Saturday, 23 September 2023

BPO/Blomstedt - Strauss and Beethoven, 22 September 2023


Strauss: Metamorphosen
Beethoven: Symphony no.3 in E-flat major, op.55, ‘Eroica’

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Herbert Blomstedt (conductor)  

Images: Stephan Rabold

For me, this was  a concert of two (unequal) halves. Though I understand why it would have been programmed this way round, I could not help but wish, conceptually as well as contextually, that Strauss’s Metamorphosen had followed Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. It could work the other way, of course, Strauss’s elegy for a humanistic Germany and Europe destroyed by barbarism hanging over that very world those very values as expressed Beethoven’s ‘Heroic Symphony composed to celebrate the memory of a great man’. The problem turned out to be that Herbert Blomstedt’s conception of the latter, like so many current conceptions of the symphonic Beethoven, was to prove, considerable virtues notwithstanding, distinctly lacking in heroism whose demise might be lamented, let alone deconstructed. 

Metamorphosen, though, received a model performance, as comprehending and as moving as any I can recall. If one closed one’s eyes, one could imagine it was not being conducted, or indeed that there was no conductor, at all: not in a sense of any lack of direction, quite the contrary, but rather that Blomstedt seemed, however much of an illusion this may have been, to act as enabler of a performance that came from the twenty-three Berlin string players as soloists, as members of a chamber group that expanded into an ensemble of smaller, constantly metamorphosing ensembles and whose frame of reference deepened as the performance progressed. Above all, Blomstedt seemed to enable the players to listen and to respond, to express the idea of the work. What Wagner would have called its melos, and Strauss would certainly have understood as such, was unerringly traced throughout, to the extent that it seemed more spontaneously to evolve than to be traced at all (not unlike the Prelude to Das Rheingold, or indeed the idea of a Beethoven symphony). 

The Berlin Philharmonic offered the most cultivated of sound, without the slightest suspicion of self-regard. Textures were clear, though never ‘neutral’. Chiaroscuro was as sharp and as detailed as in a Caravaggio canvas.  And at just the right times, the ensemble of ensembles became a full (or full-sounding) orchestra, attaining unanimity of voice in Wagnerian-Beethovenian fashion, prior, say, to highlighting a duet between principal violin and cello, or an expression of the most ravishing pain from viola. Harmonic motion and tempo were as one, attendants to a gradual yet undeniable path towards revelation of the theme from Beethoven’s ‘Marcia funebre’, until one could deny it no more—and certainly did not wish to. For the close was resolutely unsentimental and un-milked, and all the more powerful for it. 

A bright-eyed, bushy-tailed first movement of the Eroica shared many of the same virtues. If Beethoven had written, in Brucknerian vein, a ‘Nullte’, or a ‘Study Symphony’, this might have been it. The BPO sounded wonderfully transparent, with very much that sense of chamber music writ large, players listening and responding to one another. Is that, however, all one wants or needs with Beethoven? With Strauss, there are so many masks, diversions, and ironies, even in the apparently personal lamentation of Metamorphosen, that one is rarely if ever sure one is hearing, or would wish to hear, ‘the composer’s voice’. With Beethoven, as with Wagner or Mahler, and whatever the musicological investigations and deconstructions of recent years, a pleasant, non-committal Beethoven remains a strange and, at least for me, an unsatisfactory thing. It flowed beautifully, and that is far from nothing, but what did it mean? 

The ‘Marcia funebre’ fared better, sounding in context as much a response to Strauss as to the first movement, and working well in both ways. It was neither Wagner’s nor my Beethoven, but it would not be, given a very different interpretative framework. Here, the intimacy of Blomstedt and the orchestra’s approach did not overlook the gravity of the oration. It was dialogic, akin to a community of musicians, perhaps even citizens, coming together to pay their respects, but that community ultimately gave rise to something that did, after all, appear to be or at least contain ‘Beethoven’s voice’. Its counterpoint chilled and stirred; Beethoven spoke, before giving way, always in his shadow, to intimations of Mendelssohn. 

Such intimations were to be heard at the beginning of the scherzo too, before a boisterous, ‘early’ Beethoven demanded our attention. If those two tendencies had done battle a little more overtly, this might have been a properly dialectical experience. Alas, here and in the trio, its wondrous trio of horns included, that nagging question of meaning returned. So too did questions concerning a lack of cragginess, obstinacy, and, not least, humour. 

I felt that during the finale too. It was good-humoured, certainly, often (doubtless in a nod to origins) balletic, but the gruffness of Beethoven’s humour, and indeed his and/or his music’s other characteristics, rarely registered. Violas fairly jabbed their early interjections, yes, yet it was difficult in the context of an overriding idea of the symphony to understand why. There was considerable variation of mood, the coming of the minor mode a welcome moment of transformation, yet the emotional vicissitudes on offer in very different ways in, say, Furtwängler and Klemperer, or more recently in Colin Davis and Daniel Barenboim, were never a possibility. Musicianly and beautifully played it was, and the audience seemed not remotely to share my reservations, giving Blomstedt a standing ovation whose genuine warmth was undeniable. 

I shall give the last word to Wagner, the pre-eminent Beethoven interpreter of any age, and the most crucial link (still more so than Mozart) between Beethoven and Strauss. In his 1851 ‘programmatic explanation’, born of direct experience of conducting the work and of considering where it led, he wrote: ‘The term “heroic” must be taken in the widest sense… . If we understand ‘hero’ to mean, above all, the whole, complete man, in possession of all purely human feelings — love, pain, and strength — at their richest and most intense, we shall comprehend the correct object as conveyed to us by the artist in the speaking, moving notes of his work. The artistic space of this work is occupied by … feelings of a strong, fully formed individuality, to which nothing human is strange, and which contains within itself everything that is truly human.’ Such thoughts are deeply unfashionable; and yet…

Sunday, 17 September 2023

Das Floß der Medusa, Komische Oper, 16 September 2023

Hangar 1, Tempelhof Airport

Images: Jaro Suffner

La Mort – Gloria Rehm
Jean-Charles – Günter Papendell
Charon – Idunnu Münch
Four Dead – Takshiro Namiki, Taiki Miyashita, Yauci Yanes Ortega, Matthias Spenke, Fermin Basterra
Thirteen Dying – Polly Ott, Agnes Dasch, Sarah Papodopoulo, Viola Weimker, Claudia Buhrmann, Orine Nosaki, Wiebke Kretzschmar, Martin Fehr, Christoph Eder, Hartmut Schröder, Martin Netter, Thomas Heiß, Werner Matusch
Fourteen Surviving – Angela Postweiler, Uta Krause, Veronika Burger, Claudia van Hasselt, Julia Hebecker, Ulrike Jahn, Hans-Dierer Gilleßen, Michael Schaffrath, Matthias Eger, Laurin Oppermann, Philipp Schreyer, Simon Berg, Enrico Wenzel, Frank Schwemmer

Tobias Kratzer (director)
Rainer Sellmaier (designs)
Marguerite Donlon (choreography)
Julia Jordà Stoppelhaar (dramaturgy)
Lighting – Olaf Freese
Sound design – Holger Schwark

Choir Soloists of the Komische Oper (director: David Cavelius)
Movement Choir and Children’s Extras of the Komische Oper
Vocalconsort Berlin
Staats- und Domchor Berlin (director: Kai-Uew Jirka)
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Titus Engel (conductor)

Henze’s Raft of the Medusa may lay claim to the most celebrated non-premiere in musical history. In his autobiography, Bohemian Fifths (one of the most beautifully readable and enjoyable of composer autobiographies), Henze tells of how a media campaign against him had been stepped up during rehearsals, its authors ‘a ghost writer … also active as a composer … and a Hamburg-based journalist of ill-repute,’ somehow pillorying the oratorio about to be given its first performance without having seen or heard a note of it. It was neither the first nor the last time that his enemies claimed that the desire of ‘someone who was not hard up but who had a roof over his head and contracts with an appreciative Establishment … to become a spokesman for minorities, for the underprivileged and for opponents of the system’ must be bogus. Luigi Nono and Peter Weiss wrote letters on Henze’s behalf; Theodor Adorno nearly did, then (according to Henze) backed out on learning of such communist involvement. At any rate, a shot across the bows, at least in retrospect, had been fired when, in an interview with two journalists, eight days beforehand, they asked the composer what he would do in the case of ‘unpleasant scenes’. Maybe they knew; maybe they did not. 

At any rate, something already eerily amiss backstage, the chaos initiated when someone unfurled a (small) red flag on stage, and Henze quite reasonably declined a functionary’s demand that he personally take it down – ‘I was there to conduct, not to keep the place clean’ – led first of all to withdrawal of the RIAS Chamber Choir, who had joined from West Berlin to add to the numbers. They absurdly chanted ‘in unison: “Get rid of the flag! Get rid of the flag!”,’ notwithstanding the fact that the very same flag flew from the Hamburg and Schöneberg Town Halls at that time. Riot police intervened, ‘ready for action with their clubs and shields’. The orchestra had already left. ‘There was total confusion, brute force was used, and a number of arrests were made. Ernst Schnabel,’ writer of the oratorio’s text, ‘may have been a former controller of North German Radio, but that did not stop him from being thrown through a plate-glass door by a representative of the forces of law and order and from being briefly locked up in a cell for opposing the state’s authorities.’ Someone, as Henze discovered only later, had attached a poster to his desk, with the word ‘Revolutionary’, followed by a question mark. 

It was a traumatic event for Henze, however fun or glamorous it may sound to us with distance. He, rather than the disruptors, found himself the target of a boycott from German musical institutions as a result. It has long seemed to me it would make a splendid metatheatrical setting for a staging of the work (be it noted, if only in parenthesis, that it was never intended to be staged). Yet, on reflection, and in light of what was in many ways, doubtless near-necessarily yet also wisely, quite a straightforward staging by Tobias Kratzer, perhaps that is the last thing The Raft of the Medusa actually needs: a further overshadowing by trumped-up debates and, let us not forget, state violence. Perhaps, actually, what it needs is the ability to speak, however clichéd the expression, ‘for itself’, in order to move and indeed to engage a new generation of listeners, many of us, me included, being afforded the opportunity to hear it live for the first time. There is probably, truth be told, room for both, though what do I know? I am no director. What I can say is that this Komische Oper premiere was, both intrinsically and judging by the audience reaction, a great success, indeed handsome recompense for that West German sabotage at the end of the fateful year of 1968.


We were not, however at the Komische Oper’s usual base. We were in Hangar 1 of Tempelhof Airport, a spectacular (and history-ridden) venue in what was and, in many ways still is, the West. Whilst long-awaited renovation and expansion work, to last several years, proceeds at the house on Behrenstraße, the company intends to deepen contacts with all parts of the city. This certainly made for an excellent start. The action took place, as it were, in the round—or rather the square, and a very large square at that, the audience surrounding a giant pool representing the sea in which the great tragedy of the French frigate Méduse took place, immortalised for so many of us in Théodore Géricault’s painting of two or three years later (an arresting tableau vivant on our arrival). Like the jungle, the forest, indeed any ‘natural’ setting, the sea in itself lies beyond human good and evil, but it all too often provides a setting for the latter to unfold. And so, after a little initial splashing around, already brought into relief by Charon’s dinghy narration, the tragedy unfolded, honouring where apt the intentions of its original creators, yet not bound by them where it no longer made sense. The chorus descended from all around us, indeed within us, ensuring our identification and involvement from the very outset. Death, La Mort, called from the side, and stepped in, luring many away. The dwindling band of survivors fought, reconciled, sank, swam, hallucinated, met again with reality, all clearly narrated and explained, always in danger—not only from La Mort, but from the heartless, stratified, capitalist society that had sent them to her and abandoned them. 

A shipwreck necessarily evokes further thoughts and images to us concerning our world’s (that of contemporary fascist regimes in Italy, Greece, and Britain in particular) inhuman rejection of refugees whose torment its economic and political systems have engendered. That is neither to be avoided nor regretted. Kratzer, rightly, I think, does not push that, for whilst it is part of the same struggle against the ruling class, it is not simply to be identified with it. This is also a more general struggle, indeed the general struggle of class society. Charon’s line remains with us: ‘Die Überlebenden aber kehrten in die Welt zurück: belehrt von Wirklichkeit, fiebernd, sie umzustürzen.’ The survivors returned to the world, instructed by reality, fevered, to overthrown it. They have not done so yet, of course, yet they were some of many to have planted the revolutionary seed reaction, its lies and distractions can never quite extinguish. And, at that point, the opening of the hangar doors, revealing a vehicle to take away the survivors, welcoming them (like Death, of course) though we know not to what, offered a glimpse of hope, whilst the idea that it was anything but continued to gnaw at us.

Charon (Idunnu Münch)

My sole reservation, and I should not wish to make much of this, is that such a setting perhaps tended to emphasise the ‘dramatic’ and particularly the scenic over the ‘musical’—not, of course, that the two (or three, or however many there are) should be dissociated in the first place. Singers were miked, which in the setting made good sense, I think; this was not an oratorio hall, nor was it pretending to be. Just occasionally, though, I wondered whether Henze’s orchestra, the excellent Komische Oper forces conducted with great wisdom and knowledge by Titus Engel, might have had a bit of a raw deal. Opera (even when it is not strictly so) is beset with such compromises, of course; indeed, it glories in them. Another performance would bring something different to the table and there are certainly no grounds for complaint. What I think I might have benefited from was a further opportunity to hear the performance once I had become more closely accustomed to its general outlines. 

For there was no doubting the command of detail, be it melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, or timbral to be heard here, nor its inextricable combination both with the myriad of vocal lines and with the staged action. In Henze’s own words: ‘The polyphonic style of writing that I had acquired in such disparate works as Novae de infinito laudes, Der junge Lord and Die Bassariden now acquired a very real power and a realistic dimension: these were the voices of people thrown together, voices that rose to a scream or died away to a murmur and to silence.’ Crucially, moreover, Henze thought here – and wanted his performers to think – of instrumental lines as vocal lines too, ‘as the music of wordless Greek choruses’. If there is a whole world – this is most definitely a Mahlerian imagination at work – to be discovered in these particulars, there is a score and there are recordings for that. Moreover, the timpani call ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi-Minh’ prevails, equivocally no doubt, yet ultimately it does and must. (So it did in those ‘events’ of December 1968, when socialist students, protesting against the culture industry, showed explicit solidarity in the hall with Henze and vice versa, so one part of the ‘message’, if you like, did reach performance after all.) Schnabel’s use of German and Italian, the latter deepening the reach of Dante’s Inferno, also helped point to a world that one day might just shed itself of national boundaries—or perhaps not, given we hear it only from the dead. 

The choral model in Bach’s Passions is obvious enough and was acknowledged by Henze. At least as important, however, is how he and Schnabel, as well as their performers, travelled beyond that into more naturalistic realms, ‘including whimpering and screaming – even the wailing of Arab women is audible here’ (Henze). That plurality, very much part of his artistic and political vision, could at times only be hinted at, but out of those hints could, and did, grow something larger and stronger. We should not forget, though, that that, just as in Bach, could encompass something dark too. The monstrous description of those (as yet) still alive, the ‘Vielzuvielen’, (the far too many), becomes imprinted by repetition: not quite ritualistic, for Schnabel’s writing and Henze’s setting are more skilfully varied than that, but not entirely un-ritualistic either. This is, after all, an oratorio. They are individual human beings, all with a right to live, yet their number is a crucial key to Death’s victory, such as it is. All of this was finely balanced in a musicodramatic dialectic that was heard as well as seen, felt as well as thought. 

Whilst it would be invidious and, in many cases, simply not possible to single out particular vocal contributions, something should nonetheless be said of the central trio. Gloria Rehm welcomed the sailors in sweet obscenity to their destruction, their choral (and solo vocal) lines acknowledging her welcome, finding it all too easy to intertwine with it, to forge a new ensemble. Idunnu Münch’s Charon kept us (just about) sane, framing our understanding and response, a clear voice of goodness in the sense that we knew her truth to be ‘the truth’. (At least, the alternative did not bear thinking about it.) She mastered a very different kind of writing, taking us back not only in her name to the earliest of opera, negotiating passage between the living and the dead, and imparting a different kind of hope, in a documentary truth that permitted of aesthetic expression. (We may remember here that, as well as heading North German radio, Schnabel was a key figure in the making and development of German radio documentaries.)

La Mort (Gloria Rehm), Jean-Charles (Günter Papendell)

Jean-Charles is, to quote Kratzer in a programme interview, ‘the primus inter pares any of us could be, almost an Everyman in the Hofmannsthal sense. In this particular setting, it is that that enables – and did in Günter Papendell’s towering performance – identification, reading ourselves in, and thus exploration of some more particular qualities too. It is a tricky balance, yet Papendell brought it off, rising from the crowd and giving voice, without being a mere mouthpiece. There are musical as well as ‘dramatic’ means to this, of course, and he very much had the measure of Henze’s Pierrot-plus (that is, at times more experimental) writing here. Thoughts of Fischer-Dieskau, quite simply, never surfaced—alas, like so many others, lost in those treacherous waters, made all the more treacherous by man’s inhumanity to man. Yet each of those individual singers and actors, as well as the massed choral forces, brought a crucial individual presence to the performance without distracting: not the least of Krazter and his team’s achievement here. 

‘Ernst Schnabel and I,’ Henze wrote, ‘identified with the figures in Géricault’s painting, not only in order to be able to deal artistically with the subject matter of the piece and in order to give credible expression to our shared experience and fellow suffering but because we felt a sense of inner solidarity with these people and their struggle.’ Surely part of the task of such a performance is to enable the audience to do so too; in this, it seemed triumphantly to succeed. In Henze’s 1990 revision, there is even to be heard a final glimmer of hope (or might we, irrespective of intention, divine it in our administered society as reimposition of order?) An orchestral hymn is heard above, perhaps structuring, the ongoing drumbeat. It – the idea rather than the means – put me slightly in mind of Wagner’s revision of The Flying Dutchman in light of Tristan’s equivocal thoughts of redemption. Is that a good thing or not? The very question is doubtless silly, yet it reminds us that we soldier on, sometimes taking a step back, sometimes a step sideways, sometimes no step at all; and just occasionally, sharing a communal and, yes, political experience such as this, those doors flung open, Fidelio-like, we take a hesitant step forward. Or we imagine we do. 

The greater number of the Komische Oper’s activities this season will take place in the Schillertheater, known to many of us as temporary home to the Staatsoper during its lengthy renovations, but there will also be performances at the Konzerthaus, at Neukölln’s Kindl-Areal (formerly the Berliner Kindl brewer, now a centre for contemporary art), in a tent at the Rotes Rathaus, and at pop-up locations across the city. For the meantime, do what you can to get a ticket for this, and take that hesitant step forward into the freie Luft.

Saturday, 16 September 2023

Musikfest Berlin (5) - Slaatto/Reinecke/Qadianie/Mohseni: Schweinitz and Persian musical improvisation, 16 September 2023


Wolfgang von Schweinitz: Plainsound Duo, ‘My Persia’, op.66 (world premiere)
Improvisations on selected dastgāhs of the radif of traditional Persian music

Helge Slaatto (violin)
Frank Reinecke (double bass)
Majeed Qadianie (tār, setār)
Niloufar Mohseni (tombak)

Image: ©Fabian Schellhorn / Berliner Festspiele

My attendance at Musikfest Berlin concerts this year proved more curtailed than I had hoped or expected. Whilst, however, I deeply regretted having to withdraw from no fewer than three Mahler performances, an Alpine Symphony, and so on (I hasten to add, as an audience member!) perhaps it was ultimately more valuable for me to step out, as they say, of my comfort zone, and to stretch my ears, as Charles Ives’s father instructed his son, in order to hear the fascinating music-making of Majeed Qadianie on tār and setār and Niloufar Mohseni on tombak. 

This was the second half of what I suppose we should call a chamber music concert. It certainly took place in the Berlin Philharmonie’s Kammermusiksaal. I am anxious, though, not to impose Western categories unduly on something that doubtless has points of contact, but equally many points of difference. For that reason, I shall keep this short; I should rather admit my ignorance up front than visit an unedifying display of orientalist ignorance upon the music by writing too much and making a fool of myself. Qadianie and Mohseni, both as soloists and as a duo, invited us in to listen and seemed remarkably successful at having us shed a few of our musical preconceptions, not least those founded on the guiding presence of harmony: less important, it seems, for Persian music as indeed for many non-Western musics. Taking us through various dastgāhs – to my understanding, each of seven basic notes, plus others that enable melodic ornamentation and modulation – from the overarching collection (radif) of Persian music, they showed us, not through lecturing or writing, but simply (not always quite so simply) through their music-making, a personal and cooperative process of playing and listening that both respects tradition and extends it. There was no question that this was a dialogue, nor was there any question that it moved in ways different from how ‘ours’ might. Improvisation on melodic material, in particular contexts (no doubt including the room and the audience), imparted a sense of something not so entirely distinct from what we might call ‘developing variation’, albeit with very different guiding principles. Above all, though, it was an opportunity to listen, to learn, and to enjoy. For an eagerly demanded encore, Qadianie sang too, all the time not only underpinned but also propelled by the subtle path of Mohseni’s drumbeat, as well as that of his own instrumental line. 

The first half had given us the premiere of Wolfgang von Schweinitz’s Plainsound Duo ‘My Persia’, written in 2020 and extended in 2023, a commission from the Berliner Festspiele/Musikfest berlin and Bavarian Radio’s musica viva. It is described as ‘bitonal harmonic counterpoint in traditional Persian modes for violin and double bass in quarter-tone scordatura’. And that, I think, is very much what we heard in a series of movements taking their leave from Persian melodies and varying them. As the work progressed, so did a sense of newly exploring our ‘own’ traditional instruments via a different musical language. Harmonic motion, where one found it, seemed not unreasonably founded on Western practices, yet also indicated a willingness to break away from it, indeed, as Schweinitz put it in the programme, now to emancipate not Schoenberg’s dissonance but rather consonance, in this case via quarter-tones and non-tempered ‘just intonation’. That can often sound strange to our ears; it certainly often does to mine. Again, though, there is much to learn, not only through the stretching of our ears but through openly approaching the results.

Friday, 15 September 2023

Musikfest Berlin (4) – Gerhaher/BPO/Petrenko: Xenakis, Illés, Hartmann, and Kurtág, 14 September 2023


Xenakis: Jonchaies
Márton Illés: Lég-szín-tér (world premiere)
Hartmann: Gesangsszene
Kurtág: Stele

Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

Now this is what I call a programme. To have Xenakis and Kurtág on the same programme from the Berlin Philharmonic and Kirill Petrenko was extraordinary enough, yet together with a new piece from Márton Illés and Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s final work, the latter involving Christian Gerhaher as soloist, this would surely have been the envy of any hall and audience in the world; it certainly should have been.

Iannis Xenakis’s Jonchaies, premiered in 1977 by the Orchestre National de France and Michel Tabachnik, may have been receiving its first performance by the Berlin Philharmonic, but it was a performance of security, commitment, and understanding belying any local novelty. The upward string sweep, not the last arresting string opening of the evening, sounded as if an aural concrete sculpture, turned by a giant butterknife. Loneliness and excitement in the landscape painted – I may as well continue this excess of metaphors – evoked not so much another world as a world in another solar system, even galaxy. As percussion joined, this seemed to be a Rite of Spring without spring, and perhaps even without a rite. Whatever it was, it mesmerised, complex yet above stark and elemental. Wind entered almost imperceptibly, yet one knew when they were fully there. This was a performance that grabbed one by the throat and never let one go, to make Stravinsky and even the sirens of Varèse, here trumped by Berlin trombones in woolly mammoth mode, appear well-nigh fainthearted by comparison.    

Illes’s Lég-szín-tér, roughly a scene, setting or colour space for air, is the latest in a series of such ‘scenes’, this instalment commissioned by the Stiftung Berlin Philharmoniker and financed by the Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung. In three short movements, it displayed an almost classical command of form. Not that there was anything formulaic or indeed backward-looking to it, but rather it sounded as natural and at home in itself, and indeed as concise, as a Haydn symphony (which might have made a splendid alternative bedfellow). In any case, the swarming string opening to this marked it out as a nice pairing with the Xenakis, though the strings were far more quickly joined by the rest of the orchestra in a first movement that was at times almost pretty, or at least delicate—though perhaps anything would be when compared with Xenakis. Accordion (Teodoro Anzellotti) here and elsewhere made its presence felt too. Indeed, at times, the string section almost sounded as if it were a giant version of that instrument. If there were something of the scherzo to that movement, that impression was still stronger in the second, which occasionally in texture, rhythm, and harmony suggested an affinity – I do not think it was more than that – to Messiaen. Throughout, the orchestra and Petrenko traced its contours as expertly as if it were a repertoire piece. The third movement opened with more string music, led by Amihai Grosz on slithering solo viola, from whom the lead was taken and dispersed. This was a movement of very different character, coming across as a necessary response to the first two, the pace of harmonic change considerably slower. Its understated, witty sign-off too was not the least virtue in a work and performance that again, albeit in different ways from Xenakis, never failed to hold one’s attention. 

Hartmann’s Gesangsszene was for me just as much a revelation. I suspect some readers will know it; I have the impression it is, or at one point may have been, more often heard in German- than English-speaking halls. If so, that is a great pity, for this setting of words from Jean Giraudoux’s Sodom et Gomorrha (in German translation) is unquestionably the real thing: powerfully moving, a fitting, if sadly incomplete, culmination to a career of honour as well as great compositional craft. I am not sure it is not the finest thing I have heard from Hartmann, though I have probably heard far too little in total. Certainly, it is difficult to imagine superior performances than those heard from Gerhaher, the BPO, and Petrenko, ideally paced and voiced. A lengthy introductory orchestral section opened with a flute solo of great quality (both as writing and in Sébastian Jacot’s supremely involving performance). One might call it Schoenbergian or post-Schoenbergian, I suppose, yet it never sounded ‘like’ anything other than itself. The orchestral writing that developed again might have put me in mind of Berg, a veritable labyrinth, yet always clear of purpose, but it did not. Here was captivating drama without a stage and, indeed, to start with, without even a voice. When Gerhaher entered, recitative-like, my immediate thought, apart from following his crystal-clear diction and pitching, was that we really ought to hear him soon in Busoni’s Doktor Faust. That moment is approaching, if someone will offer it; it came as little surprise to learn the piece was written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. This is a different kind of warning, though, one for the atomic age, with a different, still more immediate sense of the apocalypse, and that shone through—as surely it did for Hartmann at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Death unquestionably hangs over proceedings, yet there is no self-pity, but rather dignity, the dignity of a lifetime of resistance. When Gerhaher came to speak the final words, their setting prevented by Hartmann’s death, it was a tribute to what we had heard that they seemed very much part of the same musical performance. If only our ‘leaders’ would learn; if only they would even listen. 

György Kurtág’s Stele was an earlier BPO commission, from the Claudio Abbado years (1994, when the composer was in residence), and it has been conducted by at least two others here in the meantime, Simon Rattle and Bernard Haitink, prior to this outing under Petrenko. Rattle once likened it to ‘a gravestone on which the entire history of European music is written’, and so it sounded here, a fitting aesthetic pendant to Hartmann, and just as moving in its way. In three short movements, like the Illés piece, its opening reference to the third (arguably to any) Beethoven’s Leonore Overture was as unmistakeable as it was properly enigmatic. There is memorialisation here, to be sure, yet to what end? The path taken is certainly different, not un-Webern-like. The agitation of the second movement fairly terrified, like a Mahlerian nightmare fashioned by the ghost of Webern and quite without the vistas of a better world with which Mahler might have cruelly consoled and disappointed us. Perhaps Beckett, bearing in mind Kurtág’s past and future, is present already, another ghost at the feast. For an almost dizzying array of paths opened up, without prejudice to the sole direction taken. Webern, if anything, seemed still stronger a presence in the third and final movement, without the slightest hint of imitation. Here the mode, as it were, was that of the Funeral March, though the sense of Klangfarbenmelodie sounded, if anything, more Schoenbergian. It was as simple as it was complex, returning us in a way to Xenakis, and vice versa. And how the rests, the silences, told, as musical as any sound.

Monday, 4 September 2023

Musikfest Berlin (3) - Prohaska/Ensemble Modern/Benjamin - Chin, Ogonek, Filidei, Benjamin, and Ammann, 3 September 2023


Unsuk Chin: SPIRA
Elizabeth Ogonek: Cloudline
Francesco Filidei: Cantico delle Creature (world premiere)
Benjamin: A Mind of Winter
Dieter Ammann: glut

Anna Prohaska (soprano)
Ensemble Modern
George Benjamin (conductor)

© Fabian Schellhorn / Berliner Festspiele

The second of George Benjamin’s Ensemble Modern concerts, again with Anna Prohaska, offered four pieces from the last decade, one a world premiere, together with an early work of Benjamin’s own. Unsuk Chin’s SPIRA (2019) was the first of three works from composers born within a couple of years of each other, the other two being Dieter Ammann and Benjamin himself. Having just noticed SPIRA is officially described as a concerto for orchestra, I am patting myself on the back just a little, though it should probably be the composer (and performers) I am acknowledging, for it came across in that vein, albeit, as one might expect, reinvented, different instruments seemingly presenting their own standpoint on the orchestra. Indeed, the idea of a standpoint or perspective seemed to me key both to work and performance. Whether the opening were a matter of the rest of the orchestra responding, via a series of shocks, to gradual opening out from tuned (bowed) percussion, or the two vibraphones, xylophone, and others responding to those shocks is perhaps in itself a matter of perspective—or a pointless question: ‘why either-or?’ Massed violin swarming perhaps inevitably brought Chin’s teacher Ligeti to mind, but there was no question that here were her own voice and her own world. Indeed, the piece seemed to convey an interest, doubtless born of Jakob Bernouill’s logarithmic spiral (whence the title), in defining limits and direction of that world. What were its edges, and where was it heading? A mystery remained at its heart, at least for this listener, and that was all to the good. 

Elizabeth Ogonek’s Cloudline was premiered at the 2021 Proms, but this was the first time I had heard it. (I think the same is true of all five works, Benjamin’s included.) It certainly shared a keen sense of fantasy and indeed virtuosity with Chin’s work, and opening slithering of pitch (quartertones, I think) offered another variety of swarming, not only from strings; otherwise, though, the work offered more contrast than complement. There was here something close to representation, at least at one level. ‘Liminal’ is a word I probably overuse at the moment, but it is difficult to avoid here, given the piece’s fascinating preoccupation with clouds, their edges (again) and the lack of definition to those edges. A contrast between definition and vagueness, or at least something more frayed, sounds Debussyan, but I never experienced this as anything other than itself, not least in a feeling of outright joy that is perhaps rarer in contemporary orchestral music (or our responses) than it might be. 

I felt less sure about Francesco Filidei’s Cantico delle Creature, or perhaps it is fairer to say it did not necessarily adhere to my expectations (and why should it?) There was no questioning, here or elsewhere, the excellence of the performances, to which now must be added Anna Prohaska’s committed advocacy. A setting of St Francis’s celebrated canticle joins illustrious company, not least that of Liszt, but Filidei certainly made his own way, responding, it seemed to me, to St Francis’s Umbrian dialect in a way so as to harness something old as well as something new, as revealed in Prohaska’s sometimes almost folklike delivery. Clear, bell-like, it was not trying to be anything it was not, far from it, but rather its terms of reference, moving from a wide-eyed naïveté to something more demonstrative, resonated both with words and orchestra. For this was another highly ‘atmospheric’ piece, a lengthy orchestral opening offering scene-setting pictorial and dramatic. When a vibrato-less cello (later in the piece, a viola too) entered, it suggested mediaeval intervention, a voice from a past not merely imagined. Sudden changes of metre and delivery, birdcall whistles, and more provided colour as well as formal staging posts. This was not necessarily a subtle work, but instead often highly gestural; in any case, subtlety was hardly called for. 

Benjamin’s The Snow Man, from 1981, after Wallace Stevens, proved an astonishingly accomplished piece from the word go, its orchestral sound world, icy yet full of life, immediately, as it were, ‘created’ and immanent. The composer’s use of the voice, and his soloist’s use of hers, were both unquestionably vocal and daringly instrumental: two sides, we realised, of the same coin. Wind echoes made that point still clearer. Somewhere between a scena and a tone poem, it was in reality only ever ‘itself’, over too soon, which is always a good sign. Word-setting always told, always added something; this was never merely ‘setting’ the text. It was always, moreover, a response to English words, in an emphatic sense. Prohaska’s animated, even possessed performance gave a sense that this too might have been written for. It was not, of course, but what greater compliment can be offered—in either direction? ‘For the listener, who listens in the snow, and, nothing himself, beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’ 

Ammann’s glut (2014-16) opened in immediate, indeed urgent fashion. Uniquely, among the pieces heard here, it employed full orchestra at the start, thus setting up very expectations and contrasts. Indeed, it proved remarkably relentless – not in a bad way –something of a riot, with swagger to match. Ammann seemed readier to include tonal voices, or more interested in doing so, though probably more from a spectralist standpoint than anything neoromantic (which was not suggested). Diversity of material and (again) standpoints, of texture and direction, contributed to a sense of a huge mass, not only of sound but of musicians, moving forward, slowly but surely, though one could perhaps perceive that only after the event. At the time, one enjoyed the ride, without necessary thought, less alone knowledge, as to where it might take one.

Sunday, 3 September 2023

Musikfest Berlin (2) - Varèse, Haddad, Ravel, Bach-Benjamin, and Schoenberg, 2 September 2023

Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie

Varèse: Octandre
Saed Haddad: Mirage, Mémoire, Mystère, for string quartet
Ravel: Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé
Bach, arr. Benjamin: Canon & Fugue
Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony no.1, op.9

Anna Prohaska (soprano)
Ensemble Modern
George Benjamin (conductor)

Image: © Fabian Schellhorn / Berliner Festspiele

The first of two Musikfest Berlin Proms from Anna Prohaska, Ensemble Modern, and George Benjamin offered music on a small ensemble scale that proved anything but ‘small’ in terms of ambition and intensity, nor of course achievement. A hallmark of all we heard was concentration, for this was highly concentrated, often richly textured music, which also called for – and seemed to receive – a high level of concentration from the audience in Berlin’s Kammermusiksaal, the smaller of the two halls in its Philharmonie.


In Varèse’s Octandre, Christian Hommel’s oboe initially appeared to be searching—but searching for what? Ultimately for something piercing, impervious, something that gave the impression of always having been there, however recently discovered. Stravinskian echoes, above all of the Rite, yet also of Symphonies of Wind Instruments, did battle, though they were so familiar, so integrated, they were barely ghosts, more guests. Delphine Roche’s piccolo solo, when it came, suggested something more playful, yet ensemble response was implacable as ever, akin to seeing or rather hearing the same object from another standpoint, both of angle and distance. Yet there was difference in what we heard, for instance the duet between double bass and bassoon, spreading to the ensemble as a whole. Brass rightly took no prisoners. Varèse, not unlike Stravinsky himself, remained. 

Saed Haddad, a Benjamin pupil, was represented by his Mirage, Mémoire, Mystère (2011-12), for string quartet, described as being for violin and string trio. That interests me, since I did not really make that distinction when listening. Perhaps I will next time, for I hope there will be a next time. A richly turbulent opening put me in mind right away of Schoenberg’s developing variation. Indeed, there were a few striking coincidences of pitch and harmony, though I suspect that is more that I was listening with Schoenberg in mind than intent or reference. Certainly, there was an emotional intensity to this single-movement work I can imagine that composer admiring. Its development, or transformation, was rhythmic too, through a kaleidoscope of related moods that, in retrospect, seemed to convey the broad overall progression of the title.

Prohaska joined the Ensemble, and Benjamin returned, for Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, the work in which he most clearly approaches Schoenberg (Pierrot, though not only Pierrot), without ever sounding, nor indeed writing, ‘like’ him: not even in the extraordinary opening string harmonics of ‘Soupir’, here perfectly realised in performance. Ravel, at its most characteristic, seems perhaps more the destination than the starting-point, both instrumentally and vocally, yet a floated languor heard and felt, too precise for Debussy, and indeed quite unlike him in other ways too, could only ever have been Ravel’s. It was as if a Japanese engraving, with apologies for the orientalism, had come to life. ‘Placet futile’ proved, doubtless with similar danger on my part, a garden of delights, at times more animated, more heated even, though cooling beautifully too. Prohaska proved a vividly communicative soloists, really using the French words to shape and colour her line. ‘Surgi de la coupe et du bond’ presented flight and descent, movement and stasis, all art of a journey that chilled in timbre and harmony, yet also invited, whilst holding us at an almost sacral distance. ‘A rien expirer annonçant/Une rose dans les ténèbres.’ Some mysteries are both for us and not.

Benjamin’s 2007 Canon & Fugue arranges the ‘Canon alla Ottava’ and ‘Contrapunctus VII’ from Bach’s Art of Fugue for an unusual ensemble: flute (silent in the first movement), two horns, and string quartet (which can be expanded to smallish string orchestra). This is unquestionably modernist Bach, not necessarily in the line of, though surely with kinship to that of Schoenberg, Webern, Berio, and others. That sense of concentration was again apparent, indeed alive, in both movements, the sustaining power of horns (and other particular qualities) employed to excellent effect in the former. The Fugue was less frenetic and furious, though no less concentrated, early use of stopped horns and string pizzicato not only arresting but also seemingly aiding that transformation of tempo. There were many timbral delights and surprises, not least the way a combination of horn, violin, and viola sounded uncannily like an organ, yet this was always a way of hearing Bach.

So too, albeit at a greater distance, is much of Schoenberg. It was fitting, then, to end with his First Chamber Symphony, although this was the performance about which I had a few doubts. A little more than fifteen years ago, I heard Pierre Boulez conduct this same work in the same hall, with the Scharoun Ensemble of players drawn from the Berlin Philharmonic. That struck me as an ideal performance, but perhaps I was simply more used to the underlying assumptions and aesthetic. Benjamin, I think, took the opening, once past the short introduction, not only faster but at a speed at least to rival the earlier Boulez, of Domaine musical vintage. One expects a bias towards wind in this version (as opposed to Schoenberg’s two arrangements for full orchestra, where strings will tend to dominate) yet, to begin with, that balance seemed somewhat exaggerated, even harsh. The performance settled, yet Benjamin’s approach had the merit of reminding us just what difficult music this can, and arguably should, be. Perhaps we have allowed Schoenberg to mellow a little too much, in post-Siegfried-Idyll-manner. When the music slowed, moreover, it really slowed. The scherzo section was urgent, yet in character, that is not merely fast; character seemed to grow out of Schoenberg’s instrumentation and use of those instruments, almost as much as his harmony. This was Schoenberg on a coiled spring, which could nonetheless relax in the ‘slow movement’. Moreover, the internal and external role played by fourths was certainly to be heard, as if this were a matter of casing and inner mechanism. It was another performance of concentrated riches, then, even if not always the riches I had expected.

Wednesday, 30 August 2023

Musikfest Berlin (1) - Nagy/Concertgebouw/Fischer - Widmann and Mahler, 26 August 2023


Jörg Widmann: Das heiße Herz
Mahler: Symphony no.7

Michael Nagy (baritone)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Iván Fischer (conductor)

Image: © Fabian Schellhorn / Berliner Festspiele

Musical life in Berlin has been reignited before the summer festival season elsewhere has ended: first the season opening concert of the Berlin Philharmonic, after which the orchestra tours to a number of venues, Salzburg included, and the following night the opening concert of the 2023 Musikfest Berlin, which takes in ‘home’ and visiting ensembles. That concert fell this year to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Iván Fischer, in music by Jörg Widmann and Mahler, joined in the former by baritone Michael Nagy.

Widmann's short song-cycle, Das heiße Herz, originally written in 2013, was orchestrated in 2018, the new version's premiere being given by Christian Gerhaher, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, and Jakub Hrůša. Widmann sets five poems, two from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, providing an obvious connection already with Mahler, and one each by Klabund (‘Der arme Kaspar’), Heine (‘Das Fräulein stand am Meere’), and Brentano (‘Einsam will ich untergehn’). Klabund's poem is the first, an ear-catching opening of harp, celesta, crotales, and other percussion leading us (and the voice) into a post-Mahlerian soundscape in terms both of timbre and harmony without, at least here, regressing. Henze was another composer to come to mind, though this is certainly not pastiche, rather allusion and, later, reference. Here, as elsewhere, the orchestra gave a detailed, indeed authoritative performance, Nagy shaping the vocal line well in a similarly authoritative and communicative account. The Wunderhorn ‘Hab’ ein Ringlein am Finger’ gives a still stronger, arguably explicit, sense of refracted Mahler, via Wozzeck. Heine's song has something of the raconteur to it: a different, more popular mode of delivery, matched by Widmann’s harmonies and brass writing. ‘Kartenspiel’, the second Wunderhorn song, steps up its predecessor's demand that the ghost of tonality be acknowledged, though the vocal line in particular still went where it would in a post-tonal universe. A surprisingly jazz-like bass line took us on a path towards more or less fully fledged big band music at the close, via a polystylistic collage of allusion that offered a not entirely dissimilar sense of the disconcerting to Schnittke. 

The first four lines of the Brentano song open with solo voice, in folklike, even hymnal manner; I was put in mind, almost certainly coincidentally, of a nonconformist hymn recalled from my childhood. Solo instruments gradually joined to form a Webern-like ensemble on the path to fuller orchestra. There is here a stronger tonal pull, and increasingly so, an expressionist turn at one point rescuing the tendency from bathos. Whether the balancing act Widmann attempts here is entirely successful will probably be as much a matter of taste as anything else. It is rather what one would expect from him, yet never simply a reprise of earlier rummagings around the debris of German (post-)Romanticism. Reception was enthusiastic.

A considerably longer second ‘half’ was given over to Mahler's Seventh Symphony, in a brilliant performance that confounded expectations and opened up new perspectives on the work. Vigorous, determined, its tread in line with that of its counterpart in the Sixth, the first movement's notably faster initial tempo (faster than usual, I think) sounded a note of ambiguity that would never be shed, but rather joined by many more such notes. As a desperate fury took hold, Fischer embraced Mahler's parodies, self-parody included, and respected them by giving them their due without placing them in inverted commas or underlining them. Much the same could be said of his presentation of the way Mahler 'cuts' his material, not cinematic, but not entirely un-cinematic either. Those crucial liminal passages beguiled and shocked. Rapt hallucination took our breath away in preparation for a recapitulation that threw everything up in the air and saw where it landed, whilst always maintaining coherence. The Concertgebouw Orchestra, steeped in this music, sounded just right for Fischer's approach, doubtless informing it too. 

The opening of the first Nachtmusik was truly a thing of wonder, both in the perfection of the horn echoes and the way they spread, like a contagion. Fischer's conception of ‘night music’ was more of a nocturne than a Bernstein-like house of horrors, nonetheless showing ‘lightness’ to cover a multitude of sins, stylistic, textural, and otherwise, and certainly not without irony. All was finely articulated, without the slightest sense of self-satisfaction. It was strangely exhilarating, with a proper sting, even when one ‘knew’, to the close. A fascinatingly malevolent scherzo ensued, Mendelssohn dropped in acid, with the twin tendencies of control and finish on one hand, and ever threatening to veer out of control, that might imply. Skeletons danced in properly Alpine fashion. Berlioz taking a trip in more than one sense. The ending was similarly equivocal and violent. Listening to the second Nachtmusik, it struck me quite how close we stand here to Webern, but as a process rather than a fixed aesthetic, orchestra distilled into a Webern ensemble in real time, as it were. A host of solo instruments paraded in a rich tableau of the human, or perhaps the divine, comedy. Whilst one can hardly avoid mentioning the violin and mandolin, this held for so many, including almost the whole woodwind section, that it would be invidious to name names.

The Rondo-Finale’s timpani call-to-arms, or whatever it is, imparted a fitting suggestion of Don Quixote to its entire enterprise, continually upsetting the Meistersinger apple-cart in the service of a darker comedy. Perhaps. For there were no certainties here, and justly so. Fischer concentrated on drawing excellent playing from the orchestra and steering the vehicle, declining any attempt to ‘solve’ Mahler's enigmas. Once again, this was a tale of ghosts at the feast: the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, obviously, as well as earlier movements of this, but also the Second and even the Tenth-to-come: if Mahler had earlier showed a path to resurrection, perhaps purgatory, or even limbo, now seemed more fun, as well as more attainable. Bach, Mozart, and others made their bows, but what did it mean? The nihilist answer, ‘nothing’, was not necessarily right or wrong, it seemed, but there came another suggestion, not to be conflated with it, an affirmation rather of scepticism, albeit from one who truly believed. Perhaps that is the true horror of the Seventh.

BPO/Petrenko - Reger and Strauss, 25 August 2023


Reger: Variations and Fugue on a theme by Mozart, op.132
Strauss: Ein Heldenleben, op.40

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Kirill Petrenko (conductor)

It had been a while. The last time I had heard the Berlin Philharmonic had been on 5 March 2020, just four days before public performances ceased in that great, monstrous silence. Now I was here for the orchestra’s season-opening concert of Max Reger and Richard Strauss under music director, Kirill Petrenko. Absence may have had the heart grow fonder, but this was outstanding music-making by any standards.

What a joy to open with Reger’s Mozart Variations, a masterpiece, yet one I had not hitherto had opportunity to hear live. They do not come around that often: Furtwängler gave the Berlin Philharmonic premiere in 1934, 21 years after its first performance in Wiebsbaden, conducted by the composer, and the BPO had not played it since 1995, under Horst Stein. (If you think Hindemith terminally unfashionable, turn to Reger. Schoenberg, though, knew his worth, unhesitantly calling him a genius.) Petrenko and the Berliners brought us a properly backward glance from the early twentieth century, a Mozart both more delicate and, somehow, more robust than we should hear now, Reger increasingly present – as through the set as a whole – in, for instance, his octave doublings and, crucially, our listening. The first variation brought clucking worthy of Haydn, Reger’s voice becoming ever more evident in toy-shop enchantment. The second and third variations sounded almost as if homages to Brahms; in a way, they are. Vertical and horizontal expansion inevitably brought Schoenberg to mind, but also (for me) Elgar too. Reger could do with a champion or two such as Elgar has; maybe he has found one in Petrenko. The third, however, also took a step back to earlier Romanticism, breathing the air of a Schumannesque forest. Why all the references to other composers, you may ask, and it is a reasonable question. Perhaps because Reger, especially when much of his music remains relatively unfamiliar, seems to invite them, but I should stress that he never merely sounds ‘like’ someone else. 

The fifth variation’s scherzo-like quality similarly brought Busoni to mind, whereas the deliciously sly modulations of the sixth reminded us of Reger’s acknowledged mastery in this field. One might think his book on the subject overly theoretical, but it served a point, here painted in vivid colour. A heartfelt slow movement followed, Wagner not a million miles away, nor Elgar, but always Reger ‘himself’. Petrenko seemed always to alight on just the right tempo, giving the illusion of permitting the music to play itself. And the BPO's playing was unfailingly gorgeous. The sly ingenuity of the fugue was brought home with clarity and warmth; detail was scrupulously yet never pedantically observed. Harmony was at least as much king as counterpoint, which returns us to Mozart...

Strauss too owed much to Mozart, though not so much in Ein Heldenleben as many other works. The tone-poem’s initial portrayal of the hero inaugurated a season-long theme of ‘Heroes’. It had everything going for it – depth of tone, the playing of those eight horns, the finest articulation, balances spot on – other than some of the swagger Karajan might have brought to it. Perhaps that slightly vulgar bombast, a necessary tone in the palette of an anything-but-vulgar composer, does not come so readily to Petrenko. This, however, was my sole, fleeting reservation and hardly a major one. Strauss’s critical adversaries were faster on their feet than usual, perhaps making their hot air all the more ephemeral. It made for a powerful contrast, highly dramatic, with the well-nigh Wagnerian gloom of string response. Concertmaster Vineta Sareika-Völkner’s solo playing in evocation of the hero’s companion was of equal excellence, her storytelling as vital as that of her orchestral colleagues. In musical congress of distinction, both sides enabled us to learn more of the other, as doubtless they themselves did too. 

True symphonic coherence, lightly worn, was readily apparent in the transition to ‘Des Helden Walstatt’, and indeed in other transitions. Here was a battle royal, its heat initially erotic, yet turning frankly military, the jangle of the battlefield approaching cacophony at times. (So perhaps Petrenko can do ‘vulgar’ after all, particularly when prepared. The opening's out-of-the-blue, cards-on-the-table stance is extraordinarily difficult to bring off; either that, or difficult to prevent overshadowing everything else.) The final two sections functioned not only as crucial staging posts in narrative and form, but also as a conspectus of Strauss’s art, recapitulating works yet to be written as well as those that had. Don Juan met Die Frau ohne Schatten in a second development actually to rival Beethoven by never tackling him head on, rather than by merely aspiring to do so in the key of the Eroica. And yet, Petrenko and the orchestra never mistook this tone poem for a symphony, still less a mere collection of scenes. Strauss may employ symphonic means, but never exclusively so. Ein Heldenleben is a treacherous work, full of traps for even the most experienced conductors and orchestras. Petrenko and the Berlin Philharmonic did it and themselves proud.

Salzburg Festival (7) - The Greek Passion, 22 August 2023


Grigoris - Gábor Bretz
Manolios - Sebastian Kohlhepp
Katerina - Sara Jakubiak
Yannakos - Charles Workman
Lenio - Christina Gansch
Andonis - Matteo Ivan Rašić
Michelis - Matthäus Schmidlechner
Kostandis - Alejandro Baliñas Vietes
Panais - Julian Hubbard
Nikolio - Aljoscha Lennert
Old Woman - Helena Resker
The Patriarcheas - Luke Stoker
Ladas - Robert Dölle
Fotis - Łukasz Goliński
Old Man - Scott Wilde
Despinio - Teona Todua

Director - Simon Stone
Set designs - Lizzie Clachan
Costumes - Mel Page
Lighting - Nick Schlieper
Dramaturgy - Christian Arseni

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus director: Huw Rhys James)
Salzburg Festival and Theatre Children’s Choir (chorus director: Wolfgang Götz)
Angelika Prokopp Summer Academy of the Vienna Philharmonic
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Maxime Pascal (conductor)

Images: © SF/Monika Rittershaus

Salzburg’s new production of Bohuslav Martinů‘s opera The Greek Passion has much going for it, but alas one major thing against, at least for me. The latter I shall come to, but let us first consider the positives. The theme of the opera and Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel from which it is adopted could not be more timely. A tragedy in which refugees are rejected by a stern, unbending, mendaciously ‘Christian’ society, shown for what it is by the ostracism and death of one of its own for showing proper Christian charity, has a multiplicity of resonances today. It surely follows on well in the wake of Nono’s Intolleranza, which Covid had me miss.

Performances were generally very good, often excellent. Maxime Pascal, known primarily for more overtly modernist music, a complete cycle of Stockhausen’s LICHT underway with his ensemble Le Balcon, could hardly have offered more committed advocacy at the helm of the Vienna Philharmonic. A wild, often bewildering, variety of musical styles was vividly characterised. Playing was sharp, warm, weighty, delicate, and so much more, as required. Choruses were equally impressive, hymnal and more violent confrontation of two great masses of human beings brought to equally vivid aural life. 

Sebastian Kohlhepp gave a powerful, vulnerable portrayal of Manolios, the shepherd given the role of Christ in the village Passion play and ultimately murdered for taking Christ at His word. Gábor Bretz made for an implacable priestly foe as Grigoris, whose social rigidity and machinations set the tragedy in motion. Charles Workman as the compassionate pedlar Yannakos, Łukasz Goliński as Fotis, the priest at the head of the refugees, Christina Gansch as Lenio, who transfers her affections from Manolios, and Sara Jakubiak as the other object of his affections, preparing to play the role of Mary Magdalene, all impressed in detailed interpretations, well sung and acted. So did others in smaller roles, of which there are a good few.

Simon Stone’s production did its job well enough too, perhaps at its best in using the great space of the Felsenreitschule stage to show the two communities at odds. Painting a wall with the words ‘REFUGEES OUT’ is not subtle, but subtlety is hardly what is called for here. The appearance of live animals, a donkey and goat included, onstage brought back unwelcome thoughts of Francesca Zambello’s School of Zeffirelli Carmen. It seemed to entertain the audience, especially when the donkey refused to budge, but what it offered beyond that, I really do not know. I wondered whether more might have been done to help the innocent viewer understand who was who on a more detailed, personal level, but responsibility for that really lay elsewhere.

That brings me, alas, to the real culprit for me: the work itself. This is the second, 1961 version of the work, written after rejection by Covent Garden. According to Michael Beckerman’s programme note, the first ‘is considered more experimental, is perhaps more conventionally dramatic, and has much more spoken dialogue.’ For the first two of those criteria, I cannot help but wish we had heard the first, for what we saw and heard was anything but ground-breaking and, far more important, lacking in the basic dramatic tools to which it seemed to aspire. There is nothing discernible in the way of musical characterisation, making Beckerman’s hyperbolic claim ‘Martinů had much in common with Mozart’ especially unfortunate. (I could probably suggest points I have in common with Dame Joan Collins, but that would not make me a natural Alexis.) There is little in the way of musical continuity, and the libretto, Martinů‘s own, is at times shockingly bad. I had to check that it was not a hamfisted ENO translation. I sympathise: I could not write a libretto in, say, German; I doubt I could write one in English. But the composer’s word-setting is also un-idiomatic. And, to be fair, I do not try to write operas. I do not think it would be helpful to go into great detail and should note this was one of the most enthusiastic receptions I encountered at this year’s Festival. Mine was a minority view, though shared still more vehemently by my companion.

I had assumed the spoken scenes were Stone’s, it seeming unlikely Martinů would have used, for instance, the word ‘donkeyfucker’, for instance. Whoever wrote them, they added nothing to what we knew already, coming across mostly as an attempt to sound ‘edgy’. Alas, everything seemed at best caught between largely incomparable stools. To do something for refugees is, of course, admirable and necessary. Despite the obvious objections, that can include artistic endeavour, indeed arguably must. Intolleranza is a case in point. It would need, though, to be more convincing than this. In the meantime, donation to a refugee centre would be a better way forward.

Salzburg Festival (6) - GMYO/Hrůša: Mahler, 21 August 2023


Mahler: Symphony no.9

Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra
Jakub Hrůša (conductor)

Image: © SF/Marco Borrelli

Time was when I, like many concertgoers, was hearing a great deal of Mahler’s symphonies, probably more so than those of anyone else. That was partly choice, of course: no one compelled me to, and I was very much under Mahler’s spell. (Not that I am necessarily free now.) But it was also a reflection of concert programming and indeed the recording industry. As a student, I was avidly collecting Pierre Boulez’s revelatory Deutsche Grammophon series as it came out. In 2007, I travelled to Berlin for Holy Week and Easter, to hear Boulez and Daniel Barenboim conduct them all (minus the ‘Tenth’), plus the orchestral song-cycles, though sadly no Das klagende Lied. It was a defining moment in my musical life and even in my musical writing, for it had me begin my blog to record my experiences. (At the time, I did not even really know what a blog was.) As the years rolled on, though, increasingly and again like many, I felt that the Mahler craze was getting out of hand. I should always be interested in an outstanding performance of a Mahler symphony, just as I would with a Beethoven symphony, yet most to my ears were anything but, too many conductors and their egos reducing them to the level of ‘orchestral showpieces’. It seemed the best thing for Mahler, for other composers, and for audiences would be a period of silence. Some time before the pandemic, my attendance had tailed off considerably. Since concert life began once more, I realise I have not been to a single performance of a Mahler symphony, unless we include Das Lied von der Erde. Now, for whatever reason, I shall have several over the next month. Will absence have made the heart grow still fonder? We shall see.

The first in my mini-series was a Salzburg Festival performance of the Ninth Symphony from the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra and Jakub Hrůša: an excellent team on paper and in practice. Doubtless not stinting on rehearsal time, and certainly not on numbers – I counted ten double basses and there must have been closer to forty than thirty violins – this was a performance to fill the Felsenreitschule, quite rightly at least as much in magical moments of quiet stillness, somehow both endless and over in the blinking of an eye, as in climaxes. We can perhaps be too ready to speak of national characteristics in music, especially in so complex a geographical and cultural area as Central Europe, yet momentarily forgetting whom I saw at the podium and listening only, as it were, with my ears, I was in the first movement and beyond put in mind both of the sort of sound I associated both with the Czech Philharmonic and with Rafael Kubelík’s wonderful recordings (studio and live) with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. There are all manner of ways to approach Mahler, but this particular brand of unforced musicality and golden, glowing, never saturated string tone seemed to forge a connection not only with Mahler’s Bohemian origins, but also with a tradition dating back to Mozart, Mysliveček, and indeed beyond.

Programmatic explanations help some listeners and do no great harm, though the claim that Mahler’s faltering heartbeat may be heard in the first movement may be an exception. At any rate, there was neither need nor invitation to think in such terms, Mahler and Hrůša reminding us of Mendelssohn’s oft-quoted observation that music expresses thoughts that are not too indefinite for words, but rather too definite. In many ways, the lack of anguish (and apparent who) was welcome, though occasionally I could not help wishing for a little more edge—doubtless ironically, given what I said earlier. With melody, harmony, and counterpoint in such productive balance, though, and with Hrůša’s unobtrusive shaping of the whole so finely judged, there were no grounds for complaint. This was not an especially modernist Mahler, though not was it backward-looking; other standpoints will have their day. 

Oscillation between string-led material and multiple woodwind voices continued into the second and third movements. The second certainly had its moments of rusticity, perhaps closer to Haydn than often one hears, but there was alienation too: in the very idea of rusticity, of course, but also in the music’s twin embrace of and escape from it. The Rondo-Burleske dug deep, not only on account of the depth of string tone, embracing counterpoint and its vigour in a related and complementary, yet also contrasting, fashion. Perhaps there might have been greater violence, even horror, yet, again not unlike Kubelík, Hrůša reminded us there were other tendencies in the music. I was also reminded at times, and not only here, of Bruno Maderna’s startlingly ‘different’, yes-saying way with the work. Hrůša’s marriage of precision and patience paid off handsomely in the way all would surely have felt the pull of progressive tonality, whether they knew the term or not. Mahler’s path to the finale, here resolute and unsentimental, unhurried yet rarely if ever lingering, made sense both emotionally and intellectually. One cannot say fairer than that. 

Salzburg Festival (5) - VPO/Harding: Ligeti and Strauss, 20 August 2023

Grosses Festspielhaus

Ligeti: Atmosphères
Strauss: Metamorphosen
Ligeti: Lontano
Strauss: Also sprach Zarathustra, op.30

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor)

Image: © SF/Marco Borrelli

This excellent programme and performance from the Vienna Philharmonic and Daniel Harding, substituting without change of a single piece for Franz Welser-Möst, paired two works by Ligeti, whose centenary we celebrate this year, with two by Richard Strauss, always a Salzburg favourite (and one, of course, of the Festival’s founders). One could doubtless strain to draw comparisons between the two composers. (I once divined some ‘elective affinities’ between them and Debussy for a programme note covering a highly unusual menu of Jeux, Schlagobers, and Melodien.) But whilst such points naturally present themselves in real-time experience, it would be stretching things to say the two had much in common other than fantastic technique. The contrasts worked well, though, in a concert whose only real fault was a strangely lukewarm audience. Perhaps they did not much care for Ligeti, but they seemed almost as undemonstrative for Metamorphosen. My suspicion is it had more to do with Welser-Möst’s withdrawal, yet Harding marked, if anything, an upgrade (at least for me). 

The two Ligeti works, both ‘for large orchestra’, made for interesting complement and contrast in themselves. Atmosphères, from 1961, made for a tremendous opener, presenting a universe or perhaps even universes like no other. Teeming with music, with life, with possibility, like the introduction to a Haydn symphony, it seemed to incorporate sounds that it actually did not: one of those experiences in which one could swear one has heard electronics, only to find one has not. This performance at times seemed almost granitic, as if Otto Klemperer were the guest at the feast, if you can imagine such a thing. It was febrile, yes, but also monumental. 

Lontano (1967) offered the third in a series of four unforgettable orchestral openings—and paths taken. Yet more worlds opened up, some glanced only fleetingly, at least for now, though one fancied one might revisit. Life, again, seemed to be the operative concept. Every sound was somehow both familiar and unfamiliar, in spontaneous yet deeply considered generation. Harding built the performance with selfless skill; there was unquestionable drama here, but Ligeti’s, not his. Oddly, in context, the low bass line seemed to presage the all-too-celebrated opening of Also sprach Zarathustra: difficult to know what to make of that, yet intriguing. 

For that sense of drama also proved a guiding thread. If the first section of Strauss’s symphonic poem sounded a little brash, it was also similarly brimming with potential. It offered generous scope for contrast too, eagerly accepted, not least in the gorgeously sweet string tone of what followed. Nietzsche generally seems a bit of a red herring to me here, save for a general materialism, but there was certainly a sense of positivity, of the need to say ‘yes’ to another new world. Whatever my doubts concerning the opening, doubts that may concern work at least as much as performance, this was an eminently musical account, which, again in context, seemed to speak of and through a rich process of metamorphosis. It danced well, and Harding whipped up a fine head of orchestral steam when called upon. If he lingered a little toward the close, one can hardly blame him. Strauss, after all, does that too. 

That leaves Metamorphosen itself, heard between the two Ligeti pieces. There was no doubt whatsoever here that this was a piece ‘for 23 solo strings’, Harding their genial enabler, with none of, say, Karajan’s autocracy. That does not mean form could not be heard and felt, quite the contrary; it emerged from a sense of collegial chamber performance. The beginning was a little on the slow side, I think, yet it did not drag; rather, it spoke of genuine grief, soon inflected by finely etched chiaroscuro in harmony, texture, and narrative as much as in dynamic contrasts. Inner workings of great complexity were revealed, so as duly to rival Ligeti. Patience was the key to Strauss’s great outpouring, its quiet devastation emerging from within.