Tuesday 30 June 2009

Martinů - Mirandolina, Garsington Opera, 28 June 2009

Garsington Hall, Oxfordshire

Mirandolina – Juanita Lascarro
Ortensia – Mary Hegarty
Deianira – Jean Rigby
Fabrizio – Daniel Norman
The Count of Albafiorita – Mark Wilde
The Cavaliere of Ripafratta – Geoffrey Dolton
The Marquess of Forlimpopoli – Andrew Slater
Servant of the Cavaliere – Stuart Haycock

Martin Duncan (director)
Francis O’Connor (designs)
Steve Elias (choreography)
Bruno Poet (lighting)

Garsington Opera Orchestra
Martin André (conductor)

This was an enjoyable evening. Well performed and gloriously produced, Bohuslav’s Martinů’s final opera, Mirandolina, is receiving its first British production, at Garsington. The story, derived from Carlo Goldoni’s La locandiera, has the innkeeper Mirandolina run rings around her suitors, a count and marquess and convert the absurd misogynist, the Cavaliere of Ripafratta, into a lovesick madman, before rejecting all three for her servant, Fabrizio. One might perhaps have expected a company with so impressive a record in staging Haydn’s operas – seven to date, though sadly nothing since the revival of Il mondo della luna in 2000 – to have marked the bicentenary of that composer’s death; one might not have been surprised to see Handel, perhaps even Purcell or Mendelssohn, have a look in. But Garsington has shown enterprise in honouring a less-celebrated anniversary, Martinů having died fifty years ago this year. In many respects, this must be applauded, although I must register two fundamental reservations. However, let us try to stick with applause for the moment.

Martin Duncan’s production seeks no hidden depths in the work, for there clearly are none, but is very good fun. The individual and ensemble direction of the cast is an object lesson in such matters. Insofar as would seem humanly possible, the characters are given their own life. Their actions, reactions, and interactions are keenly observed –though the libretto, derived by the composer himself, is almost certainly of more help here than the score. Steve Elias’s choreography is a great boon in this respect, providing moments of slapstick ensemble movement, not least with the two actress ‘ladies’, Ortensia and Deianira, which could only work if executed as well as here. Greater joy still is provided by Francis O’Connor’s designs. Mirandolina’s inn is presented in a riot of (neo?-)Fauvist colour, which wittingly or unwittingly reminds one that Martinů has much more in common with a vein of twentieth-century neo-classical music considerably earlier than anything one might consider characteristic of the 1950s, when the operas was written; more of that anon. And O’Connor’s costumes, beautifully designed, amuse and wryly evoke a post-Great War perspective upon the eighteenth century and commedia dell’arte: the celebrated first production of Pulcinella on steroids.

Musically, there was much to impress too. Martin André led a tight, rhythmically alert reading, full of bright, primary colours, brought into being by fine playing from all sections of the Garsington Opera Orchestra. One only really noticed a slight untidiness of ensemble at the opening of the third act because it was so uncharacteristic. (I wish I could say that the audience noticed the opening of the act, let alone the untidiness, but the appallingly ill-mannered conversation continued for only a little less long than it had into the overture.) Martinů’s almost bewildering cornucopia of styles, which yet remain severely limited – I am tempted to say stunted – in expressive scope, was unerringly captured by these splendid musicians. In the title role, Juanita Lascarro struck me as ideal: alluring in every respect. She handled her tricky coloratura with ease and could certainly act – partly, of course, a tribute to her direction. Her noble suitors made the most of their comic opportunities, and then some. (It did cross my mind that, given their camp demeanour, the Count and Marquess might have been better off with each other.) Perhaps their performances, considered in purely musical terms, were less impressive, yet, given the limited rewards offered by the score, they were probably wise to concentrate upon other matters. Daniel Norman made a properly likeable Fabrizio, who deserved to emerge victorious. Mary Hegarty and Jean Rigby’s characters seemed to me dramatically redundant but they once again relished the opportunity for humour, acting quite brilliantly.

And yet... As the reader will have observed, the ‘fundamental reservation’ to which I referred has stubbornly persisted in seeping through, so I ought now to state it explicitly. The music and indeed the work as a whole are barely worth the effort. Acting for the defence, Jan Smaczny writes, in his programme note, ‘From the late 1920s, his musical style was always recognisable ... by the 1950s his musical language, while by no means eschewing harsher dissonance, is possessed of a warm tonal palette which nevertheless manages to avoid banality.’ I hate to seem curmudgeonly, but I cannot recall a single instance in which the tonal palette, which seemed to me bright rather than warm, rose above banality. Nor could I recognise a single instance of ‘recognisable’ style; rather, we heard a melange of the most banal music of Les Six, Stravinsky minus the crucial acerbity, and, in the third act, the mildest hint that the composer was Czech. It is difficult to discern whether there was any attempt at musical characterisation; at any rate, none really shone through. Nor, for the most part, did the music even sound related to the action. With a few exceptions, one could probably have rearranged the music of different passages to different words and no one would have been any the wiser. This was not a point-making dissociation of words and text but mere note-spinning that would have made a Telemann blush. For the music is certainly of no more interest than that of those run-of-the-mill eighteenth-century composers, most considerably less interesting even than Telemann, who set Goldoni in the first instance. Few of us are interested in them, though the odd enthusiast exists; Martinů’s fate, again despite a contemporary resurgence of interest from certain quarters, should probably be about the same. It is difficult to begrudge a work a British premiere. Now, however, as I recall thinking about Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane, whose bloated pretention is at least quite lacking in the relentlessly slight Mirandolina, it would be kinder to let it rest in peace.

None of this is helped by Jeremy Sams’s translation. Such was the skill of the cast that one could hear every word, rendering the surtitles superfluous; surely, however, the titles themselves should have rendered translation superfluous. Nevertheless, translation we had to endure. Its relentless colloquialism and playing for laughs – always the least likely way to amuse – grate almost beyond endurance. I could discern no attempt at rendering or re-creating Goldoni’s style. Here is an example: ‘I’m getting soup, and a sandwich that someone’s sat on, a smelly sandwich that someone’s sat on.’ Despite the delights of the production, I began to wonder at this point what on earth I was doing listening to such words and such a non-entity of a score. Shouts of ‘Bastard!’ jar not because they are somehow transgressive – your average three-year-old will have heard ‘worse’ – and not only because they simply sound silly, attention-seeking in what is supposedly an eighteenth-century context; they are also unmusical, failing to heed the composer’s notes.

The wonder, then, is that the evening remained as enjoyable as it did. For that impressive achievement, great thanks should go to the performers, the production team, and to Garsington Opera itself. But the company is wisely returning to Figaro (alongside Rossini’s Armida and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) next year. As the Leipzig Gewandhaus has it, quoting Seneca: Res severa est verum gaudium (‘True joy is a serious thing’).

Friday 26 June 2009

Perényi/Philharmonia/Schiff - Haydn, 25 June 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Symphony no.80 in D minor
Piano concerto in D major, Hob.XVIII:11
Cello concerto in C major, Hob.VIIb:1
Symphony no.103 in E-flat major, ‘Drum Roll’

Miklós Perényi (violoncello)
Philharmonia Orchestra
András Schiff (piano/conductor)

All-Haydn programmes remain regrettably rare. Although the bicentenary of the composer’s death has given something of a fillip to his fortunes, it is by no means certain how they will fare in 2010. András Schiff is a great Haydn enthusiast; he recently masterminded the Wigmore Hall’s weekend celebrations for the weekend of the anniversary itself, his solo recital providing a fitting conclusion. On this occasion, as part of his ongoing collaboration with the Philharmonia Orchestra, we heard two symphonies and two concertos: a generous programme, which, with interval, stretched over two-and-a-half hours. Rarely if ever do I feel sated with Haydn, but a rush to the doors at the end of the Drum Roll Symphony suggested that some in the audience might have felt otherwise. Schiff’s fondness for repeats played its part here.

Even when Haydn does crop up upon concert programmes, an absurdly small number of works tends to be drawn upon, so it was a delight to hear the splendid D minor symphony, no.80, written in 1784. I was surprised – most pleasantly – by the size of the orchestra for: larger than those to which our balefully ‘period’-influenced times have accustomed us. The string section ran from fourteen first violins to six double basses, and never sounded like anything other than an impeccable section of modern instrumentalists. It was all the more surprising then to see, and all the more unwelcome to hear, natural horns, whose rasping sound was evident throughout the concert. I suppose we should be grateful that mobile telephones were restricted to the first movement of this symphony. The twin demands of drive and grace were successfully contrasted, opposed, and then, in the finale, reconciled, in a generally winning performance. The D minor of the first movement recalled Gluck’s Don Juan ballet music, whilst also looking forward at least on occasion to Mozart’s essays in this key. Schiff gave the mysterious pauses their due. Moreover, this was an occasion upon which use of antiphonal violins, on the conductor’s left and right, did not reflect mere fashionable tokenism, but paid off handsomely in clarification of imitative and responsive passages. The rich, perhaps surprisingly operatic, nature of the slow movement was amply conveyed in an expansive yet dramatic reading. The structure was admirably clear: phrases, answers, paragraphs, all in their allotted places, without descending into the realms of the bureaucratic. I especially liked a contribution from wonderfully bubbling bassoons at the end. The minuet proved equally successful, its minor-mode Sturm und Drang retaining a fine sense of swing. I wondered, however, whether the welcome relaxation for the trio’s chamber music was overdone. It did, however, mean that one felt true urgency upon the full orchestral reprise of the minuet. The finale was certainly taken Presto, with great fizz, but never hard-driven. The jerky syncopations were made forcefully to count, as it were. Strings sounded splendidly rich but there were some nasty sounds from the horns.

For the D major piano concerto, Schiff cut down the orchestra to a more typical ‘chamber’ size group. The fourteen firsts were now eight and the basses were but two in number. One certainly heard the fewer strings in the lighter tone that characterised both this and the following cello concerto. Again, the splitting of strings brought antiphonal benefits. Schiff lavished his typically beautiful, pearly tone upon the solo part, which was well articulated without a hint of mannerism. The cadenza to the first movement brought a quotation from the Surprise Symphony, which amused many, but to me it sounded a little too obvious. When it came to the slow movement, its orchestral introduction sounded a bit laboured: not so much a matter of tempo as of Schiff’s excessive moulding of the part. Matters improved once he had the piano part to attend to; much of this sounded beautiful indeed. Both piano and strings proved duly attentive to Haydn’s dissonances and their harmonic implications. I felt the lack of (relative) string weight more keenly in the final Rondo all’Ungarese, but this remained a sparkling account. The ‘local colour’ was for my taste excessively underlined, although the audience clearly lapped it up. Fun though it was, less might have been more in this context.

Miklós Perényi has been a long-time collaborator of Schiff’s; one could certainly sense the musical understanding between them, likewise the respect of the orchestral musicians for the soloist. Perényi brought a cultured, ever-musical tone and line to everything he played, if the outer movements in particular lacked the last ounce of ‘personality’ in the manner of a Rostropovich or a Du Pré. (Some readers, I appreciate, will doubtless respond, ‘Thank goodness for that.’) Not only the aria-like slow movement but also its predecessor received a properly ‘sung’ account. The cadenza to the Adagio was magical in its dreamlike quality. A fine sense of style from all musicians was continued into the finale: lively, yet not rushed. There were times when I thought the orchestra was pushed too much – by Schiff rather than Perényi – into an ‘accompanying’ role, whereas earlier, the soloist had emerged as first among equals, even playing the bass line in the first movement’s opening tutti (and not just there).

The Drum Roll Symphony welcomed back to the platform a larger orchestra, indeed the largest of the night, trumpets (keyed, as I suppose they would be...) and all. The ‘drum roll’ itself was taken with a sudden fortissimo and diminuendo, followed by a properly dark introduction from bass instruments, which reminded us of the likeness of Haydn’s theme to the Dies irae chant. Some of the exposition and recapitulation sounded a little too genial, but there was compensation in the contrapuntal interplay of the development, leaving us in no doubt of the composer’s astonishing invention. The horns brayed in the coda. After a slightly sour opening, what I might call the ‘directed chamber music’ of the slow movement blossomed and gained character. Again, Haydn’s glorious inventiveness shone through. The extended solo of leader, Zsolt-Tihámer Visontay was superbly performed, exquisitely sweet in tone. When we finally heard the full orchestra, it sounded full indeed, followed by the balm of the Philharmonia’s woodwind. Schiff alternated between one and three beat(s) to a bar in the minuet. This often sounded a little too driven and unsmiling, though the audience found humour (unintended?) in the sound of the horns. As in the earlier symphony, relaxation for the trio was unduly exaggerated. The orchestra made a truly beautiful sound here but the music sometimes lacked a sense of the vital. A little more kinship between minuet and trio would have been welcome. Sadly, the unreliability of natural horns was there for all to hear in the finale’s opening call. (Some would doubtless consider this ‘characterful’; I simply found the intonational difficulties painful.) Otherwise, there was a resplendent full orchestral sound, almost Karajan-like. The movement’s performance was in many respects very good; certainly the orchestra was on top form. However, in the final analysis, Schiff’s reading was a touch on the sectional side, without quite the developmental necessity I heard from Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic in this week a few years ago at the Proms. That, however, was the finest account of a Haydn symphony I have ever heard ‘live’ and there was much to admire here.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Boulez on Mahler

On Universal Music's new Mahler blog (in preparation for the Mahler celebrations in 2010 and 2011), there is an interview with Pierre Boulez concerning Gustav Mahler. Click here... Much of this we have heard before in various guises, but there is some interesting new material. I especially like the diplomatic handling of Leonard Bernstein:

No, we did not have very close contact with Bernstein. I saw him, of course, from time to time, but I mean we did not discuss music, because our tastes were so far from each other that the discussion would not have gone anywhere. And I think there was a kind of agreement for not touching this type of subject.

Adorno is cited as a reason why Boulez decided to explore Mahler's music, first, at least in part, as a source for the music of the Second Viennese School. And then there came, of course, an inspiration from before Mahler, for Boulez's admiration for Wagner seems, if anything to have grown further still. Wagner's orchestration is 'perfect ... you can look at the score as close as you want, you’ll find that’s perfectly balanced and perfectly well-organised.'

Boulez bucks fashionable trends in remaining irreconcilable to Shostakovich... And how could one not sympathise when he says that Mahler needs protecting from Alma?

This follows a similar interview with Daniel Barenboim, amongst much other material on the site.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Goerne/Eschenbach - Winterreise, 17 June 2009

Wigmore Hall

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Christoph Eschenbach (piano)

A quintessential image of German Romanticism is that of the blaue Blume, the unattainable ‘blue flower’ first dreamed of by Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen. Yet, for the darker side of Romanticism, a flower is doomed to wither, to die, as soon as – perhaps even before – it has bloomed, let alone been glimpsed. It seems to me that a performance of Winterreise, one of the vey greatest works of the Romantic movement, must bear in mind both strands. The first is that hope, perhaps attenuated, but hope nevertheless, which arises from the straining after the unattainable: not just the narrator’s beloved, but also something metaphysical, indefinable. Second, and overwhelming, is the tragic fate, instantiated in catastrophic breakdown, of the apparently hopeless winter’s journey. Hope and hopelessness are never, and in this tale can never be, reconciled, but the conflict between them begets and furthers the drama. I do not claim that the two strands are equal in strength, but Winterreise’s tragedy is heightened, not lessened, by the ghosts of hope. It is, when searchingly performed, an unbearable journey; so it proved here.

For someone whose musical outlook has been so marked not just by German music, but also by German history, culture, and thought, it is quite ironic – and perhaps rather healthy – that the recording with which I first explored Winterreise was the extraordinary account by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten. I certainly do not expect to hear a Pears-like voice, should that exist, when I listen to Winterreise, but I think that it is partly from that early experience that, when I think of and listen to the work in my head, I hear a tenor, and that I retain a preference for the higher voice. This was an occasion when that preference never entered my head, so total was Matthias Goerne’s identification with the part and, in turn, mine with his performance.

It would be misleading to describe his or Christoph Eschenbach’s performance as operatic; this was Lieder-performance, without a doubt. And when I mentioned Goerne’s ‘identification with the part’, I certainly did not intend to imply a stage role, although he is a more physically demonstrative recitalist than many. However, there were many aspects of the performance which pointed, quite rightly, to Schubert’s shattering legacy to Wagner and beyond, to expressionism. Schubert always proves an ideal programme companion to composers of the Second Viennese School, much to the confusion or annoyance of an unimaginative, neo-Biedermeier contingent in the audience. Music drama, as such skilled exponents as Goerne, an unforgettable Wozzeck, and Eschenbach would keenly appreciate, has from Wagner to Henze owed a great deal to the example of Schubert’s only apparently smaller canvas.

The ominous tread of Eschenbach’s introduction to Gute Nacht, more insistent than one often hears, imparted a sense of fate, which would be borne out by the cycle, and yet that the dialectic between hope and its antipode also made its presence felt, for instance in Goerne’s subtle colouring of the word ‘Mondenschatten’. The moonlight’s shadow suggests that there remain possibilities; as the previous lines have it, ‘Muß selbst den Weg mir weisen/In dieser Dunkelheit’ (‘I must find my own way/in this darkness).* The almost infinite varieties of address on which Goerne could draw was exemplified by his explanatory ‘Gott hat sie so gemacht’ (‘God has made it so’), again tilting the scales towards fate, without overbalancing them. World-weariness was followed, quite justifiably, by the anger at injustice, temporal and otherwise, of Die Wetterfahne. The depth of tone so startlingly employed upon the words, ‘Ei Tränen, meine Tränen,’ (‘Ah tears, my tears’) in the following Gefrorne Tränen once again broadened the performers’ and Schubert’s musico-dramatic canvas. Likewise the ghostliness, peering forward to The Flying Dutchman, in the piano part of the far from placid Der Lindenbaum; Goerne’s warm yet chilling nostalgia during the final stanza fairly terrified.

The journey of contrast and underlying fatal unity continued with a burning anguish (‘heiße Weh’) which, in Goerne’s delivery truly burnt the listener, in Wasserflut. Auf dem Flusse proved almost too powerful for one to continue to listen, yet, as for Schubert’s traveller, there was no option but to do so. The final stanza was an object lesson in collaborative terror, the fury of the vocal part at one with an icy clarity in Eschenbach’s projection of the bass line. Near delirium remained controlled, if only just, in the ensuing backward glance (Rückblick). For me, it was in Rast that the piano part peered for the first time into the death-devoted heart of Tristan, late Liszt, and beyond, into the heart, or whatever might take its place, of twentieth-century expressionism. The strange, homeless harmony pointed to the Romantics’ perennial Heimweh (homesickness). To be at home, with oneself and with the world, was both an imperative and an impossibility. And this, despite the dream of spring that followed (Frühlingstraum). Here, the contrasting and developing characters of the first three stanzas were caught unerringly: Goerne’s naïve Romantic lyricism, in the first, especially its final line of happy birdsong, followed by the second stanza’s expressionism, and then the delusion and desperation of the third: not reconciling its predecessors, but an Adornian negative dialectic. The fourth, fifth, and sixth stanzas took a similar path, yet more extreme still, that final sixth stanza taken daringly slow, in almost frozen motion. If it was too much then to hope for repose in Einsamkeit, then the song opened with a sombre nobility worthy of the St Matthew Passion. Hope of a kind might still, just about, exist, although the build up to the final stanza’s Tristan-esque raging against the light suggested otherwise.

For one should remember, as Goerne and Eschenbach most certainly did, that the journey is both physical and metaphysical: a duality underlined by the painful appearance of Die Krähe, the ominous crow. What are its intentions? Do intentions still matter, or even exist? One can but hope, yet it is becoming a greater effort all the time. Eschenbach’s Letzte Hoffnung – a last hope indeed – brought hints of late Brahms and even Berg. And what hope could there be in Wozzeck or Lulu? A rare stumble at the opening of Der stürmische Morgen unsettled for the wrong reasons, but this was soon forgotten, as the bitterest of Goerne’s rage was unleashed upon seeing his heart’s likeness in the sky: ‘nothing but winter/winter cold and wild!’ This seemingly had to lead to Täuschung (‘Delusion’), otherwise the cycle would have ended there and then. Moreover, the delusion we heard brought a darkly seductive lilt, from both voice and piano, even perhaps a hint of the (falsely) consoling chamber music, of which Schubert was also such a master.

I was unprepared for the very slow tempo of Der Wegweiser, but how it worked! The metaphysical import of the signpost took on in this context almost the decisive nature of Wotan’s confrontation with Erda (and consequent rejection of Fate) in Siegfried. After that, Das Wirtshaus was taken more slowly still – and again, how it worked! This was a slowness lying beyond the glacial tempi Sviatoslav Richter would employ for the piano sonatas, yet the tread continued, as it must; it was not static. Rarely in tonal music can the major mode ever have sounded so bitter as it does in this song. We moved through Mut! and the phantasms of Die Nebensonnen to the exhaustion of Der Leiermann. Here we not only saw, through the vivid tone-painting, but we felt. Moreover, we felt not only the organ-grinder in, if this does not prove a contradiction too far, his numb lack of feeling; we also felt the protagonist’s horror, sympathy, and, just perhaps, his hope. For all the wretchedness of the organ-grinder, our hero could observe in him continuing resistance. And so could we.

There followed an all too brief silence, punctured by some cretin’s bursting in with a cry of ‘Bravo!’ He obviously thought – an abuse of the word, I realise – that he had been entertained by an Italian opera. The rest of us were as shattered as if we had been put through Wozzeck.

(* Here and elsewhere, I use Richard Stokes’s translation from The Book of Lieder, as quoted in the programme. Gavin Plumley’s excellent programme notes (to all three ‘cycles’) also deserve mention.)

The Case of Richard Strauss

(paper given at the conference on Music and Morality, Institute of Musical Research, University of London, 16 June 2009)

‘Wagner is the most highly controversial figure in the entire history of the arts.’ These words, with which Wilhelm Furtwängler opened his penetrating essay, The Case of Wagner, may still hold true; I am sure that they do for music. But should they? Germans, and German musicians in particular, are very fond of ‘cases’. Nietzsche had his Case of Wagner, the title at least consciously echoed by Furtwängler. Looking to the twentieth century, Schoenberg remains intensely controversial. A host of devotees sees him, with greater or lesser qualification, as a Moses-like figure, leading composition into an atonal and subsequently serialist, Promised Land; others see this as the point where it ‘all went wrong’. There are other questions but the Case of Schoenberg has not changed essentially from the moment of the emancipation of the dissonance. A composer who ought to be just as controversial as Wagner or Schoenberg, is Richard Strauss. The reasons for controversy are not the same, even though they may sometimes be related. I want to outline a Case of Strauss and to ask the moral terms in which much of it would be couched might tell us about some issues concerning music and morality.

A mainstay of conceptions of Strauss is that the modernist composer hurtles forward as far as Elektra, before the regression of Der Rosenkavalier, in terms of musical language and subject matter. There are many problems with this ‘case’. I should certainly question how ‘modernist’, at least in a post-Schoenbergian, ‘New Music’ sense, Salome and Elektra are. But rather than considering this in itself, let us see how it might reflect, perhaps even further, conceptions of music and morality. The teleology envisages a hero’s valour pressing him forward before that teleology is reversed or at best stunted. Others continue to go forward, whether with nostalgia (Berg), with no regrets (Webern), or somewhere in between (Schoenberg). Strauss turns back. But it is not, according to this claim, just that he turns back. He seeks refuge in an confected conflation of his name sake, the Waltz King, Johann Strauss, and post-Mozartian or sub-Mozartian parody. Still worse, he does this to please the audience, perhaps to please himself – and, it would seem, to rake in the cash, all the more shockingly when Salome had in any case purchased him his villa in Garmisch. Contrast, later, Schoenberg in American exile, suffering for his art, with the private premiere of the prologue to Capriccio at the home of Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach, who helped Strauss to secure his threatened Belvedere property in Vienna. A villa here, a villa there, even when the whipped cream has been transformed into something a little easier on the arteries. It all adds up: the property portfolio and the calories – and doesn’t the composer know it?

What do we have here then? There is of course the ‘failure’ – an apt characterisation of the charge, even if not of the reality – to continue along a modernist line. There is a retreat, perhaps to court (relative) popularity, perhaps to maximise the financial proceeds, perhaps even so as not to engage with the world around him: the aristocratic manners of Capriccio’s eighteenth-century château might seem less than relevant to the world of 1941. (Again, I should stress that these are not necessarily my own views.) Technical, perhaps especially harmonic, innovation often tends to lead, or at least to be seen to lead, to exploration of new emotional, psychological, æsethetic, even political and societal realms. If the political had been notably absent from Elektra, the psychopathological had not. Similarly, lack of innovation tends to suggest a general lack of adventure. It is barely a step from this to seeing middle- and often late-period Strauss, with at best a few exceptions, as failing to face up to the demands of the present, whether through weakness or the composer’s own deliberate fault: a loss of nerve, incomprehension even, or more or less straightforward cynical exploitation.

Strauss admittedly did not help his case here, making bourgeois, even philistine pronouncements pour épater les anti-bourgeois. He was a profoundly cultured man, who had read – and criticised – Schopenhauer at an early age and knew his Goethe inside out. Karl Böhm relates: ‘sometimes it was quite impossible to follow Strauss in every topic of his conversation: one had to be as well up in literature as in music to be able to hold one’s own with him. He was at home in German literature as no other musician ... he knew Faust by heart. He was equally familiar with Russian literature.’ And yet, he often portrayed himself as being more interested in playing cards or counting the receipts. Karl Kraus provided the biting description – does he ever fail to draw blood? – of Strauss as ‘certainly more of a stock company than a genius’. Even in an intercepted letter to Stefan Zweig, in which Strauss came as close to an outright attack upon the Nazi regime as he ever did, he could not resist, or seemingly did not wish to resist, a financial reference. ‘For me,’ he wrote, ‘the Volk only begins to exist when it becomes the audience. It’s all the same to me if they come from China, Upper Bavaria, New Zealand, or Berlin, so long as they have paid full price at the box office.’

It has become commonplace to deplore aspects of an artist’s behaviour, whilst admiring his art. This does not seem to hold for Strauss, suggesting that something additional is at work. One often finds in Strauss’s accusers a sense of moral outrage, or at least distaste, that a composer of such gifts is, for more or less reprehensible reasons, letting them go to waste, frittering them away, acting dishonestly. One sees a school-report-like suspicion that Strauss could easily – and ‘ease’ suggests the composer’s facility – have done so much better. Carl Dahlhaus, far from an outright anti-Straussian, opines: ‘The break between self-satisfied cantabile and orchestral sophistication in Strauss ... is impossible to ignore,’ the ‘relationship between technique and expression’ being ‘precarious’. This implies a squandering of fabulous technique, an easy way out, almost because he could. Elgar or Pfitzner are, for instance, and irrespective of one’s gauging of their music’s musical worth, generally seen as ‘honest’ or ‘honourable’ conservatives. There is integrity to what they are attempting, even for those who doubt the quality of the outcome. Strauss is, in a word, irresponsible, whereas an authentic modern artist must, in post-Romantic style, shoulder responsibility, for the development of his art, and even for the moral health, instruction, and progress of the world around him. For Strauss, poets or artists should not be the legislators of the world, not because they are unimportant, but because being an artist is so much more important than being a legislator. His creed is æstheticism through and through.

This is a composer who notoriously could not understand the preoccupation with redemption evinced by Mahler, who has latterly come to be seen as the prophet of twentieth-century music. With candid honesty, Strauss could tell Otto Klemperer: ‘I don’t know from what I am to be redeemed. When I sit down at my desk in the morning and I get an idea, I don’t need redemption. What did Mahler mean by it?’ Mahler’s own claim – often misleadingly quoted – ‘The time will come, when men will see the chaff separated from the wheat – and my time will come when his [Strauss’s] is up,’ might not quite have been fulfilled; Strauss’s time has never quite been called. Nevertheless, a Mahlerian ascendancy has been achieved, whether in musicological, compositional, or performing circles, and the qualities for which Mahler is admired, be they moral, modernist, or both, tend to be viewed as lacking in Strauss. Indeed, Schoenberg, declining a request for an appreciation on Strauss’s fiftieth birthday, would claim: ‘... since I have understood Mahler (and I cannot grasp how anyone can do otherwise) I have inwardly rejected Strauss’.

In addition to the accusation of squandering gifts, there is also a sense of something unwholesome, unhealthy, degenerate even, in an interesting variation upon a German theme. There is also an abiding moral question: what is Strauss’s music for? Are we being manipulated? If so, to what end? The conclusion often seems to be shockingly nihilistic, the virtual paradox of being manipulated to no end whatsoever, unless one buys the line of financial reward. Far from the most unambiguous of modernists, Hans Werner Henze would nevertheless voice the accusation of a lack of moral purpose with particular force:

Beethoven regarded his whole enterprise as a contribution to human progress. As with Marxism, his goal is not God but Man, whereas there are other artists who have never given a thought to the moral function of their work; for instance Richard Strauss, who is for me – perhaps I’m going too far – something like a court composer to Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Picking up on the idea of degeneracy, it is worth noting that Thomas Mann’s Adrian Leverkühn contracts venereal disease from his visit to the prostitute Esmerelda following a performance of Salome. Having been infected, straining, as it were, to become Schoenberg becomes the fictional composer’s impossible penance (impossible in the sense that it was even for Schoenberg himself). Consider the following words from Adorno, which could never be applied to Strauss, whom we might consider here as Schoenberg’s antipode:

[Schoenberg’s] music denies the very thing we have been accustomed, since Shakespeare’s days, to expect from music as the magical art: consolation. In the era of music’s emancipation it claims to be nothing more than the voice of truth, without the crutches of the familiar, but also without the deception of praise and false positivity. The strength to do this, not illusion, is what is consoling about it. One could say that Schoenberg translated the Old Testament ban on images into music.

If Schoenberg stands for truth, does not Strauss stand for something false, for consolation, for ‘the deception of praise and false positivity’, for illusory images? In other words, if Schoenberg is Moses, is not Strauss Aron? There is no claim to that ‘truth’ towards which Schoenberg’s, Wagner’s, Mahler’s, or Beethoven’s music strains. Nor is there a polemical anti-Romantic stance, such as Stravinsky’s, proclaiming that music cannot or should not strain towards the truth: in itself, amongst other things, a claim to truth. Perhaps this is why after a 1963 performance of Der Rosenkavalier, Stravinsky would say that Strauss could charm and delight, but never move. ‘He didn’t give a damn,’ was the damning verdict. One would certainly search in vain for a ‘message’ to take home from Elektra; to read it as a moral homily upon family breakdown would be an eccentricity too far. Whether we can agree on what Moses und Aron, Parsifal, a Mahler symphony, or the Missa solemnis might ‘mean’, many would agree that some form of argument or transformation is intended; not with Strauss.

One crucial Straussian remnant, however, is something with which moralists have long had difficulty: irony. In Kierkegaard’s words, ‘the ironist sets himself above ethics and morals. ... He renders his ego infinite.’ He may feel ‘remorse, but aesthetically not morally’. Irony has long been associated with nihilism, which again rings true for Strauss. Indeed, Leon Botstein has suggested that, in contradistinction to so many modernist composers, Strauss is content to employ irony, ornament, and detachment, not to ‘undercut wisdom,’ but rather as its instruments. I do not have time to explore the morality of detachment, the morality of ornament – which, you may recall, Schoenberg’s friend, the modernist architect, Adolf Loos, branded a ‘crime’ – or the morality of irony. However, I should like to conclude with a thought upon the latter. When Strauss’s mask drops, as in the Composer’s panegyric to Music in Ariadne auf Naxos, or in Metamorphosen, that great lament for a classical Germany in flames, Strauss proves to be one of the most moving of all composers; he actually appears to be doing what many have thought he ought. It is, I admit, very difficult not to wish that this happened more often. Yet, in the conclusion of his book, The compass of irony, Douglas Muecke writes, against Kierkegaard:

The real basis of his objections to irony is his commitment ... to a closed-world ideology. ... Since he was a believer, there was one direction in which he could not be ironical ... The business of irony is to see clearly and ask questions. ... Irony, mobile and disengaged, has always been an object of suspicion in the eyes of established authority and those who feel a need for its blessing. ... It was not only because Heine was a Jew that the Nazis attacked his works.

If Strauss enables us to see more clearly and to ask questions, if he stands as an object of suspicion in the eyes of conventional, whether justified or otherwise, ways of conceiving of music and morality, then we might consider him rather differently. Henze’s accusation that Strauss had never given a thought to the moral function of his work seems to me untrue; it was, rather, rare indeed for this function to provide the subject matter of his work. Do we really need to attack his works? The greatness of Mahler or Schoenberg will not be lessened by appreciation of Strauss. As a caution against constraints upon thinking and upon experience, against the ‘closed-world ideology’ evoked above, Strauss might prove to be a force for good after all.

Monday 15 June 2009

Angela Hewitt piano recital, 13 June 2009

Wigmore Hall

Rameau – Pièces de clavecin (selection)
Dukas – Variations on a theme by Rameau
Couperin – ‘Sixième ordre’ from Pièces de clavecin, Book II
Ravel – Le tombeau de Couperin

We live in curious times, musically speaking. French Baroque keyboard music is undergoing a mini-revival of interest on the piano, such repertoire, Marcelle Meyer notwithstanding, never quite having been considered mainstream or even acceptable before. Meanwhile, the days when Bach and Handel were part of the symphonic and mainstream choral repertoire – again, the French Baroque never really was – seem more distant than ever. Almost sixty years ago, Theodor Adorno could see the way the wind was blowing, lamenting in his brilliant essay, Bach defended against his devotees, that the sole concern of Bach’s ‘devotees’ – soon to become the fully-fledged authenticke Taliban – was to ensure that ‘no inauthentic dynamics, no modifications of tempo, no excessively large choirs and orchestra’ should be employed. Palpable was the potential fury, ‘lest any more humane impulse’ should become audible. Things could only get worse – with the exception, that is of the piano. Pianists never agreed to relinquish Bach, of course, yet, even a few years ago, one would have been hard put to foresee that wonderful artists as eminent as Alexandre Tharaud and Angela Hewitt would be championing Rameau and Couperin. The clattering harpsichord retains the lion’s share of performances; yet, not only to reclaim lost territory, but to mount the occasional, though repeated incursion such as this, represents a remarkable turn of events.

One obvious way to programme such music is with later French piano music, especially that avowedly inspired by the clavecinists. Hewitt took this path, with results amply justifying the means. My reservations, such as they were, tended to lie with the later repertoire, in which I was not so convinced as I have been upon hearing, say, Tharaud in similar circumstances. Still, an enthusiastic audience – surely including a good number of Hewitt followers – seemed to respond most warmly of all to her Ravel, so mine was perhaps a minority opinion.

Opening the menu was a Rameau selection. From the Suite in D major we heard Le lardon and La joyeuse. Hewitt’s ever-sensitive touch seemed perfectly attuned to the delicacy required from the French baroque, never neglecting the pianistic opportunities afforded by the modern instrument. She proved flexible of rhythm and projected an undeniably ‘French’ quality to her performances. Likewise in the feminine charm of the Fanfarinette from the Suite in A minor and the succeeding selection of four pieces from the Suite in G minor. A nice contrast was drawn between the opening, gentle melancholy of Les triolets and the forthrightness of the celebrated piece, Les sauvages, subsequently incorporated in the opera-ballet, Les indes galantes. Les sauvages showcased Hewitt’s pianistic staccato and marcato, without unwarranted excursions into Gouldian territory (not that I am aware of her fellow Canadian ever performing French Baroque music). Repose and restlessness were held in perfect balance in the startling L’enharmonique, which does what it says on the tin. Telling rubato aided and abetted the composer’s chromaticism. The final piece, L’egyptienne employed the full panoply of the piano’s resources. In its almost Vivaldian – yet more interesting – drama, sequences and all, we heard an apt conclusion to this Rameau selection.

Paul Dukas’s 1902 Variations, interlude, and finale on a theme by Rameau followed, the theme being Le lardon, heard at the opening of the recital. The variations immediately plunge us into late-Romantic territory, the first almost Reger-like in harmony and texture. Yet there remained hints of the Baroque, pointed to in Hewitt’s underlining of dotted rhythms. I am not entirely sure that Dukas’s work adds up to more than the some of its parts, but it is an interesting journey, worth making occasionally. (In her programme notes, Hewitt related that she first learned the piece thirty years ago, when ‘some judges in international competitions couldn’t understand why I bothered!’) The fifth variation sounded somewhere between Franck and Busoni, whose parallel spirit surfaced from time to time throughout the work. Lisztian harmonies were projected to full effect in the sixth, followed by an admirably skittish account of the seventh, preparing the way for a big Romantic tone in the subsequent variation. In the final, eleventh variation, we heard a great build up of such tone, followed by an ominous subsiding into the interlude, and then the compendious finale. If a little distended, it was fun to hear hints – and more than hints – of what had gone before, with something of Franck (Debussy’s ‘modulating machine) and even the odd Debussyan shift.

The Couperin ordre received an alert, enlightening performance, its opening piece, Les Moissonneurs, presenting an immediate sense of gentle rhythm, nevertheless strongly projected: delicate, yet never effete. Les Langueurs-Tendres was languorous, as the title would suggest, without lacking in forward purpose. There followed Le Gazoüillement and Le Bersan, the former marvelously elegant, its chirping evoking mental images of a Watteau scene. Les Baricades Mistérieuses – what a wonderful title! – benefited from a nice swing, judicious rubato, and clear textures in a potentially muddy register. Les Bergeries sounded aptly pastoral, Hewitt evincing typical care for detail, yet pointing out the wood as well as the trees. I found La Commére somewhat strident, though perhaps it should be, in its presentation of a gossip. And the closing piece, Le Moucheron, once again benefited from an excellent sense of rhythm.

Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin was the masterpiece on the programme. Much of Hewitt’s performance was very good, but I sometimes found her a little lacking in style, especially when compared with her Baroque performances. The Prélude was forthright, resolutely unsentimental, but could perhaps have sounded a little more delicate. I suspect that the pianist’s chosen Fazioli instrument lessened the chance of pastel shades. Ravel’s part-writing was splendidly handled in the Fugue, followed by an excellent account of the Forlane. Here, Hewitt’s rhythmic sense was spot-on from the outset; we heard a true dance, elegant too, with links to Couperin, especially in the composer’s ornamentation, readily to be heard. It is difficult, though far from impossible, not to sound a little heavy-handed in the Rigaudon. Hewitt did not entirely succeed, though there was a lively and once again forthright character to her performance. The Menuet was startling slow, Romantic in both tempo and flexibility. Rhythms were nicely twisted and nostalgia pervaded without overwhelming. Old France was beautifully and movingly evoked; this is, after all, Ravel’s memorial to friends who had fallen on the battlefield. I was especially taken by the powerful climax in the minor-mode section. More than a hint of Liszt here prepared us for the pyrotechnics of the concluding Toccata. Hewitt sounded every inch the virtuoso here. She was generally elegant, though at times she could err a little towards the heavy-handed. The ‘French’ sound and style pervading her Rameau and Couperin were intermittently present in her Ravel, then; much the same could be said of the encore, Debussy’s Clair de Lune. Ultimately, however, this was a splendid opportunity to hear French Baroque music, not only on the piano, but in such enlightening company.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Piotr Anderszewski piano recital, 9 June 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Schumann – Gesänge der Frühe, op.133
Bach – Partita no.6 in E minor, BWV 830
Janáček – In the mists
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110

What an intelligently constructed programme! Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe – songs of dawn, or at least so the composer hoped – disintegrated, without a break, let alone applause, into the labyrinth of Bach’s minor-mode chromaticism. Janáček’s mists gave way to the sunlight of Beethovenian serenity, albeit with a great struggle to come. With Bartók (Three folk songs from the Csík district) and more Bach as encores, the programme extended with discernible purpose. And how intelligently it was performed too! Any reservations I might have entertained were almost negligible in the face of Piotr Anderszewski’s artistry.

I find the Schumann pieces profoundly disturbing. Fascinating, yes, and too good, at least in parts, to languish unperformed, yet ultimately indicative of the composer’s mental decline. ‘Because of the very unique [surely something is unique or it is not...] character of the work,’ the programme advised us, ‘Mr Anderszewski has asked if the audience could kindly restrain from applauding after the piece.’ And so it did. Anderszewski’s performance was aptly, indeed frighteningly, withdrawn. The first piece’s opening simplicity was striking, all the more so given the honest beauty of the pianist’s touch, and the underlying fragility thereby projected. Inner-part dissonances told without exaggeration. The fits and starts of the following piece I found straightforwardly distressing. With the following piece, marked Lebhaft, we heard disturbed and disturbing reminiscences of the composer’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, both in the rhythms and aspects of the melodic profile. The fourth piece sounded beautifully Chopinesque, a weakened Eusebius making his final bow. And then the opening, noble stillness of the final piece faded into a chilling nothingness.

From this, emerged the opening flourishes of the Bach partita’s Toccata. For me, this movement was the sole disappointment of the recital. Reminders of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue notwithstanding, the movement wanted grandeur, presenting in its place a surprising rhythmic straitjacketing (especially surprising given Anderszewski’s flexibility elsewhere). The fugue rightly revelled in Bach’s chromaticism; yet, the subject was hammered out a little too much at times. However, the following movements soon made up for this. Anderszewski managed an extraordinary yet necessary balancing act in the Allemande: a strong yet delicate rhythmic profile. Likewise in the ensuing Corrente, which proved nicely quirky in the handling of melodic twists, syncopations, and their harmonic implications. A strong sense of structure underpinned the dance, so much so that I wished it would go on forever. The melancholic Air proved an object lesson in projection of harmonic motion. Then came the emotional core of the suite, the Sarabande. A heart-stopping dignity characterised this magical, inward performance, its extremely slow tempo utterly justified by Anderszewski’s artistry. Rhythm was once again very much the thing for the Tempo di Gavotta movement, which led us into a sharply edged fugal Gigue of abiding, prophetically Beethovenian, cumulative power.

Janáček’s voice was nailed immediately in the performance of In the mists (V mlhách). The individuality of the composer’s piano writing was clear to all through Anderszewski’s wondrous, magical touch. Echoes of Chopin were heard in the second movement, yet quite transformed, both in the rapt, slow sections and the virtuosic Presto writing. Urgent insistence intervened and shattered the already broken lyricism of the following movement, preparing the way for Moravian melancholy in the final piece. Hints of Bartókian night music vied with almost operatic vocal lines and angry, yet never grotesque dissonances.

And so, the sun emerged for the paradoxical – or better, dialectical – opening of the Beethoven sonata. Anderszewski judged to a tee the opening’s innocence and experience. The turn to the minor mode, however, brought a sudden wintry cold, albeit a cold soon warmed by magical, Schubertian modulations. The Allegro molto proved a true scherzo: rhythm and gruff humour (unlike in Chopin’s scherzi) to the fore, and violence too, though never of the attention-seeking variety. With the Adagio ma non troppo instrumental recitative, we stood on the brink of the still centre of this work, a parallel to the Bach Sarabande. What must follow a recitative? An aria, or at least an arioso, but Beethoven’s Arioso dolente is a rare example indeed. Anderszewski’s performance was just what Beethoven’s title says it should be, but how it was sung, and how unutterably sad it proved! It was simple, yet anything but, another typical late-Beethoven dialectic. The fugal subject grew out of the conclusion to the arioso, just as the opening movement had emerged from Janáček’s mists. The pianist’s voicing was more exquisite than one could imagine, though never at the expense of real power in the bass octaves and indeed in his structural command. With the return to desolate arioso, the pain of Neapolitan harmony reinforced the composer’s nobility of utterance, which in turn led to a truly mysterious transition to the inverted fugue. This, rather like Mozart’s miracle of quintuple invertible counterpoint in the finale to the Jupiter Symphony, sounded like the most natural thing in the world. Beethoven and Anderszewski proved equally expert pupils of Bach. And yet, there remained something defiantly strange – or should that be strangely defiant?

Sunday 7 June 2009

Così fan tutte, English National Opera, 6 June 2009

The Coliseum

Fiordiligi – Susan Gritton
Dorabella – Fiona Murphy
Ferrando – Thomas Glenn
Guglielmo – Liam Bonner
Don Alfonso – Steven Page
Despina – Sophie Bevan

Abbas Kiarostami (director)
Elaine Tyler-Hall (associate director)
Malika Chauveau (designs)
Jean Kalman (lighting)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Stefan Klingele (conductor)

ENO’s new Così fan tutte hit the headlines – or at least the arts headlines – some time before it opened, owing to our Teheran Embassy’s inability to provide director Abbas Kiarostami with a visa. After interminable wrangling, an exasperated Kiarostami, eventually pulled out; he entrusted work in London, the production having been premiered last year at the Festival d’Aix en Provence, to his deputy, Elaine Tyler-Hall. Even in the dying days of New Labour, British foreign policy remains on every level a disgrace. Still, our American friends will doubtless be relieved to hear that they are not alone in erecting such barriers to artistic cooperation. Some allowances might therefore be in order.

Kiarostami, it seems, did not even know the opera before it was suggested he direct it. There is indeed a sense of first acquaintance, for, unlike so many directors, this one appears to take the action at face value. Kiarostami’s Così is set where the libretto says it should be: the Bay of Naples, in period too. I have no problem with that; with the exception of Vesuvius, surely a gift for a director, although I have never seen it acted upon, the setting in itself seems largely immaterial to me. There are a couple of hints that we today are observing and engaged with something then: the filmed backdrop of a Neapolitan caffé during the first scene, and the unfortunate filmed backdrop of the orchestra during the final scene. I say unfortunate, since it is extremely – and unproductively – distracting to endure the discrepancies between a filmed account and what one is hearing from the pit. But nothing more is made of these then-and-now suggestions.

I suppose, to quote Geoff Andrew’s programme note on the director, that we are intended, as with Kiarostami’s films, ‘to engage ... actively rather than passively ... to exercise our imaginations rather than submit to the film-maker’s will’. Again, I have no problem with that, up to a point, but my imagination struggled with what seemed a traditional-by-default staging, almost a throwback – though I am not at all sure this was intended – to Michael Hampe’s 1983 Salzburg production (available on DVD, under Riccardo Muti’s baton), with the caveat that one would have seen such a production quite differently a quarter of a century ago. A concert performance or a recording might have done a better job in terms of firing the imagination. There was nothing perverse about this Così: a relief one should not underestimate, especially in the wake of Jonathan Miller’s Covent Garden production, a travesty, inexplicably lauded, which transforms this darkest, most sophisticated of comedies into a vulgar farce. Yet productions as different as the two most recent Salzburg versions, the first from Hans Neuenfels, and subsequently from Karl-Ernst and Ursula Herrmann, have enlightened and provoked, without being inappropriate. (I await impatiently the latest offering, this summer, from Claus Guth, whose Figaro impressed me so much in 2007.) Here, everything that makes Così so unbearably painful appears not so much to be disregarded as unappreciated, a failing which, understandably, given the parameters set, carried through into much of what we heard too. If you like Jane Austen, especially in television adaptation, this might entertain you. Martin Fitzpatrick’s English translation did not help: if Così must be translated, and I fail to see what is gained, then sophistication, not cheap laughs, should be the order of the day in conveying Lorenzo da Ponte’s fine text.

The cast was a likeable bunch; if there was little in the way of dramatic penetration, this must in part be ascribed to the production. At her best, Susan Gritton impressed as Fiordiligi. She has a strong but not overwhelming stage presence and is a thoughtful musician. Yet her tuning was not always impeccable, a drawback which was sometimes difficult to ignore. Fiona Murphy was a spirited Dorabella, well differentiated from her more thoughtful sister. Liam Bonner’s Guglielmo had the occasional rough edge but for the most part this was a winning portrayal. Although Thomas Glenn’s voice is not unattractive, it was often over-parted as Ferrando. Stevan Page’s Don Alfonso was more character than vocal triumph, but so too, it seems, was the creator of the role, as is reflected in Mozart’s writing. Sophie Bevan was a characterful, unusually youthful Despina, without the irritating traits of so many of her predecessors, but also unfortunately prone to a few intonational difficulties.

Conductor Stefan Klingele has been touted in ENO’s publicity as a ‘Mozart specialist’. Poor man! I have no idea what a ‘Mozart specialist’ would or could be expected to do; the idea certainly in no way approaches what might best suit Mozart. Is Sir Colin Davis a ‘Mozart specialist’? Is Daniel Barenboim? Were Karl Böhm and Otto Klemperer? Of course not. They are or were great musicians with a particular but far from exclusive feeling for and understanding of Mozart’s music, such feeling and understanding enriched by the host of other music, art, and ideas informing their experiences. I tend to agree with Boulez who has described specialists, in particular those of the ‘authenticke’ brigade, as ‘specialists in nullity’. This is why he always insisted that those auditioning for the Ensemble Intercontemporain should play a classical piece as well as a modern work. One wants – or at least I do – to hear the Berg in Mozart and the Mozart in Berg. (To do just this, listen to Boulez’s recent Decca CD of Mozart’s Gran Partita and Berg’s Chamber Concerto – with the Ensemble Intercontemporain.)

What, then, did this publicity tell us about Klingele? Nothing: he has conducted quite a bit of Mozart, but also much else; indeed, his website opens to the strains of Salome. Most importantly, he did a good job in an extremely difficult assignment. I had a few cavils: there was an unfortunate tempo change, repeated and therefore not a slip, in the overture, and there were passages, for instance in ‘Alla bella Despinetta’ and the end of the first act finale, in which the conducting became noticeably foursquare. Yet, for the most part, he conducted fluently and with an evident love for the score. There were no authenticke mannerisms to endure and he generally brought the best out of the ENO orchestra. A sour oboe aside, the woodwind often sounded magical, as did, bar one unfortunately exposed slip, those horns of incipient cuckoldry in ‘Per pieta, ben mio’. I felt little of the extreme pain with which Mozart’s most ravishing score should instruct us, but the production provides some explanation for this. Moreover, given the horrors unleashed by so many contemporary Mozart performances, one could certainly be grateful for what one heard.

I am sure that most people attending will have had a relatively enjoyable evening; in many respects, I did. Yet, when one reflects, as surely one ought to after a performance of Così, not to have been disturbed by this most truly shocking of works, this most unsparing revelation and indictment of romantic love, is disturbing in the wrong way.

Friday 5 June 2009

Lulu, Royal Opera, 4 June 2009

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Lulu – Agneta Eichenholz
Countess Geschwitz – Jennifer Larmore
Dr Schön/Jack the Ripper – Michael Volle
Alwa – Klaus Florian Vogt
Schigolch – Gwynne Howell
Animal Trainer/Rodrigo – Peter Rose
Dresser/Gymnast/Groom – Heather Shipp
Prince/Manservant/Marquis – Philip Langridge
Mother – Frances McCafferty
Painter/Negro – Will Hartmann
Professor of Medicine – Jeremy White
Fifteen-year old girl – Simona Mihai
Lady Artist – Monika-Evelin Liiv
Journalist – Kostas Smoriginas
Manservant – Vuyani Mlinde

Christof Loy (director)
Herbert Murauer (designs)
Reinhard Traub (lighting)
Thomas Wilhelm (movement)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Good news is in short supply for the Royal Opera’s new production of Lulu, but there was some. First, there actually is a new production of Lulu, the sole previous example (Götz Friedrich/Colin Davis) having been presented in 1981, revived once in 1983. (The two-act, pre-Cerha version was never staged at Covent Garden: extraordinary, until one considers what else has not been, whilst the neglected Tosca returns every season.)

Moreover, much of the singing was very good. Michael Volle scored another triumph with his role debut – remarkably, only Will Hartmann had sung his part before – as Dr Schön. Thoughtful, musical, as real a character as the production would allow him to be: this was a first-class performance. Hartmann impressed just as much and for just the same reasons, plus his honeyed tone, in his roles, especially the Painter. Klaus Florian Vogt made a welcome house debut as Alwa and exhibited the virtues we have come to know from his Walther and his Lohengrin. If perhaps too blank a canvas in the first act, this might well have been a response to direction; in any case, his desperation during the chilling final scene of the second act was moving indeed. Gwynne Howell simply was Schigolch: always a role to be relished, as here. I was put in mind of Norman Bailey. Jennifer Larmore was a more feminine Geschwitz than one often hears, beautifully sung, though not so strong, so differentiated a character as might be the case. Again, this qualification might at least partially be ascribed to the production. Peter Rose sang well, though he makes a physically unfortunate Athlete, unless, as did not seem to be the case, irony were intended. Philip Langridge offered carefully etched portrayals of his three roles, insofar as the production, etc., etc.

And then, of course, there was Agneta Eichenholz’s Lulu. Often impressive in vocal terms, though she struggled on a few occasions with the extraordinary difficulties of Berg’s writing, Eichenholz failed to exert the animal magnetism the role truly demands. Christine Schäfer, amongst others, has offered a portrayal so compelling as to leave this in the shade, and sadly, one cannot put out of one’s mind other singers in a role such as this. Even in a revisionist portrayal, it is not enough to be primarily a victim: Lulu is far more interesting than that. I suspect, however, that Eichenholz might grow into the role.

If the central role was a little underplayed, how much more so was the orchestra. In itself there was little to complain of in the orchestral playing; indeed, many woodwind and brass players truly shone. Antonio Pappano, however, showed once again that, whatever his abilities in the Italian repertoire, they are not paralleled in his conducting of German music. As so often in his Wagner, Pappano failed to weld the momentary into a greater structure, although there were perhaps fewer of the stop-start frustrations than in much of his Ring. Much of the score, especially during the first act, sounded tentative, unsure of where it was going or just diffident, as if the conductor were concerned to keep the orchestra down in favour of the singers. Some listeners apparently approve of such ‘considerate’ conducting but it underplays the labyrinthine complexity of Berg’s score, which here, extraordinarily, often sounded rather thin. Balancing Berg’s lines is here, as in his Op.6 Orchestral Pieces, a daunting task; it is not achieved by over-simplification of the textures, which in no way equates to Boulez’s famed clarity. There were, admittedly, audible reminiscences of Mahlerian dance rhythms, but they lacked bite and they lacked formal integration. Lulu makes enormous demands upon a conductor, just as it does upon a soprano. But there are several conductors who would be more suited to this task, so why not ask them? Boulez would doubtless have been impossible to persuade; likewise, I fear that we shall only be able to dream what a Lulu from Claudio Abbado or Bernard Haitink might have sounded like. Yet imagine what a storm might have been unleashed in the pit by Michael Gielen, Sir Simon Rattle, Zubin Mehta, or Christoph von Dohnányi. Sir Andrew Davis presented an excellent account at Glyndebourne. Ingo Metzmacher would have been another obvious choice. In a head-to-head contest at Covent Garden, Daniel Harding showed himself to have a far greater aptitude for Wozzeck than Pappano. I shall resist the urge to go on, but surely a Music Director should be more attuned to his strengths and weaknesses.

I invoked the production repeatedly when referring to the singers, so I ought now to explain. This was not quite a non-production but it was a non-scenic production, bar an irritating glass screen. Christof Loy calls this minimalism but I am not at all sure that it is appropriate for Lulu. True, some of the acting is well directed, and one notices it especially because there is nothing else at which to look. The æsthetic seems to remain realistic; there is no Robert Wilson-style artificiality. True, the production makes one concentrate on the score, which might have had considerable justification in a performance more strongly conducted, since again there is little else to detain one’s attention. Yet one could say that of a concert performance. The parallelism of the characters and to a certain extent that of the situations, was clear, given the lack of any particularity for any scene; again, one could say the same of a concert performance. Yet whilst the locations might not be of overriding importance, differentiation does matter. Without prior knowledge of the work, I cannot imagine a member of the audience being anything other than confused. Who were these people? Where were they and why were there? How had bourgeois society contributed to their predicament? Even a sparing depiction of some aspects of that society would have helped. Abstraction – and I realise that abstraction is not quite the same thing as such ‘minimalism’ – seems more or less the only path to follow in Tristan; it seems appropriate for a number of mythological works; it does not, however, follow that it will work in everything. I have admired a number of examples of Loy’s work before, most recently his Munich production of Henze’s The Bassarids. However, the director’s claim in the programme that ‘for me, the school of reductionism is a school of keen-eyed observation that focuses in part on the psychology of the characters and in part on their universal timelessness,’ seems to miss an important point. Works are different and not all of them will respond equally well to the demands of the same ‘school’. Time and place, not even necessarily those of the composer’s own vision, matter in Lulu.

I find myself, then, unable to offer more than a single cheer. The opportunity, at least in this country, to see Berg’s wonderful second opera is simply too rare for it not to be worth attending. However, a better choice of conductor and a more appropriate production could have made this so much more than a mixed blessing.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Music and Morality Conference, 15-17 June 2009

The University of London's Institute of Musical Research and the Institute of Philosophy will be co-hosting a three-day conference, organised by Guy Dammann, on Music and Morality, from 15 to 17 June. Keynote speakers will be: George Benjamin ('The composer as pied piper'), John Deathridge ('Music on trial'), Deirdre Gribbin ('Inside the truth: the composer as commentator, critic, and artist'), Jerrold Levinson ('Popular song as microcosm: life lessons in jazz standards), Susan McClary ('We creatures who musick'), and Roger Scruton (Virtue and vice on music'). There will be a plethora of additional speakers hailing from various academic disciplines, addressing subjects ranging from music education to Theresienstadt, from eighteenth-century Jesuit musical drama to Adorno. I shall be speaking as part of a double session on twentieth-century music, my paper addressing 'The case of Richard Strauss'. Further details may be found by clicking here.