Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Prom 43: Batiashvili/Dreisig/WEDO/Barenboim - Tchaikovsky, Coleman, and Scriabin, 14 August 2018

Royal Albert Hall
Tchaikovsky: Eugene Onegin, op.24: Polonaise
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D major, op.35
David Robert Coleman: Looking for Palestine (2017-18)
Scriabin: The Poem of Ecstasy, op.54

Elsa Dreisig (soprano)
Lisa Batiashvili (violin)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Can music lie? Conversely, can it tell the truth? Are those meaningless questions, confusions of category? Most of us, I think, would agree that music can mislead and that it can also lay claim to truth content. It was certainly a relief to spend a couple of hours away from the lies that infest our political and ‘media’ life, to experience the truthfulness of great musicianship.

A late addition to the printed programme was the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin. It made for just as splendid an overture as it might have done an encore. Daniel Barenboim has a splendid history with this opera and with Tchaikovsky more generally. With his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra too I heard perhaps the best live performance I have yet to experience of the Sixth Symphony. Moreover, the first time I heard the orchestra live, at the LRB’s Edward Said Memorial Concert in 2004, the Fifth was on the programme. Here heard – almost saw – the swagger of St Petersburg: for once with an unashamedly large, generous orchestra. There was seductive intimacy too: those stolen glances, aural and almost visual, telling us much. And those cellos…

The Violin Concerto took off, so it seemed, from where the Polonaise had left us: stylistically, even developmentally, there was much in common, yet also of course much to distinguish. Barenboim provided an almost Beethovenian sense of purpose to take us up to Lisa Batiashvili’s entry. Her tone struck me throughout as akin to a fine red Burgundy: rich yet never too full-bodied, cultivated, always hitting the spot – and the dead centre of the notes, single – or double-stopped, without so much as a hint of the clinical. Rubato was perfectly judged as a tool of expression, as were Barenboim’s variations of tempo. The cadenza might have been written, as well as performed, ‘in real time’, such was the sense, however illusory, of spontaneity. Freshness of woodwind solos was just as striking, each and every one of them revealing a star in the best, collegiate sense. Likewise in the Canzonetta, in which Batiashvili’s duetting with them proved the magical highlight of highlights, and the finale. Even in a performance such as this, I cannot say that Tchaikovsky’s invention, or lack thereof, quite convinces. There is surely a good deal of note-spinning. It came closer than I can recall, though, and this was exquisite spinning of notes, with all the character of a great finale.

David Robert Coleman’s Looking for Palestine sets passages from Najla Said’s – that is Edward’s daughter’s – one-woman play Palestine. First she bears witness to the vicious Israeli onslaught upon Lebanon in 2006 – vigorously supported, you may remember, by Tony Blair and New Labour. ‘You can spend your life being a humanist, a pacifist … treating them the same way you wish to be treated BUT when you are being attacked, when bombs are falling … your life is in danger and you are scared, it is so easy to look up at the sky and scream at the top of your lungs’. Later, in New York City, she discovers a group protesting for Palestinian rights – her rights – without being able to contribute: ‘ME, I am this Palestinian walking by them all with my mouth slightly open, because I want to do, say, give, something, SOMETHING, and I’m thinking how I can’t, and shouldn’t at that what WOULD I do, say? And I’m thinking that words are so powerful, Palestine … Palestine … that word … that word … that word …’

Words are indeed powerful, as is music; so too is their combination. Here, the oud sets up the musical setting – and, in a sense, the words to come too. Its intervals, in the solo introduction, seem generative, leading to more non-verbal speech – or is it? is that to render things too easy, to sentimentalise? – from the fine WEDO brass section. As well as the oud, piano, harps, percussion seem to incite the rest of the orchestra – perhaps to look for Palestine too. The soprano’s introduction in turn – ‘And though I have never returned to Palestine, Palestine always returns to me. Tuesday, July eleventh, I am in Beirut.’ – incites both action and remembrance. (Remembrance, we may reflect, is sometimes all we have, for better or worse.) Coleman’s setting here, Elsa Dreisig complemented, perhaps even questioned by, electronics, came closer to Nono than anything I had yet heard Barenboim conduct. It would be quite a thing were he to take up those particular cudgels now from his erstwhile friend and colleague, Claudio Abbado. Like Nono, Coleman, in the three short ‘scenes’ that follow, evinces a keen sense of that ineffable thing we call ‘vocal style’. It may or may not correspond to anything we have heard before; yet, even if we cannot explain it, we know it – at least in a fine performance, which this certainly seemed to be. There was, perhaps, also a sense of post-Bergian writing for voice and orchestra – certainly harmony – as the first scene went on. Amplified speech at the opening of the second came across as reimagined recitative. Was there a bit of the easy film score towards its close? Perhaps, but one might well argue that the words suggest such an approach.

An amplified ‘stage whisper’, in the introduction to the third scene – ‘I think’ – called into question even the identity Said/Dreisig had established for herself, post 9/11, as an ‘Arab bridging the gap between two worlds that don’t understand each other’. Ligetian scurrying and swarming, a whip that – if only to me – evoked Alberich in Nibelheim, traffic whistles: all this and more went to suggest the aural urban landscape of Manhattan, even what Nono would have called his ‘provocation’. Was the final, vaguely ‘Arabic’ vocal line a sign or an indictment of Orientalism? That such a question, clearly presented, was left hanging was perhaps the most telling aspect of all.

Finally, at least on the programme, came Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy. Barenboim and his orchestra proved once again very much in their element. Work and performance opened somewhere between Wagner and Debussy, and immediately headed somewhere beyond them – whatever one thinks of that particular ‘beyond’. Yes, I thought, he ‘gets’ Scriabin. An urgent, undeniably hot-house performance, founded on rhythmic progression and above all on the progression of harmonic rhythm, seemed in just the right sense to ‘go with the flow’, or better, to ride the crest of these strange, even gaudy aural waves. Until languor set in, that is, and how, Michael Barenboim’s sweet toned violin solos very much the icing on that particular cake. Overloading with metaphors seems inevitable here, even in stylistic keeping. Immediacy of colour, initial Tannhäuser-like frustration of climax, trumpets and brass more general with old-fashioned ‘Russian’ vibrato, all led us up to a series of final climaxes which may or may not be ludicrous – but which are surely what Scriabin ‘meant’.

After that, the unforced nobility of a generous ‘Nimrod’ spoke more clearly and, yes, more truthfully than any words could. Now it was over to us, but would Elgar’s countrymen listen?

Monday, 13 August 2018

Tête-à-Tête Festival 2018: four new operas, 3 and 8 August 2018

The Crossing, RADA Studios

Alastair White, WEAR

The Writer –  Sarah Parkin
Reflection – Alana Everett
The Designer – Kelly Poukens
The Model – Metty Makharinsky
Reflection – Max Gershon

Ben Smith (piano)
Gemma A. Williams (director)
Derek Lawlor (designs)

Elfyn Jones, Vicky and Albert

Vicky – Anna Prowse
Elfyn Jones (piano, sound design, director)

Edward Lambert, The Clock and Dagger Affair (The Music Troupe)

Belisa – Fleur de Bray
Marcolfo – Kate Howden
Don Perlimplin – Andrew Greenan

Edward Lambert (piano)
Thomas Payne (conductor)
Jaered Glavin (director, designs)

Daniel Blanco Albert, Entanglement! An Entropic Tale (Infinite Opera)

Electron – Amy Van Walsum
Baron Entropy – Roxanne Korda
Singularity – Andrej Kuschcinsky
Positron – Charlotte Sleet
Gravity – Shiyu Zhang

Xizofen Song (piano)
Daniel Blance Albert (trumpet)
Aria Trigas (violin)
Tom Pickles (cello)
Arjun Jethwa (flute)
Dominic O’Sullivan (clarinet)
Nicholas Fidler (viola)

Aleksandar Dundjerovic (director)
Maria Jose Martinez (design)
Margarita Mikailova (conductor)

Images: Claire Shovelton

I feel a little ashamed to admit that this was the first year I had been able to attend any of London’s summer new opera festival, Tête-à-Tête. Still, in the balance of guilt as it stands in the world around us, there are probably worse sins. Better late than never – and what a delight it proved, in various ways, to attend two evenings: one in King’s Cross, the other not so far away in Bloomsbury.

Location was certainly important to the first, Alastair White’s WEAR. (He wrote both words and music.) ‘Space’ may sometimes be an irritating way of describing a venue, although more often than not it suggests a laudable desire to question institutional practices. Here, it was certainly the mot juste, ‘The Crossing’ – which, I confess, I initially had difficulty finding – being just that: a covered crossing between Central St Martins and the Granary Building. How King’s Cross has changed since my first visit as an innocent undergraduate. (Awaiting my late train back to Cambridge, I was approached by a lady of the night, inside the station, with the words ‘how about you and me get warm together tonight?’ I responded, rather to her surprise, I think, that it was such a balmy summer’s evening that there would be no need for that.) Now Granary Square and CSM are there, for one thing, as well as Kings Place a little closer to the station. Presenting an opera concerned with – and to a certain extent growing out of – the fashion world and its social as well as æsthetic entanglements adjacent to the school made a great deal of sense and genuinely added to the experience. A downside was the generous acoustic, making hearing the words quite a challenge; rarely, however, can we have everything.

Such indeed might have been a message of the opera too. It seems that White’s encounter with fellow founder of UU Studios, Gemma A. Williams helped steer a project he had initially been sketching in the direction of the fashion industry. Whatever the history, that is certainly what resulted: a fascinating one-act piece for piano, voices, and dancers, in which temporality – both thematically and, I think, within our experience of the work too – is challenged by not only the ephemerality but also the artistic aspirations of the world in which it is set. Time is shed in music just as it is in fashion, in clothing; yet both also persist – or can persist, taking on lives, after-lives of their own. Set on the edge of the apocalypse, actions, remembrance, and aspirations take on dramatic edge: not only in words, but post-Schoenbergian harmony, method, and vocal writing (much coloratura, perhaps a homage to Berg’s sometime clothes-horse Lulu?) too. Moreover, to embrace Derek Lawlor’s world of design – Design, perhaps with a capital ‘d’ – as well as to thematise it, prepared the way for all manner of dramatic possibilities: both fully realised and suggested. Accomplishment in both musical writing and performances was undeniable, even spellbinding. Had this been a song-cycle – or cantata – I should have been gripped, but staging, including the interpretative yet surely also inciting dance of Max Gershon, left one in no doubt that this was not only an opera, but an opera of rare imagination – and success. I am keen to hear more.

To RADA Studios, the following week, for three one-act pieces. The first two, whether by accident or design, complemented each other rather well. Elfyn Jones’s short (about twenty minutes?) piece, Vicky and Albert, for soloist, piano, and sound design proved a playful affair that yet did not lack emotional weight. Unabashedly tonal, yet with intrusions from the world of phone apps and other ‘found’ sounds ranging from a kettle boiling to a Tube train, we went on a not un-traditional journey – none of the dramatic edge of would-be conflicting timelines and impossibility, as experienced in WEAR – of a woman’s romantic dalliances and self-education, albeit with the twist that she learned from (or may have learned from) dependence on a virtual, app-based boyfriend. It was very topical, yes, and who knows whether it will last, but that was surely not the point. Or rather, in a sense, it was yet was cleverly thematised within too. Fashion and fashions take many forms, yet they will always have room for such excellence in operatic personality and presentation as shown here by Anna Prowse as the human, all too human Vicky.

More traditional in form and presentation, perhaps, or at least differently allusive to opera’s past, Edward Lambert’s The Cloak and Dagger Affair, based upon his own adaptation from Lorca’s Amor de Don Perlimplín con Belisa en su jardin, shared an inescapable element of contemporary communication: the mobile phone, in this case messages, leading to (possible) death and (certain) fruitless arousal and jealousy. A cloak and dagger affair indeed! Taking his leave from Lorca’s own employment of eighteenth-century music, Lambert intriguingly offered elements (at least) of bel canto vocal writing to vie with a more ‘modern’ idiom in his piano writing (and playing), showing us, not unlike Stravinsky, that the smallest changes can sometimes have one listen in a very different way indeed. Pulcinella perhaps inevitably came to mind as this re-imagination of a re-imagination of the commedia dell’arte worked not inconsiderable magic. Excellent performances, once again, from all concerned.

The element of quantum mechanics perhaps implicit in WEAR came to the forefront of the final work I heard, from Infinite Opera: Entanglement! An Entropic Tale, with words by Roxanne Korda (also singing) and Daniel Blanco Albert (also playing) offered an overt attempt to make an opera out of physics. The idea is intriguing yet, to my mind at least, the realisation needed considerable rethinking. There was something there to be salvaged, I think; however, attempted reconciliation with more ‘traditional’ operatic themes – what does ‘attraction’ mean when electrons, positrons, gravity, and so on are personified on stage? – came across with apparently unintentional bathos. Alone of the four operas I heard, this seemed far too long, fine singing and instrumental playing (very fine indeed!) notwithstanding. Repeated inability to burst a balloon at an end seemed all too ready a metaphor for what had gone before. The composer can certainly write music and create meaningful, even dramatically meaningful, musical process. That is no mean gift; in this case, however, at least for me, it would have benefited from further guidance.

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Prom 36: Philharmonia/Salonen - Webern, Mahler, and Wagner, 9 August 2018

Royal Albert Hall

Webern: Five Orchestral Pieces, op.10
Mahler: Symphony no.10: ‘Adagio’
Wagner: Die Walküre, Act I

Siegmund – Robert Dean Smith
Sieglinde – Anja Kampe
Hunding – Franz-Josef Selig

Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

One of the joys of writing regularly – sometimes, just sometimes, I think too regularly – about performance has been the transformation, both conscious and unconscious, of my scholarship. My most recent published book, After Wagner, would have been and was originally intended to be quite a different endeavour, had the example of Stefan Herheim’s production of Parsifal and many other performances and productions not intruded and helped shape it otherwise. Not only did a concluding chapter on staging and performance turn into a fully fledged third part (of three chapters); perhaps more importantly, I began to read back such concerns into more ‘work-based’ writing too. Indeed, the idea for the first chapter, on Parsifal ‘itself’, initially intended as a self-standing article, arose from my reflections on another production of that work: in many ways, a very bad production, however wonderfully performed, yet one that still had me think about the role of history and historical thinking in Parsifal.

And so it was with this Prom concert too. Hearing Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia in Webern’s Five Orchestral Pieces, the opening Adagio to Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony, and the first act of Die Walküre had me scribble in my programme booklet, lest I forget, not only that I should add a specific reference to Webern and Wagner’s unendliche Melodie (‘endless melody’) in what I am currently writing. I should also explain more clearly, I realised, in the section I had drafted that afternoon, how the legacy of that idea for so much twentieth-century music, Mahler’s included, was predicated on a qualitatively different understanding of ‘melody’ from that which previously had held sway – and still, in certain quarters, does:

The term has often been misunderstood; it has little to do, even in Tristan, with the long phrases of Italian bel canto opera, but rather refers to the need for each and every note to be expressive, significant within the whole. Therein surely lies one of Wagner’s most important legacies to Schoenberg, his pupils Alban Berg and (especially) Anton Webern, and beyond, to Boulez, Stockhausen, et al. It is as much a way of understanding the greatest music of the past – usually, yet not necessarily Austro-German – and of placing works, here the Ring, within that lineage as it is of offering prescriptions for the ‘music of the future’ (a term Wagner endowed with often unacknowledged irony).

Whether that thought will make it into the final cut remains to be seen – my co-editor may be cursing yet another round of Wagnerian expansion on my part – but it can remain here, at least, with thanks to the performers and indeed to the Proms.

For, as Carl Dahlhaus pointed out, when Wagner coined the term, he did so with respect to Beethoven, divining in the Eroica Symphony the unfolding and development of a single coherent melody – perhaps not so very different from what Schoenberg, defying interpreters ever since to make final sense of his term, called the Idea of a musical work – an idea of an Idea that was unquestionably familiar and congenial to Webern, if not necessarily to be identified with his. ‘According to Wagner,’ Dahlhaus continued, ‘music is “melodic” when every note is eloquent and expressive; and in contrast to a “narrow melody,” in which the melodic element is continually interrupted in order to make room for vacuous formulae … avoidance of cadences is not the nature of the principle, but one of its consequences.’ Such was what we heard in Salonen’s – and the Philharmonia’s – Webern and Mahler, at least insofar as audience bronchial activism and telephone calls permitted. Salonen’s principal revelation here, at least for me, was Webern’s build-up of harmonic tension, owing much to Wagner, and in Webern’s case at least to Brahms too, on the (relatively!) micro- and macro-levels. Not that that was at the expense of other parameters (as Webern’s fruitfully unfaithful successors would soon term them), nor at the expense of ‘character’, but rather underlying them. 

Hearing op.10 and the Adagio together, the one emerging from the other, was a masterstroke: a familiar enough idea in itself now, largely thanks to fellow composer-conductors such as Michael Gielen and Pierre Boulez, but not always endowed with such immanent meaning. We heard what was different too, of course, the particular quality of Webern’s iridescent sweetness, his dancing: so much more echt-Viennese, for better or worse, than the ever-alienated Mahler, who perhaps speaks in more familiar tones yet to us and our condition. (Assuming, that is, we are not all Austro-German nationalists!) Yet the overwhelming quality of the climaxes, musically prepared, never appliqué, had much in common – provided, that is, one listened. How keenly, moreover, one listened to the intervals and their import at the close of the Mahler, having been led to do so by Webern – and how keenly would one therefore be led to do so in the first act of Die Walküre, following the interval.

Wagner’s storm cleared the Mahlerian air – just as was happening outside the Albert Hall in ‘real’ life too. Robert Dean Smith as Siegmund sounded in better voice than I have heard him for quite some time. Certainly his opening phrase was such as one could have taken dictation from it, verbal and musical: an implied caesura both from the expressionism of the first half and from the inhuman dialectics of Das Rheingold, whose precedent was implied to many of us. Anja Kampe’s Sieglinde answered with almost instrumental colour – a modern chalumeau, perhaps – which yet did not preclude the keenest verbal response to Wagner’s text too. As so often in Wagner, as in Mahler and Webern, emphasis upon one element and excellence therein heighten rather than detract from other elements. It was clear, very soon, that this woman was damaged (are not all the characters here?) but also that she was emphatically a human being and a woman. Philharmonia chamber music – as with Liszt, most of Wagner’s chamber music is to be found in his orchestral writing – both beguiled and underlined dramatic tension: Hunding was already present in absentia. The sadness of cellos en masse commented on and extended the message of that unforgettable cello solo at the beginning of the scene. Wind anticipated the springtime (Lenz) with which Sieglinde would later identify Siegmund.

Enter Hunding. Franz-Josef Selig, in one of the greatest performances I have heard from him – which is saying quite something! – endowed Wagner’s Stabreim with all the significance it needs, and which yet it does not always receive. Selig realised and communicated how those consonants interact with the vocal line and indeed with the orchestra. So too, clearly, did Salonen. Unendliche Melodie! The febrile, almost Erwartung-like orchestral cauldron Salonen stirred drew attention to how anti-melodic, in the bel canto sense, these vocal lines can sometimes be – even in this, one of the most lyrical of the Ring acts. Occasionally, Dean Smith sounded a bit tired here, but he recovered – and really made the most of his role as saga narrator, as did Selig. One could almost see the ghostly horses of past, invisible dramas; one certainly heard them. Gurrelieder seemed but a stone’s throw away. Whilst Sieglinde was silent, one could not help but notice that she was. Hunding’s venom – not a quality I have usually associated with the often kindly Selig – was such as to draw still greater attention to the lack of a female voice. Timpani upon his departure, likewise brass response, further darkened the scene.

One of the few doubts I entertained about the entire performance was the excessive – to me, at any rate – holding of Dean Smith’s second ‘Wälse’. Still, if that is all I have to say on the negative side, there should be much rejoicing in Valhalla. Kampe’s return incited that turn to the vernal at which she had previously hinted, Philharmonia woodwind especially responsive – and generative. How she spun her line, verbally and musically: she might almost have been taking lessons from Wagner in Opera and Drama on the poetic-musical period. Perhaps, indeed, she had. It certainly was not long before her delivery sent shivers down this particular spine. That identification of Siegmund, as yet with ‘Lenz’ took place in more of a hothouse setting than often one hears, testament doubtless not only to Salonen’s long experience with Tristan, but also to the re-examined standpoint from which he is now addressing the Ring. Release when she named him Siegmund was as much musical as – well, whatever else you want to call it. Preparation had proved just as assured as in Mahler and Webern, and had doubtless, quite rightly, been coloured by Wagner’s posthumous history in their work. This, then, proved to be a performance both magnificent and fruitful. Salonen would seem to have come to the Ring in earnest at just the right, or at least a right, time – for him, for me, and, I hope, for you too. We shall see, or rather hear, over the next few years as his Ring gathers pace both in concert and in the opera house.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Prom 33 - BBC SO/Farnes - Musgrave and Brahms, 7 August 2018

Royal Albert Hall

Thea Musgrave: Phoenix Rising (1997)
Brahms: Ein deutsches Requiem, op.45

Golda Schulz (soprano)
Johan Reuter (bass-baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Neil Ferris)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Richard Farnes (conductor)


I am not sure I could find much of a connection between the two works on offer here. They offered ‘contrast’ of a sort, I suppose, yet not in a meaningful way such as I could discern. No matter: the concert was what it was, concluding in a truly excellent performance of Brahms’s German Requiem, infinitely preferable to a curiously vacuous one I heard last autumn – perhaps more the time of year for it – from starrier forces in Berlin.

First, however, came Thea Musgrave’s 1997 orchestral work, Phoenix Rising, its title taken from a sign outside a Virginia coffee shop, its programmatic subject matter that of, well, a phoenix rising from the ashes. Its opening éclat promised much, very much a presentiment of the sharpness – rhythmic, yet not only that – of the rest of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s performance under Richard Farnes. It could have been the prelude to a stage work; I could not help but wonder if it might have been better off that way. For the piece’s initial post-Peter Grimes dramatic tension dissipated somewhat, transforming in a different way from the phoenix, into a competent yet hardly earth-shattering tone poem. Unrepentantly tonal, it came to sound more like film music than a concert work. Visual theatrics, in which the excellent timpanist cued a bass drum player above, before downing his sticks and leaving the stage amused and/or puzzled, yet seemed to lack motivation in to the musical material (other than his ceasing to play for a while, before being heard at the end, off-stage). It was interesting to hear a Proms premiere from a composer long overlooked in this country; I doubt I should hasten to hear it again.

The introduction to the opening chorus of the Brahms, ‘Selig sing, die da Leid tragen’ – from the Beatitudes, of course – truly set the scene for the rest of Farnes’s reading. Combining serenity with a hint of harmonic grit often missed, he pointed to the location of meaning in Brahms’s harmony. It is all there, pretty much. In the words too, of course, but one might have a pretty good feeling for what this splendidly Lutheran humanist – in more than one sense – work was about even without. Or so one imagined. At any rate, the BBC Symphony Chorus, upon its entry, ensured that we never had to find out, its rounded tone of consolation just the thing – as was its diction. The movement remained founded, even grounded, upon its bass line, orchestral and choral. This was to be a ‘natural’, unaffected performance of the very best kind.

The following chorus’s roots in early music – not only Bach and Handel, not only Schütz, but earlier – were clear at its opening, without any need to underline, to highlight. Once again, the placing of chords, the path of harmonic progressions, mattered in work and performance, yet without a hint of pedantry. Soft, which is not to say weak, foreboding, ‘All flesh is as grass’, grew and grew through the great sarabande processional. Brahms may not have been a Believer, but he knew what belief and Belief were. The central section, ‘So seid nun geduldig…’, was taken more swiftly, with greater contrast, than often one hears; it worked very well indeed, heightening expectancy in words and music alike. A sense of return, musical as much as theological, was finely achieved thereafter, with the return of the opening material, prior to turning of the corner, clean and warm: the Lord’s Word would endure for ever. Again swifter than usual, the closing section worked splendidly, the foretelling of heavenly rejoicing almost akin to a choral climax in Haydn. Farnes shaped this music, as that of the whole, with powerful yet unobtrusive understanding.

Johan Reuter proved a sincere soloist, his diction also excellent, in ‘Herr, lehre doch mich’, the chorus engaged in a dark game, or perhaps better ritual, of versicle and response. Subtle darkening of instrumental colours as the psalmist reflected upon the humbreing of his days proved just as telling as the vocal line itself. A swift closing once again worked; it was not hard-driven, but a release that was again as much musical as a mere response to the words. Klemperer’s is not the only way. And yet, all the while, that pedal point resounded in a way the grand old man would surely have appreciated. The ensuing chorus, ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen,’ flowed beautifully, indeed beguilingly, without a hint of sentimentality.

Golda Schulz’s solo work in the next number, ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’, offered a near ideal blend of the ‘angelic’ and the ‘womanly’: the ‘Ewig-Weibliche’, one might almost suggest, in Goethian homage. I was put a little in mind of Edith Mathis (on Daniel Barenboim’s early recording, although there was perhaps greater range here. Maternal comfort – the death of Brahms’s mother almost certainly played some role here, just as the death of Webern’s mother would for so much of his œuvre – was apparent, was felt, with a nice sense of homage to Mendelssohn, delectable BBC woodwind and all, towards the close.

I wondered whether Reuter might have been a little forthright in ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’, but perhaps that was as much a matter of the Albert Hall acoustic as performance. At any rate, choral swallowing up of death and grave in victory proved a thing of awe, prior to another Haydn-Gloria-close: which, after all, is precisely what the words from Revelation suggest. This was not difference for the sake of it, but a keen response both to words and music. The final chorus, taken more or less attacca, reinforced the ‘cyclical’ element to Brahms’s vision. That is not quite the right word, I know, for we have been changed by what has happened in the meantime; yet tonally, there is – and here there was felt to be – a strong element of return. Farnes’s ability to maintain the longest of lines came in very handy here, as did his readily apparent long-term harmonic thinking. Blessed were these dead souls indeed.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Proms 29 and 30 – Swedish CO/Dausgaard - ‘The Brandenburg Project’: Bach, Turnage, Hillborg, Caine, Neuwirth, Dean, and Mackey. 5 August 2018

Royal Albert Hall

Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no.1 in F major, BWV 1046
Mark-Anthony Turnage: Maya (2014, UK premiere)
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no.3 in G major, BWV 1048
Anders Hillborg: Bach Materia (2017, UK premiere)
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no.5 in D major, BWV 1050
Uri Caine: Hamsa (2015, UK premiere)

Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no.4 in G major, BWV 1049
Olga Neuwirth: Aello – ballet mécanomorphe (2016-17, UK premiere)
Brett Dean: Approach – Prelude to a Canon (2017, UK premiere)
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no.6 in B-flat major, BWV 1051
Bach: Brandenburg Concerto no.2 in F major, BWV 1047
Steven Mackey: Triceros (2015, UK premiere)

Fiona Kelly, Claire Chase (flutes)
Per Gross, Katarina Wiedell (recorders)
Lisa Almberg, Daniel Burstedt, Mårten Larsson (oboes)
Håkan Hardenberger (trumpet)
Göran Hülphers, Terése Larsson (horns)
Pekka Kuusisto, Antje Weithaas (violins)
Brett Dean, Tabea Zimmermann (violas)
Maya Beiser (cello)
Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)
Uri Caine (piano)
Swedish Chamber Orchestra
Thomas Dausgaard (conductor)

It is always a fascinating prospect to hear contemporary and indeed earlier composers respond to repertoire works. Think of Mozart learning from and adding to Bach and Handel. Last year in Vienna, I heard newly commissioned responses from eight composers to Le Marteau sans Maître, interspersed with the movements of Boulez’s work. This summer, Bach’s were the masterpieces, the Swedish Chamber Orchestra having commissioned six composers to write companion pieces to each of his Brandenburg Concertos. Rarely if ever will all contributions be of equal stature or prove equally satisfying to different tastes. Such was certainly not the case, in my experience, with the responses to Boulez; nor was it to be so here. Alas, only two of the new works seemed to me to have been worth the effort; the other four proved at best over-extended and, in at least two cases, probably more, meretricious. Still, even in somewhat variable performances of the ‘originals’, Bach, as Boulez would have put it, remained.

First up was the first of Bach’s set of six. Its first movement was light, airy, not unlike Claudio Abbado’s late way with these pieces with his Orchestra Mozart, if not quite so secure. Although there was much to admire in the playing of the Swedish CO under Thomas Dausgaard, here and elsewhere, rarely if ever did I gain the feeling of being truly grounded in Bach’s music; it seemed as much an excursion to them as, perhaps still more so than, the new works. Still, it breathed – just about, and was well balanced, in itself no mean feat. What a relief, moreover, it was to hear modern horns in this music. The following Adagio enjoyed some delectable oboe playing; I also loved the dark, velvety bassoon tone. Its successor danced freely – not, thank goodness, in the bizarrely dogmatic ‘This is a Baroque dance and this is how a Baroque dance must sound and be experienced, exterminate, exterminate…’ so prevalent in certain circles. Mahan Esfahani, playing harpsichord continuo throughout the first concert, never failed to work with Bach’s harmony, to call it by name and thus create it anew (if I may slightly misquote Adorno). If certain ‘effects’ in the Polacca irritated, the closing dances nevertheless beguiled. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Maya perplexed – that is, before it merely bored. Beautifully played by all concerned, not least cello soloist, Maya Beiser, its status as response, companion piece, anything at all to the Bach work was less unclear than absent. It did not employ the same musical forces, had no connection, at least so far as I could hear, to its material; worst of all, though, it came across as a frankly cynical prolongation of what might have been a couple of minutes or so of television serial mood music. Vaguely blues-y at times, vaguely threnody-like, it might initially have filled a gap in a concert programme; soon, however, I developed a suspicion that the gap would have been better left unfilled.

Bach’s Third Concerto offered cultivated modern playing, albeit with very small forces. (Is that really a sensible way to treat this music in the Royal Albert Hall?) It was not hard-driven as so many authenticke performances tend to be, even if it lacked a good deal in gravitas. Again, it was the continuo playing that afforded the greatest pleasure, grounding the harmony and rendering Bach’s form dynamic. About Anders Hillborg’s ‘new’ second movement, the less said the better. On a slow day, it might, I suppose, have taken five minutes to jot down. The third movement (Bach’s, thank God) was very fast yet not unreasonably so; something of Bach’s spirit and humanity remained. Hillborg’s Bach Materia opened intriguingly, out of the orchestra’s tuning up. Alas, it was all downhill thereafter. The music moved into vaguely minimalist churning out of violin arpeggios from soloist Pekka Kuusisto, offered ‘effects’ aplenty, from silly chirping noises to shouted interjections as Kuusisto and double bass player Sebastien Dubé improvised. The collaboration showed Dubé to better advantage than Kuusisto. Should unpleasant wailing be your thing, however, there was some of that too. Again, the sense was of filling in time that really had no need to be filled in. When bits of Bach returned, there was some enjoyment to be had, soon not so much dashed as dissipated. Attempts to be ‘right on’ rarely prove edifying; this, frankly, was just a mess.

The Fifth Brandenburg Concerto was for me the unquestioned highlight of the first concert and indeed of the Bach performances as a whole. Here, it seemed, the soloists, especially Esfahani, took the lead rather than Dausgaard and turned what they were doing into a performance in the living, emphatic sense. The first movement was lively and breathed, its contours and formal dynamism not only apparent but felt, experienced. Esfahani’s way with the cadenza not only impressed, but reminded us what astounding music this is. It would be foolish to imitate Furtwängler, even on the piano, but his incredible recorded 1950 performance from Salzburg remains the model here. Esfahani proved a worthy successor. The second movement was true Kammermusik: flexible, beautifully balanced, with all the give and take one might have hoped for between harpsichord, flute (Fiona Kelly), and especially violin (Antje Weithaas). Bach’s closing Allegro danced with far greater ease than any of those aforementioned self-conscious ‘Baroque Dance Lessons’ and, naturally, went far deeper. These were not soloists who, again to borrow from Adorno, said Bach yet meant Telemann. Its contrapuntal complexity was embraced; that complexity embraced both performers and audience in return. It was perhaps a little puzzling not to have a ‘response’ that involved the harpsichord, but Uri Caine’s Hamsa was doubtless written with himself in mind as piano soloist. There is no doubting the quality of his pianism; his tone was often to die for. Hamsa, named after the Arabic word for ‘five’, seemed to me sincere and ambitious. It certainly confronted Bach in quotation, allusion, and, in its way, vaguely neo-Classical procedure. Again, it seemed far too long for its material, whose treatment began to sound merely arbitrary. Perhaps I simply did not ‘get’ Caine’s aesthetic. There was certainly no gainsaying the quality of the performances here.

Bach remained, of course, and endured into the second concert. The Fourth Brandenburg Concerto reverted somewhat to the more tentative or at least constricted ‘early-ish’ style of the First and Third, at least so far as the orchestra and Kuusisto were concerned. Per Gross and Katarina Widell on recorders, however, offered infectious enthusiasm. Dausgaard seemed overly keen to mould the central Andante; its fussiness continued into the finale, which alas, had something of that ‘This is a Baroque Dance’ quality to it. A somewhat disappointing performance, then, prefaced Olga Neuwirth’s brilliant Aello – ballet mécanomorphe, to my ears by far the strongest of the new works. In three movements, like its companion, it immediately spoke with the tones – in every sense – of a serious composer at work. Figures remembered from Bach, whether melodic, rhythmic, or both, sounded as if trapped in a machine. Or were they actually perfectly happy to be there? Claire Chase on flute, shadowed by two muted trumpets, offered breathtaking virtuosity, set against an ever-changing ensemble that included synthesised harpsichord and glass harmonica as well as portable typewriter. Machines can be fun as well as serious – indeed sometimes especially when they are serious. So too can Bach. An almost Berio-like malaise, material dragged down into something mysteriously different yet related, led, toward the end of the first movement, into a reinvention of Bach and Neuwirth in almost jazzy style (all the more convincing for making no claims to be jazz ‘itself’). The glass harmonica soundworld of the second movement, however ‘artificial’ – what art, by definition, is not? – seemed to incite more ‘traditional’, arabesque-like flute writing which yet did not lose its ‘mechanical’ edge. Jesting with form – or perhaps simply my lack of understanding! – had me think for a while we were embarked upon a transition to a finale in which Bach would reassert himself, only to realise that ‘transition’ had been the finale along. I very much look forward to hearing it again.

Brett Dean’s Approach – Prelude to a Canon was written to preface the Sixth Concerto. Its opening busy counterpoint seemed to evoke, in melody and harmony, a Bach who may or may not have been ‘real’. Different moods, never predictable, whether ludic or songful, prevailed at different times, sometimes suggesting a more ‘modern’ conception of double concerto for the composer and fellow violist, Tabea Zimmermann, sometimes very much a reinvention of Bach’s own terms. Emotional and intellectual tension was often coincident; when not, the disparity proved equally suggestive. If I responded more strongly to Neuwirth’s piece, there was no doubting the accomplishment of Dean’s either. Bach emerged from its final bars. Again, my ears had been tricked; I had expected another section of Dean. This is a very difficult work to bring off. However, if I found the first movement unreasonably fast, Bach’s dark colours nevertheless shone through (or whatever the more appropriate verb for darkness here would be). The outer movements benefited from being Dean and Zimmermann taking the lead as soloists; the central Adagio ma non tanto seemed less certain in direction.

Bach bade farewell with his Second Brandenburg Concerto. It was hard-driven and light-textured in the now fashionable way. Nevertheless, balance came across very well: no mean feat in this of all works. Perhaps the highlight was the central Andante: not, I hasten to add, because the excellent Håkan Hardeberger was not playing, but because it flowed more freely, again taken as chamber music. I am afraid I could not get on with the machine-like approach to the finale. Even Stravinsky, I imagined, might have asked Dausgaard and company to calm down a little. That said, it helped pave the way for Steven Mackey’s Triceros, which followed without a break, a held trumpet note for transition. Its initial (post-)minimalism passed amiably enough. It certainly came across in polished, even accomplished fashion when contrasted with the offerings by Turnage and Hillsborg. Again, the aesthetic is one to which I find it difficult to respond, so I shall not say too much, other than again to say that it could have done with being half, even a third of the length. Note-spinning may have been the way of many a sub-Telemann composer; it was never Bach’s. Bach, however, remained – and always will.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

Prom 26: Prohaska/Il Giardino Armonico/Antonini - Purcell, Graupner, Sartorio, Handel, Costello, Cavalli, and Hasse, 2 August 2018

Royal Albert Hall

Purcell: Dido and Aeneas: Overture and ‘Ah! Belinda, I am pressed with torment’
Christoph Graupner: Dido, Königin von Carthago: ‘Holdestes Lispeln der spielenden Fluthen’
Antonio Sartorio: Giulio Cesare in Egitto: ‘Non voglio amar’
Matthew Locke: The Tempest: ‘The Second Musick: Curtain Tune’
Sartorio: Giulio Cesare: ‘Quando voglio’
Graupner: Dido: ‘Der Himmel ist von Donner … Infido Cupido’, ‘Agitato da tempeste’
Handel: Concerto grosso in C minor, op.6 no.8
Handel: Giulio Cesare in egitto: ‘Che sento? Oh dio! … Se pietà di me non senti’
Dario Costello: Sonata no.15 in D minor
Cavalli: Didone: ‘Re de’ Getuli altero … Il mio marito’
Hasse: Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra: ‘Morte col fiero aspetto’
Purcell: The Fairy Queen: ‘Chaconne – Dance for Chinese Man and Woman’
Purcell: Dido and Aeneas: ‘Oft she visits this lone mountain’, ‘Thy hand, Belinda … When I am laid in earth’

Anna Prohaska (soprano)
Il Giardino Armonico
Giovanni Antonini (conductor)

In this, her Proms debut, Anna Prohaska offered something akin to a cantata of two queens, complementary and contrasted: Dido and Cleopatra. Returning in a sense to her ‘early music’ roots – her career has always been far richer, more varied, but that world has always played an important part – she collaborated with the Italian ‘period’ ensemble, Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini. It made for a splendid late-night concert, a fine mix of repertoire familiar and (to me, at any rate) unfamiliar, any minor reservations I may have entertained relating entirely to the orchestra and conductor. Prohaska, if I may be forgiven for saying so, crowned herself queen of this repertoire, notwithstanding the frankly unpromising surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall.

We began, as indeed we should end, with Purcell, with Dido and Aeneas: one of the very greatest of English operas and indeed of ‘Baroque’ operas, if that problematical term may be held to mean anything at all. ‘Tristan und Isolde in a pint pot,’ that legendary conductor of what was then not quite ‘early musicke’, Raymond Leppard, called it. There was no question from the Overture that Antonini was more at home with these, ‘his’ musicians than he had been with members of the LSO Chamber Orchestra in a concert last year at the Barbican. For one thing, the acoustic was kind to the instruments, lessening intonational problems, which were in any case rarely grave. Resplendent, regal in gold, our soprano walked onto the stage as the Overture drew to a close, ready to give a rich-toned, clear, beautifully ornamented account of Dido’s first number. Here, as elsewhere, what struck me about her ornamentation, aside from the awe-inspiring ease with which it and any other coloratura were despatched, was how it did not really register as ‘ornamentation’. It was musical and indeed verbal expression, created seemingly on the spot. (Whether that were actually the case is neither here nor there.) Her lightly acted performance also proved just the ticket. In homage perhaps to Goldilocks, another queen of sorts, it was neither too much nor too little.

Christoph Graupner’s Singspiel for Hamburg, Dido, Königin von Carthago (1707), was quite new to me. It is one of those curious – to our ears, yet not necessarily to those of the time – works written in German and Italian, standard Italian arias doing their thing whilst the action was largely advanced in the vernacular. I should certainly be keen to learn more. The Egyptian princess Menalippe’s ‘Holdestes Lispeln der spielenden Fluthen’ proved vividly pictorial. One could almost see – one could certainly hear – those rippling waters through ravishing instrumental playing. This may be too early and the wrong country too, but Poussin more than once came to my mind. When later Prohaska turned to the Queen of Carthage herself, we heard first a German accompagnato (‘Der Himmel ist von Donner Keylen schwer…’) followed by its Italian aria, ‘Infido Cupido’. This was very much music written and communicated in the terms of early eighteenth-century opera seria. Hearing it in this particular context, we understood both its roots in earlier opera and much of what distinguished it from its predecessors too. Prohaska’s stylistic awareness is never a sterile thing, ‘dogma’ in the slightly misleading popular understanding of the term; it is and here was always put to expressive, dramatic use. Much the same might be said of her performance of the tempest aria that ensued: of a genre yet not over-determined by it.

In between the Graupner excerpts, we heard music by Antonio Sartorio and Matthew Locke. The former’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto contains, according to the programme note, no fewer than sixty-five arias. Prohaska gave us two, ‘Non voglio amar’ and ‘Quando voglio’, the first furious – with foot-stamping – and, that inescapable word, tempestuous. I could not help but wonder whether the musicians might have been better off without a conductor in the first; Antonini looked a little awkward and the results might have been a little freer. No harm was done, though, and his provision of a recorder obbligato in the latter aria offered winning counterpoint to the woman of desires revealed by our queen of song. The Locke excerpt offered an ineffably ‘English’ contrast, much of it mysteriously veiled, harking back to the days – still current, of course, yet somewhat old-fashioned – of the viol consort.

Handel was next on the menu. Antonini’s way with the Concerto grosso, op.6 no.8, made me long for something a little grander, a little more aware of harmonic motion. This is, after all, orchestral music. Tastes being what they are today, that was never likely to be the case, though. I liked the way the Siciliana, its fifth movement, harked back in context to the seventeenth century. A hard-driven account of its Allegro successor proved less welcome. Handel’s own Giulio Cesare followed, its libretto derived by Nicola Francesco Haym from that of Giacomo Bussani for Sartorio. What a wonderful idea – obvious, one might think, yet unusual – it was to offer excerpts from both operas. In Cleopatra’s ‘Che sento? Oh dio! … Se pietà di me non senti’, Prohaska’s shading to dramatic ends opened up a new creative, expressive world. I felt – and I suspect much of the audience did likewise – a window into understanding of the queen’s character had been opened wide, even just by this account of a single aria. More please!

Dario Castello’s D minor Sonata, published in 1629, performed its bridging role well. It is perhaps not especially thrilling music, but it has its moments of interest; it also benefited, I think, from being given as chamber music, without a conductor. Moving forward a few years, yet remaining in Venice, we heard from Cavalli’s Dido, Prohaska adopting just the right – to my ears, at least – slightly post-Monteverdian air. (Yes, the great man was still alive in 1641, but that is hardly the point.) I can hardly offer greater praise than to say that her singing brought Frederica von Stade to mind, both in command of line and in its generosity of spirit. Hasse’s aria, from his Marc’Antonio e Cleopatra, sounded very much again from the world of later opera seria. Prohaska’s coloratura probably deserves another endorsement here: impeccable, both ‘musically’ and ‘dramatically’, not that the distinction is especially meaningful.

And so, we returned to Purcell. The Chaconne from The Fairy Queen had me long for Britten’s more generous way with such music, yet unquestionably it danced. A vivid narration from Dido and Aeneas, the Second Woman’s ‘Oft she visits this lone mountain’, was imbued with quite the sense of drama, given brevity and (relative) lack of context. Dido’s Lament was sung with expressive freedom that never approached licence, a reminder of Leppard’s Tristan­ designation, dignified without a hint of sentimentality. As an encore, we heard ‘Fear no danger to ensue’, the duet part taken by Antonini on recorder. A lovely concert, then, but in the best sense an educative one too. Bildung, one might say, is an excellent thing indeed.