Wednesday 12 June 2024

BPO/Gilbert - Honegger, Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher, 8 June 2024


Jeanne d’Arc (spoken) – Marion Cotillard
Brother Dominique (spoken) – Eric Génovèse
Narrator (spoken) – Christian Ganon

La Vierge – Elsa Benoit
St Marguerite – Adèle Charvet
St Catherine – Anna Kissjudit
Porcus, Voice, First Herald, Priest – Valentyn Dytiuk
Voice, Second Herald, Peasant – Alex Rosen

Stage direction – Côme de Bellescize
Production – Ony Sarfati
Costumes, stage equipment – Colombe Lauriot Prévost
Lighting – Thomas Costerg  

Vokalhelden Children’s Choir (directors: Johannes David Wolff, Judith Kamphues)
MDR Radio Chorus (director: Philipp Ahmann)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra 
Alan Gilbert (conductor).

Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher is an unusual work, seldom encountered in performance, though its duration at about seventy-five minutes makes it good for both concert and CD. It is generally classed as an oratorio, but the designation mystère lyrique arguably makes better sense, bringing it closer to a mystery play and reminding us that the work, with spoken dialogue and three central spoken roles, is at least as much Paul Claudel’s as Honegger’s. It has been fully staged, even filmed; here, it was given in what we might call a ‘concert staging’ from a team led by Côme de Bellescize, with vivid use of costumes and lighting, as well as excellent, integrated acting in spoken and, where appropriate, sung roles alike.

The work presents Joan of Arc’s final moments before burning at the stake, punctuated by flashbacks to her childhood visions and to her show-trial, reaching an ecstatic apotheosis in departing this world that musically, as well as dramatically, seems to partake more of Claudel’s French Catholicism than Honegger’s Swiss Protestantism. In the title role, first taken (and danced) by Ida Rubinstein, Marion Cotillard gave a memorable, charismatic performance in startling red, touched by a strange fanaticism that resisted temptation to sentimentalise, whilst alert to situational and personal injustice. (Perhaps that is residual Englishness on my part, and I should feel differently if I were French, though I suspect a strong distaste for many manifestations of popular piety also affects my response to this peculiar figure.) Eric Génovèse gave us a sympathetic and enabling, yet ultimately ambiguous Brother Dominique. Christian Ganon was very much the showman, even conjurer, as Narrator, in a neat conception bringing to life the tale from a book he read to the splendid, colourfully arrayed children’s choir, Vokalhelden, called upon to act as well as sing. 

Their adult counterparts, the MDR Chorus, brought heft and agility to their part, underpinning, elucidating, and battling in so much of the action, Honegger’s debt to Bach as apparent as his undoubted originality. Vocal soloists, often assuming multiple roles, all impressed, Elsa Benoit, Adèle Charvet, and Anna Kissjudit positioned in appropriately heavenly positions by the organ as the Virgin and Saints Marguerite and Catherine, vocal delivery enhancing that visionary quality. Valentyn Dytiuk’s roster of tenor roles, not least the pig, Porcus (Claudel’s play on words between cochon and Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais), was delivered with a fine sense of theatre, as well sung as they were characterful; so too were those of rich-toned bass Alex Rosen. 

Alan Gilbert’s leadership of these forces and spirited, idiomatic playing from the Berlin Philharmonic proved adept in imparting a proper sense of unity to what might on paper – and doubtless in a lesser performance – pose a danger of the unduly eclectic. Here, the powerful prologue, added de profundis by Claudel and Honegger in 1944, cast its dark shadow over the proceedings to come, as did the later rigour of Honegger’s counterpoint, without detracting from the Prokofiev-like sardonicism of the scene with Porcus and its seemingly fond return to the relatively carefree 1920s. One certainly felt the work’s Janus-faced quality, placed somewhere in between, as well as its resonances of an historic French nationalism, folksong and all. Ominous orchestral tolling and reimaginations of ‘early music’ led us through hallucinatory recreations of the girl’s visions, to the terrible fiery flame that would be her wedding dress, and beyond to the closing ensemble hymn and haunting reprise of an earlier, wandering flute solo. It was full of incident, for instance in the ondes Martenot’s suggestion of howling dogs, but also of quasi-cinematographic direction and reflection.

Saturday 8 June 2024

Röschmann/VSO/Hahn - Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, 5 June 2024


Schoenberg: Erwartung, op.17
Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau

Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)
Vienna Symphony Orchestra
Patrick Hahn (conductor)

What is Schoenberg’s single greatest work? It is a silly question, at least as silly as asking the same of Mahler, of Webern, or of Boulez. Sometimes we ask ourselves silly questions, though; I suspect that Erwartung would come pretty close to the top of any aggregate list for Schoenbergians. Written over an extraordinarily short period of time – Schoenberg was often, though not always, like that – the monodrama comes from his Wunderjahr of 1909. However, it had to wait until 1924 for its first performance, in Prague on 6 June, conducted by the composer’s great friend, advocate, and brother-in-law (I think we can still count him as such, though Mathilde Schönberg had died the previous year) Alexander von Zemlinsky. This Musikverein performance, by Dorothea Röschmann, the Vienna Symphony, and Patrick Hahn, must surely therefore have been the last of its first century-in-performance, coming as it did on 5 June 2024. Aptly enough for so prophetic yet historically rooted a work, its successor the following evening would inaugurate a new performing century.

This, at any rate, made for a glorious finale that could also look forward, surely the equal of any performance I have heard and the superior of many, whether live or on record. In his 150th year, Schoenberg’s place as the single most important – not necessarily ‘greatest’, whatever that may mean, though certainly a serious contender for that too – composer of the twentieth century is assured. It always was; that, however, has still not translated into broader acceptance from a frankly doltish public. (That his rejection is often, even usually, laced with antisemitism, unconscious as much as conscious, makes it worse; but let us leave that aside for now.) 

First and far from least, it was beautifully sung by Röschmann: beauty, song, and beauty of singing all being involved there. It was astonishingly accurate too, and not only in the vocal part, though one could have taken dictation from it had, somehow, one not been swept away by the experience. Hahn’s expert balancing of the lines – always a tricky, in another sense unsung, business in the music of the Second Viennese School – was such that one almost did not realise he was doing it. That was also, naturally, the accomplishment of the golden-toned VSO, here moreover sounding every bit as ‘Viennese’ as their Philharmonic cousins (to whom I am sure they are rightly fed up of being compared). Structure, moreover, was as at least clear as I can recall, Schoenberg’s scenic division of the work, the fourth and final scene far longer than the others, uncommonly apparent and dramatically meaningful, without making the performance seem anything but a convincing whole. Climaxes were, well, as climactic as one could hope, and then some; yet always something was shifting, conclusion or, as we might now say, ‘closure’, never on the horizon. 

Music arose from drama, and vice versa. Schoenberg never points in merely one direction; nor did he here. The whirlwind third scene in particular seemed but a stone’s throw, if that, from the later Schoenberg of, say, the almost-never-performed op.22 Four Orchestral Songs, yet there was always much of earlier writing too: for instance, the op.8 Six Orchestral Songs and, indeed, Gurrelieder. As we entered the final scene, Röschmann edged closer at times to Sprechgesang, yet only at times. Later, the opera – for let us never forget it is one – we seemed to come close to Wozzeck’s Marie, at least in the voice, for the orchestral writing rightly sounded very different. The chill of the strings following ‘Ich will das nicht … nein, ich will nicht …’ offered aftershock that was terrible, even terrifying, indeed, initiating certain intimations, so it seemed, of Pierrot lunaire. There was great tenderness too; how could one not sympathise with this protagonist? One truly felt, moreover, the transformation of the ‘Dämmerung’ to which she referred toward the end, in a musical breeze that testified to Schoenberg’s mastery of orchestration as well as masterly orchestral playing. And the musical upward spiral with which the score came to a close, if not closure, was just the thing: tantalisingly brief, yet saying all that could be said or played. 

What, then, is Zemlinsky’s single greatest work? I am not sure it is quite so silly a question; the Lyric Symphony would probably have no serious rival in any survey, though it might still beg the question, ‘why are you asking?’ One possible answer might be to help understand why other works by the composer have never quite lived up to its renown, though the operas again seem to be experiencing some of a revival. The symphonic poem – his only one – Die Seejungfrau is also faring better now, though its chequered genesis will probably always count against it. Zemlinsky withdrew the score after only three performances, and suppressed it. The unpublished score was divided, the first movement given to Zemlinsky’s friend Marie Pappenheim, also Schoenberg’s librettist for Erwartung. Zemlinsky retained the second and third movements, taking them with him when leaving Europe for the United States in 1938. Only in the early 1980s did scholars come to realise that the three movements belonged together. Die Seejungfrau was finally published, receiving its first ‘modern’ performance, conducted by one of those scholars, Peter Gülke, only in 1984. It may not be a masterpiece – it can, to be brutally honest, be a little repetitive at times and would, unsurprisingly, have benefited from revision – but it is still very well worth hearing, especially in a performance such as this.

Zemlinsky’s method of motivic transformation came very much to the fore, Hahn showing himself as accomplished a Zemlinskian as a Schoenbergian, building tension here, especially in the first movement, as expertly as he had in Erwartung. In some respects, the work came to resemble a wordless, voiceless opera. Its sepulchral (subaquatic) opening here had something in common with Strauss, without ever reducing itself to imitation or ‘likeness’; any similarities, throughout the score, were just that, no more. Perhaps the closest kinship – this has struck me before – was with Mahler’s Das klagende Lied. Maybe there is some influence there – its first performance came in 1901 – but it was actually the first, long unperformed part of Mahler’s score that more often came to mind, so let us banish any thought of derivation and celebrate commonality. Pacing and balance were equally impressive here, and how the orchestra shimmered, glowed, and glistened, as if the waters were first awaiting and then celebrating the arrival of the mermaid and her subjectivity. Opposing and complementary material were deftly shaped, again with a keen ear for drama, in the second movement. The twin return to darkness and progress to something approaching transfiguration of the third both offered an intriguing echo of Tannhäuser and built to a grand climax and further shadows of its own. For both Schoenberg and Zemlinsky, it was not a case of either/or.

Lucio Silla, Salzburger Landestheater, 4 June 2024

Images: SLT/Christian Krautzberger

Lucio Silla – Luke Sinclair
Cecilio – Katie Coventry
Giunia – Nina Solodovnikova
Lucio Cinna – Nicolò Balducci
Celia – Anita Rosati
Aufidio – Joseph Doody

Director – Amélie Niermeyer
Set designs – Stefanie Seitz
Video – Janosch Abel
Costumes – Kathrin Brandstätter
Dramaturgy – Frank Max Müller and Vinda Miguna
Lighting – Tobias Löffler

Chorus of the Salzburg Landestheater (chorus director: Tobias Meichsner)
Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Carlo Benedetti Cimento (conductor)  

The Salzburg Landestheater’s new production of Lucio Silla, generally accorded the finest of Mozart’s three opere serie for Milan, was first seen in January of this year. Though I was actually in Salzburg for the second performance, I was unable to see it then, so I was delighted to have opportunity to catch up with a thoughtful staging and fine performances, worthy of anyone’s attention—and which it would be highly desirable, if at all possible, to have preserved on film. The sixteen-year-old composer’s relish for the forces, chorus included, at his disposal in Milan was vividly brought to life. If he had not yet learned the dramatic virtues, at least from time to time, of concision such as one experiences in later dramas, it is difficult to imagine anyone having minded. Such was the expertise with which this young cast made Mozart’s recitative and da capo arias, coloratura in particular, vividly meaningful as well as vocally thrilling, that more modern prejudices against the genre were thoroughly dispelled. The quality of staging and performances also offered a welcome opportunity to (re-)assess Giovanni De Gamerra’s admittedly very early libretto. 

De Gamerra has come in for a bad press, then and now: to my mind, at least a little unjustly. Lorenzo Da Ponte, who perhaps, having been compelled to leave Vienna, had his own reasons for dissatisfaction with those who had remained, reported in a footnote to his memoirs:


Leopold [II, Holy Roman Emperor] took [Giovanni] Bertati to his opera. A year later came [Giovanni Battista] Casti: and that wretched dramatic cobbler was dismissed. But Casti was not fond of hard work. He asked for an assistant and obtained one in person of Signor Gamerra, a poet famous for his Corneide, a poem in seven or eight fat tomes wherein he mentioned all the horns that had appeared in Heaven or on earth from the birth of Vulcan down to those of his own grandfather. This ungrateful cornifex had not been a year in Vienna before he began butting with his benefactor, accusing him of Jacobinism; and poor Casti … was enjoined to depart from Vienna at once.


This is both odd and intriguing, given that Leopold himself spoke harshly of the poet, advising his brother Ferdinand, governor of the Duchy of Milan, in a letter John A. Rice discovered in the Vienna archives, that De Gamerra was ‘fanatic to excess, hot-headed, imprudent concerning … liberty, very dangerous,’ a startling extreme judgement coming from one who was far from reactionary, and which certainly attests to strong political sentiments on De Gamerra’s part. We might also note, though, that Leopold was none too complimentary about Ferdinand, dismissing him in a secret memorandum on members of his family (!) as ‘a very weak man, of little intellect and paltry talent, but who has a very high opinion of himself’. Make of that what you will. (I shall resist the temptation to go into greater detail about the House of Austria and Mozart’s operas here, but more will follow both in articles and, when finished, a book on the complete operatic œuvre.)

Celia (Anita Rosati), Aufidio (Joseph Doody), Lucio Silla (Luke Sinclair)

Perhaps more significant has been the view that the libretto, in particular its ending, is not very good. Mozart found himself having to make revisions in light of criticism (of the libretto) by Metastasio. In his New Grove article, Julian Rushton calls the denouement ‘unconvincing’ and the libretto as a whole ‘turgid’, whilst allowing Lucio Silla nonetheless to be ‘musically the finest work Mozart wrote in Italy, … [ranking] with opera seria by the greatest masters of the time’. I certainly should not dissent from the latter, either in principle or in light of this performance, but I find the judgement of the libretto unduly harsh, both in general and with respect to the ending, demanded by the conventions of the genre but also foreshadowed more than many allow both in libretto and score. A virtue of Amélie Niermeyer’s production is its taking the ‘problem’ of the ending, on which more shortly, on board. Greater faith in the work, one might well argue, might make such a strategy unnecessary; but in light of the decisions made, reasonable and justified for a contemporary production, its subversion (or, if you prefer, extension) makes good sense.


Neirmeyer takes her leave from the historical Lucius Sulla’s dictatorship. That did not necessarily hold quite the same implications as now, but such qualification is largely beside the point if it makes for good drama, which, on the whole, it does. In this world of modern dictatorship, rebels, resisting a new, brutal régime, in which opponents, pictured in placards held up by those resisting, have been ‘disappeared’. Lucio Silla exists and is amplified by propaganda, photographed snaps retouched and enhanced by his friend, the tribune Aufidio to portray the essence of strong, masculine leadership. Cecilio, Lucio Cinna and others are in hiding, clothing suggestive of a guerilla movement, and crucially are being watched (at least part of the time) through electronic surveillance rom the dictator’s palace.

Lucio Silla


Silla vacillates and is persuadable, picking up on the mediating role of his sister Celia as well as his love for Giunia, she of the old regime, so that his sudden decision for clemency (a recurring theme, we might note, through Mozart’s entire œuvre, as well as much other eighteenth-century opera) seems less unmotivated than has been alleged. But there is a twist. Since we have moved to a world of modern psychological realism, heir to the ‘Romantic critical tradition’ Rice highlighted as having done such damage to understanding of the composer’s final instantiation of operatic clemency, La clemenza di Tito, the change of heart is a ruse. The dictator who, it has seemed, might prefer a lengthy retirement in which he can indulge himself with whisky and women, has had a plan all along. Acclaimed by the people for forgiveness of those who have plotted against him, he has in fact seized the moment to add them to the ranks of the disappeared, chillingly undercutting the final vocal and orchestral rejoicing,whilst, in a sense, remaining true to the claims to total knowledge on which clemency insists. (Think of Sarastro as well as Tito.) If, sometimes, the relentless activity during arias threatened to detract from moments of musical reflection, it was a finely balanced thing. Mozart survived—and rather more than that. If anything, the classic AMOR/ROMA conflict gained by its rethinking.


Luke Sinclair’s performance in the title role was fundamental to this dramatic success. Vocally strong and agile, his stage portrayal helped fill in many of the gaps. Ably assisted by Joseph Doody as Aufidio, no mean singer and actor himself, Sinclair’s Silla offered psychological depth in instability, whilst maintaining something quite other to the external world. Those in whom he almost met his match were equally impressive, complementing and contrasting like a fine wind ensemble. Katie Coventry as Cecilio offered an extensive range of dramatic colour, not entirely unlike an early piano. Nicolò Balducci’s coloratura and the dramatic use he put to it in the soprano castrato role of Cinna would have more than convinced even the most countertenor-sceptical of listeners. Nina Solodovnikova’s warmly sympathetic, yet unswervingly committed Giunia brought her music and role thrillingly to dramatic life, poignantly in tandem with the spirit world (and others) conjured up by Carlo Benedetti Cimento and the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra, as well as the Chorus of the Salzburg Landestheater. Anita Rosati’s Celia proved a musical as well as dramatic lynchpin, stylistic command second to none. But then, I could almost have exchanged the descriptions given for each singer at will. All had cruel vocal demands placed upon them, all succeeded not only in fulfilling them, but in creating an ensemble drama that was far more than the sum of its parts.

Cecilio (Katie Coventry)

Cimento’s alert musical leadership from the pit, allied to the long Mozartian experience of the orchestra, was just as impressive—and crucial. Tempo decisions were wise. Dramatic momentum was created and maintained. Artists on stage were given freedom to act as singing actors, nonetheless bound together by careful ensemble preparation and finely judged orchestral incitement. Affective use of keys, E-flat major in particular, was meaningfully conveyed. That is Mozart’s doing in the first instance, of course, yet it still needs – and received – sensitive, dramatically alert conducting and orchestral performance. Likewise, the composer’s extraordinary orchestration, veiled, muted strings, tender woodwind, sepulchral trombones and all, disconcerted, beguiled, and thrilled. 

A welcome and apt surprise came at the beginning of the second part (the third act) when an entr’acte not a million miles away from Mozart, but which I did not recognise and which I was 99.5% sure was not Mozart, was heard. I later discovered that it was the first part of the second movement and all of the third from Johann Christian Bach’s Symphony in G minor, op.6 no.6. Not only did it accompany the pantomime action very well; it served to remind us both of Mozart’s close connection to the ‘London Bach’ and the latter’s own Mannheim Lucio Silla, to a revised (I admit, improved) version by Mattio Verazi of De Gamerra’s libretto. Perhaps Salzburg might tackle this next? It would be a fine thing indeed to be able to see and hear the two together one day. In the meantime, this did nicely indeed.

Monday 3 June 2024

Khovanshchina, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 2 June 2024

Prince Ivan Khovansky – Mika Kares
Prince Andrey Khovansky – Najmiddin Mavlyanov
Prince Vasily Golitsin – Stephan Rügamer
Boyar Fyodor Shaklovity – Georre Gagnidze
Dosifey – Taras Shtonda
Marfa – Marina Prudenskaya
Emma – Evelin Novak
Scrivener – Andrei Popov
Susanna – Anna Samuil
Varsonofyev – Roman Trekel
Kuzka – Andrés Moreno García
Streshnev – Johan Krogius
Two Streltsy – Taehan Kim, Friedrich Hamel
Henchman – Dmitri Plotnikov

Director – Claus Guth
Set designs – Christian Schmidt
Costumes – Ursula Kudrna
Lighting – Olaf Freese
Choreography – Sommer Ulrickson
Video – Roland Horvath
Live camera – Jan Speckenbach, Marlene Blumert
Dramaturgy – Yvonne Gebauer, Rebecca Graitl

Staatsoper Children’s Chorus (director: Vinzenz Weissenburger)
Staatsopernchor Berlin (director: Dani Juris)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Simone Young (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus

Who writes? In history, as in its dramatisation, the question is crucial, its answer often complex. It is present, overtly, in Pimen’s chronicle in Boris Godunov, and it takes centre stage, later moving rightward, leftward, and above in Claus Guth’s new production of Mussorgsky’s successor work, Khovanshchina for Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden. There is also the fateful – perhaps more so than Marfa, in fortune-telling guise to Prince Golitsky – figure of the scrivener. How much, if at all, does his writing-for-hire set in course a series of unintended, world-historical consequences? Writing can be considered more broadly and narrowly, in close relation to what we now consider to constitute a ‘text’—and, of course, reading. At any rate, opening in the modern Kremlin, a statue of Peter the Great towering (as, eventually, would the two-metre-tall historical Peter) over an empty desk, with some goings on but the main character – probably wisely – never shown, just as the Romanovs could not be in Mussorgsky’s time. A functionary, seemingly somewhere between secretary and researcher, provides historical information on the characters and drama that will unfold, transcribed for us (in German and in English) on screens above the action. Given the knowledge of Russian history Mussorgsky’s drama more or less assumes (though also elides), the conceit serves both as framing device and more straightforwardly as source of useful background—or should it be commentary? Who writes, how and why? The framing is not overdone, though; part of me actually wished more had been made of it. Guth seems keener to highlight the work’s fragmentary tendencies, if anything drawing attention to the years passed between acts – themselves Rimsky-Korsakov’s grouping, whose reorganisation has not yet been generally accepted – where Mussorgsky, up to a point, brings them together. Someone other than the composer has to write here, in any case, and it will in practice prove to be more than a single person. 

If other Romanovs remain offstage, Peter, both as a young boy and as a co-tsar on the brink of adulthood sometimes watches, striding across the stage and (so I was told) also from a box above it (though sightlines prevented me and, I presume, a large part of the audience from seeing that). Otherwise, the action proceeds on stage pretty much as one might ‘expect’. It is difficult to imagine even the most hardened traditionalist objecting to the costumes – which, along with set designs, is usually all such a person cares about – but they are not fetishised. This forms, after all, some sort of investigation from the present as to how Peter attained and consolidated power, removing those who might have opposed him. Sometimes we see on film images from later Russian history. I can see the point, but I am not sure they add much, especially in the toppling of a statue of Lenin. (It could well be said that the dissolution of the USSR was a catastrophe for Russia, and not necessarily for the reasons Vladimir Putin would say it was, but it was unclear how that fitted in here.) Generic historical crowd scenes were less of a problem, presumably intending to show the Petrine settlement to be less conclusive than some would have claimed, though whether such doubling of the stage action is desirable was less than entirely clear. Likewise, whilst I think I can see the point of having Khovansky kill the Persian slaves, in a stylised representation of the bloodbath of order, restoration, progress (call it what you will), it arguably seems an arbitrary way of doing so.

A firing squad turning brutally on the ‘pardoned’ Streltsy at the end of the fourth act is a fine, properly harrowing touch, serving both to prepare the way for the self-immolation of the Old Believers in the final act but also, I think, to suggest these are different. Presenting their martyrdom as ‘resistance’, though, seems an unfortunate secularism, sadly typical of so many directors’ inability to take religious belief seriously. The idea that the contemporary ‘project’ breaks down is good: an almost Nietzschean view on the alleged ‘uses’ of history, one might say. The act, though, is real, moving, awe-inspiring, yet no more ‘resistance’ as is generally understood than the martyrdom in the final scene of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. It is more political than that, surely a crucial (and often overlooked, perhaps deliberately so, not least by Rimsky and his successor Shostakovich) note of questioning the entire Petrine and post-Petrine project of Westernisation. Peter’s troops initiate the apocalypse for some, a far stranger and more powerful drama than is allowed here. At the end, though, once the Old Believers have burned – use of video effective in conveying the nature of the act, if less so its horror – we return to the modern Kremlin. If the ‘lesson’ has been abandoned as useless or at least unhelpful, what, one might ask, has been the point? It still happened, one might reply; we have still been shown someone’s record, at least. And at least we do not become too entangled in the slightly embarrassing  ‘love story’, which, in the person of Marfa does its bit to bind things together, yet is surely a little too ‘operatic’ for comfort.

There is, also, the question of who compiles, orchestrates, and so on. Listening to the first-act Prelude in Rimsky’s orchestration, immediately before writing this, I remain far from convinced of the superiority of Shostakovich’s version of the opera (save for reversing Rimsky’s cuts and orchestrating those additional sections). It certainly has its merits, but so does Rimsky’s, and I cannot say I find it comes closer on the whole – sometimes it does; sometimes it does not – to my fantasy of how Mussorgsky ‘should’ sound. Perhaps, though, I am guilty of taking Boris Godunov – and increasingly its earliest version, given its recent favour – as a model, when Khovanshchina is a different work, rather as if one were to approach Lulu expecting it to be Wozzeck. There are also, of course, issues of performance, whichever version is used. I should dearly love one day to hear the work of Ravel and Stravinsky in full, but for now at least we had Stravinsky’s extraordinary ending, somehow more Mussorgskian even than Mussorgsky, and infinitely truer to any plausible view of the work’s dramatic message. (Shostakovich, as Richard Taruskin observed, not only ‘ratified Rimsky’s [melioristic] view’ of the Petrine reforms but ‘even managed to strengthen it’. The composer of The Rite of Spring showed himself better able to imagine and communicate the world of the Old Believers. 

Ivan Khovansky (Mika Kares), Persian slaves

Such choices were, I assume, the province of conductor Simone Young, probably in discussion with Guth. Young’s own conducting and the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin were excellent throughout, the latter sounding as golden as it did transparent, and without loss to precision. All was well placed and well balanced. Changes of metre, the lifeblood of Mussorgsky’s conversational recitative, were throughout so well handled that one barely noticed them as such; they are not, after all, the jolts of Stravinskian neoclassicism, but rather founded in a speech rhythm very different from the German ‘norm’ (and which, of course, proved highly influential upon the younger Stravinsky in particular). This happens vocally, of course, but at least as much in the orchestral ‘accompaniment’ (the Italian accompagnato seems wildly out of place here). 

Mention of things Italian brings me to my principal reservation: one of taste more than anything fundamental. Khovanshchina is considerably more inclined than Boris to more conventional, even Italianate, vocal-melodic writing. This seemed to be the cue to a more generally Verdian approach, especially during the first three acts. Elements of Wagner – more coincidental than anything else, I suspect – surfaced from time to time too, as did slightly disconcerting kinship with Tchaikovsky. Something rawer is certainly possible and, to my ears, more ‘authentically’ Mussorgskian, textual issues notwithstanding. I should not exaggerate, though, and there could be no doubting either the sincerity or, on its own terms, the success of Young’s approach with the orchestra, nor indeed the warmth with which the audience received it.

Dosifey (Taras Shtonda)

The cast was excellent too, headed by a charismatic, characteristically detailed Mika Kares as Ivan Khovansky. Taras Shtonda exuded star quality in what can hardly be other than a charismatic role, that of Dosifey, leader of the Old Believers. Stephan Rügamer imparted his usual intelligence to the part of the thwarted reformer Golitsin. (His could, perhaps even should, have been the better path, but it was not to be.) George Gagnidze’s Shakolvity shone on each of his appearances, not only his moving account of Russia’s troubled history. Marina Prudenskaya gave everything, returned with interest, to an all-encompassing performance as Marfa, finely complemented by Evelin Novak’s characterful, tender Lutheran Emma and a spirited Susanna from Anna Samuil. Andrei Popov offered a well-judged Scrivener: one could sympathise with the predicament his lowborn status presented and appreciate why he might sing in more noble, even florid style, without losing sight of his fundamental opportunism. If I felt Najmiddin Mavlyanov’s Andrey at times a little less sharply drawn, he came more into his own later on and likewise relished the opportunities a more Italianate performance offered. 

Dancers, well choreographed by Sommer Ulrickson, contributed intelligently to the greater drama too. It was, though, the outstanding chorus, expertly trained by Dani Juris, that truly crowned the performance: dramatically, harmonically based, roots in a Russian past that may or may not be invented, but certainly came to life in the here and now. It was, quite simply, outstanding in every way. Surely in this work, as in Boris, there is a fundamental lesson on the people’s suffering to be learned therein.

Tuesday 21 May 2024

Götterdämmerung, Deutsche Oper, 20 May 2024

Images: Bernd Uhlig (from 2021 premiere, with a considerably different cast)
Hagen (Albert Pesendorfer)

Siegfried - Clay Hilley
Brünnhilde – Ricarda Merbeth
Hagen – Albert Pesendorfer
Gunther – Thomas Lehman
Gutrune, Third Norn – Felicia Moore
Alberich – Jordan Shanahan
Waltraute – Annika Schlicht
First Norn, Floßhilde – Lindsay Ammann
Second Norn, Wellgunde – Karis Tucker
Woglinde – Lee-ann Dunbar

Director – Stefan Herheim
Revival directors – Eva-Maria Abelein, Silke Sense
Set designs – Stefan Herheim, Silke Bauer
Costumes – Uta Heiseke
Video – Torge Møller
Lighting – Ulrich Niepel
Dramaturgy – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Jörg Königsdorf

Chorus and Additional Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (chorus director: Jeremy Bines)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Nicholas Carter (conductor)

All things, good, bad, and indifferent, must come to an end; or must they? The idea that Wagner’s Ring is cyclical is widespread – many routinely refer to attending a ‘cycle’ – but it is at least open to criticism. More on that later, but this Deutsche Oper Ring has certainly come to an end with performances of great distinction, perhaps the most uniformly well cast I have ever seen, and with astonishing conducting from Nicholas Carter, certainly the best I have heard since Daniel Barenboim in 2013. Not, of course, to forget the superlative playing given throughout by the Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, showing itself once again to be the match of any (Wagner) orchestra in the world, the Staatskapelle across town included. No Ring would be anything at all without Wagner’s reimagined Greek Chorus, leading, commenting, questioning, seducing, thrilling, and chilling; this one, as translucent as it was darkly malevolent, as weighty as it was agile, did all that and more. Only now, in the final instalment, it was joined by Wagner’s actual chorus, those of the Deutsche Oper as seemingly always excelling not only vocally but as dramatic participants onstage. 

A Ring in the theatre is, of course, its production too; this marked the end of Stefan Herheim’s memorable staging. No Ring is perfect: it is not, should never be, that sort of work. It is too big, too unmanageable, too much a ‘world’ for that. This has contributed much, though, not least from its insistence on Wagner’s ‘three days with preliminary evening’ as a musically driven drama that navigates between the concerns of an ongoing rite and something explicitly contemporary. In that, at its best, it has penetrated to Wagner’s own mythological practice, doing what it has shown and what it has suggested to us. If the final scene of Siegfried proved for me a rare disappointment, it also gained from what happened next—though I still think it would have benefited from heightened attention to the drama of Siegfried and Brünnhilde and less to the crowd of copulating extras around them. Here, though, at the onset of the Prologue to Götterdämmerung, the generational shift (which has already, strictly, been accomplished) is accompanied by a scenic one; or rather, the action passes between two basic settings throughout, the old one of the rehearsal room and piano, and the new one of the Deutsche Oper itself. 

We probably should not make too much of a distinction, or maybe we should, between actors and chorus. Perhaps some have gone on to be audience members, whilst some continue in their movement and ‘extra’ roles. The more important thing, I think, is that two related worlds less collide than interact. There is, after all, little point in telling a story if no one is there to listen. In any case, the actors surround blindfolded Norns (echoing the state at one point of the treble Woodbird), choreographically heightening the drama just as they did to form the Rhine in the first scene of Das Rheingold—and just as they will in the final scene of Götterdämmerung to form the fire, aided by striking red lighting. Again, some of the most powerful effects are the simplest and, as Wagner put it, the most ‘purely human’. Meyerbeer’s ‘effects without cause’ are neither his business nor ours, whatever the (exaggerated) claims that have been made for the elder composer’s influence on this drama. A degree of grand opéra, yes, but other composers in that genre, the creator of Rienzi included, loom larger, which is not to say that a blazing account of the second act trio – courtesy of the orchestra, Carter, Ricarda Merbeth, Albert Pesendorfer, and Thomas Lehman did not thrill – for it very much did. 

Back for now, though, to Herheim. (In a sense, the distinction is false, albeit necessary to say anything at all.) The theatrical ‘business’ of dressing up continues to loom large, enabling characters to become – perhaps even to leave behind – ‘themselves’, as well as actors to become characters. White sheets become improbably large wedding dresses for Brünnhilde and Gutrune, their entanglements, their allure, and their physical dangers offering visual metaphors aplenty. Rhinemaidens, in losing their external trappings, become Norn-like, hieratic, in their warnings to Siegfried, Carter’s quasi-liturgical handling of the score both reflecting and leading that. Hagen assumes Siegfried’s heroic costume, whereas Siegfried fatally loses his. Gunther is likewise transformed from initial silliness (not a criticism, but rather a commendation of Lehman’s alert performance) into something more. The white tie of an ‘artist’ is the key, or at least it seems to be, as it is for Siegfried’s transformation (as well, undoubtedly, as whatever it is Hagen slips into his drink). Their scene on Brünnhilde’s rock is very well handled, both initially equals, sharing the lines, before Gunther fails and Siegfried must take over ‘as’ Gunther—before, of course, returning to the Gibichung Hall, where the sleep into which he keeps falling (Hagen’s doing?) overcomes him. It seems also to overwhelm during his final scene, staggering about, not ‘himself’—until he can finally become himself at his death, fully in keeping with Wagner. 

Gunther (Thomas Lehman), Siegfried (Clay Hilley)

In the meantime, Hagen’s departure into the audience for his watch proves, with further Brechtian use of house lights at critical moments, a telling and striking coup de théâtre. First he finds Waltraute there, his intimidation a prod to the mission she undertakes to her sister. Then he conducts the dialogue with Alberich from there, his father on stage, Siegfried sleeping. Alberich’s presence as clown of death, spying the action, even trying to force the ring from the sleeping Siegfried’s hand, visually informs not only his son’s appearance but that of zombie guests to the abortive weddings. As we hear the Nibelung and his ring musically envelop the action, so does he colour the participants too. Not for nothing does he manically play the piano at the end of the first act and resume his performance at the beginning of the second. His longtime antagonist appears too, actors assembling to show, first during Waltraute’s narration and on occasion thereafter, Valhalla’s throng of gods and heroes, a weary Walvater finally descending to the piano to receive Brünnhilde’s ultimate judgement. 

Before (re-)turning to the close, I should add a little about the vocal performances. Merbeth combined the headstrong virtues of her Walküre Brünnhilde and the lyrical ones of her Siegfried performance into a memorable assumption of her role. Clay Hilley again proved tireless – as tireless as a Siegfried can ever really be – and committed as the doomed hero. Pesendorfer and Jordan Shanahan’s Hagen and Alberich cast spells both dark and magical through voice and stage presence alike. Lehman’s Gunther and Felicia Moore’s warmly sympathetic Gutrune captured the difficult, sometimes thankless essence of their characters, always alert to the particular demands of the staging. Annika Schlicht’s chalumeau-like Waltraute was as much of a vocal and dramatic joy as her Fricka. Norns and Rhinemaidens were uniformly excellent. This was, I am delighted to reiterate, at least the equal of any Ring I have heard in uniform excellence of casting, and perhaps more than that. There may have been starrier casts; there may have been individual performances ‘bettered’ in one way or another, for there always will be. Yet across the board, the Deutsche Oper’s strong sense of company will take some beating. 

Following departure of all from the stage and a splendidly oracular image summoning up memories of Delphi, but also of Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez revelling in Wagner’s own revisiting its prophetic indeterminacy, we return to where we began: rehearsal room with lights, emergency exit, and piano, no sign of suitcases, refugees, or anyone/-thing else we have seen in between. A cleaner (with a hint of Erda to her?) comes to check all is as it should be. All has been washed away, or has it? Others will doubtless come along to stage the work again. The question remains whether they will have learned anything. For Wagner’s ‘watchers’, those ‘men and women moved to the very depths of their being’ were all along intended to imply this was not entirely a return, that consciousness had been created or raised. The Ring ends not in E-flat-major, but in D-flat, the key of Valhalla. Over, then, to those who have made it, us included. Only, given the achievements to date of ‘human consciousness’, who would bet against catastrophic repetition?

Monday 20 May 2024

BPO/Roth - Žuraj and Bruckner, 19 May 2024


Vito Žuraj: Anemoi
Bruckner: Symphony no.3 in D minor (first version, 1873)

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)


Image: Monika Rittershaus

What to do on the evening between Siegfried and Götterdämmerung? Saner souls might take a night off. Yours truly opted for the light relief of heading to the Philharmonie in a new work by Vito Žuraj and Bruckner’s Third Symphony, in performances from the Berlin Philharmonic and François-Xavier Roth. I am glad I did so too, for those performances were excellent, introducing an excellent new work for large orchestra, commissioned by that orchestra, in only its second performance (the first having taken place the night before), alongside a reassessment of a (to me) flawed repertoire work that made more sense of it than any other I have heard. 

Žuraj’s Anemoi takes its name and inspiration from the Greek wind gods, children of the dawn goddess Eos and the god of dusk, Astraeus. Over its roughly twenty-five minutes, what is effectively a modern tone-poem introduced us to these gods as winds: less, I think, their effect (though we felt that) as the winds themselves. It offered a master-class in use of every section of the orchestra, various combinations of instruments employed as if this were a concerto for orchestra, or perhaps a concerto grosso, unfurling power all the greater when they came together in a storm, gods at work in their usual battling. It felt almost as if we were the land, receiving due battering—and less often, due benefit (closing raindrops a case in point). Sheer busy-ness of trumpets in one section, multiple uses to which trombones might be put, lyra sounds such as I had never heard from the harp, and evocation of the aulos in the opening, microtonally fracturing unison of oboes, cor anglaise included: these and more were impressive in themselves, but more importantly conveyed a narrative of melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre, counterpoint, and more. Fantastically assured, it was no mere ‘showpiece’. Roth’s precision and that of the orchestra were, properly, means to an ‘expressive’ end, not ends in themselves. 

I had more or less given up on Bruckner’s Third Symphony, whichever version it was presented in. Roth’s direction had me hooked from the truly misterioso opening of the first movement, solo trumpet and strangely translucent orchestra drawing one in. There was certainly all the orchestral depth one could wish for when called for; traditional orchestral ‘choirs’ were likewise present and correct. Nothing, though, was taken for granted. This felt like an exciting exploration, Mendelssohn and even Berlioz (perhaps via Liszt and Bruckner) behind, another world in front. If, sceptic that I partly remain, I do not always find the first movement material especially memorable, harmonically and even melodically, its presentation made good, even logical sense. And if I wished that Bruckner, however anachronistically, might have learned a little from Žuraj’s or even Wagner’s more varied use of brass, there was no doubting the excellence of the playing. A songful meeting of Schubert and Wagner – Tristan and Tannhäuser in particular – characterised the second movement, whose compelling performance had me almost forget its occasional melodic awkwardness. 

Roth’s tempo for Bruckner’s scherzo proved a revelation. A faster pace again suggested roots in Mendelssohn. Of course, the latter composer rightly remained some way off; this is hardly fairy-land. But kinship was apparent and convincing. The trio’s good humour and grace were welcome; taken like this, there was never a suspicion of lumbering. With that in mind, the proportional tempo adopted for the beginning of the finale made excellent musical and dramatic sense. I confess to having failed – still – to comprehend the logic of where Bruckner takes us next. Perhaps I am still guilty of listening to this too much as if it were Brahms, and of holding it responsible for being something it does not aspire to be. Nonetheless, this excellent performance made me hear the score as never before, even revealing Bruckner who can dance rather than stomp. It also made me all the keener to hear Roth conduct Wagner.


Siegfried, Deutsche Oper, 18 May 2024

Images: Bernd Uhlig (from 2021 premiere)
The Wanderer (Iain Paterson) and Alberich (Jordan Shanahan)

Siegfried – Clay Hilley
Mime – Ya-Chung Huang
The Wanderer – Iain Paterson
Alberich – Jordan Shanahan
Fafner – Tobias Kehrer
Woodbird – Nicolas Schröer
Erda – Lindsay Ammann
Brünnhilde – Ricarda Merbeth

Director – Stefan Herheim
Revival director – Philine Tiezel
Set designs – Stefan Herheim, Silke Bauer
Costumes – Uta Heiseke
Video – Torge Møller
Lighting – Ulrich Niepel
Dramaturgy – Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach, Jörg Königsdorf

Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Nicholas Carter (conductor)

Mime (Ya-Chung Huang)

Emblems of the refugees’ arrival but also perhaps of impending departure, suitcases once again form and delimit the set, the rehearsal piano at their centre once again omnipresent. Wagner’s life and work becomes their own, our own. It certainly has mine since I first fell under its spell, and despite occasional attempts to escape – or at least to take a break – it never works. This Deutsche Oper Ring is not helping in that vain attempt, a somewhat disappointing third act notwithstanding. 

A Ring mystery is what its ring actually does, what its powers actually are. They certainly do not tally with what the characters tell us about it. Must one in some sense believe? Is it a form of theology, as Wagner, keen student of Feuerbach, might understand it? Probably. At any rate, it notably does Alberich’s bidding at the start, its yellow light focused at the piano, opening its lid, and thus initiating the Bühnenfestspiel’s ‘second day’. He and Wotan, Schwarz-Alberich and Licht-Alberich, as Wotan-as-Wanderer will call them, watch and wander from the start. They are not always present, yet often they are. Tellingly, the Wanderer watches the whole first scene from above, and Alberich appears, to Mime’s anger, during the second. (Perhaps, again, his brother might actually have been able to help him, like Siegfried, like the Wanderer, but the clever craftsman does not want to know.)  Their final confrontation, at least onstage, in the first scene of the second act attains a tragic magnificence and import such as rarely, if ever, have I encountered. That again, is surely in part Nicholas Carter’s doing, proportions of the act as a whole seemingly reconsidered, so that, like the final act of Die Walküre, thoughts of lopsidedness – the so-called ‘Forest Murmurs’ often overstay their welcome, but not here – never materialise. It is also surely that of Stefan Herheim’s staging; the two, along with vocal-dramatic performances proceed together, more or less indivisible (although for the purposes of writing, one must start somewhere). The two figures are, of course, themselves refugees here: they have stepped forward, assumed roles; yet, like the boys in Lord of the Flies, however changed, they must also remain who they were, albeit within a different, often Brechtian framework of storytelling. 

SIegfried (Clay Hilley), Brünnhilde (here Nina Stemme)

Music continues to play its stage role. Where Alberich, in a sense, founded his enterprise on an instrument he had found, or perhaps brought with him, Mime has expanded his endeavours into a brass workshop, where instruments hang from the ceiling. It is a slightly odd assortment and that, presumably, is the point. Mime is not an ‘artist’, but a ‘craftsman’; Wagner always upheld that Romantic distinction, which directly colours his creation of Mime and Siegfried. An artist would doubtless have brought in some other instruments. Incapable of moving beyond his narrow, technical purview, Mime continues to do the same thing—as, of course, he does in attempts to reforge the sword. Not for nothing in Herheim’s cunning elision of Wagner and Mime (here, for better or worse, in striped top) is the ‘Wagner tuba’ a key exhibit. Dubious tendencies from Wagner reception –much as we might wish, we cannot always simply ignore them – resurface. Mime’s dwarf-like quality and large head surely offer a nod to strange claims made concerning Wagner’s height and (worse still) physiognomy. Nietzsche would have laughed; the Wanderer does. 

The craftsman’s resourcefulness is important, though, at least if it may be harnessed to something more. It is possible, at least for Siegfried, to have bellows created from what is available, in a splendid nod to the original steam technologies of Bayreuth. Fafner also emerges from the suitcases and instruments too, brass teeth fairly gleaming, basic sheet props and colourful lighting again working their wonders for the rest of his maw. For lighting (Ulrich Niepel) can accomplish so much, simply yet starkly, as in Mime’s silhouette of brief power, or its prospect, when he holds the Wanderer’s spear. A vision of the world, which Mime, like Alberich still would ‘win’, is unfurled, again using what has emerged from the refugees’ possessions. 

Siegfried and Mime

It is a pity, perhaps, that Siegfried’s appearance – notably, like that of his father – is so ‘historically’ bound as (to us) to seem ridiculous, but that is surely deliberate, the flaws of ‘heroism’ present from the beginning. A striking innovation, though, is the return of Siegmund and Sieglinde in a Hänsel und Gretel-like ‘Dream Pantomime’. Siegmund may have rejected the immortality of Valhalla, but there are other ways to return, to guide (such as Mime never could). That the Woodbird, an excellent boy treble (Nicolas Schröer) emanates from this world – a very junge Siegfried, if you will – makes a significant contribution to the psychoanalytical framework. So too does the dragon’s blood in which he becomes mired and the pitching of appearance somewhere between clown (picking up from Das Rheingold) and (from Die Walküre) zombie, a disconcerting contrast with fresh youthfulness of voice. 

Carter seemed to offer a presentiment in the first act, which (rather than vice versa) on one occasion seemed very much to approach Humperdinck’s score. Perhaps it was my imagination, but it struck me at the time and before I knew what was to come on stage. His direction of the once-again outstanding Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper remained deeply and consistently impressive, both tied to and leading the action onstage. So too did the cast’s performances. Iain Paterson proved a typically thoughtful Wotan, Jordan Shanahan making a welcome return as an ambiguous clown-Alberich, readable and ‘relatable’ on multiple levels, without forsaking the destructive impulse at his core. 

Siegfried and Mime

Ya-Chung Huang’s Mime was, quite simply, one of the best I have seen and heard, turning the Siegfried-Mime axis into a true battle of very different tenors, for which Clay Hilley’s tireless Siegfried should also receive due credit. Both learn to conduct, as to play the piano, to lead musically and seemingly according to the score, but do they bring it to life? That requires the return of the refugees—and discarding of the old (Walküre) score. Huang’s ability, doubtless enhanced yet only enhanced by make-up and costume, to play his role as if Mime were a puppet-clown, grotesque yet also human, captured so much of the role, its uncomfortable aspects included. Above all, it reminded us of Wagner’s great achievement in showing us, as the late, greatly lamented Michael Tanner pointed out, the sheer misery that it is to be Mime. Tobias Kehrer continued and extended his excellent work as Fafner, that extraordinary last gasp of recognition – ‘Siegfried!’ – given its proper, prophetic, yet chilling worth. I assume his return to ‘life’, or whatever it was, was as much a recognition of the underlying Brechtian ideas as it was of his acquiring zombie-status, though perhaps it was both. The Woodbird’s frustrated waving him away, getting in the way of the story, was a nice touch, but I did wonder whether it might have been better all round not to present the problem in the first place. 

The Woodbird, Siegfried

What, then, of the third act? Musically, again, there was much to admire, though even in that respect – and perhaps more on account of inextricable connection with stage action than any actual flaws – it held my attention less. There was certainly nothing to complain about in Lindsay Ammann’s return as Erda, beautifully sung and enunciated, the character, now more dishevelled, awakened from her sleep and emerging once again from the prompter’s box. Ricarda Merbeth’s surprise return, in place of the previously advertised Elisabeth Teige, as Brünnhilde will have disappointed no one either. Her radiant performance, quite an achievement given its notorious demands so late in the evening, was quite the tonic, insofar as one could avoid distraction, from the events around her. For whilst I can rationalise Herheim’s decisions here, for the first time I felt rather less than convinced. 

The first two scenes go mostly as they ‘should’. No harm in that, quite the contrary, and the third seems nicely set up by the now apparently proficient Siegfried summoning Brünnhilde’s mountain and fire from the piano. Unless, though, I was missing something – it would not be the first time – there is not much more to it then return of the refugees, their ‘identification’, first among straightforward traditional gender lines, with Siegfried and Brünnhilde, then, taught by the score (whose ubiquity becomes more than a little tedious) and, presumably, also by what the two principal characters sing, turning more fluid in orientation and staging an orgy around them. It is all very well done, to the extent of unfortunate distraction from the two singers, ‘parked and barking’. Again, I assume that to be the point, yet it ultimately seemed to me misguided. I doubt this was an attempt to hold up Wagner’s drama as insufficient, or intolerably Romantic. Frank Castorf did so in his Walküre and it proved the weakest part of his Ring. Yet Castorf arguably proved most compelling here in Siegfried, when his conception found itself guided by the weight of Wagner’s drama, even perhaps by a mediated version of its Romanticism. Is a basic Brechtian point about storytelling, ‘enhanced’ by young people in white underwear doing their thing, enough? There are plenty of places one might go in Berlin to see the real thing, if that is what one is after. 

It might be tempting to see this ‘problem’, if problem it be, as mirroring Wagner’s own in completing the Ring. After all, it was at precisely the same place, the end of the second act, that he ceased his compositional work on it for twelve years. Turning instead to Tristan and Die Meistersinger, he wrote to Liszt that he had ‘led my young Siegfried into the beautiful forest solitude; there I have left him beneath a linden tree … he is better there than anywhere else. – If I am ever to take up this work again, it must either be made easier for me, or else I myself must in the meantime make it possible to bestow this work on the world in the fullest sense of the word.’ Yet when Wagner did return to his Siegfried, to the linden tree, or rather to the scene that followed in which all is both changed and resolved, it was still more under the spell of Schopenhauer and his musical aesthetics (as well as his broader philosophy). That, really, should have been right up Herheim’s street. I shall happily eat my words if all becomes clear in Götterdämmerung; for now, however, I register my first note of dissent. 

Saturday 18 May 2024

Karajan-Akademie/Petrenko - Mendelssohn and Widmann, 17 May 2024


Mendelssohn: String Octet in E-flat major, op.20
Widmann: Quintet for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano
Mendelssohn: Symphony no.4 in A major, op.90, ‘Italian’

Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

The Berlin Philharmonic’s Karajan-Akademie, founded on the initiative of the man himself in 1972, is perhaps the ultimate in orchestral scholarships. Its graduates are to be found in orchestras across the world. On the basis of this evening concert whose second part was conducted by Karajan’s successor but two, Kirill Petrenko, it would seem unwise to bet against that continuing. Any good orchestra will excel in chamber music playing too. The first part of the concert, offering a work for strings by Mendelssohn and one for wind and piano by Jörg Widmann confirmed much to admire in that respect as well.

Mendelssohn’s music nearly always lifts the spirits—unless played poorly (which does not bear thinking about). The Karajan-Akademie’s Octet offered no exception. From the off, the first movement had a sense of rightness that implied spontaneity, yet doubtless entailed much preparation. Tempo, balance, poise, and sheer élan characterised the performance that mirrored Mendelssohn’s own extraordinary combination of youth and maturity. Counterpoint was vividly present without congestion of textures. Not that sterner passages, for instance in the development, were undersold. The melancholy of exhaustion and its differentiation told its own tale, as did the revival of spirits for the return. Above all, it made me smile. If Beethoven’s inheritance was not absent in the first movement, it was immediately more apparent in the second. A keen architectural grasp was combined with moral seriousness and due sense of the sublime (without a hint of pomposity). The featherlight, fairytale fantasy of a Mendelssohn scherzo held no fears for these players; their relish proved properly infections. They stepped forward and blended in ensemble like musical actors in a play (A Midsummer Night’s Dream only just round the corner). Beethoven’s influence, worn ever so lightly, also characterised a finale of vigour, rigour, and release, which seemed to delight in the very essence of music. The players’ delight both in their performance and the warmth of its reception were palpable, and rightly so.   

Next came Widmann’s Quintet for oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon, and piano, a 2006 commission from the Karajan-Akademie. The combination of piano, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon has as its most celebrated, unmatchable example that of Mozart, although Beethoven’s early work is a fine example too. Schoenberg’s Wind Quintet, op.26, and Suite, op.29 between them contain the instruments, though neither of course matches directly. It was Schoenberg’s music and perhaps also that of his alleged antipode, Stravinsky, that seemed more to haunt on this occasion, for who would dare follow Mozart’s KV 452 directly? Widmann claims to have done so, but that was not so apparent to me, and more to the point, seemed to matter. His longstanding – even then, as the recipient of the Akademie’s Claudio Abbado Composition Prize – preoccupation with German Romanticism registered strongly: not only in its Second Viennese School culmination, but also in Schumannesque (at one remove) piano writing. There was humour; there were what once we might have called ‘extended techniques’; and there was a ‘lost waltz’ that seemed to have strayed from the Vienna of Schoenberg and Berg (perhaps the Wozzeck tavern). Eighteen miniature movements in not much more than twenty minutes offered a vivid, youthful conspectus that again seemed just the thing for outstanding young performers. They seemed to enjoy it too. Piano was exchanged for celesta in the final movement, ‘Flugtraum’, casting a spell of enchantment not only over what had gone before, but also over what was to come.

Petrenko joined a full chamber orchestra (strings for the return of Mendelssohn in his Italian Symphony. Lessons of chamber-musicmaking seemed very much to have been learned, both for the players in their listening and sheer responsiveness, and also for the conductor, who in his wisdom – again, one could also see and hear his enjoyment – knew precisely when and when not to conduct. If one could hear, even in the excellent acoustic of the Kammermusiksaal, this was not an especially large string section, that did not matter in the slightest: it was different, neither better nor worse, and balance with wind was impeccable throughout. The first movement got off to a fine start, as well-judged as the Octet. Fine clarinet solos deserve special mention, though there was nothing approaching a weaker link. Petrenko likewise shaped the second movement well, crucially without giving much impression of doing so. His task was to draw out the musicianship of his players, a task accomplished to a tee. Line persisted, however much the scenery changed: the procession, after all, never stops. The Minuet again gained much from the sense of chamber playing writ large; it is not the only way, of course, but it worked well. Its trio seemed all the more to breathe the air of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Presto Saltarello danced on hot coals, infectious and cathartic as a summer night’s fever. Mendelssohn at last seemed to have turned bad; perhaps it was so, if only in the moment.