Wednesday 30 September 2009

Tristan und Isolde, Royal Opera, 29 September 2009

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Tristan – Ben Heppner
King Marke – Sir John Tomlinson
Isolde – Nina Stemme
Kurwenal – Michael Volle
Brangäne – Sophie Koch
Melot – Richard Berkeley Steele
Sailor – Ji-Min Park
Steersman – Dawid Kimberg
Shepherd – Ryland Davies

Christof Loy (director)
Johannes Leiacker (designs)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Marion Tiedtke (dramaturge)

Chorus of the Royal Opera House (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

‘I fear the opera will be banned – unless the whole thing is parodied in a bad performance –: only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, – I cannot imagine it otherwise.’ Sadly, I think, Wagner’s words to Mathilde Wesendonck came nowhere near to fulfilment; or, to put it, another way, they did, but there was no chance of the work being banned. A performance of Tristan und Isolde that fails to grab one by the throat and drive one at least to the borders of insanity has failed, plain and simple. Tristan without its Rausch (intoxication) is no Tristan at all.

Most of the fault for this lies with Christof Loy’s production. There is no especial need – indeed, I suspect that it is not even desirable – for Tristan to be set ‘somewhere’, whether in Cornwall or in a multi-storey car-park. Abstraction works well, as Herbert Wernicke’s infinitely preferable Covent Garden production showed. Loy, however, contrives to have the worst of both worlds. At the front of the stage, we see in Johannes Leiacker’s designs minimalism that is drab to the point of excess; this is the world of existentialism, according to a programme interview with the director. At the back, sometimes revealed by the drawing back of a curtain, is what appears to be the real world, the specific setting of Marke and Isolde’s wedding breakfast, again according to that interview. I assume that it was significant that there are no female guests. I likewise assume that the edging forward of a wall at the end of the second act was an accident. It appeared that something was about to be revealed, but alas not; perhaps it was a metaphor for the production as a whole. At any rate, the prolonged dimming of the lights afterwards suggested a lack of intention.

Isolde emerges from the latter world during the opening Prelude. Wandering around, looking lost and slightly – but not too much – bereft, her progress, such as it is, completely undermined the progress of the music, its orgasmic climax coming to nothing. Perhaps that is the point, or perhaps not. According to Loy, ‘the two spaces’ are, during the action, ‘almost completely redefined’. Apart from the odd case of a new table, they look and act pretty much as they always had done, at least so far as I could tell. And surely a time to have bridged the gap would have been Tristan’s appearance at the helm, or whatever it transpired to be in this production; what should be an earth-moving moment once again went for nothing. Perhaps most unforgivable was the appearance of Marke, Melot, and the other men long before the moment of coitus interruptus; extraordinary though this might seem, the cadence sounded only so slightly interrupted, a fault of the musical direction too.

So we had an ‘existential world’, fair enough, which interacted awkwardly with a highly specific setting that contradicted a great deal of what we heard in the words. Without wishing to seem like a stage direction fetishist, the first act references to a ship, the second act references to the hunt, and so forth, stand in glaring and unproductive contradiction to the monotonous revelations of the backstage banquet. If all is abstract, one can simply imagine, or not; one can concentrate upon the essence of the work, which has nothing to do with the setting and everything to do with the music. Musical drama should, as Wagner writes in his Schopenhauer-infused Beethoven essay, be a case of deeds of music rendered visible. This is simply not possible here.

For it seems that Loy does not like Schopenhauer very much, not just in terms of æsthetics, but also because he cannot ‘really equate the couple’s position as outsiders with a Schopenhauerian denial of the world’. Wagner and many others managed to do so, but we shall let that pass for the moment, for there is nothing wrong with approaching a work from a different angle. But what Loy reduces Tristan too is a strange and, to my mind, incompatible mix of something between Ibsen and Strindberg on the one hand and unamusing farce on the other. Perhaps the latter was unintentional, but the glimpses behind the curtain of Kurwenal and Brangäne imitating their master and mistress were hardly daring, just a little tacky. At least with Calixto Bieito, there might have been something a little more to see. ‘Character direction which is rich in detail and specific’ is what interests Loy most as a director, which is why, he says, he had generally steered clear of Wagner. Tristan, however, seemed to him something of an exception. I cannot imagine why, for it is only superficially concerned with the characters at all; if anything, it is the most supreme example of what he professes to dislike. How small it all seemed.

And if Loy does not like Schopenhauer or even Wagner, Antonio Pappano does not seem to like myth. The abstract nature of Tristan, he says in the same programme interview cited above, ‘is overrated. These are people on stage!’ Well, sort of, but are we seriously supposed to think that what matters about Tristan is the plot in itself. Though there is relatively little stage action to speak of, Wagner omitted even some of that when called upon to explain what the work was about. But what did he know? This perhaps helps explain the musical performance’s greatest failing. Though this was certainly Pappano’s best Wagner performance at Covent Garden, and every so often revelatory in terms of instrumental, especially wind, colour, at other times the musical structure, the longer line, was once again sadly lacking. Nowhere was this more the case than during the second act love duet: shapeless, just going on for a long time. Why do I say that Pappano’s words might help to explain? Because it seemed to me that his reading – unlike Loy’s! – was very much dictated by the words. The words have their place in a musical interpretation, of course, but in this of all works, the music must take precedence. It has its own demands; it undercuts the words, sometimes with a radicalism of which a director could only dream. Tristan for the most part therefore sounded as if it were a work with some wonderful moments, not the all-enveloping whole, the representation of the Schopenhauerian Will, it simply has to be. The third act was considerably better.

The best reason to see this Tristan would be the singing: a most unusual state of affairs. Ben Heppner struggled during stretches of the second and third acts; he really does seem to have lost his former steely security. But he sang better than one has come to expect in this impossible role and his diction was impressive. Loy’s desire for ‘character direction which is rich in detail and specific’ did him no favours, though; the moments in which he became amorous were too embarrassing even to register as farce. Nina Stemme’s performance as Isolde was excellent. One does not hear the majesty of a Flagstad, nor the steely sarcasm and irony of a Nilsson; one hears an intensely musical, variegated portrayal, which again – and more appropriately – seems very much to arise from the words. Lieder-singing would seem to inform her approach, which is not to say that it lacks a greater musical line, far from it. As Kurwenal and Brangäne, Michael Volle and Sophie Koch were hamstrung by Loy’s apparent determination to present them just as best friends to Tristan and Isolde; there was little sense of hierarchy, subservience, or even devotion. But they succeeded triumphantly in musical terms, barely putting a foot wrong, and helping to distract one’s attention from the visual realisation, despite approaching their well-nigh hopeless tasks with commendable enthusiasm. Brangäne’s description of the potions was a case in point. Sir John Tomlinson’s Marke was grave and meaningful as seemingly only he knows how. In this context, however such a Lear-like portrayal served to highlight the shortcomings of the production. I was also impressed by Ryland Davies’s keenly observed Shepherd, drawing upon a wealth of operatic and musical experience, and the winning Steersman of the splendid Jette Parker Young Artist, Dawid Kimberg: certainly one to watch. If you can bear to forget the work and concentrate on some fine singing, then there are rewards to reap. There is, I suppose a bright side: you might sympathise with the vigorous first-night booing for the production team, but at least you will not, as Wagner feared, descend into madness.

Tuesday 29 September 2009

LPO/Jurowski - Kurtág and Mahler, 26 September 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Kurtág – Stele, op.33
Mahler – Symphony no.2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’

Adriana Kučerová (soprano)
Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)
London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

This is not the first time Kurtág’s Stele and Mahler’s Second Symphony have been performed together. The former’s association with memorial and the latter’s focus upon resurrection are suggestive. Likewise, the large forces common to both – this must be one of the few cases when musicians exit the stage in preparation for a work by Mahler – make practical and doubtless economic sense in programming terms. Michael Gielen in his Hänssler recording presents both works with Schoenberg’s Kol Nidre. The Mahler is, however, more often than not programmed alone, so we were hardly short-changed.

Stele received an excellent performance. Written for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra when Kurtág was composer in residence, the London Philharmonic proved more than equal to the task. So did Vladimir Jurowski in succession to Claudio Abbado. The opening proved expectant in its expansion, the initial pitch of G dissipated through microtonal subversion. The beauty of the doleful woodwind sounds to which this led put me in mind of another memorial, the Berg Violin Concerto, and in particular the Bach chorale used therein, but also of something older, antique even, the Greek world from which the piece gains its title. Guest principal flautist Mattia Petrilli, both here and in the Mahler, was extremely impressive. In the ensuing controlled hysteria, one truly heard how huge the orchestra was, yet Jurowksi ensured that a fine sense of rhythmic momentum was maintained, even in the static passages. At the end, the hints – arguably more than that – of a funeral procession sounded almost as if for Mahler himself.

Jurowski’s account of the Mahler symphony was highly unusual. He has not, at least in London, conducted much of the composer’s music so far, but it is clear that he had given great consideration to this performance. I was not quite sure that everything cohered into a whole, but there could be no doubt that here was someone who had something to say about the composer and his music. This was not just another Mahler Second, for, at a time when that music is arguably over-exposed, we need more than ever a reason to perform it beyond filling concert halls (that in itself, of course, quite a reversal in fortune).

Jurowski began with Boulezian attack but allied to a far swifter tempo; indeed, I am not sure that I have ever heard the music taken so quickly. The brass sometimes blared a bit and there was the odd horn fluff. However, Jurowski displayed a good ear for orchestral detail, not least the all-important, often obscured figures for double bass. The English horn’s sadness put me in mind of Tristan’s shepherd song. Moments of stasis revealed a kinship with Kurtág, though I wondered whether they might have been slightly exaggerated to that end. This, then, was a bracingly modernist first movement, though sometimes perhaps too much; Boulez and Gielen both know that this is a Romantic work too. And then, later on, at the close of the development, there was an almost Bernstein-like hysteria: magnificently performed, but was it really compatible with what had gone before? The movement as a whole came across as somewhat disjointed, especially when the recapitulation reverted, as I suppose it must, to the rushed opening tempo. Portamento for the second subject was beautiful in itself, but sounded in context a little appliqué. Perhaps Jurowski was saying that such unresolved oppositions are what Mahler is about; certainly that was the impression I gained from the performance of the symphony as a whole. One thing for which to be extremely grateful: he rightly silenced the idiotic applause that began at the end of the movement. There was not the length of silence that Mahler requested between this and the second movement, but then I have never been to a performance respecting that wish. Perhaps it is simply impractical. Instead, a barrage of coughing and low-level chatter accompanied the entrance of soloists and chorus.

The Andante moderato was much slower than I have ever heard: considerably slower than even what used to be considered – and by some of us still us – the just tempo for a minuet, and certainly more akin to a ‘slow movement’ than usual. It was charmingly nostalgic, the warmth of string tone, especially in the cello section, contrasting with the steely gleam of the first movement. The minor mode trio sections were very insistent rhythmically – again echoes of Kurtág – though perhaps one was made a little too aware of the bar lines. The effect at so slow a tempo of the pizzicato passages was glacial, the harp unusually and welcomely prominent. I liked this movement very much, though it was decidedly non- or even anti-traditional.

It was good to have the scherzo’s opening kettledrum clatter silence the recidivist coughers. In Jurowski’s hands, this movement was a sardonic danse macabre, the ‘witch’s brew’ of which Mahler himself once spoke. The trio was raucous, vulgar even; there was no attempt to iron out its rusticity. Indeed, its highlighting made that sound unusually banal. I could almost see the village ‘characters’ dancing. Again, I was set thinking that Jurowski’s idea might be to incorporate ‘everything’ into Mahler’s world; after all, the composer famously told Sibelius that a symphony should be a world. The performance as a whole was coming to resemble – and would continue to do so – a vast symphonic poem, which of course is how, in the guise of Totenfeier, it set out. It was a bit like a conflation of Liszt’s Faust and Dante symphonies – and then some. If my preference would be for something more symphonically integrative, I undoubtedly heard many new perspectives upon a work I flattered myself I knew well.

Urlicht was perhaps too ‘different’ in conception. It lacked the hush I think it really needs, being presented instead as a simple, peasant-like explanation of how things will turn out in the hereafter. Christianne Stotijn brought a Lieder-singer’s attention to the meaning of the words, her diction superb. And the spatial dimension of the finale was presaged by having a wind band above the orchestral platform answer that initial, imploring ‘O Röschen rot!’

With the opening sound of the finale, we reverted to the modernism of the first movement. Once again, there was rhythmic insistence, but not always to the benefit of the longer line. The off-stage brass could be fractionally ahead of the on-stage musicians – at least from where I was sitting – but Jurowski brought them into line. This movement received a brazenly pictorial account, cinematic even. I fancied, once again, that I could see the characters, this time members of a procession; I certainly heard their cries. The spatial dimension was heightened immeasurably when one heard the last trumpet from various directions of the beyond. Moreover, the choral contribution was superb, both in diction and tonal variegation. ‘Sterben werd’ ich, um zu Leben!’ (‘I shall die so as to live’) and ‘Aufersteh’n,’ the assurance that we should rise again, sent shivers down my spine. Now I was utterly convinced and was reminded what truly astounding music this is. As the bells rang out – and rang out they most certainly did – one could hear, if this time not see, something of whatever it might be that lies beyond this world.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Goerne/Schmalcz - Schubert, 20 September 2009

Wigmore Hall

Nacht und Träume
Der blinde Knabe
Die Sterne
Im Abendrot

Totengräbers Weise
Tiefes Leid
Totengräbers Heimweh

An den Mond
Die Mainacht
An Silvia
Der Schäfer und der Reiter

Die Sommernacht
Jägers Abendlied
Der liebliche Stern
An die Geliebte

Matthias Goerne (baritone)
Alexander Schmalcz (piano)

One is hardly more likely to associate light relief with Matthias Goerne than with Pierre Boulez, though for somewhat different reasons. This was not an occasion to buck the trend. Having said that, this was not so dark a recital as that of Wolf and Liszt he recently gave in Salzburg with Andreas Haefliger. Intelligently programmed as ever, the second of Goerne’s two present Wigmore Hall Schubert recitals presented songs of night, sorrow, and the grave but also songs of the stars, the harvest, and dreams. Melancholy and occasional joy accompanied old age and death. Slow songs were preponderant in the first half, whilst the second brought greater variation, a broadening of horizons.

To open a recital with Nacht und Träume was a bold move: one that paid off handsomely. A wondrous introduction to the recital as a whole was provided by its hushed expectancy, not least thanks to the steadfast rocking – something of a contradiction in terms, I know – of Alexander Schmalcz’s piano part. Hope of sorts coloured Der blinde Knabe and Hoffnung. The blind boy’s happiness with or resignation to his lot – he knows nothing of the sun and its setting, so cannot truly regret it – was poignant indeed, especially in the final stanza, whilst Schubert’s brand of hope in the latter Schiller setting proved to be of the flickering variety: no Beethovenian flame here. Schmalcz intelligently highlighted the extraordinary proto-Lisztian harmony of the introduction and interlude to Friedrich Schlegel’s Die Sterne, whilst Goerne’s response to the text illuminated like the stars themselves. A single telling example was the floated melisma upon ‘himmlischen’, noting the heavenly nature of the signs at which we marvel. In a rapt account of Im Abendrot, the rise and fall of the words and musical structure was expertly shaped.

The second group of the first half was that concerned with the grave. Goerne’s pale, deathly tone brought out the reality (‘Wirklichkeit’, in Rückert’s verse) of the old man’s song (Greisengesang). The gravedigger’s resolve was clear from the outset in Totengäbers Heimweh, whilst the stillness of death itself was chillingly apparent from both musicians – undoubtedly led, however, by Goerne – during the final stanza.

A more enchanted form of night followed the interval. Schmalcz’s piano introduction to An den Mond underlined what is surely Schubert’s tribute to Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata, however much we might regret the nickname. The pianist also imparted a winning rhythmical lilt to Die Mainacht, continued and developed by Goerne, whose An Sylvia proved mellifluous to a degree. In the second Shakespeare setting, Ständchen, I was disappointed by the initial limpness of the piano part. Goerne’s charm – as I said, it was not all doom and gloom – and detailed response to the text clearly rubbed off upon his partner, however. Another drawback was the awkwardness of the piano transition to the huntsman’s music in Der Schäfer und der Reiter. It is tricky, of course, but can be better handled than it was here.

Goerne’s reading of the Goethe setting, Jägers Abendlicht was so intense that it was almost as if the huntsman wished to seduce the moon. This proved an abiding memory of a fine recital. I could not help wondering, however, whether Goerne might on occasion have been better served by a pianist such as Paul Lewis, who had himself seemed somewhat oddly matched with Mark Padmore during the previous Sunday's recital.

Monday 14 September 2009

South Bank Show: The Wagner Family, 13 September 2009

I shall probably regret this, given the risk of eliciting knee-jerk reactions from the monstrous regiment of Wagner-haters. However, I felt I could not simply remain silent after the quite disgraceful treatment of Wagner on last night's South Bank Show.

Directed by Tony Palmer, The Wagner Family was at best a confused mess, with little apparent direction - in any sense - and little ostensible point beyond muck-raking. I cannot imagine that anyone without prior knowledge would have understood what was going on, still less why this might be of any importance. The tedious yet all-too-expected reference to the dreadful clan as Germany's 'Royal Family' was made, and indeed much of it resembled the assemblage of gossip we have come to expect from anything concerning the real thing. But really? I have never met anyone, from Germany or elsewhere, who thinks of the family as deserving anything like that level of attention. One can well understand why Wieland Wagner's children and the elder children of Wolfgang Wagner would feel bitter; it seems pretty clear that they have been wronged. I hold no brief for Wolfgang. As a director, he is at best a non-entity, though his administrative skills clearly helped Bayreuth. I certainly hold no brief for his younger daughter, whose attempts at direction seem at best risible. But would it not have been proper to have someone put their side of the story? It hardly seems credible that anyone would have changed his mind on the relative merits of the brothers; indeed, it would surely have strengthened the case. And surely Katharina Wagner's declaration of intent to open the family archive should have been mentioned, if only sceptically.

That was one thing; it is difficult and doubtless not worth the effort to feel sorry for Wolfgang. But the initial treatment of his grandfather, the one who matters, was nothing short of a disgrace. As sole commentator on Parsifal, there was Robert Gutman, whose extremism on the subject would embarrass even those inclined to a racialist interpretation. His assertion, for this was no argument, that Parsifal was somehow about 'racial purity' was never questioned, let alone challenged, likewise his assertion that there was nothing Christian to the work. The latter is a complex issue, but it deserves proper consideration or otherwise leaving alone. As for the claim that Wagner somehow - at least Joachim Köhler argues his case - led to Hitler and even to the Holocaust...

In many cases, I should be tempted to shrug my shoulders, and ask, 'so what?' None of this, nor indeed Hitler's enthusiasm, has any effect upon the greatness of Wagner's works, any more than the teachings of Calvin or John Paul II detract from the message of Christ. What it does influence, however, is the general public's understanding. What people who have never encountered the dramas themselves 'know' comes from pieces such as this, which in turn has consequences for funding and, in the notorious case of the State of Israel, de facto prohibition. Wagner deserves better, even if many of his descendants do not.

We were also treated to the bizarre rantings, unquestioned throughout, of Gottfried Wagner. One can only feel sorry for him on a personal level - or at least I can - but his claim that successive mayors of Bayreuth had banned him from the city was surely more than enough to discredit rumours of even relative sanity.

Watch instead the riveting Confessions of Winifred Wagner by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg. Give someone enough rope...

Sunday 13 September 2009

Padmore/Lewis - Die schöne Müllerin, 12 September 2009

Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Die schöne Müllerin, D 795

Mark Padmore (tenor)
Paul Lewis (piano)

At least so far as the vocal part was concerned, this was a peculiar account of Schubert’s first song cycle. There were some very good things in Mark Padmore’s performance. I shall come to those a little later, but I could not help wondering whether his was really an appropriate voice for this repertoire. Of course, there is room for all sorts of approaches, a principal distinction being whether to use a tenor or a lower voice, transposed, allowing artists as different as Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Fritz Wunderlich and Matthias Goerne, to put forward their interpretations; the cycle has even occasionally been borrowed by female singers, for instance Brigitte Fassbaender. The recording Pears made with Britten certainly does not present a typically German voice, of whatever variety, yet it works very well, not least on account of Britten’s superlative contribution, but also thanks to Pears’s marriage of verbal and musical understanding.

Padmore’s voice comes closer to Pears than to the other singers I have mentioned, but not only is it very much the sound of an ‘English tenor’, it is limited in tone, or at least it was here, and eschews vibrato to an extent that helps one understand why he is an Evangelist of choice amongst the ‘authenticke’ brigade. Use of the head voice was too frequent to make any particular point; it ended up merely sounding fey. Indeed, archness was markedly more characteristic of this performance than vernal freshness. Whilst diction was generally excellent, there were a few occasions when vowels sounded a little odd, often though not always when umlauts were involved. I was a little surprised to hear ‘heller’ for ‘frischer’ in Wohin? and ‘sagt’ for spricht in Am Feierabend, but too much could easily be made of such matters. More worryingly, there were several instances of questionable intonation.

However, there were, as I said, highly commendable aspects to Padmore’s performance too. His experience as an Evangelist often told, in the very real sense one had of a narrator – often more a narrator than a participant, it might be added, certainly more so than, say, with Peter Schreier. Padmore’s attention to the words themselves was often exemplary. To take one example, in Ungeduld, his leaning into the word ‘Dein’ on ‘Dein ist mein Herz’, conveyed a delivery of the heart from our hero to his beloved. The questioning tone at the end of Halt! really did give a sense of a participant, asking the inscrutable brook what it meant. Perhaps if the young man had been able to understand then what, if anything, he was being told, things might have turned out differently, but such is Fate.

Where this performance truly scored, however, was in the contribution from Paul Lewis at the piano. Lewis imparted a powerful, inexorable continuity to the unfolding drama, not unlike the contribution of Wagner’s orchestral Greek chorus. The opening number, Das Wandern, was a case in point, the piano part properly muscular, to borrow an apposite adjective from Gavin Plumley’s excellent programme notes. Moreover, one heard a subtle yet undeniable growth in intensity through the stanzas of this strophic song, initially matched by Padmore, though the latter drew back at the end: less, it seemed, on account of a response to the text, but rather because his vocal reserves demanded it. The presence of the brook was strong throughout so many of the songs; this, one truly felt, was another character, perhaps even the most important character of all. Another character was no less impressively, if fleetingly, introduced with the huntsman of Der Jäger. Impatience (Ungeduld) was immediately present in the song of that name, whilst the harmonic shifts in Morgengruß registered piercingly, yet without inverted commas. I was especially taken with, and disturbed by, the harmonic premonitions of Schumann to which Lewis pointed in Tränenregen. The echt-Schubertian melancholic tread of Die liebe Farbe responded in equal measure to the verbal text – suicide beckons – and to the repeated-note hints of Chopin (the so-called ‘Raindrop’ Prelude). This made me suspect that Lewis might have an interestingly Classical perspective upon Chopin’s music. One heard the Romantic horns of Die böse Farbe, whilst, in Trockne Blumen, the piano ensured that the flowers were truly withered, Finally, one could hardly resist the attraction of the waters in the closing Des Baches Wiegenlied, drawn in as the hero himself.

Padmore and Lewis are to record all three Schubert song cycles for Harmonia Mundi. Fans of either artist or of both will doubtless wish to hear their interpretations. Theirs did not, however, seem to me an ideal partnership. It occurred to me that Padmore might have been happier with, or at least more suited to, a fortepiano performance. Certainly his performance had its virtues. But listen, for instance, to Wunderlich and one hears such ease with the music, a performance that does not need to underline every verbal nuance; the music and the sheer beauty of the voice permit the words to speak for themselves. Listen to Goerne, especially his second recording with Christoph Eschenbach, and one hears something altogether darker, daring to look into an expressionist abyss. There is room for both and for much else besides. A Müllerin for devotees of Choral Evensong perhaps has its place, but it is not for me.

Friday 11 September 2009

Interview with Irvine Arditti

After further discussion with Irvine Arditti, a few corrections and explanations have been made to the text of our interview. Please click here to read the amended version. Sad, if unsurprising news, is that Pierre Boulez has confirmed that he has no plans to write a further string quartet.

Tuesday 8 September 2009

Prom 69: Abboud Ashkar/Gewandhaus/Chailly - Mendelssohn and Mahler, 7 September 2009

Royal Albert Hall

Mendelssohn – Piano concerto no.1 in G minor, op.25
Mahler (ed. Cooke) – Symphony no.10

Saleem Abboud Ashkar (piano)
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly (conductor)

Judging by the warmth and sheer volume of the applause this concert received, most of the audience reacted a great deal more ecstatically than I did. At least the end of the concert proved a valuable opportunity for a minority menace to do something other than cough, talk, or, in some cases, sound their electronic equipment. Small mercies and all that...

The first Mendelssohn concerto was performed extremely well by Saleem Abboud Ashkar. I first heard him in 2006, in the Mozart concerto for two pianos, with the Vienna Philharmonic no less, under Riccardo Muti; reacquaintance found Abboud Ashkar equally impressive. Possessed of a pearly tone, not unlike Murray Perahia, he imparted a Mozartian beauty to the piano part, also hinting at Schumann and Brahms in the opposite chronological direction. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Riccardo Chailly played well enough and, in the case of the woodwind, quite magically at times, though the sheer ease in this idiom with which the orchestra played under Kurt Masur and often Herbert Blomstedt did not seem so readily apparent here. Some of Chailly’s direction in the first movement was hard-driven, though he proved able to relax on occasion. Yet I am afraid I could not bring myself to be wildly excited about the work itself. It has its moments and, in the slow movement, rather more than that. But hearing Abboud Ashkar made me wish I were hearing him in Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, or Brahms. Even those passages that sound closer to the inspired magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream throw into relief what is missing elsewhere. Prettiness need not always be disdained but there seems to me quite a lot of note-spinning in this piece: pleasant enough, and more substantial than anything by the briefly and incomprehensibly fashionable Hummel, but little more than that. Perhaps one of the perverse advantages of intensive anniversary coverage is to make one realise the gulf, at least in many cases, between a composer’s good and great works on the one hand and, on the other, the rest. If, on the other hand, we had been treated to more Haydn...

Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, as edited by Deryck Cooke – I realise that the situation is far less straightforward than that, but sometimes shorthand is helpful – was, I think, the second live performance of a Mahler symphony I ever heard. That performance, from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Wigglesworth, was also the second live Prom I attended. Sometimes one romanticises early experiences. However, not only can I say that that performance knocked me for six at the time; I can also report that listening to a BBC recording thereafter has barely dimmed my enthusiasm. The Welsh orchestra is perhaps not the most refulgent in tone and lacks the pedigree of the Leipzig band – though is the Leipzig pedigree right for Mahler? – but Wigglesworth’s direction is clear, dramatic, and makes an extremely strong case for Cooke’s edition/completion/call-it-what-you-will. I was considerably less convinced by this performance, which moreover made me harbour greater doubts than I have previously entertained concerning the edition. In theory, I suppose that could mean a good performance revealing shortcomings – consider, for instance, Boulez and his reservations concerning Schoenberg – but I do not think that was primarily the case here. Anyway, a performer would usually, with a few celebrated exceptions, consider himself to be counsel for the defence.

First off, this seemed a very lengthy account. Whether that were the case in reality, I have no idea, since, for better or worse, I am not one of those listeners prone to take timings. I am certainly no foe of broad, expansive performances in any repertoire; but that is a different matter from sounding as though it might never end, which the opening Adagio came very close to doing. Part of the problem seemed to be Chailly’s penchant for excessive underlining of the closing both of phrases and paragraphs. The caesura can be an integral part of Mahler’s style and, in the right hands, this can be accomplished without disruption to the longer line. Here, however, there was a strange, indeed paradoxical combination of smoothness and yet stopping and starting. By contrast, a performance last year from Vladimir Jurowski of the Adagio alone had certainly been expansive and might well have lasted for longer than this, but so intensely dramatic had the music-making been, so seamless had the musical golden thread proved, that I had merely regretted that it could not go on for longer.

Another problem I had was the sound of the orchestra, or rather of the strings, which simply did not sound right for Mahler. Perhaps it is no coincidence that I greatly admired a Brahms Fourth Symphony from Chailly and this orchestra at the Proms a couple of years ago, for often this is what it reminded me of. I missed Viennese sweetness or at least a convincing substitute. The darkness did not sound like the right sort, or at least a right sort, of darkness. Somehow Daniel Barenboim managed to accomplish a similar trick with the Staatskapelle Berlin in 2007 with the Seventh Symphony. I still do not quite know how, but his achievement would still seem to very much an exception – and it did not work during the Fifth. I should probably mention too that the Berlin strings were a good couple of degrees richer in tone than their Leipzig counterparts. Or perhaps it was the auld enemy of the Royal Albert Hall’s acoustic. Barenboim, after all, had the Philharmonie...

Another thing missing for me was the malevolent darkness, as opposed to the darkness of string sound, in the first scherzo. However, I should note that David Matthews, in his truly excellent programme note – quite a change from a number of Proms contributions this year – described Mahler as not having ‘written a scherzo so free from malice since the Fifth Symphony’. Overt references aside, my difficulty was that this sounded all too much like the scherzo of the Fifth Symphony – and that, I should contend, is far from untroubled. More worryingly, textures, especially during the scherzi, sometimes sounded as if something were missing. Of course, in a very real sense, something is – but unless this were intended as a critique of Cooke and the Matthews brothers, that is perhaps not something of which one should really be aware. On the other hand, there was some truly extraordinary woodwind playing, which I noticed with something bordering upon amazement in each movement. The alternation of icy, Webern-like purity and pastoral warmth in the Purgatorio was utterly convincing. Indeed, it set me thinking that this is precisely what Purgatory should be like: invigorating purification, just like Webern. The three clarinets in the final movement once again sounded spot on, evoking both Mozartian Harmoniemusik and the Berg of the Violin Concerto’s chorale. This movement and the Purgatorio seemed to me the strongest – and I should certainly recall the superlative percussion contribution with which the orchestra groped towards its opening.

I have deliberately written very much in the first person, since I have a sense that much of this was about my reaction, not just in the sense that others clearly reacted very differently, but also that this concerns differently held approaches to and understandings of Mahler. When the music sounded on the threshold of the Second Viennese School, especially Webern, I was most captivated, but for long stretches it seemed to me not merely ‘late Romantic’, but ‘late Romantic’ in a not entirely appropriate way. With Barenboim, a surprising relation to Brahms had worked in the Seventh Symphony, even if it might rarely be suggested by the score in itself. Whilst there was much to appreciate here, I remained unconvinced by the interpretation as a whole, except in the rather troubling – but perhaps necessary? – sense of the doubts elicited concerning the edition. I shall now perhaps look again at some of the competing completions, which would doubtless be no bad thing.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

Edinburgh International Festival (4): Hannigan/Arditti Quartet - Beethoven, Dutilleux, Webern, and Schoenberg, 1 September 2009

Queen's Hall

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

Barbara Hannigan (soprano)
Irvine Arditti and Ashot Sarkissjan (violins)
Ralf Ehlers (viola)
Lucas Fels (cello)

The second of the Arditti Quartet’s two Queen’s Hall series proved at least as successful as the first ; indeed, I thought the Beethoven performance, on this occasion the Grosse Fuge, surpassed that of the op.95 quartet the previous morning. It was interesting to note, in the light of my prior conversation with Irvine Arditti, the nature of the audience. He had spoken of the presence of Beethoven as a potential way to make an Arditti programme ‘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 doubtless impressionistic or downright prejudiced, but my impression of the audience was that this was in large part composed of those more likely to be interested in the chamber music repertoire. If so, such listeners could hardly have had a better opportunity to be introduced to two twentieth-century quartet masterpieces: Webern’s Bagatelles and Schoenberg’s second quartet. About Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit I felt more ambivalent but it certainly received every bit as fine a performance.

Arditti also spoke of his longstanding ‘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 was not quite the nature of the programme here, but Beethoven’s extraordinary work fulfilled a not entirely dissimilar function nevertheless; it certainly sounded here, as it should, at least as shockingly modern as anything that came thereafter. I heard an audience member during the interval lamenting that Beethoven had ‘sounded violent’; surely that is the point. From the opening, which was jagged, angular, and abrupt, such music alternated, albeit with a weighting towards the former, with a Beethoven who could be sweet, gentle, but never, repeat never, cloying. Sparks flew in what seemed almost a masterclass in the expression of Beethovenian struggle and defiance. Although the scale and nature of the forces are entirely different, I was more than once put in mind of the Missa Solemnis and, during the slow episode, the Adagio to the Ninth Symphony. The rhythmical and metrical complexity of Beethoven’s writing shone through, in a way that must have appealed to Conlon Nancarrow when he lauded this quartet’s performance of both the Grosse Fuge and his own third quartet (see the interview again). Tonality at times almost seemed to be beside the point, certainly not in the case of having ceased to function, but instead of having at times ceded its leading role to counterpoint.

Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit seemed, as I said, to be performed extremely well; certainly the work’s structure was clearly delineated, as were its debts to Webern and to Bartókian night music. I also fancied that I heard a kinship – I suspect that rather than influence – to Messiaen. Prominent pizzicatos and playing sul ponticello added to the atmosphere. For whatever reason, however, I remained somewhat unreceptive, so shall move on to a very fine performance, following the interval, of Webern’s op.9 Bagatelles. Sighs, clarity, crystalline perfection, echoes (apparent or other) of the Grosse Fuge, great and minute dynamic contrasts: all of these were here. So was an aching, Schubertian beauty – how close Schubert so often stands to the Second Viennese School! – and a kinship of premonition to the Ligeti quartet heard in the previous concert, especially the sense of ethereal expiration. Above all, this Webern performance made one listen, reminding me once again why Nono so revered his predecessor.

This was the second time I had heard the Arditti Quartet perform both the Webern pieces and Schoenberg’s second quartet, the previous occasion having been a concert during the Southbank Centre’s Nono series. Claron McFadden was here replaced by the equally excellent Barbara Hannigan, whom I have previously encountered in a variety of challenging repertoire, including Nono and Berg. The density of Schoenberg’s counterpoint, so rich in expression, was conveyed from the opening of the first movement without fail. One could hear precisely what Schoenberg meant when writing, ‘In the first and second movements there are many sections in which the individual parts proceed regardless of whether or not their meeting results in codified harmonies.’ Programming and performance also revealed close parallels in this respect with the Grosse Fuge. Verklärte Nacht-like richness was revealed at times, yet sparingly, ensuring that appreciation of one’s harmonic bearings did not preclude following of neo-Brahmsian continuous motivic development. Harmonic nods to the First Chamber Symphony were unusually apparent in the scherzo. Still more prominent was a strong sense of how rhythmic and harmonic motion were as one. There was, moreover, a real charm to the celebrated quotation from ‘O du lieber Augustin,’ second violinist Ashot Sarkissjan and violist Ralf Ehrens providing just the right element of lilt and inflection, without resorting to all-too-audible inverted commas. This was poignant but clear-eyed, rather like the performance as a whole, a characteristic which in no sense precluded great intensity of musical expression – rather like Schoenberg’s œuvre as a whole.

There was a true sadness to the opening of Litanei, a passionate cello outburst from Lucas Fels preparing the way for the soprano entry: ‘Tief ist die trauer die mich umdüstert’ (‘Deep is the grief enveloping me’). Hanningan proved attentive as a Lieder-singer to the varying demands of Stefan George’s text and its implications: seductive and sultry, but also still and peaceful. The great final climax upon the word ‘liebe’ prepared the way for a peace of sorts, certainly a sense that everything had changed in the afterglow of the instrumental postlude. A very real sense of liberation could therefore characterise the instrumental opening of the final movement: hushed expectancy announcing the air of another planet. Entrückung, the movement’s title, was precisely what one felt: the ecstasy of transportation. The ‘soothing tremor of a sacred awe’ was followed by string-playing of an almost unbearable intensity, inevitably recalling Tristan und Isolde, as did the next stanza with its frankly Tristan-esque language, ‘atem wunschlos’ and all. When a ‘wild gust’ of wind gripped the verse, it felt musically as well as verbally inevitable, the product no doubt of so many years’ immersion in this endlessly fascinating score. The final stanza brought a sense of transfiguration: Wagnerian Verklärung. But there was also in the transfigured postlude ambiguity: where next? Schoenberg would soon embark upon his lonely, arduous, but necessary journey.

Edinburgh International Festival (3): Skride/Vogler/BBC SSO/Runnicles - Webern, Brahms, and Strauss, 31 August 2009

Usher Hall

Webern – Im Sommerwind
Brahms – Double concerto for violin and violoncello in A minor, op.102
Strauss – Don Quixote, op.35

Baiba Skride (violin)
Jan Vogler (violoncello)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

This concert, surprisingly sparsely attended, took place on the eve of Donald Runnicles’s accession to the chief conductorship of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It would seem, from both this programme and a glance at plans for next season, that Runnicles is, quite rightly, keen to impart his great experience in the core German repertoire. Webern’s very early Im Sommerwind seemed, however, an odd choice with which to open. It is worth hearing occasionally, but how much more of a statement it would have been to commence with one of the composer’s many bejewelled masterpieces, than with this prolix – surely the only instance in Webern’s output – piece of ersatz Strauss. Programming complaints aside, Runnicles imparted a Wagnerian glow to the opening, coloured by would-be Straussian harmonic deviations – and, interestingly, odd hints of Debussy too. The BBC SSO’s horns sounded very Straussian, bar the odd unfortunate cracked note. The strings sometimes possessed a greater depth than at other times, but at their best were impressive, as were leader Elizabeth Layton’s solos. If the music stopped and started a bit, that reflects the work itself rather than the performance as such.

In Baiba Skride and Jan Vogler, the orchestra welcomed two fine soloists for the Brahms double concerto. The orchestral opening was measured, indeed a touch stiff, but Vogler’s passionate cello entry, matched – well, almost – by Skride’s response, seemed to rub off upon Runnicles and his players. Theirs, though not necessarily the soloists’, was a Brahms of summer brightness rather than autumnal mahogany, closer to Beethoven than one often hears. I am not sure how apt this ultimately is, but at least the BBC SSO proved impressively full of tone. The richness of the soloists’ tone was immediately apparent in the songful opening in octaves to the slow movement. It flowed as an Andante without sounding all-too-fashionably brisk. The woodwind sound for the exquisite second subject once again reminded me of Beethoven. Unfortunately there was a very noticeable slip in the movement’s final chord, although these things happen. Wisely, even if this could hardly have been the reason for doing so, the finale was taken attacca. Again, lyricism was to the fore for both Skride and Vogler: a lyricism that could encompass both wistfulness and verve. There was a nice contrast in their presentations of the principal theme: the cello more playful, the violin more serene. Vogler’s first voicing of the second theme was simply perfect, as was Skride’s response. However, if the first tutti exuded testosterone, later on there were a few signs of flagging.

Don Quixote had the second half to itself. Vogler was joined by the orchestra’s excellent principal violist, Scott Dickinson, far from outshone by his partner in crime. And indeed, there were many other well-taken opportunities for orchestral solos: for instance, oboe and clarinet during the Introduction, the leader once again showing a good rapport with Vogler during the ensuing statement of the Theme, and implacable kettledrums during the funeral march. Ensemble work was often equally fine, for instance with the pair of bassoons depicting the Benedictine monks, the archaic brass pilgrims, and the characterful, bucolic wind band and percussion during the meeting with Dulcinea. Vogler naturally remained first amongst equals, from his entry onwards, and never more so than in the dark, Romantic solo of the Knight’s Vigil. That is, never more so until his noble performance during the hero’s death, sadly disrupted by a barrage of coughing. Runnicles’s shaping of Strauss’s vast structure seemed a little listless, or at least rhapsodic, during the Introduction, but afterwards there was little problem in that respect. Technicolor was the operative word for much of the performance, but there is nothing wrong with that on occasion.

Edinburgh International Festival (2): Arditti Quartet - Beethoven, Berg, Nigel Osborne, and Ligeti, 31 August 2009

Queen's Hall

Beethoven - String Quartet no.11 in F minor, op. 95
Berg - String Quartet, op.3
Nigel Osborne - Tiree (world premiere, EIF commission)
Ligeti - String Quartet no.2

Irvine Arditti and Ashot Sarkissjan (violins)
Ralf Ehlers (viola)
Lucas Fels (cello)

The Arditti Quartet playing Beethoven is not unprecedented, but it qualifies as ‘early music’ for these players. (For an interview in which, amongst other things, Irvine Arditti discussed with me the programming of the quartet’s two Queen’s Hall recitals, please click here.) This performance of the op.95 ‘Quartett serioso’ was though-provoking, not unlike hearing, say, Michael Gielen conduct one of the symphonies. The furious concision of the opening bars announced a fiercely modernist Beethoven: Bartók meets Webern. It was certainly not an old-world Beethoven we heard, though Irvine Arditti allowed an odd touch of portamento, for instance in the first movement’s second subject. And there was violence too in the coda, leading, quite rightly, to exhaustion rather than triumph. The second movement was songful, conversational, its counterpoint not unduly severe, though every note was made to sound as utterly necessary. There were perhaps even hints of Schubert in the sense conveyed of a melancholic onward trudge. Underpinned so often by the gentle security of Lucas Fels’s cello line, the harmonic implications were thereby permitted to flower. Also noteworthy was the varied use of vibrato, always expressively gauged, especially by Arditti himself. The transition to the scherzo was very well judged: somehow both seamless and rupture. Benefiting from a string rhythmic drive, the scherzo’s thematic profile was equally keenly observed, with only momentary relief expressed in the trio sections. There were, however, odd lapses of intonation here: surprising, given their distinct lack elsewhere, though their importance should not be exaggerated. I liked the initial sense of the finale’s introduction as the opening of the slow movement we had never had and its subsequent self-revelation not as that, but as the gateway to the Allegretto agitato. The Arditti’s reading was certainly agitato: febrile and intense, summing up the fierce concision of the work. And then: a brief glimpse of Mozart, Figaro even, in the quite delightful, joyous coda.

If I was provoked by the quartet’s Beethoven, whilst missing a little a sense of old Vienna – my problem, not the performers’ – then the performance of Berg’s op.3 quartet left me with no reservations whatsoever. The incisive delivery of the opening lines drew one in to an unmistakeably Bergian labyrinth, from which there was no escape, even had one wished to find it. Each player was indubitably an equal explorer and the whole proved so much greater than the sum of its parts. The intensity of expression and its quality – Romantic-expressionist, or expressionist-Romantic? – ensured that one listened not only to every note, but to its placing and to its implications. The ghosts of Viennese dance-forms, Mahler’s precedent still very much alive, came into focus fleetingly and just as quickly disappeared into the abyss. Indeed, the whole of the first movement came close to what Nietzsche so memorably termed Tristan und Isolde’s ‘voluptuousness of Hell’, albeit never lacking a distinct modernist edge. There was perhaps a still greater intensity to the furious opening bars of the second and final movement. Textural complexity was rejoiced in and turned to expressive ends, again an almost Wagnerian eroticism, which yet has precedent in Schoenberg and Zemlinsky. Through the cascades of passion, direction was always clear; indeed, such clarity of direction was vital to the articulation of Berg’s allegedly autobiographical outpourings.

Nigel Osborne’s Tiree received its first performance after the interval. There is no gainsaying – and why should one try? – the Arditti Quartet’s commitment to and expertise in new music, whether here or on other occasions. Tiree is so named after a ringing stone, ‘Clah a’ Choire’: in the composer’s words, ‘an erratic granite boulder carried to the island by glaciers in the ice age; it is cup-marked by many centuries of being played by percussive stones, exactly like the Neolithic rock gongs of Lake Victoria and the Serengeti (our planet is large, our human family small). The oldest known melody collected upon the island of Tiree, voiced by the two violins in response to each other, rather like an antiphon with halo-like accompaniment, is thus harmonised by these resonances, subsequently counterpointed by fragments derived from the fractal geometry of the coastline. And so, there emerges a piece that can truly be said to derive from its geographical and (pre-)historical inspiration: a sense of landscape that does not really rely upon pictorialism: not that there is necessarily anything wrong with pictorialism, but that is not Osborne’s concern. Nor, as his comparisons with Africa imply, is parochialism. The quartet makes considerable use of harmonics and non-traditional tuning, whilst remaining within a framework possessing some tonal references. Throughout the twists and turns, a sense of line – Ariadne in the labyrinth, I thought, referring back to Berg and also to Birtwistle – endures in a common thread: tribute as well of course to the skill of the performers. Inevitable reminders of Messiaen surfaced in the use of birdsong, but Osborne very much makes such material his own; it never sounded imposed upon the material, but grew out of it, likewise the stone resonances. Then, at the end, almost imperceptible but also very real, are heard the full resonances of the stone, its harmonics heard through a stone-metal plate speaker, ‘to enhance “liveness”’.

Finally, we were treated to an incendiary performance of Ligeti’s second quartet. The opening, notated silence and striking unanimity of the following pizzicato put me in mind of Horace’s ideal for the epic poet: ‘Nor does he [Homer] begin the Trojan War from the double egg, but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things.’ Thence composer and players swiftly transported us into the quasi-ether and equally swiftly into a world of neo-Bartókian violence. The intensity – that word again, I know – of this performance threatened even to surpass that of the Berg; its precision was equally astonishing and equally crucial. That calm which opens and intervenes in the second movement – Sostenuto, molto calmo – contrasted with duly ferocious outbursts, whose virtuosity was but a precondition for the still greater musical challenges set by the composer. The extraordinary ticking of the third movement, Come uno meccanismo de precisione, imparted a real sense of it not only taking place in time, but being ‘about’ time itself, before, in programme annotator Malcolm Hayes’s words, ‘retreating into the void from which it came’. Tension, violence, precision: the fourth movement embodied many of the qualities of the quartet and its performance as a whole. This was a Webern-like statement with absolutely nothing extraneous. The fifth and final movement offered intensity of a very different sort, stretching our ears in order for us fully to hear the crucial, minute variations in sound during this quiet but never still music: extreme in perhaps an even more radical way than what has gone before. Nono must surely have admired this music – and would surely have admired this outstanding performance. There was always a strong sense of dramatic flow, leading towards apotheosis – and then, this Ligeti’s masterstroke, escape.