Sunday 31 January 2010

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Beethoven and Schoenberg (2), 31 January 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Schoenberg – Verklärte Nacht, op.4
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.5 in E-flat major, op.73, ‘Emperor’

Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor)
Staatskapelle Berlin

This had the makings of a very special concert, though a succession of mishaps in the finale of the Emperor Concerto would certainly have detracted from a ‘star rating’, were one to engage in such assessment. Nevertheless, Verklärte Nacht and much of the Beethoven received fine performances.

The orchestral version of Verklärte Nacht is gorgeous, though I tend to miss the clarity and ensuing emphasis upon the work’s Brahmsian structure of the original sextet. It is testimony to the quality of this performance from Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin that not once did I think in such terms whilst the music was being heard. Barenboim’s account married the advantages of a huge body of strings (from eight double basses upwards) to the persistence of a chamber-style give and take between parts. Though definitely a conducted performance, the players’ accomplishment seemed at least as much a consequence of careful listening to and reacting to one another. Solos were all very well taken. The conductor’s role was almost that of the narrator, moulding the musical events into a consistent musico-dramatic narrative, rather as he had in the performance two nights previously of Pelleas und Melisande. Perhaps the pause before the advent of D major was a little de trop, but I am nit-picking. Far more noteworthy was the beautifully judged ebb and flow Barenboim ensured, with respect both to shorter-term rubato and longer-term tempo fluctuations: never attention-seeking but always telling. The final Verklärung worked the necessary magic. This was a distinguished performance indeed.

So was much of the Beethoven. From the outset, orchestra and pianist/conductor produced just the right sort of heroic, Beethovenian sonority and attack. The distance travelled from the first concerto was plain for all to hear. Barenboim employed a slightly larger body of strings than he had for the earlier work, though not so very much so, with twelve, as opposed to ten, first violins and others scaled accordingly. Urgent without sounding hectic, there was always life within the phrases, which in turn always responded to their predecessors. Some might have considered the rubato deferring the opening of the recapitulation exaggerated, but in heightening the sense of return, it played a structural role. As soloist, Barenboim displayed the occasional fallibility, but in the face of such conviction and the quality of his touch, that mattered little. The hush in the cadenza that is not a cadenza was quite magical, as was the Romantic sounding of horns thereafter. The wonderful veiled quality to the strings at the opening of the slow movement was most certainly special, as was the songfulness characteristic of the movement as a whole: if not taming the Furies, Orpheus was nevertheless amongst us. There was some truly melting piano playing, ensuring that this proved the emotional centre of the work. The orchestra’s woodwind solos were equally worthy of mention.

I was, then, a little surprised to hear the finale commence in a fashion that over-emphasised the bar lines. This is a very difficult movement to bring off, but in the face of what had gone before, I was in little doubt that Barenboim would do so. Had that been my only reservation, I might have forgotten it by now, but the soloist unleashed a series of errors suggestive of a memory lapse. Barenboim is good at covering, but even he could not conceal what had happened, nor could he prevent the orchestra from - understandably - losing its way. The Emperor really needs a separate conductor – even, it would seem, when a conductor of Barenboim’s calibre is at the keyboard. There was a greater level of general untidiness in his despatch of the solo part too. Though the orchestra often sounded magnificent, recovery could only ever be partial. The bassoonist’s prayer was clearly answered, though, given the aplomb with which he carried off his notorious, well-nigh impossible solo. What disconcerted most of all, however, was that a movement that had verged upon breaking down completely was followed by a widespread standing ovation. I cannot imagine that I yield to many in my admiration of Daniel Barenboim, and there remained much to admire in the concert as a whole, but a standing ovation? It rather suggests that many in the audience are simply experiencing the ‘event’ and barely listening to the performance.

Saturday 30 January 2010

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Beethoven and Schoenberg (1), 29 January 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.1 in C major, op.15
Schoenberg – Pelleas und Melisande, op.5

Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor)
Staatskapelle Berlin

Thus began Daniel Barenboim’s latest marathon, almost more of a brisk constitutional by the standard of some of his recent endeavours, though mightily impressive to mere mortals: four concerts over five evenings, comprising the five Beethoven piano concertos and various Schoenberg orchestral works. The first Beethoven concerto was the obvious place to start, and so Barenboim did.

I was a little surprised by the size of the orchestra, generous by ‘authenticke’ standards, but nevertheless a little on the small side for one who so reveres Furtwängler, strings proportioned Sonority was far from scrawny, but there were occasions when a greater body might have benefited the sonic upholstery. The opening sound was Mozartian, the Mozart of C major pomp – think the twenty-fifth piano concerto or the Jupiter Symphony – though without any real sense of being scaled down. Occasional piano smudges registered without truly mattering; far more important was Barenboim’s overall structural command, never more so than in the expressive slowing during the exposition’s second group, as ‘necessary’ as one could conceive. There was some beautiful soft playing from piano and orchestra during the development section, presaging a truly serene and slow movement. Here the tempo sounded just right, a perfect setting for Barenboim’s long line, whether in phrase, paragraph, or movement. So often this breaks down in Beethoven’s slow movements, but not here. As soloist, Barenboim employed beautifully judged rubato, evincing a proper sense of robbed time, Chopinesque in its quality. His trills demonstrated beyond doubt that the importance of this device is anything but restricted to late Beethoven, whilst the Harmoniemusik emanating from the Staatskapelle Berlin’s woodwind section proved a truly Mozartian joy. What a pleasure, moreover, it was to hear a true slow movement, unhurried and in harmonious proportion with the music framing it. What should come naturally seems to elude most modern Beethoven conductors. Eventually, and rightly, Barenboim punctured a barrage of coughing to open the rondo. This proved lively, bullish even, the woodwind again evoking an updated sense of the outdoor serenade. Crucial were an infallible sense of rhythmic alertness and a clear command of Beethoven’s structure. If the concerto as a whole did not quite ignite as sometimes it has done for Barenboim, this remained an estimable account.

Barenboim certainly did not stint upon the strings in Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, where they were at least double in number compared with the Beethoven. We were plunged in medias res, in what began and continued as a highly dramatic account of Schoenberg’s early tone poem. Perhaps the opening was a little too hasty, though one might equally argue that the impetuosity heard was programmatically suggestive of the eponymous lovers. One could certainly not deny the dramatic thread of Barenboim’s interpretation. Whereas, in December of last year, I had experienced Christian Thielemann’s Berlin Philharmonic performance as revelatory in its Brahmsian quality, this was a reading that remained true to the more typical Straussian, and to a lesser extent post-Wagnerian, conception of the work. Thielemann’s approach I find ultimately the more satisfying, but Barenboim’s terms are perfectly valid and, on those terms, this performance worked very well indeed, gripping in its narration and in its approach to orchestral colour. There were indeed some wonderful Siegfried-Idyll moments to the woodwind contribution, evocations of Till Eulenspiegel too, whilst the massed strings more than once reminded one of Verklärte Nacht, here a true companion piece to Pelleas. A truly magical balance of violin, harps, and flute hinted at the world of Gurrelieder, a work Barenboim surely ought soon to tackle. Lest this all sound unduly focused upon colour, Barenboim emphasised the heightened expressivity of Schoenberg’s language; as Charles Rosen observes in his masterly little book on Schoenberg, the problem for many listeners is too much expression, not too little. The ominous tread that commenced preparations for the end was well judged, though Thielemann’s gravitas may have dug deeper. On the other hand, must one set the one performance off against the other? Surely we are fortunate to have two distinguished Wagnerians prove advocates for Schoenberg. Straussian phantasmagoria, as depicted in Barenboim’s conclusion, can work as well as, if differently from, Schoenberg as ‘Brahms the Progressive’. Moreover, Barenboim’s hints of Parsifal, Act Two especially, proved both musically and dramatically suggestive.

Sunday 24 January 2010

Psappha - Peter Maxwell Davies concerts, 23 January 2010

Hall One, Kings Place

Davies – Image, Reflection, Shadow (1982)

Purcell-Davies – Fantasia and Two Pavans (1968)
Davies – Hymnos, for clarinet and piano (1967)
Davies – Piano Sonata (1981)

Davies – Eight Songs for a Mad King (1969) (concert performance)

Conrad Marshall (flute/piccolo)
Dov Goldberg (clarinets)
Richard Casey (piano/harpsichord)
Tim Williams (cimbalom/percussion)
David Routledge (violin)
Jennifer Langridge (violoncello)
Kelvin Thomas (baritone)

Here were two concerts from the ever-enterprising Psappha, part of the Kings Place series celebrating Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: ‘Circus Maximus’. The first presented Image, Reflection, Shadow, an 1982 chamber piece for the Fires of London; the second, in two halves, brought us the riotous Purcell arrangement, Fantasia and Two Pavans, Hymnos for clarinet and piano, the piano sonata, and finally, one of Max’s most celebrated (notorious?) music-theatre works, Eight Songs for a Mad King. Even those works for smaller forces can be performed by members of the basic Fires of London line-up, that is Pierrot-quintet plus percussion, so the concerts turned out to be a tribute not only to the composer, but also to the ensemble he co-founded with Harrison Birtwistle, initially as the Pierrot Players.

Image, Reflection, and Shadow, for Pierrot-quintet and cimbalom, came as quite a revelation to me. Though a later work than those that have previously tended to spark my interest, and lacking the outrage factor of many of the composer’s earlier work, this held plenty of interest over its roughly forty-minute span, much more a companion piece to the classic Ave maris stella than a precursor to the myriad symphonies and quartets that have so preoccupied Davies in his Orcadian years. Though written in three movements, these do not correspond to the three words of the title but to the ‘play throughout of mirror and copy’ (Paul Griffiths), much of it based upon writing for three duos of strings, woodwinds, and piano/cimbalom. The build-up of intensity in the opening Adagio struck me as near-Bartókian in its quality, the Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta a distant relative, though there was more than a little of Schoenberg’s shadow too. Though the colour of the cimbalom, here superbly performed by Tim Williams, necessarily has its own resonances, there was no doubt that they were being put by the composer to his own ends. Violence and repose could coexist and conflict, as at the end of the first movement. I liked the infectious, catchy quality to the scherzo-like second movement, its textures varied, at times creating a great mass of sound belying the relatively modest forces, at others boiled down to a virtuoso dialogue between cimbalom and piano – and even a cimbalom cadenza, as also in the finale, whose writing could at times itself recall Pierrot Lunaire. Psappha’s performances were committed and apparently expert: an accomplished tribute to composer and work.

I greatly enjoyed the Purcell-Davies Fantasia and Two Pavans, as resounding a riposte to ‘authenticity’ as one could imagine. In that respect, I can do no better than quote Davies:

I have long been fascinated by Purcell’s music, but utterly bored by well-meaning ‘authentic’ performances, which possibly get every double-dotted rhythm right but convey not sense of Purcell’s intensity of feeling, sense of fun and sheer outrageousness. I feel the profoundest respect for the ‘great’ composers of the past, but have no feeling of slavish reverence towards them whatever – after all, they were living, real people, not priests …. Musical purity in these matters is about as interesting as moral purity. I am sure that many people will consider my Purcell realisations wholly immoral.

The brightness of the F major Fantasia truly registered in Davies’s screeching non-authenticity – itself, ironically, imparting a parodic edge on the border of ‘authenticity’ to impressions of the twelfth stop of an old chamber organ. Marimba is a welcome visitor to the consort. But it is in the two pavans, louchely reinterpreted as foxtrots, that the composer most provokes and, more importantly, most amuses. Every note of Purcell is there, but as you have never heard it before. A wonderful touch is the speeding up and slowing down to evoke an old 78 rpm recording. Although a vocalist was not employed on this occasion for the second pavan, there was still a great deal to savour in what again proved authoritative and enjoyable performances.

Hymnos for clarinet and piano was likewise splendidly presented, by Dov Goldberg and Richard Casey. The work holds nothing back; much of it indeed is very loud, though it has its lyrical moments too. Metrical complexity, born of or at least related to, Indian music registers both intellectual and emotionally. Balances shift, sometimes to the ‘advantage’ of one of the soloists, but it is the developmental impulse that resists and its strengthened, here very much in performance as well as work.

The piano sonata must certainly be at least as great a technical and intellectual challenge for the soloist; it was perhaps a little cruel to have Casey more or less immediately embark upon that, following Hymnos. Though there were odd occasions when he appeared to slip, the vision as a whole throughout Davies’s seven-movement, quasi-symmetrical structure was tightly focused. It was revealing to note, both audibly and visually, just how much of the burden the left hand bears, whilst ghosts of piano past, for instance the Schoenberg of the Op.11 Pieces and Debussy, made their presence felt. This is certainly a work written for its instrument.

Though marked as a ‘concert performance’, this is a matter of degree when it comes to Eight Songs for a Mad King. The king was in costume, the players wore bird masks, and we did not have to go without the breaking of the violin in no.7, Country Dance. As the composer has written, ‘Until quite recently, “madness” was regarded as something at which to laugh and jeer. The King’s historically authentic quotations from The Messiah in the work evoke this sort of mocking response in the instrumental parts – the stylistic switch is unprepared, and arouses an aggressive reaction.’ Aggression certainly, and unease, perhaps inevitably, but also a kind of neo-eighteenth-century wonder at what transpires. This is theatre – and theatre with a vengeance. Even the turns from harpsichord to piano elicit their own savage irony. The breaking of the violin comes as dramatic release, permitting the possibility, drum thwacks notwithstanding, that our hero might finally gain some peace. Having broken the cage, might the keeper be defeated? I can pay no greater compliment than to say that, following this performance, Kelvin Thomas valiantly evoking the celebrated extended range of Roy Hart, I immediately wanted to hear the work again.

Saturday 23 January 2010

The Rake's Progress, Royal Opera, 22 January 2010

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Trulove – Jeremy White
Anne Trulove – Rosemary Joshua
Tom Rakewell – Toby Spence
Nick Shadow – Kyle Ketelsen
Mother Goose – Frances McCafferty
Baba the Turk – Patricia Bardon
Sellem – Graham Clark
Madhouse Keeper – Jonathan Coad

Robert Lepage (director)
Sybille Wilson (revival director)
Carl Fillon (set designs)
François Barbeau (costumes)
Etienne Boucher (lighting)
Boris Firquet (video)
Michael Keegan Dolan (choreography)
Rachel Poirer and Milos Galko (revival choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Westrop)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Ingo Metzmacher (conductor)

First time around, I had rather liked Robert Lepage’s production of The Rake’s Progress, writing: ‘Lepage made a good case for the updating to 1950s America, for instance through his mention of Stravinsky's great interest in the new medium, delineation of Hollywood's 'false historicism', and citation of an essay in which Auden made clear his opposition to naturalism. The best case, however, was on stage, in which one was perfectly at liberty to consider the parallels between the setting and its original form, yet without feeling unduly constrained.’ A little later, I quoted Lepage saying that he had not ‘“set out to make a piece of social criticism, so the political and social dimension to the production has arisen through choices that seemed right to me”. This is interesting, since the political and social dimension came across strong and clear. Today's “celebrity”-fuelled culture, we were reminded, is in many respects nothing new, although it may somehow be even more vacuous than it once was. Hollywood and advertising, as we saw on stage, pursued this cult from the very earliest years, and the figure of Baba the Turk reminds us that notoriety was a great selling-point - literally - during the eighteenth century too. What could be more Hogarthian, post-war, or contemporary than setting off to the City in search of riches and losing them - and much else in the process?’

What, then, had changed? First, I suspect that the production itself is subject to diminishing returns. The Hollywood trappings – Nick Shadow filming, Tom Rakewell’s trailer, the swimming pool and so on – do not seem to offer up any more upon a second viewing. The loss of London grated rather more than it had, since the replacement did not seem adequate, an especially unfortunate moment coming during the third act when it was suggested that Tom had fled ‘to America’. Had he ever been away? Second, the revival direction seemed to me significantly less sharp than the original. Social criticism might not have been intentional the first time around, but it shone through nevertheless. Here, one wondered whether Hollywood were being enjoyed for its own sake; there was certainly little if any hint of McCarthyism. And third, the audience really did not help. Expecting anything much from the greater part of a Covent Garden audience is doubtless foolish, but this seemed to be an especially unimaginative, uncomprehending bunch. Applause and laughter could be heard all over the place, sometimes at the most truly inopportune moments. (What on earth was amusing about the graveyard scene?) The multiple alienations Stravinsky, Auden, and, one might at least have hoped, the production set before us went as pearls before swine; a friend of mine heard someone next to her exclaim that ‘the show’ reminded him of Hello, Dolly! Many of the people, moreover, would appear to have been deaf – rendering opera an eccentric choice for their evening’s ‘entertainment’ – since they could not even hear when numbers came to a close, applauding some time beforehand, sometimes whistling too (?!). These people, apparently determined to show off however much they have paid for their tickets, do not seem prepared even to attempt to think, and lessen the experience for the rest of us.

The musical performances varied. Patricia Bardon once again proved a strong Baba, touching in a way one rarely experiences, a trouper of the old school. (Stephanie Blythe had pulled out, likewise the anticipated Kate Royal as Anne Trulove.) There was nothing one could reasonably complain about in Kyle Ketelsen’s Nick, but he seemed to take time to warm up. Certainly by the second act, and then especially during the graveyard scene, he seemed properly possessed by the demon and his demons. Rosemary Joshua seemed to me a considerably stronger Anne than Sally Matthews had: purity of voice and character did not this time entail an inability to make her words tell, far from it. Graham Clark’s Sellem was more character actor than singer; his voice faltered alarmingly more than once. But sadly, the principal disappointment was Toby Spence’s Tom. There is a degree of blankness to the character, I appreciate, yet I was surprised nevertheless by Spence’s woodenness. The developmental aspect I noted to Charles Castronovo’s portrayal in 2008 was considerably less apparent. Moreover, there were times when the vocal line was not nearly so well shaped as it might have been. Choral singing improved, but was disturbingly unfocused in Mother Goose’s brothel.

Ingo Metzmacher’s account of the score ultimately proved puzzling, almost a mirror-image of that of Thomas Adès, whose conducting had proved the major drawback a year-and-a-half ago. There was much greater bite to the first two acts, a proper Stravinskian desiccation, which both repels and fascinates. For this, the fine form of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House must be credited. I longed for greater warmth – but that is just as it should be. To give in would be to risk collapse of the neo-classical conceit. However, the Bedlam Scene proved interminable, weirdly sentimentalised. Clearly a contrast was being drawn, but I wish it had not been, since much of the earlier good work was undone. Nothing though could quite detract from the brilliance of the graveyard scene, where Stravinsky achieves the near-impossible in harpsichord writing that does not make one long for the piano. Is this the mask dropping? It is probably just another mask, but at least the question is posed.

Tuesday 19 January 2010

Henze, Phaedra, Ensemble Modern/Boder, 17 January 2010

Barbican Hall

Phaedra – Maria Riccarda Wesseling
Aphrodite – Marlis Petersen
Minotaur – Lauri Vasar
Artemis – Axel Köhler
Hippolytus – John Mark Ainsley

Ensemble Modern
Michael Boder (conductor)

This concert performance of Henze’s latest – he seems now to have stopped speaking of his ‘last’ – opera, Phaedra, marked the end of the Barbican’s Henze weekend and also the beginning of its Present Voices 2010 series, which will also include performances of Peter Eötvös’s Angels in America and Michel van der Aa’s After Life. Many, though not quite all, of the same performers gave the first performances at Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden; certainly they seemed very much at home here with Henze’s style and musical demands.

In two short acts, the work re-tells the celebrated tale first of stepmother Phaedra’s love for Hippolytus and the latter’s consequent death, and then of Hippolytus’s after-life as Virbius, culminating in his resurrection as King of the Forest. The autobiographical consonance seems almost too good to be true: Henze fell seriously ill, having completed most of the first act, falling into a coma, or something very close thereto, before rising from his bed one day to start work upon the second act. But such would seem to have been the case – and, one way or another, much of Henze’s output has always been autobiographical in its concerns. We may stand far away from Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer, a warning of the perils of bourgeois leftism and perhaps the high water-mark of the composer’s revolutionary activism, but in this sense, at least, the works have more in common than one might expect.

Christian Lehnert’s libretto seems at times a little too full of its symbolism and general cleverness, though I wonder whether that might be different with a scenic element to the performance . Henze’s score is full of beguiling sounds, using his chamber ensemble in a way that betokens both imagination and experience. Yet I am not sure that it totally evaded the charge of note-spinning, rather akin to certain middle-period Strauss. (I have often thought there to be parallels between the two composers, though Henze would doubtless angrily disavow such a comparison, having once disparaged his predecessor as resembling something akin to a court composer to the last Kaiser.) There was magic, though, in the final scene, in which Hippolytus rises as King of the Forest: not so very far from the transformation of Daphne. And earlier on, I thought I heard a Gurrelieder tribute, when mention was made of a dove, or was it simply my ears tricking me? Some of the rest of the time, however, I wondered whether I was in the world of an updated French Baroque cantata, even though, to be fair, hints and sometimes more than hints of Ulisse-like paganism ensured that it was not all prettiness. The bruitage of the second act (that for both acts was provided by Francesco Antonioni) was in some senses a contrasting relief – and rather an impressive one, by turns realistic and abstract, and with clear dramatic purpose.

Michael Boder clearly knows the score inside out and performed it with persuasive confidence – and delicacy. Likewise the excellent Ensemble Modern, whom we really should hear more of in this country. Phaedra the title may be, but the central character is really Hippolytus (in which case, why the title?). John Mark Ainsley employed his light tenor to advantage, affording a sensitive portrayal, though without much suggestion as to why Phaedra might ever have felt so strongly attracted towards him. Maria Riccarda Wesseling likewise presented an intelligent depiction of Phaedra – I assume one is not supposed to warm to her – though her facial expressions could be distracting. Marlis Petersen offered no such drawbacks in a beautiful, if icy portrayal of Aphrodite. Those more drawn than I to the countertenor voice might still have had problems with Axel Köhler’s squally Artemis. Is that also not partly the composer’s fault, for is this really an appropriate vocal type for such a role today? It can work as something other-worldly, as, for instance, in Goehr’s The Death of Moses, but here it seemed an all-too-easy ‘Baroque’ reference. In any case, it was a relief when for a minute or so, Köhler fell into a perfectly decent ‘character’ tenor. At least as impressive as anyone else was Lauri Vasar, pleasing of tone and intelligent of expression; I certainly wished that his part, that of the Minotaur, had been introduced earlier.

Total Immersion – Hans Werner Henze Composer Day, 16 January 2010

Barbican Centre


Vocal Soloists from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Guildhall New Music Ensemble
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

Toccata mistica
Variations, op. 13
Scorribanda pianistica

Symphony no.4
Elogium musicum (United Kingdom premiere)

Huw Watkins (piano)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Oliver Knussen (conductor)

The BBC/Barbican Hans Werner Henze Day began with Barrie Gavin’s film, Memoirs of an Outsider, which includes interviews with Henze and a number of musicians close to him, as well as some ravishingly beautiful footage of the composer’s villa in the hills above Rome. I was unable to see it on this occasion but can wholeheartedly recommend it on DVD, or indeed should it be screened elsewhere.

Voices (1973), is described as ‘a collection of songs’ rather than a song-cycle, which seems just. Rather than being shared between two vocal soloists, the opportunity was granted to a number of singers (mezzos and tenors) from the Guildhall to contribute, which had the additional advantage of greater variety for the listener too. This is Henze at his most politically combative, taking us on a tour of the world’s disadvantaged, their voices hailing from Cuba, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, Black America, Greece, Italy, and Germany. From the opening Los poetas cubanos ya no sueñan (from Heberto Padilla’s Fuera del juego) to Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s closing Das Blumenfest, the revolutionary intensity can hardly be faulted. It is a fascinating work, but not perhaps one that has dated so well as some others. To have well over an hour and a half (at least given the breaks required by performance) of such protest songs, without any especially obvious progression tends to reinforce the compendious quality of the enterprise – doubtless part of the point, but even so... That said, some songs, as one might expect, impress more than others and there are moments of great sonorous beauty. The strained beauty of the Ho Chi Minh Prison Song put me in mind of the torture scene from Nono’s Intolleranza, after which the accordion’s entry for Brecht’s Keiner oder alle could hardly have provided a greater contrast. Sharp-edged woodwind added to the evocation of Weimar and indeed of Weill (Mahagonny). Cabaret would return more than once, notably in the languorous, yet properly alienating sleaze – relatively speaking – of Brecht’s Gedanken eines Revuemädchen während des Entkleidungsaktes. No, of course the showgirl does not enjoy what she does; nor does she ‘feel’ anything. The several contributions from recorders proved haunting, fragile in their humanity, not least for the parents having to transport the coffins of the children of Man Quang (Erich Fried’s 42 Schulkinder). Haunting was also the word for Caino, in which accordion and recorder could combine, almost seductive in their disconcertion.

It was difficult not to raise a smile at the deafening bruitage of the free market in Vermutung über Hessen, share the sentiment though one might. Moreover, I wondered, during the lengthy instrumental prelude to the Heine setting, Heimkehr, where Henze sounded at his most Romantic, whether this was really where he had wanted to be all along, likewise in the post-Schoenbergian piano writing of Patria. What disconcerted most, however, was the conclusion, mesmerising purely on its own terms: Das Blumenfest. Was this an attempt at reconciliation? If so, it hardly seemed the place, for what is there to reconcile? I was put in mind of the young Boulez criticising such attempts in late Berg – though Berg, I think, had better reason to be doing so. The performances, however, were all excellent. Singers, players, and Ryan Wigglesworth showed apparently total commitment to Henze’s cause. If I had to single out a favourite, it would probably be Nicholas Allen’s role as master of ceremonies in the savaging of Coca-Cola America (The Electric Cop, ‘for Herbert Marcuse’): a sort of American culture-industry cabaret. The only irritant, and it really was an irritant, was that very small section of the audience, its ringleader a demonstrative man in a pink jumper, which insisted on applauding after every number.

There then followed a second film, again from Barrie Gavin, of a performance of the Requiem, its sequence of nine sacred concertos one of Henze’s finest achievements. The ensuing talk is best skated over. Suffice it to say, it opened with a declaration of lack of expertise in Henze and yet managed to inspire less as time went on. Given that the composer was apparently elsewhere in the building speaking for a radio interview, it seemed a great pity that we could not simply have heard that.

In any case, the evening concert made amends. The first section – there were two intervals – had Huw Watkins present a selection of Henze’s works for solo piano. One thing that struck me – as it had during some of Voices – was how Henze seems unable, or perhaps unwilling, to escape the shadow of Schoenberg when writing for the instrument. There are other voices too, of course, for instance the Scarbo-like opening of the Toccata mistica (1994), and the more Webern-like serialism of the 1948 Variations, but Schoenberg, whatever the ambivalence of Henze’s feelings towards him, never quite vanishes. I had not heard the Variations before and was most impressed: the form and style never seemed to constrict the young composer but acted rather as a spur to expression, Watkins ensuring strong characterisation. The youthful impetuosity of Cherubino (1980-1) was winningly portrayed, which then perhaps made the violence, apocalypticism even, of the 2003 Scorribanda pianistica all the more shocking. It is, for those who might be puzzled, a piano version by Martin Ketz of the Scorribanda sinfonica, and works very well in its new guise.

Fraternité was a ‘message for the millennium,’ as requested by Kurt Masur for the New York Philharmonic. (It remains unclear why it should then have been performed in 1999, more than a year too early, but never mind.) Certain progressions and melodic twists put me in mind of Busoni, though this may simply be coincidence. The post-Bergian orchestral writing is certainly consistent with much of Henze’s practice at the time and there even seemed to be a few hat-tips to Wagner. Kaleidoscopic colours reaffirmed Henze’s mastery of orchestration, but ultimately I do not think this amounted to much more than a postcard message: fine at the time, no doubt, but paling when heard by the side of the Fourth Symphony, an offshoot from the opera, König Hirsch. Here Oliver Knussen and the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave as fine a performance as I can imagine it has received. Henze’s flight to Italy is celebrated, of course, but try as he might, he can only truly celebrate his new-found freedom in a German way. The forest inevitably conjures up visions of German Romanticism for him, from the opening horn-call (almost, but not quite, that for Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony) onwards. The four-movement-in-one structure again refers back to Schoenberg and, beyond him, to the Romantics. Joy expressed in the Mediterranean sun is very much of a Goethe-Mendelssohn tradition too – and all the better for it. Moreover, here, unlike Voices, such reconciliation as there might be does not sound forced or inappropriate; there is instead a lightness of touch, an almost Shakespearian fantasy, which would prove prophetic for a number of works that lay a long way in the future. If only some day we might hear König Hirsch itself…

The final work was Henze’s recent (2008) elegy for Fausto Moroni, Elogium musicum (in full: Elogium musicum amatissimi amici nunc remoti, ‘Musical Elegy for a most beloved Friend now Departed’). Once again, the BBC forces, now including the BBC Symphony Chorus, provided an exemplary performance. Having mentioned the persistence of Schoenberg above, I must do so again, for this almost seemed like a mini-Gurrelieder: weeping, anger, Nature, and finally something akin to apotheosis. Yet, despite the references in Franco Serpa’s Latin text to God, one knows that this remains as deeply pagan as the rest of Henze’s output. Whatever reconciliations he might attempt, some will surely remain several bridges too far. This was recognisably the world of Henze’s realisation of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria – which, as Sir Thomas Allen remarked in a recent interview, ‘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.’

Wednesday 13 January 2010

Elektra - LSO/Gergiev, 12 January 2010

Barbican Hall

Elektra – Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet
Chrysothemis – Angela Denoke
Klytemnestra – Felicity Palmer
Orest – Matthias Goerne
Aegisth – Ian StoreyFirst Maid – Olga Legkova
Second Maid – Third Maid – Varvara Kravtsova
Fifth Maid – Lia Shevtsova
Overseer, Confidante – Ekaterina Popova
Trainbearer – Ekaterina Sergeeva
Young Servant/Orest's Companion – Andrey Popov
Old Servant – Vuyani Mlinde

London Symphony Orchestra (chorus master: Joseph Cullen)
London Symphony Chorus
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

I nearly stayed away. After Gergiev’s Mahler Ninth and his Bluebeard’s Castle, I found it difficult to feel wild enthusiasm for the prospect of him conducting Strauss in general or Elektra in particular. However, curiosity, a promising cast, and the LSO won out. In the end, I was pleased to have gone, but it was not an Elektra for the ages. It looked as though it was being recorded for LSO Live. Only Elektra-completists should bother; otherwise, stick with Karl Böhm et al.

Gergiev, as so often in ‘uncharacteristic’ territory, did not appear to have reached a settled view of the score. The opening scene made me fear the worse: hard-driven and shrieking, with a far from rounded orchestral tone. Had Solti returned? Not quite, but it was that sort of performance. There were, however, hints of something more interesting: a good ear for colour in more mysterious passages. It may be a cliché, but Gergiev does seem much better with colour than structure. As a whole, the performance was sectional, some way from the symphonic musico-dramatic structure that Strauss inherited and developed from Wagner. Yet, within the sections, direction was often clear. Dance rhythms were often to the fore, a definite advantage. Some tempi seemed a bit odd, slowed down for no particular reason, and Elektra’s Dance was simply rushed: a pity. The LSO itself was on good form, though it suffered to a certain extent from Gergiev’s lack of overall command. I longed to hear what it might have sounded like under a conductor more at home with the score – Dohnányi, Elder, Bychkov, Barenboim, or Abbado… (The list is not intended to be exhaustive!)

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, whom I heard in this role a couple of years or so ago in Berlin, once again impressed. Simply to get through the part is an achievement, but she did much more than that; for the most part accurate, she acted as much as one could within the confines of a concert performance, both visually and vocally. She tired a little at the end, but one can hardly blame her. (Incidentally, it would have been preferable to have some sort of common policy on ‘acting’: a mix of slightly-staged and oratorio does not really work. Surely Gergiev should have made a decision on this.) Angela Denoke gave a detailed reading as Chrysothemis, accurate and musically shaped, but later on especially she could be over-parted. (What a weird part this is, though, in many respects the sickest of the lot, especially concerning her obsession with bearing children.) Matthias Goerne was a thoughtful Orestes, though I did not think him ideally cast. Someone a little more youthful and vigorous in tone – Simon Keenlyside perhaps – might have worked better. Ian Storey was a change from the usual Aegisth: his voice was not lost and so much less of a ‘character role’, let alone caricature. And Felicity Palmer, perhaps predictably, was superb as Klytemnestra. Deranged, vulnerable, haunted, and utterly malevolent: hers was the finest achievement of the lot.

A couple of other cavils probably ought to be voiced. The London Symphony Chorus, lusty though it sounded, was not well-served – or alternatively, was all too well-served – by coming out into the stalls to sing. Admittedly, my front left stalls seat was particularly vulnerable in that respect – other balances there were often very odd indeed – but the chorus, which should be off-stage, simply overwhelmed everything else. Hearing ‘Orest’ shouted at full throttle like that gave a false impression of Strauss’s score, somewhat redolent of the parade ground. It also seemed odd to have so many Russian singers in the small roles. Gergiev’s habit seems to be to import wholesale his Mariinsky troupe: fine for them, I suppose, but might this not have been an opportunity for some local talent to gain experience? Vuyani Mlinde, the sole exception, was perhaps the most impressive, so that need not have been a concern. I certainly have no wish to be parochial, let alone xenophobic, but the impression given in such circumstances is of a branch of Gergiev Inc. as much an LSO performance.

Monday 11 January 2010

Boulez anniversary year and interview

There is an interesting interview with Pierre Boulez in the New York Times from a few days ago. (I am not sure I have ever read an uninteresting interview with him, for there always seems to be some flash of insight.) Notably, Daniel Barenboim contributes, the Barenboim-Boulez musical axis surely having been one of the most enduring and productive of recent - and even not-so-recent - years. Who could disagree with Boulez concerning the lack of adventure, or even interest, in so much programming? A significant segment of typical bourgeois concert and opera audiences, I suspect, and therein lies the problem for anyone with the slightest intellectual and cultural curiosity...

Boulez will turn eighty-five this year. In April, I shall visit Berlin for the Staatsoper's birthday celebrations, which will include Maurizio Pollini performing the second sonata, Boulez himself conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in works by Boulez, Schoenberg (Barenboim the soloist in the piano concerto), and Berg, and a jointly conducted concert (Boulez and Barenboim) with members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Messagesquisse, Anthèmes 2, and Le Marteau sans maître (soloist: Hilary Summers).

Further details of these Berlin Festtage, which will also include Barenboim conducting Tristan und Isolde in a revival of Harry Kupfer's production, and Eugene Onegin in Achim Freyer's bizarre staging, may be found here. Reviews of all performances cited above will follow.

Sunday 3 January 2010

Auryn Quartet, Beethoven, 3 January 2010

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet no.3 in D major, op.18 no.3
String Quartet no.12 in E-flat major, op.127
String Quartet no.1 in F major, op.18 no.1

Matthias Lingenfelder and Jens Oppermann (violins)
Stewart Eaton (viola)
Andreas Arndt (violoncello)

I have often felt ambivalent about some at least of Beethoven’s op.18 quartets. There are very fine things in them, yet I should have contested the Auryn Quartet’s claim, in the preface to the programme notes, that, from the great classical trinity of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, ‘only Beethoven’s quartets are all of a similarly outstanding quality; each one self-contained, unique in expression, and everyone a masterpiece.’ Perhaps it is because I am a pianist and only a very lapsed string player, but I have tended to think more highly, at least as a group, of the ‘early’ piano sonatas than the early quartets. Did the Auryn Quartet change my mind? Pretty much so with the performance of the D major quartet, op.18 no.3.

The opening Allegro has a sunny lyricism, basking in the warmth of open strings – and so it sounded here. The players’ scurrying questions and answers, and their offbeat accents made their point without being forced. A real sense of exploration was imparted to the development section, though always, quite rightly, within the bounds of Classical forms. So often nowadays Andante movements, let alone those marked con moto, are straightforwardly hurried; it was therefore a great relief to hear a performance, which, whatever the metronome might have told one – who cares? – sounded ‘right’. Again, the reading was unassumingly, but certainly not uneventfully, exploratory: just as it should be for the young(ish) Beethoven. The third movement was light-hearted yet never trivial; Beethoven’s equipoise between harmony and counterpoint, splendidly managed here, sees to that. The first violin’s flights of fantasy were always securely underpinned. Lively, never hard-driven, would be an apt summation of the finale. It was fun too, infectious in the catchiness of rhythm. This was Beethoven with a smile, not a grimace, flexible without indulgence. And the throwaway ending was delightful.

Whatever claims might be made for unity in Beethoven’s œuvre, the late works will always be special. Here we heard the first of the late quartets, op.127. I was much taken with the ‘openness’ of the Maestoso introduction to the first movement: ‘late’, to be sure, but harking back to the opening of Haydn’s final piano sonata, also in E-flat major. The Allegro lived up to Beethoven’s marking teneramente, ‘tenderly’. Through tenderness, the Auryn’s players combined strangeness and consolation, grandeur and concision, and proved this music as lyrical in its own way as the first movement of the previous quartet. Song was the essence in the slow movement, bringing the German Innigkeit (somehow more than mere ‘inwardness’) to mind. The variations unfolded with inevitability: again, strange, especially during the fifth, and consoling, especially thereafter, in what Richard Wigmore, in his programme notes, aptly termed a ‘spiritualised dance’. The radiant glimpse once again of E major in the coda seemed almost to foreshadow Mahler – perhaps the Mahler of the Fourth Symphony’s slow movement. Restlessness characterised the scherzo, with a nicely stomping trio, its rusticity almost but not quite sublimated. This found echoes during the finale, though the principal mood was of graceful, almost transfigured, dance.

Following the interval, the players returned to op.18, to the F major quartet, no.1. It was here that my slight doubts resurfaced, though the performance remained of a high level. Following a rare intonational lapse in the opening phrase, much of the first movement was delightful, the players revelling in an almost Mozartian profusion of melody, though perhaps with a garrulousness quite foreign to Beethoven’s predecessor. The slow movement, inspired at least initially by the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet, attained true gravity, however, its development section played with moving, utterly committed intensity. Skittish unease was the hallmark of the scherzo, which flew by without the slightest sense of being unduly driven. (When will certain musicians learn that rhythmic propulsion does not equate to driving hard?) I felt slightly disappointed with the finale. The players brought good humour to their performance, but Beethoven here seems a little too expansive for his own good. Still, the twists and turns were all nicely handled.

There was, however, a splendid bonus to follow, in an encore of the finale to Haydn’s ‘Rider’ quartet, op.74 no.3. This was quite dazzling, full of dynamism that irresistibly propelled the players – and listeners – to the end. I realised then what had been missing in the previous quartet: Beethoven still had a little way to go to match Haydn’s mastery. Though how he would do so – and even surpass it…