Saturday 31 January 2009

Salzburg Mozartwoche (2): VPO/Rattle - Haydn, Mahler, Debussy, and Mozart

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg

Haydn – Symphony no.88 in G major
Mahler – Rückert-Lieder
Debussy – Danse sacrée et danse profane
Mozart (completed Sir Charles Mackerras) – Recitative and aria: ‘Guinse alfin il momento – Non tardar, amato bene’, KV 492/28
Mozart – Symphony no.40 in G minor, KV 550

Magdalena Kožená (soprano)
Xavier de Maistre (harp)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Sir Simon Rattle has a longstanding affection for Haydn. This is the third time that I have heard him conduct Haydn’s eighty-eighth symphony, having done so once before with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and also last summer with the Berlin Philharmonic. Rattle has a tendency to micro-manage certain aspects of the work, which some may find irritating, but I do not mind too much, given that he also manages to project a sense of the whole. It helps, of course, to have the Vienna Philharmonic as one’s orchestra. I first heard this symphony in that orchestra’s recording with Karl Böhm, a recording I still treasure, but one would not expect Rattle to sound quite like that – and he does not. I am pleased to report that the orchestra still sounds recognisably itself. Smaller in size (strings, the orchestral sound might not have been so luxurious, but nor was it thin. Eminently cultivated it remained and with a variety of string articulation which, at the very least, rivals Rattle’s Berlin orchestra. The first movement set the scene for the rest of the symphony: full of life and with an infectious sense of fun. In the Largo, the Viennese oboe sounded almost as of old and the sheer grace of the violins’ filigree was remarkable. I very much liked the way that tonal contrasts – including dynamics, but not restricted thereto – mirrored the movement’s harmonic contours. The end of the movement seemed rather casual, almost throwaway, but otherwise this was a fine account. As is now fashionable, the minuet was taken one to a bar; unlike some minuets, this can take such treatment, even if I hanker after something more stately. It had swing and was always stylish. Rattle clarified the part-writing, allowing the all-important ’cello line to shine through, thereby propelling the harmonic momentum. The trio was wonderfully rustic, perhaps a little more ‘eastern’ in tone – and not at all inappropriately – than Rattle’s Aix performance with the BPO; the leader’s solo was straightforwardly excellent. We then heard a very quick finale. At first, I thought, ‘if you can, why not?’ but eventually found it a little fatiguing; was the very end just a little too much of a dash? Likewise, keen dynamic shading is often to be savoured, but sometimes it seemed on display here for its own sake. Despite my reservations concerning the final movement, this remained an impressive performance.

Then came Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. An announcement before the concert had signalled that Magdalena Kožená was unwell. This may explain her rather mixed fortunes in this performance; it is difficult to tell in such circumstances. My suspicion is that her voice may not be ideal for this music, intelligent musician though she undoubtedly is. Rattle seemed happy to follow her, whilst making a great deal, though never too much, of the orchestral part, for instance in the febrile opening to ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ It set the scene for a splendidly malevolent reading, seemingly presaging the music of the Second Viennese School, although that quality owed more to the orchestra than to the soloist. There were nice touches from both artists in collaboration, such as the slowing for the words, ‘Perlen klar,’ in ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’. The dark orchestral solos in ‘Um Mitternacht’ were all the more effective for their lack of exaggeration. However, it seemed to me that the song would have benefited from a deeper, more contralto-like voice, and I did not care for the histrionics of the second stanza. Kožená’s diction was rather indistinct in ‘Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft!’ The orchestral solos, however, were ravishing; special mention must go to the solo violin, viola, flute, oboe, and horn. Further magic was to be heard from the celesta. Fortunately, diction improved dramatically for ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’, although I was not convinced that the vocal line really sounded ‘lived in’. Rattle imparted an admirable sense of something inchoate stirring to the orchestral introduction and the orchestra once again sounded exquisite, especially the leader’s solos. Kožená’s reading appeared to gain new depth in the final stanza, which proved to be deeply moving, followed by a heart-stopping stillness to the final orchestral bars.

It had originally been intended that Kožená would sing three versions of Susanna’s aria from Le nozze di Figaro. On account of her illness, she quite reasonably decided to concentrate upon the Mahler songs and one of the Mozart arias, which had been reconstructed by Sir Charles Mackerras. Here she seemed much more at home, which added to my doubts as to whether Mahler was really for her. She sang with style and animation, adroitly accompanied by Rattle and the orchestra. I could understand why Mozart gave up on this aria, though; it is too redolent of the world of opera seria. Perhaps the Countess might have sung it but hardly Susanna.

Before this, the VPO’s principal harpist, Xavier de Maistre, had stepped in as substitute, saving the day with a marvellous reading of Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane. Rattle has often excelled in French repertoire and so again it proved here; soloist, orchestra, and conductor seemed utterly at ease in what must have been something of an impromptu performance. The music sounded like an invitation and indeed admission to a magical kingdom, both dances seductive in their different and all-too-similar ways. For Debussy, any distinction between sacred and profane is unlikely to hold for long. De Maistre proved effortlessly evocative, likewise the Vienna strings. This kingdom was akin to one in which Pelléas had lived – and ruled, as evinced by the modal harmonies of triumph at the close. This being Debussy, however, there remained a rightful sense of ambiguity.

Finally, we heard Mozart’s great G minor symphony. I am sorry to say that this performance did not convince me at all. The Vienna Philharmonic can doubtless play this music in its sleep. Rattle would therefore have been right to guard against complacency but the hyperactivity of this rendition was maddening. The micro-management that had often worked – sometimes surprisingly – in Haydn sounded completely out of place in Mozart, not least since the sense of line that had always endured in the former did not stand a chance on this occasion. From the outset, the first movement sounded cultured rather than tragic and this did not change. Irritating dynamic exaggerations were taken too far – and then further still. The modulations at the beginning of the development section gave a good sense of queasy disorientation. Thereafter, however, the music was vehement but still not tragic. ‘Period’ mannerisms were sometimes applied, giving an impression of the world’s least ‘authentic’ orchestra being asked to play with one hand tied behind its back. Matters improved in the recapitulation, with a splendid transformation of tone colour for the brief false dawn of the major mode. But it was all too late and was followed by a hopelessly mannered coda. The Andante was taken so breathlessly that I had a sense of something approaching enforced cheerfulness. Perhaps this is how Rattle hears the music; I cannot imagine why. I longed for a relaxation of the basic, all too metronomic pulse, but it was not to be. The minuet once again evinced vigour without tragedy; it needs to be taken with greater dignity. Here, the lighter passages sounded uncomfortably close to Mendelssohnian fairy music, although the horns were to die for. The opening of the finale appeared to herald something better, even if it remained excitable rather than devastating. Inclusion of clarinets paid off handsomely when it came to the ravishing Harmoniemusik of the second subject. The grand rhetoric that announced the development section rang false, however, given the aforementioned lack of tragedy, as did the all-too-theatrical Luftpause at its close.

One might have seized upon certain ideas in this account and approved of them; yet, without a greater sense of the whole, what Furtwängler called Fernhören, it could not but remain less than the sum of its parts. Although more ingratiating, Rattle’s Mozart sounded like something akin to Harnoncourt-lite. It was a pity that this, rather than his Haydn, concluded the concert.

Salzburg Mozartwoche (1): Jörg and Carolin Widmann, Hidéki Nagano - works by Boulez, 31 January 2009

Solitär, Universität Mozarteum, Salzburg,

Boulez – Piano sonata no.1 (1946)
Boulez – Dialogue de l’ombre double, for clarinet and tape (1982-5)
Boulez – Une page d’éphéméride, for piano solo (2005, Austrian premiere)
Boulez – Anthèmes 2, for violin and electronics (1998)

Experimental Studio of the Südwestrundfunk Freiburg
Michael Acker and Joachim Hass (sound projection)
Hidéki Nagano (piano)
Carolin Widmann (violin)
Jörg Widmann (clarinet)

This year’s Salzburg Mozartwoche has no fewer than four featured composers. One hardly needs mentioning; another, commemorating the bicentenary of his death, is Haydn. The other two are both very much alive: Pierre Boulez and Matthias Pintscher. This concert was devoted to works by Boulez for three different solo instruments, with or without tape or electronics. It began with a typically fascinating conversation between the composer and the festival’s artistic director, Stephan Pauly. Boulez reiterated his long-standing opposition towards the idea of some sort of ‘golden age’: important to heed, as has this festival, by encouraging artists to programme works by Mozart with those of ‘modern’ composers, from Debussy onwards. Moreover, as Boulez pointed out, the greatest works of their time – he cited Don Giovanni and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – are remarkable at least as much for the seeds of what is to come as for their standing in their own time. Today’s musical vocabulary is different, of course, but linguistic ‘understanding’ – he and Pauly discussed the meaning and implications of the German verb ‘verstehen’ – is different from musical ‘understanding’. Boulez went back as far as Gesualdo and his dramatic, some might say violent, opposition between diatonic and chromatic music to illustrate his points. Another important theme, which would recur during the works performed, was the relationship between form and expression.

Having worked with the Ensemble Intercontemporain since 1996, Hidéki Nagano was an ideal choice to perform two of Boulez’s works for solo piano. The first sonata received a fine performance, full of dramatic contrasts, whether of dynamics, sonorities, or harmony. (In general, of course, we are considering a combination of these and indeed of many other varieties.) What Boulez had said about understanding of a work’s historical position was brought home here, Nagano imparting a sense of breaking away not only from classical sonata forms, essentially a staging point towards their ‘destruction’ in the awe-inspiring second sonata, but also from the vocabulary of the earlier Notations. The hints of Bartók, Messiaen, and Webern have not been entirely banished, but there is a sense of restlessness with their language and its implications, a restlessness that adds urgency to the dramatic sweep of the two-movement work.

Une page d’éphéméride is the first in a cycle for piano on which Boulez is currently at work. On the evidence of this first instalment, Pages d’éphéméride bids fair to be Boulez’s most substantial addition to the solo piano literature since the third, or perhaps even the second, sonata. It is difficult to tell from not only a single hearing but also a piece heard in isolation, but I sensed some kind of summation, consonant with the greater equanimity of the composer in (relatively) old age, a piece audibly from the composer of sur Incises. At a safer distance, the composer seems more willing – and able – to offer a rapprochement to the sonorities and perhaps even to the harmonies of twentieth-century composers: not only Debussy but, rather to my surprise, Schoenberg too. The piano-writing is no less idiomatic than it ever was; yet, without classicising, there seems less of an imperative than during the heady years of a post-Second World War ‘year zero’ to break so violently with what has gone before. Suffice it to say, this is neither a mere page, nor remotely ephemeral. Nagano’s performance made that abundantly clear.

In between the two piano works, we heard the Dialogue de l’ombre double. Boulez has generally been fortunate in his interpreters, but it is difficult to imagine a clarinettist better equipped for this work than Jörg Widmann, given his experience both as performer and composer. The clarinettist’s dialogue with a ‘double shadow’, such as one might sometimes see in the canals of Venice, was hauntingly conveyed. (The ghost of Debussy re-appears, perhaps?) Echoes rebound; reflections become almost audible. The spatial aspect is important – Boulez in the preliminary discussion made reference to spectators at a game of tennis – but more important is the intertwining, the wandering that grants the listener a strange feeling that he too is moving around the acoustic space. I was led to recall Boulez’s earlier comment, already exemplified in the performance of the first piano sonata, that composers had long disregarded the importance of music’s acoustical qualities, that is of particular notes played upon particular instruments, as a parameter in composition.

And yet, as the composer had pointed out with regard to Mozart and Beethoven, an important work very much of its time also points the way to subsequent developments. In Anthèmes 2, itself an offshoot of ...explosante-fixe..., the use of electronics is more advanced, in that they are ‘live’ participants in the process. There is nothing arbitrary about this; what little interest in Cage Boulez once evinced is long behind him. However, there are elements of probability and surprise, as Monika Woitas commented in her programme note. At least as telling, however, are the connections to tradition. Elements of the violin figuration seemed – at least to me – to pay homage to the Baroque writing of Bach. I do not mean in the sense of quotation and it may not even be a matter of intention, but it was interesting to note and to wonder what this might ‘mean’. One can easily forget that Boulez, in the days when he conducted more, was concerned to delve far back into the holdings of ‘the museum’, and to exhibit them in the light of newer work. Bach often featured in his programmes. The excellent violinist, Carolin Widmann, has done similarly in her programming and proved an ideal choice. Her virtuosity and musical ‘understanding’ were never in question. I was most impressed by the way in which the score appeared to have been assimilated into her repertoire, just as if it had been Bach. Mention should also be made of Michael Acker and Joachim Hass, whose sound projection is of such crucial importance. Although in one sense a ‘solo’ piece, this is very much a collaborative effort, as in more ‘traditional’ chamber music. And once again, that collaboration includes the listener, which is just as it should be.

Wednesday 28 January 2009

LSO/Gergiev - Stravinsky and Bartók, 27 January 2009

Barbican Hall

Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring
Bartók – Bluebeard’s Castle

Judith – Elena Zhidkova
Duke Bluebeard – Sir Willard White

London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

The Rite of Spring in the first half of a concert? One would have to find something truly extraordinary – and perhaps somehow still more than that – to preclude a feeling of anti-climax. Bluebeard’s Castle might not seem a bad choice, although I worried on account of the two occasions, both at Covent Garden, when I had heard it performed after Erwartung, one of the few works that in its breathtaking radicalism can leave Bartók’s opera sounding relatively conventional. A reversal of order would probably have helped – and could have granted an interesting feminist slant to the pairing, though this would hardly have been the case with Stravinsky’s ballet of annihilating female sacrifice. As it happened, none of this really mattered, since these performances under Valery Gergiev’s baton were disappointing.

The gravest danger facing performances of the Rite nowadays seems to be reduction of the work to the level of an orchestral showpiece. To Gergiev’s credit, this was not the case here; slickness was not the order of the day. And whilst there were moments of uncertainty, seemingly occasioned by imprecision of his beat rather than any orchestral deficiency, that was not really the problem either. Gergiev’s right hand was actually a surer guide than I have often seen it, though I remain baffled as to the function of the almost perpetually waving left hand. Surely he cannot always be asking for more vibrato? If so, the orchestra does not seem to be answering – and how could it? The principal problem for me was the episodic nature of the performance. It started well; Rachel Gough’s opening bassoon solo, whilst not perfect, had a natural, easy rubato, which fed in to the instrumental imitations and developments of that celebrated passage. Moreover, there was a real sense of something primæval coming to life thereafter, auguring well for a rite of spring generically as well as particularly. Then the tension dissipated and never really recovered. The last time I had heard the Rite live had been an astounding performance, with the very same orchestra, under Boulez. He had brought out the symphonic and non-symphonic unity of the work to an extent that I do not think I had ever previously heard. It may be invidious to draw a comparison with such an account but this came nowhere near. One could hear the balletic sections all too clearly, often with apparently little to connect them. There were several remarkable passages. I especially liked the sense of almost Wagnerian world-weariness with which the second part opened, followed by marvellous, ghostly muted trumpets. The percussion section was on excellent form and the strings dug commendably deep. But the performance was summed up by the strange slowing for the final Danse sacrale. There might be a case for this but here it sounded arbitrary, unmotivated.

It was a similar story with Bluebeard’s Castle. Only last season, Boulez again had conducted the LSO in this work. Somewhat let down by the Bluebeard, it had nevertheless been an excellent performance. It seems unwise to have repeated the opera quite so soon, especially with a conductor who is not especially known for his Bartók. Sometimes, of course, a new slant can be refreshing, occasionally revelatory, but not in this case. The LSO sounded dutiful, which is probably all that could be expected, given the uncertain direction. There were again some nice touches: some wonderfully insistent bass ostinati and a stupendous duo of percussionists sharing the xylophone for the opening of the door to the torture chamber. For the most part, however, Gergiev seemed uncertain where the music was leading. If one did not know the score, one would doubtless have been impressed to hear it for the first time, but that all-important sense of fatal progression was sadly lacking. This was a pity, since the vocal protagonists were both very good. Willard White, who also read the Prologue in Peter Bartók’s English translation, was as attentive to the text and its diction as I can recall hearing. His voice is not as black as that of some Bluebeards and the tone is not perhaps so menacing, yet this was a keenly intelligent portrayal. Elena Zhidkova was a revelation to me; I am certain that I should have recalled hearing her before. One sensed her aching to be on stage; indeed, one saw it too, when she could not help knocking in the air for the first door. The look on her face at the end was haunting indeed. She has a fine voice and puts it to good use, shaping her lines with musical and dramatic force. Her performance was all the more remarkable, given that she had stepped in at short notice, to replace an ailing Katarina Dalayman. I should be keen to hear her again, both in this work and in others. As it was, and despite the efforts of the soloists, there was little real tension until the build up to the opening of the final, seventh door. By then, it was far too late; it felt more like the seventeenth.

Sunday 25 January 2009

Die Zauberflöte, English National Opera, 24 January 2009

The Coliseum, London

(sung in English as The Magic Flute)

Tamino – Robert Murray
Pamina – Sarah-Jane Davies
Papageno – Roderick Williams
Papagena – Amanda Forbes
Sarastro – Robert Lloyd
Queen of the Night – Emily Hindrichs
Speaker – Graeme Danby
Monostatos – Stuart Kale
First Lady – Kate Valentine
Second Lady – Susanna Tudor-Thomas
Third Lady – Deborah Davison
Three Boys – Charlie Manton, Louis Watkins, Harry Manton
First Priest/First Armoured Man – Christopher Turner
Second Priest/Second Armoured Man – James Gower

Nicholas Hytner (director)
Ian Rutherford (revival director)
Bob Crowley (designer)
Nick Chelton and Guy Aldridge (lighting)

Chorus of English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Orchestra of English National Opera
Erik Nielsen (conductor)

Last season’s twelfth revival of Nicholas Hytner’s 1988 production had been billed as its last, yet here it is, back again, not merely by popular demand but, according to the company website, ‘due to overwhelming popular demand’. I am in no position to complain, since this is actually the first time that I have seen it. Having read about it over the years, the general critical consensus seems to have been: enjoyable but not profound, more West End than Masonic. That seems to me about right, for although there are certainly scenic representations of a recognisable Egyptian temple – Bob Crowley’s designs are impressive in a straightforward kind of way – there is little or, most likely, no hint of esotericism. A story and more specifically the story is told, which is good, especially for those who do not know the work inside out and back to front. (For those of us who flatter ourselves that we do, there was, however, a certain alienation to experience, about which more below.) However, surely one of the most remarkable aspects of The Magic Flute is its multiplicity of meanings, its mixing of genres, and the perfection with which this is accomplished. Having origins in a book of fairy tales – Wieland’s Dschinnistan – does not mean that the work should be reduced merely to being a fairy tale. To treat with other aspects or indeed to introduce – dread word for many... – some kind of Konzept, need not lessen the magic; done well, it should be heightened, as was immeasurably the case in Achim Freyer’s unforgettable circus Zauberflöte for the Salzburg Festival. Still, as I said, the production, replete with birds – very skilfully handled on stage - and bears (of the human variety, I should add) was enjoyable in its way. Whilst elements of the eighteenth century made their way onto the stage, this did not really go beyond the costumes. For a more thoroughgoing or inventive way of playing with audiences then and now, one could turn to Hytner’s own Xerxes for ENO, or to David McVicar’s Royal Opera House Magic Flute.

McVicar of course had, at least on the first outing of his production and on DVD, the incalculable advantage of the greatest living Mozart conductor, Sir Colin Davis, in the pit at Covent Garden. Making his ENO debut was Erik Nielsen, Kapellmeister at the Frankfurt Opera. I feared the worst when, as so often seems to be the case nowadays in Mozart operas, the overture was taken far too fast. However, things settled down and tempi, whilst by no means slow, were thereafter generally well judged. There was certainly none of the absurdity of Sir Charles Mackerras’s breackneck ‘Ach, ich fuhl’s’ in a revival of the Covent Garden production. Nor, let us give thanks, was there any crude ‘authenticism’ in the orchestral sound projection. Indeed, a few minor fluffs aside, the ENO orchestra was on good form, in particular the commendably warm strings, though they could have done with being greater in number, and a pair of bubbly bassoons. One could hardly expect so subliminal – and sublime – a connection with Mozart’s inner and outer world as that resulting from Sir Colin’s lifetime of experience with the work; yet, as a parallel to an enjoyable but far from searching production, this worked well enough. My greatest reservation was the lack of grandeur to the ceremonial aspects of the score; if not Freemasonry, then might we not at least hear a little Handel? Thus the finale to the first act sounded merely inconsequential, although that to the second was much improved. And I wish we could have heard the silences of the celebrated dreimalige Akkord given their Brucknerian due. At least the ill-considered quasi-double dotting of the Overture – I think it was on purpose yet, given the alternation here between rhythmic rigidity and slackness, it was difficult to tell – was not pursued.

The singing was generally of a high standard. Even if there was little in the way of the unforgettable, there was a nice sense of company interaction – assisted, I suspect, by Ian Rutherford’s able stage direction. I was very taken with Sarah-Jane Davies’s dignified, sweet-toned Pamina, every inch the princess. Robert Murray’s admirable Tamino exhibited similar qualities. Robert Lloyd gave us an eminently musical account of Sarastro’s part, less dark in tone than one often hears, yet with an enviable command of line. The Queen of the Night – or the ‘Queen of Night’, in the somewhat jarring usage of the translation – is a well-nigh impossible role, but Emily Hindrichs came close to nailing it, her intonation proving faultless until a considerable distance was into the Queen’s second act aria. This side of Diana Damrau – I am not sure that there is another side – one is unlikely to hear better. Stuart Kale acted well as Monostatos but the demands of the text, quickly delivered, sometimes led to a disjuncture between stage and pit. I was delighted to hear the Three Boys demonstrate that one does not need to go to Vienna or Tölz for their parts to be winningly taken. Their coaching, by assistant chorus master, Nicholas Chalmers, should be commended.

Roderick Williams’s Papageno brings me to my two connected final points. Williams acted and sang very well indeed. As often proves to be the case, Tamino was somewhat overshadowed: hardly surprising here, given the production’s lack of emphasis upon the serious aspects of the drama. But Williams above all was more than a little hamstrung by the ridiculous, cod-Northern accent he was compelled to assume for the sometimes over-long dialogue. (I presume that this was not his own idea and, as a Yorkshireman, think that I know the real thing when I hear it.) The Three Ladies, decently sung, were also allocated – somewhat patronisingly, I thought – different ‘regional’ accents when speaking. Although a few members of the audience, probably overlapping with those who applauded not only within the acts but sometimes within numbers, found this hilarious, I found it a source of considerable irritation. Yes, the work has its roots in Viennese popular theatre, but this is an all-too-easy attempt to play upon that, and since when has the Coronation Street-style charwoman of the production’s Papagena represented an equivalent to suburban Vienna? Moreover, Mozart reported from the first performances to Constanze that the expected numbers had been encored, ‘but what gives me most pleasure is the silent approval,’ indicating ‘how this opera is becoming more and more esteemed’. Playing for cheap laughs does not seem to have been what he had in mind. Edification need not preclude entertainment but it cannot be reduced thereto.

Jeremy Sams’s translation was rightly referred to as a ‘version’ in the programme. Some instances of undeniable wit were interspersed amongst passages that failed to capture an appropriate tone. Others seemed at best a paraphrase of Emanuel Schikaneder’s text, with more extreme examples, especially during the dialogue, appearing to be pure invention. Is Schikaneder’s text really that bad? Goethe it is not, though one should not forget Goethe’s unbounded admiration for the work, yet it performs its purpose very well and remains deeply ingrained upon so many consciousnesses. Indeed, I question the point of performing such a work in translation at all. One might, I suppose, claim a degree of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt in compelling an audience to hear a new ‘version’ – I was sometimes put in mind of those dreadful new ‘versions’ of the Bible that trendy vicars press upon congregations thirsting for the certainty of the King James Bible – but irritation such as this elicited does not seem an especially worthy outcome. Given that ENO now provides surtitles for all of its productions, is it not time to admit that, at least in such circumstances, opera in translation is an idea whose time has passed?

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Britten Sinfonia/Wigglesworth, 20 January 2009

West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge

Knussen – Songs without Voices: four pieces for eight instrumentalists, op.26 (1991-2)
Britten – Phantasy Quartet (1932)
Ryan Wigglesworth – Tenebrae (2008, British premiere)
Johann Strauss, arr. Schoenberg – Kaiserwalzer (1889, arr. 1925)

Britten Sinfonia
Jacqueline Shave (violin/director)
Miranda Dale (violin)
Martin Outram (viola)
Caroline Deamley (’cello)
Emer McDonough (flute)
Nicholas Daniel (oboe/English horn)
Joy Farrall (clarinet)
Stephen Bell (horn)
John Lenehan (piano)
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

This lunchtime concert was the second in the world premiere tour of Ryan Wigglesworth’s Tenebrae, so did not quite mark the work’s first performance, that honour having been bestowed upon Krakow two days earlier. Scored for two violins, viola, ’cello, flute, English horn, French horn, and piano, it was conducted by Wigglesworth himself. Nicholas Daniel proved an able advocate for the opening English horn solo, a feature of the work which provided a connection with the fourth of the Oliver Knussen pieces and, at a slight remove, the Britten quartet for oboe, violin, viola, and ’cello. There were dark shadows (tenebrae) but also menacing life – or should that simply be obscured life? – emerging from within those shadows. The piano part, performed commandingly by John Lenehan, punctuated such outbursts, as did telling silences. Wigglesworth clearly has a keen ear for harmony – and also for harmonic rhythm, the two not always going together. I liked the dramatic flow, perhaps in some sense related – but here I am merely speculating – to the Tenebrae Service or to the psalms recited therein? At any rate, no specific programme was required; this haunting and impressive piece can stand perfectly well upon its own merits.

Oliver Knussen’s Songs without voices had opened the programme, itself put together by Knussen. Scored for violin, viola, ’cello, flute, clarinet, English horn, French horn, and piano, these four miniatures once again received a fine performance under Wigglesworth’s baton. The first, Fantastico (Winter’s Foil) was almost literally buzzing with life and beautifully melodious too. In a sense, Schoenberg met Ravel, or the febrile combined with the sensuous; but this is not to imply anything other than Knussen’s own voice. With the second piece, Maestoso (Prairie Sunset), the music both became more angular and appeared to strain towards a broader (prairie?) canvas. Copland did not seem so very far away, especially in the stillness leading to something more ecstatic. The very short third piece, Leggiero (First Dandelion), was similar in some respects to the first, albeit with a very strong rhythmic profile and even more pronounced ‘French’ sonorities. These three songs, we learned from Knussen’s programme note, were each ‘a complete poem ... “set” syllable for instruments in the course of a movement’. The final song, however, is owed ‘to a more private lyrical impulse’, an English horn melody he wrote upon hearing of the death of Andrzej Panufnik. Nicholas Daniel’s opening invocation signalled a considerably darker piece, a lament even. His instrument was joined by the piano and subsequently the rest of the ensemble, but remained the principal voice throughout. That said, fantastic flute writing, a ruminative clarinet part, and more Romantic tones from strings and the horn also made their presence felt, bringing this distinguished work to a moving conclusion.

Britten’s Phantasy Quartet was obviously not conducted; nor would the final work be. Here, the relationship of Daniel’s oboe to the three string players helped mark out the work’s form with admirable clarity. To begin with, the oboe sounded very much as a solo instrument set against a bloc of three strings. As time went on, that initial distinction broke down somewhat – both in score and performance – and the stringed instruments acquired more clearly defined solo voices of their own. There was a pleasing depth to Martin Outram’s viola and a recognisably ‘English pastoral’ ecstasy to the high ’cello part, well projected by Caroline Dearnley. The section sat out by the oboe enabled these voices and that of Jacqueline Shave’s violin to develop further, before Daniel once again could spin his phantastical line, setting the scene for the final ’cello pizzicato subsiding into nothingness.

The only disappointment lay in the performance of Schoenberg’s transcription of Johann Strauss’s Kaiserwalzer. It is a delight, of course, and I have to admit preferring it to the original; less whipped cream allows one better to taste what lies beneath. Written for the Pierrot ensemble, plus second violin and viola, it should breathe the air of Viennese café society. On this occasion, the rhythmically insistent opening, lacking in rubato and Schwung, set an all-too-serious and often plodding precedent for what was to come. Strauss – and Schoenberg too – should waltz, not trudge. There were also occasional minor lapses in ensemble, something I had not noticed at all in the other works performed. Jacqueline Shave on first violin and Joy Farrall on clarinet seemed to be enjoying themselves but the other players would have benefited from smiling more, even if only internally. It was all rather effortful.

The concert has been recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Monday 19 January 2009

Total Immersion: Stockhausen Day, 17 January 2009

Barbican Centre and Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s

Tuning In (Omnibus film by Barrie Gavin, introduced by Barrie Gavin)
Stockhausen – Adieu, for wind quintet
Stockhausen – Klavierstücke, nos. I-IV, VII, and IX
Stockhausen – Kontra-Punkte
Stockhausen – Choral
Stockhausen – Chöre für Doris
Stockhausen – Litanei 97

Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Emma Tring (soprano)
Guildhall New Music Ensemble
BBC Singers
Richard Baker (conductor)
David Hill (conductor)
Stockhausen – Inori

Kathinka Pasveer (dancer-mime)
Alain Louafi (dancer-mime)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson (conductor)
Stockhausen – Hymnen

The first of three BBC Symphony Orchestra ‘Total Immersion’ days was devoted to Karlheinz Stockhausen. Last year’s Stockhausen Day at the Proms and the KLANG Festival at the Southbank would have provided an ideal context for many although, given the size of the ferociously hard-working composer’s œuvre, there remains much more music to be discovered. Barrie Gavin’s 1978 Omnibus film on the composer provided a stimulating appetiser, the director proving a diverting speaker in his introduction to this introduction. Centred around excerpts from a Songcircle performance of Stimmung and from Stockhausen’s fascinating lecture at the Oxford Union, it was sad to reflect – as Gavin did – that it would be inconceivable for such a film to be made today, let alone shown on BBC One. It might, he joked, just about make it onto a putative BBC Thirty-two at midnight. What most surprised me was how witty a speaker the composer proved to be. In my experience, his music, whatever its other virtues, is singularly lacking in humour; yet here, he was able to employ that very quality not for its own sake, not as a dubious means of acquiring popularity, but to grant insights into his music.

The first of the day’s three concerts was to my mind the most rewarding in ‘purely’ musical terms, the presence of some interesting but hardly representative juvenilia notwithstanding. LSO St Luke’s Jerwood Hall provided the setting, whilst the two evening concerts would take place in the Barbican Hall. Adieu (1966) was one of the few non-electronic works Stockhausen wrote during the 1960s, prompted by a request from the oboist Wilhelm Meyer for a memorial to his son, Wolfgang Christian. I had never heard the piece before but was instantly taken by how well Stockhausen wrote for wind quintet (flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon). For a composer who was often most keen of all his contemporaries to forge ahead, apparently to sever links with tradition, there was a surprising degree of Mozartian reference or at least consonance, albeit with a typical fearlessness in creating something quite new. An opening cadence hinted at what was to come, sounding like a Mozartian objet trouvé, followed by mesmerising airborne material, which put me in mind of Ligeti’s Lontano. Such a pattern would continue throughout the piece, with a more ‘traditional’ gesture, always conducted, followed by freer, exploratory material, often of a similar nature to that mentioned, although one episode displayed considerable violence. Paul Griffiths’s helpful notes explained that the durations of events were given by the Fibonacci sequence (1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144) and that ordered increase, both in composition and in performance, was palpable: something more stratified, hierarchical even than, for instance, the fantasy of Boulezian proliferation. The ending, when it came, was charming, almost Classical. Richard Baker and members of the Guildhall New Music Ensemble proved excellent guides in this initial exploration.

Next were six of Stockhausen’s seminal Klavierstücke, expertly performed by Nicolas Hodges. I-IV were performed as a group, followed by V, then VII. It was a while since I had heard any of Stockhausen’s piano music in concert, the previous occasion having been a spellbinding recital by Maurizio Pollini, when, heard in the context of Brahms, Webern, and subsequently Beethoven, my ears had readily related Stockhausen’s music to German tradition. I suspected that this would be less the case in an all-Stockhausen concert but, for whatever reason, I was mistaken, probably a sign that this music is now truly taking its place in the repertoire but also surely a sign of the pianist’s genuine musical artistry. Written in 1952 and 1953, the first four pieces fit very well together; when performed in this way, as Griffiths noted, we can hear them almost as four brief sonata movements. I also thought of the single-movement/four movement duality of the Liszt B minor piano sonata or the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony no.1. The first piece displayed a gleaming, crystalline sound: neo-Bauhaus, if you like. Hodges’ performance drew attention to the crucial importance – as signalled by the composer himself – of the duration of pauses in relation to the serialised dynamic contrasts. Everything sounded – as indeed it is – both fantastical and absolutely logical. The same could be said for the other three pieces, the flowing, Andante-like second ‘movement’, the ‘scherzo’ of Webernesque concision, and the pointillistic ‘finale’, in which one could almost see the stars from which Stockhausen would soon draw such inspiration – and indeed descent. In the fifth piece (1954), some chords – which were most definitely heard as chords – could have come straight out of a set of Schoenberg Klavierstücke. Hodges imparted a true sense of continuity and seemed to refer back to the ‘cascade of gestures’ (Griffiths) that had characterised the first piece. Indeed, I heard the fifth almost as an expansion of the possibilities of the first, not least in the clearly audible demonstration of serialised dynamics as an integral part of composition, dynamic contrasts no longer being relegated to the realm of ‘expression’ of some higher-level material. The composer’s exploration of different registers of the piano, with different consequences for sustaining and ‘natural’ resonance was expertly projected here and in the seventh piece, although the latter certainly presented its own character, ‘personality’ even: more abrupt, more austere, yet spun with a similar musical line. There was violence too, all the more telling given that it followed such attention to detail in making every one of the repeated sounds different in its attack and dynamic projection. Intervals, pauses, and the relations between them were anything but hermetic abstractions. Stockhausen had a narrative to tell and Hodges told it. Something one often forgets – or perhaps never knew in the first place – about Stockhausen is that, whilst working in the Norwestdeutscher Rundfunk’s Studio for Electronic Music, he pursued doctoral studies in phonetics and communication theory, subsequently describing his supervisor, Werner Meyer-Eppler as the best teacher he ever had. Stockhausen may have been an intrepid explorer but always in the service of communication.

For Kontra-Punkte (1952, revised 1953), Baker and the Guildhall New Music Ensemble (here flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, piano, harp, violin, and ’cello) returned. Widely considered to be his ‘breakthrough piece’ – the composer himself made it ‘no.1’ in his cataloguing system – it has lost none of its lustre. It was most interesting to hear it with memories of Punkte, the piece ‘against’ which it is to some extent written, not yet faded from the Gürzenich Orchestra’s Proms performance last year (albeit in the last of the composer’s heavily revised versions). Baker and his players imparted not only a ‘technical’ musical sense of points giving way to groups – Stockhausen’s work is partly a commentary, intentional or otherwise, upon the progression of his own compositional technique – but also a poetic sense of how this might be understood as blossoming. I was impressed by the way in which each instrument retained, arguably acquired, its own character, again rather like a star in the night sky, whilst forming part of a greater constellation. There is another shift within the work, towards predominance of the piano part, somewhat helped by the similar tones of the harp, but largely the product of a Herculean effort on the part of the ensemble’s pianist. Here, Richard Uttley’s effort was not in vain, helping Baker to shape the dramatic trajectory of this wonderful work. No wonder that the notoriously demanding Boulez entertains no reservations about it.

The second half opened with the early Choral, from just two years earlier, 1950. It certainly does what it says on the tine, the line-by-line treatment standing in direct descent from Bach, albeit without any sense of compositional originality. David Hill shaped the BBC Singers’ mellifluous response to the text very well, including a telling pause between stanzas. I fancied that I heard something of another of Stockhausen’s teachers, Frank Martin, as I also did in the following Chöre für Doris, settings in translation of Verlaine, also from 1950. Three contrasting choruses, ‘Die Nachtigall’, ‘Armer junger Hirt’, and ‘Agnus Dei’, again displayed considerable aplomb in the handling of choral forces and again seemed singularly lacking in intimations of what was to come. I was, however, rather taken with the way in which different vocal parts displayed different vocal characters – in more senses than one – in the middle number, telling of a poor young shepherd and his love. The line, in which Verlaine, in Rilke’s translation, beseeches the Lamb of God to grant us peace, not war, was aptly imploring, both in composition and in performance.

Hodges then returned with the ninth of the Klavierstücke (1954-5, revised 1961). He was fully equal to the implacable opening with its long diminuendo of repeated and almost-repeated notes. Once heard, this cannot be forgotten, certainly not whilst the rest of the piece vainly attempts to break free of its oppressive shadow – not unlike the horrendous discord towards the end of the first movement of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony – and certainly not in this fine performance. Except, of course, it is not merely a memory, for it recurs, foreshortened and punctuated, until finally some provisional escape is attained. Once again, Hodges conveyed not only the musical but also the dramatic substance of Stockhausen’s vision.

Finally, we heard the extraordinary Litanei 97, Stockhausen’s 1997 reworking of ‘Litanei’, one of the ‘text compositions’ making up the 1968 Aus den sieben Tagen. Here the composer sets his original text, for speaking chorus and Japanese rin (bowl-shaped gongs from temple rituals, here struck by the conductor). This is ritual and difficult to judge in musical terms, but the spectacle, replete with blue and silver robes, was captivating. The singers formed a circle with the priestly conductor in the centre, the circle – later two concentric circles – sometimes rotating, eventually turning outwards and dispersing. Bells added both a haunting sound in themselves and a resonant punctuation. Members of the choir rather than the conductor intoned; I was not quite sure why this was the case, but it did no particular harm. There were two unfortunate interventions, one from a member of the audience in the balcony, who dropped a programme from on high, and the other from David Hill, who knocked over one of the bowls. It is, of course, easy to mock, but the question of the purpose of music in a modern, all-too-secular world is of crucial importance, and one Stockhausen, unlike so many others, was not afraid to address.

This nicely set the scene for the first of the evening performances, that of Inori (1973-4). Stockhausen’s decisive return to the ‘formula’-melodic method of composition, first broached in Mantra, was admirably described in David Robertson’s clear yet far from patronising spoken introduction. In these ‘adorations’, the basic elements of music – rhythm, dynamics, melody, harmony, and polyphony – are brought into being, one by one, each of the five sections devoted to one of the five sections of the composer’s generative formula. The mime-dancers, acting according to Stockhausen’s precise instructions, mirror – or do they lead? – the musical development and once again impart an undeniable sense of ritual to the unfolding proceedings. Certainly the basic, primæval opening aptly presented the ‘invocation’ of the work’s title. Oddly enough, the monotone G, pervading almost the entire work, is not ‘monotonous’ in the popular sense, although it proved impossible to shift it from my memory at the end of the performance. This is process music but not minimalism, as ultra-serialist as anything Stockhausen wrote during his Darmstadt years, both maddening and beguiling in its inexorable simplicity. Robertson and the BBC Symphony Orchestra could not, I suspect, have been bettered as advocates, understanding all of this perfectly. Their handling of the several crucial echoes was especially impressive, quite magical. It was unfortunate that, occasionally, the mime-dancers fell a little out of sync, a failing that drew attention away from the ritual. As the work became louder and the orchestra was given its head, there were sounds which, taken in isolation, would not have been totally out of place in Mahler, but context is all, or almost all. We were being led, visually as well as musically, towards an entrance into a mysterious temple. Applause was, I suppose, inevitable at the end, but I found the experience unsettling. Either this was a ritual of quite a different nature from conventional concert-going, in which case the reaction seemed inappropriate, or, given the supreme lack of irony, it was charlatanry, in which case...

But on to the final performance, returning to the mid-sixties for the internationalist tape-work, Hymnen (1966-7). There are actually two versions for musicians too, yet it was the ‘pure’ original we heard here. Hymnen is quite a testament to Stockhausen’s unique imagination, a montage of four ‘regions’ – I to IV, dedicated respectively to Boulez, Pousseur, Cage, and Berio – in which we hear various national anthems, shortwave radio signals, voices, crowds, aircraft, Stockhausen in discussion with his assistant, and so on, until finally reaching some sort of peace with the composer’s breathing. There is much that is of great interest – and, as ever with Stockhausen, it never seems that the concept is more important than the result. The distortions, intersections, and juxtapositions are genuinely compelling. Yet I could not help but wonder whether it needed to last two hours (one might answer, ‘but why should it not?); or, if it did, whether the Barbican Hall without lights was really the place for such a ‘performance’. No use was really made of the space, in sharp contrast, say, with the imaginative deployment of the Royal Albert Hall for last year’s British premiere of COSMIC PULSES. Yet in suggesting to us that a conventional concert hall may not really be an appropriate setting for his music, in disturbing our ideas about what a ‘concert’ might be, Stockhausen is doubtless performing a great service. That he is not merely doing that but is creating something utterly new elevates him from the merely Cageian.

Thursday 15 January 2009

RPO/Gatti - Mahler, 14 January 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Mahler – Symphony no.9

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

I have been privileged to attend two performances of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony that have verged upon greatness: from Sir Simon Rattle with the London Symphony Orchestra, and Daniel Barenboim with the Staatskapelle Berlin. In one of his final performances as Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniele Gatti did not join their company; he surpassed it. Orchestrally, there may have been a very few minor blemishes, Moreover, the RPO, even at its best as here, may not quite rank with the aforementioned orchestras, although the gap was not so wide as many might suspect; it could also have done with just a few more strings. Nevertheless, Gatti’s reading swept all before it, going beyond very fine performances I have heard from him and this orchestra of Mahler’s Fourth and Fifth Symphonies.

If there was occasional slight wiriness from the violins earlier on in the first movement, the RPO achieved a rounded tone for its climaxes. The sound was appropriately string-saturated, though certainly not to the exclusion of opportunities well taken for solos, the woodwind in particular looking forward to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. Indeed, an expressionistic menace, to which brass interjections and powerful timpani blows contributed, characterised the entire movement: not exaggerated but, by the same token, not underplayed. Tempo fluctuations were well handled, never abrupt, and nothing was rushed; more than that, one had the sense of an epic unfolding, as if in one breath. Silences played their haunting part, yet they never marked caesuras; that miraculous single breath went unbroken. For an onward tread marked Gatti’s reading of this movement, recalling the procession of souls in the final movement of Mahler’s Second Symphony, albeit bathed in the apparent world-weariness of Parsifal’s harmonic language. When the bells sounded, both of these earlier works were recalled, brought together, and transmuted into something old yet new. Towards the end, Emer McDonough’s newly strange flute solo stopped just short of crossing over from Mahler’s side of atonality to Berg’s; however, one could imagine that a stone’s throw might have changed everything. Seemingly subsiding into a nothingness that presaged the latter composer’s Three Orchestral Pieces, Op.6, it was left to other instruments – violin, clarinet, and horn – to proffer some consolation in the final bars. Whatever were certain members of the audience thinking of when they applauded? (Sadly, they would twice turn out to be recidivists.)

From the opening bar of the second movement, Gatti displayed a strong sense of rhythm. Again, there was no question of rushing, rendering Mahler’s Ländler all the more rustic – and modernistically constructed. For the first episode, there was a nicely judged upward shift in tempo, yet this never came at the expense of rhythm and style. Relaxations were never abrupt, always telling. Before long, we heard nasty, expressionistic shrieks from the woodwind, again looking forward – though, of course, not so very far forward – to Schoenberg. Silences provided a sense of heart-stopping stillness until the ghostly marionettes resumed their play, coming to truly horrifying life – or should that be death? It was by now apparent that this was a great performance of the symphony, a realisation that crept upon me, rather as in some of Claudio Abbado’s Mahler performances, though perhaps a little less slow-burning. The close of the movement brought a similar sense of onward tread as that heard previously, yet it was now less world-weary, more a bringer of death. A fine example of this was the superb viola solo from Andrew Williams, suggestive of a more malign version of the Fourth Symphony’s scordatura fiddle.

In the Rondo-Burleske, the strings could not dig quite so deep as those of the Staatskapelle Berlin had for Barenboim, but they were not so very far off and their tone stood still closer to the expressionism of Wozzeck. Gatti’s rhythmic command was once again impeccable and I include harmonic rhythm in that observation. The savage counterpoint was truly nasty, akin to a Bergian Mahler Fifth – or Bach on acid. Sweetness came in the episodes but within limits. It remained a dubious sweetness and would be undermined afterwards and sometimes even simultaneously, for instance by Douglas Mitchell’s clarinet, straight out of Pierrot. There was a marionette-kinship with the second movement, for clearly, Gatti not only heard each movement in one, but the symphony as a whole. The terrible dances acquired an unstoppable force –which does not mean that the performance became inflexible, anything but. Vouchsafed an hallucinogenic vision of another world (the after-life?), this I found both beautiful and terrifying. Gatti understood that Mahler’s questions are metaphysical; the recent, Shostakovich-derived cheap thrills of Valery Gergiev in this repertoire could not have been more distant. And when the climax came, it was truly horrific. The subject – whoever or whatever that might be – attempted to escape, increasingly frantic; yet there was nowhere to hide. Implacable Fate proved the victor.

Then came the Adagio. The richness of tone in the violins’ opening phrase harked back to Parsifal and looked forward to the first movement of the unfinished Tenth. There was consolation in four-part comparatively diatonic harmony but this was a noble, strong account. Sentiment was not confused with sentimentality; there was still a fight to be had. Fate, however, was now more benign, allowing this extraordinary slow movement to unfold with inevitability towards something quite different from the conclusion of the Rondo-Burleske. Leader Simon Blendis’s violin solo exhibited an icy beauty, beneath which Mahler’s grand harmonic plan continued to work itself out – here, of course, in the surest of hands: Gatti’s. At times the espressivo nature of the strings’ vibrato threatened to become unbearable, as it should. Against this passionate warmth, we heard a still-beautiful spareness of death from the RPO’s woodwind. Brass and percussion brought us towards the precipice, enabling Mahler to cross over into another world, to somewhere we are not permitted to go. His progressive tonality leaves us unsure, even as we are consoled. The Second Viennese School, of whose music Gatti has proved an ardent advocate, is almost upon us. There is a Nietzschean sense of uncertain freedom, evoked in the following passage from The Gay Science:

... we philosophers and ‘free spirits’ feel, when we hear the news that ‘the old god is dead,’ as if a new dawn shone upon us; our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, premonitions, expectation. At long last the horizon appears free to us again, even if it should not be bright; at long last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an ‘open sea’.

It was finally, understandably, as if Gatti – and Mahler – did not want to let go, yet ultimately must. This was shattering.

Friday 9 January 2009

Hanno Müller-Brachmann/András Schiff recital, 8 January 2009

Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Willkommen und Abschied, D 767
Schubert – Versunken, D 715
Schubert – An Schwager Kronos, D 369
Schubert – Meeres Stille, D 216
Schubert – Prometheus, D 674
Mendelssohn – Variations sérieuses in D minor, op.54
Busoni – Fünf Goethe Lieder
Wolf – Drei Gedichte von Michelangelo
Brahms – Vier ernste Gesänge, op.121

Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
András Schiff (piano)

Hanno Müller-Brachmann certainly manages to attract excellent pianists. The previous recital in which I had heard him was in Berlin, with no less an ‘accompanist’ than Daniel Barenboim: part of an all-Busoni chamber and Lieder concert prefacing a spellbinding Staatsoper performance of Doktor Faust. Now we were treated to András Schiff, again offering an all-too-rare opportunity to hear Busoni, for me one of the highlights of a fine programme.

However, it was with Schubert that the recital began. There is no greater Schubert pianist alive than Schiff and he did not disappoint. From the galloping echoes of Erlkönig in the opening Willkommen und Abschied, we were in eminently musical hands. Müller-Brachmann proved equal to the challenges not only of Schubert’s line but also of Goethe’s verse, for all of the first half’s songs were settings of the German master. When ‘The moon gazed from a bank of cloud/mournfully through the haze,’ (Richard Stokes’s translation, both here and for the rest of the programme) there was just the right degree of hanging back upon the haze of ‘dem Duft’. Likewise, the pause after the revelation of a lovely face and the exclamation ‘ihr Götter!’ was perfectly judged, followed by a marvellously hushed ‘Ich hofft’es, ich verdient’ es nicht!’ (‘This I had hoped but never deserved!’). Schiff supplied a magically handled modulation midway through the final stanza, as he would for the line, ‘Da fühl ich mich von Herzengrund gesund’ (‘the depths of my heart are healed’) in the second song, Versunken. Those depths certainly sounded healed and this song was full of hope, fantasy, and expectation (I thought of the German Erwartung, with its prophetic glances towards Schoenberg) from both performers. An Schwager Kronos brought an urgency that was not confused with undue haste, as much from the piano as from the voice and indeed I heard distinct echoes or, perhaps better, foreshadowings of some of the piano sonatas in Schiff’s performance. The extraordinary Meeres Stille, its piano part restricted – for once, to Goethe’s approval – to thirty-two arpeggiated semibreve chords gave a paradoxical and/or dialectical sense both of suspended time in its quasi-recitative style, and of the utmost urgency. Prometheus¸ in whose words Goethe lays down an almost Young Hegelian gauntlet to Zeus/God, provided a splendid opportunity for Müller-Brachmann not to hector, but to display his dramatic skills. ‘Ich kenne nichts Ärmeres/Unter der Sonn’, als euch, Götter!’ (‘I know nothing more paltry/beneath the sun than you, gods!’) had the unanswerable force of ‘There it is; I have said it.’ And perhaps it also offered the invitation of ‘do your worst!’ The lines immediately following, in which the paltry nature of the gods’ majesty is delineated, looked forward to Wagner’s Ring in their subtle arioso – and in their content. Schiff’s piano part provided punctuation and formal construction, keeping this defiant monologue just within the bounds of song. Whatever Goethe may foolishly have believed, Schubert knew how to let words and ideas speak for themselves. So, on this evidence, did Müller-Brachmann and Schiff.

Upon my last hearing of Mendelssohn’s Variations sérieuses, I had voiced my doubts concerning the strength of the work; this time, I happily recanted, for which thanks must go to a superior performance. I liked the interesting pre-sentiments of Bach-Busoni in the canonical first variation and indeed the Bachian end to the Thalberg ‘three-handed’ means in the thirteenth, a combination that put me in mind of Chopin. We heard echt-Mendelssohnian gracefulness in the fifth, yet never was it divorced from structural and dramatic meaning; likewise, the lightness of the ninth variation was never glib, expressing instead a powerfully contained passion. The turn to D major for the chorale brought an inevitable reminder of the Bach – or Bach-Busoni – Chaconne, even if ultimately it could not but lack Bach’s sublimity. Schiff’s performance overall impressed upon us that Mendelssohn’s classicism did not equate to mere gentility.

With Busoni, we returned to Goethe, to the five (out of nine) settings from the composer’s later years that were published in 1964 as Fünf Goethelieder. The Lied des Brander was suitably sardonic, followed by a fine performance of the Lied des Mephistopheles, which subsequently found its way into Doktor Faust. Schiff proved ever responsive, both to the score and to Müller-Brachmann, the piano part acquiring greater intensity – not to be confused with hurrying – as the vocalist span his false narrative. Once again, we heard echoes of Bach in the piano part of the Lied des Unmuts. Schlechter Trost unsettled with its nocturnal ghosts, without any vulgar melodramatics; the means were always musical, although Müller-Brachmann’s face, here as elsewhere, was wonderfully expressive in itself. In the final Zigeunerlied, the wolves’ refrain, ‘Wille wau wau wau!/Wille wo wo wo!/Wito hu!’ was rendered almost meaningful – as if we had gained a momentary insight into some arcane tongue – by the singer’s artistry. And in the final stanza, we again heard a touch of the operatic, albeit once again without overstepping the bounds of Lieder-singing.

The second half left Goethe behind but certainly did not embrace the frivolous, for the music was now unremittingly serious in tone. I did not feel that the performances in this section of the programme always matched the level of those in the first, but that was partly because the bar had been set so high. The first of Wolf’s Michelangelo settings, ‘Wohl denk’ ich oft,’ was all the more keenly felt for not trying so hard to be just that, although here – as elsewhere in the set – there were occasional intonational slips in Müller-Brachmann’s performance. The very words that open ‘Alles endet, was entstehet,’ put me in mind of Wagner’s Erda, and whilst Müller-Brachmann is obviously no contralto, his depth of tone on low notes such as those for ‘vergehet’ had a similarly other-worldly effect. The word ‘Leblos’ likewise was surely painted, devoid of meaningless earthly life, or rather existence. I was impressed by the almost Lisztian – despite Schiff’s oft-voiced disdain for his compatriot – hope voiced in both piano and vocal parts during the dream or vision of ‘Fühlt meine Seele,’ whilst the final lines sounded almost Tristan-esque in their longing.

With the opening of Brahms’s Four serious songs we were immediately plunged into that world of sounds and ideas voiced earlier in Ein deutsches Requiem and perhaps even faintly in the composer’s early organ works. (Arguably, we are taken back as far as Schütz.) The opening stanza of the first song, ‘Dann es gehet dem Menschen,’ had a powerful sense of all being preordained, everything being as it must be, both in the musical form and in its expression. I wondered whether a little more understatement would have benefited ‘Ich wandte mich,’ but there was an undoubted sense of existential tragedy to its conclusion. In ‘O Tod,’ however, I felt the lack of a darker voice, recalling a superlative Salzburg account of these songs by Thomas Quasthoff (admittedly with a lesser pianist than Schiff). I did not, moreover, feel that the final ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen’ quite captured the stentorian Pauline voice of the writer of the First Epistle to the Corinthians: a tall order, but a feat that Hans Hotter was certainly able to pull off. Despite my reservations, largely confined to the final set, this remained a distinguished recital, and the encores – more Schubert and that Brahms lullaby – provided a winning, heartfelt au revoir.

Monday 5 January 2009

Ax/NYPO/Maazel, 3 January 2009

Avery Fisher Hall, New York

Bach - Brandenburg Concerto no.2 in F major, BWV 1047
Szymanowski – Symphony no.4, for piano and orchestra, op.60
Strauss – Burleske in D minor, for piano and orchestra
Mussorgsky, orch. Ravel – Pictures at an exhibition

Emanuel Ax (piano)
Philip Smith (trumpet)
Sheryl Staples (violin)
Robert Langevin (flute)
Liang Wang (oboe)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

This was a curious programme. Part way through Pictures at an exhibition, I wondered whether a connecting theme might have been unusual concerto forms – at least in Classical terms – although I doubt that this could have been the intention. I had better explain why Mussorgsky-Ravel would fall into such a category, so shall start with that, the final work, which had the second half to itself. Pictures at an exhibition is not, of course, a concerto for orchestra but in Lorin Maazel’s performance, it rather sounded like one. Ravel’s transcription has become very much an orchestral showpiece and seeking for a Mussorgskian heart beating beneath the Ravelian glitter may be somewhat to miss the point, but I do think it worth making the attempt. This performance was verily sped through, all sections of the New York Philharmonic on superb technical form, yet I could not help thinking that something was missing. The tone was set with an opening Promenade as brisk as – probably brisker than – any I have ever heard, and almost every movement was considerably quicker than usual. The cart in ‘Bydlo’ is drawn by oxen; here it sounded motorised, almost turbo-charged. By contrast, the ‘Great Gate of Kiev’ seemed to last for an eternity, excessively drawn out even without the irritating inserted pregnant pauses. Much of the audience clearly enjoyed such a virtuosic account – I hesitate to say ‘interpretation’ – but I found this the least interesting of the four performances.

Let us return to the beginning. Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto is one of the greatest of all concerti grossi and I liked this performance very much. It may not have plumbed the Bachian depths; Maazel is no Klemperer or Richter. But we benefited from elegant style and a praiseworthy refusal to genuflect before the false god of ‘authenticity’. Each of the soloists proved eminently musical and exhibited great beauty of tone. Balances both between concertino and ripieno and between the soloists themselves – often tricky in this work – were perfect. Dynamic contrasts were sometimes terraced, though never aggressively of the ‘sewing-machine’ Baroque school, and sometimes shaded, especially in the beautiful slow movement. It flowed in the best sense, ‘flowing’ here being what it says rather than a euphemism for dogmatically fast. The contrast with the opening of the third movement, characterised by a perky trumpet entry, was musical rather than a perverse shock-tactic. Maazel here adopted a tempo that seemed just right: lively but not frenetic, and with a nice but not vulgar rallentando at the close.

Szymanowski’s Fourth Symphony is not a concerto, but has a concertante piano part, here played by Emanuel Ax. The music and the style are of course Szymanowski’s own, but for the uninitiated, one hears something between Bartók and Zemlinsky. It is a marvellous work and it was gratifying to hear it performed by musicians who are not especially known as advocates of the composer. Maazel drove some of the music, especially in the outer movements, a little hard but the great washes of orchestral sound came over well, with excellent solo work from the leader and timpanist, amongst others. Ax could be rather heavy-handed, playing his part as if this really were a Romantic concerto. However, he was most impressive as the hot-house accompanist of the slow movement’s night-chamber-music. King Roger, the composer’s operatic masterpiece, was palpably close.

Maazel and Ax both seemed better acquainted with Strauss’s Burleske, Ax now playing without a score. It is an endearing if un-Straussian work, generally more redolent of Brahms, sometimes Schumann, and occasionally Liszt; there is perhaps but one progression that puts me in mind of the later Strauss (Rosenkavalier, certainly not Elektra). Not even so good a performance as this was could convince me that Strauss always knows where he is going harmonically, but this movement is in conventional concerto-style and sounded like it. Both pianist and conductor proved more yielding than they had been in the Szymanowski, although some of the brass interventions were unnecessarily brash. Ax’s virtuosic style was more appropriate here. I only wish that the programme had amounted to more than the sum of its parts.

Sunday 4 January 2009

Thaïs, Metropolitan Opera, 2 January 2009

Metropolitan Opera, New York

Cenobite monks – Daniel Clark Smith, Roger Andrews, Kurt Phinney, Richard Pearson, Craig Montgomery
Palémon – Alain Vernhes
Athanaël – Thomas Hampson
Guard – Trevor Scheunemann
Crobyle – Alyson Cambridge
Myrtale – Ginger Costa-Jackson
Nicias – Michael Schade
Thaïs – Renée Fleming
La Charmeuse – Leah Partridge
Albine – Maria Zifchak
Solo dancer – Zahra Hashemian
Violin solo – David Chan

John Cox (producer)
Christian Lacroix (costumes for Renée Fleming)
Duane Schuler (lighting)
Sara Jo Slate (choreographer)

Metropolitan Opera Chorus (chorus master: Donald Palumbo)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Jesús López-Cobos (conductor)

This was unlike any operatic performance I have previously attended: not only the work itself – I can hardly claim to be a Massenet habitué and Thaïs is distinctly odd – but also the production and general experience. First, let us consider Thäis. It has tended to be revived and was arguably created as a ‘vehicle’ for a star soprano. We certainly had that in Renée Fleming and I assume that it was her allure that drew in the crowds to the Metropolitan Opera. It is difficult to imagine that this could justly be attributed to a sizable Massenet constituency in New York – or indeed, one that might have flown in for the occasion. For Thaïs, I am afraid to say, contrives to be both bizarre and for the most part dull. Part of the problem would seem to be the work of the librettist, Louis Gallet, who appears to have extracted the ironic anti-clericalism from Anatole France’s novel – which sounds rather interesting: I should be keen to read it – and left us with a story in which a fanatical fourth-century monk, Athanaël attempts and succeeds to win over to his ascetic faith the courtesan, Thaïs, only to succumb to his suppressed lusts and attempt to win her back for the dark side. However, she dies and in her already-declared sainthood is not far off assumed into heaven, as she experiences a vision of angels. (As the late Anna Russell used to say, 'I’m not making this up, you know!') Thaïs’s conversion is so incredibly abrupt that the phrase ‘suspension of disbelief’ seems risibly inadequate for what one must do to one’s dramatic faculties. Moreover, there is no longer any attack upon clerical hypocrisy, for Athanaël fights temptation rather than dissembles. If anything, Athanaël is more the central character, yet that principal reason we might have for him being so has vanished. There might remain interesting contemporary resonances in his fundamentalism but they would need to be dealt with more forcefully than in this production. What in the world of television used to be called ‘continuity’, and perhaps still is, did not seem to have been closely attended to, for the libretto – yes, this was no quirk of the production – had Athanaël threatened with a rifle as he entered Nicias’s Alexandrian palace. (I am well aware of the clock in Julius Caesar, but that is no excuse.)

Before coming to the production, it is worth commenting upon the score itself. It has odd moments, such as the offstage music at the beginning of the second scene of Act II – very well performed. There is also some slightly more interesting music by the oasis in the third act, although it is hardly ‘superbly effective’, to quote the wildly enthusiastic programme note by Thomas May. For the most part, however, it is insipid, with the odd very watered-down Wagnerism. Pelléas this is not, in any sense. Sometimes, such music can sound better than it is. I imagine that Sir Thomas Beecham might have worked some magic upon it. Jesús López-Cobos did not, seeming content to let it flow, or sometimes drag. The playing of the Met orchestra sounded routine; it is easy to sympathise. More worryingly still, so in thrall did the conductor seem to Fleming that he often appeared to be following her rather than vice versa. And what we might charitably term her tempo fluctuations were more than a little on the arbitrary side.

If ever a work cried out for Regietheater it was this: a new twist just might have granted some dramatic credibility to what is at best kitsch, but more often plain uninteresting. As the reader may have guessed, such was not to be in this production shipped in from the Lyric Opera of Chicago. John Cox had us veer between poster-paint scenes of the Egyptian desert and an Alexandria that more or less resembled modern Las Vegas. The cast seemed more or less left to fend for themselves, for the real point of the production seemed to be to showcase the dress designs of Christian Lacroix. They might have worked wonders for a fundraising operatic gala but they had little connection with anything else that was going on. Fleming’s countless changes of wardrobe – they probably were not that many, yet their focal nature made it seem as if they were – resembled the behaviour of a television hostess for an awards ceremony. The last one was almost – but not quite – surreally inappropriate for someone who had entered a convent and was on her deathbed. All too lengthy scene changes, not only between but even within acts, dissipated what little dramatic tension there might have been. And certain members of the audience seemed unable even to listen, applauding before numbers had finished, perhaps most bizarrely during the celebrated violin Méditation. What happened once the Méditation had oame to an end verged upon the incredible. Not only was there applause, but López-Cobos joined in and summoned the soloist to his feet in the pit. Was this a post-modern take upon performance, reception, and so on? It would have been irritating or worse if it had been, but it just appeared to be part of the same ‘gala experience’. If the performers and production team do not even try to take the work seriously, it is a little much to ask others to do so.

What of the singing? That was better, though hardly outstanding. Fleming at her best sounded at her best but her diction was variable and she exhibited some surprisingly ropy intonation. Thomas Hampson was more dramatically credible as Athanaël. During the first act, his performance sometimes tended towards crudity, but it might be argued that this was not inappropriate for the character. Later on, he became more mellifluous, although his French did not always sound idiomatic. Michael Schade was better in that respect as Nicias, even though he sometimes sounded a little out of vocal sorts. (I am not sure that I can blame him; he would surely have preferred to be singing Tamino.) It was quite a relief to hear the French style – both verbal and musical – of Alain Vernhes’s Palémon. I was not surprised when consulting the programme afterwards to discover that the role had been assumed by a Frenchman. Maria Zifchak’s small contribution as Albine was therefore all the more to be cherished, since she had no such native advantage.

What I cannot understand, though, is why one would choose this work if one were Renée Fleming. It seems difficult to believe that there was any other reason for its revival. And yet, surely there are so many other, more gratifying roles in which she could have excelled. Much as I may deplore it, I can understand the cult of the singer, but it is an odd cult indeed if the music and the drama are so uninvolving. Thaïs or the Marschallin? I should have thought that decision would be, as many Americans like to say, a ‘no-brainer’.