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.