Sunday 30 August 2009

Edinburgh International Festival (1): Ivo Pogorelich piano recital - Chopin, Liszt, Sibelius, and Ravel, 29 August 2009

Usher Hall

Chopin – Nocturne in E major, Op.62 no.2
Chopin – Piano sonata no.3 in B minor, Op.58
Liszt – Mephisto Waltz no.1
Sibelius – Valse triste, op.44
Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit

This was the strangest piano recital I have ever attended. Prefacing a transcendental account of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit were some of the most astonishingly perverse performances of other works I can recall. Perhaps the least odd element was the pianist’s incongruous dress: black tie and tails. Of course, Ivo Pogorelich has always been a controversial musician. Fame was thrust upon him by elimination after the third round from the 1980 Chopin Competition in Warsaw. Martha Argerich was so outraged that she resigned from the jury. Thereafter, performances and recordings elicited wildly divergent appraisals. Some thought Argerich’s hailing of a ‘genius’ not at all far from the mark. At least two recordings would readily find a place in my pianistic pantheon: one of Scarlatti sonatas, the other of Prokofiev’s Sixth Sonata and Gaspard de la nuit. Others were shocked by the liberties they heard. I am certainly no purist and should always welcome with open arms explorative risk-taking over dreary conformism, but I was nevertheless entirely unprepared for what was to follow.

Speaking of competition-winners – or otherwise – few composers have suffered at their hands so much as Chopin. The number of bland, technically perfect performances inflicted upon this poet of the keyboard can scarcely be guessed. Pogorelich was having none of that, instead presenting a deliberate, nay trudging, E major Nocturne, with great emphasis – to put it mildly – placed upon the melodic line. Think of an organist thumping out a fugue subject on a trumpet stop and you might approach the idea. There was greater movement, for there could hardly have been less – or so I thought – as the music became more contrapuntally involved: fair enough. There was also a wholesale transformation from deliberation to an improvisatory quality that suggested bar lines had magically melted away. This was distinctly odd but in a way refreshing. But then, we returned back to earth with a reprise of the opening style. The music pretty much ground to a halt. I suppose it made one consider the score anew, but even so…

The opening to the Allegro maestoso of the same composer’s third sonata was certainly maestoso, though decidedly grim. Hints of passion could be heard – briefly – in the build up to the second subject, but were soon banished. That theme was sung, but sung in a decidedly aggressive fashion, as if Pogorelich were determined to rid the music of any hint of degenerate Bellinian inspiration. Perhaps he was. There was a general feeling throughout of great listlessness. The scherzo brought mercurial virtuosity but its trio was distended almost beyond belief. (The first but not last intervention of a mobile telephone intensified the agony, whilst the bronchially-challenged made their presence felt unusually keenly throughout.) A strangely severe introduction to the Largo sounded as though it had come from the weird world of late Liszt. It led us into a rhythmically implacable, utterly unsmiling, positively – or negatively – glacial account of a movement drawn out to mammoth proportions. I am all for a Largo sounding as a Largo, but even so… The finale was rather more fitting: restless, but that works better here. Not only did one hear often breathtaking virtuosity; there was a certain musical sense to a strormy, vehement performance. It was too late though.

Concluding the first part was Liszt’s first Mephisto Waltz. Weirdness is less out of place here but Pogorelich nevertheless exceeded the bounds of the imaginable. This extraordinary rendition was so disjointed that it appeared to lose musical sense entirely; it resembled a peculiar laboratory experiment rather than a performance. Hammered out, it utterly lacked charm: this was neither Liszt nor Faust the seducer. The contrasting forest-music material was once again glacial in the extreme, though a certain sadness occasionally seeped through. Mephistopheles did not insinuate; he straightforwardly brutalised. One gin-and-tonic was certainly not enough for this browbeaten reviewer during the ensuing interval.

Sibelius’s Valse triste seemed an odd programming choice, but the performance proved far odder still. It was almost unbelievably slow – and I am not sure why I appended ‘almost’. This is a sad waltz, I know, and one does not expect Richard, let alone Johann, Strauss, but even so… There was considerable variation in the basic pulse, sometimes providing relief, sometimes in the opposing direction. The intensity of the climax was quite staggering, yet seemed bizarrely misplaced. However, there was something chillingly pure to the voicing of the final chords, which made one wonder, despite the barrage of coughing, about what might have been.

Finally, Gaspard de la nuit. With the very opening of Ondine, everything suddenly sounded right – and righted. Shimmering right-hand figuration provided a perfect foil to the left-hand song below and above. One could hear every note – almost all of them correct – without any sacrifice to the poetic effect. This certainly sounded more Lisztian than the Liszt piece had, both harmonically and in the well-judged application of virtuoso technique to musico-poetic ends. In Le gibet, a glacial, obstinate persistency, of an infintely more atmospheric quality than earlier on, could at last truly come into its own. Terror was in the air, though so was the noise from another electronic device. Lisztian pyrotechnics were even more to the fore in Scarbo, which received a truly diabolical reading. This sprite was dartingly elusive and unmistakeably malignant. Pogorelich’s performance was a tour de force but a musical one, fantastic in more than one sense. What happened thereafter I cannot tell, since I quickly fled the hall, lest a perverse encore tarnish the memory of what I had just heard.

Monday 24 August 2009

Prom 50: Fidelio - West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim, 22 August 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Leonore – Waltraud Meier
Florestan – Simon O’Neill
Don Pizarro – Gerd Grochowski
Rocco – Sir John Tomlinson
Marzelline – Adriana Kučerová
Jacquino – Stephan Rügamer
Don Fernando – Viktor Rud
First Prisoner – Andrew Murgatroyd
Second Prisoner – Edward Price

BBC Singers, Geoffrey Mitchell Choir (chorus master: Tim Murray)
West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Fidelio is not just any opera. But then, Beethoven is not just any composer. His only opera – unless one counts Leonore as a work in itself – confounds bureaucratic expectations. The unimaginative and the plain uncomprehending are led to decry it and sometimes, quite staggeringly, to account it a dramatic failure. Even Wagner, who should have known better, could be dismissive, for instance telling Cosima that a German theatre would be better off opening with Weber’s Euryanthe – admittedly, a wonderful work, but certainly a problematical one – ‘rather than with Fidelio, which is much more conventional and cold.’ Conventional? Hardly, given the boldness of substituting for the operatic expectations of conventional ‘characterisation’ the instantiation of an unutterably noble idea, ‘freedom’, itself liberated from the confines of bourgeois expectations. Wagner either could not see, or did not want to see – the latter, I suspect, more likely – that the ‘rescue opera’ was here both transcended and granted its enduring memorial. Cold? This work veritably blazes with heat, and it certainly did on this occasion, ‘occasion’ being truly the operative word. Still worse, we read Cosima a few years later record, again contrasting the work with Richard's beloved Euryanthe: ‘Then we start discussing Fidelio, which R. describes as unworthy of the composer of the symphonies, in spite of splendid individual passages.’ Suffice it to say, however, that there were here many ‘splendid individual passages,’ yet Fidelio was found not only to be worthy of the composer, but to speak directly of and to that all-too-real modern-day catastrophe to which the very existence of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra bears witness.

So much for what one might call the meta-performance, but what of the performance itself? Daniel Barenboim has rightly chided those who speak only of the context to this orchestra and not of its musical accomplishments. One cannot and should not forget the former, but the greatness of the enterprise shows in the extraordinary artistic results; disentangling the two is a fool’s game, and never more so than in a work such as this. I am delighted therefore to report that the expectations built up from the previous night’s two Proms (see here and here) were more than fulfilled. Indeed, the orchestral playing had a greater edge than it had during the first half of the first of those concerts. The strings once again demonstrated a depth that would be the envy of many a professional orchestra – at least it would, were the absurd authenticist fashion not to decry such tone. Occasionally the woodwind might have proved fallible, but so what? One does not expect Klemperer’s Philharmonia, astonishing in a different way. This work is about humanity, warts and all: just, in fact, what Beethoven is about. There were in any case ample compensations in the Harmoniemusik blend. The timpanist, a star from the previous night, once again shone brightly. The brass was often magnificent, nowhere more so than in those treacherous horn parts in Leonore’s first-act aria. They were not outshone by Waltraud Meier, which is saying something. And then, of course, there was that trumpet call. The thoughts and associations that rushed through one’s mind at that point were myriad, but I can certainly report that it brought tears to my eyes.

Barenboim’s direction was vigorous, unfailingly engaged, attentive to singers and orchestra, without ever letting concerns for the possible detract from the necessity of the utopian. Some of the overture – unwisely, I thought, Leonore III – was impetuous rather than climactic in a Furtwänglerian sense. (The performance these musicians gave of the overture ‘as itself’ in Salzburg two years ago was manifestly superior.) But his remained a signal achievement, not least in terms of orchestral training, discipline, and of course inspiration. The other cavil I should register is with the version of the score employed. Messing about with Fidelio seems to be all the rage at the moment. The Paris Opéra recently commissioned new dialogue and re-ordered the opening sequence, beginning moreover with Leonore I. Barenboim did something similar, in eschewing almost all of the dialogue – is it really that bad? – and putting Marzelline’s aria before her duet with Jaquino (without, moreover, the tonal justification for this put forward by Sylvain Cambreling in Paris). But then, I realise that I was speaking above about confounding of expectations, so perhaps I am just lacking in imagination myself. There was, in any case, a reason for replacement of the dialogue, since it was replaced by Edward Said’s English narration for Leonore. On this of all occasions, to do so was quite understandable and it certainly provides a genuinely interesting and in some respects disquieting perspective upon the work. Hearing Leonore recount what had taken place from a chronological distance, and with clear implications that her hopes had since been dashed or at least significantly tempered, warns us against any move towards easy non-solutions. Don Fernando could never have put everything right.

Waltraud Meier, mostly recorded but also partly live, presented the narration vividly, in delightfully accented English. However, it was her vocal-dramatic performance that stole the show. She is of course a true stage animal; this shone through in her facial expressions, her gestures, as well as her voice. Yet, even though this was a concert performance, her performance was certainly notout of place. She actually brought us into the most important theatre of all, that of the imagination. And her account of Abscheulicher! ... Komm, Hoffnung was simply spellbinding. Simon O’Neill was an excellent Florestan. He could not efface memories of Jonas Kaufmann in that Paris performance last December, but to have hoped for that would have been entirely unreasonable. O’Neill proved himself fully capable of the testing demands of this cruel role and even brought the odd hint, if only a hint, of Jon Vickers to his timbre and projection. Gerd Grochowski was a late replacement for Peter Mattei as Pizarro. I have recently heard him both in Berlin and London as Telramund, and this performance was rather similar, evincing commendable attention to musical and verbal text, but remaining underpowered. This was undoubtedly exacerbated by the presence of Sir John Tomlinson as Wotan, sorry, Rocco. Tomlinson’s voice might be showing its age on occasion, but this is as nothing compared to the dramatic truth and commitment he shows. It was, however, somewhat unfortunate that Rocco should from the outset be so much more powerful a presence than Pizarro. Evil might or might not be banal, but we need to believe in the very real power this wicked man wields. The other parts were decently taken, Adriana Kučerová showing to good effect a beautiful voice, of which I should be more than happy to hear more. And it would be unforgivable not to mention the truly outstanding singing from the combined forces of the BBC Singers and the Geoffrey Mitchell Choir. Every note, every word, was audible, but just as immediate was the dramatic effect, whether of imprisonment, of hope, or of jubilation. The legendary Wilhelm Pitz’s Philharmonia Chorus for Klemperer is the gold standard here, but these musicians, if not so great in number – or at least that is how it sounds – have little to fear from such a comparison.

Wagner was doubtless right to prefer the Ninth Symphony for the laying of the foundation stone at Bayreuth. Yet the Ring, the sometime artwork of the future, is not the only nineteenth-century work that speaks immediately to our present condition. Fidelio does too (which is not, of course, to say that many other works do not). And so, still more so, does a performance of Fidelio such as this. Barenboim seems to me both right and wrong to say that when this orchestra comes together, politics disappear, since everyone must concentrate exclusively upon the music. For that coming together in the service of something far greater is unavoidably political. It shames those who create division and worse; it holds up an alternative. Such, after all, was the original intention of Barenboim and Said. To the orchestra, mere congratulations upon a tenth anniversary few, least of all its founders, could ever have anticipated, seem pitifully inadequate. And to Blair, Bush, Olmert, Ahmedinejad, Mugabe, Putin, et al., one wants, indeed needs, to say once again, with Horace, ‘Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur’ (‘Change but the name, and the tale is told of you’). Even if we cannot quite bring ourselves to believe that present-day tyrants and war criminals will be brought to justice, we must hope – and hope that at least some of their victims will be rescued. Beethoven and these inspirational young musicians help us do that. Komm, Hoffnung...

Sunday 23 August 2009

Prom 49: M.Barenboim/Said/Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim - Mendelssohn and Berg, 21 August 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Mendelssohn – Octet
Berg – Chamber Concerto

Michael Barenboim (violin)
Karim Said (piano)
Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The Prom earlier this evening had been very good, especially the performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique. However, this chamber Prom, with members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, was better still, in many respects outstanding.

Mendelssohn’s Octet is, of course, straightforwardly chamber music, so Daniel Barenboim was not on hand to conduct. However, the players seemed to heed Mendelssohn’s instruction that it ‘must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style.’ I was surprised how quickly my ears adjusted to chamber scale in the expanses of the Royal Albert Hall; in fact, it is often orchestral works of more modest proportions that fare least well here. The performance clearly led by returning, sweet-toned Guy Braunstein, this was nevertheless an opportunity, well taken, for all eight players to shine. Impressive cello playing not only underpinned the harmony but propelled the rhythms too. There was a winning richness to the inner viola writing too. There was an aching, though never exaggerated, Schubertian quality to the lovely first subject of the first movement, especially when that echt-Mendelssohnian moment of developmental exhaustion had been reached, announcing arrival and intensification. This movement really put a smile on my face, though the ensuing applause did not. (The BBC needs to sort this out once and for all. There is no ‘debate’ to be had concerning applause between movements and pointing to the practice of audiences in entirely different historical contexts is disingenuous.)

In the ensuing Andante, I fancied that I heard that very same melancholy Mendelssohn in a letter of 1838 ascribed to Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. Each of the eight parts made a valued and crucial contribution to a movement further characterised by pulsating tension and sweet lyricism (Schubert again). There was a longing that convinced, for it was never excessively romanticised. The celebrated scherzo was just as it should be: elfin and fantastical – though, quite rightly, not in the sense familiar from the Berlioz symphony heard earlier in the evening. It was feather-light, yet imbued with a strong rhythmic sense: again, just as it should be. I very much liked the way the finale was treated as a fugal continuation of the scherzo’s figuration, albeit with a degree of greater vigour. The players proved themselves virtuosic, yet always at the service of the music. Here was a real sense of music being tossed between the players and returned with interest: a gift, or perhaps dividend, for one and all. They revelled in musical invention as impressive as that of Haydn himself.

To combine the Mendelssohn Octet with Berg’s Chamber Concerto was an excellent way to involve a large number of the Divan players in (quasi-)chamber music. First it had been the strings’ turn, now the wind – plus Michael Barenboim and Karim Said. This is a work in which Barenboim père has a distinguished record, having recorded the work not just once but twice under Pierre Boulez. Such experience could only reap benefits when switching to the role of conductor, and so it proved. It was interesting, moreover, to note how much this proved to be chamber music; often the conductor was confident enough in his players simply to set the framework within which they would perform, though there were times when, quite rightly, the piece was very much conducted. The first movement scherzo and variations opened with a splendid sense of following on, intensification even, as we heard first piano, then violin (thereafter silent until the Adagio), then wind. Suddenly the work was in full flow, the Bergian labyrinth revealed, and what a labyrinth this is! Said seemed very much to have the measure of Berg’s ambivalent – or should that be dialectical – style, his position between late Romanticism and modernity. There was some truly magnificent trombone playing: proof that a fine player of a relatively unusual chamber instrument has nothing whatsoever to fear from comparison with what are likely to be more seasoned colleagues. The pair of clarinets took one back to Wozzeck and forward to Lulu, in a highly dramatic, rhythmically charged reading to which Daniel Barenboim’s operatic experience must have contributed. Fine piccolo playing suggested a homage to Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony; indeed, I do not think I have heard the lineage so clearly traced in this fiftieth-birthday tribute to Berg’s beloved teacher. (And surely the Schoenberg is a work these players now should tackle!)

The violin entry in the second movement announced Michael Barenboim’s late Romantic lyricism, with attendant sinuous quick vibrato. Berg’s sonority of violin and wind immediately summoned to mind the chorale to come from the violin concerto, though sometimes violent trombone interjections aptly reminded one that this is a very different piece. Here the intensity of the performance was such that I often forget that this was not ‘full’ orchestral music, pointing to a paradox, or rather dialectical outcome, that chamber performance might reap orchestral rewards, or vice versa. The wind band once again helped to evoke the shadow and/or inspiration of Schoenberg, this time in the guise of the Wind Quintet, op.26, and the Suite, op.29 (pre-emptively in the latter case). In the final movement, we could at last hear the two soloists together: this made me wish Berg had composed a sonata for violin and piano. Barenboim fils tackled the tricky harmonics – and tricky everything-else – with great aplomb, expressive as well as virtuosic, and there were interesting hints of Debussy from Said. Daniel Barenboim ensured that the ghostly shadows of Mahler’s dance rhythms shone through. (He really ought to conduct Lulu!) All players then led us once more into the labyrinth, if indeed we had ever escaped – not that we should wish to... These young, extraordinary talented musicians made one realise the myriad of possibilities Berg presents and alerted us to the decisions he then makes. Everything becomes inevitable, but only in retrospect; or, as Hegel so memorably put it, the owl of Minerva only spreads its wings at dusk. But spread its wings it did, and spread their wings these musicians did. This was Berg performance of the highest order.

Prom 48: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim - Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz, 21 August 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Liszt – Les préludes
Wagner – Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act I and Isolde’s ‘Liebestod’
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

This year, astonishingly, marks the tenth anniversary of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said for the celebrations marking Weimar’s year as European City of Culture, and which has proved to be a longer-lasting cultural contribution than anyone would have dared believe. It therefore seems fitting that this concert should comprise works of three ‘New German’ composers, all with strong links to the Weimar silver age of Liszt’s tenure. As well as composing his cycle of twelve symphonic poems and a host of other works there, Liszt gave performances of Lohengrin (the first) and Benvenuto Cellini.

I was astonished to see that Les préludes had not been performed at the Proms since 1963, all the more so since it was performed forty times between 1896 and 1940, on all but two of those occasions conducted by the indefatigable Sir Henry Wood. The recent and perhaps past fortunes of Liszt’s other symphonic poems will, I suspect, have been more ill-starred still. Following the astonishing warmth of the initial applause – one of the few good things a noisy, ill-behaved audience, or section thereof, contributed – I was immediately impressed by the non-clinical precision of the opening pizzicato. Barenboim imparted fluidity from the outset; yet though there was, thankfully, nothing rigid about this performance, there were times when it veered a little close to the rhapsodic. Not all of Furtwängler’s lessons had been learned on this occasion. There remained much to enjoy, not least the depth of the string tone: somewhere between old German and Russian – revealing hints of Tchaikovsky – in its quality. Moreover, there were some marvellous moments of rapt stillness from strings, including the harps, whilst, on occasion, the woodwind could have leaped straight out of Siegfried. If the brass section could not entirely escape vulgarity, that is Liszt’s responsibility; this was certainly a far more refined performance than the truly dreadful recording made by Sir Georg Solti in Chicago. The timpanist – sadly, none of the players can be named – was especially worthy of note, intensely musical here and elsewhere in the programme.

The Prelude and ‘Liebestod’ – Liszt’s term, not Wagner’s – evinced a truly remarkable opening, that initial A emerging ex nihilo. A wonderfully rich vibrato from the cellos contributed to the magic of these opening bars, though incessant audience coughing proved a significant handicap. Sometimes, I thought Barenboim’s reading a little on the brisk side. Whilst there were occasions when the tempo led to a real sense of surge, there were others when it was just hard-driven. That bass clarinet sounded wonderful though. The almost imperceptible move into the transfiguration was disgracefully disrupted by fulsome bronchial commentary. Later on there was an unusually prominent part for opening of a fizzy drink; clearly the BBC’s hiking of ticket prices did nothing to attract a more attentive, or just decent, audience. It was interesting, insofar as one could hear, to note thereafter how the shimmering of the strings made Wagner’s original sound surprisingly close to Liszt’s piano transcription. Barenboim’s control of line here was absolute, contrasting with Les préludes. It seemed over very quickly, though metaphysical depths had not been plumbed on this occasion. The problem I have often had, and did so again here, with accounts of these two excerpts is that, even if one can overlook the tonal difficulties of yanking them together, the pay-off does not seem hard-won enough, without experiencing what must come in between.

Barenboim has considerable form in Berlioz, his repertoire in that composer’s music extending significantly beyond that of many conductors. Here, however, it was the turn of the Symphonie fantastique, indubitably Berlioz’s most celebrated, even notorious, work. It was the WEDO strings I noticed immediately, on this occasion the extremely well-judged portamento, both in the first movement introduction and later. Even the introduction exhibited considerable contrasts, proving at times quite excitable: nothing wrong with that. There followed one of the most convincing transitions to the exposition I have heard. Berlioz’s nervous energy and the strangeness of his scoring came through very well. Un bal was taken without a break, not that this stopped the coughers from marking the new movement in dubious style. There was a notable sense of dramatic and nervous continuity, both within the movement and in relation to the first. Here, as elsewhere, Barenboim’s twin operatic and symphonic experience was apparent, providing excitement in the approach to the climax. The scene in the fields brought an opening duet for two shepherds (oboe and English horn) and bronchial chorus (in something akin to quadraphonic sound). Still more unforgivable was the subsequent intervention of a mobile telephone. Otherwise, the music flowed without ever sounding pushed. Echoes of the Pastoral Symphony were to the fore, before and during the thunder. There was a truly magnificent clarinet solo; how I wish I could name the player. In a less than excellent performance, I can tend to become restless during this movement. There was no chance of that here; indeed, I was captivated. And the thunder brought intriguing premonitions of the following March to the Scaffold.

That movement received an equally fine, characterful performance. Barenboim gave unusual prominence to the bassoon, whose player truly shone. Brass came to the fore but not too much. One could hear a great deal of often overlooked detail and there was a splendid sense of onward propulsion to the whole of the march. In the final movement, the sheer weirdness of Berlioz’s virtuosic orchestration was immediately apparent, the idée fixe a splendid self-parody on E-flat clarinet. And the bells! I have never heard them sound so ‘real’; I do not know how this was achieved, but we really could fancy ourselves in a churchyard. Contrast that with the pitiful – and expensive – bell sound achieved by ENO for its recent Boris Godunov. We were thus properly led into the Dies irae, rather than having it sound, as sometimes it can, as though it has emerged from nowhere. This, then, was one of the most vividly pictorial accounts – one could really see the composer’s strange otherworldly creatures – I can recall of Berlioz’s extraordinary work, yet without any loss to structural cohesiveness. The two facets indeed were strengthened by one another, proving the ultimate pointlessness of debates opposing programme and ‘absolute’ music. A splendid romp at the end rounded off a very fine performance. Yet, as Barenboim eventually announced, there would be no encores as such; instead there would be an additional late-night concert, on which details will now follow.

Sunday 16 August 2009

Interview with Irvine Arditti

The Arditti Quartet will be giving two recitals at the Edinburgh Festival, both of which I shall be reviewing. I was privileged to interview Irvine Arditti, who was kind enough to take time off from his holiday in Spain, in order to discuss the programmes and the thinking behind them. The music performed will be as follows:

Beethoven - String Quartet in F minor, op. 95
Berg - String Quartet, op.3
Nigel Osborne - Tiree (world premiere, EIF commission)
Ligeti - String Quartet no.2

Beethoven - String Quartet in B-flat major, op.133, 'Grosse Fuge'
Dutilleux - String Quartet: 'Ainsi la nuit'
Webern - Six Bagatelles for string quartet, op.9
Schoenberg String Quartet no.2

MB: Thank you very much for agreeing to speak to me. I thought it would make sense first to consider the two programmes the Arditti Quartet will be performing at the Edinburgh Festival. One thing I noticed immediately was the presence of Beethoven in both. Admittedly, the works in question are late and what one might describe as ‘almost late’ Beethoven, music that often seems more shocking in its modernity than much twentieth or twenty-first repertoire. But is the presence of Beethoven in your quartet’s repertoire as unusual as it might seem?

IA: Well, I think it’s a double-edged sword really. In a way, Beethoven is there, for one reason, to make the programmes a little more attractive for the non-contemporary music aficionado: people interested in hearing string quartets but who are not exactly contemporary music specialists. This is the sort of programme we do in many places that are not venues for contemporary music festivals, and which have a chamber music series, so there is a definite desire to make the programmes attractive to people who are not going to come for the modern pieces and who will listen to them. But also late Beethoven is something that the Arditti Quartet has done – a select few pieces. It’s always been my desire to put the Grosse Fuge at the beginning of a programme and continue with contemporary music, rather as a statement to living composers, like: ‘This is what Beethoven did; now let’s see what you can do.’ This is such an extraordinary piece.

MB: Yes, I can see that makes a great deal of sense. Have you ever gone further back, say to Haydn, or even to music one might perform with a string quartet, such as Bach or Purcell? Or is Beethoven pretty much as far back as you would go?

IA: Bach’s Ricercata [from the Musical Offering] in sextet arrangement and we did a special project with members of the Alban Berg Quartet, which included Brahms sextets, but we’ve never really seriously played Classical music such as Haydn and Beethoven. We once played a Haydn quartet, but it was a very special request. But it’s not really the repertoire of the Arditti Quartet and it’s not really necessary for us to play Classical music, because we’re so busy doing other things.

MB: No, I can understand that; it’s not as if there is a shortage of other things for you to play.

IA: You wouldn’t expect a quartet like the Mosaïques to play Zemlinsky, or Schoenberg, or even more contemporary pieces, so why should we be playing Classical music when we have a wealth of repertoire from the beginning of the twentieth century until today?

MB: Yes, absolutely, so would you tend broadly to see the quartet’s repertoire as starting with Schoenberg, perhaps going a little further back, and that being the starting-point for a century or more’s further music?

IA: Yes, starting with the Second Viennese School. Our classics were the Second Viennese School and Bartók and going back to Beethoven came later, but it’s very important for us to add more classical quartets to our repertoire. We have played Ravel and Janáček quartets and I think it’s very important to communicate to audiences with these pieces. And, as I said two minutes ago, we need to communicate to audiences who don’t know so much about contemporary music, but enjoy coming to listen to the string quartet, and we try not to frighten them away, but attract them.

MB: The matter of audiences puts me in mind of something else. On the one hand, as you say, there will be audiences very interested in quartet, and perhaps more broadly chamber, music, who might be enticed to come along to hear more contemporary music. Do you find, though, that perhaps the audiences more interested in contemporary music are sometimes less interested in chamber, and indeed more specifically quartet, music? Or is that not really an issue?

IA: I think there are different sorts of audiences. A lot of the people that like contemporary music do not come from the classical music repertoire. There are a lot of people that enjoy listening to Ligeti and Xenakis, or whatever, who come from another listening point of view. Some of them come from classical music, sure, but some of them come from jazz and other alternative music. But it’s nice to appeal to lots of different sorts of people and each country, each town, has its own story. That to me is a very interesting point, having travelled now so extensively. Who is educating their audience in each venue is extremely important too, for what kind of audience will come and be prepared to listen. I’m not saying that one country is necessarily different from another but the towns could be different. One could do an interesting survey on this: who comes to listen to what? But that’s going off our point, I think.

MB: It’s an additional, very interesting point nevertheless. Going back to the programmes you are presenting, each member of the Second Viennese School is featured: Berg in the first programme, Webern and Schoenberg in the second. We have become accustomed, in reading and speaking about them, to certain broad generalisations concerning these composers and their modes of expression: Berg is portrayed as the most nostalgic, Webern the most fearsomely radical, and Schoenberg the great revolutionary traditionalist, or even traditionalist revolutionary. (Much depends on how one regards the influence of Brahms.) What I wanted to ask, however, is what similarities and differences you as string players notice between these composers, and how one might relate their quartet writing to broader conceptions of their style.

IA: That’s a very good question: it’s still very challenging. I’d say that Berg and Schoenberg were more classically friendly to traditional string techniques. The parts are written very coherently and sometimes virtuosically but always within the framework of what is possible. Webern is somehow a little more aloof. It’s difficult to know how to deal with the lines; it’s difficult to know how expressively to play Webern. We come backwards to Webern, people have always said that, whereas most people go from Classical music and late-Romantic music to the Second Viennese School. So perhaps our interpretations are affected by knowing Boulez and Ferneyhough. We certainly knew them quite well when we were learning the pieces by Webern. But I think it’s a difficult question to answer, because we would approach those composers in a very classically-oriented way, from the concept of sound and everything. Berg is very challenging, because almost everything is written down...

MB: Like Mahler and Strauss...

IA: In a sense over-marked, so you have to deal with the concept that perhaps Berg was very frustrated with the performers of the day and felt he had to over-notate everything, so perhaps there is some degree of over-notation in the phrasing, but one follows and understands what the composer wants, I think. But this is still very challenging music for us to play and never boring. This is repertoire that is constantly challenging: the two quartets of Berg, the four of Schoenberg, and the Webern pieces. I think as a core basis for our repertoire, it’s very stimulating to have that and, as in these Edinburgh programmes, to kind of bounce off that with some contemporary pieces. The idea was to have some pieces from the twentieth century, plus the Beethoven, which would be a kind of overview of the Arditti’s repertoire. In fact, the director at Edinburgh, Jonathan Mills, engaged us before at both Brisbane and Melbourne festivals in Australia. At Melbourne, we did something even more adventurous; we did six concerts. We had music from the Second Viennese School, from Bartók, from Janáček, and quite a lot of new music, plus a new commission in each concert, so we have a snippet from that in the two concerts we’re doing this year at Edinburgh
MB: I was thinking about Schoenberg’s preface to Webern’s Bagatelles, which has now become almost as celebrated a text as the work itself. For the benefit of our readers I shall quote it:

Consider what moderation is required to express oneself so briefly. Each glance can be extended into a poem, each sigh into a novel. But to express a novel in a single gesture, a joy in a single indrawn breath, such concentration is only found where self-pity is absent. These pieces, as, indeed, Webern’s music in general, will only be understood by those who believe that through sound something that can only be expressed in sound can be said.

Schoenberg there seems to be saying, amongst other things, that this is absolute music, in a Romantic sense as would have been understood by, say, Wagner or even Mendelssohn. Is that how you understand Webern?

IA: Well, I think there is that clarity in Webern; he says it all with one single stroke. I’m not sure what you were meaning about the Romantic element.

MB: Insofar as Schoenberg is saying that this is absolute music, which needs no reference to anything else, only what can be expressed in sound can be expressed here, this seems quite a Romantic view of music as an art in itself.

IA: I think Webern was able to do something quite different to Schoenberg, to reduce things to that level and to express things in that, not simple but transparent way. I think it’s not a Romantic gesture but it’s real admiration from Schoenberg and, when performing their music, you can sometimes see that Schoenberg takes a very much longer way round to get to things. He’s a different sort of composer. But it’s amazing that Berg and Webern were from this school and attached to Schoenberg. Yes, for me, Webern is the most interesting of the three composers in many respects. Of course, Webern was responsible for influencing a lot of the music that came after: the vast core repertoire from, let’s say, the ’50s onwards: the core Arditti repertoire. There is this attachment to simplicity.

MB: It’s interesting in a way that from such simplicity, for so many of the composers Webern has influenced, leads to a path of great complexity.

IA: They all do that, yes. Webern started them off and is the purest example of all. One can look back now and, historically, people like Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen: they all went in their different directions but all were very much looking back to Webern from their early pieces.

MB: Are there any potential dangers in viewing Webern in this ‘pure’ way? Pure seems to be an obvious word to describe it. Might one lose anything in doing so? Are there other ways in which one might consider this music?

IA: I think pure only in comparison to his two Viennese colleagues. I was mentioning that just a little earlier, in that other, more classical string quartets, or those who tend to play mostly classical music, would approach Webern with a little more Romanticism, a little more vibrato, shall we say, in the sound, and perhaps we come back[wards]. I remember rehearsing Boulez’s Livre and discussing the type of sound Boulez wanted for this piece and thinking that, yes, this type of sound, a very precise and not-too-involved sound, with regard to the left hand on the instruments, would be perfect for interpreting Webern. And I tend not to like a more indulgent interpretation, but that’s just the way I think. I don’t impose. In the quartet, we are a mixture of four individuals, and there is a mean, which will be the end result of any quartet sound, but of course, I influence it from my experiences.

MB: Of course. Moving to Schoenberg, in Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, we hear a progression from tonality to atonality, detest the term though Schoenberg did. Is that a particular challenge to performance? How much should we hear, or rather have in mind, the ‘air of another planet’ at the opening? Or should one milk the late, even over-ripe Romanticism for all it is worth and then find a sea-change as the work goes on?

IA: I think, with this piece, one doesn’t ever think in a non-Romantic way. Of course, the first two movements are very Classical in concept, but also, I think that, by the nature of the poem and the nature of the writing in the third and fourth movements, one would play it in the same way. You wouldn’t suddenly change your style in the middle of a piece. Of course, the quartet has to be more controlled when the singer is involved, in the latter two movements. And I think it’s a very Romantic piece: we see it as such. It’s a very Classical piece for us.

MB: With Ligeti, we find ourselves in another world again. How would you characterise Ligeti’s quartet writing? And how does it stand in relation to any of the other figures we have mentioned?

IA: Well, I think it stands out as something quite different. Ligeti is part of the avant-garde of the ’60s and ’70s. I think one has to think in a completely different way when performing this music, almost to obliterate or forget classical ways of playing. This is what he wanted.

MB: Shades of Boulez’s necessary amnesia?

IA: Yes. This is absolutely the impression I had when we played this piece early on in the Arditti Quartet and when working with the composer on numerous occasions: understanding what he wanted and the concept of sound, knowing his other music, knowing pieces like the Poem for 100 Metronomes, knowing orchestral pieces where clusters of sound were really important. And the second quartet is an extremely gestural work also, And the second quartet is an extremely gestural work also. Knowing Ligeti’s other music and other composers' music for that period helps one understand a little bit more about how to play this second quartet.

MB: Henri Dutilleux is a lone Frenchman in these programmes. How would you place him with respect to the other composers?

IA: I don’t tend to think of nationalities, more internationalities. In the quartet, we have four members who are all of different nationalities, and so on. We are an international group and Dutilleux is French, very much so. Ainsi la nuit is a very important piece, which follows a more classical tradition and represents French style in the later part of the twentieth century. It’s one of the pieces that we have played a lot and I think it fits very well into more classical programmes. How old is the piece now? It’s from the late ’70s, I think.

MB: Yes, 1976.

IA: So it’s thirty years old, but I think it’s basically a classical language we’re still playing in. It’s not at all like Ligeti, though I think it sits very well in his presence. One perhaps thinks of Ravel and Debussy when deciding how one is going to interpret the piece. There’s quite an amount of velocity and direction in the piece; it’s just a very good piece. It works in a classical way, the way the movements unfold. There’s a certain amount of energy sounded towards almost the end of the piece and then you have a return to the first movement, the slow part of the music. It’s a very well-written piece for strings; everything lies very well in the hands.

MB: I suppose we should certainly mention the new work you will be performing, by Nigel Osborne. Could you say something about what the audience should expect?

IA: They can expect a music that is very approachable, a music that is not going to frighten anybody. It’s based on some folk songs and it seems to have an obsession with the sound of a stone, which is actually projected towards the end of the piece. But the harmony and the music in the piece begins with a Gaelic folk song and Osborne introduces this pitch of the stone during the piece and I hope that, at Edinburgh, we’re actually going to have the sound of the stone projected live at the very end of the piece. It’s like a loop: I suppose we give way to the stone sound at the end of the piece. I hope I’ve been coherent: it’s a little difficult to describe.

MB: Of course.

IA: Well, it’s some sort of introduction anyway.

MB: Do you think a way into the work might be to consider it as some sort of programme music?

IA: Well, programme music in the sense that it’s using folk songs and they are literally played; there is not much transformation in them. It’s difficult. I think describing music, particularly before it’s been performed – we’ve certainly rehearsed it thoroughly – it’s difficult to say what sort of piece it is. It’s certainly a very beautiful piece and Nigel has an excellent voice. In music today, he doesn’t form part of any category of whatever; he has his own individual style. And it’s quite refreshing to work with him, and come across his music. We played a short piece of his twenty years ago but didn’t really get to know him, a very short piece in 1990, so this is the first major piece he’s written for the Arditti Quartet and it’s very nice to be in his world. We try to get into each composer’s world, and his is quite original.

MB: I came across a quotation from him, saying that music making should be ‘physically and mentally liberating ... optimistic in spirit and even capable ... of giving its strength to a weakened society.’ Do you see this conception expressed in the work that you are playing?

IA: Well, I think I do, but I also think these comments are coming as much from the man as the composer. We rehearsed with him and he’s that sort of person; he’s a giving person and it’s all part of his other activities, [such as] looking after people in less-developed countries. And he’s always going and helping in places such as Bosnia, and other places, and the whole spirit of the man: you can’t play a person’s music without being involved with the person. I think that’s a really important thing. That’s something we’ve done, tried to do, throughout the Arditti Quartet’s existence: to know the composers, to know how they want their music played. And I think that’s very relevant to Nigel Osborne, because he’s a very special character. He tries to help people; he’s a giver in the world, shall we say, he’s giving, and I think you can hear that in a way in the simplicity and coherence of his music. I think you, or we, feel that knowing him, and I hope we can convey that across to the audience. That’s our responsibility.

MB: It sounds very interesting. Going back to the broader conception of the programming, I remember hearing Pierre Boulez, quite rightly in my view, disparage programmes that appeared simply to be thrown together. ‘Like a shopping list’ was, I think, his description. How do you actually go about constructing programmes, getting the ideas and the logic behind them to come together?

IA: I think we see what pieces fit well with other pieces, over the years, when you’re programming things – and which don’t. You can be making a programme of music that is very contrasted; you can have something making a theme and perhaps that is not so well-contrasted, but complementary; textural music; you can think about relationships, how a piece works in one respect. You could say that in some ways Ligeti’s second quartet was textural and might sit very well with the Ravel quartet or you could make a stark contrast with Beethoven. There are numerous ways of doing it and I very much respect Mr Boulez’s comments, but I think sometimes it’s interesting to have very stark contrasts for the audience and not have a coherency in the way that he often makes programmes.

MB: Yes, one could often say that contrasts, almost despite themselves, lend their own coherence. You might not need a single idea; works can often react off and against each other, I’d have thought.

IA: Yes, Boulez is making programmes with Ravel, Debussy, the Second Viennese School, and his music, but I used to love bringing people like Carter and Cage together: very stark contrasts, people who didn’t see eye to eye musically. Stylistically very different, but sitting together very well by virtue of the contrast, and I think one can make programmes like that also. I don’t think there any stark problems with our Edinburgh programmes.

MB: No, far from it.

IA: What follows the Grosse Fuge? You’ll have to tell me, if you have the programme there.

MB: The Dutilleux.

IA: Well, yes, it’s always a difficult decision to follow the Grosse Fuge. Conlon Nancarrow, a composer who’s no longer with us, was very obsessed with our performance of this piece and, when we heard that we were recording the Grosse Fuge and his third string quartet, he was very happy and insisted that his piece carried on immediately after the Beethoven. The rhythmic complexities of the Beethoven really set up the rhythms in his piece and it was absolutely perfect. Of course, we choose something else, something completely different from the Beethoven, something much less rhythmically insistent and a different sort of music.

MB: Yes, quite. Having mentioned Boulez, I was wondering whether there was any chance of you being tempted to tempt him to write anything more for the string quartet. Or is that the end of a line?

IA (laughs): It’s funny you should say that, because I’ve spent about twenty or twenty-five years trying to persuade him to complete the work, Livre, which he wrote, I think, in 1948 or 1949. Livre now exists without its fourth movement, published by Heugel. The fourth movement is unfinished, it exists without marks of expression. You can see it in the Sacher Stiftung. We played for the first time the movements, of course excluding number four, and we rehearsed with him many years ago in London at my house, and at that point started to try to persuade him to complete the movement, but he felt very remote from the piece at the time. But we’ve been having discussions recently, actually in the last month. I saw him several times at concerts, and we’ve been speaking about the reality of him doing that, because I believe, next year or 2011, he’s going to have a sabbatical, so he may be able to complete that work. Of course, whether he would ever think about writing a new work for string quartet, I doubt at this stage.* I hope he will actually complete Livre.

MB: That would be enough for many of us. Are there any particular contemporary composers with whom you have never worked, whether as a quartet player or as a soloist, but with whom you would be very keen to do so?

IA: Well, that’s a very difficult question, because we’ve worked with so many. I think not. I don’t want to be rude to anyone who hasn’t worked with us. Maybe we’ve left out a few people; I can’t think. We rather hoped some years ago that Hans Werner Henze might perhaps write us a quartet. We played his five quartets many years ago, but they were not written for the Arditti Quartet. He hasn’t felt the desire to write a string quartet for many years and probably it’s too late now. There are composers who promised us pieces that never happened, but they’re people that we have close relationships with. We were discussing for many years a third quartet with Ligeti, a second quartet with Nono, and another quartet with Stockhausen, but, of course, none of those things came to fruition. And I think other composers – you never know what composers are going to do, and people that I don’t know so well might suddenly write a string quartet that’s marvellous. And I would then say, ‘Why didn’t I say to you on this Sunday morning, why didn’t I mention their name?’ Off the top of my head, there’s not really anybody that I can think of, that is not actively involved in writing us pieces or has written pieces.

MB: Thank you very much. It’s really been a pleasure to speak to you, most enlightening. I’m certainly very much looking forward to hearing the concerts when I go up to Edinburgh. I suppose that’s the most important thing.

IA: Yes, the music rather than talking about it, absolutely. Do come and say hello.

MB: Thank you. I certainly will.

* The Arditti Quartet met with Pierre Boulez in Lucerne a few days before their appearance in Edinburgh and he confirmed that he had no plans to write a new string quartet.

Prom 39: BBC SO/Brabbins - Jonny Greenwood, Stravinsky, and Birtwistle, 'The Mask of Orpheus,' 14 August 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Jonny Greenwood – Popcorn Superhet Receiver
Stravinsky – Apollon musagète
Birtwistle – The Mask of Orpheus: ‘The Arches’

Orpheus (the man) – Alan Oke
Orpheus (myth/puppet) – Thomas Walker
Euridice (the woman) – Christine Rice
Eurdice (the myth)/Persephone – Anna Stephany
Hecate – Claron McFadden
Charon/Caller/Hades – Andrew Slater
Fury 1/Woman 1 – Rachel Nicolls
Fury 2/Woman 2 – Anna Dennis
Fury 3/Woman 3 – Louise Poole
Judge 1 – Christopher Gillett
Judge 2 – Håkan Vramsmo
Judge 3 – Tim Mirfin

BBC Singers (conductor: Stephen Betteridge)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)
Ryan Wigglesworth (second conductor, Birtwistle)
Ian Dearden (sound projection)
Tim Hopkins (concert staging)

This was a strange programme. The first piece was very much a thing-in-itself, of which more below. Apollo and Orpheus are of course, in some versions of the story, father and son, but it is not clear to me that this particular Stravinsky ballet – Apollo or, as Stravinsky preferred, which is good enough for me, Apollon musagète – and Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus have a great deal in common. Much of Stravinsky and almost all of Birtwistle, yes, but not so much here, so it is perhaps better to see Stravinsky at his most Apollonian and Birtwistle’s savage complexity as providing contrast rather than connection. I should much have preferred the Proms to stage the whole opera, but we should be grateful to hear a single act, given the twin failures of ENO to revive its sole production and of the Royal Opera to present a new one.

Jonny Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver was doubtless well intended. I noted that Greenwood stayed in his seat to listen to both subsequent works, which I can imagine many in his position signally failing to do. But I found it impossible to take this work, performed by the massed strings of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, seriously. Framed by two similar sections of saccharine harmonies, partly punctuated by endless swarming noises and aimless series of glissandi, some on almost-major-scales, it lacks any sense of direction. Indeed, I thought it sounded like a series of excerpts from incidental music to early-1990s Channel 4 television dramas. More happens than in Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, with respect to which the string sound imparted a certain resemblance, but to find more interest in the present work than in the tedium of ‘holy minimalism’ is about as far as I can go. The central section was straightforwardly bizarre: a popular-music-style rhythm appeared out of nowhere, with sub- (very sub-) Bartókian pizzicato heard above. And then, it was back to Channel 4, with poor Vaughan Williams being subjected to time with Pärt.

Apollon musagète received a decidedly ‘inauthentic’ performance. Commissioned by the Library of Congress for small orchestra – and three or four dancers – Stravinsky’s ballet here received a performance, like its predecessor, from massed strings. The BBC SSO played with a sheen of which Karajan, though I suspect not Stravinsky, would have approved. Try as I might, I cannot bring myself to appreciate this work’s virtues anything more than intellectually. Its whiteness, its avoidance of incident, makes it a high water-mark of neo-classicism; for me, and not only for me, it seems a dead end. If only the composer had embarked upon his serialist renewal earlier, impossible though that might have been in practical terms... Earlier on, there was a keen sense that this was music to be danced to; indeed, I wondered whether dancing would have helped its cause. But it seemed as though Martyn Brabbins’s direction flagged somewhat later on, at least in places. There was much pleasure to be gained, however, from Andrew Haveron’s delectable violin solos. The variations of Polyrhymnia, Terpsichore, and Apollo were decently characterised. And the Apotheosis was grave, if more than a little bland.

It delights me than to say that I cannot summon up a single criticism for this thrilling performance of the second act from The Mask of Orpheus. The commitment from every performer was palpable, inducing similar commitment from a good number at least of the audience. (Sadly, some individuals staged a series of walkouts; the loss was entirely theirs, but is not such a reaction to Birtwistle just a touch passé?) What we hear in this act, introduced by Orpheus’s First Shout of Gratitude, is the vast sequence of The Arches. Orpheus’s descent into and return from the underworld is revealed and narrated as a dream – a truly nightmarish dream, especially as it develops – in which the characters have their basis, as so often in our dreams, in ‘real’ characters whom he knows. Song overcomes them. But Euridice of course must die. And so must Orpheus, who hangs himself. What makes this so complex and yet so astoundingly rewarding in musico-dramatic terms is the familiar, yet intensified Birtwistle path of retelling and reimagining myth, and approaching it from different standpoints, with the aid on this occasion of a tripartite representation of the principal characters: Orpheus, Euridice, and Aristaeus, each of whom is represented as Man or Woman, Hero or Heroine, and as Myth. Added in this particular act are the dream representations too: Orpheus as Hades, Euridice as Persephone, Aristaeus – who does not appear ‘as himself’ here – as Charon, and the Oracle of the Dead – also absent from the second act – as Hecate. This would doubtless be rendered both clearer and more complex in a fully-staged performance – cue another plea for at least an ENO revival... – but Tim Hopkins did a good job with the necessary minimal ‘concert staging’. We had to make do without puppets, but movement assumed an appropriately hieratic quality, whilst the use of mirrors to reflect light around the hall proved an effective device.

Whatever the complexities of the work – and I have no desire to downplay them – it was the sheer immediacy of its dramatic impact that came across most strongly. Those with ears to hear could have been in no doubt that this was part of a masterpiece. Brabbins, assistant conductor to Sir Andrew Davis at the 1996 Royal Festival Hall concert performance recorded for NMC, now moved up to first conductor, assisted by the excellent Ryan Wigglesworth. The conductors’ command of the score could hardly have been bettered, its vast structure clearly delineated, and the orchestral colours as vividly portrayed as – arguably more so than – could be imagined. Likewise, the playing of the BBC SO was beyond reproach: how good to hear this orchestra truly back on form, playing the music that should be central to its repertoire. From the gravely beautiful, Stravinskian wind of Orpheus Man’s introduction, through the magnificent percussion work of the first arch – ‘Water flows over the edge of the arch’, and how it did... – the staggering virtuosity of the ‘painted pictures caught on the white tendrils’ seen under the sixth, the arch of wings, the increasing nightmare madness from the twelfth arch onwards, to the bewitching electronics (tape interlude courtesy of the late Barry Anderson at IRCAM, with Ian Dearden on sound projection) and orchestral sounds of the conclusion, this was a spellbinding performance.

The vocal contributions were equally outstanding, not least from the BBC Singers. One might be tempted to take for granted the quality of their performances in contemporary music, but one should not; their contribution was invaluable: distinctive, yet blending effortlessly with the other performers. It seems invidious to single out any one member of the cast, but special mention must surely go to the heroic Alan Oke. Whether speaking or singing – Schoenberg will out – Oke’s command of the role of Orpheus as man was complete. In what must be a truly exhausting task, he held the audience spellbound throughout this terrible dream. As myth, he was complemented and more closely defined by Thomas Walker, who also, like Anna Stephany as the mythical Euridice, revealed, within the constraints of the occasion, revealed a fine stage presence. Andrew Slater’s bass-baritone was put to good use as Charon and Hades: duly sepulchral and with a chilling sense of where all might lead. Christine Rice, recently Ariadne in The Minotaur, seemed to me to give a still finer, less remote, performance here as Euridice Woman. The trio of Furies – Rachel Nicholls, Anna Dennis, and Louise Poole – proved terrifying, both dramatic and in musical accomplishment, whilst the trio of judges – Christopher Gillett, Håkan Vramsmo, and Tim Mirfin – showed that stentorian need in no sense mean a lack of dramatic thrills. Finally, there was the astonishing Claron McFadden as Hecate, her musical prowess as electrifying as her screams. The Second Scream of Passion, that of Hate, simply defies description. You had to be there. I shall conclude as I began, with the imperative for some company, in this country or indeed abroad, to demonstrate the courage, the necessary belief in the future of musical drama, to produce The Mask of Orpheus. Not only does the work demand it, these performers are owed the opportunity too.

Saturday 15 August 2009

Interview with Daniel Barenboim

There is an interesting Financial Times lunch interview with Daniel Barenboim, for which, click here. He will shortly be conducting three Proms with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (Wagner, Liszt, and Berlioz; Berg and Mendelssohn; Fidelio), all of which I look forward to hearing - and reviewing. If only the Middle East, or indeed the rest of the world, had a few more sane voices such as his and Edward Said's... And if only the whole world might listen to Beethoven's message in Fidelio, not the plot device of a wife's loyalty to her husband, but the voicing of an inutterably noble idea of freedom. Waltraud Meier will star...

Friday 14 August 2009

Prom 38: Gerhardt/BBC SSO/Volkov - Ravel, Unsuk Chin, and Stravinsky

Royal Albert Hall

Ravel – La Valse
Unsuk Chin – Cello Concerto (BBC commission, world premiere)
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Alban Gerhardt (violoncello)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov (conductor)

I have never heard the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra sound so good. Ilan Volkov clearly leaves the orchestra on a high; it will be interesting to follow its fortunes under the very different leadership of Donald Runnicles. (My first opportunity to do so will be at the end of this month in Edinburgh.) My first impressions – and these are only impressions of a southerner – had been mixed: from the Proms, I recall splendid Janáček but indifferent Mahler and Berlioz. Last year, however, I was privileged to attend a marvellous Prom, comprised of music by Jonathan Harvey, Messiaen, and Varèse. The present concert, including the world premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto, kept up the good work.

One thing that struck me about the opening performance of La Valse was how ‘French’ the BBC SSO sounded: not in the old French sense we know from historic recordings, since no one sounds like that anymore, but I could readily have taken the orchestra for, say, the Orchestre de Paris or the Orchestre National de France. Such was the vein in which Volkov approached La Valse, rather than taking the starting-point of a Viennese waltz turned sour. There was a sense of fantasy from the opening, exemplified by weird, slightly sinister woodwind. Rhythm was clearly defined but not inflexible. The gloss to the strings on heard surely paid testament to Volkov’s abilities as an orchestral trainer. Much of this performance was more kaleidoscopic, less overtly threatening than one often hears. I was put in mind of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; but we all know where that leads, and so did Ravel here. Another kinship revealed more obviously than I can previously recall was with the ballet scores of Prokofiev; indeed, it was unusually clear that this was a ballet. It was a fine performance, though perhaps it tended a little too much to the orchestral showpiece; on the other hand, maybe that is just the Vienna-obsessive in me speaking – just for a change...

Alban Gerhardt was the outstanding soloist, performing from memory, in the premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Cello Concerto. What struck me immediately and throughout was how well written for the instrument the piece was; in Gerhardt’s words, ‘I believe she finds a way to balance colourful orchestral writing with the fragility of “just a cello”. We cellists don’t have the same projection as piano or violin, and ... Unsuk was taken great care in composing a wonderfully colourful yet transparent concerto.’ The first movement is entitled Aniri, which denotes a narrative passage – alternating with sung passages – in the Korean dramatic form, P’ansori, which would be performed by a singing actor and drummer. Thus the solo part takes the form of a recurring narrative, first announced in this opening movement. Growing from a single note, so prominently recurring that no one could fail to notice it on a first hearing, the soloists line moves away from and yet refers to it. The excellent BBC SSO provided a bedrock for the soloists’ deviation; later in the movement, these roles are somewhat reversed, putting me in mind of a sort of distorted arch form, developmental yet never quite breaking free. A highly dramatic percussion crash heralds the end of this, the longest of the movement, Gerhardt’s quivering, almost shell-shocked tone being all that remained in the closing bars. Unwanted applause followed: ‘something must be done...’.

There follows a brief, scherzo-like movement. Both soloist and orchestra – unturned percussion now very much to the fore – have plenty of opportunities, here well taken, to display their virtuosity, but never, it seemed, merely for its own sake. In a sense of contagion, solo figures are transferred to and developed by the orchestra, always restless, always febrile. The third movement is the still centre of the work. Here Gerhardt’s instrument could once again truly sing, in a vocalised part not entirely dissimilar from a Shostakovich lament. The solo part often lies very high, its tone contrasting with a Stravinskian chorale – think The Soldier’s Tale – on muted trumpets. With the fourth and final movement, the music builds to a warranted narrative climax. The cello sounds a little unsure of itself to begin with, ‘as if preparing,’ in the words of Habakuk Traber’s programme note,’ a thoughtful improvisation’. This is just how it sounded in Gerhardt’s hands. It was as if, but most definitely as if, he were slightly distracted: a difficult trick to bring off, as opposed to straightforwardly being distracted, which anyone could do. The orchestral part becomes steadily more violent, and this certainly registered in the BBC SSO’s performance. But the cello takes a different, ultimately more fruitful path, moving upwards in pitch towards the very limit of its range. It takes us back into the silence from which that initial pitch emerged: not quite Die Jakobsleiter, with its extraordinary soprano voice, but perhaps an analogy for the cello. When this fine performance concluded, I was instantly keen to hear the work again.

Volkov presented an interesting account of that towering masterpiece, The Rite of Spring. There is nowadays something of an imperative to present a new slant on the work; sometimes it can work, sometimes not, but worth trying to avert the danger of becoming merely an orchestral showpiece. Volkov’s conception seemed to be to bring the Rite closer to Stravinsky’s other Russian ballets than is often the case. Petrushka in particular was never far away, not least in the characterful playing of teeming wind. The colourful performance made a connection with La Valse. This Rite was bright and exuberant, less mysterious than some. I was impressed by the full sound of the BBC SSO’s strings, often an Achilles heel for British orchestras, but not here. Although much was bright, there were hieratic interludes, perhaps looking forward to the Symphonies of Wind Instruments, between the more dionysiac sections. The Procession of the Sage was properly dramatic, though not very mysterious: a very public procession, which, one might well argue, is very much what it is. Mother Russia was certainly present in the opening to the second part, and mystery was now conjured up by the muted trumpets (I thought of Chin’s chorale). But the general mood remained brightly colourful, sometimes evoking the Rimskian example of The Firebird. The music of the ancestors was equally full of orchestral colour, a pattern continued into the closing Sacrificial Dance. Rhythms, while far from vague, were perhaps not so blisteringly, exactly threatening as in a performance, say, by Boulez. This Rite seemed more of a conductor’s than a composer-conductor’s conception. For the seeds of what was to come, from Boulez to Birtwistle, one would have had to look elsewhere, but the concept was perfectly valid and was very well executed.

Tuesday 11 August 2009

Salzburg Festival (6): Uchida et al. - Mozart, Schubert, Webern, 9 August 2009

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Mozart – Violin sonata in E minor, KV 304
Webern – Four pieces for violin and piano, op.7
Webern – Three little pieces for violoncello and piano, op.11
Mozart – Piano trio in G major, KV 564
Schubert – Piano trio in E-flat major, D 929

Mark Steinberg (piano)
Clemens Hagen (violoncello)
Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Mozart, Webern, and Schubert are not only ‘Viennese’ composers – with due respect to the city of Mozart’s birth and host of this performance – but they are also all composers in whose music Dame Mitsuko Uchida has always shone. And so it was on this occasion too. Whilst Uchida is a genuine chamber musician, there could be no doubt that hers was the guiding presence here, the deserved warmth of reception focused upon her. If only the reception had not also included a mobile telephone, a good deal of conversation and noisy fidgeting, and, worst of all, next to me, a Francophone woman who disrupted Webern’s Op.7 pieces with two flashes from – sorry to disappoint – her camera. Hell is not always other people; on some occasions, it is too cold for them. I detest having to ‘review’ the audience but, on this occasion, it was simply impossible to ignore the distracting, selfish behaviour of a minority.

Now I may return to the music. Mozart’s E minor violin sonata received a performance that had nothing of the extrovert to it but was intensely musical. Uchida and Mark Steinberg were not quite equals, her tone never failing, whilst he could, especially during the first movement exposition, sound tentative. Poised and yet at times defiant, this movement worked very well, once Steinberg got into his stride. Interplay between the two musicians was a joy in itself; one did not need to see Uchida’s constant glances towards the violinist, for one could hear them. And it was a joy to hear Mozart’s Neapolitan harmony make its point as it did. The second repeat was taken: unnecessary but hot unwelcome. Uchida’s opening to the second and final movement was simply delectable: ravishing in its beauty, yet exuding understated tragedy. Out of this the rest of the movement could grow. Once again, she proved supremely poised, style and idea as one. Now Steinberg proved that the violin could sound at the lower end of the dynamic spectrum without sounding tentative. The trio was equally beautiful, a prime example of the infinite sadness of Mozart in a major key, enabling the return to E minor to sound all the more profound. At the end, some member of the audience laughed; I have no idea why.

The two Webern works were played without a break, enabling one to hear the composer’s development from the aphoristic to the hyper-aphoristic. Once again, the perfection of Uchida’s touch was to the fore in Op.7, the first movement’s extremity of quietness looking forward to Nono. The violence of the contrast with the ensuing Rasch was striking: here, all was febrile motion, intensified in Schoenbergian manner, if not duration, before the brief appearance of a lyrical melancholy. As in all of the finest Webern performances, the third movement reminded one that every note counts, indeed that every note is worth a hundred of those from many other composers. Extreme contrast was again registered, the slow tempo and softness of touch in Uchida’s piano epilogue providing a master-class in this music. The fourth and final movement integrated the aforementioned contrasts whilst retaining its own particular character. Uchida and Clemens Hagen immediately embarked upon the Op.11 pieces. Hagen imparted a lyrical intensity that instantly announced the arrival of a different instrument. Again, hints of Schoenberg surfaced in the second movement, Sehr bewegt. During the final movement, Hagen proved especially adept at minute dynamic adjustments not only between notes but even during the sounding of pitches. The intensity of his and Uchida’s performance was almost unbearable.

Mozart’s piano trio, KV 564, was taken once again without a break. Emerging from Webern, Mozart was made both strange and yet familiar. The concerto-like quality – where all instruments are concerned – of the first movement in particular was winningly conveyed. So enjoyable was the music making, lyrical and full of life, that it almost seemed to pass as quickly as a Webern movement; certainly one was left wanting more at the end. Uchida’s – and not only Uchida’s – poise was again showcased in the Andante. Undoubtedly led from the piano, there was nevertheless a hallmark of civilised interplay, which in its profundity looked forward to Beethoven. The minor key variation evoked Gluckian noble simplicity, without in fact being simple at all, whilst the return to the major mode brought an infectious sense of fun, to which Uchida’s nimble and meaningful fingerwork was crucial. A true Viennese lilt characterised the captivating finale. Unusually full-blooded for these often anaemic times, it reminded one of how Mozart looks forward not only to Beethoven, but also to Schubert and Brahms. Dresden china was out of stock on this occasion. Mozart’s melodic and harmonic twists were lovingly traced, but direction born of a sure structural command was ever present. The delightfully understated conclusion would have melted the stoniest of hearts.

The second half was devoted entirely to Schubert’s E-flat major trio. Fuller textures were immediately announced in a first movement also characterised by well-judged rubato. The general style was positioned between Mozart and Brahms – that is, just where Schubert should be. However, that tentative quality I noted in some of Steinberg’s earlier playing was present once again during the first hearing of the second subject, though it would subsequently receive a melting voicing from Uchida. Passion and precision were generally in good balance throughout. The measured onward tread of the second movement was, again, well judged, not entirely disrupted even by the violence of Schubert’s Romantic outbursts. The passion – that word again – of Uchida’s playing here could hardly fail to take one’s breath away. Graceful canonical writing was the province of the scherzando, with a magic to the pianism that for me recalled Sir Clifford Curzon. The trio, however, was very strongly marked by foot-stomping rhythm; it was certainly a contrast, though I thought it a little too much. And I could have done without Steinberg’s literal foot stomping here and elsewhere. The players undoubtedly had the measure of the great span of the finale, although I am afraid that they could not quite rid me of my quite heretical view that it is simply too long. (I do not feel this of many other instances of Schubert’s ‘heavenly lengths’.) Nevertheless, the music was vividly characterised, without sounding episodic. The vocal quality of Hagen’s tone was especially notable here. After the expansiveness of the Schubert, it was most welcome to hear as an encore a melting account of the slow movement to the Mozart piano trio, KV 502. The final memory I treasure of this concert is, quite appropriately, neither the disruptive audience, nor the contrast between Webern’s brevity and Schubert’s longueurs, but the exquisite Mozartian touch of Mitsuko Uchida.

Salzburg Festival (5): VPO/Salonen - Berg and Bruckner, 9 August 2009

Grosses Festspielhaus

Berg – Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite for string orchestra
Berg – Five Orchestral Songs after Postcard Texts by Peter Altenberg, op.4
Bruckner – Symphony no.6 in A major

Angela Denoke (soprano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen

Berg and Bruckner is perhaps not the most obvious choice for a Sunday morning concert. Festival time, however, is different. Salzburg is different too. The opportunity to hear the Vienna Philharmonic in such repertoire is, of course, mouth-watering; no one could have been seriously disappointed by the results.

Indeed, it would have been a difficult and perverse task to be anything other than impressed by the Berg opening ‘half’. Esa-Pekka Salonen’s account of the pieces from the Lyric Suite perhaps took a little time truly to get into its stride. It would be an exaggeration to describe the opening Andante amoroso as inhibited but, in retrospect at least, Berg’s labyrinthine voluptuousness only bloomed a little later. The sound of the Vienna strings is of course a joy in itself, but the Allegro misterioso showed that luxury need not preclude rhythmic precision. Salonen’s guiding hand was of course valuable here. And the intensity of the Adagio appassionato proved a dramatic tragedy in itself, Wozzeck and Lulu both invoked.

The Altenberg Lieder received a masterly performance. Bar a slightly shaky start to the first from Angela Denoke, her part was not only beyond reproach but worthy of the highest praise. The twists and turns, the invitation and repulsion of Berg’s extraordinary score were searingly expressed in her vocal line. Salonen’s pointing of instrumental detail intensified rather than detracted from the tonal direction so strongly imparted. One could sense new voices, new timbres, new combinations, new harmonies demanding to be heard: no sooner said than done. The orchestra itself played no small part in that, of course, the richness and sensuous delight of Berg’s scoring a gift to the VPO – and a gift returned to the audience with interest. As Hier ist Friede concluded all too soon, not only could one see, hear, and experience snow falling into water; one knew that this meant for Altenberg and Berg far more than a literal reading could ever conceive. Those borders invoked in Über die Grenzen des All were created in order to be crossed, and so it would be in the final song’s anticipation of dodecaphony.

Bruckner’s Sixth Symphony provided ample opportunity once again to glory in the Vienna sound. Time and again I was made to think of Wagner, but a golden and surprisingly un-modernist – surprising not least given Salonen’s credentials – version of Bruckner’s idol. Salonen could certainly not justly be accused of wallowing; he clearly had a vision of where the music should go and was well placed to achieve it. There was sometimes, however, a tendency to drive a little too hard, not least in the outer movements – the first perhaps a little too fast for the true majesty its tempo marking dictates – and this tendency could be exacerbated by a striking, indeed stunning sound from the massed brass, a sound which could nevertheless occasionally overwhelm the rest of the orchestra. I do not wish to exaggerate: this was not Solti in Chicago, nor indeed Solti in Vienna, but Salonen’s occasional impetuousness did not speak of a conductor truly at home in Bruckner. The results remained in many senses glorious but metaphysical questions remained unanswered, unasked even, without convincingly presenting a modernistic alternative to such allegedly ‘Romantic’ concerns. This symphony seems to be especially difficult to bring off: in my experience, admittedly somewhat limited, I have only been truly convinced by Klemperer’s recording. What the work appears to need, however, is a readiness to accept that sometimes the best way to cross the threshold is to open the door and then to walk straight through. Here the interpretative steps did not always seem to lead in quite the right direction to do so.

Salzburg Festival (4): Goerne/Haefliger - Wolf and Liszt, 8 August 2009

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Wolf – Neue Liebe
Wolf – Peregrina I and II
Liszt – Blume und Duft
Wolf – An die Geliebte
Wolf – Liebesbotschaft
Wolf - Nachtgruß
Wolf – Drei Gedichte aus Michelangelo
Liszt – Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam
Liszt – Vergiftet sind meine Lieder
Liszt – Laßt mich ruhen
Liszt – Ich möchte hingehn
Liszt – Des Tages laute Stimmen schweigen
Liszt – Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh
Wolf – Harfenspieler I, II, and III
Liszt – Der du von dem Himmel bist
Wolf – Keine gleicht von allen Schönen
Wolf – Sonne der Schlummerlosen
Wolf – Morgenstimmung

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Andreas Haefliger (piano)

Liszt was in many respects the most extraordinary composer of an extraordinary century, yet he still needs fighting for. This year, the Salzburg Festival has certainly done its bit, with a series at the Mozarteum of eight Liszt-Szenen concerts; regrettably, I was only able to catch this, the last. All but the first, an all-Liszt recital from Arcadi Volodos, presented Liszt’s music in conjunction with that of other composers. Bach, Galina Ustolvskaya, Busoni, Ligeti, Frank Martin, Shostakovich, Paganini, Alkan, and Schoenberg had already made their appearances; now it was the turn of Hugo Wolf. And there was arguably a third composer present, if unperformed: Liszt’s friend and subsequently son-in-law, Wagner. Nor should one forget – and how could one? – the presence of Schubert, to whom all three composers rendered tribute in their different ways.

The musical relationship between Liszt and Wagner is extremely complex and remains to be fully explored. That between Wagner and Wolf only runs one way, of course, but is no less noteworthy for that; from the time of Wagner’s visit to Vienna in 1875, for performances of Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, Wolf counted himself a ‘Wagnerian’, and both his musical works and critical writings bear witness to that. Wagner even looked over, albeit in all too cursory fashion, the budding composer’s works. The predictable lack of interest clearly hurt Wolf, since he recorded a dream a few months later, in which Wagner ‘would not hear’ of looking at his scores. It did nothing, however, to dim his enthusiasm. Moreover, Wolf would receive – again, predictably – encouragement from the Abbé Liszt, visiting Vienna shortly after the Master of Bayreuth had passed away. Wolf’s musical and critical works would also witness his enthusiasm for Liszt. I mention such connections not only because they interest me, though they do, but because they came to mind during the recital, and not only on account of the programming, but also on account of the performances from Matthias Goerne and Andreas Haefliger.

Anyway, on to the recital itself: a Liederabend of rare quality. Had this taken place at the Wigmore Hall, I am sure that it would have been sold out within minutes, so I was extremely surprised to see several empty seats in the Grosser Saal of the Mozarteum. No matter: it was the absentees’ loss, not ours. There were few rays of sunshine to be glimpsed, as was made clear by Goerne’s tone in the opening Mörike setting, Neue Liebe. Is it possible, on this earth, for a man to be another’s so entirely as he might wish? The long nights upon which the poet has mused upon it have been productive and the blackness of tone upon the answer ‘nein’ left one in no doubt as to the finality of response. Here, are as in all of the Wolf songs, words were rightly to the fore. This does not mean that the music is secondary, far from it, but it makes little sense considered in ‘absolute’ terms; not for nothing was Wolf such a partisan for Liszt and Wagner against Brahms. Haefliger provided abundant reminder of Wolf’s heroes in a richly Romantic reading of the piano part. Remaining with Mörike, we next heard the two Peregrina songs. Haefliger’s accounts were full of revealing detail, such as the crescendo following the invitation of the ‘unwissend Kind’. Just how unknowing is that innocent child? How can we know? And how innocent are we? That we can know only too well. Performed, quite rightly, as a pair, the two songs culminated in Lisztian rapture and the snares of the post-Tristan hot-house. (Szymanowski is not at all dissimilar.) Yet formal discipline was also emphasised by both musicians; these were not rhapsodic performances.

A Lisztian island appeared upon the horizon, the composer’s only appearance ‘as himself’ in the first ‘half’ (actually much shorter than the second). Even the freshness of this song, Blume und Duft, and the performers’ interpretation had to disappear; suddenly a chilling perception of mortality was ours. Haefliger’s piano epilogue ensured that the major mode sounded anything but affirmative.

We returned to Wolf for the remainder of the first section. Haefliger’s performance of the piano part in Liebesbotschaft vividly brought to light the stomach butterflies of romantic love, above which Goerne’s ardour, perhaps even naïveté, furnished what is, for Wolf, perhaps a surprisingly ‘vocal’ vocal line. The Michelangelo-Lieder certainly dispelled any romantic illusions such a song might have inspired. Wohl denk’ ich oft took one from desolation to exultation, but ambiguity could not help but be present. Very occasionally here, Goerne’s notes were not ideally centred. (I only mention this since it was so rare a technical flaw; only a Beckmesser would really care.) Alles endet, was entstehet took us on a different, related journey, from Erda (everything must perish) almost but not quite to the precipice of the Schoenberg of the Book of the Hanging Gardens (again, everything must perish, yet in a more frightening way). Hope once again reared its head in Fühlt meine Seele, but piano and voice necessarily remained infused with longing: is there any escape from that ‘furchtbare Not’ so completely represented and intensified in Tristan? The fury of the impossible raised itself when Goerne asked ‘ Was ich ersehne.../Ist nicht in mir: sag mir, wie ich’s erwerbe?’ (‘What I yearn for .../is not in myself: tell me, how might I win it?’)

With the opening of the second part of the recital, Liszt had a sequence to himself. Piano and voice immediately took us into the realm of fantastic longing in the beautiful Heine setting, Ein Fichtebaum steht einsam. Liszt might not present so desolate a world-view as Wolf or Wagner, but the dreams of a spruce tree for a palm tree have their own sadness to convey – and so they did here. The anger heard from both musicians in the subsequent Heine song, Vergiftet sind meine Lieder, confirmed the rightness of the title: ‘Poisoned are my songs’. Perhaps Goerne shouted a little here, but the dramatic was far from poisoning the musical. That quintessential Lisztian quiet rapture was to the fore in Ich möchte hingehn. One cannot but think of Tristan when one hears Liszt’s premonition of that chord in an 1844 setting of Georg Herwegh’s verse. Inspired by his final reunion with Caroline de Saint-Cricq, it represents sadness in remembrance of first love rather than metaphysical catastrophe, yet it would be Herwegh who would, a decade later, introduce Wagner to Schopenhauer and thus dimly herald the road to Tristan; even as early as this, the socialist radical poet sounds oddly resigned. It was therefore a masterstroke of programming to follow the song with Des Tages lautes Stimmen schweigen, which opened in this performance with a fine sense of eventide, temporal and metaphysical. The tempo adopted was so slow that, in lesser hands, it might have ground to a halt; this performance, however, was simply spellbinding. In the final song of this Liszt group, the opening and concluding chords hinted at Parsifal: Liszt, once again, as Alan Walker once put it, stealing from the future of music. Unusually succinct for Liszt, especially before the strange works of his later years, this is a gem and was delivered as such.

The final six songs returned to Wolf, albeit with a Lisztian intermission. They sounded as they were: the culmination of a highly intelligent, highly moving programme. I was especially taken with Haefliger’s unsettling syncopation in the second of the Harfenspieler songs from Goethe. It was all the more unsettling for its subtlety, its lack of exaggeration. By contrast, both singers, could, where necessary, produce enough volume to raise the roof, as they showed in the third of these songs. Perhaps the most splendid programming touch of all was to conclude with Morgenstimmung: a wonderful surprise, given the prevailing mood of the recital. How might one vanquish feelings for which Weltschmerz almost seems too tame a description? With a new dawn, which harks back to an old dawn, indeed the original dawn of creation. ‘The Lord speaks: “Let there be light!”’ Then indeed ‘must the darkness vanquish’, happily putting one in mind of earlier musical precedents, not least, in this anniversary year, Haydn and Mendelssohn. One word from Robert Reinick’s verse, ‘freudejauchzend’, summed up the performance of this marvellous song: exulting. An ecstatic richness of tone in both parts, initiated by the Creative act, culminated in the defiance of ‘Herr, laß uns kämpfen, laß uns siegen!’ (‘Lord, let us fight, let us triumph!’) That is certainly what Goerne and Haefliger accomplished in this recital.

Monday 10 August 2009

Salzburg Festival (3): Mozarteum Orchestra/Lonquich, 8 August 2009

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Mozart – Six German Dances, KV 571
Mozart – Symphony no.36 in C major, KV 425, ‘Linz’
Mozart – Masonic Funeral Music, KV 477/479a
Mozart – Piano concerto no.22 in E-flat major, KV 482

Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra
Alexander Lonquich (piano/conductor)

The Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra has a long history of presenting Mozart-Matinee concerts at the Festival. This one presented Alexander Lonquich in a dual role as pianist and conductor. The programme opened with a good account of the Six German Dances, KV 571: like so much ‘occasional’ Mozart, heard far too infrequently. This is deluxe dance music by any standards, of greater musical interest than any Johann Strauss waltz, whatever the considerable charms of the latter. Sometimes, when I have heard the Mozarteum Orchestra of late, there has been a tendency towards certain ‘period’ mannerisms; thankfully there was none of this here. The strings exhibited considerable warmth throughout, with characterful woodwind and percussion contributions also making their mark in a rhythmically incisive performance. Sometimes Lonquich’s direction edged a little in the direction of the hard-driven, never excessively so, but a little more time to breathe on occasion would not have been a bad thing. Nevertheless, this was a performance of considerable charm, which would only pale besides head-to-head comparisons with Willy Boskovsky and his Viennese ensemble.

Next came the Linz symphony, which I recall hearing in my very first Mozart-Matinee, in 1996, under Leopold Hager. I think I also heard it more recently from this orchestra and Ivor Bolton. None of these performances would qualify as a once-in-a-lifetime account, but equally none has disappointed. The Mozarteum Orchestra has Mozart in its blood; such consistency matters – and shows. Lonquich stood broadly in the category of modern, chamber-size Mozart. Tempi tended to be on the faster side of what one – or perhaps I should say ‘I’ – might prefer but without the exaggerations of the all too prevalent attention-seekers who inflict themselves upon eighteenth-century music. For instance, the Adagio introduction to the first movement sounded more like an Andante, and the Andante certainly walked with a limited amount of time to reach its destination. Neither sounded excessively rushed, however, and structural delineation was clear throughout. The Presto sounded spot on, I thought, not quite a headlong rush, but with more than a hint of Haydnesque wit. Special mention should certainly be granted to the Mozarteum Orchestra’s woodwind, all of whom sounded simply divine.

The weakest performance, sadly, was that of the Masonic Funeral Music. It seemed oddly programmed in this context and that was also how it sounded. Programming, however, was less at fault than Lonquich’s determination to push the pace at all times. If ever Mozart needed space to breathe, it is here. Rather than profoundly disquieting, this merely sounded odd.

The great E-flat concerto received a decent performance but this is one of those works in which one can hardly help but refer back to great performances of the past. I tend to think that pianists should be wary of directing Mozart’s concertos from the keyboard; those who are not themselves first-rate conductors tend perforce to fall a little short in both capacities. This is of course no issue for a Barenboim, or, indeed, for various pianists – such as Perahia and Pollini – whom we might do well to hear more often as conductors, but it was not clear from this performance that Lonquich is ready to join their ranks. His piano playing was technically competent throughout, though never did it betoken an especial affinity for this most elusive of composers. Semiquaver passagework tended to sound simply as passagework; a greater melodic, musical meaning was often absent. In Mozart, every note must count, for there is absolutely nowhere to hide. I do not know whose cadenzas were performed but I know plenty that are preferable.

Once again, however, the orchestral woodwind was on superlative form. The Harmoniemusik passages, not least in the slow section of the finale, were truly ravishing, though I had the impression that a slight stiffness was owed to Lonquich’s direction. The only quibble I had with the orchestral performance was the size of the string section. Whilst the Mozarteum’s acoustic had granted plenty of bloom to a smallish section – eight first violins and so forth – during the earlier works, there were occasions when the strings sounded pressed, having slightly to force their tone. For whatever reason, this was less the case during the unexpected, and in many ways delightful, encore, the Adagio from the Piano concerto in A major, KV 488, its rare F-sharp minor tonality and Neapolitan harmonies proving quite beguiling.