Sunday 16 August 2009

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.