Saturday 31 October 2009

Quatuor Ebène - Brahms, Bartók, and Schubert, Wigmore Hall, 30 October 2009

Wigmore Hall

Brahms – String Quartet in C minor, op.51 no.1
Bartók – String Quartet no.3
Schubert - String Quartet in D minor, D 810, ‘Death and the Maiden’

Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure (violins)
Mathieu Herzog (viola)
Raphaël Merlin (violoncello)

Fresh from receiving a Gramophone award for their disc of works by Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel, the players of the Quatuor Ebene displayed an equal level of excellence in this programme of string quartets by Brahms, Bartók, and Schubert. My sole reservation concerned the first Brahms quartet: not in terms of the performance but the work itself. Dyed-in-the-wool Brahmsian that I be, I still find this an uningratiating piece. Nevertheless, in the struggle to make quartet writing out of Brahms’s difficult music, the Ebène came as close as I can recall hearing. The febrile opening proved Janus-faced, as Brahms is wont to do; already there were hints of Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht and beyond, but there was also Beethovenian motivic insistency. Every note was made to count and to sound utterly necessary, the movement’s concision evoking a celebrated predecessor, probably the most celebrated predecessor, in the tonality of C minor: the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The Romanze is easier to warm to, at least for me. Despite its deceptive (relative) simplicity, it is just as tightly constructed, the Ebène’s performance producing considerable tension. There were, however, moments of (relative) relaxation, the beauty of Raphaël Merlin’s cello line almost looking forward to the slow movement of the second piano concerto. The players imparted an ideal sense of quiet inexorability to the third movement. Here the inner parts especially teemed with motivic invention, not least in their strangely unerotic quality of their chromaticism: chaste, though Nietzsche might maliciously have referred again to the ‘melancholy of impotence’. The fury of the musicians’ initial attack upon the finale was sustained throughout in a way that recalled Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. Thematic links with previous movements were both clear and necessary. As Schoenberg recognised, this is a standard-bearing work of near-total thematicism. Brahms’s system cannot but inspire awe, as it certainly did here, even if affection is more difficult to muster.

Schoenberg and the other composers of the Second Viennese School also stand close to Bartók’s astounding third quartet. Yet the voice is always Bartók’s own, and that voice was certainly to be heard in this performance. The frozen opening set up melody as the agent for the thaw, yet severity rightly remained, a tightrope between astringency and relaxation successfully navigated in a magnificently tense reading. A Boulezian marriage between exactitude and expressiveness was conducted, especially during the Seconda parte, rhythm and melody co-equals as driving forces behind the music. The players conjured up a veritable kaleidoscope of sounds, never for its own sake, always at the service of the music. I was very much taken by the almost cinematic, freeze-frame quality to the slow down for the Ricapitulazione della prima parte, a developmental recapitulation if ever there were one. What was surely the Bergian – Lyric Suite – inspiration for the scurrying music of the coda was transformed into an utterly Bartókian frenzied outburst of rhythm and melody. This must be one of Bartók’s very greatest works; that was certainly how it sounded on this occasion.

The final work on the programme, though there would also be heard one of the quartet’s customary encores, was the Death and the Maiden quartet. A strikingly low-vibrato opening statement – on dramatic, not ideological grounds – was followed by ever-so-brief consolation, itself leading to vehemence, setting up an almost schizophrenic opposition that would characterise the first movement. This was not comfortable Schubert, which is not to say that it lacked cultivation, only that cultivation was treated as a dramatic tool rather than a given. Intonation, as throughout the programme, was flawless, likewise the unanimity of attack. I do not think I have heard the dactylic kinship of the second movement’s theme with the slow movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony quite so clearly enunciated and meaningfully explored, the sense of a cortège, of movement as well as sadness, so unerringly placed. The variations were very much a journey, a Winterreise. Here we heard undeniable high Romanticism, albeit without the slightest impression of inappropriateness, of being forced, and always within an iron-clad, ‘classical’ command of structure. The growth of intensity during the fifth variation was staggering, not least in its resolution. Young though he might have been, Schubert was raging against the dying of the light. The scherzo opened with a rhythmic insistency that presaged the anvils of Nibelheim, whilst its trio provided finely-judged continuation and contrast, exquisite, but not for its own sake. Finally, the closing Presto proved a veritable dance of death: relentless, but also, crucially, inviting. Such, despite the unfurling whirlwind, was the sweetness of tone from Pierre Colombet’s first violin that it might have been the Devil himself who drew one in.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Ibragimova/Tiberghien - Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin, 27 October 2009

Wigmore Hall

No.1 in D major, op.12 no.1
No.4 in A minor, op.23
No.8 in G major, op.30 no.3
No.7 in C minor, op.30 no.2

Alina Ibragimova (violin)
Cédric Tiberghien (piano)

This selection of four Beethoven violin sonatas was for the most part impressive, though the first half was perhaps more consistently impressive than the second – in part, I suspect, a reflection of the greater musical challenges posed by the op.30 works. Though still a young man’s music, it is by no means clear whether young artists are always best placed to perform them.

Of the three op.30 sonatas, two were performed: the third and the second, in that order. The G major, op.30 no.3, certainly had its moments – and, to be fair, rather more than that, the first movement proving especially successful. Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien rightly took it fast, without sounding unduly forced. Indeed, this movement sounded full of life, full of the openness G major implies, especially for a violin. And when the dominant was reached, there were definite echoes of the contemporary Pastoral sonata for piano, op.28, not least in the handling of the warm syncopations. However, particularly during the development section, I wondered whether the performers might fruitfully have allowed for a little fluctuation in terms of tempo. The opening of the second movement was exceptional in that Tiberghien sounded somewhat heavy-handed: not a problem elsewhere in the recital. That opening piano statement was also a little plain, though Ibragimova’s response was more differentiated. The tempo, however, simply sounded too fast: the music needed to relax, to show an easy – a deceptively easy – grace. The finale, though technically impressive, and with some exquisite moments, could be unrelenting at times.

The C minor sonata opened with a magnificently mysterious piano introduction prior to the opening of the Beethovenian floodgates. Yet open though they did, the Beethoven of this movement remained somewhat Apollonian version; Dionysus never quite made his presence felt. Technically, there was much at which to marvel, not least Ibragimova’s flawless double-stopping, yet there was sometimes, though by no means always, a sense of two very good performances in tandem rather than of true interaction between the two players. The Adagio cantabile reminded me once again quite how difficult Beethoven’s slow movements are. This was a valiant attempt, but the noble simplicity at which any performance must strain, that simplicity of which an unbroken line must be part, was not quite achieved. Sadly, the final bars degenerated into an opportunity for to cough along with Cédric and Alina. In the scherzo, the players seemed to be trying a bit too hard; both sounded a bit too nervy. The trio proved hard-driven, contributing to an impression of grimacing rather than smiling at Beethoven’s gruff humour. By contrast, the finale was, in itself, a triumph. I very much liked the rough edges of this disruptied – or disrupted? – movement. Is it early Beethoven or Romantic Beethoven? It is of course both, as the players showed they understood. Their performances exhibited a virtuosity that was furious but not attention-seeking.

Nevertheless, it was the first two performances that I found more consistently satisfying. Op.12 no.1 had a somewhat shaky opening, not from Tiberghien, who sounded magnificent throughout, but in terms of Ibragimova’s uncharacteristically steely, unmodulated tone, at least as far as the second subject. But otherwise this was and sounded like a young man’s music. The second movement instantly sounded more like true chamber music, initially led but not dominated by Tiberghien, until Ibragimova’s gracious elevation for the second variation. A violent eruption characterised both players’ vision of the third variation, whilst its successor exhibited an almost Schubertian rocking melancholy in the piano part, married to richness of tone in the violin’s lyricism. The finale had just the right sense of going beyond Mozart, his spirit both honoured and slightly traduced, especially in the insistence of those utterly characteristic Beethovenian syncopations. Tiberghien’s Tiggerish enthusiasm served this music extremely well.

The A minor sonata, op.23, opened in nervy fashion without falling into the trap of sounding short-winded, for a good sense of line pervaded the work. Beethoven’s contrapuntal mastery was relished by both players, especially during the first two movements; there were times when Brahms almost seemed to be knocking on the door – and quite right too. The second movement was certainly not slow, but nor was it rushed; the players managed the tricky business of poise and flow. Here, there was a true sense of give and take between them. My sole reservation – and not only here – was a rather throwaway ending, which verged upon mannerism. The Romantic urgency that characterised the finale looked forward to the Kreutzer sonata, but there was also a more classically Mozartian aspect to the player’s conception (not that Mozart cannot be Romantic, of course). There was also an open spirit to be heard that sounded authentically – in the best, not the modern debased, sense – Beethovenian. If that was not always captured quite so clearly later on, to do so at all was a sign that Ibragimova and Tibergien are Beethoven performers to be reckoned with.

Sunday 25 October 2009

L'Heure Espagnole and Gianni Schicchi, Royal Opera, 24 October 2009

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Torquemada – Bonaventura Bottone
Concepcion – Ruxandra Donose
Gonsalve – Yann Beuron
Ramiro – Christopher Maltman
Don Inigo Gomez – Andrew Shore

Gianni Schicchi – Sir Thomas Allen
Lauretta – Maria Bengtsson
Rinuccio – Stephen Costello
Simone – Gwynne Howell
Zita – Elena Zilio
Betto di Signa – Jeremy White
Marco – Robert Poulton
La Ciesca – Marie McLaughlin
Gherardo – Alan Oke
Nella – Janis Kelly
Maestro Spinelloccio – Henry Waddington
Ser Amantio di Nicolao – Enrico Fissore
Pinellino – Nicholas Garrett
Guccio – Paul Goodwin-Groen
Buoso Donati – Peter Curtis
Gherardino – Alexander Howard-Williams

Richard Jones (director)
Elaine Kidd (revival director)
John Macfarlane (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Lucy Burge (choreography)
Paul Kieve (illusionist)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Paul Wynne Griffiths (conductor)

After the dismal Christof Loy Tristan und Isolde, which I saw again in the vain hope that I might yet see the light, the Royal Opera has provided a much-needed tonic, gratefully imbibed. There was more to enjoy in almost every minute of L’Heure espagnole than, singing apart, there had been in a double measure of that misconceived presentation of Wagner’s drama.

Ravel’s score is a joy, well communicated here by the splendid performance, colourful and precise, of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Paul Wynne Griffiths. Vocal performances were equally splendid. Ruxandra Donose replaced Christine Rice, whose pregnancy ironically precluded her from assuming the role of Concepcion. There was no sense of second best here, however. As alluring of voice as she is on stage, Donose ascribed just the right kind of airy Hispanic sultriness – the apparent paradox is surely Ravel’s – to the part of the bored housewife. Christopher Maltman was a cheekily naïve Ramiro, the same going for that near contradiction. Maltman’s dark, handsome baritone was as well fitted to the part as his display of the bulging biceps of which we hear so much in the libretto. Yann Beuron, Bonaventura Bottone, and Andrew Shore all made a great deal of their supporting roles, dependent upon single characteristics, as such comic parts tend to be, without betraying the Gallic sophistication of Ravel’s comedy.

Richard Jones’s production, here revived by Elaine Kidd, is at least as felicitous. The clockwork goings on – not for nothing did Stravinsky liken Ravel to a Swiss watchmaker – were punctiliously and lovingly observed in a riot of colour, so ably realised in John Macfarlane’s designs. If the audience’s response was somewhat over-the-top in its uproarishness, one can only assume that certain members of matinée audiences do not get out that much – or perhaps they do, lucklessly find themselves at Loy’s Tristan, and are grateful for the light relief. The arrival of the dancing girls for the closing habanera provided a marvellous apotheosis, even, if with Ravel, one is not quite sure of what.

The production of Gianni Schicchi is just as fine: an updating from the libretto’s very specific 1299 to a magnificently awful vision of 1950s Italy. The garishness of the frocks alone, credit to Nicky Gillibrand, would sear it upon one’s memory. And of course, the family of the deceased Buoso Donati is magnificently awful. Production and opera agree upon injecting a certain amount of soap into the opera. I only wish that Puccini, in what must rank as one of his best scores, did not lapse into sentimental mawkishness for the music of Rinuccio and Lauretta, though Jones’s cinematic freeze-frame ending captured the change of mood wonderfully. Yes, I know that the contrast makes a dramatic point, but the heartless Puccini is so much more palatable, at least for me. Orchestra and conductor once again revelled in the fantasy of – much of – the score, doubtless well prepared by Antonio Pappano, who had conducted the earlier performances.

There was not a weak link in the cast. Stephen Costello was the real thing as an ardently youthful Rinuccio, with Maria Bengtsson, whom I had previously admired in the very different role of Gluck’s Armide, as elegant a Lauretta as the role permits. ‘O mio babbino caro,’ was well sung, though I cannot help but find it a fly in the ointment. (Audible and visual relaxation of some otherwise inattentive members of the audience made the point all too clearly.) Elena Zilio simply was Zita; one would never have guessed, save of course for the richness of her voice, that she was not a contemporary of the recently deceased. And Sir Thomas Allen made a triumphant Gianni Schicchi, fully justifying the glowing terms in which he described both role and work when I spoke with him a couple of weeks earlier. His comic timing, his attentiveness to Giovacchino Forzano’s text, the musicianship of his response to the score, and the sheer winningness of his stage presence combined in a memorable portrayal. His next stop for the Royal Opera: another role debut as Faninal...

The Turn of the Screw, English National Opera, 22 October 2009

The Coliseum

The Governess – Rebecca Evans
The Prologue/Peter Quint – Michael Colvin
Miles – Charlie Manton
Flora – Nazan Fikret
Mrs Grose – Ann Murray
Miss Jessel – Cheryl Barker

David McVicar (director)
Tanya McCallin (designs)
Andrew George (movement)
Sirena Tocco (movement revival)
Adam Silverman (lighting)

Orchestra of English National Opera
Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)

I have long thought The Turn of the Screw Britten’s finest opera. It is a superior work to Peter Grimes, for instance, which boasts an excellent story, set to music of variable quality; only English insularity could possibly explain the wildly extravagant claims one often hears for it. In The Turn of the Screw, however, genuinely interesting, highly ‘constructed’, music adds to the story, engendering an artwork inevitably different from, yet far from unworthy to be ranked alongside, Henry James’s original tale.

Sir Charles Mackerras certainly made one hear Britten’s score that way. Mackerras’s was an outstanding achievement: if only he would devote, or indeed had devoted, more of his time to repertoire such as this than to his increasingly hard-driven, often downright charmless, Mozart. (A recent Don Giovanni was, I admit, something of an exception.) Here, however, the music lived, breathed, developed with deceptive ease; it responded to and incited the drama, its structure clearly delineated in musical and dramatic terms. As the conductor himself noted in a brief post-performance speech, following a presentation, there are only thirteen players in Britten’s orchestra, yet the composer suggests more extensive forces. There is no monotony but a wealth of instrumental colour and variation. Such economy undoubtedly puts Peter Grimes to shame. And the ENO orchestra was on top form. Every player might justly be mentioned, yet, if only on account of his part’s prominence, Murray Hipkin’s piano playing is perhaps worthy of especial mention.

A fine cast had been assembled. Rebecca Evans was a sympathetic Governess: victim of the supernatural or hysteric? Who knows? Her musical qualities were as high as her dramatic ones, vocal lines retaining an integrity of their own. Ann Murray was at least equally fine as Mrs Grose. Truly inhabiting the character, her suspicions, doubts, and humanity were readily apparent. Cheryl Barker had less to do as Miss Jessel, but was disturbingly malevolent on stage and in voice. I was less impressed by Michael Colvin’s Peter Quint: weird, certainly, but lacking in insidious charm. His intonation sometimes wavered too. Charlie Manton seemed a very young Miles, which has implications for how one considers the character, who thereby comes across as considerably less knowing. Nevertheless, his was a splendidly sung and acted performance, which would have put to shame many adult professional singers. Nazan Fikret seemed to me somewhat miscast as Flora; one can get away with a young Miles but a Flora who looks more than twice his age is unfortunate: a bit too much Little Britain. She sang well enough though. Female diction was not always impeccable, but I have heard far worse.

David McVicar’s production, first seen at ENO – though not by me – in 2007, and before that at the Mariinsky Theatre, is pretty much an unqualified triumph. Where I thought his Salome for the Royal Opera too sensationalist – the work hardly needs it... – this production responds to words and music in so telling a fashion, like a horribly realistic dream, that one can hardly imagine it being done otherwise afterwards. Set ‘in period’, the period is not fetishised as an end in itself, but employed as a source of strangeness. Tanya McCallin’s sets deserve credit here, likewise Adam Silverman’s lighting. All of the characters seem exceptionally well directed. The twisted nature of the story is relished – surely Daily Mail writers and readers should be protesting outside the Coliseum – without being exaggerated. Disturbing realities concerning children, their sexuality, and adults’ responses thereto are portrayed bravely and with sensitivity. If there is a problem with the ghosts, that they are perhaps too apparent, then that is inherent in the work itself. The extras’ movement was originally undertaken by Andrew George and is skilfully revived by Sirena Tocco. All told, and very much more than the sum of its parts, this was an excellent performance, wholeheartedly to be recommended.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Tristan und Isolde (II), Royal Opera, 18 October 2009

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Tristan – Lars Cleveman
King Marke – Matti Salminen
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)

This review was written for and first published on Per-Erik Skramstad's excellent site,, which I urge anyone and everyone to consult. It may be found, with images from the production, by clicking here.

I saw the first night of this Tristan und Isolde (click here for review) and have now seen the last. I hoped against hope that I might see the error of my ways and be converted to Christof Loy’s production. Sadly not. Mine, I must admit, seems to remain a minority view, at least amongst other reviewers, though perhaps not amongst the audience at large. (For a cross-section of wildly enthusiastic reviews, click here and here and here and here, etc. I draw solace from the relative coolness of that eminent Wagnerite, the opera critic of the Spectator, and a few others.) What I should take issue with is the claim that, if one does not appreciate this production, one is ‘literal-minded’. I could not care less whether one sees a ship, Tristan’s castle, and so on; indeed, I am all for abstraction, which is why I admired Covent Garden’s previous production, by Herbert Wernicke. (Many of those cheering Loy hated Wernicke’s wonderful, colour-coded, Schopenhauerian interpretation.) This is anything but abstract, though; it is domesticated and strangely specific, but specific in a sense that makes no sense. Once one starts seeing a wedding breakfast, a strange tea for two setting, an irritating curtain forever being drawn, one misses the ship, Kareol, and so forth, in a way that simply draws attention to their absence, rather than puts them to one side as inessential. Loy’s production. At the front of the stage, we see, in Johannes Leiacker’s designs that operatically ubiquitous, dreary minimalist chic which is anything but cost-cutting; the ‘world of existentialism,’ according to a programme interview with Loy. At the back is the real world of the wedding breakfast. Loy claims that ‘the two spaces’ are, during the action, ‘almost completely redefined’; once again, I was at a loss to discern anything but the most trivial difference.

If anything, I was more annoyed the second time around than the first. What I had charitably assumed to be an accident, the edging forward of a wall at the end of the second act, was not. Yet again, it appeared that something was about to be revealed; as I wrote previously, ‘perhaps it was a metaphor for the production as a whole’. Isolde’s aimless emerging from behind the curtain during the opening Prelude once again – how could it not? – completely undermined the progress of the music, what should have been its great climax coming to nothing. Is it not more than time that directors were assumed to read a score and exceptions to this were just that? (I should hardly have the nerve to direct Chekhov in Russian without understanding the language.) Perhaps Loy can read Wagner’s score, in which case he simply disregarded it. The end of the second act would have been incomprehensible to anyone who did not know the work well already. Tristan, according to what he did on stage, appeared to be addressing Melot, when he should have been addressing (a bewilderingly departed) Isolde. Words and stage direction were at odds, not with ‘interesting’ antagonism, but with straightforward confusion.

There is, of course, something more at work here. Loy freely admits that he doesn’t like heroism; nor does he care for Schopenhauer, certainly not in any sense that might inform Tristan. Loy cannot ‘really equate the couple’s position as outsiders with a Schopenhauerian denial of the world’. Some observers might think that more his problem than Wagner’s and suggest that Loy direct something with which he feels more at home. Of course, it is perfectly possible to reinterpret a work; I have no problem with that at all. My problem is that I find this production both inappropriate and incoherent, most of all far less interesting than Wagner’s opus metaphysicum. The realism of what we see is becoming almost de rigueur in modern Wagner production, but this realism seems especially at odds with what is such an overwhelmingly metaphysical work – the ‘passion of passion’ in Michael Tanner’s memorable phase. The carrying on behind the curtain between Kurwenal and Brangäne is simply demeaning: utterly unerotic and belittling characters whose love for their master and mistress is in many respects the truest love of all in the work as conceived by that minor nineteenth-century dramatist, Richard Wagner. I actually overheard someone during the second interval praising the production for the ‘masterstroke’ of having Tristan bring about his own death; the speaker, revelling in what she trumpeted as her ‘receptiveness’ to new ideas, was unaware that this was one of the few cases in which Wagner was respected. Of course Tristan should throw himself upon Melot; the only surprise was that he actually did.

Matters were not helped by Antonio Pappano’s musical direction. Pappano is an extraordinarily frustrating Wagner conductor; his performances vary enormously, sometimes getting things right, with the good work undone the next time, and vice versa. The love duet on this occasion was much better handled; its metaphysical import was ironed out, as if this were something from Italian opera, but there was structural sense of a kind. And the third act worked better than before, again hardly idiomatically – it was as if ‘plot’ were the focus of this of all works – but it built to a glorious climax in Nina Stemme’s extraordinary Liebestod. However, the first act was simply all over the place, arbitrarily pulled about, stopping and starting, with no sense of an overall line. The first act Prelude started almost unbelievably slowly. That can work, but there needs to be harmonic momentum; here, phrase followed phrase, with no connection between them. To imitate Furtwängler would be to fail, but it might be to fail better than this. The orchestra itself often sounded splendid, if rarely scaling the heights that it did under Bernard Haitink. Yet there were a few problems, which seemingly attested to a lack of security in direction. For instance, there were repeated difficulties in that unconvincing first act Prelude from woodwind upbeat entries; had this happened once, it might well have been a player’s individual mistake, but to happen repeatedly suggested otherwise. There was also an unfortunate missed entry from the trombones during the second act love duet, though they redeemed themselves with a truly sepulchral sound during Marke’s soliloquy.

However, and this is a big however, there was good news. I said on the first occasion that the ‘best reason to see this Tristan would be the singing’. On the showing of this final performance, it would be almost mandatory to endure the production on account of the singing. Everything was at least as good as before and some things were much better. Stemme rose to even greater heights, her detailed characterisation allied to astonishing radiance of tone. Schubert Lieder met Strauss opera – and I suppose Wagner is indeed somewhere in between. She also seemed to have developed a slight Nilsson-like irony, which I did not detect the first time around. Sophie Koch was a wonderful Brangäne, whilst Michael Volle was simply the best Kurwenal I have heard, charismatic and attentive to every nuance of the musico-poetic text. The supporting cast was without a weak link.

And then there were the two casting changes. Lars Cleveman was a far superior Tristan to Ben Heppner. To begin with, his tone seemed a little all-purpose heroic, refreshing though some heroism was in this production. But he sailed through – forgive the pun for an absent friend – the love duet, where Heppner had broken down and where so many others come utterly unstuck. Following the intervention of Matti Salminen’s superlative Marke, this Tristan seemed utterly changed. Whether this were increasing ease on stage or a dramatic decision, I do not know, but it certainly had a dramatic effect. Cleveman’s progress through the treacherous monologue was clearly plotted: wan and despairing at first, building up to a profoundly moving climax in tearing off his bandages. Moreover, Salminen showed that, whereas Sir John Tomlinson had moved by virtue of his great presence and understanding, a voice that was in fine fettle could take one still further.

Sunday 18 October 2009

LPO/Masur - Mendelssohn: Elijah, 17 October 2009

Royal Festival Hall

Elijah – Alistair Miles
The Widow – Melanie Diener
An Angel – Renata Pokupic
The Queen – Sarah Castle
Obadiah – Topi Lehtipuu
Ahab – Tyler Clarke
The Child – Freddie Benedict
Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano)
James Oldfield (bass-baritone)
Jimmy Holliday (bass)

London Philharmonic Choir
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Kurt Masur (conductor)

It was not immediately clear to me why Mendelssohn’s Elijah – ‘the Elijah’, as the Victorians liked to call it – was considered an appropriate work with which to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Handel’s Joshua might have been a more obvious candidate. Yet, whilst I doubt this was the reason, insistence that one’s god should be the only one in town, whether God Himself or that of ‘the market’, and the terrible wake of such triumphalism – look at small-town and rural Saxony or Thuringia today – exert their toll both upon drama, at least to a modern audience, and upon ‘real life’. The actual reason, I am sure, was the identity of the conductor, Kurt Masur, who, unlike the vultures who have since descended upon the former ‘Eastern Bloc’, showed genuine courage during the revolt of 1989 in Leipzig. He, moreover, unlike Elijah, contributed to a peaceful outcome: no command to slaughter the prophets of Baal there. Mendelssohn has always been of great importance to Masur, not least during his period at the helm of the Gewandhaus Orchestra. And his recording of Elijah has, ever since it was made, served as the prime recommendation for the oratorio. Such was reason enough, more than reason enough, for the performance. Frequent announcements concerning the Berlin Wall and a non-too-reticent firm of London solicitors sponsoring the event – is that why people risked their lives to evade the border guards? – were unnecessary at best.

I have dwelled on the presentation since the presentation was so apparent, but it was ultimately, of course, the performance that mattered. It, I am delighted to report, was of a very high standard, confirming Masur’s continuing strength in this repertoire. He made none of the mistakes self-righteous ‘authenticists’ make: crispness of attack need not entail driving too hard; contrapuntal clarity need not entail any loss to weight of choral or orchestral texture; dramatic flow need not entail loss of grandeur; lack of undue piety need not entail loss of humanity. And why should he? Masur has been conducting the music for decades; he has nothing to prove, no need to attack his predecessors; he has relied upon musical values throughout his career, so has no need to resort to pseudo-historical ‘justifications’. A work is never, and should never be, uninterpreted, but Masur’s unaffected understanding imparted the illusion that this might have been the case. Secure enough with the score sometimes to allow the musicians to play for themselves, direction was always there when needed. If inspiration dropped somewhat during the second part, this is no comment on the performance, simply the work itself and the lesser dramatic opportunities afforded and taken by Mendelssohn. Victorian pieties are a little too present, at least for the present writer’s taste, in some of this music. But overall, it was Handelian drive and dignity, the two working in tandem, which characterised Masur’s performance. (Incidentally, it sounded as though he would be an ideal Handel conductor, though the chances of hearing that must be slim, to say the least.)

The London Philharmonic sounded resplendent in from the opening bars, the Overture, which follows Elijah’s opening recitative, providing ample occasion both to appreciate its performance and to prepare oneself for the drama to come. There was especially fine solo work from woodwind principals, Jaime Martin (flute) and Daniel Bates (oboe). The latter’s obbligato contribution to the arioso, ‘Ja, es sollen wohl Berge weichen,’ was profoundly moving, quite outstanding. And the brass made the most of their opportunities, whether menacing or rejoicing, without ever sounding the slightest bit brash. The London Philharmonic Choir was outstanding: full of tone and equally incisive of attack. Large forces are called for here and the thrill of large forces we received.

Alistair Miles assumed the title role at short notice, given the indisposition of the advertised John Relyea. Whilst Miles lacked the sheer tonal refulgence Relyea might have brought to the role, no one could have been disappointed by this eminently musical performance, stentorian as the prophet himself. Melanie Diener proved an equally fine soprano, both as the Widow and in other solos: dramatic without veering towards the operatic. It was a pleasure to hear Topi Lehtipuu’s lyric tenor as Obadiah, earnest as the role should be, Tamino-like in heft. Special mention should go to the spellbinding treble contribution from on high of Freddie Benedict. Most composers – and librettists – would surely have made more of the Queen (Jezebel), but Sarah Castle, another late substitution, did what she could; indeed, all of the smaller roles were well taken. This, rather than any spurious ‘Berlin Wall’ connection, was something to celebrate.

Monday 12 October 2009

LSO/Haitink - Schubert and Mahler, 11 October 2009

Barbican Hall

Schubert – Symphony no.8 in B minor, ‘Unfinished’
Mahler – Das Lied von der Erde

Christianne Stotijn (mezzo-soprano)
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor)
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

I doubt that I should have placed money on Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony being the greater performance in this programme, but that, despite some splendid orchestral playing from the London Symphony Orchestra in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, is how it turned out. Bernard Haitink sounded more Furtwänglerian in the Schubert than I can recall before: a considerable contrast with his recent Beethoven. The first movement’s opening cello line sounded like a Brucknerian de profundis, immediately followed by teeming Schubertian life, from the woodwind especially. Placing the cellos on his right ensured that the antiphonal interplay between violins – often firsts and seconds – and cellos was given full opportunity to resound: instructive to those who would dogmatically argue for one seating arrangement or another. There were moments when the LSO’s woodwind and horns brought a magic that looked forward – of course, not that far forward – to Mendelssohn, but Bruckner, and Furtwängler’s Bruckner at that, returned in the development as ominous waves built up to express great angst, three trombones and all, and ultimately the unfulfilled developmental climax that necessitates the recapitulation. Haitink’s formal command was supreme throughout, not least in ensuring how very different the second group, with its new tonality, sounded in the recapitulation from its first appearance in the exposition. And the LSO musicians played their hearts out for him, never more than in the beautiful, desolate coda. There was real anger here, real tragedy.

The second, final movement once again brought woodland magic from woodwind and horns, answered gravely yet charmingly by the strings; there was rustic strength too. Then the hushed second subject prepared the way, yet permitted one to be taken aback by, the full orchestral onslaught with which its subsequent development commences, the conflict between the two expressive modes proving irresolvable – truly Romantic. New vistas would be glimpsed: a Mahlerian move, even if the vistas themselves were not so Mahlerian. Uneasy contentment was the mood of the close: unfinished business in more sense than one.

Haitink and the LSO were let down by the vocal soloists in Das Lied von der Erde. Anthony Dean Griffey was a last minute replacement for the indisposed Robert Gambill. I felt sorry for him but, in what were very unfair circumstances, he could rarely prove himself equal to Mahler’s extraordinary demands, doubtless unreasonable in themselves. Singing with a heavy vibrato throughout, his tone remained unmodulated, often laboured, perhaps especially during Von der Jugend, but elsewhere too. As if to compensate for the relative lack of vocal expression, he ‘acted’ too much, his facial expressions especially distracted. There were times, moreover, for instance in the opening line of Der Trunkene im Frühling, when he shouted more than sang. I had hoped for more from Christianne Stotijn, but she was perhaps the greater disappointment. Intonation was wobbly throughout her first number, Der Einsame im Herbst, and not just there. The penultimate stanza of Von der Schönheit came perilously close to Sprechgesang, not an effect I wish to hear again. Often, she sounded too much like a lyric soprano, lacking depth to her mezzo, though matters improved somewhat, albeit only somewhat, in Der Abschied. There she seemed more at home in the narrative passages. With all of those great accounts of the past ringing in the memory’s ears, this, even at its best, fell considerably short.

Sadly, this often eclipsed, or at least detracted from, a fine orchestral performance. The vigorous orchestral opening to Das Trinklied vom Jammer der Erde took me by surprise, the brass veering a little towards the brash, but it was full of the life shortly to be denied. String sweetness and richness were added to the palette later on. The lovely woodwind mix of Austria and chinoiserie with which Von der Jugend opened set the scene wonderfully, if only the vocal contribution had been more distinguished. When it came to Von der Schönheit, conductor and orchestra proved alert to innumerable shards and shifts of colour, pointing the way most revealingly towards Webern. The bird truly sang in its various guises in Der Trunkene im Frühling, before darkness terrifyingly descended upon the earth for the great farewell. The orchestral introduction to Der Abschied went further in its desolation even than the Schubert we had heard earlier, whilst the ‘interlude’ – the term hardly seems sufficient – following the words ‘O Schönheit, o ewigen Liebens, Lebens trunk’ne Welt,’ really had the bell toll for one and all. It was here, perhaps more than anywhere else, that I wished Haitink were conducting a symphony rather than a song cycle, for a slightly paradoxical consequence of the underpowered vocal contribution was that Das Lied sounded less, not more, symphonic than it ought. The final bars were ravishing, frightening in their stillness, but there was only so much the orchestra could do in such circumstances.

Sunday 11 October 2009

Le grand macabre, English National Opera, 9 October 2009

(sung in English)


Venus/Gepopo – Susanna Andersson
Mescalina – Susan Bickley
Prince Go-Go – Andrew Watts
Piet the Pot – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Nekrotzar – Pavlo Hunka
Astradamors – Frode Olsene
White Minister – Daniel Norman
Black Minister – Simon Butteriss
Amanda – Rebecca Bottone
Amando – Frances Bourne

Alex Ollé and Valentina Carrasco (directors)
Alfons Flores (set designer)
Franc Aleu (video)
Lluc Castells (costumes)
Peter van Praet (lighting)

Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera
Baldur Brönnimann (conductor)

It is curious when one thinks how inventive a composer Ligeti is, that the greatest impact from ENO’s new production of Le grand macabre is theatrical rather than musical. Sometimes such things happen on account of theatrical overload – one wants to tell the director to calm down a bit, as in, for example, Phillip Stölzl’s Salzburg production of Benvenuto Cellini – but here, I think it was much as it should be. La Fura dels Baus’s production is quite magnificent, yet on occasion it does serve to highlight a certain, surprising lack in Ligeti’s musical invention. This seemed to me rather more the case after the interval. Banality is clearly the point in certain cases; calls from the chorus – very well done, incidentally – threaten to turn into something akin to minimalism. And there are some wonderful musical passages too, not least the passacaglia. However, much as I might wish to do so, I cannot account this one of the composer’s strongest works. Parts are genuinely funny, and were certainly made so by the production, but the slapstick is no competitor to Aventures or Nouvelles Aventures.

A giant woman’s body that almost fills the stage is presaged on video by an appropriate combination of humour and disgust at consumerism and tabloid journalism. As the woman, ‘inspired’ by Claudia, a friend of the Catalan theatrical collective, revolves, characters emerge from and retreat into various of her orifices. It is surreal, fun, and not without a hint of anger, though never does it seem didactic. The direction of the singers is first rate and the sheer cheapness of how late capitalist society would doubtless ‘celebrate’ the apocalypse shines through, without being rammed down one’s throat.

Likewise, the musical performances are strong, though the abiding impression, quite rightly, is of contribution to a company achievement rather than a moment for stardom. Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke and Pavlo Hunka portrayed their central characters, Piet the Pot and Nekrotzar, with dramatic intelligence. Susan Bickley was predictably but no less laudably fine as the apparently intimidating but actually risible Mescalina. If Amanda and Amando remain, for me at least, more irritating than anything else, that is not the fault of Rebecca Bottone and Frances Bourne, who negotiated their musical lines with aplomb, even if their diction left a little to be desired. There was plenty of camp to be relished in Andrew Watts’s Prince Go-Go and his two ministers, played by Daniel Norman and Simon Butteriss. However, if there was a musical star to the evening, it was the orchestra, which has clearly internalised Ligeti’s considerable demands, so as to be able to play a full theatrical part in the proceedings. The orchestral security and expression owed much to Baldur Brönnimann’s command of the score; this was as sure a guide as one could have hoped for.

Saturday 10 October 2009

Wozzeck, Philharmonia/Salonen, 8 October 2009

(semi-staged performance)

Royal Festival Hall

Wozzeck – Simon Keenlyside
Captain – Peter Hoare
Marie – Katarina Dalayman
Drum Major – Hubert Francis
Andres – Robert Murray
Doctor – Hans-Peter Scheidegger
Margret – Anna Burford
First Apprentice – David Soar
Second Apprecntice – Leigh Melrose
The Idiot – Ben Johnson
A Soldier – Peter WIlman
Marie’s Child – Louis Watkins

Jean-Baptiste Barrière (video direction)
François Galard, Pierre-Jean Bouyer (image realisation)
Isabelle Barrière (live video)
Alexandre Barrière (staging)
Sian Harris (costumes)

Children’s choir amalgamated from London schools (musical director: Nicholas Chalmers)
Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan Oliver)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

And so, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s exploration of Viennese musical culture from the turn of the century to 1935 culminated with probably the greatest opera of the twentieth century, Wozzeck. (The only reason I say ‘probably’ is a nagging doubt concerning Moses und Aron, but it remains pretty much sui generis.)This was a magnificent performance, over which I have almost no reservations. Even the staging worked well. Sorry to sound jaded, but after Christof Loy’s assault upon Tristan und Isolde, I am beginning simply to feel grateful for something that tells a story straightforwardly and does not patronise the audience. I should take Alexandre Barrière’s necessarily modest contribution any day over something that tediously insists on subversion without due cause. The video added little, I thought, and occasionally distracted, but one should not exaggerate. I shall register my only real gripe first of all, which relates rather to the series than to its culmination; then we can hasten towards the fulsome praise.

I have not attended as many of the concerts as I might have expected, partly because of bad timing, but also on account of a slight disappointment in terms of the repertoire being explored. No one loves Mahler more than I do, yet, in a festival such as this, did he need to be quite so heavily represented? Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony made a welcome appearance and was superbly performed. But the absence of Webern seemed incomprehensible, especially since his music would have seemed very much Salonen’s thing; perhaps other forces were at work. One might not have expected the complete works, even though they would have fitted into a few concerts, but might not the kinship between Mahler and Webern as well as Mahler and Berg have received a nod? Rather oddly, indeed disturbingly, some of the programmes for the Philharmonia’s continental tours were more adventurous; for instance, it seemed odd that London missed out on Dame Mitsuko Uchida playing the Schoenberg piano concerto. That said, Wozzeck could hardly have been a better choice with which to climax.

Simon Keenlyside was superb as Wozzeck. Every word, every note registered. One felt the pathos; one felt the misery; and one believed utterly in the character. Some might have found him too cultured; they doubtless felt the same, magnified to the nth degree, about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. It is their loss. Katarina Dalayman was an equally credible Marie, deploying her considerable musico-dramatic resources to powerful effect; the Bible scene was as moving as I can recall, perhaps even more so. Hubert Francis had a suitably nasty swagger and self-belief as the preening Drum Major; dislike him though one might and should, one could understand how someone in Marie’s wretched position would act as she did. Robert Murray put in an excellent turn as Andres, subtly subordinate, never trying to steal the show, but crucial in his way. And, brief though her contribution may be, Anna Burford’s rich voice made its presence felt in the role of Margret; I should like to hear more of her. Peter Hoare and Hans-Peter Scheidegger properly pointed up the buffo elements in the characters of the Captain and Doctor, without neglect to their pernicious nature. And if the children’s voices could hardly sound idiomatically German, the treble Louis Watkins was truly moving as the child about whom the next drama will have to be told.

I took a little while to warm to Salonen’s performance. The first scene sounded a bit chilly, though even then the Philharmonia’s playing, give or take the very occasional, quite forgivable slip, was very fine. Having the orchestra on stage rather than in the pit permitted Berg’s writing to resound as rarely it can. Whilst it is perhaps unfair to single out players in particular, the woodwind section was truly outstanding throughout, likewise the solo strings. It was as the work progressed that I realised Salonen was playing a game of long-term strategy. Scenes were characterised, musically and dramatically, yet also formed part of a greater whole. One heard the myriad of colours that makes up Berg’s palette, with nods to Debussy and even correspondences – it would be misleading to speak of more than that – with Szymanowski, but above all, as should surely always be the case, Wagner. After the mess Antonio Pappano had made of the second act of Tristan a few days previously, I fell to thinking, as I had after Salonen’s Gurrelieder, that he would potentially make a fine Wagnerian. The dramatic punch of that final, terrible interlude shook me as perhaps never before. The final scene proved almost unbearable; there was no point even attempting to hold back the tears from my eyes. And then, it stopped: perhaps the most terrifying halt in all music. Salonen ensured that this rupture, this caesura without anything to follow – a truly negative dialectic – registered with overwhelming power. Disregard my earlier caveat over Moses und Aron: after hearing this performance, I was in no doubt as to the identity of the greatest opera since Wagner.

Interview with Sir Thomas Allen, 10 October 2009

Sir Thomas Allen, who is shortly to appear as Gianni Schicchi for the Royal Opera, kindly agreed to speak to me at the Royal Opera House before crossing Covent Garden to St Paul’s Church for Peter Glossop’s memorial service. I thanked him for coming and asked him about the forthcoming season at Covent Garden.

Puccini, Gianni Schicchi

MB: The role with which we are immediately concerned is that of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, one of three – three roles across the repertoire, I should add, rather than three Puccini roles – that you will be taking on for the Royal Opera season. Is that right?

TA: Are there? I’m trying to think. I have Faninal coming up. What is the other one?

MB: Isn’t there also Prosdocimo in Il turco in Italia?

TA: Yes, of course, you’re absolutely right. Some time in the spring we start rehearsals for that. I tend not to think of when we’re doing it as to where I’ll be when I’m really starting work on a role. I’ll be in Dallas for that.

MB: A Turk in Texas then?

TA: Yes, quite.

MB: Let’s start with the Puccini role then. How would you characterise that for someone who doesn’t know it, which I imagine might be a good part of the audience?

TA: Working from the inside out, from a performance point of view, it’s joyful, for all of us really. When you look at Dante which was the source material for Forzano, there’s nothing there: there’s a reference to a man, Gianni Schicchi, and a hint of the incident this is about, but then they develop this less-than-an-hour-long piece into a work of what I think is absolute genius.

MB: So it comes from absolutely nowhere then?

TA: Absolutely nowhere. The hint is in Cantos XXV and XXX, I think, a brief reference, that’s it. In many ways, if anybody knows Priestley’s domestic dramas or maybe even Alan Ayckbourn’s domestic dramas, they can transfer that to the opera. You have a similar thing with Albert Herring, for example: Albert is unsuited to the role that befalls him. And then there is another vision of life, with the Donati family: the death of the old man of the family, the patriarch. His will is not to the liking of the voracious members of his family; they are all particular types, types we all know. When there’s a tragedy in a family, it’s amazing how it always brings out the worst in people. Prior to this happening, clearly whoever Gianni Schicchi is, whether he’s a garage mechanic or a bus conductor or whatever, he has been something of a thorn in society’s flesh, in his family’s flesh. There’s some history there. Nevertheless, he’s the factotum of the area, the one who can sort out the problem for them. And he watches their vulture-like attitudes as to what they want, deciding to teach them a lesson once and for all, to turn the tables on them as a notary, after which of course nothing can be done. It’s a wonderful lesson in human nature really: just don’t be greedy.

MB: I haven’t seen the production yet; I didn’t see it the first time around. How would you describe it?

TA: Well, quite simply, I think Richard [Jones] has looked at life and at all the truths that lie within this piece – and there are many. The thing about this piece is there’s not a note of spare music within it; everything Puccini wrote is saying something. It’s beautifully crafted drama with the music, and in that way it’s perfect.

MB: Everything’s there for a reason?

TA: Absolutely. It’s a perfect little masterpiece, a gem of an opera.

MB: And how do you find it goes with the Ravel work [L’Heure Espagnole]?

TA: Well, it’s a standard coupling, a regular coupling, and I think it works very well. In fact, at this stage of my career, I’m close to the beginning of my relationship with this work, so my experience is limited. And the things is that, in the many years of my association with Covent Garden, this opera, I think I’m right in saying, has never cropped up – nigh on forty years.

MB: So it’s about time then, really?

TA: Well, you know, there’d have been no shortage of candidates for the roles. Why it was overlooked, I simply have no idea.

MB: These things sometimes acquire almost a negative impetus of their own, I suppose, in that, because it hasn’t been done for some time, it’s not always the most obvious thing to do.

TA: Yes, and then an artist arrives on the scene and is the catalyst for one role or another, or an opera. It was like that for me for Billy Budd. In the early days of singing Billy Budd, the early ‘70s and onwards, you felt that you were carrying out some sort of an evangelical campaign, missionary work. Now, it’s accepted in Germany and America, of course, it’s performed much more than anyone might have imagined.

MB: I noticed a little while ago, it’s even recently been done in Vienna. Donald Runnicles, I think, was conducting it. I don’t think Vienna has been a natural home for Britten.

TA: No, there are of course so many historic riches in Vienna, but it’s nice to hear that they are becoming more adventurous.

MB: Well, I suppose you can fill the house of the Staatsoper every night with Rosenkavalier or Figaro there, and the tourists will love it.

TA: And there are also the atonal groups from the city.

MB: I saw a marvellous Moses und Aron there a while ago, under Daniele Gatti.

TA: So the whole place is very rich, without necessarily having felt a need to delve into Britten. I’m delighted to hear this though.

Faninal in Der Rosenkavalier, other Strauss, and Beckmesser

MB: Speaking of Rosenkavalier, the second of your roles here this season is Faninal. Have you done this at Covent Garden before?

TA: No, no, I haven’t done it anywhere before. So whilst I’m doing Gianni Schicchi and giving that my all during the day, in between, over lunch, and in the evening, I’m working on Faninal. Well, I like crosswords and riddles, and puzzles of all sorts, and I find Faninal falls into that category. It’s very much a miniature version of Beckmesser. It’s a different character but the mathematics of it are not dissimilar. The character, however, is a sort of Arthur Lowe figure, which I have to work at, because I’m not an Arthur Lowe figure, so I have to find another way in. He’s a little nouveau riche man.

MB: Indeed, so you can see where Sophie is coming from.

TA: Yes, her home and what she’s had to put up with.

MB: And that he would actually hand her over to Ochs. That would be the making of the family.

TA: Yes, to have that name attached to the family, that would be everything he would require, notwithstanding the fact that she would be utterly miserable in the hands of this grotesque creature.

MB: Of course that doesn’t matter: in that sort of society, one doesn’t marry for love.

TA: ’Twas ever thus.

MB: How about other Strauss? I remember seeing you as the Music Master in Ariadne. Has Strauss otherwise figured largely in your career?

TA: I wouldn’t say largely. I’ve sung a lot of Strauss in orchestral concerts but there’s always been a smattering of it. I’ve managed to avoid Salome, any of the main intriguers in that, and Jokanaan was never for me. My history, my experience in opera, started in this place, Covent Garden, with a performance of Bohème. Preceding that was Arabella, with Fischer-Dieskau and Lisa della Casa. From that moment, I thought: Fischer-Dieskau is who I want to be. If I can’t be him, I’ll try and emulate him, which I did for rather too long, perhaps. But I had no idea quite how brilliant he was in that role of Mandryka until I had to sing it myself, because it’s so fiendishly difficult.

MB: Yes, very difficult, and so unsparing.

TA: Yes, very unsparing: that’s the hard part of it. Once you arrive, with your forests and your mines and everything else, this big bear of a man, there’s very little let-up. It’s glorious but at the same time perilous. I sang it on only two occasions, which was a little mistake on my part really, I think. I sang it with the Bayerische Staatsoper under Sawallisch and I would really love to have taken it away again after that; there was far too little rehearsing for someone like me, new to the part.

MB: So it was in repertory in Munich, presumably?

TA: We were actually in Japan. And it didn’t go well: I wasn’t at all happy with it. But you can’t do a piece like that on two or three rehearsals. So that was one of my big regrets, though you’ll always have some regrets over a career. There have also been a number of Musiklehrers though – and that is enormously satisfying.

MB: I imagine it must be rather fun too.

TA: It is, yes, once you’ve worked it all out. And it is often the baritone’s lot, to be the killjoy for someone or other. But he also stands as a kind of father figure to the Komponist, saying, ‘Just remember, young man, never mind art, you’ve got to make a living out of this.’

MB: Yes, a reminder we all sometimes need.

TA: You feel the professional musician coming out of him there. Thinking of the character, thinking of who this man is, it’s rather helpful to think of him rather like Beckmesser in a way: the kind of person who would love to have been there himself and had that sort of success, but now has to do so in a secondary manner, to help his student.

MB: Rather like my own experience of teaching, it can be a wonderful thing to help, even in a small way, someone to succeed.

TA: It is wonderful. I shouldn’t really mention this, since I have six granddaughters and it would be unfair on the other five, but one of them, even from a very early age, I remember thinking: ‘Oh God, you’re already cleverer than me, much, much cleverer.’

MB: And she’s only going to get better.

TA: Yes, that’s what Beckmesser has to realise in life.

MB: And of course, one of the worst ways to portray Beckmesser is a caricature rather than a character. That just isn’t interesting.

TA: There’s such a lot to think about, who you are on stage, what makes him tick. That’s when opera becomes tricky: it’s not just about the music, but the words, which of course Wagner himself wrote so brilliantly. And it’s very tricky. You try to eliminate some of the problems and pitfalls by just being that person, completely understanding the nature of that person, and then you kind of feel that that can take care of itself. So whatever you do is that person but not yourself. Sixtus is doing that.

MB: With both Wagner and with Hofmannsthal, one is dealing with very sophisticated language.

TA: Yes, it is very much so. But the other thing, just going back to the Musiklehrer, is that you see he is there to encourage. The text that you hear coming from the Komponist, referring to Kunst, to heilige Kunst, he’s hearing that for the first time perhaps, but is inspired by the way that it comes out of the Komponist’s mouth. For him, that gives a lot of satisfaction, and I think that shows his own generosity. It’s not envy there; he’s willing that young man forward. That’s a wonderful thing to be aware of.

MB: And the reference, of course, to ‘heilige Kunst’ must surely have resonances with Meistersinger.

TA: Yes, the only thing missing is the word ‘deutsche’.

MB: ... which is probably just assumed. Thinking of things that are deutsch, do you find you approach German and Italian repertoire in different ways, or are they simply too broad categories to be helpful?

TA: I’ve no idea. Yes, I do have an idea, but how best to answer it? The business of studying and memorising a role is always interesting. Once you’ve learned the notes, what you are calling on is the entire culture of a city, a region, whatever you have remembered and which is in your own experience. So if I am studying, as I was last year, Gianni Schicchi, singing it for the first time, I am observing whatever is going on around me and trying to incorporate that into what I do on stage. Life going on, in the marketplace, in the streets, everywhere, it all informs your understanding of a role. You have to answer to that as well as to the music and to everything you learned for three, four, or five years in a conservatoire. If you’re in Munich, you’re going to try to understand the people, how they use that language, the palette they use. So whether in Munich or wherever else it might be, I’m sponging off whatever I can.

Mozart, especially Così fan tutte

MB: I suppose in Mozart, one gets both, in the language and in the music.

TA: Yes. And in most cases, you’re dealing with a different period as well, which is very important. The texts to any of the three Da Ponte operas are brilliant, and Da Ponte doesn’t get enough credit. It’s all very well Mozart writing what he wrote, but in the role of Don Alfonso, where you don’t even have an aria, and indeed in any of the roles within those operas, there’s a great deal of recitative, and it depends on the success of the recitative how successful the projection of the character and what happens is going to be.

MB: It often surprises me, that, even though I know there is no aria there for Don Alfonso, that I have learned so much about him and then realise once again that he hasn’t sung an aria.

TA: Yes, well that shows that you don’t need an aria. Singers sometimes take the attitude, ‘I’m not interested in that role, because there isn’t an aria...’

MB: No glory to be had...

TA: Yes, no glory to be had. Life isn’t quite as simple as that; it’s more interesting.

MB: Thinking of Don Alfonso, I saw you here but I also saw you in the Herrmanns’ production in Salzburg, which I really liked. I thought it was extremely beautiful. It was a work of art in itself; its artifice really suited the work.

TA: It was and it did. It’s amazing how lacking in insight some people are when reporting on these things, the journalists reviewing it and so on. I suppose we’d better describe what we’re talking about here. The Grosses Festspielhaus is very, very wide. You do have to pace that out, just to get from one side of the stage to the other, to cover it. And then Karl-Ernst Herrmann designed a badminton game; then it became a fencing match, so you were ostensibly in a gymnasium. This was on that vast, stainless steel surface, with an egg and the real harpsichord and harpsichordist on stage. Don’t question it. It’s a painting. He’s a designer and he’s given me many drawings, which I’m delighted and privileged to have. He’s an artist and we worked within the particular picture that he created. There are something wonderful things in that production. And that magical moment in the second act of Così when, left on their own, we see the wronged couples and Fiordiligi says, ‘Oh, che bella giornata!’ tentatively. Indeed, it really was a bella giornata. They were standing under a great big sunshade, with, behind them, the most wonderful colour that had been found by the lighting designer man. And the cloth that ran behind, sometimes it was a long, extended copse, sometimes it was like a sea.

MB: It put me in mind of the paintings of Magritte. This was a very visual Così, I thought, a very painterly vision.

TA: I liked it. Odd, weird, wonderful things happened in it. It was fun over several years.

MB: With, I think, quite a change in cast – and a turnover of conductors.

TA: Simon Rattle, first of all.

MB: Yes, at the Easter Festival, wasn’t it?

The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras

TA: Yes. Then it was shared with the summer festival. You know, we were really struggling, having to go from the Berlin Philharmonic to the Vienna Philharmonic... That was a hard life!

MB: Absolutely. I know it’s a cliché, but almost whenever I hear the Vienna Philharmonic play Mozart, I think that one has never heard Mozart until it’s been played by that orchestra.

TA: It’s extraordinary. It’s like a silvery veil, somehow. You never have to push through. It’s wonderful singing with those musicians. And when you look into the orchestra occasionally, finding yourself intrigued by the beauty of the sounds, you see the string players leaning towards you, listening and accompanying. Even better than that, in a way, was when we first did it with Simon’s Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. We did it in Salzburg first and then took it for two concert performances to Berlin. What happened here was that he wanted a lot of decoration, a lot of ornamentation and what have you: not to everyone’s taste, but it’s what, these days, is more or less de rigueur. And so, in the second act and particularly in the ensembles, we found various extemporisations going on, which were copied by an orchestra listening to what the singers were doing, and then developed. It was the most jazz-like Mozart I have ever experienced.

MB: Mozart as a jam session then?

TA: Yes, exactly. In Salzburg and Berlin, this was wonderful.

MB: Were the extemporisations worked out before at all?

TA: No, they were just done there and then, more or less. Of course, they didn’t involve me really; they were much more for the ladies.

MB: But you could enjoy them?

TA: Yes, I enjoyed them enormously. And the other part of the relationship between singers and orchestras that was much closer than I had experienced before was spending time with each other in Salzburg, eating Apfelstrudel together and so on: much better than I’d ever experienced.

MB: I can’t quite imagine that under Karajan.

TA: It didn’t always happen, put it that way.

MB: Did you ever sing for Karajan?

TA: I sang for him. I did a memorable audition for him. He offered me the earth afterwards, including a production of Trovatore, which I told him I didn’t sing. I’d auditioned for Un ballo in maschera, Faust, the St Matthew Passion, all kinds of stuff, and he wanted me to do Trovatore. He said, ‘You will do Trovatore,’ and I said, ‘I won’t do Trovatore for anybody.’

MB: ‘Not even you...’

TA: So we didn’t do anything. Nothing actually happened. And then we were to do Figaro together in Salzburg, a new Figaro and, rather inconveniently, he died. So yes, I did meet him, and it was – well, it had to be memorable.


MB: Another Salzburg role of yours I’ve seen, on video of course, is Ulisse in Henze’s realisation of the Monteverdi opera. I think it’s a marvellous realisation, so full of Mediterranean colour.

TA: That’s true. But what a lot of people didn’t realise was that it’s pre-Christian.

MB: Indeed, it’s pagan, the world of The Bassarids.

TA: And you feel that the other versions, correct as they may be with the instruments of the day, you felt that they were coming out of the Vatican somehow. We were in Greece, in antiquity.

MB: It’s very sensual.

TA: And it didn’t by any means gain approval from those used to Harnoncourt. I certainly remember there were many early music specialists there that year, who were there for other productions, who were appalled by it. Well, we just disagreed, basically.

MB: I’ve never understood the insistence that there can only be one way to do something: it seems to me to go against the openness of art and artistic experience. More like the Taliban...

TA: Nor do I understand it. I’ve done that particular role in various forms, the first occasion that one, which had a huge orchestra, with no high strings...

MB: ... a very interesting sound, of course...

TA: Pantheistic.

MB: And earthbound, the earth of antiquity, I think.

TA: And we had all sorts of strange instruments: bouzoukis, electric guitar, mandolin, various percussion instruments... It made for a very interesting sound.

MB: Have you done it with period instruments too then?

TA: Otherwise, I’ve done it with six recorders and harpsichord in Pierre Audi’s production, which we did in Los Angeles a few years ago. It was wonderful: very spare and skeletal. I loved it; it was hugely satisfying. I absolutely adore Ulisse; it’s such a wonderful story. I’m not a Monteverdi specialist or an early music specialist, but I delve into it every now and then when it suits. The other one was in Munich, in David Alden’s production, which was usually under Ivor Bolton, with early instruments in the orchestra. And I loved that one: weird and wonderful, and people would wonder why. You’d speak to David about it and find a mind full of very strange imagery, at times no great reason or logic.

MB: But if it works, it works.

TA: Yes. The beach upon which Ulysses is washed becomes a sort of subway station in New York and he’s on a waiting-room bench, a bit of a hobo. It’s wonderful. We brought it to Wales, of course.

MB: And it’s such an interesting work.

TA: It’s marvellous. I’m working at the moment with Elena Zilio, who is Zita in Gianni Schicchi. She and I were both in this production in Munich. It has wonderful memories for us all; it’s one of those things you always hark back to. Special, strange, but very special.

MB: And Penelope is an extraordinary character. Again, of course, I only know this from video, but it seemed to me to be a role made for Janet Baker, in Raymond Leppard’s wonderful Glyndebourne rendition.

TA: Yes. I never did it with Janet, and I don’t think I saw her at Glyndebourne, but I saw Flicka do it, Frederica von Stade. And Flicka’s just one of those people that everyone loves. She’s one of the most lovely people that ever walked God’s Earth. And I don’t mind it going round the world that I said that; I love her dearly, a wonderful girl. To be on stage with her, she had that wonderful – what the Germans call Ausstrahlung, radiance. But she has that deep sense of tragedy in her eyes. You can see the pain and feel it with her.

Covent Garden, different opera houses, colleagues, and travelling

MB: Just looking around here, this house, in which Faninal, I am told, will be your fiftieth role, must be very special to you. How much do you find that opera houses operate differently and require different ways of working?

TA: Yes, this place is very special. And of course one of the most important things in any house is the way you are received, the way you are welcomed, once you are through security, which happens everywhere now. The welcome means such a lot. And also the way they are laid out matters. In Chicago, once you’ve got past security, the office is there: you see everyone that’s involved, everyone who’s going to run your life for the next two months or so. You say, ‘Hello again, looking forward to it,’ and it begins like that. In Munich, you have to go to the top floor and find out where you are, but again it works for me. They all have their different styles and they’re all very special. We’re all part of an international musical family. It’s wonderful while you’re part of it, and I’m well aware that there will be a day, and sometimes there has already been a day, when I won’t see my colleagues any more: they’re staying at home now, their careers are over. I might see them adjudicating but the chances of seeing one another again are probably remote.

MB: It sounds poignant.

TA: It is poignant. It’s strange because people say that you have so many friends around the world, but no you don’t. You have a lot of acquaintances and some of them are friends. It’s a very false environment, translating our home from London or New York or wherever it might be, to wherever it has to be for the next period of work. We’re just gypsies basically.

MB: Or people decide not to travel so much. Fischer-Dieskau didn’t work in many houses outside Germany, I think.

TA: Well, there was a wonderful system in operation in Germany. He came here for Arabella, which was wonderfully successful. He came for Falstaff and it wasn’t successful; he never came back. He didn’t think there was any reason why he should. And he was probably right. Tastes do vary. We’d had Gobbi here as Falstaff, and Geraint Evans, and Peter Glossop; his Falstaff would have been something entirely different: a different temperament, a different environment, a different approach, and a different taste. It’s the same with someone like Edita Gruberová. I’ve known Edita since 1973, when we were at Glyndebourne together; she was then a young artist in the Vienna company. And she’s had a magnificent career, which continues, but we’ve seldom seen her here, seldom in America. She’s content to have had her career in Germany and Switzerland.

MB: A celebrated Zerbinetta in Ariadne of course.

TA: Oh yes, absolutely, but to a privileged few.

MB: Yes, you have to travel if you want to hear her. Coming back to this special place, Covent Garden, you’ve performed so many roles here, under a great deal of conductors, but also a number of music directors, going back at least to Colin Davis.

TA: Well, I started off with Colin Davis, right at the end of Solti’s regime here. Then there was Bernard [Haitink] and now Tony [Pappano] of course. Bernard I worked first with in 1973 at Glyndebourne: the same time I met Edita Gruberová. We did Zauberflöte together. And I’m shortly to see him in Chicago, with the Symphony Orchestra, to do some concerts, so it’s a long association with him.

MB: You sang at his farewell gala here, didn’t you?

TA: Yes, I did: Beckmesser.

MB: What you are singing in Chicago?

TA: I’m not; I’m speaking. We’re doing a version of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There is a version with some narration, so I’m going to be a narrator, and I’m going to be Puck and Titania, as well as Helena and Hermia, and just about everybody else.

MB: So you’re adding a good number of roles then.

TA: Yes, I am, though I’m not sure I’ll have them all in my head at once. It’s varied. What I like about my life is that it’s like mathematics and applied mathematics: I’ve done all the mathematics and can now do the applied mathematics. Now I have the fun business, where all sorts of other benefits accrue.

Spoken theatre and opera

MB: Given the Shakespeare in Chicago, have you ever thought about or even done spoken theatre?

TA: I’ve done two or three American musicals and recorded some. People have approached me. The theatre is my first love really and I’m interested in almost anything. Again, I’m just fascinated with the whole thing; it’s about actors inhabiting a role, how they do that, the whole process. I’ve just been reading something from the London Library about J.B. Priestley, which reminded me how much I loved seeing When We Are Married, An Inspector Calls. I’m fascinated by the whole world. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, but the trouble is, once you have a musical career, it’s very difficult to combine it with anything else, such as straight theatre. You do one or you do the other. I had this silly ambition at one stage of singing Beckmesser one night and playing Malvolio the next.

MB: Because he really is Malvolio, isn’t he?

TA: Absolutely, I thought that would be a lovely juxtaposition.

MB: I must go back to look at Cosima’s Diaries, to see whether Wagner makes that connection himself. He might well do, given how much he loved Shakespeare.

TA: I carry a torch for the theatre, but it probably won’t ever work.

MB: Who knows?

TA: You’re quite right, who knows? Jonathan Miller talks about it; Peter Hall has talked about it to me at some length. And it has cropped up on occasion. I might have to content myself to enjoying it from the other side, being a punter. The other thing about it is that there is that much more leeway. What you become aware of in an opera house or in an operatic environment, operatic life, is the discipline. You don’t think about it on a daily basis but you look back on it: what discipline you’ve lived with, for so long, the discipline of finding the voice every day, the best voice you can, all the time, the quality of tone, and there’s no let-up. That’s what you have to do. Whether you’re successful or otherwise is dependent entirely upon that.

MB: And, in terms of being on stage, you are being directed by a conductor in a way for which there is no equivalent in the spoken theatre at all.

TA: Exactly. That’s why it’s lovely to do something like Zauberflöte, where you have a little bit of dialogue. Just to throw off the shackles, briefly. That’s why I enjoyed doing here, some years ago, Sweeney Todd; you enter into another world. But there’s a way of doing it in a piece like the one I’m doing at the moment, Gianni Schicchi. If you’re inventive, all of this satisfaction can be had from an operatic role. That’s what I’m endeavouring to do, really.

Sunday 4 October 2009

London Sinfonietta: Sonic Explorations - 20th Century Classics (2), 3 October 2009

Kings Place, Hall One

Varèse – Poème Electronique (with film by Le Corbusier)
Stockhausen – Pole for 2
Berio – Naturale

Paul Silverthorne (viola)
Sam Walton (percussion)
Sound Intermedia

The second of the London Sinfonietta’s two 20th Century Classics concerts, themselves part of a greater series of Sonic Explorations, retained Luciano Berio from the first programme, adding two other great electronic pioneers to the roster: Edgard Varèse and Karlheinz Stockhausen. To my mind, or at least to my senses, Berio’s contribution was the most powerful, whilst Stockhausen’s Pole for 2 had not worn well.

It was, however, fascinating to hear Varèse’s Poème Electronique whilst watching Le Corbusier’s original film. Last summer the poem had been heard at the Proms, in a concert that had proved one of the highlights of the season. It was interesting to note how different the work seemed, with its partial context restored. I am not entirely sure that this restoration, as with so many others, ultimately redounded to the work’s advantage. The chance to see Le Corbusier’s images, an old-fashioned encyclopædia of ‘world civilisations’, was interesting in itself, but I found myself distracted, and less able to listen to Varèse’s extraordinary score as ‘organised sound’ in its own right. One might argue, of course, that this was never the composer’s intention, that I am turning the poem into ‘absolute music’, to which I am tempted to reply, ‘Romantic as charged’. But these are musings concerning the work and what one day might be considered rudimentary matters of ‘Varèse performance practice’. The realisation by the London Sinfonietta’s David Sheppard and Ian Dearden (Sound Intermedia) was beyond reproach.

Next came Stockhausen’s Pole for 2. I said that it had not worn well; that at least was the impression garnered by this performance, from the two members of Sound Intermedia using sounds from shortwave radio, processed live with computers. (It can also, I believe, be performed with two instruments or voices.) I can imagine that it is absorbing and even great fun to perform and that one learns a great deal by following Stockhausen’s instructions as to interaction between the two performers; perhaps one even becomes frustrated by the composer’s refusal, even in a graphic score, to let go, and this tension becomes part of the experience. But, even with the assistance of visualisation on screen, just listening to a tour around various shortwave frequencies – even the snatches of garage music sounded dated: ‘very 2002’, as my more knowledgeable companion ironically observed – struck me as an unsatisfactory compromise between organised and disorganised sound. Stockhausen’s achievements are legion; I should hesitate to place this one highly, at least in terms of any (post-)Romantic conception of a musical work.

There are no such problems with Berio’s marvellous Naturale, for viola, percussion, and tape. With Varèse, the purely human has been relegated to the merely human; with Stockhausen, one often seems to be straining towards the extra-terrestrial, with Berio, the music is rooted in actual, historical, human experience. All of these approaches have their strengths; yet, on this occasion, Berio’s won out for me. The extracts from Sicilian folksongs recorded on tape ought to be fundamental; in a sense they doubtless are. However, such was the strength of the performances from Paul Silverthorne and Sam Walton that the folksong elements seemed at least as much to emerge from the ‘purely musical’ – actually nothing of the sort – as vice versa. Walton reminded us that, whilst electronics have been one of the twentieth century’s great additions to the instrumental palette, so too has the increasing diversity of the percussionist’s palette. Tuned and untuned, rhythmically driving and dramatically punctuating: this truly drew one in to the composer’s extraordinary sound world. So did his interaction with Silverthorne – and that of both with the tape. One of Silverthorne’s many achievements was to remind us of the very particular qualities of the viola; here it proved a bridge between old and new, West and East. Not only the virtuosity but the musical sensitivity with which Silverthorne performed provided a veritable masterclass; this could almost have been Bach, such were the security of performance and its probing nature. Alas, misfortune was to strike when one of his strings snapped. The hall’s evening schedule doubtless made it impossible to start again from the beginning, once the errant string had been replaced; instead, as the sound projectionists were instructed, the work resumed at figure J. I should have been more than happy to have heard the entire work twice, but it would not do to be ungrateful, having been treated to so rare and valuable an opportunity.

Friday 2 October 2009

London Sinfonietta: Sonic Explorations - 20th Century Classics (1), 1 October 2009

Hall One, Kings Place

Ligeti – Artikulation
Nono – A Pierre
Francis Dhomont – Vol d’Arondes (London premiere)
Berio – Différences

Michael Cox (flute)
Andrew Webster (clarinet)
Sound Intermedia
London Sinfonietta
Nicholas Collon (conductor)

The opening concert of the London Sinfonietta’s Sonic Explorations festival, and the first of two entitled ‘20th Century Classics’, presented three acknowledged ‘classics’ and one work, which, given not only that it was receiving its London premiere, but was written in 1999 and revised in 2002, might seem somewhat to be stretching the definition. It was nevertheless interesting to make the acquaintance of Francis Dhomont’s Vol d’Arondes, in splendid eight-channel surround sound. In a sense, this sounded like a newer version of musique concrete, but with a greater sense of freedom, of listening for whatever the sometimes surprisingly urban sounds of a Provençal village might bring. A ‘flight of swallows’ should not be taken literally. Hearing the tape expertly adapted to the space of Hall One by Sound Intermedia (London Sinfonietta principals, David Sheppard and Ian Dearden: the latter, I think, on this occasion), one learned and experienced much in terms of how a Stockhausen-like melody of sounds moving between locations might operate. I confess that I find it difficult to listen to this, unlike, say, Stockhausen’s COSMIC PULSES, as music, but as a sonic experience, an impression of a memory-based travelogue, and indeed as a document of how electro-acoustic music has advanced technologically, it was at the very least interesting.

The concert had opened with a work from the early years of such explorations. Ligeti’s Artikulation was born in the Cologne WDR studios. Not only in its monaural sound and its hints of Heath Robinson, but also in its fusion of post-Webern pointillism and the work of studio pioneers, this now sounds very much of its time (1958). There is nothing wrong with that; but it seems that we do need now to consider such works, as the concert’s title suggested, as classics. Ligeti’s relentless curiosity and deft lightness of touch ensure that there is nothing standard-issue to the work; it has a kinship with the work of other composers, but is equally very much Ligeti’s own.

That said, I personally found Luigi Nono’s homage to Pierre Boulez more involving. Robert Worby, in his admirably clear introductory talk, had drawn our attention, quite rightly, to the difference between hearing and listening. Nono’s music, perhaps especially his later music, is tailor-made to make one listen. Indeed, the act of listening becomes an act of revolutionary resistance in itself. This ravishingly beautiful work for double bass flute, double bass clarinet, and electronics is utterly characteristic yet utterly individual. Recording processes had developed so far from the time of Ligeti’s studio work that digital technology could now (1985) enable transformation of instrumental sound in ‘real time’. As ever, the shadows, the whispers, and the Venetian lapping of waves – metaphors perhaps, or perhaps not – ravished one’s senses. Softly beguiling, one was enticed truly to listen – just as one is with Webern. For this, the splendid performances from Michael Cox and Andrew Webster, together once again with expert work from Sound Intermedia, must be credited.

The final work returned us to the late 1950s (1958-9): Berio’s Différences. This, however, barely seemed to have dated at all. Nicholas Collon directed soloists of the London Sinfonietta in a performance that sparkled with the composer’s wit. The interaction between instruments and electronics – by virtue of studio transformation of the instrumental sounds – compels one to listen once again. The developmental line first brings us instrumental music, which is gradually superseded by electronic music, until once again we hear ‘live’ instruments, their sound changed by our experience of their prior electronic transformation. Berio’s sense of fun, at no cost to seriousness of purpose, was well served in this account.

I regret having been unable to stay for the second concert of the evening, ‘Letters from the Americas’, comprising two scores to be intertwined for film by Javier Alvarez, the London premiere of Flo Menezes’s Parcours de l’Entité, and James Tenney’s For Percussion Perhaps, Or... (night). But the opening concert augured well for what is to come; I look forward to more ‘20th Century Classics’ on Saturday.