Saturday 30 August 2008

Edinburgh International Festival: Wolpe! Welche Farbe hat der Vogel? 29 August 2008

The Hub

Viviane De Muynck (actress)
Johan Bossers (piano)
Gunnar Brandt-Sigurdsson (tenor/vocalist)
Caroline Petrick (coach)
Herman Sorgeloos (visual concept)
Muziektheater Transparant

Described beforehand as a ‘staged concert’, I dare say that is as close as we are likely to get; perhaps it would simply be better to file Wolpe! under ‘unclassifiable’. It should also be filed under ‘excellent’. In this show, which Antwerp-based Muziektheater Transparant has been touring since its January Brussels premiere in the Beurrschouwburg, not only are we treated to fine performances of a number of Stefan Wolpe’s songs, mostly but not exclusively from the period 1929-33, and his later, American-period Battle Piece for piano (1943-7). We are also given a greater context for and further exploration of the composer’s political ideas, their relevance for his music and for us – at a time when socialist, let alone communist hopes often seem so utterly confounded. In addition, we are treated to an extremely enjoyable hour-and-a-half in the theatre. In the words of the economist, Siegfried Moos, set by Wolpe in the second stanza of Haben Sie Kummer, the song that opened the evening’s proceedings:

Besser als Kintopp, besser als Fusel,
Gibt das Theater sel’gen Dusel.
Mit wenig Moneten verzagen Sie nie!
Die Bühnenstars begeistern auch Sie!
Gerade für Sie sind doch unsere Gaben.
Auch Bildung können Sie bei uns haben!

(Better than the pictures, better than hooch,
The theatre gives you blessed dreams.
Never despair with your few pennies!
The stars of our stage will also inspire you!
Our gifts are especially for you.
You can receive an education with us too!)

Musiektheater Transparant thus follows firmly in the tradition of Die Truppe, the late-Weimar theatre collective in which Wolpe himself served as musical director. Proscribed upon the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, Die Truppe satirised contemporary political and social problems, whilst propagandising for Marxist solutions. Musiektheater Transparant was less concerned directly to proselytise but instead aimed to make the audience think, to consider possibilities beyond the depressing, suppressive current orthodoxies; that is, the company successfully attempted to accomplish what all art should do.

‘Staged concert’ is not, on reflection, at all a bad description of Wolpe! It was certainly not a play. What we had was a little staging but no characters as such, and various numbers interspersed with varied commentary from the wonderful Viviane De Muynck. This could take the form of stores concerning Wolpe’s life and work, readings from utopians Plato and Thomas More, reflections upon the nature of propaganda and activism (and the difference between the two), and observations upon matters political and social. The warmth of De Muynck’s personality and her evident commitment to Wolpe shone through. I assume that some at least of the material was provided by ‘coach’, Caroline Petrick; some of the categories in the credits did not necessarily translate directly into English stage experience, but then this was above all a collective effort. Johan Bossers proved an equally committed pianist, both in the piano parts to the songs and in the technically fearsome Battle Piece. This latter we heard in three tranches, Wolpe’s style falling somewhere between Schoenberg and Prokofiev, with a trenchant commitment that is all his own, as is the insistence upon the vertical and spatial dimensions of music in addition to traditionally linear, goal-oriented (Beethovenian) form. (Wolpe’s pupils would include Morton Feldman and David Tudor.) Gunnar Brandt-Sigurdsson’s contribution was very fine: secure of line and in style, diction impeccable, and possessed of a winning and appropriate theatricality.

An especial highpoint musically was the Dadaist An Anna Blume, ‘for piano and musical clown’, based upon an initial twelve-note theme, developed with an integrity born both of rigour and of true freedom: perhaps a useful way to consider Wolpe’s art more generally. The Brecht setting, Ballade von der Osseger Witwen, in which we learned what would be done for the mourning widows of Osseg – nothing – was genuinely moving. And in Die Herren der Welt, we were left in no doubt as to the identity of the rulers of the world, the barbarous tenacity with which they would maintain their grip, and the anger we should and did feel concerning this. However, the greatest tribute to the performers must be that the true star of the evening was Stefan Wolpe himself. Let us hope that other companies, other musicians, other institutions will take note. On the basis of this evening, they really should.

A CD, comprising much of the music from this show and some other Lieder, has been issued (NEOS 10719). I bought a copy immediately after the performance, although I have yet to hear it. Working upon the assumption that it may give some indication of this inspiring event – sadly, minus Viviane De Muynck – I shall nevertheless chance my arm and heartily recommend it.

Friday 29 August 2008

Edinburgh International Festival: Grimaud/Staatskapelle Dresden/Luisi, 28 August 2008

Usher Hall

Weber – Overture: Oberon
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.4 in G major, op.58
Strauss – Ein Heldenleben
Bernhard Lang – Monadology II (British premiere)

Hélène Grimaud (piano)
Staatskapelle Dresden
Fabio Luisi (conductor)

This was a considerably different concert from that advertised. First, the programme was changed, so that Hélène Grimaud performed Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto rather than Schumann's. Then disaster struck the night before, the orchestral players arriving in Edinburgh but not their instruments, with the result that the first of their two concerts was cancelled. It was therefore decided to give the British premiere of Bernhard Lang’s Monadology II in addition to the new programme.

It is almost always a joy to hear the Staatskapelle Dresden, and this occasion was no exception. Faced with the proverbial gun to my head, I should finally opt for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra as the world’s greatest, but I have no doubt that I should put Dresden second, however nonsensical such rankings ultimately may be. No one quite possesses the sweetness of the Vienna strings, yet there is something darker, more traditionally German about the Staatskapelle Dresden, a direct line to the extraordinary tradition that has had it directed by composers such as Schütz, Weber, Wagner, and Strauss, not to mention a host of great principal conductors. That is true authenticity. I was therefore especially eager to hear Weber’s Oberon overture, as truly German Romantic a curtain-raiser as one could imagine, in spite of its composition for Covent Garden. The slow introduction was good, though not perfect; a number of minor slips made me wonder whether the prior uncertainties surrounding the concert were extracting their toll. But the main section began with a bang – and the real sound of a great orchestra. Silvery violins, a ravishing clarinet solo, a beautifully rounded sound on the kettledrums: these were some of the delights to savour, although there was also a distinctly sour tone from the oboes at one point. Perhaps the most splendid memory was that of the full complement of horns, at their fullest tone, without a trace of harshness or braying. The overture was well directed by Fabio Luisi, although without the last ounce – or perhaps even a few ounces – of individuality.

Doubts concerning Luisi resurfaced during the Beethoven concerto, although he was presented with a headstrong pianist, very much more the soloist than the chamber musician, when of course she should have been both. Interplay and even mutual sympathy were often lacking; it made me wonder quite why the programme had been changed in the first place. The orchestra sounded wonderful, never more so than in the truly ravishing pizzicato passage following the first movement cadenza, but it could have been more purposively directed. The second movement was something of an exception, with truly characterful strings proving implacable Furies to Grimaud’s pathetic – in the best sense – Orpheus and a greater sense of partnership all round. The beautifully hushed strings at the end took on a memorable, veiled sound, vibrato withdrawn momentarily for a musical reason rather than out of authenticist dogma. A winning lilt was imparted to the finale, although Grimaud once again soon became too much the star soloist. It was rare indeed for her so much as to glance at the conductor or the orchestra. There were many good things in this performance, yet I felt that it could readily have been much better.

Ein Heldenleben benefited from a splendidly vigorous opening, although once again there were quite a few slips only a little way in. The very odd cracked note apart, the Dresden horns were once again to die for, as indeed was the orchestra as a whole, especially when Strauss called for great washes of orchestral sound. Leader Kai Vogler proved a fine soloist indeed. Split violins, here as elsewhere, paid dividends, although elsewhere the account could sometimes be found wanting in terms of clarity. Bombast won out over irony, for it sounded as though the conductor was simply taking Strauss at face value. Moreover, Luisi appeared to value volume over other, more signal virtues, mistaking it for dramatic tension. His direction was once again weaker than the orchestral performance itself and here with graver consequences. Ein Heldenleben needs a great orchestra, of course, but just as important is absolute security in structural terms, lest the score begin to sprawl, to meander even. Here this happened far too often, resulting in an unduly episodic reading. And then there was an unwelcome surprise in terms of an alternative ending. Apparently Luisi and the Staatskapelle have recorded the work with this violin-focused winding down. It is not unpleasant in itself, but is not a patch upon the familiar Also sprach Zarathustra reference. Still, I suppose it might appeal either to Zarathustra-haters, although I should have thought that they would also be Heldenleben-haters in any case, or to those approaching Strauss’s symphonic poem without a sense of irony.

Then, as a bonus, came the Lang premiere. At least, I had thought it would have been a bonus. The piece sounded very interesting from the composer’s own programme note, which explained its concept of ‘musical-cellular processing’, as derived from Leibniz’s monadology. (Festival director Jonathan Mills’s stumbling over the title during his concert introduction suggested a certain unfamiliarity with Leibniz’s philosophy.) Yet the sole impression I gained from the performance was one of tedium. An opening woodwind reference to Strauss’s Don Quixote – the piece is subtitled ‘A new Don Quixote’ – never really led anywhere, and much of the music merely sounded like a textured accompaniment to something that never materialised. The introduction of a wind machine merely sounded incongruous, for there was on the whole little sense of orchestral colour. Rhythmically the piece was monotonous too. Perhaps I missed the point, but I could not help but notice an apparent lack of enthusiasm on the orchestra’s part. Whilst I cannot but applaud attempts to build upon the orchestra’s great tradition – it is hardly celebrated as a champion of the contemporary – I am not sure that this was an ideal opportunity to do so. I was, however, greatly relieved to read that this was a shorter version – of about twenty minutes, I should guess – of an original, fifty-minute-long score.

Thursday 28 August 2008

Edinburgh International Festival: King Roger, 27 August 2008

Edinburgh Festival Theatre

Roger – Andrzej Dobber
Roxana – Elzbieta Szmytka
Edrisi – Sergei Semishkur
Shepherd – Pavlo Tolstoy
Archbishop – Yury Vorobiev
Deaconess – Lyubov Sokolova

Mariusz Treliński (director)
Boris Kudlička (designs)
Marc Heinz (lighting)
Wojciech Dziedzic (costumes)
Tomek Wygoda (choreographer)

Mariinsky Opera Company
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

No one who heard this performance should be under any doubt that King Roger (or Król Roger, in Polish) is a masterpiece. I have seen a great deal of nonsense written about it, including the bizarre claim that there is nothing much in the way of plot. King Roger needs no excuses; what it needs is performances. Covent Garden, are you listening? Probably not, for nothing must interfere with the nth revival of Tosca or La Bohème. (Who actually goes to these things every season?!)

Having been severely disappointed, indeed disillusioned, with ‘Gergiev’s Mahler’, it was a delight to hear Valery Gergiev back on form. He proved himself just as fine a Szymanowskian as Sir Simon Rattle. And his Mariinsky forces were on superlative form too: sultry, seductive, yet precise where necessary too. Gergiev imparted an impeccable sense of forward momentum, without ever driving the music hard. We can all pick out the influences and/or parallels in Szymanowski’s music: Debussy above all here, but also Bartók, Strauss, Wagner, even early Schoenberg. Yet there is undoubtedly an individual voice too, a voice we heard clearly on this occasion. With the possible exception of Elzbieta Szmytka as Roxana, this was not a performance of truly outstanding vocal performances, but there were no weak links either and there was a real sense of a company on stage. Andrzej Dobber was a more than reliable Roger, faithfully served by Sergey Semishkur as Edrisi. After some slightly wayward intonation during the first act, Pavlo Tolstoy impressed as a charismatic Shepherd/Dionysus. Szmytka reminded us of her long pedigree in this music and acted well too.

Mariusz Treliński’s production seemed well considered on the whole. I was not entirely sure why the opera needed updating; it is not as if any of us can have been sated with ‘traditional’ productions. I was less concerned about the loss of the period than that of place, although I should not wish to exaggerate; it seemed a pity though. The sets were generally striking, although the church setting for the first act was uncompromisingly modernistic. Szymanowski’s music had to portray the exoticism all by itself. It could do that, but I did not quite see why a hint of the Byzantine would have been out of place. I was also somewhat at a loss to understand why all the clergy sported mitres. The mise en scène for the second act, however, seemed perfectly to capture the hothouse atmosphere that incites Roxana and eventually even Roger to follow the Shepherd. It is worth mentioning here the hugely beneficial role played throughout by Marc Heinz’s atmospheric and carefully targeted lighting, as well as Tomek Wygoda’s choreography in this particular scene, a fine portrayal of Dionysian erotic abandon. It seems that Treliński purposely downplayed the homoeroticism of this act, wishing the conflict within Roger’s soul ‘to be seen from a wider perspective, as a tale of self-discovery’. I am not sure that we are so overburdened with such material on the operatic stage that this was as necessary as the director seemed to think, although it did no especial harm either. I cared less for the hospital bed setting of the third act: a little bit clichéd perhaps, notwithstanding the justification of Roger’s illness? But the video projections worked well, as did the blinding light of the sun. Although I may have had doubts about some aspects of the production, they in no way detracted from the performance as a whole.

Edinburgh International Festival: Steven Osborne piano recital, 28 August 2008

The Queen’s Hall

Debussy – Children’s Corner
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.21 in C major, op.53, ‘Waldstein’
Messiaen – Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus: excerpts

Steven Osborne (piano)

This was originally to have been a recital by Ivan Moravec, with an entirely different programme. The great Czech pianist, however, was indisposed and Steven Osborne took his place at very short notice.

His Children’s Corner suite steered a middle way between modernist clarity and (post-) impressionist haze, not that there was anything of a compromise about this. The performance sounded truly as if performed an instrument ‘without hammers’, a fine touch aided by skilful, atmospheric, but never indiscriminate pedalling. Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum had an apt quality of the curtain-raiser to it, both in terms of the suite and the recital as a whole. Each piece was subtly characterised yet made to serve its place in a greater whole. Tempi were judiciously chosen, and the deployment of rubato was exemplary. Jimbo was treated to a charming lullaby; the snow truly danced, yet remained snowlike. Golliwogg’s Cakewalk was taken with a nice swing, never at the cost of rhythmic precision, and the Tristan joke was all the better for not being laboured.

I found the Waldstein sonata less successful, which is not to say wholly unsuccessful. The first movement fared best, exhibiting a strong sense of forward momentum, although it could be a little unyielding. This did not apply to statements of the second subject, whose melting chords Osborne voiced with clarity and with feeling. The modulation to E major had a sense of magic not so evident in the rest of the sonata. The Introduzione is marked molto adagio, and I am usually the last person to take a musician to task for slow tempi. However, this was not only molto adagio but also rather plodding. Phrases were not always sustained as they might be, leading to an unduly ‘broken’ impression. Part of the problem was an apparent inability or neglect to listen through the rests. The Rondo likewise sounded somewhat laboured to start with, although it improved as time went on. A greater shortcoming was the increased tendency, present to some extent in the first movement too, to treat Beethoven as if he – of all composers! – were thinking, like Debussy, of an instrument without hammers. The harmonic shifts of the changing trills were thus undersold, although the effect was beautiful in itself. One needs to guard against the prospect of harmonic monotony, given the preponderance of tonic and dominant in much of this movement. Details need to tell more than they did, both in themselves and for their structural import. Still, the coda brought matters to an exciting conclusion, although I entertained the impression that it was not so hard-won as it might have been.

When it came to the five excerpts from Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus, I had no reservations whatsoever. This was superlative pianism and, more to the point, superlative musicianship. Osborne performed no.1, Regard du Père; no.8, Regard des hauteurs; No.14, Regard des anges; No.19, Je dors, mais mon coeur veille; and no.10, Regard de l’esprit de joie. I have not heard his Hyperion recording, but I can certainly now understand why it is so highly regarded. The whole gamut of pianistic expression, from the chordal serenity of the opening regard to the post-Lisztian pyrotechnics of no.10 was covered here. Especially striking was Osborne’s response to Messiaen’s utterly characteristic harmonic language. His understanding of where the music was to lead through its harmonic implications could hardly have been bettered. Nor could his technique. In no.19, we seemed to have all the time in the world, without the slightest danger of boredom; nothing could have been more apt for the evocation of one’s heart watching during sleep. My only complaint was that we could not have heard more; a complete performance would clearly be an occasion of great note. Osborne followed this triumph with a Gershwin transcription. He savoured the idiom, although he could not convince me that this was anything more than café music. Still, this was a recital to treasure for the Messiaen.

Edinburgh International Festival: Collegium Vocale Gent/Herreweghe, 26 August 2008

Usher Hall

Stravinsky – Symphonies of wind instruments
Pousseur – Mnémosyne I
Stravinsky – Mass
Bruckner – Mass in E minor

Collegium Vocale Gent
I Solisti del Vento
Philippe Herreweghe (conductor)

This concert marked the first Edinburgh appearances of both Collegium Vocale Gent and the lesser-known but, on this evidence, very fine Belgian wind ensemble, I Solisti del Vento. Indeed, the latter performed more consistently than the former. I Solisti had the platform to themselves (plus Philippe Herreweghe) for the opening piece, Stravinsky’s Symphonies of wind instruments. It was taken at a fastish tempo, though not unduly so. The players displayed an admirably full sound, aided, it seemed, by a helpful Usher Hall acoustic. A mobile telephone’s intervention just one minute in was less helpful. This performance sounded more alert than many to the reminiscences, conscious or otherwise, of the Rite of Spring and Le rossignol, yet it never exchanged melodiousness for bite. Nor was there any contradiction between a euphonious blend and individualistic solo parts. My sole reservation concerned Herreweghe’s somewhat anti-climactic approach to the ending, although this was not nearly so much a problem as it would be later on.

There can be few more unfashionable composers today than Henri Pousseur, though once he was spoken of almost in the same breath as Stockhausen and Boulez. It was far more than a patriotic act then to perform his Mnémosyne I, composed in 1969 and dedicated to Stockhausen. (It might be a little too churlish to lament the absence of its companion piece, Mnémosyne II. Nevertheless, we should hope that some enterprising ensemble will present the opportunity to hear it before too long.) According to Paul Griffiths’s programme note, Mnémosyne I, which consist of a single unaccompanied melody, ‘may be performed by a solo singer, a unison choir, or a solo instrumentalist’. However, it was here performed by a small unison choir of six female voices, plus a solo clarinet. I am afraid that I do not know whether this practice was sanctioned by the composer; it seemed to work well enough nevertheless. Indeed, it brought the music’s inheritance from Webern all the more sharply to the fore, the clarinet and vocal combination proving reminiscent of the Austrian composer’s Dormi Jesu (Op.16 no.2). The spirit of Webern was also present, and more importantly so, in the shape of the melody, its purity, and its serenity. So, unavoidably, was the spirit of plainsong, although this was rightly not exaggerated. It was a pity that the programme did not include the text of the fragment from Hölderlin’s poem Mnemosyne, but the diction was so exemplary that anyone with basic German would have discerned the text with no difficulty. There was a real sense of something having been lost (verloren, to use an oft-repeated word from the text), yet the abiding impression nevertheless remained of beauty rather than tragic loss. Mnemosyne, the Greek personification of memory, provides consolation, amongst other things.

Stravinsky’s Mass received a good performance, although I was not without certain reservations. I liked the echoes of Œdipus Rex in the Kyrie, for which the instrumentalists must receive a great deal of credit. On the other hand, it would have benefited from a little more Stravinskian bite at times from the choir. The Gloria suffered somewhat from its two vocal soloists. The soprano’s tone was a little too white, but the real problem lay with the downright ugly tone of the contralto. Had I not seen her, I should have thought this one of those rather wild male tenorish voices sometimes associated with speculative recreations of mediæval music: a member of Marcel Pérès’s Ensemble Organum, for instance. To say that the effect jarred would be to put it far too mildly. The Credo was nicely implacable, ‘inexpressive’ in Stravinsky’s sense, which is to say nothing of the sort in reality. The a cappella ‘Amen’ made me hanker after a little vibrato, however, as I would in the solo passages of the Sanctus (especially when that contralto contributed once again). There was a good sense of motor-rhythms in the ‘Osanna’ of the Benedictus, and the wind sounded superlative on that movement’s final sustained chords. The Agnus Dei allowed Stravinsky’s harmony to tell with considerable force, but I felt that a little more warmth – this is, after all, a petition that the Lamb of God grant us peace – would not have gone amiss.

It was, however, with Bruckner’s Mass in E minor that I experienced more than just doubts. A fundamental problem lay in the size of the choir, which sometimes lacked that weight which seems so necessary to Bruckner’s conception. There were other problems, too, however, mostly related to Herreweghe’s sometimes perverse interpretive stance. The Kyrie might, at a pinch, have been termed ‘flowing’; I thought it straightforwardly rushed. It did not lack volume in the ‘Christe’, but the lack of numbers tended to be compensated for by a certain stridency. The part-writing here as elsewhere was projected with admirable clarity. Bruckner marked the brass in this movement as inessential; their interjections sounding anything but in this performance. The Gloria sounded rather as if the conductor were still in Stravinsky-mode; there was a machine-like quality quite out of place in Bruckner. The ‘Amens’ were really quite strident indeed, and too individually stressed, breaking up the greater line. Worst of all, Herreweghe brought off his musicians far too abruptly, as he would also do in subsequent movements. The Credo had a middle section that was serene, if a little on the cool side. After this, the ‘Et resurrexit...’ provided an exciting contrast but was too unyielding. Thereafter the movement staggered on with unduly sectional emphasis. This may be partly Bruckner’s fault, but he can do with a little help here. The choir beautifully captured the radiant, Palestrina-like polyphony of the Sanctus. I Solisti del Vento ably assisted the ensuing homophonic contrast, vitiated by Herreweghe’s peremptory termination of the movement. Bruckner’s harmonies sounded truly exquisite in the Benedictus, though I suspect that they would have done so all the more with larger forces. Soon, however, I wanted the music to yield more; the performance froze, to become unrelentingly metronomic, rendering the woodwind sound oddly inconsequential. When Herreweghe finally did slow down, this sounded appliqué rather than arising from the needs of the music. The Agnus Dei came across as more heartfelt, if not without a touch of shrillness at its climaxes. Sadly, this good work was undone by an almost obscenely abrupt ending. What was Herreweghe thinking of?

Sunday 24 August 2008

Prom 48: Gürzenich Orchestra/Stenz, 22 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Mahler – Symphony no.5
Stockhausen – Punkte
Schubert (orch. David Matthews) – Ständchen, D921
Schubert (orch. Manfred Trojahn) – Bei dir allein, D866/2
Schubert (orch. Colin Matthews) – Nacht und Träume, D827
Schubert (orch. Detlev Glanert) – Das Lied im Grünen, D917
Beethoven – Overture: Leonore III, Op.72b

Angelika Kirchschlager (mezzo-soprano)
Apollo Voices
Gürzenich Orchestra, Cologne
Markus Stenz (conductor)

Once again, Roger Wright has displayed great flair in terms of programming: properly understood, one of the most difficult yet rewarding aspects of concert-planning, yet all too often dismally lacking in imagination or even thought. This was a ‘re-creation’ of the 1904 first performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony in Cologne, albeit with a couple of significant twists. Stockhausen’s Punkte, also premiered in Cologne, joined the programme on the composer’s eightieth birthday, and orchestrations of the four Schubert songs were commissioned. With the exception of Punkte, however, the performances did not really live up to this promise.

That of the Mahler symphony was not bad; I have heard far worse. Yet one needs rather more than that in Mahler, or ultimately in any great music. This, I think, is one of the most difficult of Mahler’s symphonies to bring off, not unlike Beethoven’s Fifth, which also this year was treated to imaginative programming and yet given an indifferent performance, considerably more so than the Mahler in fact. The opening Funeral March was taken at a swift initial tempo: more march than funereal. Unfortunately, the solo trumpet proved fallible, which seemed to induce a lack of confidence amongst the rest of the orchestra. A number of passages were not quite together and there were more slips than one can simply write off. There followed considerable flexibility and the stormy sections were taken quite fast indeed, but not too fast. There was a rather impressive sense of a nightmarish, ghostly procession of contrasts, reminding one of Mahler’s debts to Berlioz. I liked the second movement, completing the First Part of the symphony. Here there was the same quality of a nightmarish procession, with something of a ghostly puppet show too. There were some marvellously ominous passages of stillness, not least that with ’cellos and kettledrum. Leader Ursula Maria Berg proved a fine soloist. The chorale received a duly splendid statement and disintegrated in a fine, neurotic style that was too often missing from the rest of the symphony.

In the Scherzo (Part Two), the strings often lacked quite so full a tone as would have been desirable, although this may partly have been a consequence of the venue’s acoustic. More seriously, the opening section was taken not only too fast – Mahler writes nicht zu schnell (‘not too fast’) – but far too lightly. This is a scherzo, but it needs vigour; it should be kräftig (‘strong’ or ‘powerful’. If not quite Mahler as Delibes, the performance edged in that direction. The splendidly eerie woodwind provided some compensation and subsequent statements of the opening material had greater weight, profitably suggesting this movement’s transitional status. The scherzo hurtled to a thrilling and suitably ambiguous conclusion, although sadly too much damage had already been done.

The Adagietto was taken swiftly in the modern fashion, although it was in no sense unyielding. It was rather very much a love letter from Mahler to Alma, without a hint of world-weariness; death, let alone its Venetian variety, was not on the menu. The finale was attacked immediately, the ‘busy’ nature of its mock-Bachian counterpoint registering very well, even if it sometimes sounded a little too fast for its slightly pedantic quality to shine through. (It needs to have something of Die Meistersinger to it.) This counterpoint was wittily punctuated by strongly-taken brass interjections. The episodes were well characterised, although again they sometimes lacked the desirable fullness of orchestral tone. I worried when the chorale began at a strangely fast tempo, but it worked given the liveliness of the orchestral detail below. There was a sense of fun to the conclusion, but it did not sound hard won enough. As a whole, then, this reading of the symphony was pretty much all there structurally, save for the opening of the Scherzo, but it needed at least a little more horror, extremity, passion, and phantasmagoria.

Stockhausen’s Punkte received the finest performance of the evening, here in its final revision of 1993. It was visually and aurally striking to have two harps facing each other at the front of the orchestra. This and other spatial details were truly enabled to tell. One heard how the ‘points’ of the initial 1952 version became groups and even melodies. Stockhausen, Stenz, and the orchestra were ‘joining up the dots’, as it were, forming constellations from the original, pointillistic star music. There was much activity, counterbalanced by oases of sustained stillness. Some of the more ‘starry’ sounds, especially from strings and percussion, seemed to be straining towards the electronic means Stockhausen would soon adopt, although this remained very much a work for orchestra, or at least for large ensemble. The splendid brass climax for three trombones proved a far more overwhelming experience than anything in the Mahler. This was a performance of great intensity and drama, both in terms of its outbursts and the greater line. It is a pity, then, to report that much of the audience seemed rather restless. Having wildly applauded the Mahler, it once again displayed a lack of discernment.

The Schubert orchestrations, I am sad to report, proved a major disappointment, the single exception being that by Colin Matthews: Nacht und Träume. Matthews adopted a darker, more imaginative orchestral sound than his fellow composers, rather akin to Mahler or Wagner, especially Tristan: an interestingly Novalis-like take upon the night and dreams of Matthäus von Collin’s text. The important role for solo trumpet, often doubling the vocal line, was impressively sustained in a quite unsettling performance. Matthews’s brother David and Manfred Trojahn both adopted an early-ish-Romantic sounding orchestra, redolent of Mendelssohn or, at a push, Berlioz without the colour. David Matthews’s Ständchen relied a great deal – too much? – on pizzicato and woodwind. It had a more warmly Romantic postlude, with a touch of Wagner in the orchestration and harmony, although I am not sure that this attempt, as Matthews put it, ‘to move the song into a different world’, really worked. Trojahn’s orchestration lacked even this originality. Detlev Glanert’s Das Lied im Grünen was again rather conventional. It clearly aimed to impart a sense of the countryside, with woodwind solos aplenty, although some of it sounded oddly like the lighter Elgar. It was pretty enough but showed no particular insight. What we needed was a creative re-imagination along the lines of Hans Zender. Angelika Kirchshlager was an excellent soloist, her diction commendably clear and her musical line always carefully shaped. Apollo Voices worked well in their interplay with her in Ständchen. (What a pity, then, that the BBC printed the text to the wrong Ständchen in the programme: Rellstab rather than Grillparzer. Anyone can make mistakes, but someone really should have checked and picked up on this.)

Beethoven’s third Leonore overture received the weakest performance of the night. I do not think that this should be attributed principally to tiredness, although there were signs of that in a number of technical errors; Stenz’s conception that was to blame. The overture began with a distinctly ‘authenticke’ lack of vibrato in the strings and soon burst forth far too fast. Throughout, it sounded unduly sectional, with little sense of a greater symphonic whole: this for the work in which Beethoven went beyond the operatic overture to create a self-standing symphonic poem. The brass blared crudely and the trumpet solo from above was far too loud. Like the rest of the performance, it utterly lacked mystery or any sense of the metaphysical. We were subjected to a vulgar dash to the finishing line, even though we were as yet nowhere near that line. And so, there was a massive slowing before a repeated dash. Again, the audience appeared to love the performance, but I cannot for the life of me understand why. As an encore, we had a much better performance of a bleeding chunk from Parsifal’s Transformation Music. The orchestra as a whole was in superior form, and Stenz delineated the excerpt’s form – I realise that this edges towards a contradiction – with commendable clarity. Whether Wagner’s music benefits from thus being torn out of context is at best debatable, but the putative debate must surely be put behind us when, owing to the lack of bells, the arrangement began repeating earlier music over and over again, as if Wagner were a godfather of American minimalism.

Wednesday 20 August 2008

Prom 45: BBC SSO/Volkov, et al., 19 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Harvey – Tombeau de Messiaen
Messiaen – Concert à quatre
Harvey – Mortuos plango, vivos voco
Harvey (with Gilbert Nouno and Arshia Cont: IRCAM computer music designers) – Soundings (world premiere)
Varèse – Poème électronique
Varèse – Déserts

Cédric Tiberghien (piano)
Emily Beynon (flute)
Alexei Ogrintchouk (oboe)
Danjulo Ishizaka (’cello)
Jonathan Harvey (sound projection: Harvey)
Jerémie Henrot and Clément Marie (IRCAM sound projection: Soundings)
Ben Bayliss and Chris Beddall (sound projection: Varèse)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov (conductor)

Interesting and intelligent programming may prove to be a hallmark of Roger Wright’s tenure at the Proms. One can only hope so following the previous dispensation, much of which has remained in evidence during this ‘changeover’ season. At the heart of the programme lay the music of Jonathan Harvey, a fine composer, far too often overlooked in his own country. It would seem that his marriage of modernism, not least a keen interest in French spectralism and electronics, and a deep, syncretic spirituality – yes, I too generally run a mile upon hearing that word; but this is the real thing, not the easy-access, synthetic bells and smells of the ‘holy minimalists’ – has not always appealed to the English empirical temperament. All the more reason then to grant him such a splendid opportunity as this. Harvey studied with Messiaen and the two composers’ concerns in various ways overlap. An ongoing association with IRCAM – brain-child of Boulez, another Messiaen pupil – brought us the classic electronic work, Mortuos plango, vivos voco, and a new work, Soundings, co-commissioned by the BBC, IRCAM, and Radio France, as the third and final part of a trilogy ‘referring to the Buddhist purification of body, mind, and speech’. Soundings was composed by Harvey as Composer-in-Association to the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who premiered it this evening. And then, for the third part of the concert, we turned to the still-bracing dawn of electronic music, to the work of Varèse. Having questioned the suitability of the Royal Albert Hall for various more ‘conventional’ works, I am happy to report that, on this occasion, the space worked very well. This may partly have been owed to the vagaries of seating – even sitting a few seats away appears to make quite a difference here – yet the space itself added something important, visually and acoustically, to the electronic works.

Harvey’s Tombeau de Messiaen, for piano and digital tape, opened the programme. In a brief programme note, Harvey cited Messiaen as a ‘protospectralist ... fascinated by the colours of the harmonic series and its distortions, ... [who] found therein a prismatic play of light’. And so, the tape part of this 1994 tribute is made of twelve piano sounds tuned to the harmonic series, one for each pitch class. The piano part, in equal temperament of course, then plays with these series, both combining with and distorting them: ‘never entirely belonging, never entirely separate’. This interplay was dazzlingly captured by Cédric Tiberghien, as were the bell-like echoes – a slightly nauseous yet colourful pealing – not only of Messiaen but also, I fancied, of the Debussy of La cathédrale engloutie. ‘Echoes’ was also the operative word for the crucial role of the hall. Harvey and Tiberghien exploited the full extremities of the keyboard, before moving to a piercing climax of an almost Messiaenesque ecstasy.

Concert à quatre (1990-92) is Messiaen’s final work, completed by Yvonne Loriod, in consultation with Heinz Holliger and George Benjamin. From the very first notes, it is instantly recognisable as Messiaen, indeed as the work of the same composer who, compositional developments notwithstanding, had written L’Ascension sixty years earlier. Emily Beynon and Alexei Ogrintchouk are both principals with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, whose long experience with French music was surely valuable here, but the BBC SSO too managed to sound convincingly ‘modern French’ (think of the Orchestre de Paris or the Orchestre National de France). In the first movement, the Entrée, it was once again Tiberghien’s opportunity to shine, the piano being treated as a solo instrument apart from the rest of the concertante group. Needless to say, he grasped this opportunity, exhibiting glistening tone and dazzling rhythmical precision. The orchestra’s ten (!) percussionists, including wind-machine, certainly made their presence felt too, though never unduly. For the second movement Vocalise, Messiaen transcribed with ornamentation a piece he had written in 1935 for a series of vocal studies. It is tribute to the constancy of his style and voice, that this in no sense sounded out of place. The beautiful A major melody, ‘warmed’, in Paul Griffiths’s excellent choice of verb, by the composer’s third mode of limited transposition, was passed between each of the soloists in turn, the orchestra here being of secondary importance, timbral ‘warming’ furnished by a limited number of strings. Beynon presented a ravishingly lyrical opening, followed by an equally heart-stopping duet between oboe and piano, Ogrintchouk being possessed, it would seem, of unlimited and luxurious reserves of line and breath. The unapologetically Romantic ’cello entry was meltingly taken by BBC New Generation Artist, Danjulo Ishizaka, who also shone in the ensuing Cadenza. So too did the combined forces of the xylophone, xylorimba, and marimba. For the final Rondeau, Ilan Volkov clearly delineated its verse-refrain form. He and his players also imparted a welcome sense of the apocalyptic. The dialogue between piano and bells took on an aptly ecclesiastical tinge as versicle and response. This movement teemed, quite properly, with life and joy.

Mortuos plango, vivos voco, for eight-channel tape (1980), was inspired by the sounds of bells and choristers at Winchester Cathedral, where Harvey’s son had sung. The largest bell has inscribed upon it the text: HORAS AVOLANTES NUMERO, MORTUOS PLANGO, VIVOS AD PRECES VOCO (‘I count the fleeing hours, I lament the dead, I call the living to prayer’). Harvey cleverly – and movingly – conveys this through the ‘dead’, however rich, sound of the bell and the ‘live’ sound of the boy, the audience inside the surrounding sound of the former, whilst the latter ‘flies freely around’. I was reminded not only of the English cathedral tradition– and of English cathedrals themselves –but also of the strange, threatening, yet ineffably beautiful Venice of Nono. It was interesting to note how very much more human, less alien, this work sounded than Stockhausen’s COSMIC PULSES had a couple of weeks before. This is new music concerned with utterly ‘traditional’ Christian concerns of life and death, nowhere more so than in the dying away al niente of the bell sounds. The hall itself took on an aptly Gothic splendour as the frame for the music.

In Soundings, Harvey explains, he ‘wanted to bring together orchestral music and human speech. It is as if the orchestra is learning to speak, like a baby with its mother, or like first man, or like listening to a highly expressive language we don’t understand. The rhythms and emotional tones of speech are formed by semantics, but even more they are formed by feelings – in that respect they approach song.’ Quite apart from the eloquence with which the composer elucidated the imperative behind his work, this is very much what we heard, for which tribute should also be paid to Volkov and his excellent orchestra. (How very different from the dispiriting Mahler and Damnation of Faust I heard them give at the Proms a few years ago.) The Ur-quality of the opening inevitably brought to mind earlier ‘creations’ of music out of the void: The Creation, Das Rheingold, Berg’s Op.6 Orchestral Pieces. This sounded very much as Harvey described it: ‘like an incarnation, the descent into human life.’ Leader Elizabeth Layton did sterling work with several taxing solos, although she was far from alone in this respect. Swarming strings and Messiaenesque chattering woodwind were keen contributors. The second of the three movements – continuous, yet distinct – is an expansion of the work Sprechgesang (for English horn and chamber ensemble). For Harvey, it is ‘concerned with the frenetic chatter of human life in all its expressions of domination, assertion, fear, love, etc.’, which ‘finally moves, exhausted, to mantra and a celebration of ritual language. The mantra is orchestrated and treated by shape vocoding.’ The voices actually put me in mind of an electronic version of Berio’s Sinfonia, which of course has its fair share of ‘frenetic chatter’. Passages of joy were reminiscent once again of Messiaen, who would surely have understood and shared Harvey’s concerns. There were even Romantic ghosts in the machine in the guise of virtuoso piano (splendidly performed by Lynda Cochrane) and languorous woodwind phrases. For the third movement ‘speech has a calmer purpose; it is married to a music of unity, a hymn which is close to Gregorian chant.’ This was certainly apparent, not least in the ominous monodic passages for brass and electronics. The movement built towards a shattering, almost Brucknerian climax, before reverting to some earlier material, taken in different directions, with some further Messiaenesque activity. Divisions between work, performance and audience broke down as the sound enveloped us and took us somewhere beyond, to the transcendent. ‘The paradise of the sounding temple is imagined.’

Varèse’s Poème électronique, for pre-recorded magnetic tape, was composed for Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. (Those were the days!) It was the architect’s insistence, against considerable scepticism from Philips, which ensured that Varèse would be the composer of precisely 480 seconds of music, created second by second from both ‘real’ and purely electronic sounds. (Interestingly, much of the technical design for the pavilion was delegated to Le Corbusier’s assistant, none other than the young Xenakis.) Although the pavilion was demolished, Varèse’s music was preserved and subsequently transferred to computer. The opening bell sounds provided a link with Harvey, but soon we hurtled into an extraordinary futuristic world with a multiplicity of sounds, from organ to heavy industry. At this distance – we are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary –there was occasionally something of the Heath Robinson to some of this, but every work, even that of Varèse, must eventually be classicised and take upon itself something of its own time as well as ours. The closing storm-winds set the scene for the déserts of the following, final work.

Here, in Déserts, for fifteen wind instruments, percussion (all ten players once again, including piano), and magnetic tape (1950-54), we were once again awakened by the chiming of bells. An overriding impression from both work and performance would be summed up by the word Boulez had not so long previously used at the head of the seventh of his piano Notations, as yet unpublished: Hiératique. The ghost of Varèse’s own Ionisation was far from lain. Volkov and his instrumentalists were impressively insistent, accomplishing the paradoxical feat of sounding both variegated and monolithic – in fact, rather like the three interpolated passages of ‘organised sound’. All the necessary precision and timbral starkness were there. The electronic sounds are again utterly of the twentieth century – unlike much tamer twentieth-century music – in their evocation of an age of warfare and ‘technological progress’, of deserts both natural and urban, and of what Varèse called ‘this distant inner space where no telescope can reach, where man is alone in a world of mystery and essential solitude’. Gleaming brass was uncompromisingly Corbusier-like, as opposed to the Bauhaus constructivism of some at least of twelve-note Schoenberg; it is interesting, how often one reaches for architectural simile when thinking of Varèse, more often indeed than one does with Xenakis, of whom one might have expected it. This performance marked a fine end to an outstanding concert.

Thursday 14 August 2008

Prom 39: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim, 14 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Boulez – Mémoriale (‘... explosante-fixe ...’ Originel)
Stravinsky – L’histoire du soldat (in French)

Guy Eshed (flute)
Patrice Chéreau (narrator)
Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The genesis of Mémoriale is complicated and protracted even by Boulez’s standards. A simplified presentation would say that it emerged as a piece for solo flute, two horns, and six strings, as a memorial for Ensemble Intercontemporain flautist, Lawrence Beauregard, the material originating in the ‘kit’ for ‘... explosante-fixe’, itself intended as a memorial for Stravinsky and therefore especially apposite for the present programme. Electronics thus play no part, although they do in ‘... explosante-fixe ...’, yet an interesting aspect of this performance was how much the strings were suggestive of such means. They also produced a beautiful halo-like impression, albeit with a properly Boulezian sense of the febrile. The music, to which all instrumentalists contributed with great sensitivity, captured an equally Boulezian sense of the shimmering and ever-expanding, serial music – and that of Boulez in particular –being characterised by its unending possibilities for continuation, development, and liberation from fixed endings. Guy Eshed was an outstanding soloist, both musically and technically. None of the intricacies of Boulez’s exquisite, almost culinary line held any fear for him, but this was never virtuosity for its own sake. Inevitable reminiscences of Debussy added to the finely-honed, ineffable ‘Frenchness’ of this excellent performance. It was touching to have Boulez in the audience come to the stage in order to share in the applause.

Boulez and Barenboim have been close musical collaborators and friends ever since they performed Bartók’s First Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1964. Patrice Chéreau’s name will ever be linked with that of Boulez as a result of their collaboration on the legendary ‘Centenary-Ring’ at Bayreuth, the first production of the three-act version of Lulu, and more recently, a universally-acclaimed From the House of the Dead; Chéreau also once acted as narrator for a 1980 Ensemble Intercontemporain performance of L’histoire du soldat under Boulez. Links with Barenboim have also been strong, including productions of Wozzeck, Don Giovanni, and most recently Tristan und Isolde. These various interconnections added another layer of interest to the intelligent programming. It is fair to say that this was above all Chéreau’s performance. He threw himself with such gusto into his roles as narrator, soldier, and Devil, that one could almost see the missing puppets. Charles Ferdinand Ramuz’s text was not always adhered to word for word, but that did not matter in the slightest. One sensed the genius of Chéreau as a director, an animateur, and indeed he proved himself no mean actor. (He actually appeared on stage as Siegfried at Bayreuth on one occasion, whilst a replacement tenor sang from the wings.) This was a visual performance too, which made it seem such a pity that many members of the audience rarely looked up from the text and translation in the programme. I suspect that one would have discerned most of what was going on from Chéreau’s expressivity even if one understood not a word of French. As the work progresses, it becomes more musical in nature. Barenboim and his players proved fine exponents of this extraordinary score. Its potent mix of rhythmic insistence, thematic and colouristic economy and yet expressivity, and of course its instant, nagging memorability, was captured well throughout. Guy Braunstein returned, to play on the Devil’s own instrument; his performance was everything one might have expected. I was also especially impressed by Dan Moshayev’s contribution on percussion. But all of the players contributed a great deal, both in solo and ensemble terms. Barenboim clearly trusted enough in their abilities to permit them considerable leeway at times, whilst directing them strongly where required. More than once I thought of Busoni in terms of the harmonies and general ambience. Barenboim has considerable experience with Busoni’s music, so a sense of kinship between the Italian composer’s Junge Klassität and a work heading towards Stravinskian neo-classicism may not have been surprising; that does not make it any the less welcome. There might sometimes have been greater aggression to be heard in so polemical a score than one heard here, but this remained an excellent performance. It projected well into the capricious, cavernous expanses of the Royal Albert Hall too.

Prom 38: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim, 14 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Haydn – Sinfonie concertante in B-flat major, for oboe, bassoon, violin, and violoncello
Schoenberg – Variations for orchestra, op.31
Brahms – Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98

Ramón Ortega Quero (oboe)
Mor Biron (bassoon)
Guy Braunstein (violin)
Hassan Moataz El Molla (’cello)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

There was a true villain at this concert: not a member of the orchestra, not Daniel Barenboim, not a member of the audience, but the Royal Albert Hall. When I think of the spine-tingling immediacy of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s concert in Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus last summer and contrast it with the remote, distanced sound, evaporating upwards into the dome, saucers notwithstanding, the hall has a great deal for which to answer. One’s ears adjust somewhat, of course, and in addition, I do not think the young players of this wonderful – perhaps I should even say ‘miraculous’ – orchestra and their conductor were not on quite the form they had been a year ago, but the fact remains that the Royal Albert Hall is a vastly inferior space for musicians to perform and audiences to listen. Whatever their problems, the Barbican Hall and the Royal Festival Hall are far superior. The Albert Hall can work well for the largest-scale of pieces, often choral – I recall performances, for example, of Gurrelieder and Les Troyens falling into this category – and often surprisingly well for very small-scale works. Elliott Carter’s Oboe Concerto, scored for a chamber-sized ensemble, fared far better than either of the Beethoven works in one of my previous Proms this year, and Stockhausen’s HARMONIEN for only ever-so-slightly amplified solo trumpet was a great success in another. However, the greater part of the repertoire really is not suited to this space and its acoustic. Sentimentality regarding ‘Promming’ traditions is likely to prevail, but the BBC ought to consider other matters too.

The concert opened with Haydn’s Sinfonie concertante. It took a few seconds for the sounds to settle, but an admirably full – if inevitably distanced – sound emerged, redolent of the Haydn and Mozart sound we must now tragically associate more with performances of yesteryear than of today. Indeed, this was – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Barenboim’s pedigree as a Mozartian – in many respects quite a Mozartian reading of Haydn, calling to mind the work of a conductor such as Karl Böhm, who was also an excellent if infrequent conductor of Haydn. Haydn’s quirkiness was less evident than it had been in, say, Sir Simon Rattle’s recent Aix performance of two Haydn symphonies and this work, yet that is, I think, a quality in any case less evident in this particular work and it should never be allowed to become an end in itself. What a joy, however, it was to hear Haydn devoid of perverse ugliness in the guise of absurdly short bowing, non-vibrato, excessively-tapered phrasing or more likely pseudo-phrasing, that dreadful toothpaste-squeezing sound that has become de rigeur in ‘authenticist’ performances of eighteenth-century music, sensationally fast and horrifyingly unyielding tempi, and so on. In short, we heard Haydn’s music performed as music. Barenboim ensured that the work was treated as a coherent whole, providing a frame and a direction in which his soloists and indeed the orchestra as a whole were permitted to shine. Chamber music, discreetly directed, was rightly the order of the day in the Andante. Those truly Haydnesque harmonic twists and turns during the third movement told without exaggeration and were all the better for that. The orchestra was fortunate enough to have procured the services of the Tel Aviv-born first concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Guy Braunstein, who showed himself an excellent first amongst equals as the violin soloist. The unselfconsciousness of his fadings away was quite something to hear, as was his reliably silky tone. His accompagnato-style passages in the third movement were taken with great dramatic flair. Each of the other soloists was excellent too. Ramón Ortega Quero secured an endearingly bubbly tone on his oboe and Mor Biron proved a characterful – by which I certainly do not intend to imply attention-seeking – bassoonist. Hassan Moataz El Molla was an excellent ’cellist, whose higher range in particular received an impressive and thoroughly music working out. In general, the softer passages were truly delectable, but so were many others: it was a true delight to hear Classical brass sounding as beautiful as they should rather than imitating the rasping sound Haydn might have had to tolerate. The horn calls were nothing short of magical. This performance was a true team effort and thus a splendid choice for such a concert – much better, incidentally, than for Rattle’s, when the work had come to sound a little lightweight in the company of two of Haydn’s symphonic masterpieces.

Barenboim and his players had performed the Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra in the aforementioned Salzburg concert last year. Then I had been utterly bowled over, unhesitatingly considering it the greatest performance of the work I had ever heard. Given the acoustic caveats, this performance proved just as successful, confirming Barenboim’s status as one of the world’s finest Schoenbergians. One first noticed, following some re-arrangement, the huge size of Schoenberg’s orchestra, but one soon heard the great post-Mahlerian delicacy to which it was often put. The vast array of colours reminded us that we stood closer to the Five Orchestral Pieces, Op.16, than might often have been thought. The conductor’s unerring rhythmic command was crucial to the inevitability of what ensued and there was more than a passing nod to the example of Webern’s Passacaglia and the noble passacaglia/chaconne tradition from which that hailed. Future developments, for instance Boulez’s Notations, of which Barenboim has long stood as an eloquent champion, were evoked, for instance in the thrilling, vital eighth variation, Sehr rasch. Contrpuntal clarity and harmonic momentum encouraged rather than detracted from one another, with no sacrifice whatsoever to the fullness of orchestral tone. Barenboim’s reading, whilst far from neglecting – how could it? – the examples of Brahms and Bach, proved equally alert and profitably so to the music’s Wagnerian tendencies. This was a great drama, a which grew from a profound sense of motivic integrity and ever-teeming developing variation. Even so, the sonorities, especially in the even-numbered, more lightly scored, variations, managed to recall the textures of the first chamber symphony: a tribute both to the conductor’s textural balancing and to the orchestra itself. Every member thereof was probably deserving of individual credit, but I should especially single out the wondrous percussion section, providing the soundest of rhythmic underpinning and a splendid range of colour, and both Hassan Moataz El Molla, familiar from the Haydn, and Barenboim’s son Michael, not only leading the orchestra but contributing a number of devilish solo passages. The woodwind section played with a piquancy one might more readily associate with the music of Prokofiev and most refreshing this proved. These players had no need to circumscribe Schoenberg as ‘difficult’ or astringent; they treated his music as music: music to be performed. I wanted the work never to finish – which, given the open-ended tendencies of serial music is perhaps not quite so silly a wish as it might sound – or at least to be repeated.

For the second half, we heard Brahms’s Fourth Symphony: a good performance, if not at the exalted level of the Schoenberg. I was intrigued by the unusual sense of swimming against the current during the opening chain of thirds. It soon contrasted with a greater sense of relaxed inevitability; indeed, tempi proved flexible throughout: far closer to Furtwängler than to Klemperer. There was sometimes, I felt, a little too much contrast, in that the gentler passages often fared better than the vehement, which could sometimes though not always sound a little over-done and excessively driven. That said, the horns glowered with an unforgettable splendour. The final chord of the first movement was drawn our beautifully, with a grave beauty that brought to mind the North Sea. With the second movement, we encountered a solemn tread, reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony pilgrims and also redolent of older music, not least that of Handel. The strings provided feather-bedded pizzicato, a fine counterpoint to the gentle inexorability of the outer sections and the appropriately hard-won development. The opening of the scherzo was spot on with its gruffness and rhythmic security, soon followed by a winning sense of lyrical fantasy. The syncopations were superbly handled, truly granting impetus. Again, I wondered whether contrasts were being overdrawn but it was difficult not to warm to such affectionate boisterousness, an occasional hard-driven quality notwithstanding. The great passacaglia’s opening brass calls resounded across the centuries at least as far as Schütz. Brahms’s finale unfolded gradually, with great cumulative power. A particular highlight was the twelfth variation’s melting flute solo, suffused with a rare and utterly genuine melancholy. And then, it was as if a dam had finally burst. The electricity I had experienced in Salzburg – then concluding with a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony – was defiantly present once again. The journey to the closing bars was thrilling and hard-won: no easy ascent here.

Barenboim returned to the podium, recalling that in London, he generally seemed to be asked to speak on what was wrong with the Middle East. Here, he said, pointing to his wonderful orchestra, was what was right with the Middle East – and how right he was. He also said that, when programming Schoenberg, he liked also to present music by Wagner and Brahms, as a tribute to Schoenberg’s gift at synthesising the music of two composers who could not stand each other: a slight, but forgivable exaggeration. And so, we were treated as an encore to a resplendent rendition of the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger. The heat of midsummer was upon us, as was the balm of its magical evenings. If only the Bayreuth performance of the entire opera I had attended the previous week had possessed a fraction of such commitment and understanding (leaving aside the execrable production). The strings were full of warmth of an almost Russian quality. Woodwind counterpoint was as busy and charming as that of Strauss’s Fröhliche Werkstatt. And there were horn calls of a beauty to die for in the lead up to the recapitulation, at which point I should mention that the crucial intervention of the triangle was judged to perfection. The tuba player provided a perfect bass for the contrapuntal miracle that ensued. Everyone put all that he had into the performance of this final piece. If only one could say the same of general musical life.

Friday 8 August 2008

Bayreuth Festival: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 7 August 2008

Festspielhaus, Bayreuth

Hans Sachs – Franz Hawlata
Veit Pogner – Artur Korn
Kunz Vogelgesang – Charles Reid
Konrad Nachtigall – Rainer Zaun
Sixtus Beckmesser – Michael Volle
Fritz Kothner – Markus Eiche
Balthasar Zorn – Edward Randall
Ulrich Eisslinger – Hans-Jürgen Lazar
Augustin Moser – Stefan Heibach
Hermann Ortel – Martin Snell
Hans Schwarz – Andreas Macco
Hans Foltz – Diógenes Randes
Walther von Stolzing – Klaus Florian Vogt
David – Norbert Ernst
Eva – Michaela Kaune
Magdalene – Carola Guber
Nightwatchman – Friedemann Röhlig

Katharina Wagner (director)
Tilo Steffens (designs)
Michaela Barth, Tilo Steffens (costumes)
Robert Sollich (dramaturgy)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayreuth Festival (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Sebastian Weigle (conductor)

This was a production that was not so much compromised by its Konzept as by its execution. Let us begin by clutching at straws. What might represent the case for the defence? Setting the work in terms of a 1970s-ish art student, rebelling against a fusty old academy – even if it boasted academic gowns with a fluorescent green stripe garish enough to be worthy of the newest of campuses – is not necessarily a bad idea. That said, I cannot really think of any good reason, other than novelty, for jettisoning the musical world for that of the visual and increasingly all-too-drearily conceptual arts. Stressing the presence of past masters – Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, Wagner himself – both on stage and in terms of their output is, I think, rather a good idea, which I suspect may have come from dramaturge Robert Sollich rather than Miss Wagner herself. His ideas seemed far superior to her contribution, as was made clear from an interesting essay in the programme book. The motif of the iconic yellow Reclam volumes was quite arresting, even if the use to which said volumes were put was often baffling. I have pretty much reached the end of my attempted and already somewhat qualified defence.

For what was so truly staggering about this production was the ineptitude with which it was presented. There was no sense of any community whatsoever, despite the fact that the city of Nuremberg is one of the most important ‘characters’ in Wagner’s drama. So we did not see the chorus singing the chorales, and there was no sense of who might be singing this music, or why. The chorus did appear, though, at the very end, to appear as a talent show studio audience. As for poor Walther, several hours of daubing paint upon anything and everything wears thin pretty quickly and hardly presents a convincing radical artist. Paint poured out of – how we laughed! – tins of Campbell soup. The Trial Song became a jigsaw puzzle that would not have challenged a three year old. Hans Sachs clearly wanted to relive some youthful radicalism since he did not wear a tie and for some reason walked around barefoot: strange behaviour for a cobbler. Indeed, that whole part of his existence was ignored, so that instead of working on Beckmesser’s shoes he hammered away on a typewriter. Bizarrely, the riot was signalled by multiple pairs of trainers falling from the skies and old masters appearing in their underwear.

The opening of the third act was actually a little better, almost bearable, and there was one relatively amusing joke, when Beckmesser tried to ape his younger rival, acting in appropriately middle-aged youth attire. That, however, ran quite out of control when Katharina Wagner – and presumably the rest of the production team – completely misunderstood what should have been going on by having him not only continue in such vein to the Festwiese scene, but emerge as the more ‘challenging’ conceptual artist, as opposed to Walther who sold out and accepted a large cheque from gameshow host Kothner. Once again clutching at the one remaining straw, I can accept that some of Beckmesser’s music, like that of other Wagnerian villains, is more ‘advanced’ than some of Walther’s, but this made no sense at all. No attention whatsoever seemed to be paid to the text, which was not challenged but merely disregarded.

But there had been worse, much worse. After the more or less bearable opening to the third act, we were subjected to a bizarre interpolation for Daily Mail family values during the Quintet. Did no one tell the director that baptism is a metaphor here? Walther, Eva, and Pogner posed for a portrait with future children, as did David and Magdalene with theirs. This, needless to say, had to be undercut by having one of the Stolzing children crossing his legs, desperate for the lavatory. It was, however, with the move towards the Festwiese scene that the production reached its nadir. The past masters returned with their – barely recognisable – masks. They instead of anyone else marched and danced, stripped to their underwear, and then paraded around with prosthetic phalluses, which they rubbed against newly appeared masked women and each other. This went on for quite some time until they bade farewell one by one, leaving Beethoven straining to hear and then finally Wagner himself. Someone then appeared with a brush to sweep up the debris.

What of the music? Sebastian Weigle alternated between merciless, arbitrary pulling around of the score – the Prelude to Act I was all too much of a harbinger – and listless inconsequentiality. Whenever the orchestra sounded good, it appeared to be in spite of him. Franz Hawlata appeared to be having an off day, losing his voice somewhat during the third act, although he was rather good in the second. It is difficult to evaluate Michael Volle’s Beckmesser, so hamstrung was he by the production, especially once sporting his ‘hilarious’ ‘Beck in town’ T-shirt, but he seemed to follow suit, over-dignifying Wagner’s Malvolio figure, whilst singing well in purely vocal terms. Artur Korn audibly struggled as Pogner. Michaela Kaune just about passed muster as Eva, but only just, whilst Carola Guber must be the most undistinguished Magdalene I have heard. (It was not simply a matter of the sheer frightfulness of their costumes.) I was grateful for Norbert Ernst’s keenly sung David but the only star was Klaus Florian Vogt as Walther. This may be the finest Heldentenor­­-singing I have heard in the flesh. He was youthful, ardent, always audible, and truly looked the part too, if one managed to ignore his absurd costume. He does not have the classic Heldentenor bark; this is a far more beautiful voice, redolent of a lyric tenor, yet with the necessary volume. I cannot wait to hear him again. The chorus was good but not a patch on the previous night for Parsifal; who can blame it?

Wednesday 6 August 2008

Bayreuth Festival: Parsifal, 6 August 2008

Festspielhaus, Bayreuth

Amfortas – Detlef Roth
Titurel – Diógenes Randes
Gurnemanz – Kwangchul Youn
Parsifal – Christopher Ventris
Klingsor – Thomas Jesatko
Kundry – Mihoko Fujimura
First Knight of the Grail – Arnold Bezuyen
Second Knight of the Grail – Friedemann Röhlig
First Squire – Julia Borchert
Second Squire – Ulrike Helzel
Third Squire – Clemens Bieber
Fourth Squire – Timothy Oliver
Flowermaidens – Julia Borchert, Martina Rüping, Carola Guber, Anna Korondi, Jutta Böhnert, Ulrike Helzel
Contralto solo – Simone Schröder

Stefan Herheim (director)
Heike Scheele (designs)
Gesine Cöllm (costumes)
Alexander Meier-Dörzenbach (dramaturgy)

Orchestra and Chorus of the Bayreuth Festival (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

This was an outstanding production. I had greatly admired Stefan Herheim’s Salzburg Entführung, so my expectations were high; they were nevertheless surpassed. Herheim trod a difficult tightrope between presentation of his guiding Konzept – the history of Parsifal as a work and the world in which it has developed from the time of its first performance to that of its most recent – and recounting of the immanent story of Parsifal. Two stories ran not so much in parallel as with mutual influence, yet without inflicting harm upon one another and without the slightest sense of contrivance. Herheim, in other words, never fell from his rope into those treacherous depths that have previously swallowed so many directors and their ideas, be they good, bad, or indifferent. ­­­­

We began in the Second Reich. So intensely dialectical and wondrously multi-layered – and yet not confusing – was Herheim’s direction that we witnessed and heard –we are dealing with a musician here, unlike many, perhaps most opera directors – the early days of post-Wagner Wahnfried, the sickly, semi-incestuous goings-on of an impeccably haut bourgeois family and its nursery, that extraordinary phase of Nietzschean, Renanesque, and of course Parsifalian Christianity, the era of the oft-present Imperial eagle, and the terrifying march to war. Never have I experienced such a rightly ominous tone to the outward march of the replenished – but replenished by and for what? – Grail knights as here, both musically and courtesy of the early ‘patriotic’ military film. The realm in which time became space had led us towards 1914. It should be stressed, we missed none of the drama we should have expected from a performance of Parsifal. And so, we began in a field hospital for the second act, for once actually seeing the renegade knights, Sir Ferris and all, of whom Klingsor tells. The Flower-ordinaries tended to them in every way they knew how: a most effective tactic on the part of Klingsor as Master of Ceremonies. For we also saw Weimar, with the Moorish castle’s owner suggestive in white tie and fishnets of Emcee himself. Cabaret’s trajectory reached its ultimate conclusion with the end of this act, a moment for which the phrase coup de théâtre might have been invented. The coming of the Third Reich was signalled by the castle’s destruction and the advent not only of stormtroopers and a brown-shirted, tomorrow-belonging-to-him little boy, but of swastikas too. Rarely have I experienced such a truly electric moment in the theatre. There were boos of course, from those afraid and challenged – they tended to be of conspicuously bürgerlich appearance – but there was louder applause for Bayreuth’s belated yet brave attempt at coming to terms with its history. Self-laceration may have become tedious in some segments of German society, but the knives have been far less evident anywhere near the Green Hill.

The final act opened in the garden of a bombed Wahnfried. Parsifal’s coming and Good Friday offered the possibility of a reanimation, not just natural but social: a tall order, as we realised when a procession of the starved post-war population of Berlin passed across the stage. Yet Parsifal had at least enabled water to trickle forth again from the garden’s fountain. Amfortas’s trial – in every sense – brought us from Nuremberg to the present-day Bundestag, whilst in no way detracting from the very particular agony of this very particular drama. And who says that one can peak too early? A coup de théâtre just as brave as that of the evocation of 1933 was once again presented with a video projection of the young Wagner brothers’ – that is, Wieland's and Wolfgang's – request at the 1951 reopening, that political discussion be banished from New Bayreuth. An image of Wagner himself was bricked up. All power to Wolfgang Wagner for permitting this! Whatever the doubts concerning his own productions – and let us be honest: we have all seen far worse – his record in attracting new directors to Bayreuth has been more than commendable. Reactionaries, or at least conservatives, should have taken heart from the proportion of Wagner’s stage directions followed, sometimes to the letter, but at least to the spirit. How long, for instance, is it since a production of Parsifal ended with the white dove hovering over the hero’s head? Here, of course, the message was ambiguous. Clearly related to the eagle we had seen so many times before – and to the swan of the first act – there might be hope but there might yet be more of the same or worse. I have recently been perhaps a little too fond of quoting Horace’s ‘Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur’ (‘Change but the name, and the tale is told of you’) with reference to opera (and specifically to Ariadne auf Naxos), but it seems tailor-made for the video-projections in which we faced ourselves and the orchestra – a Bayreuth first in looking beneath the covered pit. We both braced ourselves and questioned the alleged ‘openness’ (hints of Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome) of the new dispensation. I have missed a great deal, even from my own recollection, and there was doubtless much that I did not comprehend or even notice on a first encounter, but this ought at least to begin to suggest the scale of Herheim’s and the rest of the production team’s achievement. (However complicated the partial and full scenic transformations, everything ran like clockwork, unlike Covent Garden’s recent revival disaster with Ariadne.)

Daniele Gatti’s reading of the score rarely drew attention to itself but contributed to the unfolding dramas in exemplary fashion. It was, I suspect, a slow reading, measured by the clock, although I have never understood why some people worry about such matters. Knappertsbusch and Boulez both have a great deal to tell us; there is no need to take sides, except against those incapable of making the score resound and cohere. The richness of the Bayreuth orchestra was ever apparent, but never more so than when it finally had our full attention, during the unstaged Prelude to Act III. That evocation of hard-won passing of time can rarely have seemed more apt than in the circumstances of this production. The gradual unfolding of the score’s phrases and paragraphs was faultless. Each act was possessed both of its own character and of an array of variegation and cross-reference. And the bells sounded better than I can recall hearing them anywhere (except of course on the most venerable of old Bayreuth recordings). If only Antonio Pappano would desist from conducting Wagner in London, Gatti would be just the man to help us out, working on the assumption that Bernard Haitink’s return visits are likely to be few at best.

Christopher Ventris was an excellent Parsifal. This may be less impossible a role than Siegfried or Tristan, but even so, it is a tough challenge, to which Ventris rose with aplomb, both musically and in stage terms. Indeed, all of the cast, with the partial exception of Mihoko Fujimura’s Kundry, excelled in acting terms. She, sadly, was no seductress, but she bought into the rest of her role and sang well enough, if somewhat short of unforgettably, throughout. (I could not help but wonder what Waltraud Meier would have made of this opportunity.) Her diction could sometimes be questionable too. Kwangchul Youn lacked the authority of a great Gurnemanz but he proved attentive to the text, excepting one noticeable bout of poor intonation. I have heard more malevolent Klingsors than Thomas Jesatko, but there was nothing really to complain of in a well-acted performance. Detlef Roth, however, was a triumphant Amfortas. To say that he proved himself an extremely fine singing-actor is not to detract from his considerable achievements were his singing and acting to be considered separately; it is simply to state that such a separation would be false and that the whole was still greater than the sum of the parts. The same could be said of the superb Bayreuth Festival Chorus. And the same could be said of the entire production, which, whatever my odd reservation concerning the casting, should come to be regarded as a defining moment in the history of the Bayreuth Festival and indeed in that of the staging of Wagner’s music dramas.

Saturday 2 August 2008

Prom 20: Stockhausen, 2 August 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Stockhausen – GRUPPEN
Stockhausen – KLANG, thirteenth hour: COSMIC PULSES, for electronics (British premiere)
Stockhausen – KLANG, from the fifth hour: HARMONIEN, for solo trumpet (BBC commission: world premiere)
Stockhausen – KONTAKTE
Stockhausen – GRUPPEN (repeat performance)

Marco Blaauw (trumpet)
Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Colin Currie (percussion)
Kathinka Pasveer (sound projection for KLANG)
Bryan Wolf (sound projection for KONTAKTE)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson (conductor)
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
Pascal Rophé (conductor)

Stockhausen is dead; long live Stockhausen! After a lengthy period in which he and his music – and especially his later music, for which, read the gargantuan LICHT cycle – became distinctly unfashionable in many circles, the composer’s death at the end of last year seems to have triggered a reappraisal. This is just the kind of effort to which the Proms should be contributing; the advent of Roger Wright at its helm may yet rescue the series from its Kenyon-era doldrums. KLANG, or ‘sound,’ will be the title of the Southbank Centre’s forthcoming week-long tribute in November. It refers to his post-LICHT cycle of works, projected to cover the twenty-four hours of the day. Cut short by his death, two sections were given here: the thirteenth ‘hour’ receiving its first British performance and part of the fifth hour its first anywhere. The word ‘Klang’ also points to one of Stockhausen’s greatest achievements –although far from the only one – namely, his manifold pioneering explorations in terms of sound.

GRUPPEN was the Alpha and Omega of this concert. A welcome development of recent Stockhausen ‘performance practice’ has been a tendency to perform the work twice in a single concert. Performances of this tremendous work for three orchestras are unsurprisingly rare, so a second audition grants a welcome opportunity to experience and to comprehend further. The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra will adopt the same practice, in a September concert at Tempelhof Airport, which will mouth-wateringly include Messiaen’s Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorem. An important thing to remember concerning GRUPPEN is that it was not intended as a spatial work; rather, the division of the large – though hardly unprecedentedly so – orchestra of 109 players results from the impossibility of directing the musicians in several different metronomic tempi at once. Virtue was made of necessity, however, and Stockhausen’s fascination with the movement of sounds in space was furthered, which in turn furthered his move away from composition with ‘points’ (Punkte) towards ‘groups’ (Gruppen), in which the former parameters of sound – pitch, duration, volume, and timbre – combine and in which some may once again begin to predominate over others. (It is a characteristic of Stockhausen’s works that their names are often extremely helpful in delineating their principal concern. PUNKTE will be performed later this season.) Having stripped not just music but even sound itself down to their constituent elements, he begins, indeed is almost compelled, to put them back together. In the act of re-combination, however, we experience something genuinely new.

The overlapping presentation of groups – 174 of them in total – performed at different tempi is, then, the material of the work. These present performances accomplished that magnificently, for which all three conductors – David Robertson, Martyn Brabbins (at very short notice), and Pascal Rophé – and all members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra should be praised. Something was lost through the positioning of the orchestras, in that very few members of the audience would have been surrounded by them, yet one could nevertheless hear them separately and together, with a reasonable degree of spatial transfer and dialogue. Moreover, timbral clarity was often extremely impressive, especially so given the cavernous acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, which somehow actually seemed to benefit the work. Percussion instruments and even the harps were often strikingly loud, although never un-variegated. Indeed, I was struck not only by confirmation of the importance of the percussion section for so much twentieth-century music, but also by the sheer tonal variety contained and expressed within. Spatial dialogue between the brass instruments of the three orchestras put me in mind of the Gabrielis, although this music grew overwhelmingly with a spellbinding intensity quite foreign to Venetian forebears. The work and performances as a whole exhibited a range from the utmost delicacy to teeming cacophony, rendering us closer to Messiaen than I might have expected. Stockhausen rarely nods to tradition but the dying away of the final horn call presented a perhaps unexpected reference back to German Romanticism. Yet, whatever odd references one might make for oneself – cowbells and Mahler, for instance – the overriding impression was of original genius, in what many still consider to be the composer’s towering masterpiece.

GRUPPEN was composed more than fifty years ago (1955-7, with its premiere in 1958). It remains an enthralling contemporary experience, yet Stockhausen’s concerns would unsurprisingly lead him further and further into the electronic realm. COSMIC PULSES (2006-7), here receiving its British premiere, is a purely electronic work. It may, as Robert Worby writes in his programme notes, ‘be the most spatially complex piece that Stockhausen ever produced’. Stockhausen told Worby in an 1997 interview:

Already in 1958 to 1960 I made a lot of experiments in a special hall in order to find out what speed I could composer for different sounds, what speed they could pass through the space, from one speaker group to the other, and most of the time one is not aware of the loudspeakers any more, but the sounds moving with different speeds in diagonal directions or in a circle, in rotation left-wise, right-wise, or the sound is coming from only one of the angles, et cetera. All the variations became part of my composition as harmony and melody, rhythm and dynamics.

Developments in technology and in Stockhausen’s compositional technique eventually led him to the situation at which he could write COSMIC PULSES. It is made up of twenty-four pitch and rhythm ‘loops’, themselves made up of one to twenty-four pitches, in twenty-four different registers. They rotate at twenty-four different speeds around eight loudspeakers and are ‘successively layered together from low to high and from the slowest to the fastest tempo’. (The clarity of Worby’s notes was most helpful here.) Sound projection was by one of the composer’s two surviving companions, Kathinka Pasveer but this was essentially not a human ‘performance’ at all, something which at the end renders applause a little odd. In the meantime, however, we underwent an extraordinary experience.

Many of the lights were turned off, which enabled one all the better to concentrate upon the sonic extravaganza. (Some of those that remained on, needless to say, were the hideous green ‘Fire Exit’ signs. I should have been tempted to consider ‘Health and Safety’ the three most depressing words in the English language, had not ‘replacement bus service’ blighted my journeys to and from London.) The sounds were of course ever changing yet sometimes, at least, strangely familiar. Purely electronic, one could yet discern the impression – especially at the outset – of an organ. Soon bells or their equivalent could be heard and even, a little later, the hint of a helicopter, which inevitably reminded me of the composer’s notorious string quartet. Sound was constantly moving and swirling, behind, in front, and above. One gained a sense of some great cosmic drama unfolding. We were spectators, or rather auditors, rather than participants, yet it would somehow affect us, even if we knew not how. Was this Zukunftsmusik? Sometimes it seemed more real – i.e., what was actually happening – than art, sometimes less so. It was fantastically, almost fanatically, detailed, yet there was a broader discernible development too; it teemed with strange, new life, or was it death? Of course, it needs no images, yet I wondered how it would work in a state-of-the-art cinema. If Wagner had wished, having created the invisible orchestra, to create an invisible theatre, Stockhausen might have invisible screen action. (It is interesting nevertheless to speculate what a Stanley Kubrick might have done with such music.) I also wondered what the children at the previous week’s ‘Doctor Who Prom’ would have made of this. Free of many adult preconceptions, I suspect they would have been utterly bowled over by it. Was this the TARDIS (‘Time and Relative Dimensions in Space’: oddly Stockhausen-like) I heard before me at one point? At the end, it was as if whatever form of alien intelligence had visited us was taking its leave, not simply in terms of it coming to an end, but in a musical sense of leave-taking and disappearance into some strange beyond.

How on earth – or wherever we might be – might one be able, I asked myself, to deal with twenty-four ‘hours’ of such music? HARMONIEN (‘Harmonies’) rendered the question redundant, for this piece, receiving its world premiere, was very different indeed. Here the sound projection was unobtrusive, simply a matter of projection, for this was to all intents and purposes a solo work. Together with versions for bass clarinet and for flute, it forms the fifth hour of KLANG. It was an opportunity for solo trumpeter, Marco Blauuw, to shine and he took it – with mesmerising musicality, theatricality, and virtuosity. A slow introduction of four intoned notes, between which the trumpeter recites the words, ‘Lob’, ‘Sei’, ‘Gott’ (‘God be praised’), is followed by twenty-four – that number of hours again – melodies, each of which is repeated at different pitches in a loop, which is then in turn repeated different numbers of times, becoming slower and quieter. Such provides the harmonic – yes, harmonic: once again, the clue lies in the title – structure for the work and the entire basis for the trumpeter’s address to what seemed to be treated more as a congregation than a mere audience. For the almost liturgical presentation not only of the words but also of the music, not unlike the call of a shofar, reminded us of the world of LICHT. The various mutes, affixed like a belt around Blauuw’s waist, had a visual as well as a sonic impact. Pitches were circled but, in the midst of considerable pitch repetition, something else was always changing: duration, volume, etc. Once I fancied I could discern a reminiscence of a Bach chorale: not strictly true of course, yet the correspondences one makes are not always merely absurd, for this was clearly a mysterious rite of some kind. Likewise the appearances towards the end of a perfect fifth call inevitably put me in mind of other trumpet calls. And then the observance was concluded.

KONTAKTE (1959-60) was given in its version for piano, percussion, and electronics. (There is also a purely electronic version.) This is another work concerned with the spatial construction of sound. The composer invented a ‘rotation table’, upon which a loudspeaker was placed, whose rotation would enable it to face four microphones placed in a square around it; the microphones were connected to the four tracks of the tape, thereby permitting – albeit with much less elaborate technology – a precursor to the movements in space we had previously heard in COSMIC PULSES. Stockhausen is also concerned here with the relationship between parameters of rhythm and pitch, in the sense that increases in tempo eventually permit the creation of a definite pitch, which becomes higher the faster with greater frequency of the fundamental clicks (or pulses) from the speakers. Nor one should forget – one certainly could not do so in the hall – the premium placed upon virtuosity, not for its own sake, but necessary to further Stockhausen’s explorations. Colin Currie and Nicolas Hodges, with Bryan Wolf on sound projection, presented a veritable tour de force. The music, unsurprisingly, sounded more abrasive, more pointillistic – more human? – than COSMIC PULSES. Webern is still, just about, a discernible starting ‘point’ – in more sense than one. The piano is treated in a largely percussive fashion, rendering this far more a ‘percussion’ than a ‘piano’ work, even when one bears in mind Stockhausen’s preceding Klavierstücke. Hodges sometimes had to play additional percussion as well as his piano part. I could hear the scene being set for pieces such as Helmut Lachenmann’s Interieur I for solo percussion, his first acknowledged work, yet Stockhausen’s spatial concerns added – again in more than one sense – at least one extra dimension. There is a bright, metallic quality to the music, very much of its time. One could almost see through the sound alone a post-war West German radio studio. Indeed, I was slightly taken aback as to how evocative of its time KONTAKTE now sounded. Whether that suggests that it is becoming dated or classicised remains to be discerned. At any rate, the music faded away splendidly into a prolonged silence. That silence might well have come about from the audience’s uncertainty as to whether the piece was finished, but the effect was nevertheless appropriate. It was certainly followed by vigorous deserved applause for the performers. The reprise of GRUPPEN then almost took on the quality of an encore, with musicians and audience alike less tense, more ready to enjoy themselves: a fitting conclusion to a bold and successful concert.