Friday 28 September 2007

Beethoven concert: Kissin/LSO/Davis, 27 September 2007

27 September 2007, Barbican

Beethoven: Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor, Op.37
Beethoven: Symphony no.3 in E flat major, Op.55, 'Eroica'

Evgeny Kissin (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

This concert was part of the LSO's celebrations to mark the eightieth birthday of Sir Colin Davis, now the orchestra's President. Opinions at such a rarefied level vary, of course, but I should go far as to call Sir Colin the greatest British conductor since Beecham - and this in no sense implies that I consider him Beecham's inferior. (I am assuming that we count Stokowski as American, insofar as it matters.) After a prolonged period in which Davis appeared to be lauded more abroad than at home, British critics appear to have woken up to the fact that this is someone very special indeed, and worthy of celebrating.

The concerto received a duly grand performance. There appears to be little anyone can do completely to rid me of my reservations about the opening tutti. Wonderful though the music may be, it simply seems too long - a full sonata-form exposition - before the soloist enters. Beethoven only really heeded Mozart's example in his final two piano concertos, both towering masterpieces. Nevertheless, Davis and his orchestra played the music for all that it was worth. The strings really dug into the music, and played as if their lives depended upon it. There were no concessions to 'period' sonority or articulation. Articulation was not pitted against phrasing, as tends to be the case with such contemporary performances. (Nikolaus Harnoncourt springs immediately to mind.) Instead, phrases and paragraphs all fitted into their place. as a consequence of a structural command and orchestral weighting that recalled Klemperer. Kissin impressed throughout with his marvellous rich, almost chocolate-like tone. His articulation too was impeccable, again without any recourse to short-breathed preciousness. It sounded as though his reading was informed by his experience of voice-leading in Chopin, which gave his performance a slightly unfamiliar and most welcome twist. Not that it ever sounded 'like' Chopin, with the possible and perfectly justifiable exception of the virtuosic first movement cadenza. There, Kissin's double octaves provided a feast for the ear; they were not indulgent, but they were a treat.

The slow movement was allowed to unfold naturally, organically - or rather, this was how it seemed, for much work is necessary (in Davis's case, of course, many decades of experience) to engender that sense of inevitability. There was no question of adopting the fashionable tendency to rush, of transforming a Largo into an Andante. In many senses, and certainly for a pianist, Beethoven's slow movements present the greatest challenge of all. To sustain the over-arching line without sacrifice of detail, and to plumb the emotional depths without becoming merely 'heavy' is no easy thing. If I am to be harshly critical, it seemed on occasion as if there could have been greater integration of piano and orchestra. Davis presented a more or less perfect canvas, upon which Kissin painted some ravishing detail, but the element of chamber music was not perhaps quite so evident as it might have been. That said, the woodwind solos here, as throughout, were delectable: somehow both pure and sinuous.

This was also true of the finale, which provided a thrilling and noble conclusion. The orchestra and Sir Colin were on truly wondrous form, and Kissin's pianism proved once again a marvel in its dynamism and delicacy. Indeed, the latter was more to the fore than it had been during the first movement. The one thing lacking on his part, though not on the orchestra's, was a sense of impish humour, never more to the fore than in Beethoven's ornaments and syncopations. I am not sure that Kissin 'does' humour, but this was a minor drawback in a truly heroic account, by far the best I have ever heard 'live'.

Such a performance augured well for the second half of the concert, and we were not to be disappointed. The Eroica is a highlight of Davis's very fine set of Beethoven symphonies with the Staatskapelle Dresden, and this performance was at least as fine. From the shock of those extraordinary - and yet in another sense so 'ordinary' - opening chords onwards, everything, and I mean everything, was in place for an inevitable unfolding of Beethoven's great symphonic narrative. I do not think there was a single chord that was not weighted so as to seem as it could not be otherwise, and the conductor brought a profound sense of understanding to the work's harmonic and rhythmic progress. There was no need for ascetic thinning of textures, let alone for ugly tapering of phrases; nothing was done to bring attention to itself. Instead, the multifarious strands of Beethoven's blend of harmony and counterpart were balanced so as to give just the right measure to both, and never more so than in the finale's variations, where once again comparisons with Klemperer seemed justified: not just his Eroica recordings, but also the Grosse Fuge.

Throughout, the strings - which can sometimes be the Achilles heel of London orchestras - evinced a weight of tone and an athleticism that sounded to the manor born. No other orchestra is ever going to sound like the Vienna Philharmonic, and none is likely to achive quite the richness of the Staatskapelle Dresden; such odious comparisons aside, it is difficult to imagine how an orchestra could have sounded more suited to the work and to the composer. The brass have long been an especially valued section of the LSO, and they certainly shone on this occasion. Indeed, the horns, led by David Pyatt - is there a better horn player alive? - achieved a perfect blend, closer to Vienna than we have any right to expect, during their celebrated opening to the Scherzo. Before that, the long paragraphs of the Funeral March had unfolded with such grandeur, such nobility, such inevitability, that one could hardly fail to be moved to tears. Davis's moulding of phrases, utterly un-self-conscious, was an object lesson to those who would wish to 'do' too much with, or rather to, this music. Tempo variations in the manner of Furtwängler or Barenboim, let alone Mengelberg, have never been his way. Such is the integrity of approach that what might stand in danger of sounding 'worthy' on paper is anything but in practice, not least since there is no lack of blistering attack where necessary, 'necessary' being the operative word.

David Cairns, in a birthday appreciation printed in the programme, drew attention to the prominence of woodwind in relation to the strings in Davis's Dresden cycle. This was again apparent, and most welcome, given the soloistic brilliance of the LSO's players, although 'prominence' is perhaps not quite the right word. The instruments were allowed to shine where and when necessary, Gareth Davies's flute proving a particular delight. Cairns suggested that Davis might therefore have been more influence by the period instrument movement than he might care to admit. I do not think this was or is the case at all. The delight in woodwind lines more likely comes from Davis's great experience in Mozart, yet he never wishes to reduce Beethoven, to stress his eighteenth-century inheritance at the expense of what the composer was to usher in. If 'influence' there be, it seems more likely to have come from Klemperer, whose Philharmonia woodwinds were always 'prominent'. But Davis is very much his own man, and all the stronger for it. This concert provided a splendid opportunity to confirm his independence from fashion and, more importantly, his musical intelligence, wisdom, and integrity.

Monday 24 September 2007

Don Giovanni, New York City Opera, 15 September 2007

Don Giovanni: Aaron St Clair Nicholson
Donna Anna: Mardi Byers
Donna Elvira: Julianna DiGiacomo
Zerlina: JiYoung Lee
Don Ottavio: Bruce Sledge
Leporello: Daniel Mobbs
Masetto: Matthew Burns
Commendatore: Daniel Borowski

Orchestra and Chorus of New York City Opera
David Wroe (conductor)
Harold Prince (producer)
Albert Sherman (stage director)

It was interesting, in the light of this Don Giovanni, to reflect upon the profound differences between European and American approaches to staging opera. The New York City Opera has a reputation for being more adventurous, edgier even than its world-renowned sibling, the Metropolitan Opera. Yet this was a production of a kind that has largely vanished from European houses. Were it to have appeared at Covent Garden, let alone in Berlin or Frankfurt, it would seem like an attempt at revival, rather than an unmediated representation. The production was set in the time and place envisaged in the stage directions, which were generally observed and certainly never transgressed. There was no sense of a producer imposing a 'message', let alone a Konzept, upon the work, and the emphasis lay squarely upon telling a recognisable story. The Met's opulent grandeur was absent, but by the same token the staging was in no wise abstract or minimalist, presenting a straightforward representation of various locations in Seville.

I can imagine many European, especially British, readers warming to this description, perhaps even going so far as to wish 'if only...'. Indeed, when one considers some of the horrors inflicted upon stages on this side of the Atlantic - for instance, Jonathan Miller's ugly, unmusical transformation of Così fan tutte into a vulgar farce - relief might seem a justified reaction. And yet, that was just about it. This was a production utterly lacking in insights, let alone justified or even unjustified provocation. What many critics, and not only on the American side of the Atlantic, might sneer at as 'Eurotrash' direction can, even at its worst, spark debate about the meaning or meanings of a work, the production's relationship towards it and its reception history, and so forth. This was opera as a museum piece, and was largely received as such. Perennial bronchial complaints, intrusive applause - on one occasion, it had begun so early that it had finished before the orchestral postlude - and mobile telephones infuriated throughout; but perhaps this is what one should expect if one treats theatre as 'entertainment', there for the benefit of 'customers'.

The musical performance might best be described as 'middle-of-the road'. There was not a sign of any 'period' influence, which is more than fine with me: the last thing we needed was more of the museum. Of all Mozart's operas, Don Giovanni is perhaps the most clearly forward-looking, which is why Furtwängler's Wagnerian approach has in many respects never been equalled. One needs a sense of a world on the edge of something truly catastrophic, never more so than in those terrifying cries of ' ‘Viva la libertà!’, in which society appears upon the edge of dissolution. The energy that runs through the work, in essence that energy so perfectly captured in Giovanni's 'Champagne Aria', is a force of both life and death. Don Giovanni is both celebration and tragedy, as the Overture makes clear, just as its hero is both timely and untimely, indeed almost Nietzschean. This, however, was all rather well-mannered, and often plain lacklustre: the sort of thing one might have expected to hear from a reasonably-sized chamber-orchestral performance a generation ago.

That daemonic drive which should have been present from those extraordinary opening bars was rarely if ever present. In the Overture, a part of the opera that was unambiguously Mozart’s, the composer chose the most undeniably tragic music of all with which to commence Giovanni’s descent into Hell, namely that of the Stone Guest scene, in D minor. It is Mozart at his closest to Gluck: not really in the sense of ‘sounding like’ Gluck, although it is perhaps not wholly removed from the latter's Overture to Alceste, but rather dramatically, in that the music involves itself with the action. And in this, as in so much else, Mozart also prefigures Wagner. If this music needed any assistance to remain the most strongly imprinted upon the listener’s memory, this premonition is it. Whilst there is much to be said for polished performance - and this was, bar a few nasty moments of tuning, generally polished - it is hardly enough, just as a presentation of events in period costume in front of pleasant scenery is not enough.

The singing ran parallel to the production, although perhaps it was better on the whole. There were no absolute disasters, which is far from always the case. It would perhaps be unfair to compare Aaron St Clair Nicholson's Giovanni with that of Erwin Schrott, whose assumption of the role a couple of months previously for the Royal Opera was the most complete I have experienced. Much of this portrayal was musical, although at times it was disturbingly unable to rise above the far from Wagnerian orchestra. Yet once again, there was little sign of what was really at stake: nothing less than a re-dramatisation of the Fall. Daniel Mobbs's Leporello possessed more of the necessary quicksilver reactions to changing circumstances than his master, which seemed an accidental rather than provocative transformation. The tuning of Mardi Byers as Donna Anna was too wayward for comfort, let alone for anything more than that, whilst Bruce Sledge presented a perfectly adequate Ottavio. Julianna DiGioacomo's Elvira was probably the best of the bunch, although once again this was hardly a memorable account.

I should perhaps make it clear that more adventurous productions are not the sole preserve of European houses, although I do think that there is a cultural distinction to be made here. I do not rule out the possibility of a 'traditional'-style production permitting an insightful and challenging performance. Nor do I deny that many 'provocations' remain just that. But musical drama must be dramatic, just as it must be musical. Whether in apparently 'extreme' cases, such as Calixto Bieto's brilliant, if flawed production of this work, or the gentler, more humane approach of a director such as Sir Peter Hall, it would be impossible to exhaust the theatrical opportunities of a towering masterpiece such as Don Giovanni. What is really needed is a fusion of theatrical and musical vision, such as that heard under Joseph Swenson's baton for Bieto's production at the English National Opera. (This was so much of a piece that I very much doubt I should wish to hear the frenetic musical account on its own.) To be sure, there was in New York a consonance, or at least a coincidence, between pit and stage, between what we heard and what we saw. Yet this appeared to be born out of an equal lack of imagination rather than a shared sense of purpose.

Friday 7 September 2007

Prom 69: Beethoven and Brahms (Chailly), 5 September 2007

Beethoven - Overture: Coriolan, Op. 62
Beethoven - Violin Concerto in D major, Op.61
Brahms - Symphony no.4 in E minor, Op.98

Viviane Hagner (violin)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

This was a true concert of two halves. The lack of tension at the beginning of the Coriolan Overture was sustained throughout the entirety of the first half, which made it seem even longer than it actually was. Chailly's account was not ponderous; indeed, it was almost certainly too fast. However, it was slack rhythmically - and, more importantly still, lacked any real sense of harmonic impetus. The last Beethoven performance I had heard had been that of the third Leonore Overture from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim, and the contrast could hardly have been greater. Whereas the huge youth orchestra's members had played as if their lives depended upon it, and Barenboim had brought an almost Furtwänglerian drama to the proceedings, this performance, which suffered from a mystifyingly inadequate number of strings, was anonymous, tame and underwhelming, words which should never be attached to Beethoven, let alone to Beethoven in C minor.

The Violin Concerto seemed to begin rather faster than would be 'traditional', not that there is necessarily anything wrong with that. Yet, somehow, the first movement soon began to drag, suffering from many of the same faults as the Overture. The development section appeared to go on for ever, ending at the point of utter exhaustion (which is not meant in a musico-dramatic sense). Incidental points of interest were sometimes made by Viviane Hagner, not least in terms of her sometimes extreme rubato, but with such a lifeless 'accompaniment' they ultimately counted for little. Chailly was not an 'accompanist' in the positive, Boultian mould; instead, he seemed content merely to offer a backing to an over-extended series of rêveries. The second movement was better, flowing nicely, at times even presaging the Pastoral Symphony's 'Scene by the Brook'. Here, the previously rather nondescript woodwind were given a chance to shine. The final movement was hardly inspiring, with the first movement's torpor soon returning. Chailly seemed oddly reluctant to grant the orchestra a chance to sing, let alone to thrill. It sounded best when it sounded closest to somewhat soft-centred Mendelssohn, but that hardly makes for great, or even good Beethoven performance. It would be interesting to hear Hagner under a different conductor; given the circumstances, it was difficult to make anything much of her performance. Beethoven, however, is clearly not Chailly's thing.

Brahms, however, was a different matter. The performance of his Fourth Symphony was surer in every sense. This may not have been the last word in Sophoclean tragedy, but Furtwängler est mort, and this was a noble reading, full of insights, not least into where musical history was heading. For if one is here only a stone's throw from Schoenberg, one is perhaps closer still to Webern. That all-important interval of the third - and in its inversion as a sixth - was beautifully and incisively brought out during the recapitualtion by Chailly and his woodwind, so as to determine much of the background and the foreground of Brahms's Schoenbergian 'developing variation'.

The Gewandhaus Orchestra's strings sounded much more at home than they ever had during the first half, exhibiting some gorgeous vibrato, yet never for its own sake, but to expressive musical ends. The violins' pizzicato was sometimes quite breathtaking, not simply in terms of precision but also with regard to its sonorous beauty. The first horn imparted a due sense of Phrygian poignancy and mystery to the opening of the second movement. Truly dramatic punctuation was provided in the Scherzo by the excellent timpanist. When it came to the great passacaglia, Chailly showed a firm hand upon the structural tiller, allowing for a well-judged increase in tension throughout the final movement. After this, we were treated to a sparkling yet tender account of the Academic Festival Overture as an encore.