Thursday 31 January 2008

Cardillac, Opéra National de Paris, 29 January 2008

Opéra Bastille

Cardillac – Franz Grundheber
The Daughter – Angela Denoke
The Officer – Christopher Ventris
The Lady – Hannah Esther Minutillo
The Cavalier – Charles Workman
The Gold Dealer – Roland Bracht
Leader of the Prévôté – David Bizic

Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris

Kazushi Ono (conductor)

Winfried Maczewski (chorus master)

André Engel (producer)
Nicky Rieti (designer)
Chantel de La Coste Messelière (costumes)
André Diot (lighting)
Frédérique Chauveaux and Françoise Grès (choreographers)

Perhaps only Paris could turn in so stylish a production of the terminally unfashionable Hindemith. When I saw this in 2006, I thought that the Opéra National de Paris had a hit on its hands, and I have no reason to revise my judgement upon its revival. Cardillac, based on Das Fräulein von Scuderi, a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, is a work imbued with Neue Sachlichkeit. It nevertheless looks forward to the chief preoccupation of works such as Mathis der Maler and Die Harmonie der Welt, namely the artist’s role in society. The musical style, however, remains very much of the 1920s: for the most part resolutely anti-sentimental and with a duly ‘objective’ instrumental polyphony characteristic, perhaps misconceived but genuinely held, of that age’s conception of Bach.

Kazushi Ono seemed very much on Hindemith’s wavelength in this respect. Anxious to relieve music of its subservience to the text Hindemith – somewhat like Busoni and even Berg in this respect – insisted upon small closed instrumental forms, following their own musical imperatives. Whilst not dissociated from what was going on onstage, Ono ensured that the motorised rhythms and the manifold polyphonic strands were possessed of their own motivation. His reading may not have evinced throughout quite the rhythmic drive – there were a few occasions when the tension sagged ever so slightly – brought to the score by Kent Nagano during the original production, but this is a minor criticism. The orchestra responded superbly: incisive and possessed of just the right wind- and percussion-dominated sound. (The strings, especially violins, are very few in number, to impart an almost Weill-like quality to the music.) A sure command of idiom was unfailingly apparent.

Franz Grundheber proved a charismatic Cardillac. His tone, his attention to the text, and equally importantly, bearing on stage were all exemplary. For the drama to be of consequence, one needs to believe in his tortured, Jekyll-and-Hyde conflict between his work and everything else, his daughter included. One certainly did in this case. Angela Denoke was every bit as impressive as his daughter; it is difficult to imagine her command of line and tone in this role bettered. As her suitor, Christopher Ventris also impressed – more so in the second than in the third act – although he was arguably outshone by Charles Workman in the smaller tenor role of the dashing Cavalier. The stage and vocal chemistry between the latter and the alluring Hannah Esther Minutillo as the Lady was an object lesson in such matters. One could all too well understand why he felt compelled to follow her fateful entreaty to procure for her ‘the finest object Cardillac ever produced,’ and why she in her turn was only too eager to await him in her bedroom. The chorus, attentively directed and choreographed, was every bit as impressive in its vocal blend and diction. It plays a crucial role – partly a homage to Bach’s Passions and Handel’s oratorios? – both at the opening and during the final scene, thus framing the action within a broader social context. It was no mean achievement for almost every word to be distinguishable, all the more impressive given the fullness of choral tone and the quantity of stage business.

The production was, as I have already mentioned, extremely stylish. The updating – to roughly the time of composition – worked well enough, although there were occasions, such as the beginning of the third act, when it became a little confusing. Nevertheless, the general impression of gold-fuelled opulence was most persuasive, as were all aspects of the Personenregie. The sets and costumes were lavish, which seemed not an extravagance but a necessary attribute of the action. A welcome aspect of the production was that it helped to remove any lingering prejudices one might have entertained about dryness or worthiness on the composer’s part. This was splendid musical theatre and must be accounted a triumph for Gérard Mortier’s house and company.

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Opéra National de Paris, 28 January 2008

Opéra Bastille

The Emperor – Jon Villars
The Empress – Eva-Maria Westbroek
The Nurse – Jane Henschel
Barak – Franz Hawlata
Barak’s Wife – Christine Brewer
The Spirit-Messenger – Ralf Lukas
Voice of the Apparition of Youth – Ryan MacPherson
Voice of the Falcon, Guardian of the Threshold of the Temple – Elena Tsallagova
Voice from Above – Jane Henschel
The One-Eyed – Yuri Kissin
The One-Armed – Gregory Reinhart
The Hunchback – John Easterlin

Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris
Maîtrise des Hauts-de-Seine
Children’s Choir of the Opéra National de Paris
Alessandro di Stefano (chorus master)

Gustav Kuhn (conductor)

Robert Wilson (producer and designer)
Giuseppe Fregeni (co-producer)
Christope Martin (co-designer)
Moidele Bickel (costumes)
Andreas Fuchs (lighting)

Strauss’s operas broadly tend to be either Wagnerian or Mozartian. One of the many extraordinary things about Die Frau ohne Schatten – or La femme sans ombre, as it was generally called at the Paris Opéra – is that it manages to be both. It certainly qualifies as post-Wagnerian music drama in terms of the leitmotivic writing that both spans and in large part constitutes the work’s structure. The descent of the Empress and Nurse from the spirit world to that of humanity is surely a conscious homage to Das Rheingold’s descent to Nibelheim and the night-watchmen (choral rather than solo) at the end of Act I cannot but recall Die Meistersinger, whilst the trials of the opera’s two couples are a clear and acknowledge reference to The Magic Flute. Wagner and Mozart combine in the musico-dramatic opposition between spirit and human world and in the clear progression from the former to the latter: a homage to and development of the stories both of Brünnhilde and of Tamino and Pamina. The epic Wagnerian element is most to the fore during the first two acts, with the Mozartian trials reserved for the third. However, this in no sense prevents Strauss from continuing that quasi-expressionistic writing which may surprise the listener aware that Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos (in part) precede Die Frau. The polytonalism on offer here, although more sparing than that of Elektra, is every bit as ‘advanced’. This may seem less odd when we also consider the almost contemporary, all-too-readily underestimated Nietzschean (Anti-Christian) tone-poem, An Alpine Symphony¸ which ought already to have brought into question Strauss’s alleged ‘reversion’ in and after Rosenkavalier. In any case, Strauss – and to some extent, Hofmannsthal – is so often found to be playing with the history of music and of musical drama, ever more explicitly until its ultimate treatment in Capriccio.

The musical forces required in Strauss’s opera are huge too: the various choirs, the violas and ‘cellos split as well as the violins, the wind- and thunder-machines, quadruple winds and so forth. Like the Schoenberg of the Gurrelieder or the Op.8 Orchestral Songs, however, Strauss draws from a vast orchestral palette with chamber-music restraint as well as overpowering near-bombast. The colouristic variegation of the score remind us that he is a contemporary of Debussy and Bartók. Then, of course, there are the heavy demands placed upon the solo voices, not least the typically merciless writing for the tenor Emperor. Moreover, the manifold ambiguities in Hofmannsthal’s libretto – how should one weight the post-Wagner and Magic Flute elements respectively? – provide all sorts of pitfalls for directors. This, then, is not an easy work to perform, and resounding successes have not been so many.

During the first half of the first act, I had my doubts, and feared that we might be in for a prolonged evening. Gustav Kuhn revealed a myriad of colours from the orchestra, but his conducting otherwise came across as rather stiff. This seemed to match all too well the predictably static nature of Robert Wilson’s Japanese-influenced production, although already this exerted an undeniable theatrical fascination. Not long after reaching Barak’s hut, however, Kuhn appeared better able to think in long phrases and periods, and this transmitted itself to the orchestra and thence to the audience (or at least to this member thereof). Wilson’s production truly came into its own from this point onwards, both doing something quite different from the music and yet in tune with its demands. Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of the production – and so lamentably rare in opera – was the attention Wilson and his team paid to the score. Movement, colour, and transformation were clearly, if sometimes surprisingly, connected to the orchestra in particular. If the production was not merely the obedient servant of the music – and why should it be? – nor did it ever jar. The designs were generally simple but powerful, not least in the striking use of different colours and their interactions both within and between scenes. There was much that I could not claim to ‘understand’, but to attempt this rather seemed to be missing the point, for I could tell that there was something purposeful, intelligent, and often quite magical going on: something which need not necessarily be translated into words. (After all, the same is often said, and not without reason, of music.) The choreographic direction of the falcon in particular impressed: here was beguiling and perhaps threatening mystery. Humour was present too, in the guise of Barak’s ghastly ne’er-do-well brothers, here portrayed as clowns. Their vocalisation was as impressive as their staged portrayal, indicating commendable attention to detail in depth as well as breadth of casting.

I do not think there was a weak link in the cast – which, in this of all operas, is a signal achievement. It was notable, moreover, that the improvement during the first act I mentioned in terms of the conducting was reflected, if perhaps less dramatically, in terms of the singing. For instance, Eva-Maria Westbroek’s pitching was initially somewhat approximate, but this problem seemed to disappear. Henceforth, she proved a ravishing Empress, thoughtful too in her transition from spirit to woman; her tone developed in tandem with her character. In the thankless role of the Emperor, Jon Villars was heroic if not exciting. I could have imagined a reading with greater variety of shading but, given the orchestral torrents raging against him, that is far easier said than done. Villars’s tone was strong and secure, and there was never any question of him failing to sustain his line. Franz Hawlata was a wonderful Barak. True, there were moments when his tone sounded just a little threadbare, but they were but moments and in a sense they enabled his humanity to shine through all the more. What a difference there is between such grateful writing for the baritone and that for the tenor! Christine Brewer was fully equal to the demands of Barak’s Wife. It was quite an achievement of the production, given her usual cheerful nature, to render her so severe of aspect earlier on; it was also quite an achievement on her part for her to portray this musically. Her tone blossomed like that of the Empress, for we should remember that Barak’s Wife gains immeasurably in humanity through her eventual appreciation of how close she comes to losing it through the near-sale of her shadow.

And then there was Jane Henschel, in the extraordinary role of the Nurse. After seeing her in Elektra at the Deutsche Oper in December, I wrote: ‘Jane Henschel is not the sort of artist to give so searingly nasty a reading of Klytämnestra as, say, Felicity Palmer.’ I confess that I misjudged her – or the production, which might have been urging her to accomplish something different; for here, as the Nurse, she positively oozed expressionistic, other-worldly malevolence. How clever Strauss’s writing is in this respect, since the part barely boasts a melody yet sears itself nevertheless into the memory as something quite different, allied to the darker, nocturnal realm otherwise only heard orchestrally. Henschel was every inch the vocal manifestation of this dangerous, perhaps evil presence, perfectly underlined by her menacing though never unduly exaggerated stage demeanour. The choral parts were all splendidly taken too, with a special mention due to the young singers, who sounded as children without ever tending towards the jejune or, as can often be the case, the verbally incomprehensible. Chorus-master Alessandro di Stefano had clearly done his preparatory work very well indeed.

For the orchestra, I have nothing but praise. The kaleidoscopic turns of Strauss’s extravagant orchestration held no fears whatsoever for the Parisian players. They sounded like a first-class international orchestra, which is of course what they are, although opera orchestras can often be underestimated in this respect. (Not for nothing is Pierre Boulez to conduct one of their symphonic concerts this season.) I should stress ‘international’, because, the concern for colour aside – and in any case this is probably more to be attributed to Kuhn – there was nothing especially ‘French’ about their sound. This may be regretted, but there is to be no going back to the days of those old Désormière and Ingelbrecht recordings; to attempt to do so would indeed represent an especially perverse form of historicism (which probably means that someone will soon inflict it upon us). If the orchestra lacked the quintessentially old German sound of the most natural of Straussian orchestras, such as, in their different ways, the Staatskapelle Dresden or the Vienna Philharmonic, it boasted far more than its undeniable and at times staggering virtuosity. The strings glowed yet were duly incisive. The production nicely highlighted the second – after Don Quixote – of Strauss’s almost-cello-concerti by having the soloist quite mesmerisingly hold our visual as well as aural attention on stage. Woodwind colour both complemented and sang out solistically in a variety of combinations. The brass and percussion did everything that could have been asked of them. However extreme the orchestral demands, the ensemble never lost a cultured sound, never sounded brash, which is as it should be. If Kuhn’s concern for colour was sometimes at the expense of a stronger feeling of line, this should not be exaggerated, at least not from the second half of the first act onwards. Die Frau was better conducted as a whole by Christoph von Dohnányi the last time it appeared at Covent Garden (in David Hockney’s wonderful production), but Kuhn certainly did not deserve the scattered booing he received at his curtain call.

One thing that is unusual, though not unique, about Die Frau in terms of the Strauss canon is that, in Wagnerian and often Mozartian style, it does appear to have a ‘message’ to impart. It would, I think, be ludicrous to claim this of Elektra or Salome – moral homilies concerning familial breakdown?! – but equally to do so of Rosenkavalier, Arabella, or Daphne. This is where the work could easily fall down, for on the face of it, the imperative to procreate is not the most promising of dramatic territory and could start to sound more than a little ridiculous; it might even end up enlisting Strauss and Hofmannsthal in the service of the more reactionary elements of the Roman Catholic Church. This is not the whole story, of course, for, especially earlier on, much attention is granted to the more promising subject matter of a woman’s longing for progeny. Yet what the production managed as a whole to accomplish was to give due attention to both, by imparting a sense of wonder at the mystery of life, rather than by dwelling unduly on the detail. In this, we could all share – and did.

Thursday 24 January 2008

Prokofiev and Roussel, Kissin/Philharmonia/Ashkenazy, 24 January 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Roussel – Bacchus et Ariane: Suite no.1
Prokofiev – Piano Concerto no.3 in C major, Op.26
Prokofiev – Symphony no.6 in E flat minor, Op.111

Evgeny Kissin (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy (conductor)

Prokofiev greatly admired the music of Albert Roussel, and one could hear why in this first suite from the ballet Bacchus et Ariane. Roussel exhibits a splendid command of the orchestra, a sharp ear for rhythm, and a typically Gallic lack of sentimentality. Indeed, there were passages one might have been forgiven for attributing to the Parisian Prokofiev of the 1920s. The Fiery Angel and Le pas d’acier sprang to mind. Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia gave a good account of this suite. There was always a clear sense of the music’s direction and the dances were well characterised. The Stravinskian influence from The Rite of Spring was apparent at the moment when Theseus’s men rush at Bacchus, although Roussel never sounds quite so primitivist. A greater variety of orchestral colour would have benefited the performance; this is not Ravel, but there is some gorgeous orchestration nevertheless. However, the audience would still have had a good sense of the music and its character.

Evgeny Kissin joined the orchestra for Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. His was a towering reading of what is probably the most popular of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos. The music suits Kissin perfectly, providing a great opportunity not only to showcase his phenomenal technique, but also for the various aspects of his individual sonority to shine through. His tone can melt as well as stab, and never loses its strikingly mature roundedness. Especially noteworthy was the careful weighting of each chord, however frenetic the context, so that even when Prokofiev is at his most percussive, every note is still made to tell. This is a far rarer gift than one might imagine. It clearly helped to have a conductor with intimate knowledge of the score under his fingers. Ashkenazy’s direction was always sure and was estimably synchronised with the soloist. An especially noteworthy instance was the third movement’s perfect alignment between the piano, percussion, and con legno strings. Elsewhere, the strings sometimes sounded a little thin, overshadowed by the fine contributions of the duly grotesque – where necessary – woodwind and the powerful brass.

Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony is a more sombre work than its immediate predecessor, the Fifth, and arguably the greater of these two great ‘war symphonies’. Ashkenazy, however, made it sound closer to the more triumphal Fifth than I can previously recall. The strange combination of darkness and other-worldliness that characterises the first movement was never made quite to tell as it should, nor was the driving sense of purpose that should once and for all give the lie to claims that Prokofiev was not a true symphonist. Songfulness replaced threnody in the second movement Largo: not unattractive in itself, but by the same token mistaking what seems to me to be the predominant quality of the movement. Ashkenazy’s direction here sometimes had a tendency to meander, where clarity and implacability of purpose should be all. Indeed, the brooding quality of dark tragedy was short-changed throughout, with the consequence that the masterly handled – at least in isolation – final explosion at the end of the otherwise almost carefree third movement seemed to come almost from nowhere, and lost its cyclical sense.

Ashkenazy’s reading sounded oddly like a work very much in progress, as if the symphony were new to him, which of course it is not. Once again, the woodwind and brass – trumpets and horns with wonderfully ‘Russian’ vibrato on occasion – outshone the strings. The 'cellos in particular sounded surprisingly thin, worlds apart from Mravinsky’s Leningrad Philharmonic, who premiered the work in 1947. Such weakness was not evenly spread throughout the section, for the violins on occasion at least captured an authentic Prokofiev bitter-sweetness, and the double basses impressed throughout. The latter, however, only served to highlight what was lacking above.

Sunday 20 January 2008

Angela Hewitt, The Well-tempered Clavier, Book I, 20 January 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Angela Hewitt (piano)

All the clichés concerning the ‘48’ are true: the Old Testament of the piano repertoire (Hans von Bülow, though I have also seen the quotation attributed to Liszt), and so forth. Speaking as a pianist, there is a great deal of music without which I should feel bereft but, were everything else somehow to be lost, I think I could just about cope so long as I were able to play the Well-tempered Clavier. One would be hard put, to put it mildly, to perform both books in a single sitting, although I can imagine Daniel Barenboim pulling it off one of these days, perhaps to preface a St Matthew Passion. Even performances of a whole book at a time are not all that common, which, given the challenges involved, is just as well; indeed, it is a good thing that such a performance should be a special occasion. And a special occasion this was. I was enormously moved by how visibly moved Angela Hewitt was at the end of the recital. It would be a scandal if to perform this music meant little to a performer, but one could see that Bach meant almost everything to her. Whatever qualifications I may voice below – and they generally relate to matters of taste rather than of judgement – this was a tremendous achievement from a fine pianist, a fine musician, and a fine Bachian.

Perhaps through nerves, the first Prelude and Fugue, in C major, was a little below par. Pianists are understandably eager to avoid sentimentalising the Prelude, given Gounod’s dreadful bowdlerisation, but I found Hewitt’s reading disappointingly plain, over-restricted in dynamic contrasts and crying out for a touch of pedal. Bach’s homage to the style brisé of the clavecinistes can bear a little romanticism at least. (Hewitt has shown herself unafraid to draw from a wider palette in Couperin.) The fugue had a couple of stumbles, though nothing about which to worry unduly. Thereafter, however, there was barely a weak link in the progression.

To begin with, I worried that Hewitt might be treating the music with kid-gloves. The C minor and D major Prelude and Fugues, for example, were beautifully performed, but might have been considered a little precious. The brightness of Hewitt’s Fazioli piano did not help, I thought, but she doubtless has her reasons for preferring this instrument. However, there were already exceptions: the stile antico C sharp minor Fugue evinced real gravity without ever becoming ponderous. And the sarabande E flat minor Prelude was gravely beautiful, the weighting of the second beat perfectly judged and varied so as to lilt without the slightest hint of period pedantry. I was put in mind of Busoni’s masterful Sarabande und Cortège.

Hewitt certainly had the measure of the E flat major Prelude and Fugue. Its tremendous Prelude – a toccata and double fugue in itself – was very well-judged, the toccata possessing enough of a sense of quasi-improvisatory freedom to contrast with the strictness of the fugue. Her voicing of its double counterpoint was a splendid example of variation in light and shade, of shifting perspectives, whilst remaining relatively ‘Classical’ in outlook. There are other, more ‘Romantic’ ways of accomplishing this, but Hewitt’s worked just as well. After the Prelude, the relative lightness of the Fugue proper came as a refreshing though far from insubstantial sorbet: Hewitt’s touch aptly had something of the Mendelssohn scherzo about it. The extraordinary variety of Bach’s imagination was well served by this inversion of what would usually be considered ‘typical’, namely a Prelude leading onto a more searching, ‘substantial’ Fugue. In fact, as Hewitt showed, there is nothing ‘typical’ in Bach’s wisdom: systematic in a positive rather than bureaucratic fashion. Classification in the sense of nineteenth-century theorisers such as Cherubini (Tovey’s bête noire) has no place here.

The F major Fugue flowed beautifully, thanks to Hewitt’s exquisite voicing (the and her finely judged sense of rhythmic momentum – which only seemed to desert her in the somewhat awkward-sounding G minor Fugue. (Nobody, bar perhaps Edwin Fischer, is perfect!) From the F minor Prelude and Fugue onwards, a new gravity was apparent. Initially, I put this down to the involved chromaticism of the fugue, but there was a sense thereafter of new metaphysical horizons. This is speculation, but I wondered whether Hewitt was attempting to impart more of a sense of progression within the ‘work’ as a whole, intending to climax in the extraordinary B minor Fugue (of which more below). There are many things one could say about this, both pro and contra, but I do not think we need bother ourselves here with the composer’s spurious intention, since the ‘work’, such as it is, was never ‘intended’ to be performed whole in any case. I think Hewitt’s approach, if I am correct in divining it, is a perfectly reasonably one, although it might slightly have undersold the earlier Preludes and Fugues.

I do not wish to imply that this necessarily involved romanticisation – or even Romanticisation – of the second half of the book, although there was more of a sense of the Gothic to the fugues, especially those in minor keys. However, it revealed Hewitt as a more Romantically-inclined Bach pianist than I had previously considered to be the case. There was still a great difference between her and, say, Fischer, let alone Barenboim or Richter (Sviatoslav, not Karl), but I was pleased to have my misconception corrected. Nor did this development preclude a declamatory, more ‘Baroque’ style where appropriate, as for instance at the opening of the A flat major Prelude. However, I was a little surprised – and not at all unpleasantly – to hear the B flat minor Prelude taken quite so slowly and its accompanying fugue achieving quite so pianist a climax. The bass of the B minor Prelude was taken non legato, as often seems to be the case. (Even Barenboim does this.) I tend to prefer it otherwise, but have to admit that I was convinced by the contrast between right hand and left hand, which somehow – I am not quite sure why – put me in mind of the texture of Mozart’s Bach homage in the Magic Flute’s choral prelude for the Two Armoured Men. The B minor Fugue was given quite a Romantic reading, not afraid to use the full resources of the modern instrument. Here, I prefer a more extreme, labyrinthine, almost Bergian approach to this extraordinary harmonic counterpoint, which is really not so far from the Second Viennese School; not for nothing did Schoenberg, pointing to this very fugue, call Bach ‘the first composer with twelve tones’. However, on its own terms, Hewitt’s account worked very well and brought the recital to an exciting climax. She thoroughly deserved her extended ovation.

Friday 18 January 2008

Stephen Hough, Wigmore Hall, 17 January 2008

Wigmore Hall

Mendelssohn – Variations sérieuses in D minor, Op.54
Webern – Variations, Op.27
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.111

Weber – Invitation to the Dance, Op.65
Chopin – Waltz in C sharp minor, Op.64 no.2
Chopin – Waltz in A flat major, Op.34 no.1
Saint-Saëns – Valse nonchalante, Op.110
Chabrier – Feuillet d’album
Debussy – La plus que lente
Liszt – Valse oubliée no.1
Liszt – Mephisto Waltz no.1

Stephen Hough (piano)

This recital fell clearly into two halves. The first focused upon variation form, the second upon the waltz. A packed Wigmore Hall was understandably eager to hear Stephen Hough, as was I. However, I came away feeling a little disappointed. Flashes of brilliance – sometimes, especially in the second half, rather more than that – were accompanied by some perfectly respectable yet surprisingly workmanlike pianism.

The Mendelssohn Variations sérieuses have had a number of advocates over the years, but I do not find an especially strong work here. The theme is a little dull, which need not betoken dull development; yet, despite some interesting moments, Mendelssohn does not seem particularly inspired for many of the variations. That said, the Variations found an able advocate in Hough. His touch was beautiful and there was a real sense of cumulative development as the variations gathered pace. The syncopations of the fifth variation were tellingly presented and the part-writing of the tenth variation’s fugato was projected with an admirable balance between contrapuntal clarity and harmonic progression. Hough hastened towards a dazzling peroration in the coda.

Webern fared less well. Hough’s was very much a horizontal rather than vertical reading, whereas the music requires an equilibrium and a dialectic between the two. The notes were very clear, crystal-clear even, but without the crystalline perfection – let alone the meaning – that, for example, Maurizio Pollini brings to this miraculous score. The second movement, marked Sehr schnell, sounded relentlessly loud, despite the acknowledged dynamic contrasts. Its notes sounded stabbed at, rather than sculpted. Usually this work is over in the twinkling of an eye; here, it threatened to overstay its welcome.

Beethoven’s final piano sonata received a reading somewhere in between. There was little about which one could justifiably complain, although, on the other hand, this was not a performance one will be likely to recall several years hence. An unusual aspect was the forthrightness of the opening Maestoso. One lost something in terms of harmonic ambiguity, but one sensed a kinship with Beethoven’s earlier masterpieces in C minor. Indeed, much of the first movement sounded closer to ‘middle-period’ Beethoven than to the more typically rarefied sublimity of ‘late’ Beethoven. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that: holy ground does not always necessitate removal of one’s shoes. Yet something of this noble work’s secondary simplicity was lacking. Initial presentations of the first subject, in both the development and the recapitulation, sounded a little matter of fact and hard-driven, but there were also passages of considerable beauty, more in tune with the extraordinary metaphysical vistas Beethoven reveals. With the second-movement Arietta, we returned, of course, to variation form. There were once again some beautiful things here, not least those all-important trills, preparing their breathtaking modulatory way (all the more breathtaking for the movement’s general lack of modulation). Hough remained utterly secure in his technical command. He exhibited a clear understanding of the music’s structure, without ever quite appearing to be breathing its air of another planet.

It seemed a little cruel to position Weber’s rather trivial Invitation to the Dance – which sounds better in Berlioz’s orchestration – next to two of Chopin’s Waltzes. Despite a little haziness at one point in the passagework, Hough proved an able advocate for the Weber, but he could not entirely obscure its sectional writing and sometimes rather threadbare invention. To think that this was the work of the composer of Der Freischütz! The Chopin waltzes received generally fine readings, especially the C sharp minor work. Hough exhibited a sound command of idiom and style: not the most overtly ‘Polish’ of readings, but there are many ways to perform Chopin. Inner voices, of which there are fewer in the waltzes than in many other Chopin works, were made to tell where they did appear, but never at the expense of the longer line, nor indeed of a dancing grace. I retained a nagging doubt, however, that there remained unplumbed emotional depths.

Saint-Saëns’s Valse nonchalante did what it said on the tin. It was mildly interesting to make its acquaintance, but I doubt I should rush to hear it again. Chabrier’s Feuillet d’album, whilst hardly a profound work, exhibited more charm, both in itself and in Hough’s account. The pianist also had the measure of Debussy’s slyly ironic, yet far from un-affectionate La plus que lente. Debussy’s accomplishment, however, rather forcefully consigned his compatriots into the shade.

The one serious disappointment in terms of performance from the second half was the first Liszt Valse oubliée. Its technical challenges posed no problem to Hough, but he rather glided over the musical content. Liszt of all composers needs to be treated as more than an opportunity for pianistic display. Perhaps Hough was holding something in reserve for the first Mephisto Waltz, for this received an outstanding performance. The astonishing opening accretions of fifths underlined that we are but a stone’s throw, if that, from Bartók. Mephistopheles’s music was dangerous and enticing, though never in a flashy sense. Faust was dangerous, exciting – and beguiling. Hough played like a man – indeed a Faustian figure – possessed, and received a deservedly rapturous innovation at the end. It was worth having attended the performance simply for this final piece. The recital was being recorded for release by Hyperion.

Monday 7 January 2008

Strauss (and other) Lieder, Wigmore Hall, 6 January 2007

Wigmore Hall

Strauss: Ständchen; Seitdem dein Aug’; Nur mut!; Das Geheimnis; Sehnsucht; Liebeshymnus; O süsser Mai; Himmelsboten
Ivor Gurney: On Wenlock Edge; Ha’nacker Mill; The Salley Gardens; Snow; Hawk and Buckle
Strauss: Freundliche Vision; Ich schwebe; Kling!
Strauss: Amor; Einkehr; Mit deinen blauen Augen; Ein Obdach gegen Sturm; Rote Rosen; Die erwachter Rose; Die heiligen drei Könige
Frank Bridge: Adoration; Go not, happy day; Berceuse; Come to me in my dreams; O that it were so!
Strauss: Mein Herz ist stumm; Wozu noch, Mädchen; Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten

Rebecca Bottone (soprano)
Nathan Vale (tenor)
Paul Plummer (piano)

This was the last of three Wigmore Hall concerts devoted to the Lieder of Richard Strauss. Common to all was the pianist and deviser of the programmes, Paul Plummer. Each programme had included songs by other composers: from France in the first, Russia in the second, and England in the third. I assume that these works were chosen with the evening’s singers in mind, since there did not seem to be an obvious connection between Ivor Gurney and Frank Bridge on the one hand, and Strauss on the other. No matter: if there were no especial connection, nor did the combination jar unduly, and the English songs certainly showed off the vocal soloists to advantage.

Paul Plummer’s contribution as pianist merits enthusiastic praise. Strauss’s piano parts can be treacherous indeed, though one would hardly have known it, such was Plummer’s finely-judged virtuosity: never drawing attention to itself for attention’s sake, but never unduly reticent either. The young singers could hardly have wished for a better guide. The pearly tones required in the opening Ständchen set a standard which Plummer continued to meet. The piano bells in Liebeshymnus were set in beautiful counterpoint with the underlying chords; this is not at all easy to accomplish. Sehnsucht’s almost Lisztian interlude between the third and fourth stanza resolved perfectly into the Tristan-esque harmony that opens the fourth. Strauss’s musical antecedents were pointed up without scoring points; the composer was situated in a tradition that goes beyond what is conventionally considered to be at the heart of Lieder-writing. I greatly appreciated this, since there can occasionally be a tendency from Lieder enthusiasts to cordon off their province from other musical realms, not least from that of opera. Song and opera are different of course, rather as chamber and orchestral music are different, but there is a great deal of interplay, and a songwriter such as Strauss can have more in common with Wagner than might necessarily be the case with another songwriter. And Plummer passed an especially stern test when it came to that wonderful Heine setting, Die heiligen drei Könige. The piano part is actually a transcription, the orchestral song being the original. When I heard Roger Vignoles at Edinburgh in August, even he seemed unable to rid one of the impression of loss. With Plummer, the music was taken more soberly, less overtly pictorially: one would never have guessed its orchestral origin. The horns of Mein Herz ist stumm’s ‘Hörnerklang’ were beautifully characterised, again without being overdone and making one wish there were a real orchestra present.

Rebecca Bottone’s contribution was more problematical. One does not have to be Jessye Norman to sing Strauss – although it certainly helps. However, I am not at all convinced that Bottone’s voice was appropriate. It reminded me immediately of Reri Grist; my next thought was that this sounded very much the sort of chirpy, rather shrill voice conductors seem fond of allotting to roles such as Mozart’s Blonde. (I am not quite sure why, but that is a different matter.) When I consulted Bottone’s biography, sure and enough Blonde was given pride of place. The voice, in any case, lacked richness of tone and adequate differentiation of colours. Her bearing, visual as well as vocal, could be excessively winsome, especially in Amor, Strauss’s Cupid song. That said, she coped very well in that setting with Strauss’ cruel demands in terms of coloratura. There were some distinctly odd German vowel sounds, and she rarely sounded as if she were singing from ‘within’ the language. Tuning, moreover, was not always as precise as it might have been. On the other hand, Bottone sounded far more at home with the Bridge settings, both vocally and linguistically. Rather surprisingly, her voice appeared to acquire greater colour than it had in Strauss. There was a lovely ending to the Tennyson setting, Go not, happy day: spot on in intonation and with an apt smile in the voice to complement ‘Roses are her cheeks,/And a rose her mouth.’ If some of Bridge’s music, especially the piano part, reminded one a little too much of the salon, or the Palm Court, that is hardly the singer’s fault. Following the Bridge settings, her remaining Strauss song, Wie sollten wir geheim sie halten, appeared to benefit. There was more colour, although it still did not really seem her thing.

Nathan Vale was a considerable improvement. I am not entirely sure that his was the most suitable voice for Strauss either, but there was certainly less of a mismatch. His voice is rather an ‘English’ tenor, albeit without the mannerisms that so often infect that vocal type. There were times when Strauss’s writing appeared to sit uncomfortably high, but then Strauss’s tenor writing is notorious, and the odd faltering aside, Vale put up a good fight. He was good at posing questions, for instance ‘Du fragst mich, Mädchen, was flüsternd der West/Vertraue den Blütenglocken?’ (Das Geheimnis). He imparted an aptly Schubertian chill to the openings of Sehnsucht and Mein Herz ist stumm. When the opening line of the latter song return at the end, there was truly something of the sepulchre or Winterreise to the revisiting. Die erwachter Rose brought a real sense of erwachen (awakening) as Friedrich von Sallet’s verse told of the nightingale’s sweet song and the bud blossoming into a rose. At times, I thought Vale could have sung out more freely. When he did, as in Die heiligen drei Könige, the results impressed. However, if the disparity were less great, he too sounded more at home in the English settings, in his case those by Gurney. Indeed, here he sang as if to the manor born. (It transpires that he and Plummer have recently recorded a disc of English song.) The poignancy of fading away in Edward Thomas setting, Snow, was rather special. And there was plenty of vigour to Robert Graves’s Hawk and Buckle. Indeed, this combination of youthful vigour and imploring, though never mawkish vulnerability seemed just right for the music of one whose career was so cruelly cut short by the First World War.

So if not always an ideal appreciation of Strauss, there was much to enjoy here. Many of these songs are not often encountered, which gave the recital extra value. Vale’s voice is still very young, and will doubtless open out more, but he was far from unequal to many of Strauss’s demands. Plummer was excellent, though I am not convinced that his programming matches his pianism. The encores, a group of five ‘very small’ (mercifully) songs by Sterndale Bennett were ‘humorous’ though not – at least to this listener – amusing. They seemed an odd conclusion to this recital, but would surely have seemed odder still had one attended the series of three Strauss recitals.