Monday 29 September 2008

La voix humaine and Pierrot lunaire, Oper Leipzig, 28 September 2008

(Images copyright: Andreas Birkigt)

Leipzig Opera House

La voix humaine
A woman – Angeles Blancas

Christoph Meyer (director)
Ramon Ivars (designs, costumes)
Albert Faura (lighting)

Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Josep Vicent (conductor)

Pierrot lunaire

A woman who spends too much time on the telephone – Young-Hee Kim

Peter Konwitschny (director)
Michaela Mayer-Michnay (costume collaboration)

Members of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (Julius Bekesch – violin, Dorothea Hemken – viola, Daniel Pfister – ’cello, Manfred Ludwig – flute/piccolo, Volker Hemken (clarinet/bass clarinet)
Johannes Harneit (conductor)

Oper Leipzig is certainly giving Schoenberg his due. One ought to be able to say that about every opera company, every orchestra, every concert hall in the world, but sadly not. Last season we were treated – yes, treated – to a triple-bill of Schoenberg’s three one-act operas. Now we have a staged version of Pierrot Lunaire in a double-bill with Poulenc’s one-act opera, La voix humaine. I should readily wager that these two works have rarely if ever been performed together, Poulenc’s admiration for the Second Viennese School and even for the young Boulez notwithstanding. There is, if the truth be told, little to unite the two works, although as staged here, Pierrot might be said, like La voix humaine, to have a female protagonist. Aside from the strange description of the former work’s reciter as ‘a woman who spends too much time on the telephone’ and a brief re-appearance of the telephone from La voix humaine, in which re-appearance its wire acted as a noose, there was little to unite the productions either. This did not matter; we simply experienced the two works – or perhaps better Poulenc’s work and Peter Konwitschny’s take on Schoenberg’s work – on more or less their own terms.

In Christoph Meyer’s production, first seen at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, the setting for La voix humaine was simple and much as originally envisaged. We saw a woman at home in the aftermath of what we learned had been a suicide attempt; home gave an impression of something credibly Parisian; the telephone was there too. And so, rightly, the emphasis was upon Angelas Blancas, whom Meyer directed with impeccable realism. Unless one were utterly to overturn the premise of the work, I cannot imagine a symbolic production working. Blancas’s movements, expressions, actions: all seemed utterly believable. This, though, would have been as nothing without her singing. When I say that Blancas proved herself a fine singing actress, I do not mean to imply, as can sometimes be the case, that her acting compensated for her singing, simply to say that the two aspects were as one. Her portrayal of a woman’s last, increasingly desperate telephone call to the lover who has jilted her was not only moving but credible as half – or rather more than that – of a several-times interrupted dialogue. Her looks and vocal timbre also made one quite ready to believe that this was a Parisienne: more full-blooded than the work’s creator, Denise Duval, but none the worse for that. After all, La voix humaine has attracted artists as different as Felicity Lott, Elisabeth Soderström, and Jessye Norman. Blancas was quite at home in such august company. She was helped by Josep Vicent’s conducting of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. That the length of the significant pauses did not bring attention to itself is a considerable tribute, since these are difficult to judge. Occasionally I wondered whether the contrast between Stravinskian rhythm and sensual sweetness might have been greater but to have underlined this might well have been too great a disruption. The orchestra sounded warm and well-blended, at home in Poulenc’s music without sacrificing its unmistakeably German timbre. This was undoubtedly a fine performance.

So was that of Pierrot lunaire. Peter Konwitschny contributed an interesting if enigmatic note, although I was not at all sure how it related to what we saw on stage. He claimed rightly: ‘this production is not about the work itself.’ However, I did not readily comprehend how it lent the work ‘expression by giving it back its context’. Rather it seemed to me to impart a narrative or at least scenes, which ‘worked’, even if it was difficult to explain why, or how they connected with the music. As if Young-Hee Kim did not have enough to worry about, she was called upon to arrive drunkenly on stage, interact with the conductor and players, show us that she was – as Alan Bennett might say – ‘in a bit of a state’, shoot herself, and eventually perhaps – as Bennett might also say – ‘pull herself together’. For instance, at the end of the ‘Valse de Chopin’, she snatched the baton from Johannes Harneit’s hands, ran around conducting (and continuing to recite), then stabbed pianist, Christian Hornef with the baton and shouted of his death. Hornef had to lie dead on the floor for a little time until rising to continue with the re-entry of the piano at the end of the following number, ‘Madonna’. In principle, I have reservations about such a staged approach, since it most likely restricts the workings of one’s imagination, but it turned out rather well and is after all but one attempt to present this irreducible, irrepressible, irresistible work.

Kim’s performance was undoubtedly that of a singing – and speaking and various things-in-between... – actress. She varied the ever-shifting balance according to the needs of the performance, which is as it should be, and showed herself attentive to the bizarre words, producing so many different sounds in a single line – ‘So modern sentimental geworden! – of ‘Heimweh’. Harneit, sometimes called upon to act too, directed members of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra with great aplomb. He struck a fine balance – there can surely be no one correct balance – between precision and expression, Romanticism and modernism, decadence and construction. Nightmarish dance rhythms really told.

Most important, Harneit allowed the players room to perform, both as soloists and as members of the ensemble – and of course, with Young-Hee Kim. They also had to speak – reciting the final ‘Rote, fürstliche Rubine’ of the tenth number. Manfred Ludwig switched artfully between flute and piccolo, always ensuring that the latter was an instrument of musical expression, never merely shrill. Hornef displayed a commendable grasp of Schoenberg’s piano style, virtuosic and idiomatic throughout. I was greatly impressed by the combination of shrieking hysteria from both Kim and Volker Hemken’s clarinet in ‘Rote Messe. They cleverly mirrored one another, producing chamber music, not simply effect. As Stravinsky once remarked, Pierrot is – amongst so many other things – an instrumental masterpiece. This was equally apparent in the Romanticism we heard from Daniel Pfister’s ’cello in ‘Serenade’, a performance whose equally audible constructivism also pointed the way forward to the Op.24 Serenade. We had a violinist and a violist, which makes sense, since few players have equal command of both instruments. Julius Bekesch showed himself adept at following – and leading – the ever-shifting moods of this nightmare; a particular highlight was his sweetness of tone in ‘Heimfahrt’, married as always to perfect rhythmical precision. Dorothea Hemken’s rich viola contributed with Hornef’s neo-Brahmsian piano part to the impression in the final ‘O alter Duft’ of a perverted, distorted Lied. It then remained for our heroine (?) to bid us farewell, a modern wayfarer of sorts. I doubt that I shall forget this performance.

BPO/Rattle - Ravel, 27 September 2008

Philharmonie, Berlin

Ravel – Ma mère l’Oye
Ravel – L’enfant et les sortilèges

Annick Massis (soprano)
Mojca Erdmann (soprano)
Magdalena Kožena (mezzo-soprano)
Sophie Koch (mezzo-soprano)
Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto)
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (tenor)
François Le Roux (baritone)
José van Dam (baritone)

Berlin Radio Choir (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle gave us two evocations of childhood from Ravel. Both of course are highly sophisticated evocations of childhood, more likely to appeal to adults than to children; they are not ‘music for children’. Yet, in their loving mixture of wonder and nostalgia, they are if anything all the more enchanting for adults – not least when performed as here.

For all the talk of ‘internationalisation’, the Berlin Philharmonic initially sounded quite German, ‘old-world’ even, in the depths of its string tone. This became less so as Ma mère l’Oye continued but it was good to hear that ‘tradition’ had not been lost. I do not mean that Ravel therefore sounded like Brahms, merely that a certain orchestral characteristic, which one more readily associates with the Staatskapelle Berlin across town, has not been entirely lost. Moreover, the orchestra certainly lacked nothing in agility; there was no ‘trade-off’ in this sense. Rattle offered a moulded reading, which I can imagine some finding a little too much so, but this is highly ‘artificial’ music. (When someone complained about the artificiality of his music, Ravel asked whether it had not occurred to his accuser that the composer might be an artificial person.) There were occasions, such as the second movement, when I should not have minded a little more room for the music to dance more freely and simply, but these occasions were relatively few. Balanced against that should be the orchestral detail and virtuosity to which we were treated. The various solos were all taken impeccably. It is perhaps unfair to single any out but I shall nevertheless do so in the cases of Albrecht Meyer’s beguiling oboe, Emmanuel Pahud’s ravishing flute, and leader Toru Yosunaga’s æthereal yet Romantic solo in ‘Les entretiens de la Belle et la Bête’. Rattle ensured that the added-note harmonies in that waltz-movement were truly made to impart their harmonic worth. ‘Laideronnette’ was characterful without being over-played: colourful in terms of orchestration and harmony but with a certain, most apt restraint. The final movement, ‘Le jardin féerique’ was a veritable garden of delights, which also displayed a winning, almost Elgarian nobility. Its apotheosis was characterised by great warmth, if perhaps a little too much boisterousness. If overall, I missed the X-ray precision of Boulez in this music, there are other ways to perform it. There was rightly none of the vagueness that lies at the heart of Debussy’s music but lacking in that of Ravel, even when it most closely approaches ‘impressionism’. Sometimes I wondered whether there was a little too much languor to Rattle’s reading but on the whole this was a fine account.

I had not even minor reservations when it came to the one-act opera, L’enfant et les sortilèges. The orchestra sounded if anything still finer and Rattle resisted any temptation to linger or to underline. Ravel's music in any many senses requires loving yet clear-eyed presentation rather than ‘interpretation’ as such, at least when it comes to the orchestral part of the score; this is what it received. The still-greater clarity of later Ravel shone through, as did its jazzy inflections. There was a clear shift when the outside world of the garden took over, even perhaps a foreshadowing of Bartókian ‘night music’. The Berlin Philharmonic was beyond reproach both in orchestral blend and once again in its manifold solo opportunities. I cannot but mention Pahud once again but equally impressive were many other instrumentalists, including the solo double-bassist, pianist, and the player of the luthéal (if that is what it was; whatever the instrument listed in the programme as a ‘prepared piano’ may actually have been, it certainly sounded ‘right’). The vocal parts were shared between a fine team of soloists. Magdalena Kožena was fully occupied as the Child. Her finely detailed reading displayed an appropriate air of the tomboy. Petulance gradually metamorphosed into penitence. As with all of the cast, her diction was impeccable. (The acoustic of the Philharmonie helps but it can only help.) The predominance of French singers was definitely an advantage when it came to idiom, both in terms of music and pronunciation. Sophie Koch was a joy in each of her roles, perhaps especially in the genuinely funny Cat-duet with François Le Roux. It was a delight to welcome back José van Dam for his cameo appearance. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt was as wickedly winning a presence as one would expect. In the soprano roles, Annick Massis and Mojca Erdmann both shone, the former proving an especially fine Princess, the latter every inch the nightingale. And Nathalie Stutzmann devoted her inimitably rich contralto to a number of roles, not least that of the Mother. She truly inhabited each of her roles, never at the expense of truly Gallic style. Just as impressive was the interaction between the singers. One might have fancied them directed – and by a stage director who knew what he was doing. The choral singing was excellent: one could hear pretty much every word and with a beguiling timbre too. I very much hope that we shall be treated to a recording.

Thursday 25 September 2008

Handel, Israel in Egypt - The London Chorus/Corp, 24 September 2008

Cadogan Hall

Handel – Israel in Egypt, HWV 54

Mary Bevan (soprano)
Sophie Bevan (soprano)
Magid El-Bushra (counter-tenor)
Ben Johnson (tenor)
Ben Davies (bass)
Sam Evans (bass)
The London Chorus
New London Orchestra (organ: Jane Watts)
Ronald Corp (conductor)

This performance of Israel in Egypt was given, as is customary, without the funeral anthem for Queen Caroline, The ways of Zion do mourn. Although perfectly defensible, such an omission always leaves a problem in terms of how Handel’s oratorio should begin, given that the first part will open baldly with a tenor recitativo secco. Here the ‘overture’ gap was filled with Handel’s thirteenth organ concerto, in F major, HWV 295, ‘The cuckoo and the nightingale’. It received an adequate if hardly sparkling reading, with Jane Watts as soloist. At least it prepares the way for the F major chord with which the recitative opens.

Israel in Egypt is unusual amongst Handel’s oratorios, more so even than Messiah, not only in that there is little dramatic narrative – it could hardly be staged in the way that, say, Saul, Jephtha, or Theodora, to name but a few, could – but also in the preponderance of choral writing. This, of course, is one of the glories of Handel's œuvre and is one of the reasons why his oratorios as a whole remain greatly superior to his operas, with their tedious plots and still more tedious interminable alternation of recitative and aria. (The oratorio stories, even in this case, are better too.) But one needs a good chorus and sadly the London Chorus often proved inadequate to the task, giving the sort of performance that gives pause to thought for those of us who would happily extol the virtues of the English choral society tradition and readily defend it against ‘authenticist’ sniping. Intonation was far from atrocious but often almost as far from precise. One could not, however, ignore the general wooliness of the tone, especially in quieter and slower passages and especially from the tenors. The feeble opening of ‘They loathed to drink of the river’ was a particularly notable example but far from unique. And there was often a general lack of rhythmic tightness, for which considerable responsibility must lie with the conductor, Ronald Corp. ‘But as for his people,’ was alarmingly limp. There is a case for a revisionist ‘pastoral’ quality to the chorus; however, the people are ‘led forth ... like sheep,’ not like truculently wayward yet strangely fey carthorses. Those choruses calling for celebration or some other vigorous quality fared better, even if they fell short of resounding success. More might have been made in terms of antiphonal effect in Handel’s great double choruses but it was present to a degree.

Other aspects of the performance stood out more positively. A few minor faults aside, the New London Orchestra sounded good, although it could profitably have been enlarged. Strings, balanced – or not – against quite a large chorus were only 4:3:2:2:1. One could nevertheless readily hear the coming forth of ‘all manner of flies’. The trumpets of Nicholas Thompson and Simon Gabriel imparted a thrilling edge to the largest-scale choruses, as did Chris Nall’s kettledrums, allowing the waters of the Red Sea truly to overwhelm Pharoah’s men. There is not much for most of the vocal soloists to do, but they did it well. Countertenor Magid El-Bushra had more and did it with excellence. There was a winning spring to ‘Their land brought forth frogs,’ also characterised by crystal clear articulation and impeccable command of line. He was not afraid to apply a light vibrato to his arias, adding to rather than obscuring the beauty of his contribution. On this evidence, El-Bushra deserves to go far indeed.

Wednesday 24 September 2008

Philharmonia/Salonen, 23 September 2008

Royal Festival Hall

Bartók – The Miraculous Mandarin: Suite, op.19
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.63
Stravinsky – Œdipus Rex

Vadim Repin (violin)

Œedipus – Stephen Gould
Jocasta – Ekaterina Gubanova
Creon/Messenger – Kyle Ketelsen
Franz-Josef Selig – Tiresias
Andrew Kennedy – Shepherd
Simon Russell Beale – Speaker

Philharmonia Voices
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

This ‘gala concert’ marked the beginning of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tenure as Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Philharmonia Orchestra. Thankfully, there was little of the ‘gala’ to it; so far as I could tell, it was simply the season’s opening concert, which in general augured well for the new regime.

Certainly the Miraculous Mandarin suite fared very well indeed. Salonen ensured a commendable clarity throughout, married to a fine sense of rhythm – security, not stiffness – and not just in the faster music. One was never able to forget that this was music for the stage and a ballet at that, even in suite form, although as ever, I could not help regretting that the complete ballet was not being performed. The introduction (‘The thugs instruct the girl’) was splendidly thuggish, each subsequent episode being just as well characterised. As the prostitute enticed the old roué, we heard a thoroughly enticing yet menacing clarinet solo against undoubted menace from the ’cellos. The nastiness of the later clarinet duet was if anything still more impressive, as was the slightly earlier entry of the harp and trombones. Sleazy trombone slides made their mark, another example of the straightforwardly superlative work throughout from the trio of Philharmonia trombones. And the concert ending proved viscerally exciting, even if we missed the end of the ballet proper.

There followed a puzzling performance of Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, which I have always – unfashionably – much preferred over his first. Salonen contributed a fine ear for orchestral detail, imparting to the score a transparency that it often lacks. There were, however, some odd decisions concerning tempi, whether from him, Vadim Repin, or both. I know that the first movement is marked Allegro, but I felt that it would have benefited from a slightly slower tempo; the music often sounded a little skated over. There was also a marked lack of ‘Russianness’. Rather surprisingly, given the soloist, we often sounded closer to the Ravelian world of The love for three oranges than to the works of Prokofiev’s Soviet period. With regard to the composer’s inimitable bittersweetness, Repin generally veered more towards the sweet than to the bitter. The end of the movement, however, was very slow and downbeat in mood, which seemed to be more Salonen’s doing. The Andante fared best of the three movements. It sounded fastish for such a tempo marking but it flowed nicely. Here, the detail of Repin’s line was very special; every note sounded deeply considered both in itself and in relation to the others. He evinced a rapt lyricism wholly in tune with Prokofiev’s score. The Philharmonia’s woodwind sounded simply ravishing. And yet, there was a strange parallel with the end of the first movement: the final statement of the principal theme was taken very slowly and Salonen let it slow down further, until it pretty much ground to a halt. After this, the speed of the final Presto in moto perpetuo announced a sudden mood change. Again, there was much finely-etched orchestral detail, especially from the woodwind, although the castanets sounded disappointingly lacklustre. Repin could really sound the virtuoso here – and he did. However, there were times when the music came dangerously close to veering out of control, although it never quite fell apart. I wonder how much joint rehearsal time the violinist and orchestra had been permitted.

Salonen clearly knows his Œdipus Rex, having recorded the work with Swedish forces for Sony and presenting a fine performance here. The last two times I had heard Œdipus Rex were both performances under Valery Gergiev, one with his Mariinsky forces and one with the London Symphony Orchestra. Gergiev unsurprisingly presents a far more ‘Russian’ conception of the work, sometimes breathtakingly so. If I might prefer that, I have to admit that Salonen’s greater emphasis on the neo-classical probably stands closer to the heart – or lack of it – of Stravinsky’s opera-oratorio. The choruses framing the work packed quite a punch indeed, both from the orchestra – which sounded superb throughout – and from the Philharmonia Voices. Indeed, the choral contribution was always excellent, although a larger chorus would ultimately have been beneficial. That control of rhythm on which I remarked in the Bartók was just as evident here, with equally fine results. One could never escape the ominous, properly fatal ostinati, just as Œdipus cannot escape the snare of Fate. There sounded – disconcertingly – some of the emptiness Schoenberg heard in the work but that is no criticism of the performance, nor even – at least in my case – of the work itself. I might have liked it less but I cannot deny that it serves its dramatic purpose magnificently. (I would certainly deny Schoenberg’s claim that it is ‘all negative: unusual theatre, unusual resolution of the action, unusual vocal writing, ... [etc.] without being anything in particular.') Simon Russell Beale was everything one could have asked for as the Speaker. This may be a profoundly, unsettlingly, artificial work, but that need not mean we should endure over-the-top ac-tor-li-ness in it. He sounded as ‘natural’ as one could envisage, to the work’s great benefit. Stephen Gould was not a great Œdipus. He seemed incapable of presenting a modulated account of his line or even his part. Much was shouted although he showed himself perfectly capable of reining in his voice on occasion. It did not help that he looked as though he might have been the father of Ekaterina Gubanova’s Jocasta rather than her son. I liked her very ‘Russian’ portrayal, wide vibrato and all, although I can imagine that some might have thought it jarred a little with the rest of the performance. Kyle Ketelsen, fresh from his triumphant Leporello for the Royal Opera, proved every bit as adept – and therefore displayed considerable versatility – as Creon and the Messenger. His cries ‘Divum Jocastæ caput mortuum’ (‘The divine Jocasta is dead!’) were spine-tingling, as was their interaction with the Chorus. Andrew Kennedy sounded most odd – almost as if he were attempting an impression of Peter Pears – when he appeared as the Shepherd, although he was greatly improved in his duet with the Messenger. So if the vocal contribution, at least considered as a whole, was not at the level of the orchestral or of Salonen’s direction, this remained a considerable account of Œdipus Rex.

Sunday 21 September 2008

Bartók Day - The six string quartets: Belcea Quartet, 21 September 2008

Wigmore Hall

Corina Belcea-Fisher (violin)
Laura Samuel (violin)
Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola)
Antoine Lederlin (violoncello)

The Belcea Quartet’s survey of Bartók’s six canonical string quartets took the form of three concerts held throughout the day. Formerly the Wigmore Hall’s quartet-in-residence (2001-6) and with a recently released recording of the Bartók quartets to its name, the Belcea was an obvious choice for this duty and privilege. It did not disappoint.

In the first quartet (1908-9), we hear the emergence of Bartók’s individual style. One would probably guess that any given section was by the composer, but by the end one could be in no doubt. The Belcea Quartet’s reading therefore assumed an exploratory tone and set the scene for the ensuing performances: sounding both as one and as four. The work’s opening motif received an aptly lachrymose presentation, the music being developed with a sense of opening out. A passionate intensity marked the first movement’s middle section, inevitably making one recall Bartók’s unfortunate liaison with Stefi Geyer. The open-endedness of that movement was finely captured. In the Allegretto, we heard a rhythmic drive that never sounded merely brash; nor did it occlude Bartók’s characteristic melodic profusion. I felt that were odd moments early on in the finale when the players became a little too relaxed, but this was soon compensated for with truly energetic passion, not least upon the advent of its soaring Transylvanian theme. Thereafter no one could look back: Bartók’s voice had asserted itself once and for all. The second quartet (1915-17) received a reading that rightly emphasised its ongoing developmental qualities. Recapitulations were not merely different in their notes – they could hardly fail to be, given what Bartók had written – but they truly sounded different: possible only at the time of hearing, dependent upon what had come before. That to the first movement evinced a real sense of terror when we heard the four instruments in unison, swiftly followed by consolation. The final ’cello notes were duly haunting. What we might call Bartók’s ‘composed Arabism’ was very much to the fore in the following movement. This was never mere local colour but musical invention. There was a dreamy, Bergian middle section, which, splendid in its inevitability, paved the way for seamlessly handled, almost Carter-like metrical modulation. The frozen landscape of the closing Lento was captured perfectly: this was not to be thawed, but to remain desolate, although no less beautiful for that.

The opening bar of the third quartet (1927) announced a new world, unmistakeably Bartókian, yet closer to some – though by no means all – of the qualities of the Second Viennese School. In Adorno’s words, ‘What is decisive is the formative power of the work; the iron concentration, the wholly original tectonics.’ Webern came to mind in the shards of the Prima parte, whilst Schoenbergian ‘developing variation’ was heard on a broader temporal plane in this structurally impregnable account. Bartók’s tougher, more compressed style was never softened, enabling his violent lyricism to sing all the more freely. The pizzicato opening of the Seconda parte was superbly presented by ’cellist Antoine Lederlin; above all, it sounded so utterly melodious. Indeed, it was remarkable how Bartók’s melodies grew out of, rather than stood opposed to, the obstinacy of his rhythmic repetition. It was a hallmark of this performance and of that of the fourth quartet (1928), that any instrumental ‘effects’, for instance the passages played sul ponticello, were impeccably musical, sounding fully integrated into the composition. In lesser performances, they can sound too much in their own right, but not here. The fourth quartet likewise received a highly developmental reading. It may be composed on a larger scale than its predecessor, but this does not imply any loosening of construction. Its arch-form was rendered not only crystal clear but also powerfully inevitable. The intensity of the first movement’s coda was quite overwhelming, all the more so for being followed by the strange, muted whisperings of the second. In the slow movement that lies at the heart of the work, the folklike principal ’cello theme was impeccably ‘accompanied’ by the other player’s chords, leading us inevitably into the spellbinding world of Bartókian night music. It would be difficult to find any fault with the all-pizzicato fourth movement, whilst the powerfully projected Bulgarian rhythms of the finale never masked the strong thematic connections with the rest of the quartet.

And so to the evening concert, for the final two quartets. The Adornian ‘iron concentration’ of the fifth quartet (1934) is every bit as great as that of the third and fourth, but the Belcea Quartet managed to capture in tandem with this its more conciliatory features too, not least the persistence of its centring upon B-flat. Bach came to the fore in the flawless projection of the work’s mirror formation, but the reflections within that mirror ensured that this was no easy symmetry. The brazen fortissimo of the first movement’s central section pounded itself not only into one’s consciousness but also into the imagination. Night music was once again idiomatically captured at the heart of the following Adagio molto; the mystery and danger of the insect-like pizzicatos registered powerfully – and meaningfully. And in the fifth movement, the amusement of the banal hurdy-gurdy tune (con indifferenza) was apparent, without being made to stand out like a sore thumb. It is, after all, an inverted, diatonic relative of the movement’s opening theme. If Bach stands behind much of the fifth quartet, then Beethoven acquires the relative advantage in the sixth (1939). The transformative reappearances of the mesto introductory material to the first three movements were truly fulfilled in the entirely mesto finale, providing a culmination that not only evoked the celestial ecstasy of late Beethoven but also brought Mahler to mind. He had actually been there from the opening viola solo, performed with tender intimacy by Krzysztof Chorzelski and was apparent once again in the savagery of the Burletta. The destination was inevitable but this far from negated the horrors one might have to experience during the journey. And the final ’cello pizzicato statement of the mesto theme provided a wholly appropriate sense both of culmination and of open-endedness. These great works are inexhaustible, yet their depths were truly plumbed in the Belcea’s fine performances.

Friday 19 September 2008

Cédric Tiberghien - Brahms and Bartók, 18 September 2008

Wigmore Hall

Brahms – Eight Piano Pieces, op.76
Bartók – Out of Doors, BB 89
Bartók – Three Hungarian Folksongs from Csík, BB 45b
Bartók – Mikrokosmos, BB 105, Book VI: Six Dances in Bulgarian rhythm
Bartók – Six Rumanian Folk Dances, BB 68
Brahms – Ten Hungarian Dances, WoO 1

Cédric Tiberghien (piano)

This was a fascinating programme, conceived both as a prelude to the Wigmore Hall’s ‘Bartók Day’ (20 September) and an examination of the differing approaches to ‘folk music’ by Brahms and Bartók. I use inverted commas, since Brahms’s material was based upon gypsy music and often ‘composed’ rather than traditional, although Brahms was largely unaware of this. Bartók on the other hand experienced an epiphany in 1904, hearing a Transylvanian folksong sung by a nurse-maid. What he and many others – including Brahms – had previously thought to be Hungarian folk music was indeed nothing of the kind. Bartók would devote a considerable part of his subsequent career to study of the ‘real thing’, however problematic that idea might be.

Brahms’s Op.76 pieces stand somewhat obliquely to this theme. There are some gypsy rhythms, for instance during the Capriccio in B minor, but for the most part it is better simply to consider this group as a valid introductory set in its own right. (And in retrospect, some pre-emptive respite from folksong, composed or traditional, was maybe not unwelcome.) Cédric Tiberghien proved himself a veritable lion of the keyboard, presenting a Brahms of high Romanticism rather than a progenitor of the Second Viennese School. This is to some extent a false opposition, since an interpretation can perfectly well encompass both of these views and indeed others, and there was certainly a strong sense of motivic development, heightened by telling cross rhythms, in the opening, F sharp minor Capriccio. That said, the general thrust stood closer to Chopin – this is not, after all, late Brahms – and even at times to Liszt, in spite of Brahms’s distaste for that composer. The first piece announced an echt-Brahmsian sonority and sentiment, married to superbly natural flexible tempi, a characteristic that persisted throughout the set, even when, as in the final, C major Capriccio, I wondered whether the Romanticism was a little overdone and we veered dangerously close not only to Chopin but even to Rachmaninov. I mean this purely in terms of sonority, for there was nothing flashy about Tiberghien’s performance; it was simply abundant in passion. Virtuosity was readily deployed, for instance in the C sharp minor Capriccio, but always at the service of the music. Helpful in this respect was a strong underlying rhythmic impulse, apparent throughout. So was a great skill for voicing, without ever tending towards sub-Horowitz narcissism. I was very much taken with the B flat major Intermezzo, in which Tiberghien captured perfectly its unassuming though far from inconsequential nature. It was only really in the sixth piece, the A major Intermezzo, that a refreshingly Schumannesque – Liszt might have said ‘Leipzigerisch’ – inheritance shone though, not least in its quizzical opening and thereafter in the involved thematic development, though once again the performance remained outwardly impassioned too.

Bartók’s Out of doors suite rounded off the first half. I may only have had incidental reservations concerning the Brahms but here I had none whatsoever. From the opening bars of With drums and pipes, with their stomping percussive chords, this was utterly characteristic Bartók – from both composer and pianist. The Barcarolla was splendidly insistent and again utterly attuned to the composer’s sound world. That insistence carried through into Musettes, accompanied by a pianist’s sonorous delight in Bartók’s drones. In The night’s music – a title so prophetic for much later Bartók – one could almost see the insects of the night, so vividly did Tiberghien portray them. Yet his reading was certainly not merely colouristic; there was always clear direction, married to razor-sharp rhythmic definition. It made me want to hear Tiberghien’s Debussy. In The chase we were treated to a climactic, almost Lisztian abandon: Mazeppa or Mephisto, or perhaps both. Tiberghien unleashed breathtaking virtuosity, which enabled great textural clarity without ever sounding clinical. It is no exaggeration to say that he reminded me here of Maurizio Pollini.

After the interval, the opening group of three short sets displayed three different varieties of Bartók’s inspiration and composition: straightforward setting of folksong material, compositional inspiration from folksong rhythm – in this case of the Bulgarian ‘additive’ variety – and elaboration of existing material. In the short Three Hungarian folk songs from Csík, Tiberghien resisted any temptation to over-play these simple folksong settings. There was here a strong, direct simplicity, married to an exquisite touch. The melancholy of the first and second songs shone through but they were never sentimentalised. These songs were simply and rightly presented rather than ‘interpreted’. The Six Dances in Bulgarian Rhythm from Mikrokosmos, that astonishing set of teaching material – yet think of Bach, as Bartók so often did – were by contrast most definitely ‘composed’ and therefore ‘performed’. Tiberghien nevertheless never overdid the ‘interpretation’; his achievement was such that this once again sounded simply as Bartók. He employed a telling yet natural rubato allied to tight rhythmic command: alive to the twists and turns of Bartók’s dances but never ‘quirky’ for the sake of it. Quickfire repeated notes gave ample and apposite opportunity to utilise rather than merely to display his virtuosity. The ever-popular – in various guises – Six Rumanian Folk Dances were infectiously strident where necessary but were equally characterised by a wonderful delicacy. ‘Eastern’ sounds were full of promise and not without a hint or two of danger. Repetition was exciting rather then tedious, as can sometimes be the case with inherently anti-developmental folksong. But it was above all the melancholy lyricism that will linger for me.

From the outset of the solo version of the Ten Hungarian Dances, it was clear that we had returned to Brahms: the highly Romantic Brahms we had earlier, but nevertheless still Brahms. The German composer’s darkness and charm were equally present. And the difference between Bartók’s Hungarian material and Brahms’s gypsy music was clear. Impassioned nostalgia might be a good way to characterise the openings of the second and fourth dances. In the latter we heard the cimbalom as clearly as we had heard the insects of the night in Out of doors. The syncopations of the third dance were projected with great dramatic flair. If there were occasional hints of rhythmic hardening, as in the fourth, and of matter-of factness, as in the fifth, these should not be exaggerated; they were probably only noticeable because the Bartók performances had been so utterly remarkable. And Tiberghien elsewhere, for instance in the seventh dance, showed that he was quite able to adopt a characteristic gypsy freedom of tempo. The Brahms works, then, were very good, but Tiberghien’s Bartók was quite outstanding, indeed faultless. And yet he surpassed himself in terms of Brahms by providing as an encore a haunting E major waltz (no.2) from the Op.39 set. We were left wanting more – which is just as it should be.

Saturday 13 September 2008

Don Giovanni, Royal Opera, 12 September 2008

Royal Opera House

Don Giovanni – Simon Keenlyside
Donna Anna – Marina Poplavskaya
Don Ottavio – Ramón Vargas
Donna Elvira – Joyce DiDonato
Leporello – Kyle Ketelsen
Masetto – Robert Gleadow
Zerlina – Miah Persson
Commendatore – Eric Halfvarson

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
The Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)

Francesca Zambello (director)
Duncan Macfarland (associate director and revival choreographer)
Maria Björnson (designs)
Paul Pyant (lighting)
Stephen Mear (choreography)

I have until now remained steadfastly sceptical, or downright hostile, concerning Sir Charles Mackerras in Mozart. His widely-praised Figaro earlier this year had seemed to me mercilessly hard-driven and often far too fast for the singers to be able to project the words, let alone the music. In a sense, it had mirrored David McVicar’s irritating, manic production, but this had seemed more coincidence than shared (seriously flawed) approach. I retain my incomprehension at why one would employ natural brass instruments; their rasping sound, especially during the Overture, adds nothing but coarseness. And there were occasions when I worried about speeds. To stick with the Overture – and its counterpart in the Stone Guest Scene – one can play alla breve without robbing the music of its cataclysmic grandeur. Here it sounded more like the opening of Mozart’s D minor piano concerto than the voice of something eternal and unworldly: not an uninteresting link to make but nevertheless robbing the music of its astounding proto-Romanticism. Where would Romanticism, let alone Romantic music, be without Don Giovanni? There is no wonder that E.T.A. Hoffmann delivered a panegyric to this ‘opera of all operas’. However, there was much to admire elsewhere. Whereas the strings had often sounded wiry and under-nourished in Figaro, that was not the case here; nor did they stint unduly on vibrato. I should have preferred greater orchestral weight, as Daniel Barenboim had provided in a miraculous Berlin performance last December, but at least lightness was not now confused with inconsequentiality. Tempi were mostly sensible – and varied. There was even at times, if not so often as I might have liked, a graceful yielding I should have considered inconceivable from prior experience. Perhaps above all there was a dramatic drive, an attentiveness to the drama, which I had previously found to be confused with a headlong rush to the finishing line.

However, I was a little disappointed that we heard the ‘traditional’ composite version of the work. I am no purist when it comes to such matters and appreciate that many singers will relish, perhaps even insist upon, their additional arias. There may even be occasions when the production facilitates use of this version (thankfully without the dreadful, rarely-heard duet between Zerlina and Leporello), although not here. The Prague version, however, almost always maintains a dramatic superiority over that for Vienna or any composite. Additional arias, however heart-rendingly beautiful, undeniably hold up the action. To use the composite version also seems to me to sit a little uneasily with any claims to ‘authenticity’ – although I suppose the accusation might well be turned round upon me, to say that preference for Prague might sit uneasily with reverence for tradition.

There remain many conductors from the past and a few from the present whom I should prefer to hear in Mozart, ranging from Furtwängler, Klemperer, Böhm, and Giulini, to Barenboim, Colin Davis, and Riccardo Muti. (These are examples, not an exhaustive list.) Yet I shall now be interested rather than reluctant to hear Mackerras again. He was of course helped by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. It might not have sounded as it had for Così fan tutte under Davis – never have I heard a better Mozart performance, although it was betrayed by a crass production – but there was some fine playing, not least from the woodwind. I may disagree with Mackerras, as I often do with Nikolaus Harnoncourt; that should not entail automatic disregard. Contrast this with the cynical, marketing-led exhibitionism of, say, a René Jacobs or a Roger Norrington: ‘The wisdom of tradition is naught. Let us strike up a brazenly ugly noise; let us rid the music of any meaning, let alone beauty, and show the world or at least the gullible how it must be done. In other words, let us create a provocation.’ The distinction between musical intelligence and charlatanry is clear.

There was certainly no charlatanry when it came to the singers. Simon Keenlyside offered a scrupulously musical and sometimes seductive Giovanni. I suspect that I might have been more enthusiastic, had I not experienced Erwin Schrott’s assumption of the role in the same production a little over a year ago. I am not convinced that Keenlyside is so at home with the demonic and Faustian as with the various guises of touching naïveté required in such varied roles as Pelléas, Papageno, or Billy Budd, yet there was nothing really to complain of here. Kyle Ketelsen was at least as good as he was last year, if anything better. Those – and I have heard them – who claim that Leporello is but a stock buffo character should have heard and seen him, to appreciate how the genius of Mozart’s music transforms an ordinary servant into a human being. There was once again a more or less perfect balance between comedy, charisma, and class struggle. His shaping of the musical lines was as impressive as Keenlyside’s. Marina Poplavskaya was certainly vastly improved upon last year, when I had heard her step in at the last minute for the second act. Her tuning on this occasion was secure, but I still missed a sense of style. I can imagine her in Verdi roles, or as Tatyana, but here the line is too full of steel and somewhat lacking in grace. Joyce DiDonato presented quite a revisionist Elvira. There was none of the usual eroticism, such as we heard last year from Ana María Martínez. Yet in its place there was a striking transformation from a wronged yet determined woman, with none of the essentialist hysterical caricature that often characterises the role, to someone who really is driven mad by her experience. I suspect that DiDonato’s experience in Baroque opera informed this portrayal, as it did her flawless coloratura, even in a swift ‘Mi tradi’ that pushed towards the bounds of the acceptable in tempo. Ramón Vargas was a more Latin-sounding Ottavio than I am used to, but there is nothing wrong with that. He sang with great musicality, quickly recovering from a slight difficulty in a treacherous passage from ‘Il mio tesoro’. Robert Gleadow proved a fine Masetto, never sacrificing musical line for peasant gruffness, yet touching in the artful simplicity of his portrayal. As Zerlina, Miah Persson was quite outstanding: maintaining throughout a beautiful, sensitively spun line and supplying plenty of the eroticism lacking from Elvira. Only Eric Halfvarson was disappointing as a lightweight Commendatore.

That leaves the production. It has not improved with age. To stress the Christianity and indeed the Catholicism of the work and its predecessors is an excellent idea, which one might have expected to have represented some sort of norm, though alas not. Yet nothing is really done with this crucial background; instead, we have once again a backdrop of religious tat and that is just about it. Lavish and somewhat garish designs add to the feel of an upmarket musical, almost as much as in Francesca Zambello’s Carmen, also for the Royal Opera. If this is what attracts customers – judging by the Philistine applause following the stage pyrotechnics of Giovanni’s descent into Hell, I fear that it might – then let them stay at home. As for the confusion regarding the lack of a statue – to which Leporello nevertheless sings – and the appearance of a large, pointing, National Lottery finger, I despair. Producing Don Giovanni is an extremely difficult task, almost as difficult as performing it. The downright vulgarity of ‘bread and circuses’ is not an answer. Still, the music was the thing – and it was very good.

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Prom 71: CSO/Haitink, 8 September 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Turnage – Chicago Remains (European premiere)
Mahler – Symphony no.6 in A minor

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

The warmth of applause for Bernard Haitink as he walked towards the podium testified once again to the affection and gratitude London and this country more generally will always feel for the saviour of the Royal Opera. This, however, is the first time that we have had the opportunity to hear Haitink as Principal Conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. What was immediately striking – and continued to be so throughout – was the extent to which Haitink has continued Daniel Barenboim’s work in ridding this great orchestra of the excessive brashness that could sometimes disfigure its performances under Sir Georg Solti (and beyond him, Fritz Reiner). At the same time, however, a little more bite might not have gone amiss in the otherwise excellent performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

First on the menu was the European premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Chicago Remains. Following hot on the heels of a fine performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, I was inevitably reminded of the earlier work by the opening percussion figures, although difference announced itself too: the mechanical sounds of the city rather than pantheistic ecstasy. The suggestion of a train whistle brought to mind Chicago’s Union Station. Indeed, I fancied that the entire progress of the quarter-hour work suggested a train journey, with as much emphasis upon the journey as upon the train, thereby distinguishing it from a work such as Honegger’s Pacific 231. The gleaming Chicago skyline was almost audibly visible too, and so was a seamier side to city life, jazz being suggested through instrumentation and turns of phrase rather than compositional method, which was undoubtedly more substantial. Few composers would neglect the opportunity to allow this orchestra’s fabled brass section to shine; Turnage did not. Following some more brutalistic moments, characterised by trumpet fanfares and great chordal slabs of orchestral sound, the final section of the work proved touchingly elegiac, not least in a superbly-taken oboe solo melody. Haitink is not most noted for commitment to contemporary music, although a glance at his Concertgebouw programmes belies any suggestion of undue conservatism; recordings can often deceive. At any rate, it is difficult to imagine that Turnage could have hoped for better advocacy than he received here, either from the orchestra or from the conductor, who had also premiered his song-cycle Some Days at the 1991 Proms.

The first movement of the Mahler began at quite a brisk pace, relentless even, which is not inappropriate. Once again, I do not think the Royal Albert Hall helped, since there were some odd balances from my seat, in spite of Haitink’s general care with blending. Whilst the orchestra played superbly, it lacked that last ounce of ‘character’ of some ensembles, at least at their best. One of Haitink’s strengths was illustrated by his willingness to let the development take its time, to linger even in some passages. This seems to be a more pronounced characteristic of his present view of this work than earlier recordings would suggest. Whilst there was not a radical reinterpretation of this movement, it was not so ‘tragic’ as it can often sound.

In the Scherzo, placed second, the opening properly shadowed the opening of the first movement. This underlined the rightness of Haitink’s decision concerning movement order: musical considerations came first. The woodwind’s skeletal shiver was well-nigh perfect and the horns in concert sounded marvellous. There was great rhythmic strength but also a duly ‘Classical’ – if not in the authenticists’ sense – yielding for the trio sections. Moreover, and perhaps slightly to my surprise, Haitink did not shrink from bringing out the modernistic strangeness of the orchestration. Each section was clearly characterised, with sometimes daring contrasts of tempo, and if I occasionally wondered whether this was slightly to the detriment of the whole, my doubts were confounded, since it ultimately ‘worked’. This movement marked, I think, the true highpoint of the performance.

The opening of the third movement was somewhat neutral – and rightly so. It needs plenty of space to be built upon, and even then, not too much. There is – and was in this performance – no contradiction between the salon-ish quality of the theme and the wealth of musical riches that Schoenberg discovered in his celebrated analysis of the movement. Haitink traced the contours of the principal theme’s progress as lovingly as Schoenberg had. A beautiful horn solo pointed the way forward to the Nachtmusik of the Seventh Symphony. Yet there remained a nagging doubt that the movement was just a little underplayed, a little too placid, although this is certainly preferable to erring in the opposite direction. (Remember ‘Gergiev’s Mahler’?) The great climax was, however, all the more powerful for its lack of exaggeration. Indeed, its non-neurotic quality was positively Brucknerian, perhaps not surprisingly given Haitink’s greatness as a Bruckner conductor. The end of the movement found a wonderful peace, physically and metaphysically, subsiding into a blissful nothingness.

With the opening of the finale, it seemed that unalloyed tragedy had finally come upon us. (Should it have been there from the outset? I cannot deny that that would have been a preferable course to me, but there are alternative paths.) Yet the movement as a whole still exhibited at times a ‘Classical’ restraint, although terror certainly raised its head with the cataclysmic hammer-blows. The contrapuntal music was as well handled as I have ever heard, exhibiting both clarity and tonal weight, in a fashion that reminded me of the final movement of the Fifth Symphony. Haitink was clearly alert to links, thematic and otherwise, between the three Rückert symphonies. The brass sounded predictably yet nevertheless wonderfully Fafner-like at the end and there was true desolation as we achieved nihilistic closure. My only real reservation was that, in the final analysis – and this probably goes for the performance as a whole – the performance did not quite sound as though it had been conceived in one long span, Haitink’s long experience in the symphonic repertoire notwithstanding. It is unfortunate that I still had Pierre Boulez’s Berlin performance from last year resounding in my memory. Not only had Boulez’s reading exhibited that Furtwänglerian quality of Fernhören – even in non-Furtwänglerian repertoire – but it had truly sounded a fitting performance for Holy Saturday, as Christ lay in the bonds of Hell. Despite Boulez’s reputation, it was Haitink’s performance that ultimately sounded more ‘observed’ and ‘detached’.

Monday 8 September 2008

Prom 70: Saint François d'Assise, 7 September 2008, Netherlands Opera/Metzmacher

Royal Albert Hall

St Francis – Rod Gilfry
Angel – Heidi Grant Murphy
Leper – Hubert Delamboye
Brother Leo – Henk Neven
Brother Masseo – Charles Workman
Brother Elias – Donald Kaasch
Brother Bernard – Armand Arapian
Brother Sylvester – Jan Willem Balijet
Brother Rufus – André Morsch

The Netherlands Opera

Chorus of the Netherlands Opera (chorus master: Martin Wright)
The Hague Philharmonic Orchestra
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor)

Even a concert performance of Messiaen’s St François d’Assise could hardly fail to be an event. As a centrepiece of the Proms centenary celebrations, this Netherlands Opera performance, more or less shorn of its Amsterdam production, was certainly a memorable occasion. It was disappointing that the audience was so small; in my naïveté, I had assumed that the rarity value alone would have guaranteed a large house, perhaps even a sell-out. The performance nevertheless received rapturous acclaim from true believers at the end of its well-nigh six hours (inclusive of two intervals).

There were many things to praise in this performance. The Hague Philharmonic Orchestra played very well, with especially valued contributions from its woodwind and percussion sections. The opening material, which returns throughout the opera, from awesomely synchronised tuned percussion was arresting, transfixing even, likewise the punchy wind ritornello that runs in parallel throughout the first scene. Messiaen’s huge woodwind – including seven (!) clarinets – and percussion sections – ten players in total – were throughout given their full head, nowhere more so than in the numerous auditions of the Gerygone (piccolos, xylophone, and glockenspiel). The unusual seating, with strings on the left of the conductor and wind to the right underlined visually and audibly the sectional writing. Percussion ran along the back of the stage, whilst the three ondes martenot were positioned one immediately in front of the conductor, with the other two in boxes on either side of the hall, again providing a fine sense of spatial awareness. One case in which this truly paid dividends was in the bizarre scoring for low ondes, double basses and contrabassoon during Lauds. Nor should one forget the strings. The sequence of exultation and ravishing, transformative orchestral beauty (strings and ondes) upon the healing of the Leper was unforgettable, as was the Angel’s musical performance (strings and ondes again): ethereal, divine music. The brass section really came into its own shortly afterwards and for the final scene, depicting St Francis’s death. Here was true majesty.

The ritual basis of the work came across very clearly, never more so than in the opening exchanges between St Francis and Brother Leo, which put me in mind of those between Mime and the Wanderer in Siegfried. On the other hand, there were passages in which the music and drama – such as it is – dragged, most of all in the latter half of the long second act. Whilst Ingo Metzmacher’s direction was for the most part impressive, the length of this act and the preponderance – at least after the rejuvenated fourth scene depicting the Journeying Angel – of contemplative music prepares a trap of somnolence that is very difficult to avoid. Rhythms, especially when it came to birdsong, were commendably tight. However, I did not feel that the score had always been quite so internalised as on, say, Kent Nagano’s superlative live recording from Salzburg. I also felt that Metzmacher might have wrung more sweetness, even sickliness out of the strings, on certain occasions. (Simon Rattle’s Turangalîla still echoed in my mind.) Metzmacher and the other performers were not, of course, helped by the lack of staging. This is no fault of the Proms, but sometimes I missed what might have come from a fully staged performance. In many senses, Messiaen’s work is an oratorio of distinct scenes or frescoes rather than an opera as conventionally or even unconventially understood, yet it nevertheless appears to cry out for staging. We should be grateful to the Proms for its contribution, whilst petitioning our opera companies – above all, the Royal Opera – to carry out their duty.

The solo singing was good, although there was a lack of any truly charismatic ‘star’ performance, which might have elevated the dramatic experience onto another level. In the title role, Rod Gilfry’s performance was of a generally high standard, although he lost the competitive edge with the orchestra on a few occasions. He acted as much as he could, making me want to see him in a full production, in which what seemed to be an impressively detailed characterisation might shine more fully. One could forgive his tiring towards the end of the second act and in parts of the third, but at the same time one could not help but notice it. Messiaen said that he wanted the soprano Angel’s voice to ‘be almost as pure as Pamina’s in The Magic Flute’. Heidi Grant Murphy achieved this to some extent, yet there were times when her voice became quite tremulous. The principal problem with her performance was the diction. I was extremely grateful for the text and translation in the programme, since the proportion of words that were comprehensible was often small indeed. Hubert Delamboye presented a vividly characterised Leper, with notably more idiomatic French than some other members of the cast. Whilst Hank Leven’s Brother Leo was eminently credible in dramatic terms – even without any staging to speak of – his repeated statements of ‘J’ai peur’ suffered from surprisingly strange vowel sounds. His sweet yet vulnerable tenor otherwise seemed just right for the role. Although it is a relatively small role, I was probably most impressed by Charles Workman’s Brother Masseo, which in its combination of thoughtfulness, musicality, and palpable practical piety – if you will forgive the excessive alliteration – seemed to me in every respect beyond reproach.

Overall, it was the third act that left the most powerful impression, not least through the outstanding choral contribution. In a 1992 interview with Jean-Christophe Marti, Messiaen remarked: ‘The stigmata represent the supreme mark if divinity on man, and this mark is painful.’ The composer was certainly convinced of the literal truth in this respect concerning St Francis, and indeed others, pointing to ‘a volume of eyewitness accounts, Considerations on the Stigmata, [which] leaves us in no doubt as to the veracity of the facts concerning Saint Francis’. The burning quality – in more than one sense – of Messiaen’s conviction is unmistakeable in the seventh scene and was unmistakeable in the performance. The chorus truly came into its own, here speaking as Christ: ‘C’est Moi, c’est Moi, c’est Moi, je suis l’Alpha et l’Oméga.’ In one sense, one might think of the opening Burning Bush scene from Moses und Aron. However, the apocalyptic nature of Messiaen’s vision is powerfully conveyed not through contrapuntal means but through solid blocks of homophony. The ecstasy of the chorus at the scene’s close was so strong that the lack of staging was now totally forgotten. In the following scene, the final chorus of the work brimmed with apocalyptic fervour and brought the performance to an overwhelming conclusion.

St François should perhaps be understood a synthetic work, like Busoni’s Doktor Faust, although I am not sure that Messiaen’s opera, despite its confessional advantage, has quite the Aquinas-like sense of summation of Busoni’s, its unfinished state notwithstanding. There is something compendious to St François. As Messiaen himself observed, ‘it contains virtually all the bird calls that I’ve noted down in the course of my life, all the colours of my chords, all my harmonic procedures.’ And yet, there are sections in which variety does appear to be lacking. Messiaen’s assemblage, his trademark juxtaposition in place of development, does not achieve uniformly favourable results, especially when confronted with so vast a time-span. Eternity, so often the composer’s concern, is not at all the same thing as a long time; indeed, if it can be dealt with or even hinted at at all, it is often better treated in the twinkling of an eye. Comparisons with Wagner seem to me quite to miss the point, serving only to draw attention to the lack of plasticity in much of Messiaen’s material and a less than infallible dramatic sense. As I mentioned above, the lack of staging was something of a problem in this respect, although one should doubtless not exaggerate. At its best, however, St François d’Assise stands as a monument to the belief, imagination, and accomplishment of one of the great composers of the twentieth century. It also reminds us that he stood both close to and yet distinct from many of that century’s most central compositional concerns. This distance could sometimes be a weakness yet could equally be a strength; it undoubtedly testifies to the astonishing singularity of Olivier Messiaen and his music.

Tuesday 2 September 2008

Prom 64: BPO/Rattle - Wagner and Messiaen, 2 September 2008

Royal Albert Hall

Wagner – Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I and ‘Liebestod’
Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphonie

Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)
Tristan Murail (ondes martenot)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

The myth of Tristan and Isolde was an important inspiration for Messiaen’s Turangalîla symphony. More importantly, Wagner’s music was substantial enough – perhaps something of an understatement – to provide a first part to this concert in itself, without exhausting players or audience. Indeed, it left me wanting to hear more of Tristan und Isolde from Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Whilst I have never quite been able to eradicate my doubts concerning the ‘rightness’ – as much tonal as dramatic – of performing the Prelude to Act I followed by the so-called ‘Liebestod’, this performance was as fine as I have heard in separation from the rest of Wagner’s drama. The opening ’cello A was at least as beautifully soft as I have heard – in any performance, complete or otherwise – thereby allowing the ensuing phrase to swell to perfection, and with not only a ravishing but a deeply expressive vibrato, thus setting the pattern for the following sequences. This music was taken marvellously slowly too, whilst at the same time always moving forward. The oboe solo was just as beautiful, once again with perfectly judged vibrato. Rattle’s reading was seamless yet far from uneventful, reminiscent indeed of Karajan. Wave upon wave built up, gathering pace each time until the superbly judged climax. The transition to the ‘Liebestod’ was not helped by a barrage of coughs but was as good as one could hope for, given the inherent tonal difficulty in connection the two excerpts. This was very much – and rightly so – a Verklärung (Wagner’s own term, meaning ‘transfiguration’) for Isolde rather than a Liebestod (‘love-death’). Wagner and therefore we owed Liszt an almost incalculable debt, both literally and figuratively, yet we have him to blame for this misnomer, which has caused no end of confusion ever since. No matter: Rattle conveyed joy, release, even optimism – Lohengrin is Wagner’s only real tragedy – in a performance that pulsated with life. Rattle was punctilious in revealing details of scoring, resulting in a refreshingly Boulezian account, alive – and with especial aptness in the context of this particular programme – to the music’s legacy for French as well as German music. A daring ritardando at the close paid off handsomely.

After the interval, there followed a fine performance of the Turangalîla symphony, which went deeper than many contemporary, ‘showpiece’ renditions. Rhythms were tight and implacable where necessary, whilst the music extended and luxuriated when that was called for. From the first movement, the ‘Introduction’, there was a commendable clarity, even when different themes were superimposed upon one another. The trombone ‘statue’ them, here and elsewhere, sounded appropriately Mussorgskian; indeed, I do not recall ever hearing it so much revealing this heritage. There were also some splendidly piercing sounds, ratcheting the decibel count to a level that – whisper it! – would doubtless have concerned European Union snoopers. In the first ‘Chant d’amour’, the contrast Rattle drew between the opening two themes, the trumpets’ triumphant shout and the almost sickly sweet response from the strings and the excellent Tristan Murail on ondes martenot, was clear, yet I wondered whether it might have been still more sharply drawn. This was more or less my only cavil concerning the performance, however, and it might well be objected that the two themes in any case need to come together to form the symphony’s composite love-theme. There was an air of mystery from the very outset of the first ‘Turangalîla’ movement. It was not quite clear what the question, let alone the answer, might be – which is just as it should be, and all the more Tristan-esque. I can sympathise with Boulez’s practice during a 1973 Prom, of performing only the three ‘Turangalîla’ movements, yet ultimately that would be far too high a price to pay for fastidious taste. Messiaen explained the ‘lîla’ part of his title as denoting ‘play’ in Sanskrit: ‘play in the sense of the divine action upon the cosmos, the play of creation, of destruction, of reconstruction, the play of life and death.’ This sense of play was caught unerringly in the woodwind during the opening of the fourth movement, the second ‘Chant d’amour’. If the rest of the movement went on a bit, then that is not the fault of the performers. The piano cadenza was superlatively rendered by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, who played from memory throughout. And the final bars attained true serenity.

The ‘Joie du sang des étoiles’ sounded bizarrely and appositely of Hollywood. Ondes martenot, strings, and celesta were very much to the fore, with excellent contributions from the brass. Try as I might – and in all honesty, I did not try so very hard – I really could not resist. One could hardly censure Rattle for milking the climax; it cries out for this. It is hardly the place for Boulezian anti-rhetoric. (Or is it? We shall have to wait for a different performance to find out.) The tranquillity of muted strings and ondes martenot then provided a perfect setting against which the following movement’s piano and woodwind phrases could tell. Clarinet and flute were especially notable in this ‘Jardin du sommeil d’amour’. The languor of sleep – Messiaen spoke of lovers ‘outside time’ – was exquisitely captured. Here the length seems more justified and certainly more welcome than it had been in the fourth movement. The opening piano cadenza of the second ‘Turangalîla’ movement was once again dazzlingly rendered, as was the following passage for ondes martenot and trombones. The Berlin Philharmonic’s percussion section grasped the opportunity to shine here. As a whole, the movement’s strangeness was powerfully conveyed and its concision was most welcome.

One certainly could not accuse the following ‘Développement de l’amour’ of concision. Yet the combination of the work’s various themes was very well handled, each retaining its character whilst gaining something by the juxtaposition and new contexts. (I am not at all sure that there is any real ‘development’ here, but never mind.) The movement’s climax was duly exultant. For the third and final ‘Turangalîla’ movement, the orchestra’s woodwind soloists once again proved outstanding, helping to prepare an impressive sense of inevitability for the piano’s capture of their theme. Rattle again excelled in facilitating the combination of themes. The finale rejoiced in a fitting sense of ‘occasion’, a true culmination to a notable performance of this extraordinary work.