Sunday, 1 August 2021

First Night of the Proms – Hyde/BBC SO/Stasevska: Vaughan Williams, Poulenc, MacMillan, and Sibelius, 30 July 2021

Royal Albert Hall

Vaughan Williams: Serenade to Music
Poulenc: Organ Concerto in G minor
James MacMillan: When Soft Voices Die (world premiere)
Sibelius: Symphony no.2 in D major, op.43

Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano)
Jess Dandy (contralto)
Allan Clayton (tenor)
Michael Mofidian (bass-baritone)

BBC Singers (chorus-master: Martin Fitzpatrick)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Dalia Stasevska (conductor)

Cards on the table. Poulenc aside, I have not previously been a great fan of the music of any of the composers featured in this year’s First Night of the Proms. It does one good, though, to test one’s preferences and prejudices; in any case, this was a moment of return for which I wanted, even needed, to be present, almost irrespective of repertoire. Last year saw a few Proms at the end of the season, albeit with no audience. I was not in London for the summer of 2019, so it was not far off three years since I had lest ventured to the Royal Albert Hall. This was a lovely concert for which to return.

And what piece could be more apt as an opener than Vaughan Williams’s Shakespearean hymn to music? (Whatever my ambivalence toward some of Vaughan Williams’s output, I have loved this piece since first hearing it as a schoolboy.) Its London pedigree—premiered here in 1938 by Sir Henry Wood, for whose diamond jubilee as a conductor it was composed—made the Serenade to Music all the more apt. This was a performance imbued with delight from its opening chords, Vaughan Williams’s orchestration and later vocal writing resounding perfectly through the hall’s challenging acoustic. Dalia Stasevska’s direction, untroubled by drab English tradition, drew from the BBC Symphony Orchestra sonorities and languor it was difficult not to think of as in the line of Ravel, with whom the composer had studied three decades earlier. Stasevska’s shaping of contours and climaxes was spot on, permitting words and above all music to speak and sing for themselves. Especially memorable (for me) were duetting arabesques between Elizabeth Llewellyn and leader Igor Yuzefovich; the deep summons of ‘affections dark as Erebus’ by Michael Mofidian; Jess Dandy’s contralto call, ‘Music! Hark!’; and the final choral echo of Llewellyn’s ‘sweet harmony’, bathed in sweet orchestral warmth. There were no weak links, though, in a magical performance.

Also written in 1938 was Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, here given an excellent performance by Daniel Hyde, the BBC SO and Stasevska. The splendour of its opening is quite different in nature, of course, yet offered another fine Albert Hall moment. Registration was always well chosen for score and instrument alike. Hyde rightly played his part straight, as did strings whose imploring sweetness seemed to prefigure Poulenc’s later sacred music and even the Dialogues des Carmélites. Wagnerian harmonies were soon put to decidedly anti-Wagnerian use, posing questions rather than answers, Poulenc’s mock-Bachian gestures relishing the fairground of barely suppressed desire. For there was serious questing at the heart of this performance, whatever the masks Poulenc cunningly employed, wit and poignancy two sides of the same coin.

Co-commissioned by the BBC and Help Musicians, When Soft Voices Die
ames MacMillan’s setting of two poems by Shelley, emerged as a workable companion piece for the Vaughan Williams Serenade, using as it does four soloists and orchestra (no chorus). Performances were as committed and variegated as elsewhere, Llewellyn recalling the virtues of her Puccini roles. As for the piece itself, there was craftsmanship in MacMillan’s setting and no denying his taste in verse. Nevertheless, conservatism aside—Vaughan Williams and Poulenc seemed almost avant-garde by comparison—the overall sense was of anonymous proficiency.

Finally Sibelius, with whose symphonies I have long struggled. I shall not bore you with that now, other than to say this was the first performance both to convince and move me. Perhaps it was simply the right time for this music to come knocking on the door, but surely it was more than that: testament to another fine performance, flexible yet directed. by the BBC SO and Stasevska. It was striking that, even to a long-term sceptic, the opening of the first movement seemed to speak as if an old friend. Balletic lightness of touch recalled Tchaikovsky and, beyond him, perhaps more surprisingly, the orchestral writing of Mendelssohn. Not that that precluded the ardent and majestic where required, quite the contrary. Soon I could only wonder what my problem with this music had been. Pizzicato cellos and double basses in the second movement both picked up from the first and contrasted with it. Mendelssohn again came to mind as a processional forerunner, this time the Italian Symphony, though of course the music developed very much in its own, again not un-Tchaikovskian way. At any rate, rhetoric in performance seemed designed to be understood in terms of such inheritance. I am not sure I quite appreciated the movement’s lengths, but that is doubtless my problem; after all, some others still feel that way about Schubert. A third movement full of nervous energy, woodwind in its trio a necessary contrast in many ways, prepared the way for a finale that combined strong senses both of expectation and culmination. We were nearly there, that is, but there was some way yet to go. Stasevska imparted a wondrous sense of inevitability and ultimately triumph to this final leg of the journey. I may not quite be a Sibelius (or Vaughan Williams) convert yet, but greater curiosity has certainly been piqued. Just please do not ask me to sit through The Lark Ascending

Friday, 30 July 2021

Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival (1) – The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow (Acts I and II), 29 July 2021

The Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone

The Pure Ones, Acolytes of O’fela – Zoe Devlin
Momolow, High Preistess of O’fela – Susan Harriott
O’Fela, the Crocodile God – Oscar Dom Victor Castellino
Marquis de Sade – Phil Wilcox
Virgin Sacrifice, Justine, Marie Antoinette – Caroline Kennedy
Wizard Mystah Byegee – Jackson Scott

Eleanor Burke (director)
Seb Mayer (puppet maker)
Natasha Lawes (headdresses, wigs)

Darren Berry (narrator)
Eddie Giffney (piano).

Asking what is, or what is not, an opera is a fool’s errand, especially so when it comes to Tête-à-Tête. Ultimately, one probably has to conclude that an opera is anything someone, perhaps its creator(s), decides to call an opera. And yet that is obviously unsatisfactory. Hence we keep asking, as we do with music, drama, art, and so much else—all of which are generally held to combine under the heading ‘opera’. No wonder various people have rebelled against the term altogether, whereas still more have been attracted to it for reasons both close and distant.

Darren Berry’s The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow is certainly unusual, but there are many perfectly good reasons to consider it as such, not least his and Tête-à-Tête’s decision to do so. It has singing (live and filmed), other music (mostly recorded, but with live piano), acting (live and filmed), takes place in a theatre, and so on. As a ‘punk opera’, it has little connection, at least so far—we have only reached the end of the second act—with punk rock, though it perhaps has something in common with the elusive genre of ‘rock opera’, even with some of the work of Ken Russell. A mix of musical styles, from eighteenth-century pastiche and television accompaniment to Gospel, albeit with nothing one might consider modernist, let alone contemporary, suggests desire to be considered anarchic; so do combination with words (Berry’s own) and the words themselves (imbued, so it seems, with a schoolboy’s glee in regaling us with multiple slang terms for semen).

The first act, which takes us from pre-revolutionary Paris to ‘Old Kang Pow’, has much to entertain. Go expecting a successor work to Parsifal and you will doubtless be disappointed, perplexed, or something else, but then one might say that about many operas since. Nevertheless, diminishing returns, which had threatened to set in before the end of that act—a fun finale perhaps too extended—paved the way for a second act that, increasingly dubious racial stereotyping aside, actually turned a bit on the dull side. A fantasy of a secret, drug-induced (!) realm, in which the Marquis de Sade attempts to rediscover his libido in order to avoid execution at the command of Marie Antoinette, is doubtless not intended to be taken entirely seriously. Even with committed performances from all concerned—as ever, performers stand at the heart of a Tête-a-Tête production—there are probably limits to how long any particular member of the audience will remain engaged. I think I had reached mine, but a third act beckons for those who feel differently. And is that not always the case? Not everyone, after all, wants a Bühnenweihfestspiel; of those who do, nobody wants one every day.

Tête-à-Tête has much more to offer over the coming weeks; please consider lending your support, be that in the theatre or online.

Friday, 23 July 2021

Monserrat/Mad Song/Ballance - Mahler, Müller-Hermann, and Schoenberg, 22 July 2021

St John the Baptist Church, High Barnet, London

Johanna Müller-Hermann, arr. Joshua Ballance: Fünf Lieder, opp.11 and 32
Mahler, arr. Ballance: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Schoenberg, arr. Webern: Chamber Symphony no.1, op.9

Anita Monserrat (soprano)
Hannah Gillingham (flute)
James Gilbert (clarinet)
Seleni Stewart (violin)
Benedict Swindells (cello)
Gus Tredwell (piano)
Joshua Ballance (conductor)

To the (other) end of the Northern Line, to High Barnet (Chipping Barnet, if you prefer), for a wonderful concert in the inaugural season of the High Barnet Chamber Music Festival, conceived during lockdown by conductor and scholar Joshua Ballance. Here was a judicious mixture of known and—to me, at any rate—unknown, the known in new, chamber guise, arranged by Ballance and Webern (whose music features in Ballance’s doctoral study).

First, the unknown: two songs from Johanna Müller-Hermann’s op.11 (c.1914) and three from her op.32 (between 1932 and 1936). It was a fascinating opportunity to hear music from this Zemlinsky pupil. If the music sounded broadly how one might a priori have expected it to sound, that is not intended to convey shortcoming. The first two song, both Goethe settings, ‘Nähe des Geliebten’ and ‘An die Entfernte’, initially had me thinking in (necessary?) clichés to orient myself: post-Brahms, post-Zemlinsky, but never to be reduced to mere influence. If vocal lines, especially phrase endings, had a certain Classical quality to them, that is not necessarily a bad thing and they were not entirely without surprises, suggesting perhaps a kinship with early Schoenberg songs (or those of Berg and Webern, for that matter). Harmonies were definitely of the time, whatever that may mean. These are well-crafted songs, worth anyone’s attention, in equally well-crafted arrangements: the first inviting, the second imploring and speaking not only of, but with, sad resignation.

As Müller-Hermann’s song-writing developed, so too did the arrangements in which we heard them. Ballance’s work both as arranger and conductor in the Hofmannthal song, ‘Vorfrühling’, hinted cunningly and seductively at Second Viennese School possibilities, whilst remaining true to Müller-Hermann’s more conservative style. This song seemed to look both to a typical expressionist landscape and the more stifling eroticism of the contemporary drawing room. In ‘Du schlank und rein’, Stefan George offered a verbal framework for kaleidoscopic harmony and timbre, above which the excellent soprano Anita Monserrat floated a finely spun yet variegated vocal line. Equally attentive to words and music, Monserrat suggested darker currents, as did Balance, in ‘In Traum und Gesang’ (Rudolf Alexander Schröder), Brahmsian in part, yet again far from reducible to any such model.

We know Mahler’s Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen in piano and orchestral guise. Why not an ensemble somewhere in between? Why not indeed, especially in such fine performances as those offered by Ballance and his Pierrot ensemble Mad Song. Such instrumentation could hardly avoid to suggest the Second Viennese future, but there are tendencies enough, even in early Mahler, that this sounded the most natural step in the world. The combination of naïveté and alienation was spot on, allied to fine command of line and tempo. By the time we reached the second song, ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld’, the enormity of hearing Mahler at long last again in the flesh hit home. There was little question, whether from Monserrat or Mad Song, that this was the real thing: exultant, and perhaps somewhere with a glimmer of that hope we have learned to call by its mediaeval name, ‘respair’. The final question, might happiness now begin, and negative response, no it can never bloom for me, hit home all the more strongly in such heart-stopping guise. ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ received hochdramatisch treatment, very much on a knife-edge, and pivoting in truly Mahlerian fashion to hallucinogenic new vistas, through not against form. The closing ‘Die zwei blauen Augen von meinem Schatz’ seemed very much to speak to our recent (and current) trauma, uncertain rebuilding, and further illusion and hope. A mirage? Perhaps, yet what else do we have? Haunting was the mot juste.

Webern’s arrangement (1922-3) of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony completed the programme. Unsurprisingly, Webern seems especially concerned to play up Schoenberg’s constructivism of fourths at the opening—or is it that one wants to hear that, knowing who it is? That was how it sounded, at any rate, balanced by Schoenberg’s well-nigh profusion of melody. Ballance’s reading, especially during the exposition, spoke of a musical understanding that had nothing to prove other than the immanent qualities of this extraordinary music. Later on, he seemed especially keen to characterise the character of individual ‘movements’ within Schoenberg’s overall single-movement form, though there was certainly affinity between them too. Variation of tempo at micro- and macro-levels was in general finely judged. If there were occasional corners whose turning seemed slightly abrupt, that is largely testament to what difficult music this is to bring off convincingly. That achievement was never in doubt, and it was intriguing to hear the ‘slow movement’ taken with more Brucknerian breadth. Not everything need, nor should, be taken frenetically here. Playing was committed throughout, Benedict Swindells’s cello perhaps first among equals. How welcome it was to welcome back both Schoenberg and Mahler, and to welcome a team of fine musicians from whom we shall doubtless hear more.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

The Cunning Little Vixen, Opera Holland Park, 13 July 2021

Images: Ali Wright
Vixen (Jennifer France) and Fox (Julia Sporsén)

Vixen – Jennifer France
Fox – Julia Sporsén
Forester – Grant Doyle
Forester’s Wife, Owl – Ann Taylor
Schoolmaster, Mosquito – Charne Rochford
Priest, Badger – John Savournin
Harašta – Ashley Riches
Chocholka – Harriet Eyley
Lapák – Natasha Agarwal
Jay, Rooster – Grace Nyandoro
Woodpecker – Chloë Pardoe
Innkeeper – Phillip Costovski
Innkeeper’s Wife – Yolanda Grant-Thompson
Pepík – Alys Mererid Roberts
Frantík – Claire Ward
Frog – Daniel White
Caterpillar—Toby Yates
Grasshopper – Ben Jardim
Young Vixen – Estella Charlesworth

Stephen Barlow (director)
Andrew D. Edwards (designs)
Rory Beaton (lighting)
Sarita Piotrowski (choreography, movement)

Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Dominic Ellis-Peckham)
City of London Sinfonia
Jessica Cottis (conductor)
Forester (Grant Doyle), Schoolmaster (Charne Rochford)

Our present condition lends us, perhaps more than ever, to think of what has led us here, how things really are now, and where the world will take us next. Or so we fancy: for some of us that is doubtless the case, for others less so, and is it really that different from other stages in our earthly existence? Plus ça change? It is too early to tell. Whatever the truth or otherwise of such claims, an opera that decentres humans without obliterating them, turning our attention to the life cycles of which that of our species is but one—and an intrusive one at that—has much to say to us right now.

Enter The Cunning Little Vixen; indeed, enter the cunning little vixen Sharp-Ears. A particular strength of Stephen Barlow’s new production for Opera Holland Park is the heightening of a sense of interaction—perhaps neither good nor bad, but just ‘how it is’—between the natural and human worlds, in this case a decidedly urban world portrayed with sparing use of designs and props but decided suggestion, subtlety, and dramatic impact. We see Terynka on stage at the opening, a reminder not only of the intertwining—real, though less crucial than we might think—but also of the constructed parallels between the poacher Harašta’s forthcoming marriage to Terynka and the life, loves, and death of our vixen—and what will become in turn of her daughter. There is sadness, both of regret and of grief, in that, not least with respect to the lovelorn Schoolmaster, who has always admired Terynka from afar. There is also danger: danger that humans might encroach on that natural world too far: not for nothing are our urban foxes, human and animal, seen by a recycling bin. The natural world exists here too: we probably see foxes in London more often than elsewhere in the country. Should we? That is probably a meaningless question. How, then, might we effect some sort of return, for our sake and theirs, to a more ‘natural’ life-cycle? And should we?

That love (probably) and sex (definitely) lie at the heart of such conundrums, intertwined and parallel, is clear too. Much is done, probably all to the better in the age of coronavirus, by suggestion, again by intersection and parallelism. That word ‘intersection’ reminds us of gender issues, contemporary and age-old, too. The scene in which the vixen tempts hens to leave the apparent safety of their masters, animal and human, by presenting a utopia of women’s (and animal) rights seems especially crucial in this staging, both as high-point and as dead-end. Make of that what you will in light of the loss of their eggs and thus their potential for motherhood and, ultimately, the continuation of their species line. Are not, though, humans doing that anyway? Do we only care when, to borrow from Strauss and Hofmannsthal, a vixen rather than a forester/farmer steals their shadow?

There are rightly no easy answers, but they are posed: as they are in the musical performances, here very much of a piece with what we see. As so often in Holland Park, a sense of company that is more than its parts—like opera, like society, like nature?—is palpable and productive. Jessica Cottis’s direction of Jonathan Dove’s skilful reduction of Janáček’s score—very much a work of art in its own right, accordion and all—is fiercely alert in the moment; yet it also, as must any comprehending Janáček performance, senses and conveys the often surprising ways in which what might seem to be difficult, even rebarbative fragments are magically, indissolubly pieced together. The orchestra, here an attentive, lively City of London Sinfonia, takes on still more of that role when the work is sung in English, thus losing those foundational, generative Czech speech rhythms (even for those of us who speak no Czech). The decision is doubtless wise in a world permitting little international travel, a largely English cast (and audience) responding to the immediacy of a common tongue, a witty updating of Norman Tucker’s translation very much delivered and heard in the here and now. The ear compensates, as do the mind and eye.
Young Vixen (Estella Charlesworth), City of London Sinfonia, Jessica Cottis (conductor)

It was, then, the sort of performance in which it is tempting to re-list the cast and attribute good things to all of them. Such an approach, if slightly tedious, would doubtless be warranted. If I only single out a few performances that particularly caught my ear (and other senses), such words should be taken as indicative rather than exclusive. Jennifer France and Julia Sporsén offered lively, loving portrayals of Vixen and Fox, similarly alive in the moment yet allusive to broader, more cyclical (and/or ruptured) themes. Grant Doyle’s detailed way with words and music had me wonder what he would have made of the original Czech, though only in retrospect. As a key bridge between one world and another, he not only made things fit but ensured that they moved us in our human state of alienated longing. So too, albeit more exclusively on the human side, did Charne Rochford’s Schoolmaster. Ashley Riches operated as Harašta with a fine vocal and stage swagger, seemingly knowing yet ultimately foolish. All contributed, though; the operatic ecosystem would have been considerably the poorer without any. Surely that offers its own, broader moral.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera, 5 July 2021

Royal Opera House

Images: (C) ROH 2021, by Bill Cooper

Don Giovanni (Erwin Schrott),
Donna Anna (Adela Zaharia)
Don Giovanni – Erwin Schrott
Leporello – Gerald Finley
Donna Anna – Adela Zaharia
Don Ottavio – Frédéric Antoun
Donna Elvira – Nicole Chevalier
Zerlina – Zuzana Marková
Masetto – Michael Mofidian
Commendatore – Adam Palka
Donna Elvira’s maid – Josephine Arden

Kasper Holten (director)
Jack Furness (revival director)
Es Devlin (set design)
Luke Halls (video design)
Anja Vang Kragh (costumes)
Bruno Poet (lighting)
Signe Fabricius, Anna-Marie Sullivan (choreography)
Kate Waters, Simon Johns (fight direction)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Constantin Trinks (conductor)

This was the real thing, a return to Covent Garden that reminded one what opera can, should, even must be. We had made allowances for La clemenza di Tito, with which the ‘first reopening’ took place; there were admirable things, not least the return of some sort of hope for the art form in a hostile country, but we were making allowances—and rightly so. This Don Giovanni, however, was the real thing.
Masetto (Michael Mofidian), Zerlina (Zuzana Marková)

Such was clear from the opening bars. What a relief it was not to have them fashionably rushed. Indeed, Constantin Trinks led the finest Mozart I have heard at Covent Garden since we lost Colin Davis. It is a truism, but a truism worth repeating, that performing Mozart is the most difficult task in the musical world. Such complexity, especially in his later music, lies beneath the surface, yet it must sound the easiest, simplest of things. There is nowhere to hide. Like, say, Daniel Barenboim, but unlike most contemporary conductors, Trinks understands that Mozart’s music is ultimately founded on harmony—and knows how to communicate that. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounded rejuvenated, responding in style and with seeming relish to a vision of the work both attentive to detail and cognisant of tonal-dramatic architecture. Tempi were well chosen, not in isolation—‘Mme X will sing it like this’—but as part of what seemed to be a genuine company sense of a shared whole. For once, I could forget my objections to the all-too-familiar conflation of Prague and Vienna versions, enjoying a feast of music for what it was, if not the mutilation of the scena ultima (alas, the production’s doing, about which the conductor will have had no say). Trinks’s handling of recitative, both secco (from the fortepiano) and accompagnato, proved crucial both to musical and dramatic success, welding them together with that necessarily lightest of touches. If a conductor of the past occasionally came to mind, it was not so much Furtwängler (as it might have been with Barenboim) as a Carlo Maria Giulini of earlier vintage: less overtly ‘Romantic’, for want of a better word, though quietly, comprehendingly aristocratic. For this alone, it would have been Mozart worth making every effort to hear.

Don Giovanni

It was not, of course, alone, conductor and orchestra joined by a fine cast of singers. At its head was the ever-astonishing Don Giovanni of Erwin Schrott. Here was a role inhabited rather than portrayed, primarily animateur yet also, in chameleon-like reaction—how he slithers between, adapts, insinuates himself into all social-musical settings— animé. In keeping with and, in new circumstances, extending Kasper Holten’s production, here ably revived and similarly extended by Jack Furness, this Giovanni was dangerously seductive, disconcertingly (yet, in both musical and dramatic terms, brilliantly) spontaneous, and, at the last, or rather just before the last, thrillingly heroic. Holten’s undercutting of that heroism, having the final scene, albeit shorn (why?) of its opening, play out as the mental collapse of the hero signals, as so often, an unwillingness to take this most deeply Catholic of operas ultimately on its own terms, though less so than many others, which refuse or simply do not understand its premise in the first place.

Gerald Finley’s Leporello was just as excellent. One sensed a servant’s desire to become his master—as Schrott is a noted Leporello, so too is Finley a noted Giovanni—in musicotheatrical and metatheatrical terms. The particular mix of, and on occasion tension between, Mozart and Da Ponte that make the work what it is, galvanised by conscientious and charismatic performance was seen and heard not only in Finley and Schrott, but throughout the cast: Adela Zaharia and Frédéric Antoun a noble seria pair, their fundamental dignity both corroded and, especially in Donna Anna’s case, transformed by Giovanni’s combination of Casanova and Faust. Their arias, beautifully prepared and contextualised by recitative that told us just as much, proved moments of beauty yet, insofar as possible—that Prague-Vienna conflation really does not help—crucial dramatic reflections too. Zaharia’s coloratura was properly expressive, no mere decoration, as was that of Nicole Chevalier’s yearning Donna Elvira. Zuzana Marková and Michael Mofidian offered sweetly expressive and disarmingly bluff personifications of Zerlina and Masetto, studies in ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ that always offered more than the stock buffo characters they can sometimes seem. Adam Palka’s dark, direct Commendatore rightly put the fear of God—or Something Else—into the hearts of all but our atheist hero.

Zerlina, Donna Anna, Don Giovanni

In Holten’s staging, dramatic tension is generated by, on the one hand, through projected writing and rewriting of names upon the set, a sense of écriture poised somewhere between Barthes and Derrida; and on the other, that set’s labyrinthine video-propelled reinvention as it revolves, by dint of projected colour, new walls and passageways, phantom characters from past, present, and perhaps future. Such productive tension felt all the stronger in Furness’s revival, which seemed to mirror Trinks’s careful balance between detail and the whole. There is a strong sense of something Venetian, as so often in a work haunted by Da Ponte’s friend Casanova, in the masquerades, intrigues, and ultimately human passions that propel the drama. There is no question here that Donna Anna is attracted to Don Giovanni, doubtless a (post-)Romantic view, yet frankly far more faithful to the score and its spirit than the puritanical ‘reservations’ levelled by some at production and work alike. (There are many reasons unimaginative twenty-first century spectators might recoil at this drama. If they dislike it so much, why not do something else instead? No one is obliged to attend.) That does not, though, preclude her, nor indeed any female character, of agency. They know what they are doing and must also face the consequences of their actions; they are not dolls, but living, breathing women—and all the more involving for it. The male gaze, here at least, can be reversed if one wishes. Each character here has his or her own texts to write, to bring into dramatic reality; so should we all. Dramma giocoso indeed.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Die Walküre, London Opera Company, 3 July 2021

St John’s, Waterloo

Siegmund – Brian Smith Walters
Sieglinde – Gweneth-Ann Rand
Hunding – Simon Wilding
Wotan – Simon Thorpe
Brünnhilde – Cara McHardy
Fricka, Waltraute – Harriet Williams
Gerhilde – Jacqueline Varsey
Ortlinde – Philippa Boyle
Schwertleite – Rhonda Browne
Helmwige – Natasha Jouhl
Siegrune – Carolyn Dobbin
Grimgerde – Katharine Taylor-Jones
Rossweisse – Angharad Lyddon

Rosemary Taylor (clarinets)
Jo Harris (trumpet)
William Brown (trombone, bass trumpet)
James Bower (percussion)
Peter Selwyn (piano, music director)

Wagner’s dramas, one might think, would be among the last things to return to our cultural lives. In a way, they doubtless will. For obvious reasons, a full-scale staging of Die Meistersinger would be a tall order right now, though Bayreuth proposes a few performances this summer of Barrie Kosky’s staging (widely lauded, though certainly not by me). Covent Garden has reopened its doors with Mozart: La clemenza di Tito and, now, Don Giovanni (review forthcoming), though friends in Berlin are currently enjoying Stefan Herheim’s new Rheingold at the Deutsche Oper. (How I wish I were still there!) In London, however, such possibilities seem still quite distant. The London Opera Company’s Tristan und Isolde, performed last October with piano trio in place of orchestra, was a rare beacon of light. Now, the company returns with its second instalment of Wagner—or anything else—Die Walküre, marked as a concert performance but with a degree of acting and a few small props.

Brian Smith Walters and Gweneth-Ann Rand offered pretty much everything one could hope for in the Volsung lovers. The former’s Heldentenor thrilled vocally as any Siegmund must; there was, though, much more to him than that. Like the rest of the cast, he took advantage of the lack of full staging to show just how much character narrative can develop through words and music. From outlawry and dejection to apparent victory, only to be snatched away from him by the chief of the gods himself (ever unknown to him as his father), this was a story that demanded to be told. Rand’s dignity told in sheer stage presence—even without a ‘proper’ stage—and again through words and music. She engaged us, had us feel for her, but was no mere victim; this was a Sieglinde with agency too. The titular Valkyrie herself was familiar from Tristan. Then as Isolde, now as Brünnhilde, Cara McHardy led us not merely to follow, but to share her journey from the warrior maiden’s first, thrilling ‘Hojotoho’ to a tender, closer-to-human farewell with Simon Thorpe’s Wotan. Thorpe’s performance seemed drawn from the sagas, delivered as myth that did not preclude but rather encompassed humanity. That quality was certainly present in Harriet Williams’s uncommonly sympathetic Fricka. She not only made her case—its chilling logic is, on one level at least, readily apparent—but had us understand why. Simon Wilding’s jet-black Hunding proved the perfect foil to Volsung Lenz, another considered and highly dramatic portrayal. Brünnhilde’s Valkyrie sisters impressed equally in solo and ensemble performance, aided by a lucid instrumental ride from Peter Selwyn and company.

My principal reservation nonetheless concerned the arrangement itself: not, of course, the act of arranging, but the choices made. Tristan’s piano trio with conductor (the excellent Michael Thrift) worked considerably better for me. There will always be pros and cons, and the presence of bass clarinet in particular certainly had its Wagnerian moments. The choice of clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, bass trumpet/trombone, percussion (mostly timpani), and piano nonetheless seemed odd. It may not have been a choice; performing forces often are not. A few times, players and singers fell out of sync, likewise instrumental ensemble itself: doubtless to be expected, though perhaps a few times more than one might have hoped. Still, I should not carp. The openings of the second and, as mentioned, third acts in particular thrilled, ensemble seemingly reinvigorated. In Wagner-starved London, few will have been disappointed. Let us see what the London Opera Company, currently seeking sponsorship, comes up with for Siegfried next year.

St John’s, Waterloo will now close until next year for restoration, the first major work to Francis Octavius Bedford’s Greek Revival building since 1951, when it was rebuilt as the official church of the Festival of Britain. That festival helped bring hope and light back to London after the privations of war and rationing. St John’s has helped many of us over the past year, not least as home to the Waterloo Festival, with its actualised theme of ‘respair’, the return of hope after a period of despair. I look forward to its reopening and, in the meantime, the continuation of its crucial ministry to neighbourhood, city, and beyond.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Waterloo Festival (5) – Isserlis, Haywood, Bruch, Strauss, Dvořák, and Le Beau, 24 June 2021

St John’s, Waterloo

Bruch: Kol Nidrei, op.47
Strauss: Cello Sonata in F major, op.6 (London premiere of first version)
Dvořák, arr. Isserlis: Four Romantic Pieces, op.75
Luise Adolpha Le Beau: Cello Sonata in D major, op.17

Steven Isserlis (cello)
Sam Haywood (piano)

Image: Matthew Johnson

All good things must come to an end, or at least from time to time a pause. Let us hope that this, the last in the Spotlight Chamber Concert series, now also part of the Waterloo Festival, is only au revoir. Anthony Friend’s achievement in attracting such an array of musicians, to give such excellent performances at the darkest of times, merits our deepest gratitude; it certainly has mine. This long-delayed concert from Steven Isserlis, now with pianist Sam Haywood, made for a splendid finale—at least for now.

First up was Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, treated to a performance of High Romantic expressivity, balanced with great dignity, Haywood’s sensitivity as accompanist crucial here. Bruch’s piece is very different, of course, from Schoenberg’s Kol nidre for speaker, chorus, and orchestra. Schoenberg wrote to Paul Dessau that ‘one of my principal tasks’ had been to ‘vitriolize away the cello-sentimentality of the Bruchs etc., lending this decree the dignity of a law, of an “edict”.’ Whatever one thinks of that, one probably knows what he meant. Dignity takes many forms, however, as does sentimentality. It would have taken a harder heart than mine not to admire and enjoy so committed and freely romantic a performance. The way the music subsided just as dusk outside began to fall offered magic in itself.

Strauss and Schoenberg had a fraught relationship over the years. Schoenberg could not possibly, however, have known the first, 1881 version of Strauss’s Cello Sonata, since it only became available last year, Strauss’s music having passed out of copyright. (The same fate or opportunity awaits Schoenberg’s music next year.) Isserlis and Haywood gave the London premiere with a conviction that suggested a repertoire piece—which, even when one considers the first movement, in which relatively little changed, is perhaps something of an exaggeration for Strauss’s revision, let alone this. Both musicians were clearly inside the music, the pianist in particular, unsurprisingly, given quite a work-out. Strauss’s talent, at only seventeen years old, at writing for any instrument was heard both in his cello writing and in its combination with piano. There is little, even no, sign of the ‘real’ Richard Strauss, but it is an enjoyable, incredibly competent piece. The first movement was shaped as if it were Brahms, underlining an astonishing, Mendelssohn-like security of harmony and form. Its successor, an Andante entirely absent from the more familiar version of the work, received a rapt reading that did not obscure but rather enhanced its essential simplicity. The third movement, again replaced in its entirety in the second version, was likewise imbued with all the freshness of discovery and all the apparent familiarity of repertory. Mendelssohn again came to mind. It sang beautifully, if not remotely like the Strauss of maturity. There were some splendidly deadpan surprises too.

Dvořák, arranged by Isserlis, was next. One might never have guessed the Four Romantic Pieces were not originally written for cello and piano such was the success of arrangement and performance, clarifying textures that might conceivably have proved awkward. A delectable, songful performance of the first had genuine simplicity, albeit one that concealed much craft beneath the surface. The second was given in passionate contrast, founded on fine command of detail and articulation, leading aptly enough to a third that seemed to combine many of the virtues of both. Melancholy nobility, moving me considerably, proved the hallmark of the fourth.

Finally, a curiosity: the D major Sonata of Luise Adolpha Le Beau, written, albeit three years earlier and emerging victorious, for the same competition Strauss’s failed to win. The first movement’s opening proved, like Strauss’s, highly accomplished and, in performance, rich in tone. Where it travelled thereafter seemed more arbitrary. It nonetheless benefited from great care and evident belief. This big-hearted performance more or less melted my sceptical heart. A sad, yet warm and dignified slow movement, and pleasant enough finale likewise benefited from committed performance. I could not help but think the latter went on a bit, but did not mind in the slightest. The encore, Cécile Chaminade’s Sommeil d’un enfant was very much what one would expect: pleasant and well-crafted in its salon way.

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Waterloo Festival (4) - Schubert and Mozart, 23 June 2021

St John’s, Waterloo

Schubert: String Trio in B-flat major, D 471
Mozart: Divertimento in E-flat major, KV 563

Anthony Marwood (violin)
Hélène Clément (viola)
Tim Posner (cello)

Images: Matthew Johnson

Following a day from hell at work and consequent mad dash to the station to reach St John’s Waterloo in time, this programme of two string trios, one a fragment and one a towering masterpiece not only of the trio but also of the whole chamber repertoire, proved just the ticket. Schubert’s torso, here given only with its first movement, the only one completed, worked well as a generous curtain raiser. Here, Anthony Marwood, Hélène Posner and Tim Posner caught its mood beautifully from the outset: graceful, variegated, and post-Mozartian—just, though in that ‘just’, like the ‘and’ of Tristan and Isolde, lies everything. The fascination of string trio texture, whether for players, listeners, or composer was palpable. Fresh, musical playing, as alert to moment as to line, had one delight—however much one ‘knew’—in the smallest of surprises. A questing development that never strained, briefly imbued with the rarest of sadness, gave way naturally, inevitably—however much craft may lie in that appearance—to the moment of return. Taking the second repeat added in the best way to yet another of Schubert’s celebrated ‘heavenly lengths’. The close, rightly, tantalised; the rest was silence—or rather applause, and then Mozart.

Mozart’s E-flat Divertimento—did ever a genre title seem so insufficient?—received an equally splendid performance. It unfolds with such miraculous ease and depth, that its more overtly contrapuntal nature beguiles as if somewhere between one of Bach’s Trio Sonatas and an endless—well, almost—trio from one of Mozart’s operas. At least, so it did here, the instruments as much as their players characters in a conversational drama to rival Strauss’s Capriccio. There may well be metatheatricality, but it is worn more lightly than Strauss’s: as much a consequence of historical position as anything else, yet nonetheless striking from our vantage point. Switching of roles between instruments brought a smile to my face every time in the opening Allegro and beyond. That first movement’s development seemed effortlessly to emphasise—always the contradictory thing with Mozart—the colour of keys and modulations, harmonic motion the driving force of this wordless drama. No equal temperament here. The trajectory to recapitulation climax and subsidence was just as well judged.

If anything, the emotional range of the Adagio proved wider still; that probably lies in its essence. It opened more chastely, turning soon more passionate. How beautifully, meaningfully different every string of each instrument sounded, expanding the cast of our divine comedy. No one understood such capabilities and the infinite uses to which they could be put better than Mozart. The recapitulation had all the richness of a second development, albeit with none of the struggle one would have found in Beethoven. Yet what radicalism we heard in the harmony, so long as we listened as invited. In the next movement, Mozart’s jesting with cross-rhythm seduced and perplexed, even as it satisfied. As happy as it was melancholy, it paved the way, if only in retrospect, for a disconcertingly ghostly theme to the following movement, that theme’s first variation necessary balm yet no less clever. Once again, there was no denying either theatricality or progress to something beyond the stage, something a more confident age would have called ‘absolute music’. The final variation burst forth like a cross between Bach family Quodlibet and symphonic finale—which, after all, is more or less what it is, or can be.

The second minuet offered due balance and contrast to its predecessor. With all the ingenuity and still more of the fun of one of Mozart’s contemporaneous orchestral dances, it permitted trios both to relax and to intensify, as is their performing destiny. What invention lies here in the text; invention lay in its characterisation too. The finale’s knife-edge mixture of (mock?) innocence and puppyish exuberance proved both contrast and complement, two sides to one of Mozart’s most extraordinary coins. Mercurial magic led us through a garden of delights to a miracle of invertible counterpoint to match the Jupiter’s, albeit cunningly not as climax. Mozart surprises with the expected and the unexpected.

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Benedetti/LSO/Wigglesworth - Piper, Witter-Johnson, Jolas, Stevenson, and Simpson, 13 June 2021

Barbican Hall

Charlie Piper: Flēotan (2007)
Ayanna Witter-Johnson: Fairtrade? (2008)
Betsy Jolas: Well Met Suite (2016)
George Stevenson: Vanishing City (2020, world premiere)
Mark Simpson: Violin Concerto (2020-21, world premiere with live audience)

Nicola Benedetti (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

Another return to old musical friends at an old musical haunt: in this case the LSO at the Barbican. It proved as moving and thrilling as any other, although quite different in nature, the earliest music here being the first of three LSO Panufnik Composers Scheme commissions, Charlie Piper’s Flēotan, from 2007, the newest two premieres of works from this year and last. Patricia Kopatchinskaja and François-Xavier Roth having been unable to travel here on account of interminable travel restrictions, the British premiere of Francisco Coll’s Violin Concerto had to be postponed, replaced with the live audience premiere of Mark Simpson’s Violin Concerto. The rest of the programme was unchanged. Ryan Wigglesworth stepped in at five days’ notice to learn and conduct five pieces new entirely new to him. Wigglesworth, Nicola Benedetti, and the LSO did all five pieces—and themselves—proud.

Flēotan’s title comes from an Old English word, meaning ‘to float’ or ‘fleeting’. (It would later form the foundation for a larger LSO work, The Twittering Machine.) Its glistening, somewhat metallic colours, seemingly born as much of French orchestral tradition as anything closer to home, were married, both in work and performance, to a sharply rhythmic profile. It came across as an extended fleeting moment: perhaps evoked more than merely represented. It was followed by Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s Fairtrade?, which aims to bring to the audience’s attention the high cost of ‘fast fashion’, encouraging us ‘to consider our economic choices and the cost of our convenience at others’ expense’. Whirring, whirling, the machine-like sounds here, aptly enough, came across as necessity rather than choice. A sense of going inwards, of highlighting humanity crushed by such processes, concluding this unsettling, finely crafted piece.

Betsy Jolas’s Well Met Suite transforms four pieces from her 2004 Well Met 04 – Pantomime for 12 strings, into a suite for strings. Sharply etched, even contagious (a word for our times!) the material maintained a keen sense of narrative, though not necessarily one that could be put into words. Relationships between instruments took on a life of their own: double bass pizzicato inciting solo cellos, in turn inciting strings above. Stamping of feet was no gimmick, coming across instead as light yet necessary reminder of theatrical roots. Were those shades of Bartók we heard at times? Perhaps, but there was no suspicion of imitation. Scurrying development imparted its own identity and justification.

George Stevenson’s Vanishing City remembers those who, over the winter of 1941-2, successfully undertook the well-nigh incredible task of camouflaging Leningrad’s skyline against German attack. A hard-edged opening gave way, via Russian-sounding brass, to fantasy and still darkness. Bells recalled to us not only what was being lost, but what was being kept. Like everything else heard here, there was fine command of the orchestra as instrument and as collective of instruments: testament to the excellence of performances from the LSO and Wigglesworth, as well of course as to that of the work of composers young and old.

The second half was given over to Mark Simpson’s Violin Concerto. Its scale, but also its emotional impact, were palpable, an audience starved of music for so long responding with enthusiasm to a performance that had kept them on the edge of their seats. Simpson had begun work on the piece just before lockdown last year, and had found, ‘as the pandemic worsened … that it was impossible to “carry on as normal”,’ that ‘the work would need to explore a different set of responses’. It certainly seemed to be the case that audience, composer, and performers alike were responding to shared experience. Its roots, aptly enough, lay in what had gone before, not least in Simpson’s strikingly fantastical violin writing: Szymanowski a hundred years on? Foreboding was recognisable, yet content was new. Tension between a past world in which we already had enough to be angry about and that which we wished—perhaps still wish—to conserve from it came to the boil, shaped and sustained through a keenly felt and projected narrative of five movements (Lamentoso, Dance, Andante Amoroso, Cadenza, Presto con fuoco – Finale). That second movement sounded just as the composer described it: ‘a fast, energetic dance that is in essence a response to having a huge amount of pent-up energy that I was unable to release during the period of lockdown restrictions.’ It and its successors likewise drew freely on ‘tradition’, whatever that may be, without sounding (or feeling) remotely hidebound. Benedetti’s virtuosity captivated throughout, nowhere more so than in a cadenza that was almost a solo violin work in itself—until one began to appreciate its dependence on earlier material, the Dance subdued, perhaps, and sublimated. The hectic frustration of the fifth movement, the LSO at inimitable full throttle, led to final release: much needed and much celebrated.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Le nozze di Figaro, Opera Holland Park 15 June 2021

Holland Park

Count Almaviva – Julien Van Mellaerts
Countess Almaviva – Nardus Williams
Susanna – Elizabeth Karani
Figaro – Ross Ramgobin
Cherubino – Samantha Price
Marcellina – Victoria Simmonds
Bartolo – James Cleverton
Basilio, Don Curzio – Daniel Norman
Barbarina – Claire Lees
Antonio – Henry Grant Kerswell
First Bridesmaid – Naomi Kilby
Second Bridesmaid – Susie Buckle

Oliver Platt (director)
takis (designs), applied on the set for La traviata by Cordelia Chisholm
Rory Beaton (lighting)
Caitlin Fretwell Walsh (movement)

Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Richard Harker)
City of London Sinfonia
George Jackson (conductor)

What a welcome return to Holland Park this proved to be. Glorious weather helped, of course—quite a change from an earlier visit to Glyndebourne with altogether necessary overcoat and umbrella—but the achievement of Opera Holland Park first of all in putting on a season at all, let alone with its customary artistic success, deserves the highest praise.

One might think one could hardly go wrong with The Marriage of Figaro, though all too many recent productions have proved otherwise. In reality, it requires, like all Mozart, excellence in every respect. There is nowhere to hide, least of all in musical terms. The City of London Sinfonia was on good form, conducted by George Jackson, who fell prey to none of the traps readily walked entered by many of his peers. Instead, what we heard was an imaginative, wisely comprehending performance of Mozart’s score. Everyone will have his own ideas concerning tempi. In most cases, there will be various solutions. The trick is to make them work: largely, if anything but simply, a matter of ensuring a steady underlying tempo, which can certainly be varied, whilst at the same time hearing and conveying the act and ultimately the entire opera as a whole. There were, quite naturally, occasions when I initially wondered whether an initial tempo, at odds with how I might hear in my head, would work. There were none, however, when I was not swiftly convinced by Jackson’s choice: even Susanna’s emergence from the wardrobe, which showed a due sentiment of wonder can sound faster than I had believed.

A keen ear for orchestral detail, sometimes interpretative such as a cartoonish descending cello line, more often straight from the score, was in evidence throughout. Crucially, Jackson and his players conveyed an underlying melancholy, sometimes something darker still, as necessary counterpart to high spirits. There was room to breathe and to reflect: not so much a matter of speed, or even tempo, as of understanding and communicating the relationship between words, melody, harmony, and, this being opera, gesture. This was definitely Mozart’s comedy, not Rossini’s. The score was necessarily given in a reduced orchestration by Jonathan Lyness, which, lack of double wind notwithstanding, often tricked one into thinking one was simply hearing a small orchestra. Wind came naturally to the fore, balance not always as expected, but there was really no ground for complaint—and every ground for gratitude that this was happening at all, let alone so well.

Whilst there is no reason to be ageist about this, Figaro responds well to a cast of young singers—always, of course, provided they are capable of navigating its treacherous waters. This cast certainly was; it worked very well in ensemble too. The central quartet—Julien Van Mellaerts as the Count and Nardus Williams as the Countess; Elizabeth Karani as Susanna and Ross Ramgobin as Figaro—and others besides provided that necessary sense of reacquainting us with characters many fancy we know so well yet also of bringing something distinctive, of anchoring their portrayals in this particular Figaro, rather than some generic conception. All impressed in their various ways. Van Mellaerts, in combination with Jackson, had me sit up and take notice of quite what seria depth Mozart achieves in the Count’s third-act recitativo accompagnato and aria, ‘Hai gia vinta la causa … Vedrò mentr'io sospiro’. Detail and style matter here—not necessarily prescriptively, but generalisation will not do—as of course do their relationship to the whole. Williams brought great musical virtues to a finely balanced portrayal of dignity and sense of fun: this was Rosina, as well as ‘the Countess’. Karani and Ramgobin judged their standing at the centre of every intrigue extremely well: a musical just as much as a stage matter. Handling of recitative was just as impressive as their arias, which grew out of the former as musico-dramatic necessity.

Cherubino is a gift of a trouser role, yet no less tricky for that. Samantha Price had its measure, capturing not only its effervescence but a hint of the sadness—at least for those of us no longer quite so youthful—that lies with its distance. Victoria Simmonds and James Cleverton ensured that Marcellina and Bartolo, even shorn of their fourth-act arias, were more than stock buffo characters. As ever, the angel as well as the devil lies in the detail. A wily Daniel Norman as Basilio, and a bluff Antonio in Henry Grant Kerswell added to the fun; as did last, but far from least, Claire Lees’s beautifully sung, intelligently acted Barbarina. A small chorus, well directed and supplemented as is customary by the Holland Park peacocks, helped bind the action together in stage as well as musical fashion.

Oliver Platt, whose work I have admired in not one but two productions of Così fan tutte (Holland Park and the Guildhall), pulled off the difficult task of directing a Figaro for a time of social distancing. For the most part, one forgot—at least I did—that the characters were not interacting quite as normal. So much can be done, and was, with implication and choreography (for which plaudits to Caitlin Fretwell Walsh’s movement direction). Then there were moments, frozen as if for reflection, in which a sense of distance opened up: opening up being the operative word, since they were open to interpretation rather than dogmatically defined. The same might be said of a stylised, punkish look at costumes (takis) that were not quite what we might initially have thought. When we saw the servants, they were not really servants at all, let alone serfs. Crucially, they wore wigs. Who were they? People playing at being servants?

Moreover, whilst it would be difficult to claim this as an overtly political Figaro, it would be equally difficult not to draw political conclusions from the sense of judgement being passed on the Count and indeed the metatheatrical way the characters—perhaps partly out of character—turned on him and ultimately left him in isolation at the end of the second act. Judge not, that ye be not judged, takes on different meaning in a drama involving manorial justice—whatever the temporal context(s).

For opera is always constructed, never more so than now. Charlotte Chisholm’s resourceful work on a set necessarily conceived for two operas, this and La traviata, once again had one pretty much forget the restrictions under which we still labour—until a moment recalled the fact to us, at which one lauded the achievement. The action flowed with plenty of incident, yet nothing that jarred. Where there was anachronism, as for instance in the third-act ballet—what a history there is to that, as Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Memoirs so memorably recount—it was quite deliberately so. Distance intervened, momentarily, on and off stage; and then all came back together, audience included. That, surely, is what opera needs right now: solidarity and action in knowledge of the crisis that engulfs us.

Friday, 11 June 2021

‘Salonen: The Finale’: Uchida/Philharmonia - Bach, Salonen, and Beethoven, 10 June 2021

Royal Festival Hall

Bach (attrib.), arr. Klemperer: Bist du bei mir, BWV 528
Bach, arr. Webern: A Musical Offering, BWV 1079: Fuga (2. Ricercata) a 6 voci
Bach, arr. Berio: The Art of Fugue BWV 1080: Contrapunctus XIX
Bach: Partita no.3 in E major for solo violin: Prelude
Salonen: Fog (world premiere of orchestral version)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor, op.37

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Benjamin Marquise Gilmore (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

Images: Luca Migliore

It should have been a bitter-sweet moment: the Philharmonia returning to live performance, yet also its farewell to Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of thirteen years, Esa-Pekka Salonen. It doubtless was in some ways, but there was a feeling of hope here too. Hope may be the cruellest of gifts: it dies last, as Donald Tusk was wont to remind us. In one of the many outstanding performances I heard from the orchestra and Salonen during his tenure, Dallapiccola’s Il prigioniero, the Beethovenian message of Fidelio was, after all, decisively turned on its head for the twentieth (and twenty-first) century: ‘La speranza … l’ultima tortura’.

And yet, Beethoven, notwithstanding banishment during the clash of anniversary year and pandemic, is still with us. So is the partnership of Salonen and Philharmonia, as he becomes the orchestra’s Conductor Laureate. And so too is that orchestra’s great history, which, to quote Salonen (responding to a spoken and filmed tribute from the orchestra), seems to learn its ‘tradition … through osmosis … like a biological process, certainly beyond words’. That too was how he had connected with his illustrious predecessors: Strauss, Furtwängler, Karajan, and of course ‘Dr Klemperer’. But that in itself could never have been enough, for ‘communal experience has been missing.’ For many of us, as for Salonen, the Internet ‘doesn’t quite work’ in this way. ‘It has to be this moment. You, and us, and the distinction between you and us disappearing.’ It was the return of that experience, ultimately, that gave us hope, not torture.

We opened with Bach, whom Salonen likened to Shakespeare, every generation having taken its own look at this music, interpreting and even mutilating it. First came Klemperer’s orchestral transcription—or should it be arrangement? We could spill endless ink over that alone—of Bist du bei mir, thought at the time to be Bach’s, now known to have been composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel for his opera Diomedes and merely collected by Bach for Anna Magdalena’s celebrated Notebook. Salonen had heard it once on the radio and had been determined to get his hands on the score: a difficult task since it was owned by a private collector. We make, find, and invent our own Bach—constantly. This string version, made for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, flowed with grace, beauty, and enormous clarity. There was nobility too, not least in, dare I suggest, the almost Elgarian sound of the Philharmonia’s cellos. Somehow it seemed all the more fitting that this was not Bach, but something he cherished and enabled us to cherish. There is hope in that.

The celebrated Webern transcription—I am tempted to say re-composition—from the Musical Offering followed without a break. As Salonen had said earlier, notes sounded like stars in the sky: connected, yet separate. How they are connected is the thing—or rather, one of the things. The closer one listens, the more one discerns. Players must join the dots: and they did, music ricocheting across the stage, connecting itself, the players, and us. Again, the flow was measured and increasingly flexible, gathering pace and falling back—as in Salonen’s recording with the LA Philharmonic. It is a flexibility we may call ‘Romantic’, yet which is in truth as much Bach’s, Webern’s, Salonen’s, or music’s.

Berio’s version of the unfinished fugue from the Art of Fugue sounded darker, at least for much of its progress. It sounded both ‘earlier’ and ‘later’ too, less radically interventionist, so much so that the sound of a saxophone came as quite a shock. (Klemperer substituted saxophone for trumpet in an early, pre-Philharmonia recording of the Second Brandenburg Concerto.) There was a feeling of that starry sky opening up to reveal the very music of the spheres, Bach’s music growing—being grown—with all the patience in the world and beyond. And then it began to turn, to take off, to suggest the air of more than one other planet. As Bach was left behind, music became something else entirely: dependent and independent of ‘tradition’, whatever that may be.

The Prelude to Bach’s E major Partita was heard from above (the Royal Box): given to the stage as much as to the audience by concert-master Benjamin Marquise Gilmore. Once more, we heard something of the essence of Bach: flexible and regular, balanced and directed, simple and complex, sung and instrumental—in work and performance. Salonen’s Fog responded. Initially composed for ensemble for Frank O. Gehry’s (title derived from initials) ninetieth birthday, and now expanded for orchestra, it recalls the first music ever heard in Disney Hall. It was a moment Salonen had wanted to ‘embellish upon’. And how—in a fantastical recreation, slightly sinister and unquestionably magical, poised between mechanism and the spontaneously woven. Were those ghosts in the machine, or machines in the ghosts? The general answer seemed to be: why choose? Bach rarely did. There was overt process to be heard—post-Ligetian as much as post-minimalist?—that felt somehow oppressed, indeed as if by the fog of the title. Surely all those many years of experience as conductor as well as composer—in this case, from Salonen’s celebrated 1983 debut with the Philharmonia in Mahler’s Third Symphony—made their way, lightly and without fuss, into this performance. Descriptions of events may sound incongruous: a piano cadenza came seemingly out of nowhere, yet also out of somewhere, inciting a wash of well-nigh post-impressionist sound; unexpected orchestral riffs with hand drum beats; solo violin and flute duetting. And yet, they did not feel so. All the time, the clouds rained Bach, more or less explicitly. Like Bach’s music, work, performance, and our listening seemed to grow both in simplicity and complexity, and in connexion.

Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto had been the first piece Salonen and Mitsuko Uchida played together. It made for a fitting finale here. The first Classical music we heard—all the more Classically Mozartian given forces necessitated by social distancing—sounded, if you will forgive the cliché, newly minted. That fabled, almost Boulezian clarity was once again present, likewise the Philharmonia’s cultivation of orchestral tradition. There was plenty of hushed mystery as well as wide-eyed awe. Post-Mozartian sadness turned to post-Mozartian vehemence: the tragedy of modernity, that we want Mozartian perfection yet cannot reach it. (We even begin to wonder whether Mozart did.) It was all the more tragic for being softly spoken. And then Uchida’s entry: defiant yet soon sad too. This was to be chamber music writ large, in an unhurried, flexible performance of great wisdom from all concerned. It was music-making to give no option other than to listen, to remind us why we were there. At its heart, of course, stood the Beethovenian humanity we have so longed for, and been denied, these past fifteen months. There was Klemperian orchestral granite too, as well as many of the virtues the elderly Klemperer admired in the young(ish) Boulez. Uchida’s shaping of phrases assumed the mantle of inevitability, though only in retrospect; for looking—listening—forward, all was to play for. That, literally, was hope, in an almost Newtonian tonal cosmos that may no longer be ours, but which can still immediately speak to us. I fancied at one point that the cadenza might metamorphose into the Emperor; but no, not every beautifully voiced E-flat chord leads there. Beethoven’s C minor daemon possessed the coda: this was the real thing, no doubt.

In the slow movement, we heard the rapt voice of experience—and once more of hope. The sincerity of orchestral response to that piano opening took on an almost religious—versicle and response—quality. New vistas were opened up by solo woodwind. The music flowed like a great river, yet was most revelatory in its whispered confidences, no matter from whom. It was rounded off beautifully, preparing for the next chapter, yet offering a lingering look back too. Sometimes, Orpheus gets to keep Euridice. Returning to C minor for the finale, we heard a Klemperian doggedness that knew not all dances are light, and that persistence is not the least quality in bringing forth joy. It was persistence in the return of the rondo theme, in fascinating, dialectical combination with the onward tread, hop, and skip of the Philharmonia bass, that drove this movement. It was quite unlike any other performance I have heard: perhaps not for every day, perhaps not to be repeated, but is that not what performance is truly about?

As an encore, ‘what Esa-Pekka wanted’, Uchida treated us to the second of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, op.19. Here, persistence again paid off, the resistance of that repeated major third (G-B) compelling music ‘itself’ both to ravish and dissolve—and yet remain. There is hope in that too; there must be.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Waterloo Festival (3) – Doric String Quartet: Schubert, Bartók, and Mozart, 8 June 2021

St John's, Waterloo

Schubert: Quartettsatz, D 703
Bartók: String Quartet no.3, Sz. 85
Mozart: String Quartet no.23 in F major, KV 590

Alex Redington, Ying Xue (violins)
Hélène Clément (viola)
John Myerscough (cello)

Images: Matthew Johnson

With such a programme, one might have been back at the Wigmore Hall. Indeed, many are already. It is a hallmark of Anthony Friend’s achievement in his Spotlight Chamber Concerts that all combinations of artists and programme I have heard might readily have taken place in London’s—many would say the world’s—finest chamber music venue. This evening was the turn of the Doric String Quartet, in Schubert, Bartók, and Mozart.

Schubert’s Quartettsatz is a popular recital-opener the world over. However many times one has heard it, it seems always to retain its allure and fascination. This was an unusual performance, unlike any I can recall, a frozen opening thawing somewhat, yet never to the extent of sounding what we might call ‘traditional’, let alone ‘Viennese’. If the tonal palette were somewhat restricted, there were great contrasts nonetheless to be heard within its selected constraints. There was much pent-up fury, so it seemed: a performance, perhaps, for our times. If I cannot imagine always wanting to hear Schubert like this, it was certainly preferable to lazy Gemütlichkeit.

Was that relative astringency in some sense preparation for Bartók? Not really, for it was quite rightly a very different world we entered with his Third Quartet: a different kind of ice, a different kind of febrility. Process stood more closely to the fore: doubtless a reflection of the work itself, but also of the performance. The palette here was broader, both in tone and dynamic contrasts. The players showed a keen collective—and individual—ear for detail and its place in the greater whole. If sometimes one felt on the brink of chaos, there was no doubt this was an organised chaos, drama lying in the shards of light, the cracks between notes, as much as in Bartók’s well-nigh Mozartian profusion of melody and, crucially, its relationship to harmony. Syncopation and other rhythmic devices propelled that drama, but never alone.

I often missed that relationship between melody and harmony and the consequent harmonic motion that creates dynamic form in the performance of Mozart’s late F major Quartet, KV 590. Clearly the Doric players hear Mozart differently from me, their favoured light, silvery, broadly ‘period’ tone—post-Harnoncourt, one might call it—very different from my ideal (or default). That, however, is no bad thing; one should always be prepared to examine and re-examine one’s preconceptions and prejudices. Their approach is in any case far from dogmatic: there was strikingly warmer playing from all concerned too. It was more what I heard sometimes as a strange lack of direction that puzzled. That said, there was much to admire in each movement: the first a model of conversational playing; the second swift yet intriguingly chaste, enigmatic, even introverted. The third offered splendid emotional intensification in its trio, whilst the fourth was full of incident in its almost helter-skelter progress. I never heard it smile, though. The lack, moreover, of an identifiable—to me—pulse had the music sound increasingly listless. For me, this was quixotic Mozart, but it drew me in to listen, above all in the intensity of passages taken sotto voce. It also had me think.

Monday, 7 June 2021

L'Egisto, HGO, 5 June 2021

The Cockpit

Egisto – Martins Smaukstelis
Climene – Astrid Joos
Lidio – Alex Pullinger
Clori – Caroline Taylor
Hipparco – John Holland-Avery
Amore – Helen Lacey
Semele, Bellezza, Hora Seconda – Charity Mapletoft
Venere, Dedra, Hora Quarta – Oliva Carrell
Dema – Emily Kyte
Volupia, Didone, Hora Terza – Helen Daniels James
La Notte – Laurence Gillians

Marcio de Silva (director, lighting)
Madeline de Barrié (assistant director)
Christian Hey (designs)

HGO Baroque Orchestra
Marcio da Silva (music director)

HGO (formerly Hampstead Garden Opera) led the way after the first lockdown with opera’s return to London, in the guise of an outdoor performance of Holst’s Sāvitri at Lauderdale House. Five miles or so away, at Marylebone’s Cockpit Theatre, it proved if not quite the earliest, then one of the earliest, to return to the fray this time round, with Francesco Cavalli’s (and Giovanni Faustini’s) L’Egisto of 1643.

The second of Cavalli’s collaborations with Faustini, L’Egisto proved influential and popular beyond Venice, travelling to Naples and many other nascent centres of opera across the Italian peninsula. It even travelled with Cavalli to Paris, to be performed in 1646 at the behest of Cardinal Mazarin, determined yet frustrated in his every attempt to establish Italian opera on a permanent basis in the French capital. (Mazarin would later commission Cavalli’s Ercole armante for Louis XIV’s marriage to Maria Theresa of Spain, though neither opera nor théâtre à machines was ready in time. It would be performed two years later, in 1662, Cavalli’s Xerse quickly substituted—and highly popular.) The renaissance in Cavalli’s fortunes, if not quite initiated by Raymond Leppard, then nonetheless incalculably in his debt, saw L’Egisto among the earlier Cavalli operas to return to the stage, Leppard realising the work for Santa Fe in 1974 and Scottish Opera eight years alter. Marcio da Silva, acting both as stage and music director, now gives a reading for our time, doubtless less lavish than Leppard’s, but our moment is hardly one given to lavish operatic presentation. Rightly or wrongly, it tends to favour ‘original instruments’ and a less ‘interventionist’ approach than what Jane Glover described, in her review of Leppard’s score, as ‘look[ing] upon the surviving material rather as a lump of modeller’s clay, which he [Leppard] moulds skilfully into shapes which he knows will please modern audiences. In so doing, he departs from original practice, often quite violently.’

There was certainly no such violence here, whether in the pit or on stage. Given in the round, the boundary was not in any case entirely distinct, though there was no dramatic mixing of function to match that combination of roles in our dual director’s case. The ebb and flow of the score and its realisation—or whatever we want to call it—by Marcio da Silva and Cédric Meyer very much complemented the scenic action, presented in some ways simply, yet far from neutrally. A small yet colourful band—harpsichord, organ, lute, baroque guitar, two violins, gamba, cello, two recorders, and sparingly employed percussion—did not suggest, at least not in this small, socially distanced theatre, that Cavalli’s music cried out for more. Rather, it furnished a crucial harmonic backdrop of imagination, against which the human voice could be heard and human gesture seen. If I cared less for the folk-like excursions now expected in early opera performances of a certain school, they were rare and clearly relished by the players, whose pleasure it would be churlish unduly to begrudge. With Sebastian Gillot, assistant music director, at the keyboard, much was possible and realised in aural tapestry, but also much was offered in support to the singers, the continuo ensemble flexible enough to be reinforced with a minimum of fuss where necessary.

A staging that relied on distance, on separation, and on mischief and anguish in their wake was doubtless developed with our current predicament in mind, yet fitted very well with a plot in which two couples, separated, must find, recognise, and learn to love one another again (though do they?) The passing of a single day, respecting the old dramatic unities, is symbolised by the passage of the sun above (this Egisto a descendant of Apollo, not the Aegisth we know from Elektra). Curtains of separation that could be seen through, or not, did much that was necessary. Singing to and past each other, touching or, more often, failing to do so, spoke to us clearly yet far from clinically. Touches of blood-red brought colour with dramatic impact predicated on an overall economy of means. Elements of cross-dressing reminded us of where Cavalli, much to Leppard’s sorrow, ended up: ‘plots … of such a ridiculous complexity that it is doubtful if anybody could ever have known, or cared, what was happening on the stage once the disguises had got under way’. But with Faustini, as Leppard remarked in the liner notes to his recording of L’Ormindo, Cavalli ‘responded to the best libretti with his best music’.

To make it so, of course, requires not only sensitive continuo realisation but also sensitive—and dramatic—vocal artistry. Here a number of singers excelled, showing considerable stage gifts too. Martins Smaukstelis was first among equals as Egisto, wounded, external heroism and inward anguish expressed by all manner of subtle gradations. Astrid Joos as Climene and Caroline Taylor as Clori offered complement and contrast in their soprano roles, expression lying very much within the precision of their performances. Helen Lacey’s Amore schemed and sulked by turn, vocally and visually. This was, however, very much an ensemble piece, with all involved, musical and directorial teams alike, contributing to the musico-dramatic whole. Recommended—even without the bonus of drinks brought to your seat. There are two, alternating casts; I saw the second.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Waterloo Festival (2) - Solem Quartet and friends: Schubert, 4 June 2021

St John’s Waterloo

Schubert: Octet in F major, D 803

Amy Tress, William Newell (violins)
Stephan Upshaw (viola)
Stephanie Tress (cello)
Anthony Friend (clarinet)
Catriona McDermid (bassoon)
Stephen Craigen (horn)
Marianne Schofield (double bass)

Images: Matthew Johnson

Back to St John’s, Waterloo, for the next in Spotlight Chamber Concerts’ contribution to the Waterloo Festival. It was clear that the Solem Quartet and friends enjoyed their performance of Schubert’s Octet. So, surely, would all in the audience have done; this audience member certainly did. As we begin to rebuild our lives in line with this year’s Festival’s guiding word, ‘respair’, that return of hope after seemingly endless despair, far from yet banished, civilisation and enjoyment are not the least of the resources on which we shall continue to call. They were found in abundance here at nine o’clock on a Friday night, as outside the sun and inside the spotlight began to fall.

Pregnant with expectation—a feeling common to us all right now—the first movement introduction, redolent of works by Schubert’s Viennese Classical predecessors yet unmistakeably his own, presaged the mood to come: of a world that might still long for the serenades of Mozart, yet which ultimately knows that time is past. The main Allegro was beautifully, meaningfully flexible, shifts in tempo contributing to the greater whole. There was a keen sense in work and performance alike of roots in tradition, without so much as a hint of the merely reactionary. The development’s turn to F-sharp minor proved rightly both surprising and the most natural thing in the world, heard and felt with a pathos given space to blossom—and which therefore did. There was a fine impression of tonal ascent to the moment of return. During that recapitulation, I especially loved the transfer of melodic line between Catriona McDermid’s bassoon and Stephen Upshaw’s viola.

The Adagio flowed like a river on a summer’s day: subtly yet undeniably. The more closely one listened, the more there was to listen to. Expressive, non-dogmatic variation of strong vibrato guided our path, enhancing the impression of a string quartet joined and enhanced by friends. Stephen Craigen’s horn and Anthony Friend’s clarinet likewise did much to guide an unerring tonal plan, realised in full when Schubert’s owl of Minerva began at movement-dusk to spread its wings. A scherzo as fresh as it was bright nonetheless seemed predicated on the memory of something darker. The trio relaxed on the one hand, intensifying on the other, its counterpoint both blithe and serious, the scherzo’s reprise heard in the light of what had changed.

The fourth movement sang with a naïve charm that yet knew its place was too late, thus turning, heartrendingly, to variation. Each variation was finely characterised yet found its place within the greater scheme. If it would be invidious to single any one out, it was perhaps inevitably the turn to the minor mode that touched most deeply. There was a subtle melancholy—at least I fancied so—to the Minuet, which again suggested already the neoclassicism of a time that knew its distance from Mozart. Allied to that, even necessitated by it, was a sense of corners still to be turned, of new vistas still to be seen and heard.

Darkly Romantic tension in the introduction was shown to be but one side of the finale’s coin, the sheer good nature of its harmony and counterpoint the other, in a finely judged performance that both refused to be hurried, let alone harried, and yet with seeming effortlessness maintained its forward impetus. It took us through contrast and conflict to something more equitable and, yes, civilised: something greatly needed in our present condition.