Sunday, 20 June 2021

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

Barbican Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Le nozze di Figaro, Opera Holland Park 15 June 2021

Holland Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 11 June 2021

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

Royal Festival Hall

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

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

Images: Luca Migliore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

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

St John's, Waterloo

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

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

Images: Matthew Johnson

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

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

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

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

Monday, 7 June 2021

L'Egisto, HGO, 5 June 2021

The Cockpit

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

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

HGO Baroque Orchestra
Marcio da Silva (music director)

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 6 June 2021

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

St John’s Waterloo

Schubert: Octet in F major, D 803

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

Images: Matthew Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 31 May 2021

Rautio Piano Trio - Elias and Schubert, 30 May 2021

Hall One, Kings Place

Brian Elias: Piano Trio (world premiere)
Schubert: Piano Trio no.2 in E-flat major, D 929

Jane Gordon (violin)
Victoria Simonsen (cello)
Jan Rautio (piano)

Written in five relatively short, interconnected movements (Allegro-Lento-Presto-Adagio-Presto), Brian Elias’s Piano Trio makes for an impressive addition to the repertoire. If the composer seemed very much at home in the medium, the players seemed equally at home in his idiom. The Rautio Piano Trio certainly gave this world premiere as if they had lived some time with this music and its possibilities. An arresting opening, angular and lyrical, for all three instruments, seemed even on a first hearing to set up ideas and possibilities for the rest of the work. Not that that material is simply repeated; rarely did it seem to appear in quite the same guise. Rather, it is varied, transformed, and above all developed: in melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic terms. Here we heard a composer comfortable with roots in tradition, without in any sense being hidebound by it or otherwise backward-looking. Both work and performance imparted a strong sense of every note counting, of being made to count; for this sounded as a case of material being shaped, even mastered, as sculpture in sound. As Webern once put it, ‘To develop everything … from one principal idea! That is the strongest unity … But in what form? That is where art comes in!’ Freedom, as we must seemingly constantly remind ourselves and others, is not licence. Perhaps this is to indulge in undue anachronism, but it seemed to me there was indeed something of a Second Viennese School rigour and/of expression beneath the surface. The central Presto movement bears some resemblance to a Classical scherzo and trio, without necessarily ‘being’ such a movement; yet it also springs from and leads to the two slow movements that flank it. It is, moreover, in that ongoing transformation of musical figures that both some degree of formal symmetrical balance and thoroughgoing development occur—and are felt to occur.

It took my ears a minute or so to adjust to the greater expansiveness and, at least in this performance, greater lightness of Schubert’s E-flat makor Piano Trio. The first movement did not lack sterner, darker passages, nor Schubertian Sehnsucht when called for, but its initial mood was, rightly, quite different. Maybe it was hearing this music in the light of Elias’s new work, but the Rautio Piano Trio seemed unusually attentive to thematic transformation in Schubert’s writing too. At any rate, the sadness that is rarely too far from the surface of Schubert’s music began more strongly to register as the music developed (that is, not only in the development section). The paradoxical combination of lightness of tone and onward trudge in the opening of the Andante con moto was well judged. If I sometimes missed a greater sense of tension later on in that movement, the tragedy of its close held the attention in arresting manner. The apparent insouciance of the scherzo is just that, of course: apparent. The players being wise enough not to opt for one side or the other, that ambiguity was well served here. So too was the qualification in Schubert’s marking for the finale, ‘Allegro moderato’. A spacious account that was not slow but rather unhurried, permitted detail to emerge throughout, often in telling fashion.

Friday, 28 May 2021

Waterloo Festival (1): Hewitt - Couperin and Brahms, 27 May 2021

St John’s, Waterloo

Couperin: Pièces de clavecin, Book III: 18e Ordre
Brahms: Piano Sonata no.3 in F minor, op.5

Angela Hewitt (piano)  

Images: Ilme Vysniauskaite

Taking as its theme the fifteenth-century English word, ‘respair’, the recovery of hope following a period of despair, the 2021 Waterloo Festival offers much of that desperately sought-after quality, not least the return of Anthony Friend’s Spotlight Chamber Concerts series, so cruelly cut short last December. Twice postponed, a recital by Angela Hewitt, originally conceived as a farewell to Beethoven Year (‘Geh, Hoffnung’) now offered music by Couperin and Brahms to a socially distanced audience of about 150 people. That in itself surely offered grounds for respair.

To the uninitiated, Couperin and Brahms might seem a strange combination. Brahms was of course a crucial figure in nineteenth-century revival of early music. He knew Bach’s cantatas intimately; it would be difficult to overstate the importance of Bach’s music for his own. Handel loomed large too: Brahms provided written out continuo parts (on piano) for an entire volume of Handel’s Italian duets and trios, gave the Vienna premiere of Saul in 1873, and the German Requiem speaks for itself. Brahms’s work with older German masters such as Isaac, Schütz, and Buxtehude likewise informed both concert life and his own writing. Brahms’s political nationalism—whatever some may tell you, far less tenuous than Wagner’s—notwithstanding, his musical inclinations were more generous. Advocacy for the keyboard music of Couperin, both as pianist and as ‘editor’ (it seems Friedrich Chrysander did much of the hard work in Brahms’s name), was, if more surprising, no less genuine. Clara Schumann declared herself baffled by Brahms’s interest in something that was ‘really of little interest musically’, yet Elaine Kelly makes a persuasive case for influence on some of Brahms’s later piano music. The Third Piano Sonata does not, of course, fall into that category. And whilst it would doubtless be fascinating to hear an attempted recreation, or at least reimagination, of Brahms’s performing style for Couperin, this was not attempted here. Nor, however, was this one of those perverse attempts to have the piano sound like the harpsichord. (Clue: it never will. If you want the harpsichord, play or listen to the harpsichord.)

Here we heard the 1722 eighteenth ordre, finally balanced between F major and minor—and thus preparing the way for the tonality of Brahms’s sonata. The opening allemande, ‘La Verneüil’ spoke with an occluded freedom very much of our moment. In Hewitt’s hands, it rightly took its time, but it (or rather she) knew where it was heading: respair, one might say. ‘La Verneüilléte’, presumably presenting the daughter of the previously evoked Duke of Bourbon, offered a more wilful obstinacy—make of that what you will—born of, yet extending beyond, its courtly idiom. In the rich melancholy of ‘Sœur Monique’, the acoustic vibration of Couperin’s ornaments in Francis Bedford’s church, proved part and parcel of its magic. Indeed as so often, ‘ornaments’ seemed quite the wrong word. ‘Le turbulent’, bright and busy, and the necessary contrast of ‘L’atendrissante’, all the more lugubrious on the piano, led to a delightful, dexterous musical box of a performance for the celebrated ‘Le tic-toc-choc’. There was finally an almost childlike delight to be had in the boisterous obstinacy, allied to that of ‘La Verneüilléte’, yet unquestionably different in character, in ‘Le gaillard-boiteux’.

Hand on heart, I am yet to be won over by any of Brahms’s three piano sonatas, all of them early works. Never say never, though, and it is quite possible that this performance will have edged me a little closer. There was no denying the captivating quality to the first movement’s contrast: tumultuous opening, soon scaled down to prophetic half-lights—far from solely the province of the composer’s late years—in a dialectic of tragic virtuosity. Hewitt captured well the Classicism with which the young composer already distinguished himself from Schumann: more than mere framing, though certainly that too. The ‘Andante espressivo’, to my ears more ingratiating, was sung without sentimentality and with clear direction, reflexively exulting in its material possibilities. If the Scherzo is giant, it is not elephantine; it sounded as serious, yet not so grim, as Chopin’s scherzi, in a reading plentiful in chiaroscuro. We heard more of the notes than there is any reasonable ground to expect. The pathos of a young Romantic already somewhat out of his time was readily, winningly apparent in the Intermezzo. The finale showed debts to Beethoven and Schumann if not settled then at least recognised and addressed.

For like so much else right now, they offer but a starting point, the future more uncertain than ever. In that spirit, Hewitt’s encore reignited our immanent sense of respair. Mary Howe’s transcription of Bach’s ‘Sheep may safely graze’ proved, perhaps inevitably, the most immediately moving music of all. Possessed both of dignity and of a freedom that comes of abiding acquaintance, it felt like meeting an old friend in fine new clothes. Where Bach remains, all is not lost.

Thursday, 20 May 2021

La corona, Bampton Classical Opera, 18 May 2021

St John’s, Smith Square

Atalanta – Samantha Louis-Jean
Meleagro – Harriet Eyley
Climene – Lisa Howarth
Asteria – Lucy Anderson
Narrator – Rosa French

Robert Howarth (conductor)

La corona: Bampton Classical Opera certainly selected a title for our times. However, the English translation under which it was promoted, The Crown, not only has televisual contemporary resonance, but reminds us that every crown, though arguably a misfortune, is not quite a sign of a deadly virus. Not that the eighteenth century, at least until its close, saw things that way. In Europe, at least, monarchies seemed the height of modernity, the path to the future. The old prize of universal monarchy retained currency, albeit in conflict with more novel notions of the balance of power. Those few republics remaining were ailing, unlikely models for human flourishing. And at the centre of Europe remained the Holy Roman Empire and Habsburg monarchy, recently separated yet now once again reunited under Francis (Stephen) I and Maria Theresa.

This was the last of the dozen Metastasio libretti the Vienna court poet named ‘azione teatrale’: that is, a serenata, with definite action and to be staged. We should not get too hung up on the term, more a vague description than a genre; it is difficult to say why, say, L’isola disabitata (as set by Haydn, among many others) and Il sogno di Scipione (as set by many before Mozart, and at least one after him) should be considered such and other, similar works should not, let alone why the Orfeo of Calzabigi and Gluck, quite un-Metastasian, should originally have received that designation.

Gluck’s music, now lost, for an Iphigenia in Aulis ballet, first written for the Imperial Castle at Laxenburg, had been given once more a few months later at Innsbruck for the 1765 wedding of the Archduke Leopold (later Leopold II) to Infanta Maria Luisa (who later notoriously dismissed Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito as ‘una porcheria tedesca’). Having left the theatre at its conclusion, Francis suffered a fatal stroke in his carriage. The theatres closed and the azione teatrale in preparation for Francis’s name-day, in performance by a quartet of his daughters (the Archduchesses Maria Elisabeth, Maria Amalia, Maria Josepha, and Maria Carolina), went unperformed until a 1966 Austrian radio broadcast. Staging had to wait until 1987, in Schönbrunn’s Salon de Bataille, where Gluck’s premiere would have taken place.

The present performance, however, was given in concert, like the British premiere, also from 1987, slightly earlier, at the City of London Festival. In place of secco recitatives, we had a linking English narration. Having drawn inevitable reference to the other ‘corona’, it clearly told us where we were, what was going on, and sketched a broader mythological and literary context, lightly yet learnedly allusive. Context, that is, to the slight tale of who should take credit for the Calydonian boar hunt: ultimately neither Atalanta nor her sister, Climene, neither Princess Asteria nor or Prince Meleagro, but the goddess Diana. It culminates in bestowal of the crown of laurels on the keen royal huntsman Francis. Rosa French delivered her narration with elegance and wit.

The music is fresh, in many respects glorious, certainly well deserving of greater acquaintance, though this is no drama in the sense of the ‘reformist’ Gluck. (Nor was it intended to be.) Robert Howarth’s direction from the harpsichord of CHROMA was forthright and unfussy, well judged in balance and tempo, if occasionally a little four-square for my ears in negotiating Gluck’s structures. (We clearly hear Gluck differently, which is no crime. Far better this, in any case, than egoistic conducting that aims above all to draw attention to itself.)

All four singers acquitted themselves with honour, complementing and lightly contrasting as befitting. The extremity of Atalanta’s coloratura—could the Habsburg-Lorraine princesses really have come anywhere near singing this music?—was effortlessly tamed by Samantha Louis-Jean. Lucy Anderson’s spirited Asteria and Lisa Howarth’s sincere Climene were equally stylish. So too did Harriet Eyley’s Meleagro, whose heroism en travesti, both bright-toned and variegated, proved just the ‘early Classical’ ticket. If the splendid penultimate number, a duet between Atalanta and Meleagro, left both in peril of being outshone by Emma Feilding’s oboe, then that is Gluck’s doing. A joy from beginning to end, whatever our views on crowns, viruses, and their intersection.

La clemenza di Tito, Royal Opera, 17 May 2021

Royal Opera House

Tito – Edgaras Montvidas
Vitellia – Nicole Chevalier
Sesto – Emily D’Angelo
Annio – Angela Brower
Servilia – Christina Gansch
Publio – Joshua Bloom
Senators – Jeremy White, George Freeburn
Berenice – Fumi Kaneko
Conspirators – Amanda Baldwin, Tim Parker-Langston, Nicholas Sharratt
Guards – Andrew Carter, Davy Quistin

Richard Jones (director)
Ultz (designs)
Adam Silverman (lighting)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Royal Opera Chorus (chorus director: William Spaulding)
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)

Over fifteen months since I had last set foot in an opera house—for Carmen at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden—it felt extraordinary to be back. All else would be secondary. Constant frustrations and persistent fears of the new ‘Johnson variant’ shutting down everything again made for a background of great uncertainty. Comparisons with the crisis of the social order sweeping Europe during the 1780s and 1790s will shed little light, yet all of us this side of Dido Harding and her fellow profiteers crave a degree of certainty some way beyond that our world affords us. Like the Prague Estates commissioning La clemenza di Tito to celebrate Leopold II’s coronation as king of Bohemia, we clamour for something we knew and loved well, whilst knowing that it can never be the same again—and that it almost certainly never was.

That something might be Imperial Rome, Habsburg clementia austriaca, or both, as recreated by the Caeasarian poet Pietro Metastasio for Charles VI’s name-day. It might be Metastasio as set by forty composers prior to Mozart, among them Caldara, Hasse, Gluck, and Mysliveček. It might be Metastasio as galvanised by Mozart’s revisionary librettist, Caterino Mazzolà, transforming blank verse into ensembles and, crucially, three acts into two, rendering the moment of revolt the choral climax of the first, as opposed to an offstage event mentioned in recitative. It might be Metastasio-Mazzolà transformed by Mozart; it might the lives of artists and audience, traumatised beyond measure not only by the dread virus, but by the fundamental, immeasurably deadlier disease of neoliberalism. At all times many, barely daring hope for the endgame and, more to the point, having no idea what it will be, find themselves craving reversion and restoration. Revolution, taken literally, invokes turning of the wheel; it was only events in France that turned its meaning to rupture—and even then, only partially. To see Mozart once more on the Covent Garden stage came close to many such impossible dreams.

Or rather in this case, hearing Mozart from the pit and onstage came close. Anyone could point to occasional flaws in ensemble, but to experience ensemble at all, whether from orchestra, chorus, soloists, or tutti, was more than enough for now. The last time I had seen this opera on this stage, it had been conducted by that emperior among Mozartians, Sir Colin Davis. Now was not, however, a time to look back, whatever the splendours and delights of those performances. For this was 17 May: if not quite le grand retour, then the beginning, we can only desperately hope, of the end. Secco recitatives were cut, but anyone can live with that, given Mozart’s lack of involvement in them; what remained was performed convincingly indeed. (I should certainly credit the harpsichordist, if I knew who it had been.) 

This was not a Tito of immense grandeur, but looking at, listening to the world around us, there may have been good reason for that. Moreover, distancing within the pit, musicians one to a pit, necessitated a smaller number of musicians than ‘ideal’, whatever that may mean—or which may simply have been an aesthetic preference. Wigglesworth conveyed an inner, more domestic drama to the score that was not identical to Davis’s, Böhm’s, Muti's, nor anyone else’s—how could it be?—but which spoke from ruins on and off stage. It kept going in the face of adversity, and did much more than that. Swifter than we may be accustomed to, it was yet never harried and found time to relax: to savour many moments of woodwind—not only clarinet—beauty; to express pulsating life in Mozart’s inner strings; to urge us on to a close uncertain yet necessary.

Edgaras Montvidas’s youthful, mellifluous Tito enhanced that sense of present urgency, of a need to resist turning back. Politically Orphic, if you like. Nicole Chevalier occasionally struggled with her lower notes: how long must it be since many of these singers have appeared regularly, or at all, on stage? Hers was nevertheless a spirited, multi-dimensional Vitellia, more likeable than often, which seemed to be a choice. Emily D’Angelo’s Sesto captivated in a moral struggle framed by allure and weakness whose twin masculinity was only highlighted by the trouser role’s—originally castrato’s—blurring of boundaries. There was no doubting, moreover, her/his cleanness of line and general stylishness; likewise for typically fine performances from Angela Brower (Annio) and Christina Gansch (Servilia). Even Joshua Bloom as Publio, a thankless role, found space to shine. The Royal Opera Chorus, offstage throughout, made a welcome return too: doubtless equally true for its members.

Richard Jones’s production, however, was a bit of a mess. The vague neoclassicism, interior as well as exterior, of set designer Ultz’s Capitol worked well enough, so far as it went. Like the spareness of much of Mozart’s score—so different from that heard in the more-or-less contemporaneous Magic Flute—there was potential not only to frame, but also to propel, the drama before our eyes. Except it did not. Jones seemed on auto-pilot, offering little beyond a vague ‘look’ of fascism and football: a combination that might have been productive yet was not. Was the architectural model a Speer reference, imperial counsellors’ tailoring suggestive more of Berchtesgaden than south of the Alps? Perhaps, yet if so, it again went for little. Italian graffiti seemed not so much evocative of emptiness as merely empty. Why did a silent Berenice traipse around the set early on? Vitellia’s piece-by-piece destruction of her garland in ‘Non più di fiori’ could have been a model for careful attention to text not as artefact but as living drama. Much else, however, looked haphazard or even absent.

Shop-soiled ‘postmodernism’, laziness, or hasty quasi-improvisation? Probably all of the above, for this was ‘school of Richard Jones’ enough to suggest deliberate choices, however difficult the circumstances. A closing image of Tito running around the stage as if having scored a goal proved one of the most half-hearted attempts at Verfremdung I have seen since—well, Jones’s Covent Garden Bohème, which could not be excused by pandemic exigencies. Brecht is not to be reduced to a look, even by late capitalism; nor is opera. More in the way of Personenregie would have done this the world of good. Perhaps the singers will develop a stronger dramatic focus themselves as the short run progresses, responding to the mise-en-scène in ways beyond the director on this occasion. It is, in so many respects, early days. Maybe the present, however haunted by the past, always feels like that. Amidst all the uncertainty, it remained quite something to be back.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Stravinsky demeure

On the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Igor Stravinsky. Do any composer's oeuvre and 'voice' take in quite so much of the twentieth century and much else besides, whilst ever remaining itself? Petrushka or Movements? The Rake's Progress or Les Noces? Why choose? Stravinsky did not. And the more one listens, the more they have in commonuntil suddenly once again they do not, snarling and glistening in mutual opposition as dialectical as anything in Schoenberg, yet differently, if only for a moment. In this 'reliquary', furnished from fragments Stravinsky had left behind, Charles Wuorinen (re)constructs, varies, laments, and returns: much as Stravinsky himself might have done, and yet not. As one of Stravinsky's greatest interpreters and antagonists famously put it, 'Stravinsky demeure'. 

Sunday, 7 March 2021

One year on

One year on. Arguably not: it is one year on, or will be this evening, from the last full-scale, fully-staged opera I saw in the theatre, Carmen at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden. Since then, there has not quite been nothing, even in the operatic field, though nothing quite on that scale. (HGO’s outdoor, one-act Sav­ītri broke the drought; the newly formed London Opera Company’s heroic concert Tristan with piano trio accompaniment; even a short new opera, Blue Electric, at the Playground Theatre: these have all been lights to lighten the darkness.)  Moreover, there have been concerts here and there, for which I am incredibly grateful, whether in London or on a carefully timed visit at the end of August back to Berlin for its Musikfest. I still had one left, the following day, in Berlin: Daniel Barenboim and Pinchas Zukerman completing their three-concert survey of the Beethoven violin sonatas. (Beethoven Year: remember that?)


However, it was the beginning of the end for anything remotely akin to the life I knew. I had no idea at the time, none whatsoever. The virus was spreading across Europe. Plans for a research visit to Milan had been cancelled; more importantly, pictures and reports we received from there were horrific. Yet there seemed little reason, at least to those of us in the dark with little or no scientific knowledge, to think this would happen in Berlin or London. Three days later, the announcement came that theatres and halls (initially of a certain capacity, but in practice all of them) would close until after Easter, which was in any case when I should reluctantly have to return to London, find somewhere to live, and return to work on campus, research leave having come to an end. Less than a week later, I boarded a flight out of Tegel, hurriedly booked ‘before it is too late’, and arrived back in this country, homeless. I stayed a night with friends—that was still possible here—and went up to Yorkshire, to my brother’s house. I had no idea, none whatsoever, and would probably not have agreed to go if I had, that I should be staying in his spare room for more than three months, forbidden by law to leave to find somewhere to live, let alone to hear music or see theatre.


Where are we now? There is vague talk of some performances from the middle of May. Who knows? We have been there before. One would have to be insane to believe a word delivered by this ‘government’ of thieves and liars. For Friends of Dido Harding, this has been one long excuse to steal, to profiteer, to repress, to laugh all the way to Barnard Castle and beyond, and not least to put sectors of dissent—education, the arts, the NHS and other public services—firmly in their place. Welcome to the endless ‘war on woke’, the true threat to ‘free speech’. ‘Art for art’s sake’ is a slippery beast, both justifiable and unjustifiable. It depends what one means. None of us wants art to fail to engage with questions in the world around us. By the same token, none of us wants theatre, should it ever return, to be nothing but masks, respirators, and—God help us—Microsoft Teams.

Right now, however, the fight is to retain any space for art, for criticism, for resistance, whether in a narrow or broader sense: any space, essentially, for life, for what makes us human. That can be a Haydn quartet, or a hug from a friend; it would be doubly welcome, were it to involve both. Of the many unforgivable aspects of this tragedy and its handling—let us never forget one of the highest per capita death tolls in the world, yet ‘Boris’ (sic) must ‘save Christmas’—has been refusal to acknowledge that for many of us, whether in single-person or larger ‘households’, our life-giving, life-protecting support networks depend on people and activities beyond where we live. Many of us live alone; many of us are separated from our loved ones; many of us do not have gardens; even for many of those who do, they are not remotely enough. If what matters most of all to you is your nuclear family, good for you; none of us begrudges you that. For others, though, life itself has been constructed beyond that, be it in complement or opposition to it. We do not want to watch streaming opera; that is not what opera is for us. For one thing, we spend far too many of our waking hours toiling away on screens as it is. For another, we need human contact; we need the business, the surprise, the joy, even perhaps the infernal coughing of the theatre and the concert hall. Many of our friends have lost their livelihoods, much of their entire purpose in life. This is our ‘family’; this is our life.


Or it would be, were we permitted a family and life. Halls and theatres have been made ‘Covid-safe’. They need not spread the disease, unlike certain ‘priority’ activities that shall remain nameless. Reopening would help so many in so many different ways. We know why they are closed. We know the indifference and downright hostility toward anyone who dares to be different, to be vulnerable, to be human. One year on, it is time to fight in earnest—for life itself. Fidelio, aptly enough, was to have been my last opera in Berlin.

Monday, 15 February 2021

Musical mysteries: melodies lost and found - works by Ligeti, Schubert, Dowland, and Kurtág, and Byzantine Chant


(This essay was originally published in a 2020 Salzburg Festival programme for a concert by Camerata Salzburg and Patricia Kopatchniskaja.)

GYÖRGY LIGETI: Concerto for violin and orchestra
ANONYMOUS: Byzantine Chant for Psalm 140 (arranged for violin and string orchestra by Patricia Kopatchinskaja)
FRANZ SCHUBERT: First movement (Allegro) from String Quartet no.14 in D minor, D. 810 – ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’ (arranged for string orchestra by Patricia Kopatchinskaja)
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Der Tod und das Mädchen, D. 531 (arranged for string orchestra by Michy Wiancko)
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Second movement (Andante con moto) from String Quartet no.14 in D minor, D. 810, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’
JOHN DOWLAND: Pavane ‘Lachrimæ Antiquæ Novæ’ for string quintet from Lachrimæ, or Seaven Teares
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Third movement (Allegro molto) from String Quartet no.14 in D minor, D. 810, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’
GYÖRGY KURTÁG: Ligatura-Message to Frances-Maria (The answered unanswered question), Op. 31b
GYÖRGY KURTÁG: ‘Ruhelos’ from Kafka-Fragmente, Op. 24
FRANZ SCHUBERT: Fourth movement (Presto) from String Quartet no.14 in D minor, ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’, D. 810


Ligeti: Anxiety and Transformation of Influence

Ligeti’s Violin Concerto stands as a truly indispensable work in its genre and a key musical work of the late twentieth century. Initially composed in 1989 and 1990, it underwent significant revision during which composer and work alike moved, so it seemed, towards a Platonic ideal, its sources lost, found, varied, and rediscovered.

During hospital convalescence, the composer engaged in intensive study of Haydn’s late quartets, which seems strongly to have influenced ensuing process of clarification. ‘From Haydn,’ he told his assistant, Louise Duchesneau, ‘you can learn how to achieve the clearest effect with the simplest means.’ When choosing ‘between a more ornate structure and a skeleton, Haydn always chooses the skeleton, never using one note more than he needs. I applied this principle of avoiding unnecessary complexity … and thought that it brought me closer to my ideal.’ Ligeti worried, however, that he had veered too close to Hungarian, especially Transylvanian, folk music, replacing the first movement entirely. He also revised and reordered the other two in an expansion to five movements that yet never reached his originally anticipated eight. The version the work’s dedicatee, Saschka Gawriloff, premiered in 1990 with Gary Bertini and the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra was always considered incomplete. Gawriloff and Ligeti employed material originally intended for movements never completed for the fifth-movement cadenza; Kopatchinskaja will play her own.

Ligeti’s interest in different systems of tuning is very much in microtonal play. With a few exceptions marked in the score, the soloist plays at concert pitch. Things are difficult enough for her already with virtuosic writing, according to the composer, born of models such as ‘Paganini, the Bach solo sonatas, Ysäye’s solo sonatas, Wieniawski, and Szymanowski’. However, the concertmaster – one of only five orchestral violins – and first viola – one of three – must play in scordatura, tuned to the seventh harmonic partial of the double bass’s first string and fifth of its third string respectively. Brass too offer natural harmonics, while use of ocarinas, slide whistles, and harmonica both subverts and expands our field of listening. By combining these ‘out of tune’ notes and harmonics with those of the normally tuned strings, Ligeti sought to ‘build a number of harmonic and non-harmonic spectra,’ such conflict between overtones resulting in a veritable voyage of harmonic exploration. The more Ligeti listened to non-Western music, the less he could allow himself to be constrained by equal temperament. ‘It almost hurts’, he said.

The opening is likewise elemental, alternating open A and D strings in lightning succession, furthering Ligeti’s desire for a ‘glassy shimmering character’. In this first movement, ‘Praeludium’, the solo line gradually distinguishes itself from an apparent multitude of other solos, emerging as a well-nigh traditional, first-among-equals virtuoso. Its magic can be tender too, though, as in the violin’s duetting with an array of tuned percussion.

Polymeters run riot, as they will too in the finale, much of whose folk material and allusion Márton Keréfky has discovered to have been reused, ‘albeit embedded in a totally new context’, from the discarded original first movement. The impression of ideas, remembered or misremembered, from earlier movements piling upon one another affords reinvented climax, never quite as we have known it. Listening to Thai, Khmer, and Laotian music afforded inspiration and example for Ligeti’s consciously seeking ‘for a new kind of way of building a melody’. So too did continuing influence from his Transylvanian heritage.

The second movement, ‘Aria, Hoquetus, Choral’ opens with a low solo, G-string adaptation of a melody from Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet, and thus ultimately from his still earlier Musica ricercata for piano, the former being a transcription of six movements of the latter. The movement seems to aspire to rootedness, be it folk- or chant-like – are the two ultimately so different? – yet to find its way thwarted, ‘continually splintering’, in Seth Brodsky’s evocative phrase, ‘into weird ironic homelessness’. Such weird irony and modal aspiration are only heightened by a quartet of woodwind pied pipers taking up their ocarinas for the chorale. High, fantastical writing in the central Intermezzo has any number of parallels in other violin concertos, yet can never be assimilated to their party. The Passacaglia makes play once more with time-honoured form, riveting in its never-quite-expected progress. Here beats the heart of the work and of Ligeti’s generative anxiety of influence.  

Byzantine Chant: To the source?

A chant-like, even ‘mediæval’ quality has been remarked on in Ligeti’s second movement. We now move closer to the elusive (illusory?) source, nonetheless mediated. Travel through musical history and you will find any number of instrumental works or movements based on song melodies. Such tended to be the practice in the writing of Byzantine chant. A text, in this case that of Psalm 140, ‘Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man’, would be set to a traditional melody and subsequently shaped – or not – to requirements of the verse. This tradition’s characteristic ‘four-element syllable-count cadence’ – four final syllables of a line, regardless of word accent, tied to four fixed, stylised cadential elements – has suggested to scholars an earlier psalmody than its Gregorian counterpart. To indulge in wild anachronism, is this also an early anticipation of modern clashes between words and music, given a further twist by arrangement for instruments alone?

Touched by Death

Schubert set Matthias Claudius’s Der Tod und das Mädchen in February 1817, two years after Claudius’s death. Here death approaches in instrumental sombre D minor. The Maiden vocally resists, bidding him not to touch her. He has his way, though, also vocally; he is not fierce and will have her sleep in his arms. The song closes with a foreshortened reprise of the introduction, albeit in an equally sombre yet peaceable D major. The manuscript might not have survived, having been cut into pieces by Schubert’s half-brother Anton, the Benedictine Father Hermann, yet was eventually reassembled. (It had in any case been published.) Ludwig Wittgenstein would muse on its fate more than a century later:

Recall that after Schubert’s death his brother cut some of Schubert’s scores into small pieces and gave such pieces, consisting of a few bars, to his favourite pupils. This act, as a sign of piety, is just as understandable to us as the different one of keeping the scores untouched, accessible to no one. And if Schubert’s brother had burned the scores, that too would be understandable as a sign of piety.

Showing the dead respect takes many forms.

Touched by Life

If the song is one of Schubert’s most celebrated, so too is the March 1824 string quartet taking its nickname and the theme of its second movement from it, touched by life rather than death. It stands as tall in its genre as Ligeti’s concerto in its. Resist undue romanticisation as we might, it is difficult not to think at least in partial relation to Schubert’s own coming appointment with the grim reaper. This was, however, the very time his friend Franz von Schober reported Schubert believed new medication had cured him. Either way, an artwork should not be reduced to biography, however tragic.

Tragedy is nevertheless present, vehemently so in the first movement, its second thematic group sweetly lyrical yet undoubtedly in the shadow of a furious D minor daemon not so very different from that which had captivated Mozart. The number of fortissimo and still more sforzando markings might visually suggest a score by Beethoven, although the triplet writing could not be more characteristic of Schubert: both in itself and for the particular variety of propulsion it offers. Such prospects of peace as there are, for instance a shift to D major during the recapitulation, find themselves swiftly, even brutally undercut. The uncertainty of where the coda will lead till it breathes its last offers an apt summation of tensions and overall tragedy in the movement as a whole.

We move to G minor for the Andante con moto theme and variations, five of them. Neither the first violin’s flights of fancy in the first variation nor the cello’s rapt lyricism in the second can forestall the pent-up fury unleashed in the third. If the penultimate variation, as might be expected, shifts to the tonic major and the final variation concludes likewise, this is as resigned, even exhausted a close as that to the original song. Only in the third movement trio, that Schubert can present a (relatively) sustained vision of major mode utopia. Sandwiched as it is, however, between the rhythmic insistence and almost bewildering syncopations of the scherzo itself, we know that it is too late. Is it fanciful to consider the rondo finale a Totentanz, a dance of death? Hardly, for this Romantic tarantella leaves us in no doubt as to the work’s ultimate destination, fury once more and now decisively winning out over resignation. Having the coda open in D major only prepares the way for the final nail in the coffin. Neither hope nor forgiveness is to be had; nor is it sought.

Old Tears New

John Dowland’s 1604 Lachrimae or seaven teares figured in seaven passionate pavans takes as its theme and first pavan Dowland’s existing song and lute solo, Lachrimae antiquae (‘Old Tears’). We hear here its immediate successor variation, ‘Lachrimae antiquae novae’ (‘Old Tears New’), its melodic melancholy and harmonic intensity both related to and a development – to borrow from the Viennese Classical future – of its thematic model. What Thomas Morley in his influential 1597 Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke had held necessary for expression of ‘a lamentable passion’ may be heard immediately: ‘motions proceeding by halfe notes. Flat thirds, and flat sixths, which of their nature are sweet’; semitones or ‘accidentall motions’ that will ‘fitly express the passions of griefe, weeping, sighes, sorrowes, sobs, and suchlike’. And yet, Dowland noted in his dedication to Anne of Denmark that tears differ in cause and effect. ‘No doubt pleasant are the teares which Musicke weeps, neither are teares shed always in sorrow but sometime in joy and gladnesse.’ Music mirrors yet relieves man’s fallen condition.

Kurtág’s re-enchantment

Two short pieces by György Kurtág ask further questions ‘answered’ and ‘unanswered’, perhaps even unanswerable in the case of Ligatura-Message to Frances-Maria, written in 1989, the year Ligeti began his Violin Concerto; and, in the excerpt from his Kafka-Fragmente, to continue the restless (‘Ruhelos’) Schubertian wandering that is our fallen lot. Solo strings and celesta in the former suggest re-enchantment of the traditional quartet, in a slow processional offering neither comfort nor discomfort but something beyond, magically or materially, even a foundational melody yet to be found. The latter piece’s whispered confidences and sudden eruption from intimate theatre into something finely balanced between cruelty and the absurd likewise seem beyond our ken, stretch our ears as we may. Like Ligeti’s Haydn. Kurtág never uses ‘one note more than he needs’. Musical mysteries endure.