Wednesday 27 February 2008

Richard Goode, piano recital, 27 February 2008

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Bach – Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 870
Bach – French Suite no.3 in B minor, BWV 814
Chopin – Mazurka in C, Op.24 no.2
Chopin – Mazurka in G, Op.50 no.1
Chopin – Mazurka in E minor, Op.41 no.2
Chopin – Mazurka in B minor, Op.33 no.4
Chopin – Impromptu in F sharp major, Op.36
Mozart – Rondo in A minor, KV 511
Chopin – Scherzo no.4 in E major, Op.54
Debussy – Etude no.11: ‘Pour les Arpèges composés’
Debussy – Etude no.5: ‘Pour les Octaves’
Chopin – Nocturne in C minor, Op.48 no.1
Chopin – Nocturne in B major, Op.62 no.1
Chopin – Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op.44

Richard Goode (piano)

Richard Goode opened his Queen Elizabeth Hall recital, ‘Homage to Chopin’, with some of the best Bach playing I have heard. He took full advantage of the modern piano without ever straying into merely ‘pianistic’ vulgarity. The C major Prelude and Fugue from Book II of the ‘Forty-eight’ was a perfect curtain-raiser, functioning rather like an overture in an orchestral programme. Bach’s counterpoint was wonderfully clear throughout, yet never at the expense of the manifold harmonic implications of the score. ‘Implications’ seems an especially appropriate word for the Prelude, with its parts that grow into chords: Goode’s mastery of the numerous held notes on which this depends was something quite rare, in every sense. So was the splendidly vocal quality to his part-playing, both in the Prelude and in the little three-part fugue. To this was added, in the third French Suite, a markedly orchestral sense. Goode’s characterisation of individual lines was so apt that one could imagine this part being allotted to a flute, that to a ’cello. Moreover, he showed a rhythmic security, attentive to the harmonic implications of the work’s rhythms, characteristic of the best performances of the Orchestral Suites: Klemperer or Karl Richter, for example. This was never at the expense of the piano’s unique qualities, however; far from it. The hushed return of the fifth movement’s Menuet, for example, was quite magical in purely instrumental terms.

Chopin also adored Mozart, and the Rondo in A minor, perhaps Mozart’s single greatest work for solo piano, is more than suggestive of why. Some of its highly Romantic piano writing clearly looks forward to Chopin and even beyond. The music is often highly chromatic, as is the melodic line of the rondo theme, which suggests a vast range of harmonic possibilities, as in Bach. Textures are more complex than is often the case in the sonatas. Yet I did not feel that Goode responded strongly enough to these rewarding although admittedly treacherous possibilities. Whilst his Mozart was thankfully not of the ‘Dresden china’ persuasion, it still felt somewhat inhibited, despite marvellous incidental beauties, such as the perfectly articulated left hand staccato runs. The arrival of the A major episode, which should be a moment of utopian beauty, seemed oddly matter-of-fact. And where Mozart really goes for the jugular, at the beginning of the coda, Goode seemed far more wary of exploiting his modern instrument than he had in the Bach works.

Debussy’s celebrated line, that ‘Chopin is the greatest of them all, for through the piano he discovered everything,’ was quoted in the programme. One of Chopin’s greatest disciples was represented by two Etudes. The first, ‘Pour les Arpèges composés’, suffered from sounding excessively like a homage to Chopin. There was a full-blooded Romanticism, occasionally verging upon the heavy-handed, to its Scherzandere middle section, which, although it might have made sense in terms of the programme, did not really work in practice. ‘Pour les Octaves’, however, was marvellous, as full of suggestive wit as post-impressionistic ambiguity. Goode’s touch was fully equal here to whatever Debussy demanded. The composer’s marking, ‘Joyeux et emporté, librement rythmé,’ is an apt summation of Goode’s performance.

Chopin himself was well served. The selection of Mazurkas was masterfully characterised, both as a group and in terms of the individual character of the pieces. As with the Bach suite, Goode exhibited great sensitivity to the difficult balancing act between the dance origins of the works and their new life as instrumental pieces. Thus the rhythms danced and the progressions were suitably accented, not least the stomping middle section of Op.24 no.2, but this was accomplished through pianistic re-creation rather than slavish imitation. The painful sadness of Op. 33 no.4, marked Mesto, shone through as an exile’s longing for his homeland and his pain at that homeland’s suffering. At the same time, its dancing qualities ensured that it never descended into mawkishness. The larger pieces – the F sharp major Impromptu, the E major Scherzo, and the final F sharp minor Polonaise – received typically thoughtful performances. Effortless bravura is not Goode’s way, though this in no way implies any shortcomings in his technique. However, despite the thoroughly musical virtues of these performances, they could occasionally sound a little wanting in charm, when compared to the greatest Chopin players. Voice-leading, for instance, was for the most part carefully handled, with some revelations concerning inner parts; but the twinkle in the eye with which, say, Shura Cherkassky might have accomplished some such devilish feat was not to be seen (or heard, should that be possible). That said, the quasi-orchestral characterisation familiar from Goode’s Bach playing made a few appearances in his Chopin, and to equally good effect.

This was also apparent in the two selected Nocturnes, concerning whose performance I had no reservations whatsoever, at least after a slightly underwhelming opening to the great C minor Nocturne, Op.48 no.1. It is marked mezza voce, but this should not preclude, indeed it should encourage, a truly aristocratic poise. Thereafter, however, the growth of tension was unremitting, which owed a great deal to Goode’s understanding and projection of the underlying harmonic progression. The Doppio movimento section veritably seethed, all the more in retrospect, following the magical calming of the waves at the concluding diminuendo e rallentando. In the B major Nocturne, Op. 62 no.1, Goode’s expertise in part-leading came fully to the fore; here was the magic that was sometimes lacking in the larger Chopin works. There was magic too, in the purely pianistic roulades, spun with an almost Mendelssohnian gossamer. It was fitting that for his encore, Goode treated us to another Nocturne, that in E flat, Op. 55 no.2, whose fine performance reminded us of the virtues of its predecessors.

Thursday 21 February 2008

Salome, Royal Opera, 21 February 2008

Royal Opera House

Salome – Nadja Michael
Herodias – Michaela Schuster
Page to Herodias – Daniela Sindram
Herod – Robin Leggate
Narraboth – Joseph Kaiser
Jokanaan – Michael Volle
First Nazarene – Iain Paterson
Second Nazarene – Julian Tovey
First Soldier – Christian Sist
Second Soldier – Alan Ewing
First Jew – Adrian Thompson
Second Jew – Martyn Hill
Third Jew – Hubert Francis
Fourth Jew – Ji-Min Park
Fifth Jew – Jeremy White
A Cappadocian – Vuyani Mlinde
Slave – Pumeza Matshikiza

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

David McVicar (director)
Es Devlin (designs)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Andrew George (choreography)
Mark Grimmer and Leo Warner (video design)

David McVicar’s reputation seems to be riding high in the operatic world at the moment, especially amongst those impatient with the more or even less extreme instances of Continental Regietheater. His La Clemenza di Tito for the English National Opera was a very fine production, which truly breathed life into the characters of an opera seria that has often been deemed problematical (largely, I should add, on account of inappropriate expectations). I liked his Covent Garden Magic Flute, which, in spite of a strangely disappointing final scene, had plenty of magic to it and in that sense – praise be! – suggested engagement with the music, although much less with the work’s profounder themes. Handel’s Giulio Cesare he appears to have dealt with by sending it and its genre up. (I say ‘appears to’ since I have not seen it myself, so am relying on reports.) Spectacle clearly appeals to McVicar and to much of his audience: this was the first time in many years I can recall applause uncontaminated by booing for the production team. There is something populist about his general approach which risks becoming merely conservative, capitulating to notions of opera as a ‘show’, a ‘good night out’, rather than a critical force. Deconstruction can be taken too far and should never become the only game in town, but questioning of a work’s claims does no harm whatsoever; indeed, a viable work will thereby be reinvigorated, instead of being condemned to the slow and painful death of a museum piece.

This was certainly not a ‘conservative’ production in the sense of adhering to stage directions and period costume. Instead, the action was updated to what seemed to be the 1920s or ’30s, although little, so far as I could tell, was made of this; in which case, why bother? It is not as if Salome were written during the inter-war period. There was perhaps an implication of violence being endemic to this period, but is that not the case for any time one might choose – and certainly for the ancient world? More seriously, the production titillated rather than challenged. In one very important respect, I believe it misrepresented and domesticated the work: Salome emerged more as a house of controlled and ultimately somewhat camp horrors than as dangerously erotic. An exception was Salome’s treatment of John the Baptist’s severed head, which truly shocked and was justly both horrific and erotic. I am not at all sure why Naaman, the executioner, emerged naked from the cistern, nor why he had all along been wearing only an overcoat, but it gave the actor Duncan Meadows, who played his odd part very well, an opportunity to show off his muscular, albeit excessively bloodstained physique. It must have been a very messy beheading.

The set was striking in its way, with a split-level ‘upstairs-downstairs’ arrangement, so that we saw the Tetrarch’s dinner party proceeding upstairs as the action proceeded downstairs. However, it made little sense for the dining company to repair downstairs; it would be a very odd dinner party that ended up in the servants’ quarters. Wolfgang Göbbel conveyed a suggestion of moonlight, which of course is all too present in the score, but this sat awkwardly with the setting in a basement. The extras were attentively directed, although I thought the presence of the Jews was slightly exaggerated. This may have been a reference to the updating, but it did not seem to lead anywhere.

The Dance of the Seven Veils was especially odd. I suspect this may be the first case of Salome actually gaining rather than discarding clothes. This would certainly have defied expectations, not least given the melodramatic announcement that the production would contain scenes of nudity and violence – it would be an odd Salome that did not – but I am not sure to what end. This dance was more akin to a balletic pas de deux in which Salome and Herod danced through seven rooms and for some reason she tried on what appeared to be a wedding dress before petulantly rejecting it. There was something appropriately nauseating to the action, assisted by Philippe Jordan’s attentive conducting – attentive, that is, to the events on stage – but this was the only aspect I found comprehensible. The filmic ‘symbolism’ was predictably heavy-handed, as is usually the case with what, with rare exceptions, is a hyper-realistic medium. A doll presumably indicated that Herod’s lusts were of long standing; a slow, awkward, melodramatic unzipping must have been just that. The exploding light bulb defeated me. At any rate, I assume that the stage-film relationship was this way round: perhaps the film indicated what was ‘really’ going on, and the stage action was ‘symbolic’. Either way, it failed to cohere. None of the several people I asked after the performance had the faintest idea what had been intended on stage, let alone depicted.

Jordan’s reading of the score revelled in its phantasmagorical elements. There were wonderful instances of exotic woodwind lines twisting and swirling, which are often lost in Strauss’s luxurious orchestration. In this sense, it was quite a ‘French’-sounding reading, which, given the work’s roots in perfumed French décadence seems a perfectly legitimate approach. That said, there were too many errors from the brass early on. And one crucial element, arguably the most crucial of all, only revealed itself during later scenes, namely the glow of the strings. For at least the first half of the opera, they had sounded unduly muted and did not really form the bedrock of the sound. Jordan’s account also became structurally more cohesive as the work proceeded. The punctuation of Herod’s entreaties with Salome’s insistence upon the ‘Kopf des Jochanaan’ was very well handled in terms of tempo and orchestral response. Salome’s words, searingly delivered by Nadja Michael, functioned as a kind of ritornello. Perhaps subsequent performances will iron out the earlier difficulties experienced on this, the opening night.

In the title role, Michael impressed. She hit most of the right notes, and paid commendable attention to the words and their meaning. Not only can she act; she also looks the part. Given her recent conversion to soprano roles, it should not surprise that her voice lacked a little in sheer Straussian refulgence. She was not the ‘sixteen year old princess with the voice of an Isolde,’ which Strauss so cruelly suggested, but she was an excellent Salome of a slightly lighter variety. Michael Volle was a towering presence in the role of Jokaanan, although the production’s conception of him as a ‘Beckettian tramp soaked in sewage’ worked against the intrinsic nobility of the role. Robin Leggate, standing in for an ailing Thomas Moser, was a fine Herod. Here campness is quite justified, although it was not overdone. But the words and their vocal shaping matter too, as Leggate illustrated. Michaela Schuster’s vocal performance as Herodias was impressive, but the production again rather worked against her. Amongst the gratuitous ‘horrors’, she was presented for the most part as nothing more grotesque than a housewife. Mention should also go to Joseph Kaiser, noble of utterance and beautiful of tone in the role of Narraboth. The utter indifference to his suicide – perhaps most shockingly from the holy man himself – was a nice touch from the production. Greater, more focused concentration on harrowing moments such as this would have paid dividends.

If I have uncharacteristically dealt more with the production than with the musical performance, then this is at least partly a consequence of the rather overwhelming nature of the stage business. In that sense, I am reminded of last year’s Salzburg Benvenuto Cellini. Less is often more, as directors of all persuasions should remind themselves. It takes a Harry Kupfer, as for instance in his superb Berlin Salome, to show that more can occasionally be more too.

Sunday 17 February 2008

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, The Art of Fugue, 17 February 2008

Wigmore Hall

Bach – The Art of Fugue

Contrapunctus I
Contrapunctus II
Contrapunctus III
Contrapunctus IV
Contrapunctus VI, im Stile francese
Contrapunctus XIII, a 3 (rectus)
Contrapunctus VII, per Augmentationem et Diminutionem
Contrapunctus XIII, a 3 (inversus)
Contrapunctus V
Contrapunctus IX, alla Duodecima
Contrapunctus X


Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapuncto alla Quinta
Canon alla Ottava
Canon alla Decima, Contrapuncto alla Terza
Canon per Augmentationem in contrario motu
Contrapunctus XIV (Fuga a 3 Soggetti)
Contrapunctus XII, a 4 (rectus)
Contrapunctus VIII, a 3
Contrapunctus XII (inversus)
Contrapunctus XI

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

This was a puzzling concert: impressive in many ways and yet also oddly unsatisfying. One might claim that any performance of Bach’s Art of Fugue is bound to fall short, especially given the uncertainties attendant to all issues regarding performance (even, for a few, its desirability). Yet one could with more or less equal justice claim the opposite, namely that Bach’s contrapuntal compendium should be able to satisfy like almost nothing else, at least if one leaves aside its lack of completion. I list the order above in which Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed its constituent parts. He adopted a different order – I-XIII; canons; XIV – for his recent recording, and it would seem that he had originally intended to perform the pieces in an entirely different order as lain out in the programme, to which we were offered a correction sheet. It would be interesting to know whether he regularly changes the order; there is certainly no reason why he should not. The unfinished fugue was left in mid-air, unfinished.

Much of Aimard’s performance was extremely un- or even anti-Romantic. I do not mean this in a sense of veering towards ‘period performance’ characteristics, an even more problematical concept in this work than any other. Rather, it seemed as though his was in many ways a brazenly modernist conception. This should perhaps not surprise. Aimard is, after all, most celebrated for his work in new music, not least in that of Ligeti and Messiaen. What emerged from the first half of the recital and a good part of the second was a presentation of what one might – hedged with all sorts of qualifications – characterise as Bach’s music as music at its purest. It was severe, didactic, note-perfect. It is no coincidence that Boulez was so drawn to the Art of Fugue that he conducted it in his Domaine Musical concerts. (It would be wonderful if a recording survived, although I have never heard of one.) Although the music is tonal, the harmony seemed not to matter. It might as well have been early or serialist polyphony: Bach as Ockeghem or Stockhausen.

So far, so good: a fascinating conception, with much reason behind it. Yet Aimard’s performance was also – with a few exceptions – quite unyielding and downright heavy-handed, extremely ‘un-French’, one might say. Not quite everything, but a great deal of the music nevertheless, was, quite simply, very loud. It also lacked inflection. No one would expect him to play the Art of Fugue like Debussy, but should one really pay so little attention to the instrument chosen for performance? This was clearly a decision on Aimard’s part, but I am not sure that it proved convincing in and as performance. If it is decided – rightly, in my view – to treat the score as music to be performed, then surely it should actually be performed. What rather muddies the waters is the fact that there were exceptions to this manner of presentation. Occasionally, the subject was hugely emphasised, arguably over-emphasised, as if it were being played out on a trombone. The final canon, for instance, was performed with a great deal of dynamic inflection, both on a short- and long-term basis. So were several of the later fugues, although to a lesser extent. I have to admit that I could not understand the reason for this transformation of interpretative stance. Far more convincing was the skill with which, especially during the canons, Aimard drew to our attention – without undue underlining – the relation between what we were hearing and the original subject. In this, he took advantage of the piano, and reaped musical rewards for doing so. However, I emerged from the recital impressed by the work, whose dazzling array of contrapuntal devices had been very clearly presented, yet also somewhat relieved that it was over. This is not at all the reaction for which I had been hoping.

Daniel Barenboim, Beethoven sonatas, 17 February 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.9 in E major, Op.14 no.1
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.4 in E flat major, Op.7
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.22 in F major, Op.54
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.32 in C minor, Op.111

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

What a wonderful and unexpected programme for Daniel Barenboim to select to complete his Beethoven cycle! To include two ‘early’ sonatas underlined what should long have been clear from these performances, namely that these works should in no sense be seen as preparatory to middle- and late-period Beethoven. They are stunningly original works, with roots in Mozart and Haydn – and what is wrong with that?! – but which could have been written by one man alone. There may actually be a case for accounting the young Beethoven as one of the most underrated of great composers. The two-movement Op.54 sonata is a relative rarity, which again can only have benefited from its placing in this final recital. And then, it would surely have been folly to have ended with any work other than Op.111, but more on that below.

The E major sonata, Op.14 no.1, received a splendid performance. Such judgement as to how one might shape staccato or semi-staccato articulation within phrases (e.g., first movement: bb.23-4, 50-54) is rarer than one might think. Rhythms were buoyantly sprung and the balance between rhythmic and harmonic momentum was judged to mutual benefit. The clarity of part-writing was notable, especially during the second movement, although never at the expense of expressing the music’s vertical dimension, especially its beautiful chordal writing. I especially liked the suggestions of how the music would lend itself to string-quartet writing – Beethoven subsequently arranged it, up a semitone in F major (Hess 34) – without any misguided attempt to imitate or to prefigure. The interplay between parts was attended to, but so was the sheer pianistic pleasure of the semiquaver figuration in the first and third movements. Sforzandi were not underplayed, but were relatively gentle, as befits the character of the piece. In the final movement, I entertained a suspicion that the syncopation of the rondo theme’s final statement was anticipated in bars 82-3, but then wondered whether my ears had been playing tricks upon me. Whatever the truth of the matter, it worked rather well.

A grander canvas is prepared for the sonata in E flat, Op.7. Indeed, the drive with which Barenboim opened the Allegro molto e con brio almost looked forward to the Eroica symphony. The perfect balance between harmonic and contrapuntal concerns could all so easily be overlooked, but without it work and performance would have seemed a far lesser achievement, and would also almost certainly have seemed longer in duration. Syncopated dissonances sounded fun as well as harsh, which is at it should be, for there is a great sparkle to this movement, or at least there is when it is well performed. The Largo is again written on a grand scale, and presents the performer with a profound – in every sense – challenge in terms of its numerous silences. Needless to say, Barenboim, an experienced conductor of Bruckner, had their measure. The rests punctuated but also belonged to the melodic line. Whatever Beethoven’s music may be, it is not pointillistic. Barenboim’s skill at presenting Beethoven’s part-writing was once again to the fore in the third movement; this enabled the harmonic surprises to stand out without sounded forced. The arpeggiated Minore trio possessed an almost Schubertian beauty: not just or even primarily a matter of touch, but also of understanding its harmonic progression. And rarely if ever have I heard the Rondo sound more magical. Barenboim’s basic tempo seemed spot on, as if it were the only correct solution, which is how a ‘right’ tempo will sound, even if there are in reality several ‘correct’ choices one might make. The texture of the rondo theme sounded like ‘filled-in’ Mozart, delicate yet also rich in harmonic possibilities. Although the tempo would subtly shift for different episodes, there was always a sense of being welcomed home for the return of the rondo theme: both the same, and yet transformed by its new context. The pianissimo conclusion could not have sounded more beautiful, nor more apt. Barenboim’s performance was utterly at one with Beethoven’s music: a Romantic farewell to the eighteenth century. The Rondo was certainly grazioso, but this was a fond grace such as could only result from the dusk at which the owl of Minerva spreads its wings.

By the time we reach the minuet-style opening of the first movement of Op.54, the owl has flown some distance. For this is definitely a recollection of the eighteenth-century minuet: fond, but standing at a distance that permits humour without condescension. Barenboim once again presented the gracefulness required without sounding precious. He also presented the somewhat alarming double-octave triplet contrasts with a surety and vigour that yet managed to console, for we knew that our guide would see us safely to the other side. The concluding integration of the two themes, aptly characterised in William Kinderman’s programme notes as feminine and masculine, was achieved so as to make the combination more than the sum of its parts. There was no loss of character, but there was also something surprising, something new, and a proper sense of necessity for the following Allegretto to resolve their differences. Here, as so often in Beethoven, the dialectic between rhythmic and harmonic momentum is the key to understanding and to performing. Barenboim both understood and performed. He once again proved a trustworthy guide to the movement’s tonal plan and its spinning perpetual motion. The Più Allegro coda duly thrilled without undue haste, and its sforzandi bit, though never gratuitously so. There was a true sense of arrival as the music reached its conclusion, which could only have arisen from a profound understanding of where it had been heading all along.

The last time I had heard the Op.111 sonata had been in January, in a recital given by Stephen Hough at the Wigmore Hall. That had been a creditable performance, with a number of positive attributes, but now, faced with an indisputably great performance, I realised just how insufficient ‘creditable’ is in this music. (More suitable programming helps too.) As the inevitable culmination to the cycle of thirty-two sonatas, this was always going to be something special, both for performer and audience (even for those of us who had not been fortunate enough to attend all eight concerts). I was nevertheless quite unprepared for what was to come. This performance was symphonic and personal, orchestral and instrumental, summing up and looking forward. Let there once again be no doubt that Barenboim’s piano technique is more than adequate to face any of the challenges Beethoven hurls his way, even in what is probably, with the exception of the Hammerklavier sonata, the most technically difficult of the late sonatas. Yet whilst Barenboim has command over his instrument, this is not the command that is generally called ‘pianistic’ in terms of drawing attention – intentionally or no – to pianistic matters. Beethoven’s music is presented first as music, second as music written for and performed upon the piano. At the same time, the hushed tones of the Arietta’s leggieramente passages were as beautifully conceived in purely pianistic terms as one could imagine; they were never, however, merely ends in themselves.

The first movement, with its Maestoso opening, diminished sevenths crucial, leading into the Allegro con brio ed appassionato, inevitably recalls the Pathétique sonata, but it is equally clear that something more is at stake. Barenboim’s vehemence was not only audible, but clearly visible. He did not try to conceal the enormous physical effort Beethoven requires, which perhaps bonded performer and audience still more closely. The fugato was clearly and powerfully projected. This counterpoint is not neat, and Barenboim did not present it as such; it is, rather, superhuman, which is how it sounded. Inner parts were not only heard but sang, whilst the composer’s C minor daemon drove onwards, the counterpoint working – and worked out – as much through blood and sweat as through intellectual rigour. (Note ‘as much’: I have no desire to elevate the ‘emotional’ over the ‘intellectual’, an irredeemably false distinction. However, I do wish to deny any notion of the hermetic to late Beethoven.) The subdominant colouring of the coda was wonderfully tender, leading with inexorable sadness to the non-triumphant C major of the final bars, and thus preparing the way for the Arietta. ‘Sublime’ may be a word over-used, but is entirely apt for both score and performance. Beethoven’s marking Adagio molto semplice e cantabile informed and infused the spirit of Barenboim’s reading. One was left in no doubt that the harmony, which is often very simple indeed, could not be other than it was, that Beethoven could now speak, or sing, with such noble, powerful simplicity, that we stood on the verge of something noumenal, both ineffably human and yet unutterably divine. The rhythms of the extraordinary ‘boogie-woogie’ variation were precise without any loss of warmth, never losing sight of the humanism that pervades this movement even at its most celestial. And ‘celestial’ is certainly the word to characterise the closing pages, with their awe-inspiring trills, insistent yet as far from hectoring as could be conceived. The swelling counterpoint above and beneath sounded perfectly in harmony – in every sense – with the magic of the arpeggiated accompaniment. No wonder that, for once, the conclusion met with true silence, followed by the inevitable rapturous standing ovation.

Friday 15 February 2008

Daniel Barenboim, Beethoven sonatas, 15 February 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.16 in G major, Op.31 no.1
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.14 in C sharp major, Op.27 no.2
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.6 in F major, Op.10 no.2
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.31 in A flat major, Op.110

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

It has been interesting to note the response of the press since the previous concert I attended from this cycle. If there has been an unenthusiastic voice, I have missed it. Daniel Barenboim has even appeared on Newsnight to be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman: what a welcome exchange for the usual dissembling politicians! (The sight this evening of a disgraced former Conservative Cabinet minister, far too self-important to engage in the plebeian business of applause, ostentatiously departing from the hall the moment both halves of the recital had finished, did not edify.) Yet in these reviews, I think it proper to concentrate upon the music – as Barenboim has constantly bade us do – rather than to discuss those activities which, to any person of sanity, would unreservedly commend him for a Nobel Peace Prize. I happen to think that politics and music are more awkwardly connected than Barenboim would have us believe, but this is a debate for another occasion.

That the press reaction has been so uniform is interesting in itself, for I should wager that a cycle of the Beethoven symphonies from him would have been more controversial. This has little or nothing to do with a difference in approach from Barenboim, and more or less everything to do with an unimaginative, doctrinaire attitude from more ‘authentically’ inclined critics when it comes to orchestral music. There will doubtless somewhere have been some sectarian gut-and-metronome obsessive fulminating against the use of a modern piano and issuing fatwas concerning Werktreue and the Urtext. For once, however, no one else cares.

Barenboim truly had the measure of Op.31 no.1. An understandable temptation in this sonata would be to underline the almost neo-classical exaggerations in the work, what William Kinderman in his excellent programme notes referred to as ‘a hint of sophisticated mockery’. Barenboim showed, however, that this playing with expectations, for instance in the excessively operatic roulades of the Adagio grazioso, needs to be balanced by a strong sense of the tradition on which such exaggeration is based. This is emphatically not Stravinsky; it may, however, have something in common with the Mahler of, say, the Fourth and Seventh Symphonies. Structural command becomes all the more crucial, not in the sense of imposing a formal straitjacket upon the work, although its form was commendably projected, but through allowing thematic development to inform the recounting of all other aspects of the work’s progress, not least the performer’s finely judged tempo fluctuations. This should not be taken to imply that there was a lack of attention to detail: syncopations were spot on; dynamic contrasts were carefully though never pedantically drawn, and the filigree, almost Chopinesque decoration was spun like gossamer. The pianissimo chords at the end of the finale were breathtaking, but this was as much on account of their placing within the whole as for themselves, which is as it should be.

The C sharp minor sonata was just as much a revelation. We are clearly stuck with the epithet Moonlight, whose saving grace that it is so absurdly inappropriate that it does little harm. Liszt’s description, quoted in the programme, of the second movement as ‘a flower between two abysses’ is far more apposite, and certainly was to this reading. I have often heard performances in which each movement simply appears to present a different mood, but here there was a clear progression from the all-too-celebrated arpeggios of the first movement to their raging equivalent in the Presto agitato. The harmonic direction of the opening Adagio sostenuto was never in doubt, and the biting right-hand minor ninth dissonances (bb. 52, 54) told as so rarely they do. This was owed in equal part to that sense of direction and to the careful balance between legato tone for the upper part and the disturbing implacability below. The phrasing in the Allegretto was a joy to hear: a master-class in true Classical style, and a true ‘flower between two abysses’. (Sadly, all too many members of the audience reacted angrily to Barenboim following Beethoven’s marking attacca subito il seguente, retorting with a barrage of bronchial commentary.) The final movement was duly Presto and duly agitato, but never ran away with itself. Barenboim’s pedalling – not at all easy to get right in this movement – was here every bit as impressive as his fingerwork. Everything moved inexorably towards a truly tragic conclusion.

The performance of the F major sonata, Op.10 no.2, was perhaps not on quite so exalted a level. For one thing was what sounded suspiciously like a brief memory lapse, albeit well covered up, during the F minor second movement. Its cross-rhythm sforzandi were splendidly presented, however, as was its unassuming lyricism. Whilst it was always clear where the outer movements were heading, I sensed – or imagined – a slight impatience, as if Barenboim were understandably anxious to reach the more rarefied world of the final work to be performed. The phrasing and articulation of the final Presto was nevertheless deeply impressive, and there was never any doubt about Beethoven’s slightly gruff humour during this work.

The sublimity – and let us not be shy about this word, for Beethoven’s music practically defines it – of Op.110 was projected for all to hear: both public and confidential. Tovey wrote of the opening dynamic marking: ‘The word sanft (added to the MS. by another hand, probably at Beethoven’s dictation) is intended to translate con amabilità. It does not mean “soft” but, as nearly as may be, “gentle” in the most ethical sense of the word.’ This ethical sense was present throughout: a product of Beethoven’s and Barenboim’s humanity and a rare beauty of touch and sustenance of melodic line. A couple of unfortunate smudgings slightly took the edge off what Tovey aptly described as ‘externally the clearest and most euphonious [movement] in all the last sonatas’. The closing bars, however, were truly magical, the final crescendo and diminuendo perfectly judged so as to portray without exaggeration the swelling and subsidence towards and from the dissonant F flat, duly resolved. Rhythmic definition was the key to the Allegro molto, whose secret Barenboim therefore unlocked. The syncopations of the coda, which can sometimes be lost, were wonderfully present here. No one could have been in any doubt, as Barenboim spun the recitative of the following Adagio ma non troppo, that here was a great opera conductor. Yet he proved himself – as if proof were needed – equally a great pianist, through the surety and beauty of his melodic tone. The transition to the Klagender Gesang opened out the chord of A flat minor like the German Romantics’ proverbial blue flower against the backdrop of a wintry landscape. (If ever anyone doubted a modern instrument’s ability in this respect, this performance ought to have led him forever to hold his peace.) Yet the flower’s arioso lamentation ultimately gave us hope not desolation; there was no attempt to turn this into late Schubert. This was partly, of course, owed to the consolation of the fugue, at first unable to prevail, yet persistent enough to attempt to return – and to succeed. Its stealthy una corda return was breathtakingly handled, with both mystery and certainty. Thereafter, the sheer obstinacy of Beethoven’s counterpoint was powerfully presented. With Barenboim’s performance, it clearly registered that the secret of the fugal victory, to quote Kinderman, ‘arise not naturally through traditional fugal procedures, but only through an exertion of will that strains those processes to their limits’. We may question whether such a musico-ethical victory does not partake in the highest sense of the political, but that question, as I said earlier, may await another day.

Thursday 7 February 2008

Daniel Barenboim, Beethoven sonatas, 6 February 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.5 in C minor, Op.10 no.1
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.11 in B flat major, Op.22
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.19 in G minor, Op.49 no.1
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.20 in G major, Op.49 no.2
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.23 in F minor, Op.57, Appassionata

Daniel Barenboim (piano)

If only I had been able to attend all eight recitals in Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven sonata cycle. Still, three may well prove to be the least bad alternative: seven would simply be perverse; five or six would be tantalisingly close; four would be frustratingly half-way there; one or two would be nowhere enough. At least this is what I shall try to tell myself by way of consolation, for this was a marvellous concert.

To begin with, I was rather surprised to find the dynamic contrasts a little constrained: the last thing one would expect from Barenboim, one of the most ‘orchestral’ of pianists. However, I think this may have been at least in part a product of where I was seated: further back in the stalls than I have been since the Royal Festival Hall reopened. At any rate, my ears soon more or less adjusted, although Barenboim did seem, consciously or no, to be holding something in reserve at least during the first movement of Op.10 no.1. There were also a few minor smudges: nothing to worry about, but enough to show that even great musicians sometimes need to warm up. With the Adagio molto, any reservations evaporated, never to return. The true profundity of Beethoven’s slow movements, even – indeed in some senses, especially – in his earlier sonatas, is one of the most difficult things for a pianist to express and appears to come only with experience. This is something Barenboim certainly possesses, and it shows: not only experience of Beethoven piano sonatas, but of vast swathes of the piano, chamber, orchestral, and operatic repertoire. Only connect – and he does, laying claim to the mantle of the great German-European humanistic tradition. The noble simplicity of the opening, which lies as much in the weighting of the chords as in the sustaining of line, was perfectly judged, and the progress of the sustained melodic line was vocally rapt, though never at the expense of lightness of touch in filigree decoration. In the final A flat chords, the pianissimo whispered confidence was at such a dynamic and emotional level that time could have stood still. Unfortunately, that must have been too much for some of the audience, since a barrage of coughing disturbed Barenboim’s attack of the third movement, although it failed to disrupt his urgency. For once, Prestissimo did not seem an exaggerated marking: the music verily hurtled by, yet with no shortness of change for contrapuntal clarity and breadth of tone where required (e.g., bb. 80-84). The humour of the ‘wrong’ chord just before the end registered and could be savoured just long enough before the properly quiet conclusion.

For reasons that have always eluded me, Op.22 has often been something of a Cinderella amongst the Beethoven sonatas. Barenboim certainly made no apology for it and it requires none. Sir Donald Tovey rightly pointed out that the third bar, with its necessary freedom of the right forearm, is more difficult technically than anything else in the sonata, but one would never have known. The single-line echo of this in the left hand (b. 11-12) was quite dazzling. I mention this, since one sometimes hears a great deal of nonsense about Barenboim the pianist (supposedly past his best, since he now ‘conducts too much’), just as much as about Barenboim the conductor (supposedly never quite as good as he is a pianist). True, one does not consider him primarily as a great technician, but that is because he is a great musician, his technique always at the service of the music. One would not catch him playing crowd-pleasing virtuoso fripperies, but nor would one Maurizio Pollini, and I do not think anyone has ever doubted his virtuosity. Small minds cannot conceive that one man could exhibit greatness in all of these respects – and more; so much the worse for them. The syncopated chords of the second group during the recapitulation were not only rhythmically precise but presented with great fullness and beauty of tone, and the abrupt dynamic contrasts of the coda duly told. I do not know why, but it always seems to take me a little time to accustom myself to the compound triple time of the slow movement. The understated implacability of those eighteen repeated E flat major chords in the left hand assisted greatly, as did the way Barenboim began to spin his melodic charm above. The first statement of the songful melody sounded a little neutral, but that is really as it should be, for the music needs time to breath and to bloom. Beethoven’s two final movements are amongst his loveliest creations, which is how they sounded here. There was a wonderfully poised swing to the minuet, whilst the allegretto of the Rondo was again perfectly judged. This beautiful movement, which in mood and harmony has a great deal in common with the ‘Spring’ Sonata for violin and piano, Op.24, can rarely have flowed so effortlessly. Each statement of the rondo theme sounded like the presentation of a new tale in an intimately connected anthology, with Beethoven – or should that be Barenboim – playing the role of the master story-teller. Every time, it was the same but different, a subtle product of context and progression. Like the Arabian Nights, one wished each tale would never end.

There should be no condescension toward the two so-called ‘sonatinas’ amongst the canonical thirty-two, for it takes a great musician to perform them meaningfully, just as it does in any of the other thirty sonatas. Barenboim presented both Op.49 works with a clarity of purpose that would have been a master-class to any young – or not-so-young – pianists embarking upon their exploration of Beethoven. The Mozartian textures and passage-work of the G minor sonata were never mere finger-exercises; to play them with perfect accuracy was but the prelude to making music. Quite rightly, the expressive contrasts were not exaggerated, but nor were they under-played. Likewise for Op.49 no.2, whose minuet, with its origins in that of the Septet, Op.20, once again had a wondrously joyous swing to it. Beethoven is not merely profound; he is also great fun.

But the best was yet to come: a truly great performance of the Appassionata. From the chillingly mysterious F minor octave arpeggios of the opening, it was clear that this would be an enthralling journey. I use the word ‘journey’ intentionally, not, I hope, in thrall to the banal language and preconceptions of modern reality television, but since the Beethovenian explorations of which Beethoven was our guide at times put me, rather to my surprise, in mind of Schubert, not least his Winterreise. This was a journey both physically scenic and metaphysically draining, which never strayed into the realms of false emoting, nor of ham virtuosity. Schubert sometimes – though not nearly so often as one might expect – sounds like Beethoven, but the converse is rarely the case, and I should not wish to exaggerate in this instance; nevertheless, Barenboim’s tragic sense, whilst not without its vehemence, also possessed a harrowing fatal resignation. The purely pianistic element was jawdropping; no one hearing the crossed hand arpeggios of the first movement or the tumultuous Presto conclusion to the third could ever doubt Barenboim’s technique. Yet the tone was so full of quasi-orchestral colour – ’cello-like richness on the sculpted bass line of the second movement’s theme, dashing high flutes and piccolos in the fury of the finale – that rarely if ever did one think of this as ‘pianism’. The programme notes quoted Igor Markevitch telling the young Barenboim’s father that his son played the piano orchestrally. There is a great deal of truth in this and, whatever his envious detractors might say, Barenboim was clearly born to conduct. Yet at the same time, this concerns at least as much his conception of pianism for purely musical ends as his destiny to lead an orchestra. Just as we rarely think of Beethoven as a great orchestrator, since his musical thought is so inextricably tied to its orchestration, so we understandably tend to forget the instrument as such when Barenboim plays.

After the tumult, which occasionally verged upon existential despair, of the first movement, the emotional heart of the sonata came with the second movement’s theme and variations. A vision of hope, however, fleeting, was set before us. If the slow movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata is, in the unforgettable words of J.W.N. Sullivan, like ‘the icy heart of some remote mountain lake’, then this was rightly different. It was more akin to having reached the quickening waters lake in the foothills, the surface ripples bathed in sunlight, yet barely concealing something more troubled in the depths. But of course, as is so often the case with middle-period Beethoven, the slow movement’s function is also to serve as a prelude to the finale. Barenboim’s rage was never unduly wild, but not did it pull any emotional punches. Those fatal rhythms tolled – and told, allied as they were to a profound understand of the movement’s harmonic direction. Beethoven’s vehemence was bluff and trenchant, yet also sang to us, reminding us through – in every sense of the word – the piano cascades of the narrative thread by which work and performance were conceived. It is a while since I have heard such a thrilling conclusion to any piano work, all the more thrilling on account of our wayfarer-performer’s refusal to countenance any but the most arduous path. The standing ovation could hardly have been more richly deserved.