness. Whatever the truth of my suspicion, Teztlaff and Lonquich made a valiant attempt, not through overt effort to be ‘different’, but by attending to different character between movements, by greater yet far from unrelieved intensification in the second and third, and finally by presenting a finale that balanced developmental and cyclical demands. It certainly did not stand still. Nor did the subtle, well-nigh Goethian tragedy—major mode conclusion notwithstanding—of the encore, the final movement from Brahms’s G major Violin Sonata. My only regret was that we had not heard the entire work; next time, perhaps.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Chaya Czernowin - Heart Chamber (world premiere), Deutsche Oper, 15 November 2019

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

HEART CHAMBER, Regie: Claus Guth, Uraufführung am 15. November 2019, Deutsche Oper Berlin, copyright: Michael Trippel

Her – Patrizia Ciofi
Her Inner Voice – Noa Frenkel
Him – Dietrich Henschel
His Inner Voice – Terry Wey
Soprano – Robyn Allegra Parton, Micaëla Oeste, Jana Miller, Rachel Fenlon
Mezzo-soprano – Verena Usemann, Anna-Louise Costello, Verena Tönjes, Jennifer Hughes
Tenor – Hans-Dieter Gillessen, Lawrence Halksworth, Wagner Moreira, Martin Fehr
Bass – Philipp Schreyer, Christoph Brunner, Simon Robinson, Andrew Munn
The Voice – Frauke Aulbert
Double Bassist – Uli Fussenegger

Claus Guth (director)
Christian Schmidt (designs)
Urs Schönebaum (lighting)
rocafilm (video)
Yvonne Gebauer, Dorothea Hartmann (dramaturgy)

Ensemble Nikel (Brian Archinal (percussion), Yaron Deutsch (electric guitar), Antoine Françoise (piano), Patrick Stadler (saxophone)), 
SWR Experimentalstudio: Joachim Haas, Lukas Nowok, Carlo Laurenzi (live electronics)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Johannes Kalitzke (conductor)

The day prior to seeing this, the world premiere of Chaya Czernowin’s fourth opera, Heart Chamber, I had completed in draft a short introductory article on the music of Schoenberg. That was doubtless part of the reason why various works of Schoenberg came to mind both during and after the performance of this fascinating new work; but I do not think it was—at least I hope it was not—only on that account. An unnamed man and woman: one might think first of Verklärte Nacht, not least since Heart Chamber, subtitled ‘An inquiry about love’, addresses, according to the composer, a ‘transformative path’, namely ‘the elements of falling in love that expose us to our most intense beauty but also to our most intense vulnerabilities and insecurities’. It was really, however, Schoenberg’s first two operas, Erwartung and Die glückliche Hand, which provided some context or framework for my response. Czernowin’s conception, whilst far from breezily romantic, is nowhere near so dark, nor so expressionist, as either. The sound of a surrounding vocal ensemble suggested as much distance from Die gluückliche Hand as affinity; that opera nonetheless afforded a reference point of sorts. Moreover, unlike either of the Schoenberg works—though like, I suppose, his third and final one-act opera, Von heute auf morgen—both man and woman have a voice, here further amplified, in addition to actual electronic amplification, by further solo parts for their inner voices.

It was less in subject matter than in overall conception that Erwartung helped frame my response. In letter to Busoni, written just before beginning work on that score, Schoenberg presented a physiological understanding of what he was about to portray: ‘For a human being, it is impossible to feel but one sensation at a time. One has thousands at once. … And this variegation, this multifariousness, this illogicality which our senses demonstrate, this illogicality presented by their interactions, set forth by a soaring wave of blood, by some sense- or nerve-reaction, this I should like to have in my music.’ In Heart Chamber, Czernowin—and I felt this with considerable, sometimes well-nigh overwhelming force before reading a word about it—attempts ‘to create a true multisensory experience, an experience of music in its sensual fabric, where music becomes smell, touch, cutting pain, extreme vulnerability, pure joy, or euphoria. The transitions and shifts between these states are uncontrolled and unpredictable.’ Reinventing the operatic wheel, then? Perhaps, but is that not what any opera composer worth his or her salt will be engaged in at some level? There is certainly here a strong, even unusually strong, sense of aural and visual, compositional and performative elements coming together dynamically yet also structurally—this is perhaps more knowingly sectional, if undoubtedly interconnected, a work than a post-Romantic piece such as Erwartung—to create something we might yet know, if we must, as a Gesamtkunstwerk.

An double bass solo (Uli Fussenegger), nervous and wide ranging, eventually settling on a narrower bad of pitch oscillation – a minor second, if I remember correctly – is the way in, an overture of sorts. Is this the heart or the physical and metaphysical chambers within which it is confined? There seems no reason to choose. Listening and watching, one registers different speeds, sometimes successive, sometime simultaneous, of experience; a bowing as much as an electronic modification, the spatial relationship between the excellent Ensemble Nikel to the side of the auditorium and the orchestra in the pit as much as that between conductor Johannes Kalitzke and electronics, or voices on and offstage. Nevertheless, at the structuring, animating heart, if one may put it that way, of this opera there stand voice and voices, singular and plural, generic and particular. One may say that such is the case for any opera—and yes, in many ways of course it is. However, I think it is probably fair to say that it is still more so the case for some operas, and some types of opera, than others, at least vis-à-vis the orchestra, or whatever stands in its place. For me, Heart Chamber took one back, with an effect not entirely unlike—whatever the differences in means—a work such as Pascal Dusapin’s Passion, to the earliest, Monteverdian days of opera: not in the sense of pastiche, nor even, as with Dusapin, of reference, but, to quote Czernowin, of ‘being about the voice, about using the voice, about communicating with the voice.’ That is, I know, what some, more responsive to its charms than I, say of bel canto opera too; I shall leave it to them to comment on any such affinity. Vocal colour, both through singing, prior recording (sometimes set against the present), and complex yet meaningful sound design, multiplies, not least in its potentiality for meaning.

Doubling or more, whether of ‘real’ or electronic voices, invites reflection, just as will any number of retellings of, for instance, the Orpheus legend. Vocal externalisation of inner voices, often more the affair of instruments, of harmony—and it is certainly not the case that there is none of that here—adds further layers not just of meaning, sometimes of a daily contradiction we all know, yet do not always acknowledge, but of experience both highly immediate and mediated. Such conflicts take place, related and unrelated, between song and speech, stage and film too. Incomprehension and frustration play roles as important as understanding and satisfaction. This is often, then, the realm of the unconscious, as further suggested by a number of dream sections, not always so readily distinguished, but which both for Schoenberg (again to Busoni)—music as ‘an expression of feeling, as our feeling really is, which connects us with our unconscious, not a changeling born of feelings and “conscious logic”—and for Czernowin, more vocally, less orchestrally—‘an additional singer (an internal voice) who reveals the protagonists’ deep subconscious … The internal and external voices do not always agree’—are perhaps the ultimate source of drama, even of ‘reality’, whatever that may be. In neither is narrative straightforwardly the point, probably still less so for Czernowin than Schoenberg. How one reacts to countertenor (Terry Wey) mirroring and contradicting baritone (Dietrich Henschel) and contralto (Noa Frenkel) doing likewise, yet never in anything so banal as mirror image, for soprano (Patrizia Ciofi) is part of the way one structures and indeed creates one’s own response.

This landscape, however, is no forest, enchanted or disenchanted. It is unrepentantly urban, quotidian, even in contrast with such settings. It could be anywhere; it might even be one of the roads outside, just off Bismarckstrasse. Video work (roca-film) treads with excellence that thin line between specificity and non-specificity, just as it does differently, elsewhere, in nightmarish, invasion of ants, as psychological as it is physiological; for what is ‘reality’ here? So too, more broadly, do Claus Guth’s direction and Christian Schmidt’s designs, indeed the production as a whole. A highly resourceful revolving stage creates and delimits spaces, urban and physiological, perhaps even metaphysical too. That is more a question for us, I think, than for the work and production as such. My first reaction was that I should need to see and hear the opera again to be able to say anything about it; sadly, that was not immediately an option and, in retrospect, time for reflection was undoubtedly a good thing too. The experience, conscious and unconscious, would doubtless be very different—just as it would with Cosi fan tutte or Tristan, and their treatments of a not entirely dissimilar theme. I should nevertheless be keen to see and hear it again, especially given such committed performances, and have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone for whom opera is both what it was for Monteverdi, Mozart, Wagner, or Schoenberg and something necessarily different.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Batiashvili/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Saint-Saëns, 12 November 2019


Violin Concerto no.3 in B minor, op.61
Symphony no.3 in C minor, op.78, ‘Organ’

Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
Christian Schmitt (organ) 
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

In preparation for the Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s new production of Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, directed by Damián Szifron and conducted by Daniel Barenboim, of which more in due course, Berlin is hearing more of the composer’s œuvre than might generally be expected. I shall be reporting not only from the opera but also from a chamber concert at the Apollo Saal for piano and harmonium. In the meantime, here were two orchestral works, also conducted by Barenboim.

For the first—to my mind, the most successful—of the works, the Third Violin Concerto, Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin were joined by Lisa Batiashvili, whose performance proved to be nothing less than outstanding. A heightened sense of expectancy from orchestra—not least ominous timpani—and soloist alike had the first movement off to an excellent start, its promise fully repaid. Not only did Batiashvili offer as darkly focused a line as one could wish for, the way in which it was spun made one eager for more. The darkness of key—for various reasons, B minor is not so common for strings—registered from all concerned, brass as much as strings. There was plenty of Mendelssohnian light too, though, added to which I heard an intriguing sense, born perhaps of common Mendelssohnian roots, a common key, and the conductor’s identity, of affinity with Elgar.

The slow movement came very much as response: contrast, yes, but necessary rather than arbitrary. The violin’s lovely siciliano duetting with woodwind could hardly fail to delight with such all-round excellence of playing. Not that it was all sweetness and light: there were beautiful, meaningful shadows cast too, yet within appropriate bounds. Above all, it sang. There was, moreover, a fine sense of difference, of particularity, of key, both in work and performance. There may be no harmonic shocks here, but there were plenty of harmonic surprises, so long as one listened. Batiashvili’s closing harmonics proved both of this world—Saint-Saëns is not really a composer for transcendence—and yet suggestive, not unlike Berlioz in L’Enfance du Christ, of a childhood longing for something beyond.

A passionate violin cry managed to cut through even the noisiest of coughing and chatter to silence—eventually—the audience for the finale. Stylish and propulsive, this was a finale in more than name, Barenboim’s often unremarked excellence as an accompanist—how could it be otherwise, given his decades of experience at the piano?—as crucial as the soloist’s musicianship. All concerned seem to relish its post-Mendelssohnian loveliness. Was there also a hint of the operatic world, of kinship with Berlioz and even, as presentiment, Puccini, however coincidental? There was, wisely, no straining at non-existent depth, this fine performance emerging all the better for it, taking the concerto for what it is rather than for what someone else might prefer it to be.

Barenboim has a long history with the ‘Organ’ Symphony, having recorded it a good number of years ago in Chicago. Here he conducted it from memory—and it showed, given with all the care and first-hand acquaintance Barenboim would offer Beethoven or Schubert. Hand on heart, I cannot say it is a work that entirely convinces me, but it has plenty of interest; indeed, not unlike Liszt, to whom he clearly owes much here and to whose memory the work is dedicated, Saint-Saëns can be of considerable interest in his (relative) failures too. The performance, though—to a certain extent, listening too—is in many respects an opportunity to put the case for the defence. Barenboim and his orchestra certainly did that, from a perfectly judged opening string crescendo and diminuendo—expectancy once more—to the showmanship and resonance of the close. A rapt quality to the second section of the first movement—the second movement of four, if you prefer to consider its form more traditionally—once again brought Elgar, even Mahler, to mind; for what a string section this is! Barenboim often did little, but one could tell that the orchestra was doing what he required. By letting the music speak so ‘naturally’—whatever hard work that may mask—Barenboim and his players assented to the truth voiced in the composer’s memoir, École buissonnière: ‘Music is something beyond a source of sensuous pleasure and keenly-felt emotion ... He who does not derive absolute pleasure from a simple series of well-constructed chords, beautiful only in their arrangement, is not truly fond of music.’

Harmony, then, afforded its ‘own’ pleasure; yet when Barenboim actively conducted the music, taking it by the scruff of its neck, it might almost have been Wagner. For the second of Saint-Saëns’s prescribed two movements opened with all the urgency of a new dramatic act, the Presto part of that opening section reminding us, as so often with Barenboim and this orchestra, that clarity and litheness need entail no sacrifice to depth of tone. If you are trading one for the other, you should probably find another trade. The organ chords (Christian Schmitt) and piano arpeggios of the movement’s second section certainly had impact, although—and this has nothing to do with the quality of the performance—I could not help but reflect how Liszt would have been excoriated, had he written anything quite so vulgar. Counterpoint, at any rate, proved clear and directed, and the sound was quite magnificent.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

King Arthur, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 8 November 2019

Images: Ruth und Martin Walz (from 2017 premiere)

Anett Fritsch, Robin Johannsen (sopranos)
Benno Schachtner (countertenor)
Reinoud Van Mechelen, Stephan Rügamer (tenors)
Neal Davies, Arttu Kataja (bass)

Arthur – Michael Rotschopf
Merlin – Jörg Gudzuhn
Oswald – Max Urlacher
Osmond – Paul Herwig
Emmeline – Meike Droste
Grimbald – Tom Radisch
Conon – Roland Renner
Aurelius – Steffen Schortie Scheumann
Mathilda – Sigrid Maria Schnückel
Little Arthur – Béla Jim Ottopal

Sven-Erich Bechtolf (director)
Julian Crouch (director, set designs)
Kevin Pollard (costumes)
Olaf Freese (lighting)
Gail Skrela (choreography)
Joshua Higgason (video)

Ein Skills Ensemble
Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus director: Martin Wright)
Akademie für Alte Musk Berlin
René Jacobs (conductor)

What to do with King Arthur? Rightly or wrongly, a ‘straight’ performance seems out of the question, even in the case of this, the only case of a Purcell semi-opera conceived as such (by Dryden), as opposed to adding music to an existing play. There are several problems here. Some might say, not without reason, that there are several opportunities too, that those very problems may readily be understood to be opportunities. For our purposes, doubtless too schematically, they may be summarised as: how to conceive of this genre; how to conceive of this particular example of that genre, likely written as an allegory whose meaning we shall never recover or, at best, at which we shall only hesitantly be able to guess, closing with an uncomfortably ‘patriotic’ final act; what sort of dialogue to use, most likely to write; and, last but not least, how to accomplish any of that for a largely non-English, indeed non-Anglophone audience. I shall not attempt fully to answer those in turn, but they are worth bearing in mind in consideration of what was seen and heard in this performing version by René Jacobs, with a little – or a good deal of – help from various friends, Sven-Erich Bechtolf and Julian Crouch included, in ‘updating’ a German translation by Wolfgang Wiens and Hans Duncker.

The fundamental conceit is far from a bad one; its framing permits for various standpoints, depending on the spectator, to be taken. Set in wartime, in the 1940s – it seems, though some designs appear, confusingly, to be from earlier in the century – this is a tale of a boy, Arthur, who has lost his father in action. His mother would like to move on with her life, but Arthur is resistant to anyone taking his father’s place. Various characters and situations – his mother, his father’s father, a puppet show, his father in a dream, etc. – recount to Little Arthur a story from Britain’s ancient past, of battle between Britons and Saxons, onto which some issues of the present may be read, and vice versa. Ultimately, the war comes to an end; Arthur’s mother remarries; and, both disturbingly and unconvincingly, Arthur learns, seemingly without irony or any of the double reading in which he or we might previously have engaged, that the King Arthur of whom he has learned – in this context, a somewhat odd King Arthur, more deeply engaged with retrieving his love, the blind Emmeline, than the activities for which we know him – should be his model as an English patriot. Almost all of the spoken theatre proceeded in German; Purcell’s music was always given in English, heightening a sense of separation.

The doublings of historical standpoint, if sometimes a little confusing, at least to start with, have much to be said for them, their often bizarre accoutrements rather less. I could not help, as an Englishman at present inevitably still more disenchanted with any show of ‘patriotism’ or nationalism, but wonder at the ideas other, neighbouring, still-friendly – whatever the provocations – countries have of Purcell’s ‘fairest isle’ right now. One is clearly of ongoing obsession with the Second World War: fair enough; one can hardly argue otherwise, however much one might wish it otherwise. Another enduring conception seems to be of a Monty Python-style humour that frankly irritates many of us, but which is certainly enjoyed by a number of my German friends. That combination of something not nearly so clever as it thinks it is with mere silliness certainly haunted a good deal of what we saw.

If, for instance, you had for some reason been longing to see a black-and-white-striped, exaggeratedly priapic version of the creepy 1980s BBC children’s television ‘character’, Wizbit, brought to us once upon a time in association with Paul Daniels and ‘the lovely’ Debbie McGee, this would certainly have been your night. (I can only presume, indeed hope, that the resemblance was coincidental, but who knows?) If, moreover, you were someone who found threats of rape on the part of that strange conical figure inherently amusing – disturbingly, much of the audience seemed of that persuasion – your dramatic cup would verily have run over. Mishearing of ‘Uhren’ (clocks) for ‘Huren’ (whores), farting and other ‘smell’ jokes (yes, afraid so), and so on and so on were largely suggestive of variety show rather than Dryden. Ribaldry certainly has its place in other works by Purcell, but hardly here. This show – that seems to me the right word – certainly seemed happier with the generalised rather than the particular. Occasional flashes of something wittier, more substantive, for instance a character musing on how the drama might have developed, had postdramatic theatre been yet invented, offered tantalising possibilities. Greater focus would have been no bad thing.

There was much to admire in the singing – in particular – but also the acting, overdone though some of the latter may have been. All singers covered numerous roles to excellent effect: Anett Frisch’s stylish and intelligently dramatic soprano, Benno Schachter’s hauntingly beautiful countertenor, and Neal Davies’s performance in the celebrated ‘Frost Scene’ – how manifestly superior it is to its likely model in Lully! – were the pick of the bunch for me, but there were no weak links. The Staatsoper chorus, as ever, proved on fine form. Some, I suppose, might have preferred a smaller body of singers; for me, however, it proved rather a wonderful treat. With the best will in the world, a band such as the Akademie für Alte Musik cannot approach the warmth of, say, the English Chamber Orchestra in Antony Lewis’s recording of this music, nor its easy way with Purcell’s idioms. However, there was fine playing on its own terms, to which my ears became more accustomed as time went on.

Jacobs’s tempi and general direction were for the most part unobjectionable, although there were times, doubtless predictably, when the music might have been permitted to breathe more openly. Various other music by Purcell was added, sometimes offering an orchestral background to dialogue: not a Purcellian practice, but in its borrowing from later ‘melodrama’ unproblematic and a welcome addition of textural variety. Jacobs seems also to have felt the need beyond that to ‘improve’ on Purcell’s scoring. I have no objection in principle to rewriting, reorchestrating, reordering, to anything really, so long as it works; there was nothing here to which I especially objected, though Jacobs’s amplifying choices were highly predictable in practice. On the other hand, the relative intimacy of Purcell’s writing here – compare it with, say, The Fairy Queen – was often lost, without sign of any true rethinking in modern terms.

As ever, then, pious talk of musical ‘authenticity’ proved about as plausible as a Liberal Democrat bar chart. Thoughts inevitably returned to our – Britain’s, that is – lamentable political present. There were lessons to be learned, even if far from straightforwardly. On reflection, that is doubtless as it should have been. However uncomfortable this may have been for an Englishman in temporary exile, if ever a failed state deserved to be the butt of ‘foreign’ humour, it was surely ours.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Preussens Hofmusik/Wilke - Purcell, 7 November 2019

Apollosaal, Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Sonata in three parts, in G minor, Z 790
Fantazia upon one note in five parts, in F major, Z 745
Fantazias in three parts, Z 732-4
Fantazias in four parts, Z 736-7
In nomine in six parts, in G minor, Z 746
Fantazias in four parts, Z 738-43
In nomine in seven parts, in G minor, Z 747
Sonata in three parts, in A major, Z 799

Laura Volkwein, Ulricke Bassenge (violins)
Helene Wilke (viola)
Egbert Schimmelpfennig (cello)
Joachim Klier (violone)
Joachim Elser (trombone)
Matthias Wilke (director, viola, organ)

The Staatskapelle Berlin traces its history back to 1570, making next year its 450th anniversary. (On New Year’s Eve, alongside the traditional Beethoven Ninth Symphony, Daniel Barenboim will also direct Mozart’s KV 450 from the piano.) Preussens Hofmusik, drawn from the orchestras’s ranks, takes the era of Frederick the Great as its centre of gravity. For this Apollosaal concert, part of the Staatsoper’s Barocktage, we heard music from somewhere in between. As a prelude or pendant – depending on when one sees it – to a new production of King Arthur we heard fantazias and sonatas by Purcell, directed from the viola or, in the case of the latter, the chamber organ, by Matthias Wilke.

First we heard the G minor Sonata in three parts, Z 790, here given with two violins, violone, and organ. It made for an excellent introduction, equally expressive in a refreshingly undemonstrative way of Purcellian melancholy and vigour, as aristocratic, learned, and courtly as it was ‘popular’. Dissonances told, yet so did its transmuted dance rhythms, never confusing genre for function. (The reader may grimly recall the absurdity of those fashion victims who claim Bach’s St Matthew Passion should dance, and so on.)

After a brief spoken introduction by Wilke, we then heard the Fantazia upon one Note, followed by the three works ‘in three parts’ (in the order 1, 3, and 2), the first three ‘in four parts’, and the G minor In nomine, in six. All pieces sounded as they are: small and perfectly formed, leaving one wishing for more. Although performed on modern instruments (more or less), there was no sense of anachronism, but rather of a reinvention of Purcell’s consort that went beyond the merely archaeological. Members of the consort, both personnel and instrument, changed for each piece, revealing a greater as well as subtler differentiation in instrumentation and texture than the cynic, or indeed the merely uninformed, might suspect. A couple of puzzling false starts suggested that it was not always entirely clear who would be playing what, but such human fallibility would upset only the sourest of audience members. Melody and counterpoint were kept in fine balance. Combinations such as violin, viola, and cello (for the G minor Fantazia, Z 734) matched relative darkness of timbre to mood, without so much as hinting at inappropriately (post)Romantic gloom. Indeed, that piece, like many others, quite rightly looked back more to the consort music of Purcell’s English predecessors – Lawes, Locke, Jenkins, et al. – as to the chamber music of the eighteenth century. That said, once one had come to the F major Fantazia, Z 737, it was difficult to resist the sense, however anachronistic, or at least unduly teleological, of losing oneself in counterpoint as one might with Bach. The closing In nomine – of this section, that is – gained, as did its G minor successor in the next section, from adding a trombone to voice gently the cantus firmus. Such creative archaism, if that be what it was, afforded clarity as well as variety.

Preceding that second In nomine, we heard the remaining Fantazias in four parts (Z 738-47), all but one in the minor mode. Far from precluding variety, that seemed to encourage one to listen all the more closely for difference and distinction, as of course did the ongoing plan of assigning different players and instruments to each piece. A courtly serenity to the C minor piece, Z 738, set us on a fascinating path culminating in an elegantly involved D minor Fantazia, Z 743, and the seven-part In nomine in which we finally heard all players together. The full sound of its close was relative, not in the slightest overblown, and all the more welcome for that. A further trio sonata, that in A major, Z 799, both returned us to close where we had begun and reminded us that the experience had rendered such return illusory. It offered a winning contrast of mood, infectious both of rhythm and broader style. Looking forward more overtly to the next century, there was perhaps a sense of greater security than had always been the case in the Fantazias. Perhaps those few off-moments had simply required a little more rehearsal. It was salutary, in any case, to be reminded that is far from easy music to perform.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

BPO/Mehta - Bruckner, 6 November 2019


Bruckner: Symphony no.8 in C minor (1890 version, ed. Leopold Nowak)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Zubin Mehta (conductor)

Having recently retired from a forty-two-year (!) music directorship of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Zubin Mehta returned to another orchestra with which he has a longstanding relationship, the Berlin Philharmonic, to conduct Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony. Mehta had also conducted, in 2012, the BPO’s most recent performances of this particular version (Nowak). I wonder whether his grip on those performances might have been less faltering, for while there was a good deal to admire in an approach that did not have the conductor imprint his ego on Bruckner’s score, especially earlier on, the final two movements in particular lacked direction and coherence, leaving one simply to marvel at the excellence of the BPO’s playing. It was difficult to resist the conclusion that, whilst orchestral response had been electric throughout, Mehta had tired during the symphony’s admittedly arduous course.

The first movement opened with great promise indeed, string tone – and indeed, that of other instruments, as they entered – imbued with a high degree of nervous expectancy. Mehta’s straightforward, unfussy direction, seemingly ‘just’ letting the orchestra play, had much to be said for it, even if there were times when a little more yielding would not have gone amiss. Berlin woodwind offered the potentiality of something more, even modernistic, though this playing remained thoroughly within standard, ‘Romantic’ tradition. Contours and climaxes were well prepared and shaped. There were, moreover, wonderful passages of uneasy stillness, against which Albrecht Mayer’s solo oboe in particular could truly beguile. Brass were implacable, where necessary – far from all the time – but were also far more than that; this was playing of a subtlety of which most orchestras and audiences could only dream. If the movement’s drama did not necessarily seem overt at the time, in retrospect everything had fallen into place. There is much to be said for undemonstrative, unaffected Bruckner such as this.

The scherzo proved commendably light on its feet. Motivic procedures seemed to speak for themselves, not least when it came to Bruckner’s complementary yet generative inversions. Again, the music was never over-conducted – and for the most part benefited from that. There was charm to the trio, not least from the Berlin harps, and a degree of depth too, especially in one passage from consort-like lower strings, Bruckner’s score apparently looking, listening back past Bach to ‘early music’ in quickening rather than archaeological fashion. So much for Bruckner’s Caecilian critics.

If the slow movement had continued as it began, all would have been well. Dignified and, again, commendably straightforward, the first few minutes had many of the virtues to which we had accustomed, not least superlative playing from the Berlin Philharmonic. I had certainly heard performances that had dug deeper, had posed more metaphysical questions, and so forth, but the last thing anyone wants is an unsuccessful attempt at such: better by far to treat the music on terms issuing from the conductor. However, as time went on, I felt an increasing lack of ordering coherence, only exacerbated in the finale.

Its opening had certainly benefited from renewed focus, C minor emphatically reinstated. After a couple of minutes, though, the performance began to drift again, desperately in need of someone to grab it by the scruff of the neck, to point to battles yet to win and, at least by implication, its final destination. One audible, frankly baffling gear change suggested that Mehta might have been roused from relative slumber, but that only contributed to the sense of overall drift. The final blaze of C major was strangely hectic, its problem being an obscurity of roots in what had come previously. A pity, then, although orchestral playing ultimately made this a performance worth having heard.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

The Bassarids, Komische Oper, 5 November 2019

Images: Monika Rittershaus

Dionysus – Sean Panikkar
Pentheus – Günter Papendell
Cadmus – Jens Larsen
Tiresias – Ivan Turšić
Captain – Tom Erik Lie
Agave – Tanja Ariane Baumgartner
Autonoe – Marisol Montalvo, Vera-Lotte Boecker
Beroe – Margarita Nekrasova
Dancers – Azzurra Adinolfi, Alessandra Bizzarri, Damian Czarnecki, Michael Fernandez, Paul Gerritsen, Claudia Greco, Christoph Jonas, Csaba Nagy, Sara Pamploni, Lorenzo Soragni

Barrie Kosky (director)
Otto Pichler (choreography)
Katrin Lea Tag (designs)
Ulrich Lenz (dramaturgy)
Franck Evin (lighting)

Vocalconsort Berlin
Chorus of the Komische Oper, Berlin (chorus director: David Cavelius) 
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

I have been privileged to see – and hear – three excellent performances and productions of The Bassarids; I have also been privileged to attend many excellent performances and productions at the Komische Oper. In both respects, this new production by Barrie Kosky, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, was fully worthy to stand amongst any of its predecessors: complementary, in many respects highly contrasted, to stagings from Christof Loy (Munich) and Krzysztof Warlikowski (Salzburg), and perhaps still more highly contrasted in a typically formalist approach from Jurowski, whose relationship to Kosky’s staging proved thoughtful and revealing.

One enters to activity already proceeding onstage: not unusual in contemporary theatre, but important in its particularity. There are musicians, much of the large woodwind and brass sections, on stage as well as in the pit. (Alongside it too: even in Henze’s 1992 revision, as here, it is a large orchestra for which he calls.) There are others milling around too: later revealed to be chorus and dancers. But the milling around is perhaps the more important thing than who is doing the milling. There, as here (in the audience, that is), patrons, or, as we might prefer, citizens, are preparing for the performance, in whatever roles they might play. For, in this milling before the musicodramatic storm, it is part of an amphitheatre we see: not archaic, not archaeological, but of now – as it was for Euripides; as it is for him, for Henze, for WH Auden and Chester Kallman, for all of us. Attic drama, above all Attic tragedy, the cornerstone for our entire Western dramatic, including operatic, tradition, continues to live, to breathe, to adapt, and above all to enthral. Where Wagner, whether Henze liked it or not – in many ways, he did not – his most important predecessor, had seen decadence in the later tragedy of Euripides, and found greatest inspiration in Aeschylus, Auden led Henze here to a typically modernist conflict between immediacy and the highly mediated, a few turns of the dialectical screw on from Schiller’s naïve and sentimental, yet ultimately perhaps not so very different. On the one hand, Auden insisted that Henze, as part of his preparation for composition, attend Götterdämmerung: Karajan gave him his Vienna box. On the other, he and Kallman provided a highly literary, ‘poetic’, even in Wagner’s – and Nietzsche’s – terms, ‘decadent’ libretto, after Euripides, with which to work. All manner of dramatic conflicts in this opera, ultimately rooted in ancient tragedy and our reception of it, may be traced back to that – as well as to Henze’s own, personal musical conflicts: Germany and Italy, Schoenberg and Stravinsky, past and present, and so forth. The amphitheatre, of which we see only part, of which we, drawn in, are also part, stands as the arena for all that and more.

What Kosky proceeds to do is largely straightforward: direct, yet mediating between history’s various antiquities and today, belying most claims of ‘decadence’. The story is largely told straightforwardly, but with as fine a reinvention of the original artistic unity Wagner – and many German idealists – saw in the drama of Athens: a Gesamtkunstwerk, if you will. Every Kosky production, whatever one thinks of it conceptually, reveals him as a master of his craft; this is no exception. Individual and crowd scenes, both on stage and beyond it – around the enlarged pit, in the theatre of the Komische Oper, etc. – are blocked and executed with precision: not as some cold, clinical, ‘merely’ technical exercise, but so as to permit the drama to emerge. Mesmerising dance, as strange and alienating as it is mesmerising and erotic, heightens the sense both that we might have been ‘there’, that we might fall prey to Dionysus’s call, and that yet we can make sense of it, as spectators. Such is a Maenads’ Dance unlike any other I have seen, Otto Pichler’s choreography just the thing, as are the energy and sheer proximity of the dancers. The ultimate seduction, Pentheus by Dionysus; the ultimate tragedy, Agave’s bestial murder of her son; and her recognition of what she has done: these are presented with all the force and clarity one can imagine, however foolishly, one ‘might have’ experienced in Athens. Agave’s childish delight in the bloody quarry from the hunt is a particularly gruesome moment, but not for the sake of gruesomeness. To an extent I cannot previously recall, everything now seems to have led up to the moment of recognition. Dionysus’s self-revelation, intense vulnerability and all as wounded son of Semele, comes as an eminently musical coda to that.

For at the heart of the stage construction lies the orchestra, true locus of the Dionysian rite: for Kosky, just as it had been for Wagner, Nietzsche, and arguably Henze too. In an interview for Die Welt, to mark the first performance of The Bassarids, Henze proclaimed his belief ‘that the road from Tristan to Mahler and Schoenberg is far from finished, and with The Bassarids I have tried to go further along it.’ That will surely always come through, yet Jurowski’s approach also highlighted the countervailing force both onstage and in the pit, clarifying in Apollonian fashion Henze’s conception of this ‘music drama’ – he uses Wagner’s term – in symphonic form: four movements, with an intermezzo akin to the ancient satyr play (here rescored by Jurowski in keeping with Henze's revisions to the rest). One could not resist the sheer power of frankly superlative orchestral and choral forces, fully the equal of ‘starrier’ counterparts in Munich and Salzburg; yet, intriguingly mirroring, even extending the composer’s dramatised conflict between Schoenbergian and Stravinskian tendencies in Der Prinz von Homburg, a neoclassical, ordering element came with at least equal power to the fore. With Henze’s music, there is often a battle between expression, even over-expression, and the discipline required to express that raw expression, as it were. In this case, the Penthean, the monotheistic put up a stronger musical fight to the primaeval Dionysiac in Henze’s orchestral cauldron than I can hitherto recall. Occasionally, I longed for Jurowski to let go a little more, but even that slight frustration had its own dramatic rewards. The heartbreak, moreover, of Henze’s sacrificial quotation from Bach’s St Matthew Passion registered all the more starkly for being presented almost as an object, something removed from our religious and musical view.

Sean Panikkar as Dionysus offered a performance at least as frighteningly, irresistibly seductive as he had in Salzburg last year: a chilling yet smouldering portrayal of a being beyond good and evil, inhuman and yet palpably human, his movement almost as impressive as his more conventionally musicodramatic skills. This evening only furthered the thought that it is a role he was born to play. Günter Papendell’s Pentheus proved a moving, complex, yet ultimately hapless foe: an intelligent and powerful portrayal. Tanja Ariane Baumgartner’s Agave initially, quite rightly, kept us at arms’ length, before drawing us in movingly for the final tragic outcome, assisted by, among others, an excellent Marisol Montalvo, singing for an indisposed Vera-Lotte Boecker, who continued to act the role of Autonoe onstage, and a rich-toned, richly sympathetic Margarita Nekrasova as the nurse, Beroe. As so often with the Komische Oper, though, a sense of company among all concerned made for a Gesamtkunstwerk in another, related sense. A memorable evening indeed.