Thursday, 2 December 2021

'A Catalan Celebration': London Sinfonietta/Colomer - Gerhard, Magrané, García-Tomás, and Illean, 1 December 2021


Queen Elizabeth Hall

Roberto Gerhard: Libra
Joan Magrané Figuera: Faula
Raquel García-Tomás: aequae
Lisa Illean: Januaries
Gerhard: Leo

London Sinfonietta
Edmon Colomer (conductor)

A miserable, rainy night seemed just the right time for the London Sinfonietta, in association with the Institut Ramon Llull, to light up the Queen Elizabeth Hall with what they called ‘A Catalan Celebration’. 2020, the year without music, marked fifty years since the death of Roberto Gerhard. It was doubly welcome, then, to have this celebration of mostly Catalan music take place in 2021, the year when music tentatively returned to our lives. To hear fine performances not only of music by Gerhard, but also works by contemporary (to us) Catalan composers, Joan Magrané Figuera and Raquel García-Tomás, as well as one by the Australian-born, London-resident Lisa Illean, would have been a splendid opportunity at any time. It also helped dispel a little of the current misery outside. 

Gerhard himself was represented by two of his three late astrological pieces, Libra and Leo, from 1968 and 1969 respectively (the 1966 Gemini for piano and violin missing). Both ensemble works were premiered and recorded by the London Sinfonietta under David Atherton. I have not heard those (nor any other) recordings, but these performances under Edmon Colomer spoke clearly not only of excellence in execution but of deep familiarity and understanding of Gerhard’s music, of its language and colour, but also of its structure becoming living form in time. The éclat, to use an intentionally loaded term, of Libra’s opening chord having grabbed one’s intention, one immediately garnered a post-Schoenbergian (post-Webern too, I think) sense of every line counting, heard through exemplary clarity in scoring and performance alike. One might have heard the guitar as ‘Spanish’, but I think that would have been lazy; both Schoenberg and Webern used the instrument in ensemble works too. One felt, not merely recognised, a multi-movement structure condensed into one, placing it in a tradition dating back at least to Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony—and, of course, beyond to Liszt and Schubert—though here, perhaps, sonata-form inheritance, Gerhard’s own Third Symphony notwithstanding, was not so apparent. A dialectic between abstraction and Romantic sensibility lay the heart of what we heard. Glistening, above all it sang. Music of exile? It is other things too, yet that conclusion did not seem unreasonable, especially at a close that approached, or perhaps better referred to, a sort of modal tonality born of ‘national’ roots. 

Magrané’s Faula (Fable) followed. Written in 2017 and inspired by a novel of the same name by Jaume C. Pons Alorda, it seeks, to quote the composer, not to ‘elucidate his narrative,’ but ‘first and foremost to use Pons Alorda’s ideas and aesthetic world to conceive of its structure texture, and sound’. Four sections, essentially sets of musical material, recur throughout the work, taking their own line but also necessarily interacting. What soon struck me, even within the first, ‘Mosso, con foco’, was a fascinating polyphonic tendency—would it be too fanciful to ascribe this to the composer’s interest in Renaissance polyphony?—of individual, sometime fractious lines combining to effect that ‘line’ of which we speak so often as the prevailing melos, as Wagner would have had it, of so much Western music. A phrase that came to my mind, knowing nothing alas of the novel, was multiple tectonics; there was musical grit, it seemed, both in that necessary interaction between different types of material but also in their contrast. This could produce music of great beauty: atmosphere, propulsion, emotion. There was also, I felt, a sense of play to it: of chance, of contingency, however carefully designed, and yet productively within a framework of structural determination. Schoenberg’s—Bach’s for that matter—dialectic between freedom and determinism seemed in the context of this concert to extend via Gerhard to newer music, not necessarily in the sense of ‘influence’, but as a way to listen, even if it were only mine. 

García-Tomas’s aequae (2012) is divided into six parts of equal (hence the title) duration, two minutes each. In its exploration of ‘the relationship of equality between the musical materials that make it up as well as the paradoxes that such equality can produce’, it made its way with strikingly powerful integral development, through timbral as well as harmonic tension. Bowing cymbals, for instance, proved generative yet also resistant: an observation of the work in microcosm. There was a slower pulse (than in the hectic contrasts of Magrané), yet much happening within that pulse. Instruments not previously heard, such as saxophone and muted trombone, opened up new aural vistas: the art of programming, it seemed, very much part of the overall performance. Likewise the lack of strings, if only in this context, suggested something colder, even icier. 

After the interval, we heard Illean’s Januaries (2017), shaped in some sense by ‘memories of summers spent as a child with my grandparents in Queensland’. What might initially have seemed more textural music in quality had a definite guiding thread, suggestive initially, if only to me, of a process of melting. Descending, sliding figures were part of that; so too were ever-transforming harmonic fields. Distant bells first seemed to evoke something, or perhaps the point was that they did not; they were part of the landscape, of a space that could not necessarily be delineated, that slipped between our fingers, even our ears.

For the final piece, we returned to Gerhard for Leo. Again, I was struck by its opening éclat, though its development and general character took a different path. There was again complexity to this music, but never superfluity; everything mattered, had a relationship to the greater whole, even though one knew it would take greater familiarity precisely to discern it. Serialism, almost as if a magic square before our ears, was a guiding framework but never in itself the point. This was a powerful, directed, and highly dramatic performance; much, clearly, was at stake. A hieratic section, initially brass-led, reminiscent of chorale writing without simply reproducing it, was heard as the work’s emotional core, prior to initiation of further frenetic activity, material ever transforming before our ears. As first clarinet, then flute sang at the close a pentatonic, folk-like melody, suggesting this discovery may actually have underlain what previous we had heard, yet without our recognising it as such, exile as reminiscence in surroundings transformed returned, poignantly, to our aural stage.


Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Cooper - Schubert, Ravel, and Liszt, 28 November 2021


Wigmore Hall

Schubert: Piano Sonata no.16 in A minor, D 845
Ravel: Sonatine
Liszt: Années de pèlerinage: Troisieme année, S 163: ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’
Ravel: Jeux d’eaux; Valses nobles et sentimentales
Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody no.13 in A minor, S 244

Imogen Cooper (piano)

A concert of two halves, this. Imogen Cooper’s severely insistent account of Schubert’s A minor Sonata, D 845, contrasted strongly with more colourful, yielding Ravel and Liszt. That, you might say, would be as expected, and you would have a point. I nevertheless longed for a little more in the way of chiaroscuro in Cooper’s Schubert, whilst acknowledging this may have been as much a matter of taste as anything else. Rhythm and, perhaps to a lesser extent, motivic working were to the fore in an angry first movement, whose uneasily wandering development section intrigued and did anything but console. There was greater ambiguity to the Andante con moto theme and variations, which again wandered in alienated, darkly Romantic fashion. An estranged lilt hilted at something else, but it was only a hint. Mercurial insistence in the scherzo led to still bleaker unease in its trio, whose ultimate note seemed to be of exhaustion. One would hardly expect the closing rondo to comfort. It certainly did not, though there were a few more ambiguous passages again. Ultimately, however, this was a bleak conclusion to a bleak reading. 

There was no question of playing Ravel as if it were Schubert (however understood). The Sonatine benefited from lighter touch and mood, and greater flexibility. There seemed to me, right from the start, to be greater awareness or at least communication of harmonic rhythm, and Gallic charm too, however clichéd the phrase. All three movements, albeit with different contours, character, and pulse, glistened from within. A liquid—aptly enough—account of Jeux d’eaux had backbone too, in a performance that was clearly deeply considered, whilst remaining quite free of pedantry. Valses nobles et sentimentales showed greater kinship, through its waltz rhythms, with Schubert. This was unashamedly big-boned Ravel, but none the worse for it; until it yielded, that is. For the second waltz proved more languorous and flexible; the delectable pain of the third was well-judged; and so on, through magical rubato and keen awareness of what had passes, musically and perhaps extra-musically too. There was a ghostly suavity to the ‘Epilogue’. 

After the Sonatine, we heard the first of two pieces by Liszt: ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’. Its muscular virtuosity also offered glistening results, very much here in the heat of the midday sun. It was forthright, yes, but it sang, in a performance of fine musical integrity. The A minor Hungarian Rhapsody is, well, rhapsodic—and sounded as such. Fervent Lisztian I may be, but I should quite happily never hear the Hungarian Rhapsodies again. They have their fans, though, and in her closing number, Cooper did not shy away from giving a grandly rhetorical performance, imbued with a rubato that evoked both temporal robbery and another, diabolical form of bargaining.


Die Zauberflöte, Royal College of Music, 26 November 2021


Britten Theatre

Sarastro – Jamie Woollard
Tamino – Ted Black
Speaker – Dafydd Allen
Teachers – Henry Wright, Sam Harris
Queen of the Night – Heming Li
Pamina – Hyoyoung Kim
Three Ladies – Lylis O’Hara, Annabel Kennedy, Emma Roberts
Three Junior Girls – Leah Redmond, Denira Coleman, Taryn Surratt
Papagena – Sofia Kirwan-Baez
Papageno – Theo Perry
Monostatos – Harry Grigg
Two Boys – Daniel Bray Bell, Redmond Sanders
Chorus – Madeline Boreham, Angelina Dorlin-Barlow, Matthew Curtis, Sam Hind

Polly Graham (director)
Louise Bakker (associate director)
Rosie Elnile, Hazel Low (designs)
Tim Mitchell (lighting)
Kate Flatt (movement)  

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

 

A week that brought excellent student shows from two London conservatoires, both the Royal Academy of Music (L’Heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi) and the Royal College (Die Zauberflöte) offered encouraging news for our often hesitant operatic recovery. In many ways, this Magic Flute came close to ideal: committed performances from a highly talented cast of young singers, a provocative production by Polly Graham, and a warm yet incisive orchestral reading—rarely did one notice the small numbers in the pit—from Michael Rosewell. How preferable this was, in almost every respect, to Covent Garden’s dull revival of David McVicar’s superannuated production in September under leaden musical direction. 

Graham’s feminist standpoint was refreshing for an opera often accused, sometimes justly, often unjustly, of misogyny. It is a standpoint, though, not an end in itself: a way of looking at an opera, of permitting its characters to speak, sing, and to be reconsidered. The opera takes place in a somewhat old-fashioned secondary school, replete not only with blazers (often honoured in not being worn) and teachers in tweed, but also marijuana and abuse, both drivers of the action. For Pamina, more central than ever I can recall seeing her, embarks on her journey following creepy advances from Sarastro, and she is the one who plays the field—will she choose Tamino or her boyfriend of apparently longer standing?—and offers others a path to temporary enlightenment via a spliff. If there is to be deeper, more rooted enlightenment, it will come neither via narcotics nor through the restoration of Sarastro’s order at the close, but through the psychoanalytical world of a magic garden beyond the school wall, in which fantastical events take place, later to be interpreted. Music in performance is very much part of that interpretation, as witnessed by Papageno’s bells and Tamino’s flute. I cannot help but think that Michael Tippett would have loved it, though this was more Freud than Jung. Tamino certainly learns better than his teachers have taught him, both through the example of Pamina and the love they feel for each other; likewise, of course, Papageno and Papagena. 

Ted Black and Hyoyoung Kim proved an outstanding central couple, offering fresh-toned musical performances fully worthy of starrier stages (though with the bonus of a small theatre enabling us to see and hear them closer-up). Pamina’s attempted suicide in ‘Ach ich fühl’s’ was deeply moving, convincingly paced and spun; Tamino’s quest for self-discovery not only convinced but drew one in to empathise. Theo Perry’s Papageno likewise emerged more rounded than often one sees and hears: no mere caricature, but a flesh-and-blood human being with desires and feelings of his own, beautifully expressed through music and gesture—and splendidly reciprocated by Sofia Kirwan-Baez as Papagena, her part considerably more substantial than is usually the case. Jamie Harry Grigg’s rascally Monastatos was similarly much more of a multi-dimensional character: tribute to both production and performance. Woollard’s vocal dignity as Sarastro duly troubled. Heming Li came as close to thorough accuracy as anyone has the right to expect in her glistening accounts of the Queen of the Night’s arias. All contributed, though, to the greater dramatic whole in a fine company performance, with some light, tasteful ornamentation that enhanced rather than distracted. 

This was accomplished with a few, relatively minor cuts and changes to the text. (An exception to that ‘minor’ qualification was the inserted cadenza for the Three Ladies in the first scene. Fortunately, we heard no more in that vein.) Titles helped draw out further meaning, sometimes engaging more with what we saw rather than heard on stage, sometimes offering a bridge between the two. The ‘original’, whatever that may be, will not go away; or rather, if we consider it as anything more than the score and libretto, it will never come back, since we have little idea what it was in the first place. Our visual imagination fastens on Schinkel, if anywhere: wonderful, but nothing to do with 1791. Opera must never degenerate into a museum piece; it must live and breathe, which it unquestionably did here.


Sunday, 28 November 2021

L'Heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi, Royal Academy of Music, 25 November 2021


Susie Sainsbury Theatre

Concepcíon – Bernadette Johns
Ramiro – Will Pate
Don Iñigo Gomez – Michael Ronan
Torquemada – Ryan Vaughan Davies
Gonzalve – Liam Bonthrone

Gianni Schicchi – Patrick Keefe
Lauretta – Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada
Rinuccio – Ryan Vaughan Davies
Gherardo – Samuel Kibble
Simone – Wonsick Oh
Betto – Daniel Vening
Marco – Will Pate
Nella – Sophie Sparrow
La Ciesca – Luiza Willert
Zita – Bernadette Johns
Spinelloccio, Notary – Michael Ronan
Gherardina – Clara Orif
Pinellino – Johannes Moore
Guccio – Charles Cunliffe
Buoso Donati – Tom O’Kelly

Stephen Barlow (director)
Yannis Thavoris (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Alice Farnham (conductor)

Images: Craig Fuller

 

How wonderful at last to return to opera at the Royal Academy of Music. (I caught an excellent concert of chamber music by Bartók and Eötvös from musicians coached by Tamara Stefanovich earlier this term.) Many of London’s best opera performances come from our conservatoires, young, enthusiastic musicians aided to act as a company, with none of the grind of repertoire routine, the ‘star system’, or worst of all, agent-determined casting that can blight bigger stages. The smaller size of theatres helps too. To see characters’ faces, especially in a fast-moving, highly reactive ensemble piece such as Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, is worth a great deal.

 




It is a work that tends to bring out the best in its performers—and certainly did here. Stephen Barlow directed a staging set roughly halfway between the time of composition and the present day. I do not think I have ever seen a production set in 1299, and cannot say I have any particular desire to do so. An abiding idea of Florence will always loom large, though, and so it did here: in this case, tinged with music. Composer Buoso Donati’s grand piano helped fill the stage, a drunken Betto (Daniel Vening) occasionally hammering out a tune on it. Monuments to past greatness, or at least renown, included a Maggio Musicale poster for one of Donati’s operas. A large instrument case inherited from the set for L’Heure espagnole, provided a place to hide the body where necessary. But the crucial action lay, as it were, in the interaction, clearly well planned and rehearsed both by Barlow and conductor Alice Farnham. Yannis Thavoris’s costumes contributed to the framework for delineation of character: Bernadette Johns’s Zita every inch the wheelchair-ridden (malingering?) battleaxe with airs, Will Pate’s Marco and Luiza Willert’s La Ciesca a uniformed policeman and ambitious, voluptuous wife, and so on. Patrick Keefe’s Schicchi necessarily took centre-stage once present, and figuratively once announced. His was a fine, detailed performance, as were those of his daughter Lauretta (Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada, with a lovely, snapshot-like ‘O mio babbino caro’) and her eager lover Rinuccio (Ryan Vaughan Davies). But there is little point in merely repeating the cast list. All contributed to the greater whole, as did incisive orchestral playing and conducting. Puccini’s score glistened as it should and must; the opera’s wit duly scintillated.


 


Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole had taken place in a musical instrument repair shop El Tempo, time more overtly met music in the guise of instrument cases with time signatures and tempo markings: ‘4/4’, ‘Assez vite’, and so on. The largest functioned as clock cases to be hiked up- and downstairs by Ramiro. Again set, costumes, and lighting (Jake Wilshire) made a considerable contribution to the overall mise-en-scène. What I missed somewhat, even at the time, though still more so in retrospect, was a sense of musical urgency and utmost precision, the latter surely a sine qua non for all Ravel performance. Farnham was supportive to her singers—and that, of course, may well have been to the point—but there were times when tempi dragged a little. The small orchestra (strings 4.4.3.2.2) seemed less at home in Ravel too, sonorities and balances somewhat variable. That cavil notwithstanding, Johns offered a lively, seductive Concepión, Pate properly under her spell, growing in (the character’s) masculine confidence. So too were the other male singers, Vaughan Davies a nicely fussy Torquemada, Liam Bonthrone and Michael Ronan properly preening suitors in their different ways. Much to enjoy, then, in both cases.


Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Hewitt - Mozart, Messiaen, and Chopin, 23 November 2021


Wigmore Hall

Mozart: Piano Sonata in C major, KV 309/284b
Messiaen: Préludes: ‘La colombe’, ‘Le nombre léger’, ‘Instants défunts’, ‘Les sons impalpables du rêve’, ‘Plainte calme’, ‘Un reflet dans le vent’
Mozart: Piano Sonata in B-flat major, KV 281/189f
Chopin: Nocturne in F minor, op.55 no.1; Nocturne in E-flat major, op.55 no.2; Scherzo in E major, op.54

Angela Hewitt (piano)

A slightly strange programme, this, albeit with much to enjoy. Neither of the Mozart piano sonatas is generally considered popular or even immediately ingratiating; that made it all the more interesting to hear what Angela Hewitt would do with them. Leopold Mozart found the C major Piano Sonata, KV 309/284d ‘strange’, having something in it ‘of the rather artificial Mannheim style’, though he modified that judgement by saying that the Mannheim contingent was ultimately so small that his son’s good style was not spoiled. In the first movement exposition, Hewitt nonetheless seemed to take Leopold at his word, giving an unyielding, unsmiling account, seemingly etched in chrome: clearly a performance decision, since she did not continue like that, either in this or other works. The development’s plunge into the minor was powerfully dramatic, speaking of the opera house both in initial gesture and melting, vocal response. If only there had been greater sense of harmonic direction and indeed of how various figures, finely articulated in themselves, might cohere to form a greater whole. Although neither of the remaining two movements smiled or relaxed quite as they might, they had more of that at least, emerging much the stronger for it. Hewitt’s deadpan sign-off in the finale’s coda was almost worth the price of admission alone. 

Hearing six of Messiaen’s eight piano Préludes was a little strange too, though there was plenty of variety to those that reached the stage. In this, the composer’s first published work—Le banquet céleste, written earlier, was published later—we naturally hear considerable influence from Debussy, for which Hewitt’s ability to play ‘without hammers’ proved duly illuminating. There were other ghosts at the feast too: Dukas, Franck, perhaps Ravel, and of course Liszt. It was as fascinating to chart their interaction as to bask in premonitions of Messiaen’s mature musical language and method. Many of the building blocks were there, not least modes of limited transposition, but the sensibility was somewhat different. Sometimes, that is; for in the closing ‘Un reflet dans le vent’, everything—in a wonderfully synthetic vision—came together, both in text and performance. Hewitt seemed to pick up contrapuntal tendencies from Mozart amidst the polymodal chromaticism of ‘Les sons impalpable du rêve’, though Bach was the likelier progenitor. At any rate, there was something feverish enough to suggest a dream world, without loss of clarity or direction. I very much liked the song-like quality imparted to ‘Plainte calme’: a deceptive simplicity, perhaps, in its mysticism. Much the same might be said of the opening prelude, ‘La colombe’, whose constructivism seemed both to the fore and magnificently beside the point. 

Hewitt seemed to view—certainly to interpret—Mozart’s B-flat major Sonata, KV 281/189f, more warmly than its predecessor. Here there was just as much variety of articulation as in the C major Sonata, but its first movement seemed to sing more freely. Less Mannheim, perhaps, and more aspiration to Vienna—or even to London, for the spirit of Bach (this time, Johann Christian) is surely more in evidence here. A crisp, unfussy opening Allegro gave way to an Andante amoroso suggestive of opera rather than born of it; this is instrumental music after all. Hewitt’s phrasing and voicing made a fine case for music all too readily underestimated. The closing ‘Rondeau’ delighted, its darker, chromatic turns voiced without over-emphasis, always attentive to a need for light and shade. That is not to suggest an old-fashioned Meissen china sensibility, but rather an ultimately sunny disposition that may not be mine yet has its own rewards. There are, I think, darker currents, sharper dramatic twists here, even in such early Mozart; others are free to think—and play—differently. 

Hewitt’s final set turned to Chopin. After a somewhat plain—deliberately so, I am sure—opening to the F minor Nocturne, op.55 no.1, her performance developed into something quite compelling, a strong sense of narrative drive allied to harmonic and motivic development. Likewise for its companion piece in E-flat major, op.55 no.2, which sang as it developed. The E major Scherzo seemed to offer an entire world: not unlike a sonata or symphony, save for the fact that it is entirely unlike a sonata or symphony. Here, rather more so than in Mozart (certainly the C major Sonata), different, contrasting material sounded—and felt—more clearly, dramatically integrated. We hear overt Romantic virtuosity less often than we might from Hewitt, but certainly did at the close: thrillingly. So too did we in a big-hearted, big-boned encore account of Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s Widmung. I should be fascinated to hear Hewitt play more Liszt.


Sunday, 21 November 2021

Die Walküre, English National Opera, 19 November 2021


Coliseum

Siegmund – Nicky Spence
Sieglinde – Emma Bell
Hunding – Brindley Sherratt
Wotan – Matthew Rose
Brünnhilde – Rachel Nicholls
Fricka – Susan Bickley, Claire Barnett-Jones
Gerhilde – Nadine Benjamin
Ortlinde – Mari Wyn Williams
Waltraute – Kamilla Dunstan
Schwertleite – Fleur Barron
Helmwige – Jennifer Davis
Siegrune – Idunna Münch
Rossweisse – Claire Barnett-Jones
Grimgerde – Katie Stevenson

Richard Jones (director)
Stewart Laing (designs)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Sarah Fahie (movement)
Akhila Krishnan (video)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

Images: (C) Tristram Kenton
Siegmund (Nicky Spence) and Sieglinde (Emma Bell)

I wanted so much to like this more than I did. It is not quite ENO’s return to the Coliseum after you-know-what, but in many ways it felt like it. (A Philip Glass revival and a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan will have had their devotees, but they are not my potion of forgetfulness.) Anneliese Miskimmon, ENO’s Artistic Director, could not have been more welcoming in her brief address from the stage before the performance. And what could be a greater declaration of intent for a new era than a new Ring? Perhaps a Schoenberg or, still more so, a Stockhausen series? But even then, the Ring retains for many the status of non plus ultra. Its all-encompassing nature continues to surpass all competitors; no artwork has more to tell us, so it seems, at any juncture in our dubious human development.

No Ring is therefore going to be perfect; even the most exalted performance, let alone staging, will have imperfections. It would be too easy to judge perfection a lesser thing; it is not, necessarily, but it is a different thing—one which Mozart (often) has covered. Yet if a Ring in performance will always fall short, it should not fall so short as Richard Jones’s half-hearted attempt at a production, which detracted all too much from a mixed musical performance laying claim to not inconsiderable virtues. Perhaps more would have been gleaned had we seen Das Rheingold first. Starting with the second instalment is not without precedent, but I remain unconvinced that it is a good idea. Berlin’s Deutsche Oper has had to present Stefan Herheim’s new Ring as and when it can, but that is a different case, planned performances having to be cancelled, given without an audience, and so on. (How I long to see what Herheim has done!) Yet it is difficult to imagine that much light being shed on a Walküre (sorry, Valkyrie, as ENO obstinately continues to refer it) seemingly without a concept or indeed much of an idea at all. Presumably, money was tight, for what we see is not so much minimalism as people wandering a little lost around a stage that sometimes has scenery and sometimes does not. As in Jones’s recent, wretched La clemenza di Tito for the Royal Opera, there was a vague look: in this case, noir-ish ‘Scandinavia’, though it would be difficult to say anything more precise than that. ENO’s publicity suggests the idea that this is a family saga: well, sort of, I suppose, but only if that is taken to be the crucible for something greater. Use of video to show Alberich (‘Nibelung’ tattooed on his forehead), Grimhilde, and Hagen when referred to in Wotan’s narration—nothing more, just show them—seemed both patronising and pointless, though perhaps in a greater context it contributes to the banal theme of family feud. The appearance of Hunding’s clan on stage might have contributed further, but ultimately undirected (like so much else), they proved little more than a distraction, the lack of much to distract from notwithstanding.

 

Alberich (Jamie Campbell), Brünnhilde (Rachel Nicholls), Wotan (Matthew Rose)

Maybe the strange claim (Christopher Wintle) that opened one of the programme notes offered a clue to the lack of any exterior, let alone political element: ‘Most of us can agree that The Valkyrie is “about” incest.’ I do not know precisely to whom ‘us’ refers; certainly not to me, anyway. Wagner’s drama is no more ‘“about” incest’ than The Flying Dutchman is ‘about’ sailing. The point of Siegmund and Sieglinde’s love is that it breaks the violent, cruel bonds of marriage, family, and custom (which Wagner specifically identified with Fricka); that it leads Siegmund to reject immortality, and thus to put Brünnhilde on her way to doing likewise, to attaining the superior status of ‘purely human’; and precisely that it does not matter whether the Volsung twins are brother and sister, not that it does. Here, occasional straining towards a familial idea, for instance Hunding’s physical brutality to Sieglinde, seemed little more than striving after effect, given a lack of embedding in anything more than an IKEA catalogue. The production team sported more interesting clothes than those given to the cast; maybe they should have swapped.


Grimgerde (Katie Stevenson), Rossweisse (Claire Barnett-Jones),
and Siegrune (Idunnu Münch)

 

Or maybe they should have given them to the curious animals that pranced around the stage, Wotan’s ravens (I think) included: more Sesame Street than creatures of the forest. Whether the concept were malevolent or ironic, neither possibility was achieved. For some reason, a lone tap dancer did her stuff during the Ride of the Valkyries, whilst actors in horse costumes struggled around on tip toe. Why on earth Grane, understandably fidgeting, was made to balance in this way through the entirety of the final scene—and not only then—I have no idea; but then I have little idea about anything else either. Inability to set the stage ablaze at the close was attributed to a late intervention from Westminster City Council. Alas, Wotan’s protracted fumbling to attach to Brünnhilde a harness that would awkwardly suspend her above the stage, without the slightest sign of flames that had intermittently flickered earlier, seemed all too apt a metaphor. Quite what the Met, where Jones’s third (!) attempt at the Ring is heading, will make of it is anyone’s guess. It is certainly devoid enough of intellectual content to satisfy Friends of Otto Schenk. But the ‘look’, for that is all it is, and lack of discernible stage action will surely trouble many. 

Martyn Brabbins’s conducting was sane, measured, and doubtless sensitive—perhaps too sensitive—to the needs of his singers. Brabbins clearly appreciates the need to think in the broadest terms about Wagner’s structures, yet often seemed to confuse that with maintaining a slow speed throughout, occasionally changing gear when that could not conceivably be maintained any longer. A few understandable fluffs—every performance has them—notwithstanding, the ENO Orchestra played beautifully, if often in strangely subdued fashion, especially in the first act (!) I do not know how long it lasted in actual minutes, but it felt like the longest I had ever heard. By contrast, the third act often seemed rushed, if hardly short. This was clearly a work in progress, but there may be considerably more hope for improvement here than in the staging.

 

Brünnhilde

Had it not been for an initial announcement, no one would have known Nicky Spence was suffering from a cold. Siegmund is clearly a role for which he is ready—and for which he has well prepared. There are strength, vulnerability, and many other of the qualities we need, even in so unpromising a setting as this. It was difficult to discern much in the way of chemistry with Emma Bell’s Sieglinde; nor did this seem to be ironic or deconstructive detachment. However, considered on its own terms, her performance also impressed, indicative of a woman bruised yet determined to command her own destiny. Dart-playing Rachel Nicholls, lumbered with a strange skater-girl look, trod a fine, shifting line between Brünnhilde's youthful impetuosity and the glimmers of something more moving, more human—which is to say she understood what was at stake, even if Jones did not. Matthew Rose, lumbered with, well, being a lumberjack-turned-television-detective, offered a typically detailed and thoughtful performance as Wotan, though the third act did not show him at his strongest. These things vary from night to night. Brindley Sherratt's focus as Hunding varied too, though at its best it offered something darkly psychopathic. One of the strongest, most committed and sustained performances came from the team of Susan Bickley (finely observed, on stage) and Claire Barnett-Jones (also finely observed and with gleaming tone, from a box above) as Fricka. This, again, was a performance that truly used words, music, and gesture to suggest drama beyond Jones’s imagination.

 

So too did John Deathridge’s new singing translation. It was in many respects remarkably faithful not only to what Wagner said but, crucially, to what he did not, employing suggestion and ambiguity in the right places. It had an intriguing line too in something akin to Stabreim. Word order and stress played their part, as did various other considerations one might find—with profit—in reading Wagner’s own Opera and Drama. This did not, like many of ENO’s translations, attempt to draw attention to itself, still less to elicit inappropriate laughter; rather it participated in the dramatic effort in a way the singers and orchestra, if hardly the director, did. The sort of people who drone on about ‘the Coli’ and alleged halcyon days of Reginald Goodall will doubtless bemoan the lack of Andrew Porter, but their parochial concerns need not be ours.

 

Fricka (Susan Bickley) and Wotan

‘Mark well my poem,’ wrote Wagner to Liszt in 1853, enclosing a copy of the Ring in verse; ‘it contains the beginning of the world and its end.’ One might argue that beginning(s) and end happen elsewhere in the Ring; but were this the generic television ‘show’ from which Jones & Co. appeared to have taken non-inspiration, it seems doubtful, even in the unlikely event of a decision to renew for another ‘season’, that many viewers would have been remaining. To achieve not only an Annunciation of Death, but an entire Walküre, in which nothing whatsoever seemed to be at stake, was a peculiar, perverse and strangely pointless achievement. Either Jones needs to rethink—the prefix ‘re-’ may be too kind—or ENO should act decisively with courage and substitute another production or concert performances. With Wagner, in Wagner, much is or should be at stake.



Saturday, 20 November 2021

Philharmonia/Schiff - Mozart, 18 November 2021


Royal Festival Hall

Piano Concerto no.9 in E-flat major, KV 271
Symphony no.36 in C major, KV 425, ‘Linz’
Don Giovanni, KV 527: Overture
Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, KV 466

Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff (piano, conductor)

‘A feast of Mozart’ is how this concert was advertised—and indeed in many ways it was, not least for those of us unlikely to be able to attend (yet again) Salzburg’s Mozartwoche next January. It was, though, a somewhat inconsistent feast, though and oddly planned at that, a piano concerto followed by an unrelated symphony making for a strange first half. The second half—rather less than half, in minutes taken—was more impressive, although there were certainly things earlier on to admire and enjoy. It was nonetheless difficult to resist the conclusion that, nowadays, the best of András Schiff’s pianism is to be heard on period instruments and certainly not on a modern Steinway; in addition, it is difficult to credit him as much of a conductor.

The opening of the miraculous E-flat major Piano Concerto, KV 271, augured well, the Philharmonia’s playing crisp and cultivated, Schiff’s tempo well chosen. And there was sometimes, if not always often enough, a willingness to yield. More concerning was an intermittent disinclination to phrase, ends of phrases merely left hanging, cut off abruptly. That was especially odd given an evident ability to phrase where so inclined, for instance in the passage for crossed hands. Why Schiff felt the need to play piano continuo throughout the opening tutti and beyond, I do not know; it added little other than distraction. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else, I gained the impression the pianist would be happier playing a fortepiano. Fair enough, but in that case, why not do so? The slow movement was taken swifter than Schiff would once have been likely to, but had more in the way of dynamic contrast. His dogged continuo playing continued to irritate, but that is clearly now his way. The music’s restlessness was often well conveyed, but again a reluctance to yield was concerning. An ebullient finale seemed less hidebound by determination to eschew Romanticism: not because Schiff’s approach was notably different, but more on account of its intrinsic qualities. Again, passages for crossed hands were beautifully taken. The central episode was honest and unfussy, if hardly seductive, the Philharmonia offering some lovely orchestral playing nevertheless.
 

The first movement of the Linz Symphony proved a disappointment. A broad introduction tailed off at its close, dissipating the energy required for the main Allegro spiritoso to burst forth as surely it must. The impression was of flatness, and of an inability quite to settle on the right tempo. It took until the recapitulation to do so. Period trumpets with modern horns (and other instruments) made for a strange compromise; perhaps there was reason behind it. The second movement, together with the finale the most convincing, flowed with greater coherence. There was something of an edge to the Philharmonia strings, but that seemed to be an interpretative decision. A graceful minuet gave way to a slightly distended trio, small-scale (with radically reduced strings) rather than intimate. Momentum was restored in the finale, well pointed, nicely directed, and full of life and direction. Schiff largely left the players to play: a distinct improvement on earlier, fussy intervention. Taking the closing repeat is doubtless justifiable, but here it offered little beyond repetition for its own sake. 

The Overture to Don Giovanni was much better. Its introduction taken unfashionably in four, and all the better for it, was grander than anything heard hitherto, but more to the point offered due sense of expectation, fulfilled in the main body of the overture. It duly fizzed, crucially emerging from what had gone before. Again, Schiff wisely left the musicians largely to play for themselves. Although Schiff held up his hands to forestall applause, wishing to move straight into the D minor Piano Concerto, many applauded anyway. 

The concerto’s first movement was similarly ‘traditional’, but also more focused than anything we had heard in the first half. Schiff seemed more at ease with himself and with the Philharmonia. The opening tutti was exemplary, articulation integral to the musical drive, not a strange end in itself. If there were still occasions when his playing seemed more suited to an older instrument, they were fewer and less glaring. And the Philharmonia by now seemed to know when not necessarily to follow the arms waved around from the keyboard. Schiff used Beethoven’s cadenza. The Romanze was on the swift side, though not unreasonably so; better that than laboured. Focus remained, in a performance nicely sung and without fuss. During the central G minor episode, Schiff’s care to voice every note—not always the case in the first movement—went to show just how essential each of them is. The movement as a whole was well shaped, which is to say there was no overt shaping at all; it sounded just ‘right’. Mozart’s treacherous opening to the finale was despatched without fear, the orchestral response wondrous in diabolical grandeur. This was properly Catholic Mozart. Indeed, there was a keen sense of solo/tutti versicle and response, melting where necessary into chamber music. That is Mozart, of course, but it requires understanding and communication in performance too. The cadenza may have seemed a good idea in the abstract, opening with material from Don Giovanni before returning to music from the concerto itself, yet ultimately it failed to convince. It would surely have needed something more Mephistophelian, more Lisztian (a composer Schiff has long disdained), and less disjointed. Still, the coda, full of energy, offered a proper release. As an encore, we heard an unpretentious account of the Adagio from the extraordinary late B-flat major Piano Sonata, KV 570.


Friday, 12 November 2021

Chamayou/LSO/Roth - Gossec, Saint-Saëns, and Beethoven, 11 November 2021


Barbican Hall

Gossec: Symphonie à 17 parties in F major, Rh 64
Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.22
Beethoven: Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, op.55, ‘Eroica’

Bertrand Chamayou (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)
 

François-Joseph Gossec lived a very long life during ‘interesting times’, born in 1734 in the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and dying in Paris in 1829, just short of the July Revolution. His Symphonie à 17 parties was written under Napoleon, in 1809, so makes for an interesting companion piece to Beethoven’s Sinfonia Eroica, composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grande Uomo, its initial dedication (to Bonaparte) famously scratched out in fury in response to the First Consul’s self-elevation to the rank of Emperor. If closer comparison is beside the point—whatever the virtues of Gossec’s piece, it would pale if heard after Beethoven—then this was an excellent opportunity to hear a little-known work, with fine advocacy from François-Xavier Roth and the LSO, Bertrand Chamayou contributing a blistering account of Saint-Saëns’s Second Piano Concerto in between. 

Gossec’s Symphony immediately catches the ear with its grandly rhetorical opening bars, prior to what comes across to our ears as fond looking (listening?) back to the eighteenth century, unquestionably from the standpoint of a composer for French orchestras. (Gossec had founded the Concert des Amateurs in 1769, offering for twelve years a serious rival to the celebrated Concert Spirituel.) And that was only the introduction. The first movement as a whole proved colourful and theatrical, testament to the composer’s interest in concert and dramatic work alike (sacred music too). If the movement’s close relied heavily on tonic and dominant harmony, that in itself is hardly a fault; one might—many do—say the same of Beethoven. The Larghetto second movement showed some rather more surprising harmonic shifts, allied to a keen ear for colour as heard earlier. Such music can all too readily be rushed, but not here; nor did it drag. The minor-mode Minuetto (I should have guessed ‘scherzo’) came as a considerable surprise, both in itself and for its counterpoint. Split violins, as well as considerable LSO heft (twelve first violins down to five double basses), truly told, as did unmistakeably Gallic use of bassoons. The trio’s Harmoniemusik was attractive enough, though perhaps it outstayed its (symphonic) welcome. The finale again had a strong sense of the opera house to it. Some phrases sounded superficially Mozartian in themselves, but the construction is very different. 

Chamayou ensured a properly arresting opening to the Saint-Saëns Concerto, as if extemporising on Romantic memories of Bach—which, in a way, is very much what the composer is doing. The LSO’s response was equally, differently rhetorical, the first movement’s course meeting somewhere in between, broadly Lisztian. What some say of Liszt, I might wonder of Saint-Saëns; this movement does sound to me a little like an introduction to an introduction. I am probably missing the point, though, and there was no denying the superior quality of Chamayou’s pianism: glistening, melting, virile, double octaves and all. Fantasia-like swirling mists prior to the close proved mysteriously alluring. A sparkling, sprightly, even sprite-ly second movement began in Mendelssohnian vein, before moving in quite different directions. The tarantella finale sounded ambiguous, perhaps ambivalent, certainly a whirlwind. One could only marvel at the pianist’s technique and musicianship, Roth ever the alert, discerning accompanist. As an encore, we were treated to the Adagio from Haydn’s late Piano Sonata in C major, Hob.XVI:50. Rapt in its intensity, it benefited from a similar sense of the improvisatory, founded in attention to detail and command of line. I should love to hear more Haydn from Chamayou. 

The opening of the Eroica came as quite a culture shock (to me, at least). I do not think I have ever heard it so fast: presumably taken at the ever-controversial metronome marking. Roth’s musicianship won me over, though. This was a very different Beethoven from that of Wagner, Furtwängler, Klemperer, Barenboim, or a host of others. Of course it was, Colin Davis included. (It was under him, I think, that I last heard the LSO play this symphony.) But comparison, or for that matter contrast, is not the point here. Roth, anything but dogmatic, had his own vision and it worked splendidly. Ultimately, I missed a degree of grandeur, but here, in Beethoven’s first movement, not only did notes fly off the page; they fairly danced. There was, moreover, a fine sense of exploration to the development and what is in effect a second development (recapitulation). 

The Funeral March was brisk, if less (to my ears) iconoclastically so. Obsequies grew in stature, as if grief were approaching us from a distance. There was, fittingly for the programme, a strong sense of French Revolutionary processional. It was, perhaps, more Berlioz’s Beethoven than Wagner’s—and none the worse for it. Excellent woodwind solos (Olivier Stankiewicz’s oboe here first among equals) contributed to the greater whole. Counterpoint lay at the movement’s very heart; if sometimes I had wondered quite what was at stake in the first movement, here there was little doubt. Busy energy, born of detail and line, characterised the scherzo, the trio’s celebrated horns sounding with vernal freshness all the more welcome in dark November. Taken attacca, the finale constantly surprised, rethought in many ways by Roth. No variation was taken for granted, that for strings alone taken by solo instruments with strikingly ‘period’ tone. But that was a means to an expressive end, not an end in itself, the entry of the LSO’s woodwind creating all the greater contrast and later string vibrato far from parsimonious. It was exciting and coherent: neither quite what many would have expected, nor in any sense perverse. It was quite something (even to a die-hard Furtwänglerian such as yours truly).

And it was salutary to be reminded by Roth from the podium that Beethoven, here conducted by a Frenchman and played by an (international) British orchestra, was the most European of composers. ‘Vive l’Europe!’ as he said, to great applause. London needs to hear that more than ever right now.


Monday, 8 November 2021

LPO/Gardner - Haydn and Bartók, 6 November 2021


Royal Festival Hall

Haydn: Symphony no.90 in C major, Hob.I:90
Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle

Ildikó Komlósi (soprano)
John Relyea (bass)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)


Image: Mark Allan


Intelligent programming, this, the C major of Haydn’s Ninetieth Symphony prefiguring one of the most jaw-dropping moments in all opera, indeed in all music: Bluebeard’s revelation of his kingdom in all its glory as the Fifth Door of his castle is flung open. There is ultimately greater difference, of course, than similarity between Haydn’s exploration of his Classical tonal universe and his tricks with our ears and expectations, and Bartók’s grandiose use of a C major chord as luminous, associative tonal centre; yet that in itself could be understood and, more important, perceived to be the point.

A broadly germinal introduction to Haydn’s first movement proclaimed just such a voyage of exploration. Under Edward Gardner, the LPO sounded lively and variegated, if also a touch hard-driven. For better or worse, such is the way of much Haydn performance today, perhaps an excessive if understandable reaction to clichés of geniality. More important was the strong sense of motivic development, not only in the ‘development’ section itself, but also in a recapitulation sounding on the cusp of Beethovenian second development. In that context, I could live with certain ‘period’ affectations, which did little harm, save for sometimes obscuring, more so later in the symphony, a longer term sense of line. 

The second movement flowed as one would expect in such a reading, its stern contrasts traced not without yielding. Again, Haydn’s score was finely articulated and variegated, albeit sometimes at that expense of traditional line, though with a welcome mystery to the course it would take (again prefiguring Bartók?) Solo lines, for instance flute (Juliette Bausor) and cello (Kristina Blaumane) were without exception very well taken. Gardner presented the minuet nicely on the cusp of one- and three-to-a-bar, its symphonic nature and individuality relished and communicated. A dainty reading of the trio, led by Ian Hardwick’s fine solo oboe, was given to a smaller ensemble, the return of full orchestra for the minuet’s reprise grandly moving. The finale blazed like fireworks outside (this was the sixth of November). Arguably, it too was a little hard-driven, though Gardner’s tempo had a sense of rightness, and the general yet particular character of a Haydn finale was undeniably present. The false ending caught out many—understandably. 

Following the interval, music emerged—not as in the Haydn’s introduction, yet in a way that could perhaps be associated with it—from words, from bardic verse, in the guise of the recorded spoken Prologue to Bluebeard’s Castle. The orchestra spoke, it seemed, doubtless in part testament to Gardner’s operatic experience, especially with orchestral recitative. Song, ineffably Bartókian rhythm, equally ineffable post-impressionist harmonies, and of course Bluebeard and Judit took centre (aural) stage. There was a sense of awe, of wonder, and of foreboding to our first encounter with the castle—listed by Bartók as a ‘character’—that never left us. Ildikó Komlósi’s request for the keys because she loved Bluebeard chilled, as shifting orchestral colours reoriented and disoriented us as equally helpless spectators to Fate’s progress (and regress). ‘Because I love you’: terror spoke, above all through the orchestra. All the while, John Relyea as Bluebeard remained implacable, until he too bowed, with a hint of brokenness, to what seemed to be—but is it?—the inevitable.   

Treasures glistened, eliciting audience wonder; likewise at timbre and tonality when, at the Fourth Door, the sun finally shone in, Bluebeard’s garden revealed. There was blood on the flowers’ petals, though, and we felt it. The opening of the Fifth Door would, in a half-decent performance, send shivers down the spine at any time, yet now, after all this waiting, it truly felt as though the symphony orchestra, here underpinned by organ (Richard Gowers) had returned in all its glory. Relyea was magnificently ecstatic beholding and introducing his kingdom. Judit, however, knew already that the game was up. The sheer horror we heard in the orchestra as the Seventh Door was opened, Bluebeard’s former wives present, Judit now bound to join them, was only furthered by the tenderness that followed. There was something beautifully elegiac, not entirely un-Straussian, to Bluebeard’s introductions here: not quite regretful, for he was certain, but resigned. The final, wordless climax told us night would now last forever.


Sunday, 7 November 2021

Le nozze di Figaro, HGO, 5 November 2021


Jackson’s Lane Theatre

Figaro – Louis Hurst
Susanna – Shafali Jalota
Count Almaviva – Thomas Chenhall
The Countess – Camilla Harris
Cherubino – Esme Bronwen-Smith
Don Basilio, Don Curzio – Martins Smaukstelis
Doctor Bartolo – Hector Bloggs
Marcellina – Becca Marriott
Antonio – Owain Evans
Barbarina, Second Bridesmaid – Astrid Joos
First Bridesmaid – Phoebe Smith
Chorus – Anna Simmons, Angela Yang

Julia Mintzer (director)
Benjamin Anderson (assistant director)
Carmine de Amicis (choreography)
Charles Ogilvie (set designs)
Ruben Cameiro (costumes)
Jancy Dancinger (sound and lighting design)
Ben Poore (dramaturgy)

HGO Chamber Orchestra
Thomas Payne (conductor)

Images: Laurent Compagnon


HGO (formerly Hampstead Garden Opera) has been one of the musical heroes of the pandemic. Last year, it brought opera back to London with Holst’s Savītri; this year, it was one of the first to bring it back again, with Cavalli’s L’Egisto. Now, in a new production from the director of Savītri, Julia Mintzer, and in a return to the company’s ‘home’ at Jackson’s Lane Arts Centre in Highgate, we have perhaps the most beloved opera, most central to the repertoire of all: The Marriage of Figaro. 

It used to be said that one could not go wrong with Figaro, at least in terms of staging. Don Giovanni was the director’s graveyard, largely because directors ignored its theology and treated it with one-sided psychological realism. Latterly, though, a good few stagings have shown it is possible to make just as much a mess of its predecessor. Not this one, though, far from it; its path proves thoughtful, surprising, and in the best sense provocative. Had I been asked during the interval where it was heading, I should never have guessed. There was a welcome dose of matters that lie beyond individual rationality—the socio-political and what I think we can call the Freudian. That did not come, however, at the expense of the basic necessities of character delineation and development, whose expression is of course the achievement not only of the production team but of the young artists on stage too. What matters is how things come together—and they came together very well.



Initially, we seemed to have a more or less conventional updating to an English country estate of the early twentieth century, which dating became clearer, as the work progressed, to the time of the Great War. As soon as one truly watched and listened, though, it became clear that this was far from conventional. An eye for period detail, creditable in itself, also suggested haunting by the past—perhaps even by the broader Enlightenment project that had led there and of which this opera may be considered part. The Count’s injuries—we see him either with cane or transported by sedan chair—would seem to have been sustained in prior action, relived a little too enthusiastically by the guard (Antonio) on the estate. Figaro, as his valet, shared in some of that haunting too. The Countess mourned her youth, of course, but may also have been mourning a civilisation that has collapsed and yet which all onstage, in their way, continue manically to celebrate. Laudanum helped, or probably did not—but was widely available to all. 

And so, the delirium of war, when it came, was both a natural development and that which has most been feared. The strobe lighting chaos it wrought at the close of the third act—marriage ceremonial itself—is psychological as well as political, throwing up the characters, their affections, and their impulses, and seeing where they land. The fourth act worked out some at least of the consequences. Its final scene needed to celebrate similarly: both as reasoned necessity and as something that, like the final number of Cosí fan tutte, rang hollow and yet true. English titles generally offered straightforward translation, sometimes supplemented by updating and commentary: perhaps in some sense also visualising workings of the unconscious. 

The score, slightly cut beyond the norm, was presented with commendable alertness and cultivation by a small band of soloists (two violins, viola, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, timpani, and synthesised harpsichord) in an arrangement by Jonathan Lyness, conducted by Thomas Payne. Tempi were often, though not always, brisk, yet eminently capable of flexibility too, the Countess’s final words given notably slowly (indeed, as we shall see, tragically). There were a few occasions when instrumentalists and singers drifted apart, but Payne ensured that they came back together quickly. There seemed every reason to expect minor first-night infelicities to be ironed out later in the run.



 

Heading the cast were a fine Count and Countess Almaviva. Thomas Chenhall as the former was proud, virile, and crucially wounded within and without. His third-act aria proved uncommonly successful in conveying the crucial seria element to the Count’s musical identity. Camilla Harris’s Countess truly had one sit up upon her vocal appearance—what wonderful cunning on Da Ponte’s part to save his trump card until the second act—in a performance as beautifully sung as it was intelligently presented. Louis Hurst’s Figaro and Shafali Jalota’s Susanna were keenly observed throughout, properly animating the entire action from within. As Cherubino, Esme Bronwen-Smith captivated though force of personality and similar attention to detail. Martins Smaukstelis did likewise as Basilio, an intriguingly chameleon-like portrayal, boasting notable ease in Italian as well as a finely expressive face. The very different, more diffident impression presented by his Don Curzio confirmed the individuality of portrayal. All the cast contributed, though, to a fine ensemble performance very much greater than the sum of its parts. Hector Bloggs and Becca Marriott carved out a Bartolo and Marcellina of genuine depth, no mere buffa caricatures. Owain Evans and Astrid Joos made much of their roles as Antonio and Barbarina, as even did the Bridesmaid (Phoebe Smith) and additional chorus members (Anna Simmons and Angela Yang).




Could there, then, yet be emancipation, even liberation? Perhaps, if only in the moment. A nice touch, pregnant with meaning, was the Countess assuming Susanna’s (presumed) soubrette voice, a mere caricature, to Susanna’s horror. There remained a social gulf between them. Basilio’s final leap into the arms of Antonio suggested other possibilities, not least in the wake of wartime chaos. That said, the weight of past, present, perhaps even future could not be disregarded. Long after the final chord, one remained haunted by the devastation on the Countess’s face following her closing (false) benediction. In this Freudian Figaro, God is dead, which calls into question her words of forgiveness and implicit redemption and is certainly not the case with Mozart and Da Ponte. If, however, they can still offer something in the moment, as well as recognition that things are never quite so straightforward as schematic explanations of human behaviour would have us believe, the work and its authors, above all Mozart, remain productive and provocative as ever.


Thursday, 28 October 2021

Zimmermann/Helmchen - Beethoven, 27 October 2021


Wigmore Hall

Violin Sonata no.8 in G major, op.30 no.3
Violin Sonata no.9 in A major, op.47, ‘Kreutzer’
Violin Sonata no.10 in G major, op.96

Frank-Peter Zimmermann (violin)
Martin Helmchen (piano)

The last music I heard before lockdown had been these three sonatas, performed by PinchasZukerman and Daniel Barenboim in Berlin. This had been the last concert in a series of three, covering all ten Beethoven violin sonatas. There was, of course, very little music of any kind to be heard in the rest of 2020 and still less Beethoven. Barenboim conducting the nine symphonies, Kirill Petrenko conducting Fidelio, and so much else went by the wayside. I assume that this concert from Frank-Peter Zimmermann and Martin Helmchen was either a (belated) conclusion to a similar series, or had been intended as such. In any case, there will always be illumination to hearing the three sonatas in question together, whether in broader Beethovenian company or not. They were, moreover, performances very different from those I had heard in Berlin, so highly emotional memories did not intrude in the way they otherwise might. 

The first, op.30 no.3, opened in promising fashion. Fresh, alert, energetic, it bade fair to navigate Beethoven’s tricky Classical-Romantic dialectic. And so the first movement did, in its own way, very much not an Old World way. At its best, it put me in mind of the modernist Beethoven of Michael Gielen. However, with Gielen, there was always an understanding, such as Barenboim’s, of ebb and flow founded upon harmonic rhythm. This I felt more in the recapitulation than elsewhere, which had been somewhat rigid. The second movement, here assuredly not a slow movement, was similarly swift, quite lacking in sentimentality; but was sentiment thrown out with the sentimental bathwater? At times, though the gravely beautiful turn to the minor spoke of deeper matters. Zimmermann’s vibrato was intelligently varied, telling and illustrating its own story and that story’s contours. Restless brilliance and vigour characterised the finale in both parts. It took no prisoners, but something remained missing, at least for me. 

In the Kreutzer, the introductory dialogue between violin and piano was keenly delivered: serious, without being weighted down; potentiality the thing. It soon gave way, however—as had already been the case in op.30 no.3, and as would continue to be the case in the rest of the recital—to fermata embellishment in both parts that increasingly distracted rather than illuminated. At least that my reaction; others may have felt differently. Fast and furious, not a little breathless, the first movement was, if not one-dimensional, then less multi-dimensional than ideal. So too were the earlier variations of its successor, welcome character notwithstanding, though it developed into something stronger, quite magical by its close. By the time of the finale, somewhat confrontational but perhaps none the worse for that, I had begun to tire of those interventionist interpolations. Doubtless others found them refreshing. Personal taste always plays an important role here. 

The enigmatic G major sonata, op.96 was to my mind ultimately the most successful of the three, especially once past its first movement, which would have benefited from a stronger sense of a guiding musical thread. It never quite settled, but perhaps that was the point. The Adagio espressivo did, though, and emerged both soulful and directed, ornamentation here duly expressive, even elucidatory, rather than distracting. The scherzo was similarly direct, both musicians clearly relishing its radical concision. If the finale was not entirely free of earlier fussiness, there was much to appreciate and enjoy in its variegated textures and mood swings. The closer one listened, the more one was rewarded, and the more complex Beethoven’s vision became: rather like the finale to the Eighth Symphony. Dedicated to the memory of Bernard Haitink, a ‘great friend’ to Zimmermann and Helmchen, the encore was the slow movement of the A major Sonata, op.30 no.1.


Tuesday, 26 October 2021

Esfahani - ‘Bach: Before and After’, 21 October 2021


Wigmore Hall

Pachelbel: Fantasia ex dis
Georg Böhm: Partita on ‘Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten’
Pachelbel: Chaconne in D major
Samuel Scheidt: Allemande: ‘Also gehts also stehts’, SSWV 137
Sweelinck: Fantasia cromatica; Six Variations on ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’
Johann Kuhnau: Frische Clavier-Früchte: Sonata no.6 in B-flat major
C.P.E. Bach: Sonata in G minor, Wq.65/17
Johann Wilhelm Hässler: Grande Gigue in D minor, op.31
W.F. Bach: Sonata in D major, F 3

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

I have been to recitals by Mahan Esfahani when I have known, or rather been acquainted with, all the music; only, I think, though, when the programme has been devoted to Bach (and not even always then). More often than not, there has been a good part of the programme that was entirely new to me. In this case, all but three pieces were. What a varied conspectus of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century keyboard music this was, both as works and in their performance.

Pachelbel’s Fantasia ex dis offered a bejewelled portal. Clear where it was heading but always with time to admire the view, to make a telling agogic point, Esfahani’s performance offered the ideal introduction. A similar balance was struck in Georg Bohm’s Partita on ‘Wer nun den lieben Gott lässt walten’. Sparing, typically intelligent use of two manuals, in tandem with imaginative, meaningful changes of registration furthered character and progression. Rhetoric was stronger, more fantastical in one variation, in which registration altered after (almost) every phrase. Pachelbel’s D major Chaconne is more virtuosic, perhaps a little lighter in style. (Bach’s example can mislead.) Esfahani relished its potentialities, the piece’s seeds growing into a fine tree indeed. 

For the next set, we moved to Samuel Scheidt’s Allemande, ‘Also gehts also stehts’. Hearing such variation in variation writing, as it were, proved both illuminating and frankly enjoyable, Esfahani teasing out and communicating the music’s secrets. Sweelinck’s Fantasia cromatica, chronological distance notwithstanding, seemed to me to come closest of all the works to that of Bach—though I suspect that says at least as much about my own conception of Bach as the composer’s own self-understanding and practice. At any rate, its darkly chromatic world, unmistakeably of the North, and dazzling instrumental drama in an almost Brahmsian sense (again betraying my own prejudices!) proved richly satisfying. The same composer’s Variations on ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’ offered yet another varied variational journey, Esfahani ever the enlightened guide. The nice sense of return at the close here was echoed in the last of the five movements of Johann Kuhnau’s B-flat Sonata. Bach’s predecessor as Thomaskantor offered music that was catchy, exuberant, and much more besides. Architecture was keenly communicated, as was detail, the two clearly linked and mutually reinforcing. 

The second half of the programme took us beyond Bach, or rather beyond Johann Sebastian. Two of his sons and one of his grand-pupils were heard, each with pleasure (certainly by me). Carl Philip Emanuel Bach’s 1746 G minor Sonata opened in declamatory fashion, with a heightened sense of musical theatrics and well-nigh kinetic energy. Wild yet ultimately coherent and disciplined, this first movement only underlined the composer’s reputation for avant-gardism. A true Adagio, albeit with typically clever complications, led to a finale that both mediated and concluded. Many, I know, are sceptical about CPE Bach’s modernity, but it remains real and admirable to me. Johann Wilhelm Hässler’s piece offered enjoyable light relief as well as opportunity for virtuosic display. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach’s 1745 D major Sonata was for me a fascinating discovery. A first movement imbued, not unlike the music of his brother, with nervous energy prepared the way for an Adagio just as restless in its way, prior to a lovely, galant ‘au revoir’ in its finale, Esfahani a compelling advocate throughout. For an encore, we headed south, to Domenico Scarlatti’s B minor Sonata, K.87, in an Apollonian reading that acknowledged yet never exaggerated discord beneath the surface.

Friday, 22 October 2021

Die ägyptische Helena, Fulham Opera, 19 October 2021


St John’s Church, Fulham

Helena – Justine Viani
Menelas – Brian Smith Walters
Aithra – Luci Briginshaw
Altair – Oliver Gibbs
Da-Ud – Dominic J Walsh
Omniscient Mussel – Ingeborg Børch
Hermione – Liz Stock
Servants – Christine Buras, Natasha Elliott
Elves – Maggie Cooper, Donya Rafati Rosalind O’Dowd, Rebecca Moulton, Corinne Hart
Slaves – Kester Guy-Briscoe, Jack Stone, Robin Whitehouse, Graham Wheeler

Guido Martin-Brandis (director)
Johan Ribbing (assistant director)
Sarah Heenan (producer)
Alexander McPherson (designs)
Mitch Broomhead (lighting)

Instrumental Ensemble
Ben Woodward (conductor)

A splendid evening from Fulham Opera, making an excellent case for the bizarrely, well-nigh criminally neglected (at least on Plague Island) Ägyptische Helena. That a major Strauss-Hofmannsthal opera was here receiving its staged London premiere beggars belief; such, alas, is our lot in Das Land ohne Musik. Sunlit uplands and German car manufacturers will doubtless one day come to our rescue, perhaps with a spot of ‘innovative jam’. In the meantime, hats off to this ever-enterprising company, not only for putting on the opera but for visibly and audibly winning a host of new converts. This seems actually to have been the British premiere of the so-called Vienna version of the work, first performed at the 1933 Salzburg Festival. 

Reduced orchestrations have necessarily been in vogue for opera over the past year. This, however, was a far more radical arrangement from Paul Plummer, also at the piano, for small chamber ensemble (violin, cello, clarinet, horn, percussion, with piano and organ). The myriad phantasmagorical inflections of gold, azure, deep crimson, and other orchestral hues were of course largely absent, though often skilfully hinted at. What was remarkable, though, was how little one missed the full Straussian orchestra and, as with, say, the London Opera Company’s Tristan a year ago, where one’s ears were led in novel appreciation and understanding. Hearing the piano so often in quasi-continuo role led me, for instance, to release quite how much harmonic common ground there was with Ariadne auf Naxos—and thereby to muse on dramaturgical connections too. The general acuity of Ben Woodward’s direction of the score—well paced, well balanced, welcome ebb and flow—furthered that more generally, of course. It was a fascinating musical evening, even before we consider the singers. 

With resourceful staging, exemplary in its narrative clarity, from Guido Martin-Brandis and the rest of his production team, that sense of belonging to the greater Straussian corpus was stronger than ever. The space of St Paul’s, Fulham and its altar too were used to frame a production, whose detailed Personenregie and costumed suggestiveness—essentially, antiquity mediated by 1920s exoticism and its new technologies—permitted one to draw one’s own conclusions without abdication of its own responsibility. The business of potions, inevitably leading one to think of Tristan parody was handled with commendable directness and clarity, enhancing rather than detracting from Hofmannsthal’s heavy, post-Frau ohne Schatten symbolism. To take another example, Hofmannsthal wrote of the notorious Omniscient Mussel to Strauss: ‘When I mention “gurgling”, I have in mind the noise of water “speaking” in a pipe. It is not absolutely vital that one should understand what it says; it might in fact be amusing’ if the Mussel ‘were to sound distorted like a voice on the telephone when one stands beside the receiver.’ There was, wisely, no such distortion here in performance, but that sense of the early age of the telephone and, more strongly, the wireless announcer were to be seen, framing the opera’s multiple historicisms and Freudian remythologisation, whilst also retaining a welcome sense of fun: Nietzsche’s ‘the Greeks were superficial—out of profundity!’ 

There was no superficiality, save in that very particular Nietzschean-Straussian anti-metaphysical sense, to the singing—and even in that respect, a fine balance was generally maintained with the more metaphysical requirements of Hofmannsthal and of Strauss’s Wagnerian inheritance. One could read, watch, and above all listen in different ways, which is just as it should be; one could hardly, though, fail to think the vocal artistry on show here fit to grace more glamorous stages. Justine Viani’s gleaming, glistening, forthright soprano seemed to me well-nigh ideal for Helena. This was not only a beautiful sound; the words were clear and meaningful too. Together, words, music, and gesture made more than the sum of their parts. Much the same could be said for the rest of the cast. Brian Smith Walters’s Menelas had unmistakeable roots in Siegmund. Every inch a Heldentenor, with that historic semi-baritonal hue so characteristic of Wagner roles, Smith Walters offered a moving, vulnerable portrayal very much in that Volsung line, though certainly not to be reduced to it. Luci Briginshaw’s Aithra enthralled and entranced, coloratura despatched not only with apparent ease but with definite yet properly ambiguous meaning. Ingeborg Børch brought welcome contrast of tone as the Mussel, yet similar clarity of words. The elf-chorus’s sound as a Nibelung parody was richly suggestive. All contributed to the evening’s success, but I must make final mention of Dominic J Walsh’s lovelorn, ineffably human Da-Ud. 

Looking back in 1945 over his entire operatic career—give or take a tantalising hint of a Donkey’s Shadow—Strauss saw himself not only as having closed a chapter, even a book, but as having presented an ongoing dialogue, as much with himself as with ancient mythology: ‘Particularly in scenes such as Klyämnestra’s dream, the sister’s [Elektra’s] recognition, [Elektra’s] redemption through dance, the spiritual transformation of Menelas, Apollo’s kiss (from Daphne), and Jupiter’s farewell to the human world, my Greek operas have created musical symbols that may be taken for the last  fulfilment of Greek longing.’ Such was what we saw and heard here.