Friday, 2 December 2022

Gerhaher/Huber - Schubert, 1 December 2022

Wigmore Hall, London, 1.12.2022 (MB)

Sei mir gegrüsst, D 741
Dass sie hier gewesen, D 775
Lachen und Weinen, D 777
Du bist die Ruh, D 776
Greisengesang, D 778
Schwanengesang, D 957

Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Gerold Huber (piano)

This memorable Schubert from Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber opened with five settings of Friedrich Rückert, well chosen and ordered. Sei mir gegrüsst’s opening piano lilt was taken up just as keenly by Gerhaher, signalling a meeting of musical minds and practice. From the very outset, one might readily have taken dictation, verbal and musical, so clear was every aspect of the performance, that clarity never a goal in itself but means to an expressive end. Unity and variation in an initially strophic setting that then sets out along new paths were equally apparent, inspiring and comforting in similar measure. The almost Lisztian sensibility of Dass sie hier gewesen offered nice contrast, the set’s culmination in a declamatory, richly expressive Greisengesang calling Fischer-Dieskau to mind. No more than anywhere else, though, did one size fit all, a silvery, surprisingly tenor-like reading of Du bist die Ruh finely complemented by Huber’s voicing of harmony and counterpoint. 

Seven Schwanengesang settings of Ludwig Rellstab took us to the interval. The ‘Bächlein’ of ‘Liebesbotschaft’ set the scene and underlay it, in figurative as well as locational terms. A deeply touching ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ took in several moods, not least the proto-Wagnerian; likewise the later ‘In der Ferne’, its world-weariness prefiguring Wagner’s Dutchman, the final stanza deeply—in more than one sense—ambiguous, whispering breezes performing their magic whichever way they or fate chose. Gerhaher’s ardent ‘Ständchen’ really felt like a serenade, in essence and progress, ‘Aufenthalt’ a tragic pendant from the world of Winterreise. The pounding of the protagonist’s heart as the high treetops swayed in the wind had us feel altitude and grief alike. ‘Abschied’, the last of the set, effected after ‘In der Ferne’ a perfect transformation of mood, in a reading both animated and detailed, yet never remotely fussy. 

Six Heine settings followed the interval. A darkly resolute ‘Der Atlas’ offered a fascinating study in pride. ‘Ihr Bild’ proved duly haunting, nothing taken for granted, the miracles of Schubertian modulation heard as if for the first time; likewise the composer’s major/minor oscillation. Prefiguring ‘Die Stadt’ and its chill wind, we found ourselves once again emphatically post-Winterreise. ‘Der Doppelgänger’ went further still, as it must, technically in its ghostly withdrawal of vibrato and much else, yet also emotionally in its defiance. This, quite properly, marked the climax to the entire recital. After that, ‘Die Taubenpost’ worked its charms to perfection, a delightful, lingering goodbye.

Friday, 25 November 2022

The Rake's Progress, Royal Academy of Music, 24 November 2022

Susie Sainsbury Theatre

Tom Rakewell – Ryan Vaughan Davies
Anne Trulove – Cassandra Wright
Nick Shadow – Jacob Phillips
Father Trulove – Hovhannes Karapetyan
Sellem – Samuel Kibble
Baba the Turk – Rebecca Hart
Mother Goose – Georgia Mae Ellis
Keeper of the Madhouse – Duncan Stenhouse.

Frederic Wake-Walker (director)
Anna Jones (designs)
Charlotte Burton (lighting)
Ergo Phizmiz (collage, animation, AI image generation and illustration)
Lottie Bywater (illustration and animation)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Trevor Pinnock (conductor)

Blessed by varied approaches to its staging and performance, The Rake’s Progress seems to remain eternally itself (whatever that might mean, as a sometime Prince of Wales might have put it). Not unlike Stravinsky’s evergreen score, the cleverer and in many respects the more involving the more one knows it, everything may seem to come from somewhere else, and in a sense it does; but equally, in another sense, it does not. It makes for great theatre, almost no matter what, and Royal Academy Opera certainly achieved that, as indeed it did when I reviewed an earlier production here by John Ramster, seven years ago. 

This new incarnation, directed by Frederic Wake-Walker, relies heavily on eye-catching animation (Ergo Phizmiz) and images of present-day London from Downing Street to City towers to (presumably former) local authority buildings in their shadow. In one sense (yes, Janus-faced again), it was not always clear to me what it might all add up to. Another Rake placing London at its very heart, Simon McBurney’s as seen in Aix, for me penetrated deeper. For instance, with cardboard boxes—a very large one being Baba the Turk’s sedan chair—arriving alongside partygoers on Downing Street, I assumed we might have some sort of insight into more notorious parties still; yet instead, we headed somewhere else. The party had moved on—as, of course, so many Covid partygoers urged us to. Perhaps indeed that was the point, for earlier eighteenth-century costumes and Arcadia notwithstanding, this was a Rake for the age of Instagram, chorus members eager to snap pictures of Baba once she had emerged.

The odd thing was that Baba simply seemed to be a celebrity, with no evident reason for notoriety and certainly no beard: a sort of cross between Su Pollard and Lady Gaga. Again, perhaps that was the point. There were plenty of visual jokes, which kept a lively audience amused. And who is to say, after all, that one does not miss the point if one does not remain on the surface level? With boxes strewn across scenes, signs of transitory lives, and bubble wrap emerging ingeniously from them, that certainly did seem to be part, at least, of the point. The melancholy work of Bedlam inmates at the end, refashioning material that once had made up their party clothes, was an excellent touch. 

Stravinsky points both ways, of course; so too, arguably, does Auden. Trevor Pinnock’s conducted a lively and generous account of the score, the Royal Academy Sinfonia sharp, pointed, yet far from inexpressive. Occasionally I missed greater numbers in the pit, but chamber forces had virtues of their own, not least in solo work, where reference to eighteenth-century music(s) in particular truly hit home. The orchestra contributed greatly to the gaiety of the occasion, but also to its poignancy, and not only in the final act. Lost moments of Cosi fan tutte, suspended in musical animation, made their fleeting point almost as strongly as the fatal games of the graveyard scene (for which special mention should go to the excellent harpsichordist Alexsander Ribeiro de Lara). The chorus, very much a collection of soloists, in gesture and musical line, who could yet come together as more than the sum of their parts, was not the least shining light of the evening’s entertainment. 

Nor too were the young soloists, many of them doubtless heading towards careers in whatever remains of the opera business after our Downing Street masters and ‘Arts Council England’ have had their say. Like Stravinsky—Auden too—they may have to emigrate. Good luck to them, if so, if Brexit-Insel continues to treat them as seems likely. Ryan Vaughan Davies was a memorable Tom Rakewell, neglecting neither implied poignancy of situation nor irresistible allure of the moment. Whether one should sympathise or not is perhaps a moot point; it would, however, have been difficult to fail to do so.

Likewise, from other angles, the rest of the cast—who might, after all, on paper seem difficult to like, let alone to love. Cassandra Wright’s Anne combined cleanness and beauty of Mozartian line with the fleshed-out character of his heroines: a combination far from always achieved. Jacob Phillips’s dark and dangerous Nick Shadow involved us, like it or not. Hovhannes Karapetyan’s dark-voiced, seemingly generous-of-heart Father Trulove, Georgia Mae Ellis’s fun-loving yet formidable Mother Goose, and Rebecca Hart’s capricious yet, at the last, deeply human Baba the Turk all added novelty to their roles without departing unduly from what we (fancied we) already knew. Samuel Kibble’s lively Sellem and Duncan Stenhouse’s compassionate Keeper of the Madhouse rounded off a cast with no weak links and excellent interaction. Perhaps, indeed, that was the point.

Thursday, 24 November 2022

Gerstein - Busoni and Liszt, 23 November 2022

Wigmore Hall

Busoni: Elegien, BV 249: ‘Nach der Wendung’; Sonatina seconda, BV 259; Berceuse, BV 252; Sonatina no.6 super Carmen, BV 284; Toccata, BV 287
Liszt: Études d’exécution transcendante, S 139

Kirill Gerstein (piano)  

This was a fascinating first instalment to Kirill Gerstein’s three-artist ‘Busoni and his World’ Wigmore Hall residence. Gerstein more than earned his fee, with a full first half of works by Busoni, gently and intelligently introduced from the platform, followed by all twelve of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies. He offered us much to ponder, much to be thrilled by, and much to look forward to later in the season. 

‘Nach der Wendung’, first of the Elegies, takes its leave, as you might expect, from late Liszt. A questing—it is almost impossible not to say ‘Faustian’—piece, it received a duly questing performance. Some writing is more tonal than other; Gerstein clearly communicated harmony and its implications. The quiet radicalism of its passage was conveyed with acute intelligence, whether it wandered into the clouds or down into the rumbling bass. Its introverted vision paved the way nicely for the Sonatina seconda. ‘Tonal oder Atonal?’ as Schoenberg would ask in the first of his Three Satires. Yes, no, or maybe, should probably have been the answer. Its opening bass line here strongly took a cue from Liszt, dissolving into the performing air, floating, resolidifying, and so on. Hearing material that would later find its way into Doktor Faust without the opera’s formal classicism is a fascinating experience. One senses a logic, even if one cannot define it. 

The Berceuse, published separately, is the final Elegie. Gerstein took it a little faster than often one hears it: rather, I think, to its advantage. Built and moulded to considerable emotional effect, it emerged more richly ambiguous than ever. The Carmen-Fantasy, another so-called sonatina, brought virtuosity, even hyper-virtuosity, more strongly to the fore. Layers of music, perhaps of meta-music too, were revealed and corroded, all within the Lisztian model of the paraphrase. Gerstein captured extremely well the piece’s ruminative quality: the composer, post-opera, extemporising on its themes. It was a turbulent, even violent necromancy we heard in the Toccata, its ‘advanced’ language no bar to high Lisztian grandiloquence. One gained an impression of multiple prisms, through music one could never quite pin down. The music from—or ‘to’?—Doktor Faust (related to the strange character, if one may call her that, of the Duchess of Parma) sounded as darkly elegiac and as dangerously sulphuric as I can recall. 

Brighter primary colours were to be heard from the off in Liszt himself. The opening Prelude seemed to strip away a gauze curtain we had not realised was there. Its virtuosic thrills provided quite the curtain-raiser. ‘Paysage’ offered seductive contrast, phrases beautifully leaned into. A Chopinesque—especially in the cadenzas—‘Mazeppa’ well illustrated Gerstein’s fine command of Lisztian rhetoric: foreign to our more cynical age in many ways, and yet relished for what it is. That quality of big-heartedness took us through pieces such as the ‘Vision’ and ‘Eroica’, vividly brought to life in themselves, yet also part of a greater trajectory. So eager can we sometimes be to defend Liszt against his cultivated despisers, we can forget how fine a thing it is simply, or even not so simply, to love his music. Not that there was anything sentimental to this performance; we loved the music through Gerstein’s intellectual as well as technical command. His turning of corners, as if revealing new vistas, occasionally brought Mahler to mind. Gerstein could charm too, as in ‘Ricordanza’. A bravura tenth study brought us to the flower-like harmonic blooming of ‘Harmonies du soir’, whose darker currents and sheer strangeness—surely attractive to Busoni—were certainly not undersold. The final study, ‘Chasse-neige’ was finely etched, seemingly according to a palette created before our ears.

The encore was Bach-Busoni: ‘Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein’. Busoni marks it ‘Molto scorrevole, ma distintamente’. That is unquestionably what we heard.

Andsnes - Vustin, Janáček, Silvestrov, Beethoven, and Dvořak, 21 November 2022

Wigmore Hall

Aleksandr Vustin: Lamento
Janáček: Piano Sonata 1.X.1905, ‘From the Street’
Valentin Silvestrov: Bagatelle, op.1 no.3
Beethoven: Piano Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
Dvořák: Poetic Tone Pictures, op.85

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano)

Leif Ove Andsnes’s performances are always very well worth hearing; this programme, mixing the familiar and unfamiliar was no exception. The first half offered short pieces by Russian and Ukrainian composers, either side of Janáček’s tribute to František Pavlík, a worker killed demonstrating for a Czech university in Brno, followed by Beethoven’s penultimate sonata: however one considers it, and however clichéd this may sound, a sublime song from and to the human spirit and what it might yet achieve. 

Aleksandr Vustin, invited by Andsnes in 2019 to his Rosendal Chamber Festival, in what was only Vustin’s second journey outside Russia, died the following year, an early victim of the coronavirus pandemic. His Lamento, itself inspired by the funeral of a friend and its sounds, is tonal, yet moves in often surprising ways. Opening two-part left-hand writing soon has a right-hand melody soar above—a recollection, I learned later, of a bird that began to sing at the funeral and would not stop. It made for an interesting prelude to Janáček’s Sonata 1.X.1905, ‘From the Street’, its first movement in Andsnes’s performance both precise and suggestive: like work and composer, one might say. Proudly turbulent in its post-Romanticism, passages of its music seemed almost to acquire proto-filmic character, perhaps in slow motion, in remembrance. The composer’s profound national pride sang forth still more directly in the second movement, the stubbornness of his writing, not least in sheer persistence of figures, transmuted once more into a declaration of spirit, made with a fine sense of musical drama.

One of Valentin Silvestrov’s Bagatelles offered cool contrast, behaving (at least I fancied) not entirely unlike Vustin’s piece. The quiet dignity of Andsnes’s performance again made for an interesting prelude to a sonata, this time Beethoven’s in A-flat major, op.110. Its first movement sang with a simplicity both fragile and strong. Welcome, one might say, to late Beethoven. Fractures were often only implied; this was not the most modernist of accounts, nor was there any reason it should be. Yet implied they were. The turn to the minor was communicated with ineffable sadness, yet never mawkishness. Again, this was Beethoven. The scherzo’s gruff humour did not attempt to conceal the difficulties of the trio. The overriding impression was of shocking concision. Mournful dignity characterised Beethoven’s ‘Klagender Gesang’ in the finale, the fugue first offering release and intensification, its voicing to die for: beautiful, no doubt, yet above all truthful. Contrast and complement of material registered and developed throughout, the inverted fugue enabling yet in no sense guaranteeing ultimate triumph. There was, rightly, no easy path.

The second half was given to Dvořák’s Poetic Tone Pictures, op.85: new, I confess to me, and quite a discovery. Andsnes had explored them during lockdown, welcoming the discovery of ‘life-affirming music of the greatest invention and imagination’. Dvořák can occasionally pale alongside Janáček, but not here. This work emerged as a Schumannesque collection, played with affection, characterisation, and acute understanding. Indeed, the scene-setting of its first piece, ‘Night journey’ immediately brought Schumann to mind: not that it sounded ‘like’ Schumann, but in terms of the role it played in introduction, and its vein of fantasy. Andsnes’s communication of the charm and Romantic snares of this night was finely judged indeed. A wonderful procession of characters, scenes, sketches in a strong sense ensued: not unlike a good novel, or perhaps better, a collection of short stories. ‘At the old castle’ haunted. A vigorous ‘Furiant’ put Andsnes’s fingers duly through their paces. Dances of all kinds, goblins and all, invited us in—not always without danger. Exuberance and introspection informed one another across more elevated canvases and earthier songs. Andsnes’s cantabile in the ‘Serenade’ was just the thing, as was his Lisztian grandiloquence in ‘At a hero’s grave’. Fascinating—and nourishing.

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

Friend/Daraskaite/Sokolovskis, Cheung - Messiaen, 20 November 2022

St John’s Waterloo

Quatuor pour la fin du temps

Anthony Friend (clarinet)
Agata Daraskaite (violin)
Peteris Sokolovskis (cello)
James Cheung (piano)

Photograph: Matthew Johnson

What a joy to return to a new series of Spotlight Chamber Concerts, itself returning to St John’s Waterloo following refurbishment (and looking like new). Here a single work was on the programme, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, sounding ever more a classic of the chamber repertoire with every fine performance, of which this was certainly one. A quartet of young musicians, clarinettist Anthony Friend (also presiding impresario of the series as a whole), violinist Agata Daraskaite, cellist Peteris Sokolvskis, and pianist James Cheung offered an eminently musicianly view of Messiaen’s work that, rightly, felt no need to dwell one-sidedly on circumstances of composition, leaving space for all to find their own standpoint. Hope, joy, and the mystery of God can take many forms—and frankly, right now, we should be well advised to take what we can.  

The opening ‘Liturgie de cristal’, all four instruments rendering metre and harmony immanenthypnotised, entranced, had one believe. Infinitely flexible within an iron framework, it set the scene wonderfully for what was to follow, whether in affinity or contrast. The coming of the angel who announces the end of time in the following ‘Vocalise’ certainly offered immediate, declamatorily apocalyptic contrast, itself followed by the many faces or melodies of that angel in well-nigh hallucinatory fashion. Their sweetness was both unreal and hyper-real: not unlike the colours of a world created anew after a storm. 

The solo clarinet ‘Abîme des oiseaux’, in similar paradox, seemed to stretch time so as both to have all that in our world and, yet, in that of the piece only just enough (fitting, given the end of time itself announced). In Friend’s performance, it emerged, intriguingly, as an heir to the cor anglaise solo, beyond good and evil, in the third act of Tristan und Isolde, a work whose enraptured victims certainly included Messiaen. A shepherd song, yet sweeter, perhaps even stranger, still more mysterious, it was expertly shaped in performance so as not to sound shaped at all. It was spellbinding, but then so was much else, for instance the twin relief and intensification of the ensuing brief ‘Intermède’. Only after did one have pause to think how tricky it is to write for clarinet, violin, cello, and no piano.

Cheung’s piano returned, of course, for the celebrated ‘Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus’ with cello. Unhurried, never dragging, it always moved, seemingly founded on a sense of harmonic rhythm from which all else grew. It was as intense as it was big-hearted, Sokolovskis’s vibrato generous, yet never excessive. The strange unisons of ‘Danse de la fureur, pour les sept trompettes’ glistened, gleamed, glowed, and occasionally glowered. 

Such warm precision was felt again, like the rainbows of which the movement told, in ‘Fouillis d’arcs en-ciel, pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du temps’. There was darkness too, yet always colourful darkness, the angel’s swords of fire palpably present without need to underline. The final ‘Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus’ sounded very much a kindred spirit to the earlier ‘Louange’, only this time with violin and piano. Daraskaite’s rich-toned, equally generous playing contributed movingly towards a consolation that came close to passing all understanding.

Saturday, 19 November 2022

The Rape of Lucretia, Royal Opera, 16 November 2022


Linbury Studio Theatre

Lucretia – Anne Marie Stanley
Female Chorus – Sydney Baedke
Male Chorus – Michael Gibson
Tarquinius – Jolyon Loy
Collatinus – Anthony Reed
Junius – Kieran Rayner
Bianca – Carolyn Holy
Lucia – Sarah Dufresne

Oliver Mears (director)
Annemarie Woods (designs)
DM Wood (lighting)
Sarita Piotrowski (movement)

Aurora Orchestra
Corinna Niemeyer (conductor)

This new Rape of Lucretia, seen first at Snape, now in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio Theatre, fittingly features singers from two young artists’ programmes: Britten Pears and Jette Parker. In many ways, its greatest strength is theirs—and that of the young Aurora Orchestra players too. (We tend to speak of a chamber orchestra here; were this ‘newer’ music, we should doubtless call it an ensemble.) Conducted by Corinna Niemeyer, this was an immediate, urgent performance which, like Oliver Mears’s immediate, urgent staging, was experienced to excellent, arguably heightened effect in a small theatre. For all aspects of production and performance came together to have us believe they had been conceived as one, almost as if a new work: a vindication not only of an opera whose different components can sometimes sit a little awkwardly with one another, but also of the very genre, currently under such devastating attack from the Arts Council. 

Mears’s staging responds to the postwar trauma of the work, bringing it very much into the foreground. I initially wondered whether that might be too much, too one-sided, whether participants in a modern conflict, brutal and brutalised, might find themselves instrumentalised, barely given chance to tell their own tale. That fear proved unfounded, though in this particular case I am not in general without sympathy with calls for greater abstraction or at least historical remove. The more I watched and listened, the more this seemed an entirely justified, indeed illuminating reading of the work. It was, after all, premiered in 1946. Violence, political and sexual—in war, in general too, they are rarely if ever to be dissociated—asked us difficult questions, from different standpoints, letting none of us off the hook. And the cast, crucially, brought this drama, these questions to life. 

Swaggering officers, with their own stories to tell, none the same, were the perpetrators. War did not let them off the hook; it was, after all, their war.  Britten’s pacifism loomed large, if unspoken. Even Collatinus was involved in an initial assault on an unnamed woman, though Junius and Tarquinius were more so, in increasing intensity. There was no doubting the heat of the night in which the rape took place, no denying this Tarquinius’s arrogant, damaged animal power, as Jolyon Lee stalked his prey in words, music, and gesture. We were led, if leading were necessary, to adopt the most troubling of male gazes, perhaps in some sense to share in guilt as well as horror. The servants knew what had happened too, one of the most discomfiting scenes being the morning after, when they could see what must have been, yet resolutely tried to carry on, not to mention it. Doubtless it did not befit their station, but it was also a matter of their trying to cope, as women, in this world. How many times had they seen such things before, indeed been assaulted themselves? Carolyn Holy and Sarah Dufresne brought these characters, here far from secondary, to vivid life in gesture and in voice, as indeed did all the cast in their roles. 

The tragedy of Anne Marie Stanley’s broken Lucretia’s suicide was spellbinding, the savagery of the deed not spared. She took centre stage, of course, but at what cost? As Collatinus trembled—horrified, weakened, and perhaps ultimately destroyed too—in Anthony Reed’s subtle portrayal, Kieran Rayner’s chameleon-like Junius, seized the aesthetic moment, capturing the corpse on camera for further dissemination. For we like to bestow the dubious, quasi-theological honour of sacrificial lamb after the event, once the deed has been done. Too late for Lucretia, as for the refugees fallen in our seas, on our beaches. Photography renders them literally iconic, especially when one can also hymn their tragic beauty. This was a properly disconcerting moment of self-recognition, or should have been. 

Instrumental obbligato lines took us back to Bach, to the cantatas and passions: in the case of oboe towards the close uncomfortably so, given the Chorus’s problematical Christian framing. Mears, for what it is worth, is the first director I have seen to tackle the issue of that framing head on. He did not, I think, offer an answer to the question, but the attempt by Male and Female Chorus to narrate and to explain seemed properly compromised. Were they, at the moment of their prayer of supplication, essentially attempting to convince themselves—and failing? The crisis of this peculiar pair, researchers into crime, perhaps even voyeurs, was increasingly apparent: surrogates in some sense for us, although surely the more ‘active’ participants were too. 

All the while, Britten’s score, its eery repetitions vocal and instrumental, its constructivist tendencies already presaging elements of The Turn of the Screw, held us in its thrall, not as something separate from what we saw on stage, but as driving force and still-more-troubling commentary. The sheer creepiness of what we call ‘fate’, yet which has all-too-human as well as divine and sociopolitical roots, is what Britten conveys so well; so too did his performers here.

Monday, 17 October 2022

Esfahani - Scarlatti, 14 October 2022

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Sonatas: in F, Kk.296; in F, Kk.297; in F minor, Kk.466; in F sharp minor, Kk.25; in G minor, Kk.12; in C minor, Kk.11; in F, Kk.6; in F minor, Kk.19; in F, Kk.106; in F, Kk.107; in D minor, Kk.552; in D minor, Kk.553; in C minor, Kk.116; in G, Kk.470; in G, Kk.471; in E minor, Kk.263; in E, Kk.264; in A, Kk.24; in D minor, Kk.32

Mahan Esfahani (harpsichord)

One of the first professional concerts I heard—it may even have been the first—was of Scarlatti sonatas on the harpsichord, at the suggestion of my childhood piano teacher, with whom I learned a good few along the way. I cannot now remember who the harpsichordist was and am not even sure of the venue; oddly, I think it may have been Rotherham’s Civic Theatre rather than the Arts Centre (part of a wonderful brutalist complex, since demolished, that included the town’s Central Library from where I borrowed many of my first books and, later, first musical cassettes and scores). Scarlatti loomed relatively large in the early repertoire I was occasionally allowed to try out on my teacher’s spinet. As soon, though, as I started organ lessons in my teens, my adoration for Bach somewhat crowded out contemporaries. Not that I have or had no interest in Scarlatti, Handel, Rameau, Couperin, and many others, but I am reasonably sure I have never been to an all-Scarlatti recital since. I have no idea how I might react today to what I heard as a schoolboy in Rotherham—I assume I am not imagining the whole thing—but I can say that this immersive experience from Mahan Esfahani, performed without an interval, much of it without as much as a break between pieces, was quite a journey on which to be taken.   

Over ninety minutes or so, with a couple of bonus D minor sonatas as encores, Esfahani’s selection covered a broad range, whilst still of course only encompassing a small proportion of Scarlatti’s output in this genre. (One might reasonably go so far as to call the Scarlatti sonata close to a genre in itself. It does not spring out of nowhere, nor does it lead to nowhere, but few if any binary forms are quite like it.) From the outset, we knew that this was music internalised, so that these performances, without a hint of the wilful, could in a positive sense be like no others. Freedom was not licence; rather, it offered a guiding thread that enabled a particular sequence of works to emerge in a particular way, with fresh performances that would have been otherwise in a different order, let alone a different day. For instance, in the first pair of works, in F major, harmonic rhythm that was allied to, yet never dictated by, metre was the frame for a relish in the composer’s obstinacy and graciousness alike: aristocratic in the best sense. As the recital progressed, repeated figures, sequences scales, ornaments and other building blocks emerged as characteristic, yet varied, nothing so mundane as a cliché. The illusion of dynamic contrast was conjured—except, of course, that it was not always an illusion. 

A fascinating sequence of minor-key works communicated a proper sense of Affekt, quite distinct from later tonal understandings, associative or otherwise. Where I as a teenager had been tempted to the maudlin, here this music was brought to life, without any of the irritating, nonsensical reductionism of many so-called ‘Baroque’ musicians who would claim all music of the period is a dance. This is a world with as many options as ours, and so too it sounded here, whilst making the sum of those options more than the sum of its parts. Continuities and discontinuities, and the way they fit together, offered here and elsewhere courtly dignity and allure, and a fine sense of caprice. Crossing of hands, leaning appoggiaturas, agogic accents, fanfares that spoke of a world beyond the keyboard, and magical moments of suspense expertly punctured led towards a final sequence of sonatas that built in gravity and abandon, tempting us to think each one the last, until a successor twisted the screw a little further. Something darker, mysteriously Mediterranean characterised the final programmed work, the perfect response to its predecessor’s abandon. Programming and performance worked as one.

Thursday, 13 October 2022

Apartment House - Leith, Pranulytė, Keney, McLaughin, and Sheen, 12 October 2022

Wigmore Hall

Oliver Leith: Grinding bust turning (2018)
Juta Pranulytė: Harmonic Islands (2022, world premiere)
Zoltán Jeney: El Silencio (1986, UK premiere)
Scott McLaughlin: Natura Naturans II (2022, world premiere)
Jack Sheen: Solo for cello (2021)

Josephine Stephenson (soprano)
Heather Roche (clarinet)
Kerry Yong (piano)
Gordon Mackay, Mira Benjamin (violins)
Bridget Carey, Reiad Chibah (violas)
Colin Alexander, Anton Lukoszevieze (cellos)

Humans often like to classify. Aristotelians certainly do. There is nothing wrong with that, up to a point; it helps us make sense of the world, recognise affinities and connections, suggests how we might explain them, and so on. At the same time, categories and labels can take on a life of their own, alienated, even reified. So far, so uncontroversial, I imagine; so why mention it? Because, I think, those thoughts chimed with some of my experience here. In none of these cases did I have much idea what to expect from the music I was about to hear: always an exciting prospect, especially when one has to write about it. I fumbled, initially, with labels to try to express an unquestionable affinity—unquestionable to my ears, anyway—between the music heard, but in the end thought them unhelpful, preferring instead to try to address the substance rather than a preconceived idea.

If I had read the programme note beforehand, I should have been helped by Apartment House artistic director Anton Lukoszevieze’s title for the evening, ‘Harmonic Fields’. But perhaps it was better that I did not until later, maintaining the innocence of my ear. In fact, what Lukoszevieze went on to outline was somewhat different from what I heard. He pointed to ‘the works all inhabit[ing] different areas or “fields” of harmonic activity,’ continuing: ‘at this stage in the 21st century there do not appear to be any dominant styles or aesthetic movements. We seem to be wading through a delta of different types of composition, resulting in many rivers of confluence.’ The first statement, regarding different areas or fields was undoubtedly the case, though I heard in each case a particular attachment to particular fields: not that they did not change; most did indeed transform, but in general they transformed slowly, or (not, I hope, an abdication of listening, since I mean to imply some separation between ‘reality’ and impression) gave the impression of doing so. However, regarding the second point, whilst I should broadly agree; the owl of Minerva tends, as we all know, only to spread its wings at dusk. We may now think of Brahms and Wagner, even Schoenberg and Stravinsky, as having as much in common as they do things that separate them, but they and most of their contemporaries did not—and often with good reason. What did strike me, though, was that these particular pieces, all but one written in the past four years, seemed very much to do so, in the sense of all moving, in various senses, slowly; that ‘slowly’ important, but so, equally, is the ‘moving’. 

Oliver Leith’s Grinding bust turning presented, in Lukoszevieze’s admirable description, a pairing of his own ‘cello and clarinet [Heather Roche] as a dissolute couple, bonded but not united, pitch-wise, both playing material in unison but tuned microtonally apart’. Such sounds our ears have become ready to accept over the past few decades, some listeners actually relishing the lack of perfection in ‘period’ ensembles that go more readily out of tune than, say, the Berlin Philharmonic ever would, but also of course through intentional compositional use of microtones. The lack of cello vibrato, though, also brought to my mind a sort of ‘school orchestra’ sound. Repetition and what Lukoszevieze described as a ‘grating’ quality drew one in to listen, Kerry Yong’s piano seemingly doing its own thing, though that own thing certainly had its own tendencies too. A jest, or something more serious? Perhaps it was both. Not for nothing did Lukoszevieze refer to Satie.

Juta Pranulytė’s Harmonic Islands, for the same forces, and Zoltán Jeney’s El Silencio (from 1986, yet receiving its UK premiere) for soprano, two violins, two violas and cellos ha din common an expansive, extensive quality. The former seemed more obviously to be in transition, though that was, I think, partly a matter of appearance. It certainly offered considerable contrast with the sound of what had gone before, the cello’s vibrato now suggesting a different instrument; often the writing for clarinet and piano did too. The method of engineering—or, as it seemed, painting—harmonic change through movement such as glissando in one part (cello or clarinet) against constant piano was very much to the fore. Yet so too were aural tricks, or to put it another way, the deception of my ears; the cello might sound as a clarinet echo, or the piano strings as an intensification of their cousins on the cello. The world of Schoenberg’s ‘Farben’ was not, perhaps, entirely done with, all these years on.

Jeney’s piece, moving towards a slow setting of words from Lorca, although it took some while for the soprano, Josephine Stevenson, to enter, offered a different variety of string non vibrato to Leith’s piece: glassier, closer to a more typical ‘new music’ variety. Taking its time again seemed to be a good deal of the point, microtones perhaps paradoxically (although not unlike in Leith) as much delimiting the field as opening it up. All music has its boundaries, its constraints. 

Scott McLaughlin’s Natura Naturans II, for clarinet, two violins, two violas, and two cellos, takes its name from Schelling’s term, to quote the composer, ‘for the continuous “productivity” of nature: nothing is fixed, instead it is constantly “becoming” as it cycles through stable, unstable, and “metastable” manifestations.’ That is very much what we heard here, testament to the excellence of performance, no doubt, as well as to the work itself. Clarinet summoned strings and responded to them, or so it seemed, the relationship soon being revealed as more complex than that. This was music ever becoming, never familiar, with an almost visual quality to it. As with everything heard in this concert, these seemed to be decidedly northern skies. I recall then asking myself ‘why did you think of skies?’ Perhaps there is something to that description, or perhaps it simply says something about me. Might these have been waters instead? I am not sure. 

Finally, with the period after the interval to itself, came Jack Sheen’s Solo for Cello, played by Lukoszevieze with fixed audio, in what seemed to be another masterly performance, fully in control of the material, fully at ease with necessary modes of expression. Opening harmonic arpeggios soon had one’s ears picking up the slightest (as well as greater) differences, whether in pitch, rhythm, tempo, or other aspects of figuration. Change was often slow, yet unmistakeable, from time to time not slow at all. Lukoszevieze’s description of ‘a kind of flickering, glitchy and incessant “moto perpetuo”,’ again captured the music as well as his performance. I thought at one point of flecks in a woollen garment, the points of restricted proliferation—although all proliferation has its constraints, surely. Circling, dancing, singing, repeating, changing, slowing, speeding: much changed in irregular (I think) patterns. A mysterious silence that was not, allowing the audio its solo moment, heralded the close. Sheen’s score seemed quietly to question itself.

Monday, 10 October 2022

Southbank Centre - Xenakis at 100, 8 October 2022

Queen Elizabeth Hall

O-Mega; Palimpsest; Echange; Thalleïn for ensemble

Concret PH; Kottos; Rebonds A, Rebonds B

Psappha; Ikhoor; Tetras; Mikka and Mikka ‘S’; Pléïades

Mark van de Wiel (clarinet)
Philip Howard (piano)
Tim Gill (cello)
Oliver Lowe, Colin Currie (percussion)
London Sinfonietta
Geoffrey Paterson (conductor)
JACK Quartet
Colin Currie Group

Iannis Xenakis’s music does not age. It is an ahistorical cliché to say so, likewise to say how stark, elemental, uncompromising, visceral, mysterious, unique, and so on it is. Those descriptions retain their force, whilst remaining open to exception and to broader questioning. But they came to many listeners’ mind, judging by the general conversation at the Queen Elizabeth Hall throughout this Xenakis Day, seeming to lodge themselves in a sort of collective consciousness through which works and performances could be heard. I did not, alas, hear all of the day’s events, but I attended the two principal concerts in the hall itself, hearing also three of the works on offer in the foyer in between. It was, I think, enough—although the way the closing Pléïades left one aurally bludgeoned was less on account of the astounding performances from the Colin Corrie Group of six percussionists than the unsuitability of the hall: a pity, one necessarily felt, whilst recognising that the Southbank Centre had done what it could.

The first works I heard were four from the London Sinfonietta and Geoffrey Paterson, in performances like everything here that seemed quite beyond reproach. (If you are going to play Xenakis, you tend to do it well.) O-Mega, for percussion and ensemble, made for a splendid opener; after that, his final work, we could only go back, at least temporally. Oliver Lowe’s opening bongo tattoo, a call to something, it seemed, met with implacable wind response, a hieratic ritual initiated in a theatre of music that might always have been, except it had not. Moving from 1997 to 1979, Palimpsest, for eleven instruments, offered piano (and other) scales reinvented before our ears, its lines unmistakeably architectural, even engineered—to borrow a little too readily from the composer’s other callings. Sawmill strings, wind fractals in which one could see as well as hear the geometry, virtuoso drumming and so much more: this was not easy listening, nor was it supposed to be. It was quite a journey to final, mesmerising piano-and-drum-led climax.

Échange, for bass clarinet (Mark van de Wiel) and ensemble, was similarly yet entirely differently primal. Again, it sounded unmistakeably that ‘this was how it must be’, in a world of violence (like our own) quite unconcealed. How can we continue so blithely, it seemed to ask, in a world imperilled by nuclear attack? Xenakis must have asked the same thing, or so we fancied. And yet, life in all its physicality, all its mental wonder, continued. The bass clarinet, somewhere between priest and Pierrot, bade new sounds emerge at will, though that will was again sometimes no mean effort. The ensemble could, though, and did respond. The startling weirdness of an E-flat major chord could hardly have sounded more alien: a signal, it seemed, from yet another planet.

Thalleïn, the Sinfonietta’s first commission (1984) from Xenakis, was as implacable as anything yet heard, perhaps still more so. Siren-like—ambulance, not temptress—its opening had us browbeaten, and thereby strangely receptive to proliferating subtleties to come, even to the point of finding them inviting. Masses of sound continued to confront us to exhilarating effect. Ascending and descending scales led both ways, so it seemed, to hell, their mockery a deeply serious business. Piccolo pierced our consciousness, at times painfully, like a moment of alarm on an intensive care unit screen. There was blood-letting aplenty, the final string swarms, punctuated by percussion, as far as ever from consolation. 

Concret PH, like most, possibly all, musique concrete actually did seem to have aged—though even that is dependent on our knowing the unknowable Rankean ‘how it really was’, and how can we? Even if we had been there, in the 1958 Expo Philips Pavilion Xenakis as Le Corbusier’s assistant designed, memory would play its tricks. There is no ‘authenticity’; there never was; and anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool or a charlatan. How admirably full of integrity Xenakis and his fellow avant-gardists seem contrasted with those snake-oil-salesmen to come. No, you cannot hear the St Matthew Passion as if you had never heard Xenakis; more to the point, why would you wish to? Or is that just to invest my own fantasy of postwar ‘inauthenticity’ as super- or supra-authenticity? There was, at any rate, room for fantasy here, if one closed one’s eyes and listened. Here was another world: inaccessible, perhaps, like that of Bach’s Leipzig, yet an idea not without its own seduction. 

Tim Gill’s performance of Kottos for cello really deserved the main hall, as did Lowe’s Rebonds A and Rebonds B. They were mightily fine accounts, though, wherever one heard them, the first’s evocation of the horrible hundred-armed creature, progeny of Uranus and Gaia, a song both fragile and stark: deeply rooted, if hardly in the conventional harmonic sense. Or perhaps it was, for I felt the implication at least of a harmonic language, even if I could never know it, even if it were in fact unknowable. There was whimsy in the asides, even as the ‘creature’ gained strength. And the music reached something akin to ecstasy, doubtless more effortful than that of Messiaen, yet no less genuine for that. The state of frenzy reached was a liberation of sorts, not least amidst the hell of our current existence. Both Rebonds pieces, A in particular, invoked—even if we knew not what (that inscrutability again). One was drawn in, less hypnotised than converted, in powerfully cumulative, remarkably different experiences of control and abandon. 

In the evening, Colin Currie’s Psappha seemed almost designed to cement our growing sense of structure as fundamental in an emphatic, again quasi-engineered sense to Xenakis’s work. The extraordinary musicianship on show never threatened to take on a life of its own; structure remained paramount. There seemed no other way. And the silences: they might almost have been from Bruckner. Here, again, was a summoning both archaic and not. Pléïades, here ordered ‘Metaux’, ‘Claviers’, ‘Peaux’, ‘Mélanges’, suffered, as I said, from an ear-splitting quality that made it, for me at least, too difficult to take, the sixxens too rarely emerging, to quote Xenakis, as ‘clouds, nebulas, and galaxies of the fragmented dust of beats’. Even here, though, ‘the idea of periodicity, repetition, duplication, faithful, pseudo-faithful,’ and above all ‘unfaithful copy’ shone through. ‘Claviers’ came closer to polyphony, its ripples even a little Boulezian, though I am not sure either composer would have approved of the comparison. Its patterns emerged as if on multiple screens before our ears. Drummed hypnosis in ‘Peaux’ prepared the way for less a synthesis or recapitulation than a gigantic rehearing, even rewriting when all instruments united in ‘Mélanges’. It was ear-splitting, again, at times, but in quite an aural landscape, at times almost dreamed.

Rhythm, its problems and opportunities, had haunted much of the string music in between, especially Ikhoor for string trio and Tetras for string quartet, both given by the JACK Quartet. Vivid, fiercely directed narratives marked out both, as did superhuman unanimity of purpose. Tetras seemed somehow both stranger and familiar, the strangeness heightened by sounds I might have sworn had emerged from electronics, did I not know otherwise. Voices, of whatever sort, bore witness, as if from Luigi Nono’s long-estranged cousin. Two works for violin solo, Mikka and Mikka ‘S’, were given by the quartet member absent for the trio, Austin Wulliman. Measured swarming, control in dilemma, line tracked as if in a real-time graph: throughout one ‘felt’ the mathematics, or imagined one did. As in every performance here, there was a rightness that left one knowing, like this music or not, it deserved as well as demanded to be heard.

Friday, 7 October 2022

Stefanovich - Bach, Rameau, and Messiaen, 6 October 2022

Hall One, Kings Place

Bach: Aria variata alla maniera italiana, BWV 989
Messiaen: Préludes: ‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’
Bach: Three-part Inventions: Sinfonia no.9 in F minor, BWV 795
Rameau: Pièces de clavecin: ‘L’entretien des muses’
Messiaen: Catalogue d’oiseaux: ‘Le courlis cendré’; Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus: ‘Regard des anges’, ‘Première communion de la Vierge’
Rameau: Pièces de clavecin: ‘Les cyclopes’; Nouvelles suites de pièces de clavecin: ‘La poule’
Messiaen: Catalogue d’oiseaux: ‘L’alouette calandrelle’
Bach: Three-part Inventions: ‘Sinfonia no.15 in B minor, BWV 801
Messiaen: Vingt regards: ‘La parole toute puissante’, ‘Noël’; Cantéyodjayâ

Tamara Stefanovich (piano)

I had found myself reflecting recently how sad it was that Olivier Messiaen’s music had somewhat gone out of fashion. It does not go unheard, but like that of many composers, the number of works regularly performed is not so great. There are advocates, of course, though perhaps fewer than would be ideal. The loss of Pierre Boulez continues to hit the cause of twentieth-century music hard and this is surely a case in point. Sometimes an anniversary offers an opportunity; alas, nothing significant is approaching. As Messiaen, then, finds himself in the doldrums, alongside figures such as Hindemith (how much longer?!) and Tippett, it was refreshing indeed to find his music so thoughtfully programmed and brilliantly performed as here by Tamara Stefanovich in the opening programme of this year’s London Piano Festival.   

Bach, though not at his most familiar, began the recital: the Aria variata. Stefanovich’s rich-toned, deeply considered reading showed, should there have been any doubters, that performance with great insight into contemporary (to Bach) language and practice is perfectly possible on the piano. I fancied I heard her a little, or more than a little, of her stated admiration for Nikolaus Harnoncourt here. ‘French’ rhythms were strongly to the fore, already pointing the way not only to Rameau but, perhaps more strongly still, to Messiaen. With command of Bach’s rhetoric, Stefanovich employed variation form and the changes of perspective it wrought to fashion a powerful cumulative statement. Freedom and form were unmistakeably two sides of the same coin. 

Youthful Bach (c.1709) gave way to still more youthful Messiaen. The ‘Chant d’extase dans un paysage triste’ from his early Préludes captured the spirit of its poetic title with just the right sort of post-Debussyan voice. Ecstasy, as in much of what was to come, offered liberation in its ordered delirium; or was that an exquisite cage? Perhaps there was no need to choose. Nor was there, returning to Bach, in the darkly chromatic yearning of the F minor Sinfonia, a ‘black pearl’ of its own. Rameau offered a staging post in between, though with its own character. The difference of his conception of harmony—recall Emanuel Bach’s self-portrayal as ‘anti-Rameau’—and indeed of ornamentation seemed in some ways closer to Messiaen, though these are not perhaps composers we most readily consider bedfellows. ‘L’entretien des muses’ was similarly well-shaped, dynamic contrasts very much part of that shaping. Two Messiaen pieces closed the first half: from Catalogue d’oiseaux: ‘Le courlis cendré’, and from Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus: ‘Regard des anges’. Playful violence across the keyboard, not unlike a swerving cat, took us from deep chords and high birdsong to a further sweep of carolling colours and contrasts. 

The second half opened with another ‘regard’, ‘Première communion de la Vierge’, which brought further heavenly ecstasy. Rock-solid rhythm enabled fantastic melodic arabesques to work their magic above; so too did harmony, Rameau’s ghost included. Two more of Rameau’s keyboard pieces, ‘Les cyclopes’ and ‘La poule’ followed, the former unfolding with grace and not entirely dissimilar fantasy, the former a study in pictorial caprice and obstinacy suggestive of another harpsichordist contemporary, Domenico Scarlatti. Indeed, great Scarlatti pianists came to my mind in the display and relish we heard for score and instrument alike. Repeated notes offered a strange yet convincing rainbow bridge between this and the next Messiaen piece, the second Bach Sinfonia in context effecting an almost Apollonian restoration of order. 

Almost mocking in its apocalyptic vision, cutting us mere mortals down to size, ‘La parole toute puissante’ more than lived up to its name. This final Messiaen sequence, culminating in the extraordinary rhythms—and manifold implications—of Cantéyodjayâ, unleashed a torrential force of pianistic yet above all musical bravura. Weird, wonderful, above all unanswerable, this was music that played by—and was played with—its own rules, a crazy world of mysteries in itself that confirmed beyond doubt how much richer our own world is with the music of Messiaen.

Tuesday, 4 October 2022

Guy - Chopin, Murail, and Beethoven, 3 October 2022

Wigmore Hall

Chopin: Nocturne in C minor, op.48 no.1, Ballade no.1 in G minor, op.23, Piano Sonata no.3 in B minor, op.58
Tristan Murail: Impression, soleil levant
Beethoven: Piano Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111

François-Frédéric Guy (piano)

In this Wigmore Hall recital, François-Frédéric Guy took a fresh look at well-known piano masterpieces, and presented a work new this year, written for him by Tristan Murail. Dedicated to the memory of two close friends, Nicholas Angelich and Lars Vogt, it was an interesting concert in the best sense, with nothing taken as read and much to have one think. 

The first half was dedicated to Chopin, opening with the C minor Nocturne, op.48 no.1. Guy married harmony to rhythm in its first section, immediately conveying a sense of the inexorable. Dignified, never remotely sentimental, it both prepared the way for and necessitated contrast in an ever-broadening middle section, which in turn resulted in a modified return that evoked the spirit rather than the letter of synthesis. The G minor Ballade, both grandly rhetorical and intimate in its whispered confidences, evinced kinship with the Nocturne, whilst emerging free of evident relation to any particular pianistic tradition. Again, it was resolutely sentimental, even to the point at which I should not have minded a little old world charm; but this was not an old world performance, and why should it be? It spoke and increasingly sang with an integrity, fire, and miraculous concision that were its own: more important than being note-perfect. 

The B minor Sonata began with a directness difficult not to think of as ‘Beethovenian’, though naturally soon proceeded in a different direction. The first movement reminded me at times of Liszt, and not only (I think) on account of the key. Not that it was especially seductive; this was, if anything, a performance notable for its lack of perfume. Paradoxically, one had to listen for its lyricism; yet, when one did, it was there. Likewise in the scherzo, though perhaps less surprisingly there: it sounded as if a piece of post-impressionist play with light on water—sometimes quite troubled water. A forthright ‘Largo’ led to a marauder icy even in heat of a finale. Much was unexpected, yet never did it sound unreasonable. Guy had one listen.

Murail’s Impression, soleil levant seemed, especially in the context of such performances, more preoccupied with the nature of sound: in general, and piano sound in particular. More flexible, even melting, both inside the piano and on its keys, it nonetheless had melodic lines sound as if taken from Chopin and placed in radically new harmonic context. Occasionally, the ghost of Debussy rattled its chains, but the way of hearing encouraged was different. This seemed to me a commanding performance, even on a first hearing (for me) presenting the work as it should. 

Finally, we heard Beethoven’s last piano sonata, op.111, a work greatly admired by Chopin (amongst many others!) Its opening diminished seventh leaps sounded as if on loan from Chopin or Liszt (the B minor Sonata in particular), offering a fine sense of transition to Beethoven’s world: steeped here as much in the fantasias, especially that also in C minor, of Mozart as in the Romanticism of Beethoven’s own century (by now). Whatever the antecedents or successors, that fantasia-like quality and recognisably Beethovenian fury were strongly to the fore in the first movement. Phrases melted, to be sure, yet within that initially constructed frame. Flashes across the canvas—striking clarity of counterpoint in the development, extraordinary harmonic twists in the recapitulation—had me once more imagining I was hearing this music for the first time. The Arietta that opens the second and final movement sang with just the right sort of quiet dignity. Guy’s ear (and fingers) for telling detail ensured that, again, this corresponded only to a new vision, or so it seemed, beholden to no particular view from the past. The first variation continued and intensified; its successor worked magic that sounded, for all its familiarity, once more new, the third variation still more so. And so, the wondrous voyage continued, neither entirely familiar nor unfamiliar. Through a gossamer filigree extending already, so it seemed, beyond Mendelssohn, a snow-like brilliance on the white keys, a rapt sublimity that could never be mistaken for anyone else’s, and so much more, there was no doubt this was Beethoven—the cruel loss of whom in the pandemic year of 2020 some of us still feel and perhaps always will. Yet this was not pious or precious Beethoven; it lived and breathed in a way that rightly took nothing for granted.

Wednesday, 28 September 2022

Levit - Brahms, Hersch, Wagner, and Liszt, 25 September 2022

Wigmore Hall

Brahms, arr. Busoni: Chorale Preludes, BV B 50
Fred Hersch: Variations on a Folk Song
Wagner, arr. Kocsis: Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I
Liszt: Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178

Igor Levit (piano)

A typically thoughtful programme, brilliantly performed, from Igor Levit: the second half reprising that of his Salzburg recital in August, the first quite different, yet forming an equally coherent whole. First we heard the six of Brahms’s eleven late organ chorale preludes Busoni arranged for piano in 1902. The first, ‘Herzlich tut mich erfreuen’, rightly announced itself paradoxically, or better dialectically, both emphatically as piano music and yet also as ‘letting the music speak for itself’, in that most necessary of clichés. Musical processes behind and beneath the melody revealed two—sorry, three—great minds at work. Brahms’s arpeggiated half-lights emerged, as if from his own piano music; they were never imposed. That attentiveness to material—a sort of dual authenticity, though not in the debased sense the later twentieth century made all too current—marked out ‘Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele’ as more yielding, yet similarly straightforward, and the ineffably lovely ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ as differently inward, Levit relishing Busoni’s modest interventions. The two preludes on ‘Herzlich tut mich verlangen’ were properly contrasted, the first speaking with a richness of tone apt for a more overtly Romantic outpouring (from both Brahms and Busoni), the second acting with ‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ both to encase that passion, and coming closest to the Passions of Bach. It was deeply moving in its modesty, patience, and depth. Levit took his time, rather beautifully, with the heartbreaking ‘O Welt, ich muß dich lassen’. His dignified performance spoke with a distilled wisdom, like Brahms’s, that seemed to say all that need, perhaps all that could, be said. 

Fred Hersch’s 2021 Variations on a Folk Song followed. An initial statement of a time-honoured theme, here ‘Oh Shenandoah’, provided a connection rather than kinship with Brahms, but enough to have one think. Twenty variations followed. Harmonic recolouring came first to the fore, followed in what I think may have been the third variation by a change of mood to something less ruminative, more extrovert. A wide variety of treatments ensued, one (mostly) for the left hand standing out in dark, muscular fashion, as an heir to Romantic tradition, another insistent and ardent, perhaps a little after Liszt (to come). Others were more inward or floating. This was evidently music Levit had internalised, just as it this clearly represented a tribute from one pianist to another pianist—and vice versa. The principal language may have been forged in the jazz world, but it was generous in its frame of reference—and that generosity extended to spirit too.

Zoltán Kocsis’s transcription of the Prelude to Act I of Tristan was strenuous, big-boned, virtuosic, the emphasis placed very much on struggle, on becoming. Always directed to a goal that was never reached, its oppressive lack of resolution (in more than one sense) led us directly into a performance of Liszt’s B minor Sonata perhaps still more fiery, still more coherent than that I had admired a month earlier in Salzburg. It was similarly bold and questing, and of course more unremittingly virtuosic, virtuosity and rhetoric always means to an end rather than ends in themselves. Post-Beethovenian goal-direction was equally apparent, through rather than despite flexibility. Bringing us to the recapitulation, for instance, Levit triumphantly banished the false dawn of the preceding fugato to the fiery furnace. Form was a living, breathing, even diabolical thing. Liszt here was, quite rightly, both highly integrated and far-flung, Liszt’s essence grasped and communicated.

Detail mattered too: the return of those strange descending scales told us beyond any doubt that, were a single note in them to be changed, so too would the rest of the work. Never, not for one moment, could one doubt our guide knew where he was leading us. For Levit’s command of line, which one might well consider ‘Wagnerian’ in terms of unendliche Melodie, was not the least tool in communicating a pianistic sorcery on Liszt’s part that under the right hands is anything but rhapsodic. As for hands, had I not witnessed the performance with my own eyes as well as ears, I might have sworn there were four at work. This is a masterpiece of musical thought, of course, but it is equally piano music, and sounded as such, reminding me of Donald Tovey’s observation that Liszt’s piano music was that of someone who could not fail to make a beautiful sound when touching the keys. Beauty takes many guises, of course, but Liszt never, ever writes against the instrument. Nor, so it seems, does Levit ever play against it. A beatific close seemed, at least in retrospect, to necessitate the lovely yet plain-spoken encore, (as in Salzburg) Schumann’s ‘Der Dichter spricht’.

Sunday, 25 September 2022

LPO/Gardner - Schoenberg, Gurrelieder, 24 September 2022


Royal Festival Hall

Waldemar – David Butt Philip
Tove – Lise Lindstrom
Wood-dove – Karen Cargill
Klaus-Narr – Robert Murray
Peasant – James Creswell
Speaker – Alex Jennings

London Philharmonic Choir (chorus director: Neville Creed)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus director: Simon Halsey)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Image: London Philharmonic Orchestra

The pandemic is not over. But I remember thinking, when some sort of minimal concert life was intermittently starting up again—socially distanced concerts at St Martin-in-the-Fields with a maximum audience of thirty, the first and second series of Spotlight Chamber Concerts at St John’s Waterloo, and so on—what resumption of a full range of musical life would entail for me. I chose three examples, which have remained in my mind ever since: a large-scale work by Richard Strauss, a full staging of Die Meistersinger, and a performance of Gurrelieder. Strauss came a little while ago, in a performance of the Alpine Symphony—though I await a Frau ohne Schatten. Meistersinger is yet to come. On this Wagner-and-Strauss-starved island, we should probably not hold our collective breath. Nevertheless, even if accompanied by precious little other Schoenberg, Gurrelieder has returned.

It was, if truth be told, a somewhat mixed performance we heard from Edward Gardner and the LPO: well sung and played, Gardner’s conducting more variable yet growing in stature, with one major, well-nigh catastrophic miscalculation for the closing melodrama. The Royal Festival Hall is far from ideal for this work, yet Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Philharmonia performances in 2009 and 2018 had seemed far more at home. Contrast was glaring in the opening bars. Both Salonen and Gardner achieved great clarity; whatever the Festival Hall’s shortcomings, it probably helped in that respect. Gardner and the LPO, however, sounded oddly mechanical, as opposed to pointillistic; the strange impression was of oddly balanced strings and flutes out of sync, even when they were not. And even once the music had settled, Gardner imparted an oddly regimented quality to it, moving bar-to-bar rather than via paragraph. There were, though, some inviting, dangerous, Tristan-esque sounds from the LPO that prepared the way splendidly for David Butt Philip’s first entry.

Butt Philip showed himself, without exaggeration, to be one of the finest Waldemars I have heard. His way with words and shaping of vocal lines were beyond reproach. As the first part progressed, his emotional range widened to encompass, as does the work, the impetuous, the angry, and also greater dynamic range. The ardent lyricism as he told of Waldemar’s pride, likened unto that of Christ seated once more next to His father, was an object lesson in dramatic delivery that yet retained a Lieder-singer’s attention to detail. Lindstrom offered a womanly Tove with Nordic steel: no false purity, and again a performance that took its leave from the verse. The LPO generally sounded gorgeous. Earlier on, Gardner might have lingered to advantage. Greater flexibility did come, though, whether in the coital stillness of Tove’s response or the ghostly, again Tristan-like brass of ‘unsel’ger Geschlechter’ foretold, developing via frightening double basses into something more ominous. Waldemar’s words ‘Unsere Zeit ist um’ offered ecstatic contradiction, already tinged with irony concerning fate and the future. Yet the sweetness of the interlude introducing Tove’s last words consoled, as it should. Could Lindstrom’s delivery here have been more lyrical? Probably. Her care for verbal expression nonetheless offered compensation enough, and the climax on ‘Kuß’, her final word, sent shivers down the spine, with credit due to all concerned: soloist, conductor, and orchestra.

The Wood-dove’s song was, quite simply, outstanding. Karen Cargill’s deep, rich tone furthered an interpretation once more unquestionably rooted in the text. Rising out of the orchestra, this was a forest messenger one knew one could trust, however much one wanted her words not to be true. Gardner here captured to a tee the crucial role of rhythm, not least in relation to harmony. It made for a gripping conclusion to the first part, the strange decision to break for an interval all the more regrettable.

That said, the brief Part Two plunged us, orchestrally and vocally, straight back into the action. Butt Philip showed anger, increasingly blasphemous, without hectoring. Crucially, he continued to sing, never shouting, and in highly variegated fashion too. Gardner communicated well the fulfilment of those early ghostly sounds in the opening of Part Three, Butt Philip and the LPO audibly responding by taking us on a journey to new, more bracingly modernist sounds, though the direction of travel rightly remained unclear, a veritable Götterdämmerung Hallowe’en from male chorus and James Creswell’s Peasant alike highly impressive. Robert Murray’s Klaus-Narr was nicely animated, communicating like Cargill’s Wood-dove with evident sincerity and truthfulness. Again, this was music that was sung, here in Straussian fashion, albeit more grateful for the tenor. Meistersinger-ish tendencies in the orchestra were welcome and revealing, preparing the way for that extraordinary experience in the prelude to the Speaker’s appearance of material transformed before our ears, almost against our (even Schoenberg’s?) will. History’s demand, the material’s, or the drama’s? Why choose?   

And then, talk about spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar. The Speaker entered, perversely miked, and in English translation. One can perform Gurrelieder in English, I suppose, but then it should surely be the whole thing. The ‘effect’ was alienating in quite the wrong way, exacerbated by laboured, ac-tor-ly delivery on the part of Alex Jennings. The idea, it seems, was Gardner’s own; someone should have dissuaded him. For however sardonic, at times even vicious, the LPO sounded, this was a conceptual miscalculation that torpedoed the performance as a whole. How I longed for the inimitable Barbara Sukowa, icing on the cake for both of Salonen’s performances (as well as Claudio Abbado’s Vienna recording). Even the strange, choral climax, sincere in its way yet knowing that such tonal sounds can no longer truly convince, failed through no fault of the chorus to salvage matters. A great pity indeed.


Sunday, 18 September 2022

Salome, Royal Opera, 17 September 2022

Royal Opera House

Narraboth – Thomas Atkins
Page of Herodias – Annika Schlicht
First Soldier – Simon Shibambu
Second Soldier – Simon Wilding
Jokanaan – Jordan Shanahan
Cappadocian – John Cunningham
Salome – Elena Stikhina
Slave – Sarah Dufresne
Herod – John Daszak
Herodias – Katarina Dalayman
First Jew – Paul Curievici
Second Jew – Michael J. Scott
Third Jew – Aled Hall
Fourth Jew – Alasdair Elliott
Fifth Jew – Jeremy White
First Nazarene – James Platt
Second Nazarene – Chuma Sijeqa
Naaman – Duncan Meadows

David McVicar (director)
Bárbara Lluch (revival director)
Es Devlin (designs)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Andrew George (choreography, movement)
Emily Piercy (revival choreography)
59 Productions (video)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Alexander Soddy (conductor)

This was a Salome best remembered for its singing, at least once beyond the absurdity of prefacing it with ‘God save the King’. (The production might have been adapted, I suppose, to have Herod come onstage to receive his tribute, but that was not to be.) Stepping in for Malin Byström, Elena Stikhina acquitted herself very well in the title role, short notice or not. One more or less has to forgive a lack of consonants from time to time in this role; so long as that could be agreed upon, this was an involving, increasingly commanding performance, to which Stikhina clearly gave her all. Thomas Atkins’s heartfelt lyricism heightened rather than detracted from dramatic portrayal of Narraboth: another definite highlight. John Daszak and Katarina Dalayman convinced as Herod and Herodias, both very much stage animals, though there were times when insensitive conducting had one struggle to hear the latter’s words. Jordan Shanahan’s thoughtful Jokaanan had the great virtue of leading one to concentrate on words rather than aura, though I would not have minded a little more in the latter sense too. A fine supporting cast, assembled from depth, was another signal virtue; as, doubtless, was its direction. For trying to identify precisely who is responsible for what is often a fool’s errand; opera is, or should be, a team effort to which all contribute.

Sadly, in that respect, this performance was sorely let down by the conducting of Alexander Soddy. That side of things improved somewhat, though even the final scene turned out at best Kapellmeister-ish: a reasonable sense of how it should go, yet little beyond. Earlier on, though, it was a depressing account, for which the orchestra should probably bear some responsibility too. (Who knows, though, what havoc recent ‘events’ may have wrought with rehearsal schedules?) The first scene was all over the place, stage and pit unsynchronised and plagued by balance issues that marked the entire performance. Various orchestral lines went unheard, bludgeoned by shattering insensitivity. Even when together, Strauss sounded like a poor-to-stolid Wagner imitator, the phantasmagorical magic of his orchestration going for nothing in as non-transparent a reading of his music as I have ever heard. The aestheticism that marks not only Salome’s subject matter but the score itself, Strauss’s Nietzscheanism triumphantly rejecting, even mocking, Wagner and Schopenhauer alike was disturbingly absent, replaced not with an alternative view but merely an effort to progress from one bar to the next. Strangely pronounced bass lines neither grounded nor propelled the harmony; they were just strangely pronounced. Some passages—rarely anything longer than that—were better, but really this was playing unworthy of a major international house. 

That aestheticism was, however, touched upon in the fourth revival of David McVicar’s production, here renewed by Bárbara Llano. My response to McVicar’s staging has varied over the years, increasingly suspecting that its ‘house of horrors’ approach threw too many bags into the same basket. It is also, if we are honest, looking a little tired by now. That said, I was grateful not only for the sheer professionalism at work, but all the more so for ideas—my fault, I am sure—that had barely registered with me previously. Gore is still present, most memorably in the bloodstained emergence of the naked executioner Naaman, fresh from his deed. Whether one considers that gratuitous will probably remain a matter of taste, but it seemed to me clear, indeed far clearer than before, that this was a comment not only on an interwar world of militarised, fascist violence, but also, more importantly, on the dangers and joys of an aestheticism passed from Wilde to Strauss, via Pasolini’s Salò and Sade himself to McVicar and to us. Politics and aesthetics are not to be disentangled, however much characters onstage and audience offstage might wish them to be. Nor can we forget the past; a harrowing retelling of abuse during the Dance of the Seven Veils makes that clear. There are doubtless lessons to be learned there, but no one, least of all Salome, will do so: itself, of course, an important further lesson.

Saturday, 17 September 2022

To bear witness and build solidarity: Luigi Nono and the creative imperative in Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz and Quando stanno morendo

Human provocation

In a 1958 article on Luciano Berio for the Darmstadt Summer School’s house journal Die Reihe, Piero Santi outlined the post-war Italian avant-garde’s guiding principles:

Everybody’s purpose is authentic organization of the world of sound, which is finally to be freed from […] external compulsion […]. Thus, in the years after World War II, new Italian music, too, had a role marked out. Naturally, it profited from study of hitherto unavailable [modernist] works, and from insights gained elsewhere, but the natural reaction was against our most recent past. To put it more bluntly: there was a reaction against ‘expression at all costs’, against rhetoric (veiled to a greater or lesser degree), against sentimentality which no longer dared to express itself melodramatically, unreservedly.

Politics and aesthetics are interrelated, even identified, more strongly than might have been the case in Germany or France, although everywhere the fiction of a 1945 ‘Zero Hour’, sharply distinguishing post-war endeavour from a world culminating in Auschwitz (and Hiroshima) proved persuasive. In contrast to Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy had in any case remained strikingly open to modernism. Berg’s Wozzeck received its Italian premiere in 1942; and at the Venice Conservatory from 1941 to 1945, Nono had been introduced to music by the Second Viennese School, Stravinsky, Bartók and others.

In Nono’s case, a further imperative was political engagement. He took A Survivor from Warsaw by Schoenberg, his posthumous father-in-law, as emblematic for what composition might accomplish. We might also ask to what extent it is meaningful to consider Nono, very much a Venetian as well as an internationalist, as an ‘Italian composer’ at all. In any case, no more than Schoenberg was Nono inclined to lack of ‘expression’; their music rather tends towards hyper-expressivity in which not only every note but also the network of relationships between each note is loaded with significance. The problem, rather, was perceived of sentimentality. In a lecture Nono gave on Schoenberg’s Survivor, ‘the musical-aesthetic manifesto of our era’, he located it in the line of Jean-Paul Sartre’s question ‘why write?’ and Sartre’s response:

And if I am presented with this world and its injustices, then I should not look at it coldly, but [...] with indignation, that I might expose it and create it in its nature as injustice and abuse.’ […]

And further, should someone refuse to recognise Schoenberg’s docere and movere, […] he should know that the words which the nineteen-year-old student, Giacomo Levi, wrote in his last letter before execution by the Fascists in Modena in 1942, are also addressed to him: ‘Do not say that you no longer wish to know anything about it. Consider this, that all that has happened is because you no longer wished to know anything more about it.'

Nono found such a ‘provocation’ necessary for artistic creation. ‘The genesis of any of my works is always to be found in a human provocation (provocazione umana): an event, an experience, a test in our lives, which provokes my instinct and my consciousness, as man and musician, to bear witness.’

Expressing the inexpressive

Emblematic even among the death camps, Auschwitz was more than a ‘provocation’, however severe. If the word seems blasphemously insufficient, so does all else, save the imperative to bear witness. Theodor Adorno’s celebrated, often misquoted 1955 claim, made roughly halfway between ‘liberation’ and Nono’s work, retains its sting even after neutering by the culture industry Adorno (and Nono) justly loathed: ‘Cultural criticism finds itself confronting the last stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism: to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric, and this also gnaws at the realization that expresses why it has become impossible to write poetry today.’ Adorno presented a problem, not a prohibition; the creative imperative remained.

In 1965, Erwin Piscator asked Nono to provide music for his staging of Peter Weiss’s new play on the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, Die Ermittlung (The Investigation), at West Berlin’s Freie Volksbühne. Nono recalled that Piscator had been ‘right’ with respect to ‘the relationship between music and theatre: what neither words nor scenes could express and represent, music must’. The following year, Nono reworked the musical material at Milan’s Studio di Fonologia della Radio into a stand-alone work for tape. Material from the children’s choir of Milan’s Piccolo Teatro, sounds and phonemes provided by the Polish soprano Stefania Woytowitz, and orchestral and choral material produced electronically in the Studio from earlier Nono works were combined and elaborated, so as to focus on and give expression to the human voice, while liberating it from the need to ‘set’ or to ‘express’ a pre-existing text, be it verbal (e.g. Weiss) or theatrical (e.g. Piscator). For voices, not words, Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz (Remember what they did to you in Auschwitz), its title inspired by Alberto Nirenstein’s Ricorda cosa ti ha fatto Amalek, a reconstruction of Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto and elsewhere in Poland, was the latest of Nono’s memorials with a contemporary imperative.

That attempt was grounded in a technical-aesthetic as well as a socio-political quest; arguably the two were for him the same. Nono’s interest lay less in an attempt to express what cannot be expressed – Auschwitz ‘itself’, say, or the Warsaw Ghetto of Schoenberg or Nirenstein – but in what might never have been considered ‘expressive’ in the first place. One can fancy here, for instance, that one hears a marching band or a chill wind, but the sound is almost certainly not intended to represent or to express that; more likely, it may express the dread force we feel to lie behind such representations of destruction. Violent and raucous, tender and sweet within a few seconds: those swings are doubtless part of a continuum of experience, but also seem to be opposing forces, one might even suggest of good and evil. Sound lies within an ominously contained band, beyond which is the uncanny realm of memory, Nono’s own included. His choice of self-quotations was instructive: Composizione per orchestra no.2: Diario polacco ’58, in which he had previously memorialized his visit to Auschwitz; Cori di Didone, in some sense expressing, if hardly representing, the atmosphere of death; and La fabbrica illuminata, whose ‘virtual sonic theatre’ of industrial sound and workers’ voices took on a still more ominous and deadly exposition of factory conditions in its new setting. This was an industrial and capitalist as well as racial genocide.

And yet, Nono’s longstanding fascination with voices solo and polyphonic, their embodiment and our spatial experience of them endures. As his friend Claudio Abbado attested, Nono ‘never lost the deep-rooted ties to the long tradition of Venetian music, as demonstrated by his unerring feeling for the relation of sound and space, recalling the music [Giovanni] Gabrieli wrote for the church of San Marco. Gigi’s sense of an espressivo or cantabile line also stems from this tradition.’ Here a voice that cries, that laments, that exults, is a voice, albeit mediated; yet no more than in Fidelio or Nono’s own Prometeo is it only a voice. It can express, if not represent, something of humanity, of resistance, however tragic and unspeakable its fate. There is no utopian liberation to be heard; the work is not concerned with survival or redemption. Yet perhaps freedom lies nonetheless in truth, witness and action.


Return (or not) to Poland

Nono’s 1958 Polish visit and musical ‘diary’, ‘in memory of my Polish friends and of that country’, was followed almost a quarter of a century later by a Diario polacco No.2. This witnessed a non-visit to the Warsaw Autumn festival of contemporary music – for there was no 1982 festival, on account of General Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law. Nono dedicated Quando stanno morendo (When they are dying) to those who had invited and commissioned him in 1981, yet from whom he had heard no more: ‘To my Polish friends and comrades who, in exile, in hiding, in prison, at work, continue to resist and hope even in despair, to believe even in disbelief.’ Or, as we read in Nono’s own ‘Appeal for Solidarnosc’ combining specific, Polish resistance and universal, socialist humanism:

Condemnation of […] [the] coup no longer suffices. Condemnation of the military’s repression of the union movement, of independent Polish political bodies, no longer suffices. Nor is the simple denunciation of oppressive Soviet intervention or the concrete support given to the authoritarian regime in Warsaw by the USSR any longer sufficient. Every democratic, political, trade union and cultural body must now take advantage of every opportunity to give life to a mass movement in concrete solidarity with the Polish people and their freedom of expression.

Resistance and organization, like human activity in general, were complex, not simple. Art was no mere protest; nor was solidarity.

Nono’s friend and comrade, the philosopher Massimo Cacciari, assembled the written texts from verse by Czesław Miłosz (1980 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature), Endre Ady and Alexander Blok (Part I); Velemir Chlebnikov (Part II); and Boris Pasternak, Miłosz and Chlebnikov (Part III). Voices are to the fore in the first (initially, quasi-monodic) and third parts; instruments in the second, where text-setting is at first less fragmentary, more immediately comprehensible, until instruments and electronics do their invasive, even corrosive work. ‘The music “contracts”’, to quote Jürg Stenzl, although an a cappella close offers greater prospect of hope than had been permitted by the Auschwitz work. Where sound and music then had been constrained, now they look – listen, and enable us to listen – outwards. The world of Prometeo, Nono’s third and final opera and another Cacciari collaboration, beckons. As Nono and Cacciari explained: ‘we shall still be able to make “daylight” by refusing the death now coming to us. […] it will never be Death, so long as these voices speak.’

Renaissance polyphony and Venetian madrigalism meet a post-Webern present in which the qualities of every note and the connections between each one of them – intervals and other parameters – take upon themselves expressive force, moral and political as well as aesthetic, pointing in solidarity toward the future. Nono shadows and extends the horizons of voices (four female) and instruments (cello and bass flute) with live electronics, technological advances having enabled greater openness in every sense. He even declared that the score would ‘be born after the Venice “premiere”’. He did in fact produce a score beforehand, albeit one explicitly marked as ‘non-definitive’, pending eventual publication with greater information achieved in the light of performance.

The day before the premiere, Nono gave an interview to the Communist newspaper L’Unità, entitled ‘Electronic Solidarnosc’. In it, he declared that today, more than ever, ‘the artist has the responsibility to avoid conclusive, finalized results. He must understand that (as [Robert] Musil says): “it is not important what is, but rather what might have been.” This does away with all Manichaeism, all sectarianism, and all intellectual rigidity.’ Right up until the last moment, Nono insisted, his new work remained ‘open to all possible transformations’. The owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk, leaving the future open through understanding and empathy with present, past and alternative paths not yet taken but that might be. ‘When they die, men sing …’ concludes the final line of Chlebnikov’s verse. Therein lie hope and freedom of a kind.

(This essay was first published as a programme note for the 2022 Salzburg Festival.)