Friday 23 November 2007

Korngold, Das Wunder der Heliane, 21 November 2007

Royal Festival Hall

Patricia Racette - Heliane
Michael Hendrick - Stranger
Andreas Schmidt - Ruler
Ursula Hesse von den Steinen - Messenger
Sir Willard White - Porter
Robert Tear - Blind Judge
Andrew Kennedy - Young Man

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

This concert performance was the British premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane. As such, it was to be welcomed, but frankly I cannot say that I am flabbergasted at the work's absence from British stages. My reaction was that it was a still more unfocused sibling to Korngold's Die tote Stadt. The latter work has its cultish admirers, and it has some interesting sections; yet, as a whole, it seems somewhat ridiculous. For Heliane, delete the 'somewhat'. I am not sure that I can bear to delineate its absurd plot: merely absurd, not surrealist in any sense that I should understand. Various people - I hesitate to use the word characters, for there appeared to be no musical characterisation whatsoever - persist in killing each other and bringing themselves or others back to life, to no particular end. Or sometimes they just come close to doing this, or consider doing it. In between they have sex, come close to having sex, or consider having sex. It is not at all clear, or even interesting, whether these things are symbolic or real. The programme notes made a stab at proclaiming a long-running Korngold interest in 'resurrection'; 'clutching at straws' was the most charitable phrase that came to mind.

Everything seemed bathed in all-purpose film music, irrespective of what was supposed to be going on dramatically. This may have been middle-ranking Hollywood avant la lettre, but middle-ranking Hollywood it remained. Such structure as there was seemed superbly delineated by Vladimir Jurowski, but this was a thankless task. Everything was overheated from the word go, and little changed. The second act was perhaps a little more successful than the first, but the bar had been set low indeed. The relentless use of the xylophone irritated, since it seemed to be to no particular end. (Think, by way of contrast, of Jenůfa.) Granted, Korngold had a certain facility with the orchestra, but Strauss even at his most overblown is infinitely more subtle, not to mention easy on the ears. Much of the work sounded closer to Puccini, or rather to a Turandot that consisted of nothing but massed repetitions of sub-'Nessun dorma' music from all concerned. The great difference, of course, is that, whatever his shallowness, Puccini could write a tune.

The orchestra sounded good, if somewhat generalised in its approach, but I suspect this was as much to do with the music itself as anything else. Jurowski was duly fired up, and clearly had the score's measure: he gave the work his all, intellectually and emotionally. I only wish this effort had been better directed. The soloists were not an impressive bunch and had been misguidedly placed on a platform behind the orchestra. Andreas Schmidt displayed some serious tuning problems, whilst Patricia Racette seemed to veer in and out of focus. There was perhaps more of the latter, but who could entirely blame her? Michael Hendrick, in the principal tenor role, was profoundly disappointing, struggling to make himself heard over the orchestra. What we heard from the text of his great beauty was sharply at odds with what we heard from him. Even Robert Tear sounded lacklustre. On the other hand, the German choir produced rounded yet precise tone throughout. Its diction was decidedly superior to that of many of the soloists.

This was doubtless worth mounting - once. But there are many neglected works from this period which might merit attention before a resurrection. How long, for instance, is it since Busoni's Doktor Faust was performed in London? Where is Dukas's Ariane et Barbe-Bleue? There is also, most shamefully of all, the glaring absence from London, even in concert, of Moses und Aron. I could go on, but shall desist. The programme notes quoted an anonymous 'well-known German musicologist' as having declared Das Wunder der Heliane to be 'the most important operatic score of the 20th century'. More important than Wozzeck?! I am not at all sure that it was more important than Hugh the Drover.

Monday 12 November 2007

BRSO/Jansons: Haydn and Mahler, 11 November 2007

Royal Festival Hall

Haydn – Symphony no.104 in D, ‘London’
Mahler – Symphony no.5

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Mariss Jansons (conductor)

The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra remains a very fine ensemble indeed. Under its principal conductor, Mariss Jansons, it offered one of the best performances of a Haydn symphony I have heard in some time – not that we are overwhelmed with choice in that respect. Articulation was exemplary: musical rather than indulging in distorting point-scoring. That sort of thing is irritating enough when it comes from Nikolaus Harnoncourt, but still worse when perpetrated by his imitators. Rhythms were spruce; they were pointed up by Jansons where necessary, but for the most part, he was happy to let the orchestra do what it could itself. The strings were allowed to play to their strengths, exhibiting sweetness and richness of tone without ever cloying or clogging up the arteries. The woodwind sounded delightful, adding to the string-based sonority rather than competing with it, and providing piquant soloistic colour. And the trumpets, horns, and kettledrum played their parts to perfection. There was once again no undue exhibitionism, simply fine musicianship, attentive to the rest of the orchestra and to the conductor, and marvellously pure in tone (the horns in particular).

The slow introduction to the first movement was relatively fleet, but was directed in such a way as to make this seem perfectly natural, its rhythmic and harmonic contours leading up to the outbreak of the exposition proper. Likewise, the second movement, admittedly an Andante rather than an Adagio, was taken at quite a flowing pace. Such was the care taken in phrasing and in the characterisation of every line, such was the attention paid to the combination of those lines, harmonically and contrapuntally, that again this felt just right, even if the timing on paper might have led one to suspect hurrying. The minuet was taken, as is now the fashion, one-to-a-bar. This generally leads to a loss of the stately character of the dance, but the technique and musicianship of conductor and players ensured that there was no loss of aristocratic grace. The cross rhythms were made to tell and there was none of the tedious short-breathed phrasing that disfigures so many contemporary performances: a longer line was always palpable. A slight relaxation of tempo for the trio was well judged. The celebrated drone finale swept all in its wake: fast but never rushed. Every instrumental line sang freely and joyfully, yet never merely for itself. Here especially, the antiphonal division of first and second violins paid dividends, Haydn’s imitative playfulness registering in delightful fashion.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony received for the most part a duly thrilling performance. There could again be no quarrel with the standard of orchestral playing, which impressed in every department, apart from a brief passage at the beginning of the final movement when some sections sounded a little tired. (One can certainly sympathise with their predicament.) Special mention should be made of the first horn and first trumpeter, whose solos were not only faultless but profoundly moving; there was no doubt that they understood the meaning behind the notes. The opening tattoo and its recurrences were ominous indeed. Moreover, the statements of the chorale, which at various points threatens to triumph but never quite does, were noble and thrilling: a tribute to all of the brass in particular. The ghostly pizzicati from the strings in the third movement were superbly managed, as was the Viennese Schwung of the final trio section of that movement. Thinking of the orchestra as a whole, and its direction from Jansons, an especially notable aspect of this performance was the bustling counterpoint , partly born of Mahler’s renewed interest in the music of Bach, and yet so utterly characteristic of the composer and his language. Not only the balance between various lines but also the impetus the sometimes frenetic activity gives to the symphony’s dramatic arch were as impressive as I can recall hearing them.

And yet, the interpretation did not seem to be quite settled. A noteworthy and commendable aspect was the clear division into Mahler’s three parts; the second and fifth movements were attacked immediately, so as to underline this. However, there were quite a few passages, which, if they did not quite meander, did not sound quite so necessary as they might. This was less the case in the first movement, whose funeral tread mightily impressed, but the complex Scherzo and the finale seemed – as so often it can, in all but the greatest performances – a little over-extended. There is a very difficult balance to strike in the finale, between the abundance of orchestral and contrapuntal virtuosity and the overall line, in terms of the movement itself and, even more trickily, its place in the symphonic whole. Leonard Bernstein, in his truly great Vienna recording, succeeded triumphantly in this as few have done before or since. Jansons is not there yet, but I have heard far more uncertain, prolix traversals. The Adagietto was beautiful, but a little earth-bound. Bernstein shows how it might be both æthereal and carnal, whilst also serving as an introduction to the boisterous high spirits of the fifth movement. Here it seemed somewhat static, the string tone slightly unleavened. The final characteristic I felt lacking was a sense of modernist adventure. One of the most enduringly fascinating aspects of Mahler is his position on the cusp of late Romanticism and the Second Viennese School. Different interpretations may choose to dwell more on one or the other, and may vary even within a single interpretation. However, the knife-edge experience of standing so close to the expressionist abyss should not be neglected entirely. There were times when the music sounded more like a presentiment of Shostakovich, and Mahler is far more ambiguous, far richer than that.

Whilst it would be an exaggeration to speak of the work being treated as a concerto for orchestra, this was on occasion the impression one might have gleaned, owing to the mismatch – which should not be exaggerated, but which likewise should not be ignored – between the overall conception and the execution. There seems to me every reason to believe that Jansons will deepen his understanding of the work, so that before too long it will rank with the towering performance I heard of the Sixth Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Salzburg in 2005. But the Fifth is an extremely treacherous work; I recall hearing Sir Simon Rattle say that he had left it alone for quite a while, having had his fingers burned early on. Earlier this year, I heard Daniel Barenboim fall much further short than Jansons, notwithstanding the fact that Barenboim went on to give extremely fine performances of the Seventh and Ninth. So there is no shame whatsoever in there being a longer journey to travel; this, after all, is part of the challenge and devotion Mahler inspires.

Thursday 1 November 2007

Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice - Maurizio Pollini et al., 31 October 2007

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Schoenberg – Three Piano Pieces, Op.11
Schoenberg – Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19
Berg – Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op.5
Nono – …sofferte onde serene …
Nono – ‘Djamila Boupacha,’ for solo voice, from Canti di vita e d’amore
Nono – A floresta è jovem e cheja de vida

Maurizio Pollini (piano)
Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
André Richard, Reinhold Braig (sound projection)
Alain Damiens (clarinet)
Cologne Percussion Quartet
Experimental Studio for Acoustic Arts Freiburg
Sara Ecoli, Terence Roe, and Margot Nies (voci recitante)
Beat Furrer (conductor)

This concert represented an encounter, and a most fruitful one, between two of the South Bank Centre’s series: the International Piano Series and the Luigi Nono: Fragments of Venice festival. At its heart, even when not performing, was Maurizio Pollini, one of Nono’s closest friends and the dedicatee of Nono’s only work for solo piano (and tape): …sofferte onde serene ....

Pollini’s prowess in the solo piano music of Schoenberg is well known, but that is no reason to take it for granted. As has often been the case in comparing his live performances with recordings, there was arguably a greater freedom in the two sets of pieces performed, albeit with no loss to the awe-inspiring crystalline perfection of his tone and projection. There was perhaps a more ‘Romantic’ sound here than in his Deutsche Grammophon recordings: more Brahms and less Bauhaus, one might say. One of the greatest strengths in both the Op.11 and Op.19 sets was the marriage – dialectic even – between the characteristics of individual pieces and their position within their respective works as a whole. The violent eruptions of Op.11 no.3 are mightily impressive as they are, but gain in power through the spinning of a longer line, which is revealed to be just as narrative in its conception – and execution – as more overtly programmatic works such as the Music to an Imaginary Film Scene or even the Piano Concerto. Pollini’s reserves of tone colour and their deployment, and his articulation of counterpoint without the slightest loss to harmonic richness and motion were an object lesson to any pianist or indeed to any musician.

The Berg Op.4 Pieces received an equally commanding performance from Pollini. I have never heard the final bars sound so richly and darkly expressive, bringing the work closer than usual to the Three Orchestral Pieces, Op.6. Alain Damiens certainly had the measure of his music, bringing a broad array of dynamic contrast, and matching Pollini in the difficult combination of rhythmic precision and flexibility that lies at the heart of such music. I did not feel that Damiens always evinced the most beguiling of tones; sometimes the tonal quality was somewhat breathy. This, however, was a minor blemish.

In …sofferte onde serene …, the ‘serenity’ and ‘suffering’ of Nono’s ‘waves’ was almost visually palpable. There could be no doubt as to the presence of Venice, what Nono called the ‘signals of life on the Laguna’ in this masterly rendition. The tolling of bells, as he would have heard in the Giudecca, seemed to follow on from the ethereal funeral bells of the last of Schoenberg’s Op.19 Pieces. Air from other planets once again came upon us. The interaction with, or rather amplification from, the pianist (Pollini himself) on tape seemed superbly judged, for which much credit must go to André Richard. Sometimes these waves of sound were indistinguishable from those emanating from the piano; sometimes the distinction was clearer. This contrast, of separation and coming together, is integral to the work, and heightened the sense of synergy between the human, the electronic, and the ‘natural’, apparent or otherwise. The sense of developing memory, just as in Schoenberg’s Op.19 no.6 tribute to Mahler, was all-pervasive, in a fitting tribute from Pollini to Nono.

The second half brought us first of all the second of Nono’s Canti di vita e d’amore. Barbara Hannigan’s performance of ‘Djamila Boupacha’ was extremely powerful, both in its sense of drama and in the singer’s astonishing surmounting of the song’s technical challenges. The sense of hope, of ‘love … as consciousness of life,’ to quote Nono, won through over the almost unthinkable blackness of colonial oppression in Algeria. The words were not merely set to music, but became music, a triumph for both Nono and Hannigan.

This triumph was also achieved in the final work, long advocated by Pollini: A floresta è jovem e cheja de vida. The performance, under Beat Furrer, seemed to me exemplary. All participants imparted a true sense of commitment to the work and to its imperative of anti-imperialist struggle. Hannigan once again impressed mightily in her powerful yet acutely sensitive delivery of the soprano line. The three reciting voices added greatly to the sense, as palpable here as in ‘Djamila Boupacha’, of turning the words into music. The horror of partially heard words from the magnetic tape text, The Appeal of the American Committee for the Suspension of the Vietnam War, was superbly projected to provide the work’s subtext, sometimes in the background, other times more clearly heard. This rendered the ‘live’ vocal lines all the more piercing in their protest: human interventions into the darkness of an administered world. The same could be said of the interventions of the exemplary Cologne percussionists, visual as well as aural, , putting me in mind of the horrendous anvils of Wagner’s Nibelheim. And the same could be said of the songs and cries of the solo clarinet. Here, Damiens appeared to be completely in his element. Not only was his mastery of the necessary extended techniques never in doubt; the way in which his tone proved able to merge with and to emerge from the voices was quite extraordinary, another celebration of and tribute to Nono’s humanist vision. Both work and performance were thus political in the very broadest, most all-encompassing sense. This is no period piece but part of an ongoing struggle, happily reconstructed and made new. And so must be our reception. In the words of Gabriel, an Angolan guerrilla: ‘Não poden queimar a floresta pois ela è jovern e cheja de vida.’ (They can’t burn down the forest because it is young and full of life.)