Tuesday 23 February 2010

Krystian Zimerman, Chopin recital, 22 February 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Nocturne in F-sharp minor, op.15 no.2
Piano sonata no.2 in B-flat minor, op.35
Scherzo no.2 in B-flat minor, op.31
Piano sonata no.3 in B minor, op.58
Barcarolle in F-sharp major, op.60

After the mixed fortunes of Murray Perahia’s Chopin last week, here was a Chopin pianist on excellent form, so much so that Krystian Zimerman, known, amongst other things, for not giving encores, did just that, concluding with a magnificently poised yet flowing account of the C-sharp minor Waltz, op.64 no.2. The first half witnessed the second sonata framed by the F-sharp minor Nocturne, op.15 no.2 and the second scherzo. I liked the idea of starting with a nocturne, whose ternary form provided a splendid introduction to much of the music to follow; so did the magic with which Zimerman invested the reprise of the opening material, which was anything but a mere reprise. Structure was equally clear in the scherzo, so much more ‘natural’, less studied than much of what had been heard from Perahia, declamatory where necessary but with no loss to the musical line. The reversion to the minor mode was especially well handled.

With the opening of the B-flat minor Sonata, Zimerman plunged us in medias res. His flexibility of tempo was utterly convincing, following, as it did, the demands of the music. If sometimes extreme, navigation between extremes proved perhaps the most impressive aspect of all in projection of Chopin’s quite un-Classical handling of sonata form. The recapitulation was rightly better understood as a climax than a return – and what a climax! Sadly, some idiots in the audience, on whom more anon, decided they must disrupt the performance by applauding; Zimerman was more graceful in response than he had any need to be. Contrast between the extremes of scherzo and trio was handled with equal mastery, mediation between the two again proving the key to Zimerman’s success. If the trio were an oasis of calm in the middle, one could sense troubled waters beneath the surface, and seduction too: sirens perhaps? The pianist’s command of line throughout was matched by thoroughly musical virtuosity and the aristocratic touch Chopin’s music demands. Zimerman brought an inexorable, almost Mussorgskian tread to the funeral march, itself matched by poignant dignity in the central section. Rubato was unerringly ‘right’, whilst the hush for the cantilena, when coughers permitted, was something at which to marvel – and in which to be involved. There was nothing ‘observed’ about this performance. The grief occasioned by the return of the opening material was all the more powerful second time around: again, climax rather than mere reprise. And there was no short-changing Chopin in the strangeness, radicalism, and virtuosity of the finale.

Zimerman again meant business from the very opening of the third sonata – and again one could but marvel at his technique, never more so than in the evenness of the left-hand (and right-hand, for that matter) passagework. Transitions were again fundamental to his approach, which paid off handsomely. I did not, however, feel that the second subject in this first movement sang as sometimes it can, even if its structural integrity were never in doubt. Inevitability was not quite the right word, for we heard something arguably more appropriate to Chopin: narrative choices being made and followed. Zimerman seemed keen to highlight the work’s kinship with the second sonata, the scherzo clearly a brother not only to the scherzo of the second, but also to the latter’s finale. The relationship between the Largo and the cortège of the earlier Marcia funèbre was more subtle, yet equally apparent. Where Perahia last week had often seemed impatient with ‘mere’ ornamentation, Zimerman demonstrated the essential quality of what might seem inessential. Indeed, at times I was put in mind of the profound subtleties of late Brahms, not least in the interplay between voices and the cross-rhythms. Bach of course looms large, yet vocal melody always emerges supreme. In the finale, I wondered on occasion whether virtuosity was a little too much on open display, yet there remained a magnificent defiance to Zimerman’s approach, which ultimately meant that victory was hard-won enough. The following Barcarolle provided rhythmic lilt, seductive charm, and a real, if never unduly pictorial, sense of Venetian waters: a kindred spirit, I thought, for Luigi Nono. Chopin’s melodic and harmonic contours were finely traced, a rather Lisztian abandon announcing itself before the waters subsided.

So this was a fine recital indeed, a fully worthy contribution to the Chopin anniversary – and to London’s ongoing celebration of Polish culture, Polska! What a pity, then, that some in the audience did their best to blight it. Even by the usual standards, unstifled coughing was rampant and almost constant, whether between or during movements. The pianist was clearly exercised by one particular contributor, to whom he appeared to speak at one point. Applause again intruded during the third sonata. Bottles were opened, though I am pretty sure the Royal Festival Hall does not allow drinking during recitals. Near me, a heavy breather and a bracelet jangler ensured that their contributions could not go unnoticed. Is it really too much to ask that those attending musical performances show consideration for those attempting to concentrate upon the music?

Friday 19 February 2010

Murray Perahia - Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin, 18 February 2010

Barbican Hall

Bach – Partita no.6 in E minor, BWV 830
Beethoven – Piano sonata no.30 in E major, op.109
Chopin – Ballade no.3 in A-flat major, op.47
Chopin – Etude in E minor, op.25 no.5
Chopin – Etude in A-flat major, op.25 no.1
Chopin – Etude in C-sharp minor, op.10 no.4
Chopin – Mazurka in A-flat major, op.59 no.2
Chopin – Mazurka in C-sharp minor, op.50 no.3
Chopin – Mazurka in F-sharp minor, op.59 no.3
Chopin – Nocturne in C sharp minor, op.27 no.1
Chopin – Scherzo no.4 in E major, op.54

I was a little perplexed by this recital. It opened with a superlative account of Bach’s E minor Partita, followed by an excellent Beethoven op.109. However, the all-Chopin second half (with the exception of a decidedly odd, throwaway Brahms intermezzo encore) proved somewhat mixed. It is not that Murray Perahia cannot play Chopin, for of course he can, yet he seemed keen, perhaps surprisingly so, to present a revisionist view, which did not always convince.

The Partita opened commandingly: no doubt that this was Bach for the Steinway, and rightly so. As Ernst Bloch wrote, when attacking Bach’s ‘vicars’ for wishing ‘to transform these incomparably lofty works into proper sexton’s music’, for us, ‘the harpsichord’s sharp, short sound fulfils not a single one of Bach’s requirements. … there can be no doubt that only our own pianos, the incomparable Steinways that were born for the modern Bach, clear, booming, edged with silver, have revealed how the master should now be played.’ Ornamentation was very much to the fore, or rather was revealed to be so much more than ornamentation; there was something almost of the French Baroque brought to Leipzig in this. Throughout the Toccata and indeed the whole of the work, continuity and the musical line were projected unfailingly, but shading was equally impressive: impossible, of course, on the harpsichord. When it came to the reprise of the Toccata’s opening material, everything had changed. The Allemande received powerful rhythmic characterization, always integrated into the greater whole, occasionally offering hints of late Beethoven. Perahia’s lightness of touch marked the Corrente, without ever sounding light of idea or effete. Syncopations told but were never exaggerated, likewise Bach’s complementary chromaticisms. A charm straight out of Rameau announced itself in the Air, but, this being Bach, the movement proved so much more than that. In mood and declamation, the Sarabande took us back to the gravity of the opening Toccata, with an intensity that yet surpassed that movement, looking forward to Brahms, Berg, and even, despite Perahia’s avowed lack of sympathy with twelve-note music, Schoenberg. A lighter mood, a sense of fun even, was present in the ensuing Tempo di Gavotta, though certainly not at the cost of delineating Bach’s contrapuntal and harmonic meaning. Finally, the grandeur and astonishing richness of the Gigue were fully realised in Perahia’s reading. Defiantly 'inauthenticke', there was here, for me at least, more than a hint of Furtwängler, whose Fifth Brandenburg Concerto recording remains utterly in a class of its own. This was a Bach performance such that I do not imagine I shall ever hear it bettered.

I had perhaps expected Perahia’s Beethoven to be more Classical in outlook than it proved. Beethoven’s flights of fancy in the first movement were given their full improvisatory quality – though, crucially, never at the cost of meaning. Just as in the Bach, there was no question of mere ornamentation. This movement and the following Prestissimo received a surprisingly Romantic, grand reading, the latter highly dramatic, if never quite let loose. Instead, Perahia offered a magnificently ‘constructed’ account, coherent even in, perhaps particularly in, its discontinuities. Gesangvoll, mit innigster Empfindung, Beethoven marks the final movement, and so it proved. The theme was granted beauty of tone and dignity, with not a hint of self-regard. Unending melody was a hallmark of the first variation, whilst Perahia displayed a Lisztian ability to make two hands sound as one in the opening figuration of the second. How close to Webern this sounds! Yet song was of course ever present too. Bachian lessons had clearly been learned in the fifth variation, but there was also considerably fury, albeit ultimately controlled. Sublimity of utterance should always characterize performance of the sixth; Perahia did not fail. He made no attempt to round Beethoven’s corners; instead, he unleashed a torrential, authentically Beethovenian flow of lava. And then, as in the Bach Toccata, the return to the beginning was nothing of the sort; if too much had happened in between, there was, however, the hope of consolation, a hope that is perhaps as much as modernity can offer.

The revisionist stance of much of Perahia’s Chopin was immediately announced in the opening of the Third Ballade. (I am sure his Sony recording sounds nothing like this.) Direct, with nothing of the dreamily ‘poetic’ to it, there was instead an almost Beethovenian purpose, perhaps born of Perahia’s study of Heinrich Schenker, perhaps of the programming. Nothing wrong with that, one might say, and indeed so should I. Harmonic motion was always the driving force in a quasi-symphonic account: intriguing and mostly convincing. Yet there was also announced here a tendency that would equally characterize much of what was to follow, an apparent impatience with what some might, by erring contrast with Bach and Beethoven, think of as ‘mere’ ornamentation. Chopin’s fioritura was not really given its due, as if it were but an Italianate embarrassment. (To Schenker, I suppose it would have had to be.) Octaves sounded as if they were an unwelcome concession to virtuosity rather than a tool of Romantic expression; indeed, given Perahia’s technique, I was truly surprised to hear them sound so brittle. The first of the Etudes was more yielding, though still far from traditional, and the fioritura sounded much the same, as if divested of meaning. Following that, the ‘Aeolian Harp’ study was despatched a little too effortlessly, but op.10 no.4, much to my surprise, evinced real ferocity; it seemed to suit Perahia’s mood better. His almost diabolical virtuosity put me in mind not of his beloved Alfred Cortot but of his friend Vladimir Horowitz: again, not at all what I should have expected.

The Mazurkas fared rather well, I thought. Op.59 no.2 was not a whispered confidence, nor was it wistfully nostalgic. It sang, however, with what I am tempted to think of as a ‘purely musical’ charm, and brought no condescension to its smaller scale. And what command of line! At last the poet spoke in op.50 no.3, though there was great strength to the alternating sections. Perahia clearly enjoyed the (relatively) grand scale of this C-sharp minor Mazurka. Op.59 no.3 combined muscularity with a yielding sometimes lacking in earlier works, though that apparent impatience with ‘decoration’ again could be heard.

By contrast, the C-sharp minor Nocturne was ‘poetic’ from the outset, its strangeness, its sense of alienation there for all to hear. Melody sang and twisted against a truly unsettled left hand. (It is anything but mere ‘accompaniment’.) A Neapolitan sixth sounded pathetic in the strong, true sense, Perahia showing that what might sound clichéd is often just badly performed – not here though. Emotional intensification, vehemence even, followed, without the hardening of tone noted earlier, an uncharacteristic finger slip towards the end showing that the pianist is only human. Finally, the fourth scherzo proved capricious without sounding arbitrary: there was a clear sense of purpose, looking both forward and back. Perahia relaxed a little for the middle section, and I wondered thereafter whether the performance was just a touch too good-natured, for Chopin’s scherzi have no humour to them. The final peroration brought a return to the grand style, impressive in itself, but did it quite fit with the performance as a whole?

I have doubtless been harsher upon Perahia’s Chopin, whilst extolling his Bach from the rooftops, than I should with a less experienced musician, for, as I have tried to show, there was much to praise even in the second half of the recital. But there is another way of looking at these performances. That so eminent a musician as Perahia - Alfred Brendel, no less, was in the audience - refuses to rest upon his laurels, insists upon re-examining such familiar repertoire, is undoubtedly a good thing. It will be interesting to follow his path in Chopin, even if it be more Bach that I ultimately yearn to hear.

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Deutsche Oper, 14 February 2010

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Hans Sachs – James Johnson
Veit Pogner – Kristinn Sigmundsson
Kunz Vogelgsang – Thomas Blondelle
Konrad Nachtigall – Simon Pauly
Sixtus Beckmesser – Markus Brück
Fritz Kothner – Stephen Bronk
Balthasar Zorn – Jörg Schörner
Ulrich Eißlinger – Peter Maus
Augustin Moser – Burkhard Ulrich
Hermann Ortel – Klaus Lang
Hans Schwarz – Jörn Schümann
Hans Foltz – Hyung-Wook Lee
Walther von Stolzing – Klaus Florian Vogt
David – Paul Kaufmann
Eva – Michaela Kaune
Magdalena – Ulrike Helzel
Night-watchman – Krzysztof Szumanski

Götz Friedrich (director)
Peter Sykora (stage designs)
Kirsten Dephoff and Peter Sykora (costumes)
Gerlinde Pelkowski (revival director)

Chorus and Supplementary Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Movement Chorus, Actors, Acrobats (choreography: Charlotte Butler and Carsten Meyer)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Donald Runnicles (conductor)

And so, my brief sojourn in Charlottenburg drew to a close with a performance of the greatest of all comedies. From the host of idiocies one hears repeated about Wagner, the claims of a lack of humour must be amongst most preposterous. Whilst I missed out on the new Rienzi, an intriguing-sounding Flying Dutchman, and of course the Ring, at least I could be reminded of just what a magnificent work of art The Mastersingers of Nuremberg is: most welcome, since I still shudder when considering the sheer directorial ineptitude of my most recent stage encounter with the work, when Katharina Wagner presented it at Bayreuth.

Götz Friedrich was a far wiser director and his 1993 production holds up pretty well almost seventeen years on. It will doubtless be well known to many readers from the DVD recording, but this was my first acquaintance. Nuremberg is recognisably Nuremberg, but the costumes suggest the nineteenth century: the time of composition, I suppose. A vision of old Nuremberg and, more, briefly of the devastation of its twentieth successor, may be glimpsed during the opening prelude, thus framing the production’s terms of reference. We can never quite forget – especially when a Star of David is seen on stage with the Mastersingers’ guild: same symbol, different meaning, but the possibility of consequences? (By the way, obsessive purveyors of anti-Semitic interpretations of Wagner may care to ask themselves why the composer chose to mention King David. It would hardly have been beyond him to have chosen a different symbol.) This set me thinking that, in some respects at least, a city such as Nuremberg might well have been recognisably the same city, at least during the earlier nineteenth century. The guilds were breaking down, but not broken. They had their defenders, from Hegel to Wagner. And they presented their own solutions to the ‘social question’, represented their own version of community to an increasingly disenchanted world of liberal ‘free competition’. Not the least of the consequences of the 1848-9 revolutions was the boost given to ‘free trade’ and onslaught on impediments thereto: such sops to the bourgeoisie kept them on side with the restored order, far preferable to the red threat, from Wagner and his ilk, they had glimpsed during the uprisings.

Lest this sound one-sided – and I should emphasise that the thoughts are largely mine, sparked by the production, but not necessarily to be ‘found’ therein – the humour of Friedrich’s staging should certainly be mentioned. To take one example, I have never before found the reappearance of the Nightwatchman amusing. Here, the haplessness of his arrival once the riot is over was just that. The Malvolio-like quality of Beckmesser was emphasised throughout; there may or may not be uncomfortable questions to ask here, but the brilliance of Wagner’s humour is too often overlooked. Other nice touches include Walther threatening physical violence when impertinently asked whether he is frei und ehrlich geboren. Would not any self-respecting Junker do the same? Schopenhauer, however, barely registers.

Prior commitments meant that Donald Runnicles, who has recently become Music Director of the Deutsche Oper, was unable to lead a new production during this Wagner festival. We found him in the pit, however, for Meistersinger. He encourages a good, indeed an excellent, sound from the orchestra – which, during my three performances, I found on as good form as I can recall, perhaps better. The Viennese glint on which I have remarked in earlier reviews remained very much a characteristic of the strings. Warm and full of sound, this was an orchestra fully worthy of expressing the sentiments of heil’ge deutsche Kunst. On the negative side, to be mentioned though not exaggerated, Runnicles could sometimes drive the music too hard, veering occasionally towards the metronomic, the very antithesis of Wagner’s ever-varying melos. Moreover, there were too many disjunctions between stage and pit. Perhaps there was limited rehearsal time, but the excellent chorus was too often left adrift. It is worth here, however, commending chorus master William Spaulding for his work with the chorus, which once but no longer seemed a poor relation to its counterpart at the Linden opera.

Fortunes were somewhat mixed on stage. James Johnson was a likeable Hans Sachs, who grew in character as the performance progressed. He could sometimes, however, be overwhelmed by the orchestra and lacked the degree of personality – think Sir John Tomlinson! – that makes a true Sachs. The real fly in the ointment, however, was Michaela Kaune’s Eva. Her voice lacks beauty, even steadiness, and simply sounds ‘wrong’, too mezzo-like, for the role. The radiant lyricism that should flow so freely from this evocation of the Goethian Ewig-Weibliche was nowhere to be heard. I had wondered whether a different production from Bayreuth (!) might set her off to better advantage – sadly not. Indeed, I found myself wishing that she would swap roles with Ulrike Helzel, an artist new to me but a quite outstanding Magdalena. Here was beauty of tone, and a character in whom one could believe as an object of David’s love. Davids tend to be winning – what a gift of a role it is! – but Paul Kaufmann’s refusal to be an exception should nevertheless be cited approvingly. Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Pogner sounded tired – he had sung King Henry the night before – and Stephen Bronk’s Kothner simply sounded old. However, Markus Brück’s Beckmesser was a joy. If Sir Thomas Allen remains my gold standard in this role, this was an excellent assumption of the part, fully alive to the Shakespearean humour I mentioned above, unwilling to descend into even the slightest suspicion of caricature.

And then – there was Klaus Florian Vogt. Regular readers will know of my esteem for his near-miraculous voice. I almost tire of praising him, but not quite. Once again, he displayed his instrument’s strange, yet wonderful mixture of lyric tenor quality with the power of the heroic tenor: an ideal combination. The Prize Song was so beautiful as to bring one to tears, almost as if Fritz Wunderlich had turned Heldentenor. How could anyone resist? Vogt can act, too, as I had to admit even at Bayreuth…

Lohengrin, Deutsche Oper, 13 February 2010

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

King Henry the Fowler – Kristinn Sigmundsson
Lohengrin – Ben Heppner
Elsa – Ricarda Merbeth
Friedrich von Telramund – Eike Wilm Schulte
Ortrud – Waltraud Meier
King’s Herald – Markus Brück
Brabantian Nobles – Gregory Warren, Thomas Blondelle, Nathen De’shon Myers, Ben Wager
Bridesmaids – Rosemarie Arzt, Constance Gärtner, Brigitte Höcht, Antje Obenaus, Gabriele Goebbels, Christa Werron, Brigitte Bergmann, Martina Metzler

Götz Friedrich (director)
Peter Sykora (designs)
Gerlinde Pelkowski (revival director)

Chorus and Supplementary Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Michael Schønwandt (conductor)

The late Götz Friedrich’s 1990 production of Lohengrin is by now quite venerable, but on this showing, it could have a few years in it yet. It certainly compared favourably with both the previous instalment from the Deutsche Oper’s Wagner-Wochen, Kirsten Harms’s Tannhäuser, and with Covent Garden’s recent Lohengrin exhumation. In a repertoire production such as this, one is unlikely to experience the theatrical thrills and challenges experienced in recent offerings from Stefan Herheim (truly outstanding, across the city at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden) or Peter Konwitschny (Leipzig). Nevertheless, one has a relatively straightforward, yet coherent telling of the story, attentive to the music as well as the words, and possessed of a clear sense of what works in the theatre. The sets and other designs perhaps veer towards the old-fashioned – fashions change so quickly – but there is no fetishisation, whether of costumes or stage directions. I was puzzled to hear some members of the audience complain of the lack of a swan; it was perfectly clear to me – and rather on the large side too. It would be better to retain Friedrich’s production for a while longer than to err by rushing into replacing it.

The emphasis, then, tended to fall upon the musical side of the performance – which, as a rule of thumb, is not so bad an idea. Michael Schønwandt conducted well, with a clear sense of musico-dramatic structure, and a fine command of the orchestra. As in Tannhäuser, the golden, almost Viennese glow of the strings impressed, whilst the brass packed quite a punch, especially when it came to the thrilling surround sound effect of the third act fanfares. There were occasions, especially during the first act, when relatively slow tempi, unobjectionable in themselves, could not quite be sustained with the requisite sense of line. (Semyon Bychkov at Covent Garden last year was exemplary, and probably slower, in this respect; but sage advice might have been not to try that at home.) On the whole, however, there was little with which to quibble, and much to savour. The chorus once again proved a major asset, especially as the performance went on. Occasional discrepancies between pit and stage were swiftly resolved.

What of the soloists? Let me get the major, if not unanticipated, disappointment out of the way. Ben Heppner has clearly been experiencing difficulties for some time. The first time I recall hearing him was on Wolfgang Sawallisch’s Munich recording of Die Meistersinger, which revealed a Heldentenor of considerable accomplishment: not the most thrilling in operatic history, perhaps, but with great sustaining power and, that rare thing in this repertoire, someone who could be depended upon to sing the part accurately and securely. Some time later, a Peter Grimes for the Royal Opera was all over the place intonationally. His recent Tristan (Covent Garden again) showed worrying signs of disrepair, and seems to have deteriorated as the production’s run proceeded. (I was fortunate to hear Lars Cleveman on my second visit.) I was nonetheless surprised by the weakness of his Lohengrin. It offered symmetry, in that his closing ‘Mein Lieber Schwan’ was just as wildly out of tune as its first act counterpart. But even when making the notes, he was too often unable to project his voice, at times resorting to crooning. It sounded to me as though he really ought to have withdrawn. The house might not have been able at such notice to secure the services of a Jonas Kaufmann or a Klaus Florian Vogt (the latter was in any case to sing Meistersinger the following evening), but there are other, less celebrated tenors who might have answered the call, such as Cleveman or Stefan Vinke, whose Leipzig rendition in December impressed me greatly.

There is no avoiding the fact that this left a hole at the centre of the performance. However, the other parts were much better taken, above all by Waltraud Meier, who was, astonishingly, making her house debut. Ortrud has always been one of her finest roles, the tessitura fitting her voice extremely well, and the dramatic demands bringing the best out of her on stage. She can hold an audience in the palm of her hand even when silent. So it proved here. The malevolence in Ortrud’s character – Wagner spoke with disgust of her as a ‘female politician’ – is offset by a clear sense of conviction in the justice of her cause. Moreover, there is, in Friedrich’s production, an interesting possible twist at the end; it is perhaps suggested that the new Führer, Gottfried, may have fallen under her spell. With Meier in the role, one should certainly not write off Ortrud. Ricarda Merbeth’s Elsa was certainly not in this class, though it had its moments. Whether it were the dictates of the production or her own conception, this Elsa seemed a less pure, more sexually aware character than is usually the case. I missed the pure beauty of tone of an artist such as Gundula Janowitz, but I can see that this interpretation, intonational difficulties aside, would have its followers. Try not to look too close though: the facial expressions are a trial, and bear no evident relationship to the drama. Kristinn Sigmundsson was generally a stentorian King Henry, though his vowels sometimes sounded a bit odd, in a fashion I have noticed a few times amongst Scandinavian and Icelandic singers. There were moments during the first act when I wondered whether Eike Wilm Schulte’s Telramund would falter. It is a difficult role to bring off: to portray insecurity, leavened by Ortrud’s Lady Macbeth-like determination, without simply seeming like a weak singer. Schulte, however, presented an eminently credible portrayal, commendably attentive to music and text. I find it difficult at the best of times not to sympathise with this pair; on the present occasion, there was no contest. Perhaps, though, that bias has been present in the music all along.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

Tannhäuser, Deutsche Oper, 12 February 2010

Deutsche Oper, Berlin

Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Reinhard Hagen
Tannhäuser – Stephen Gould
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Dietrich Henschel
Walther von der Vogelweide – Clemens Bieber
Biterolf – Lenus Carlson
Heinrich der Schreiber – Jörg Schörner
Reimar von Zweter – Jörn Schümann
Venus/Elisabeth – Nadja Michael
Shepherd – Martina Welschenbach
Tannhäuser double in the overture – Stefan Siedler

Kirsten Harms (director)
Bernd Damovsky (designs)
Inga Timm (assistant costume design)
Silvana Schröder (choreography)

Chorus and Supplementary Chorus of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (chorus master: William Spaulding)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin
Ulf Schirmer (conductor)

Of the ‘canonical’ Wagner Romantic operas and music dramas, that is from The Flying Dutchman onwards, Tannhäuser must surely be the least fashionable. It certainly seems to be the least performed. I had only seen it in the theatre once before, the very same theatre as it happens, though in the Deutsche Oper’s previous production, by Götz Friedrich. How then, did the present performance, from the first revival of Intendant Kirsten Harms’s 2008 production, compare? On balance, favourably in musical terms, less so when it comes to the staging.

I am afraid I found Harms’s direction as confusing as I had in December’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. Both that work and Tannhäuser need a degree of directorial assistance. To clarify or to problematise would seem the two obvious paths from which to choose. Here, it was difficult to detect a unifying idea beyond the refusal to opt for the either/or principle, of which Harms speaks in a programme interview. It seems to me that either this was not pushed hard enough, to go beyond portraying Venus and Elisabeth as ultimately one and the same, or it was insufficient as a Konzept; to go beyond that dichotomy of my own, I might add that the two are not mutually exclusive. So if Elisabeth is ‘revealed’ as Venus – this ‘revelation’ seems especially weak, since it is creakingly apparent all along – then where does that leave Tannhäuser? If the choice between Wartburg and Venusberg were a false one, then perhaps his fate might be considered tragic, yet it did not seem so here. Is he thereby redeemed? Perhaps, but again it is difficult to discern that from the staging. Venus/Elisabeth seems to move centre stage, but is that merely to evade the issue? (In fairness, it arguably makes Elisabeth a more interesting character.)

Moreover, there is no cumulative element to the settings and designs; we simply move from one setting to another: sometimes with a certain mediævalism, which does not seem to be ironised, sometimes not. Stage mechanics are displayed at the act openings, but it is difficult to discern any attempt thereby to frame, to ‘deconstruct’, or to alienate. I have no idea at all why the pilgrims of the first act appear in Hell, mediæval monsters and all, a setting which is difficult to relate to the rest of what we see. A mediæval musicologist friend informed me that a good number of the heraldic costumes for the second act are copied from the Codex Manesse – Walther von der Vogelweide appears in that manuscript himself, I might add – yet, whilst the effect is undeniably colourful, I can discern no dramatic point beyond a further blurring of time and location, a blurring whose point is in turn unclear. Likewise, the point of airborne suspension and gradual, albeit interrupted assumption of suits of armour eluded me. Finding the third-act Elisabeth as a Florence Nightingale character, tending the sick in modern hospital beds, refers of course to the deeds for which the historical figure was canonised, but the connection with the rest of the production, or indeed with the work, remained obscure, at least to me. I can see a good case for highlighting a tension between the Middle Ages, Wagner’s time, and our own, but the decisions here seem merely arbitrary – if a critique of Wagner’s dramaturgy at this time, then it needs to be made clear, and I do not think that it was – and sadly lacking in dramatic tension.

Ulf Schirmer, however, delivered an eminently dependable account of the score. There were no especial revelations – and he was hamstrung by the decision, whoever made it, of performing the Dresden version – but it is no mean achievement to hold Wagner’s structures together and to delineate them so clearly. Moreover, the playing elicited from the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper was often of a very high quality indeed. I was especially taken by the golden glow from the strings – more Vienna than Berlin, I thought – and by the purity of the woodwind, especially during the faux-archaisms, conjuring up, quite appropriately, a nineteenth-century world of ‘early music’.

An initial casting disappointment was that Stefan Siedler, the unusually credible ‘Tannhäuser double’ from the overture –incidentally, is it not a bit of an odd Bacchanale that does not include other men? – turned out to be just that, or rather not that at all. Just when one had thought that one might be able to believe in the stage presence of the central character, he was replaced by an artist of rather more ‘traditional’ build and countenance: a bit like Brad Pitt acting as a ‘double’ for me. Anyway, Stephen Gould did a very good job vocally as Tannhäuser. He could sing the role, which far from goes without saying in the Heldentenor world; he could shape his phrases; there was no appreciable tiring. Nadja Michael, perhaps unsurprisingly, proved a variable Venus/Elisabeth. At her best, she provided just the dramatic credibility often lacking elsewhere. Presence and commitment were very much in evidence. There was too much wayward vocalism, however, to be able to ignore the flaws; some passages from the Venusberg were at best approximate in their tuning. Rather to my surprise, her Elisabeth was probably, on the whole, more successful than her Venus. It is not clear to me that, the production notwithstanding, it is really possible for one singer to do justice to both roles, but that is not Michael’s fault. Dietrich Henschel provided a Lieder-singer’s attention to detail as Wolfram, but his tone sometimes turned dry; I could not help but think that Fischer-Dieskau would have purveyed this sort of interpretation more successfully. I thought it a pity not to have a boy’s voice for the Shepherd, but Martina Welschenbach certainly sang the part well. The chorus, under William Spaulding’s direction, was most impressive throughout, providing both weight and clarity.

But why the Dresden version? Was this the director’s decision or the conductor’s, I wonder? Or should I stop posing either/or questions? I know that many, Christian Thielemann included, claim its virtue to be coherence, yet Tannhäuser remains problematical. Wagner famously told Cosima that he still owed the world a Tannhäuser, and if anything, what Carl Dahlhaus identified, in Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas, as the works’ ‘abruptness …, lack of mediation … [and] casualness of motivation,’ is greater in the earlier version, since the later, often Tristan-esque music permits instead the case of Wagner’s music criticising itself, a dramatisation of the Elisabeth-Venus conflict in musical terms. I am certainly not saying that the Dresden version should never be performed, but so much is lost when one forgoes Wagner’s Paris additions: musically and in terms of the history of the work – with, it seems to me, little gained beyond fulfilling an interest in first thoughts. I have heard it responded that we should be quite happy with the Dresden version, had Wagner not made his revisions for Paris, but that is no response at all; one might as well say the same of Leonore and Fidelio, though the situations are different. At any rate, my lament is more a comment concerning current fashions than upon this production in particular. Would someone, somewhere kindly permit us to hear the Paris Tannhäuser?

Sunday 14 February 2010

The Gambler, Royal Opera, 11 February 2010

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

(sung in English translation)

General – Sir John Tomlinson
Polina – Angela Denoke
Alexey Ivanovitch – Roberto Saccà
Babulenka – Susan Bickley
Marquis – Kurt Streit
Blanche – Jurgita Adamonytė
Mr Astley – Mark Stone
Prince Nilski – John Easterlin
Baron Würmerhelm – Jeremy White
Baroness Würmerheim – Emma Bernard
Potapytsch – Dawid Kimberg
Casino Director – Graeme Danby
First Croupier – Hubert Francis
Second Croupier – Robert Anthony Gardiner
Gaudy Lady – Simona Mihai
Pale Lady – Elisabeth Meister
Dubious Old Lady – Elisabeth Sikora
Lady Comme Ci, Comme Ça – Carol Rowlands
Venerable Lady – Kai Rüütel
Rash Gambler – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Hypochondriac Gambler – Steven Ebel
Hunchback Gambler – Alasdair Elliott
Aged Gambler – John Cunningham
Six Gamblers – Luke Price, Andrew O’Connor, John Bernays, Jonathan Coad, Olle Zetterström, Michael Lessiter
Fat Englisman – David Woloszko
Tall Englishman – Lukas Jakobski

Richard Jones (director)
Antony McDonald (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costume designs)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Sarah Fahie (movement)

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

The Royal Opera’s new production of The Gambler seems to me close to an unqualified success. This is the company’s first production of what is, save for juvenilia, Prokofiev’s first opera: sadly, not an unusual state of affairs, since it was only a couple of years previously that I had seen the Berlin premiere under Daniel Barenboim, in a fine production by Dmitri Tcherniakov. Only produced once during the composer’s lifetime, there is certainly no good reason to shun Prokofiev’s Dostoyevsky opera now, for it is one of his strongest stage works, as Richard Jones, Antonio Pappano, and an excellent cast demonstrated.

The action is updated to what resembles the inter-war period, so the time of the 1929 Brussels premiere, though I suppose it could be the time of composition, during the previous decade. One might, if one were so minded, question how credible that makes some details of the plot but it works well and looks good taken in itself, and the work is not in any especially meaningful sense tied to a particular period. Antony Macdonald’s designs splendidly evoke the cosmopolitan but empty world of Roulettenbourg’s hotel, whilst Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes permit the eye to assist the ear in the delineation of what can sometimes be rather fleeting characterisation, minor characters coming and going in Prokofiev’s finely observed vignettes. One of Jones’s extra touches is to set the first act in an adjoining zoo, rather than a park. Ideas of animal behaviour and of caging – and a wonderful turn for a performing seal (not real!) – nicely sets up the world we shall explore more fully. Likewise the framing device of the CASINO sign in front of the curtain at the beginning of each of the four acts. Given the recent wrecking acts of what some people curiously term the ‘financial services industry,’ these ideas could hardly be more topical, yet temptation to agitprop, should Jones indeed have felt any, is firmly resisted.

The musical pacing was sometimes just a little fitful during the first two acts. I do not wish to exaggerate, but there were occasions when Prokofiev’s motor rhythms seemed to follow the singers, rather than drive them as they should. There was no such problem following the interval: perhaps partly a consequence of the composer’s ratcheting up the tension, but also a sign that Pappano felt more able to reconcile his colouristic revelations with that increased rhythmic drive so necessary to the depiction of intensified gambling addiction. The more the orchestra was given its head, the better, and the players were certainly on excellent form, revelling in Prokofiev’s virtuosic scoring. For its brief appearance, the chorus was on equally excellent form.

Roberto Saccà captured the difficult balance between Alexey’s weakness of character and his increasing determination. Character progression was also finely observed in Angela Denoke’s Polina, a rounded and, by the end, moving portrayal. Sir John Tomlinson’s inimitable way was well suited to the General; whatever his flaws, one could not help but sympathise. Jurgita Adamonytė and Kurt Streit captured the rootless world of the international demi-monde in their Blanche and Marquis, without resorting to the seductive prospect of the mere stock character. It was, perhaps unsusprisingly, Susan Bickley’s Babulenka who stole the show: a consequence of the role, doubtless, but also of this wonderful artist’s musico-dramatic skills and commitment. Stefania Toczyska had made an equally commanding impression in Berlin; when Babulenka arrives, the clock should stop, as it did on both of those occasions. She sees through the ghastly array of hangers-on and ensures with style that the General will not inherit a sou, whilst movingly evoking the Mother Russia to which she returns. Other characters come and go – this is not a criticism, but an observation of how the opera works – but special mention might go to Mark Stone’s enigmatic Mr Astley, a lynchpin and yet not, and Carol Rowlands’s telling Lady Comme Ci, Comme Ça: concerned or detached, who knows?

My sole cavil relates to the decision to perform the work in English: very much the director’s decision, according to Tomlinson, in the interview he gave me a few days earlier. I can see the arguments in favour, not least the speed of conversation. And I am sure that Tomlinson is right to observe that the Russian language does not have time to colour the music in the way that it does, say, in Mussorgsky. But the sound of the words is very different and nothing can quite compensate for that, even for a non-Russian speaker such as myself. Though diction was generally very good and in some cases, such as Tomlinson’s utterly beyond reproach, one inevitably must consult the surtitles from time and time, in which case one might as well have the sound of the original. In addition, the titles did not always keep pace with the delivery of the words: a little confusing. Nevertheless, this was in most respects a fine achievement, for which three cheers should go to the Royal Opera.

Monday 8 February 2010

Interview with Sir John Tomlinson, Royal Opera House, 8 February 2010

Fresh from a morning rehearsal of Prokofiev’s The Gambler, playing the part of the General, and an interview with the BBC, Sir John Tomlinson kindly took time out to speak to me in his Covent Garden dressing room about The Gambler and other aspects of his career. Almost universally considered the greatest Wotan of his generation, it was perhaps inevitable and certainly welcome that the conversation would turn to Wagner, taking in Bluebeard and Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau along the way. I began by saying how delighted I was that The Gambler, Prokofiev’s first completed opera, save for some juvenilia, was coming to the Royal Opera House, the only other time I had seen it being in Berlin a couple of years ago.

JT: Oh yes, under Barenboim.

MB: That’s right, with an almost exclusively Russian cast.

JT: And in Russian, of course.

MB: So I imagine it will sound quite different on this occasion.

JT: Yes, they made a decision to sing it in English this time, because it’s a very wordy piece. It’s a work that is very conversational, with lots of text, and they think it’s important that everyone on stage and in the audience understands every word that’s being said, in the interests of being good theatre. Richard Jones [the director] was, I think, the man who wanted it in English. So it seems to be going pretty well, and you get more of a theatrical feeling this way in the vernacular.

MB: And particularly with a cast that is largely non-Russian, I can imagine that this might help their communication to the audience.

JT: Yes. I’ve actually sung a lot in Russian: Boris Godunov, Pimen, and Khovanshchina. But for this piece, I think there’s a very good case for doing it in the vernacular, because it’s a very fast-moving piece with all these motor rhythms [cue a brief vocal demonstration]. And the Russian language really comes into its own when you have those great sustained passages [cue a brief excerpt from Boris].

MB: Yes, you need to hear it in those works in which almost every other words is Slava [Glory], the Boris Coronation Scene and so on. If you didn’t know what the word meant before, you soon would…

JT: Whereas here, I don’t think the language has time to colour the piece, in a way.

MB: And at this time, Prokofiev’s style is to a certain extent more cosmopolitan.

JT: Well, I’m actually quite surprised by the amount of Russianness in the score: a very impressive score, the orchestration, for example.

MB: Yes, it can be quite stunning; it makes me think of the early piano concertos.

JT: Very virtuoso, almost depicting a gambling addiction. There is incredible energy…

MB: … which can’t really be done slowly.

JT: There’s gambling, there’s love – obsessive love relationships – and high-flying society, spending all the money.

MB: And just thinking about Prokofiev’s style at this time, the vocal writing is very declamatory, isn’t it? That was certainly his stated aim. Does that then present any issues, given that you are performing it in translation, or does English actually lend itself quite well to this?

JT: Yes, I think it works well. And of course, it was first done in French. I never have actually sung this piece in Russian. I did it twenty-seven years ago at the Coliseum, for ENO, in English, in a David Pountney production. And so, whilst I’ve done the opera before, it’s a reasonably long time ago.

MB: Yes, a decent break. I was reading beforehand what Prokofiev had to say when he was writing the music, when it was first going to be performed for the abortive Mariinsky premiere, interrupted by the Revolution, amongst other things, and he is very contemptuous of pretty much every aspect of operatic convention. What he perhaps sends up in The Love for Three Oranges he seems to want to fight against here. Does that come across in the work?

JT: Well, yes, it’s a very theatrical work: there’s no grand opera in it at all. There’s no aria or anything approaching an aria.

MB: You couldn’t really have a disc of highlights. In fact, his Four Portraits and Denouement from the work had to be assembled in an odd way: ripping up pages from the score and ‘dealing’ them, since there were no numbers to extract conventionally.

JT: No, I don’t think you could take excerpts. My big scene is like a mad scene really, without the flute obbligato [as in Lucia di Lammermoor]…

MB: ... or the glass harmonica, as seems to be the new big thing.

JT: That’s right. But you need a lot of voice for this, it’s a bit role in that sense; it’s a big score, with a lot of decibels. So you need a voice with a lot of muscle in it. And you need very clear words and very pure vowel sounds. You need energy too: vocal energy, vocal muscle. It’s written for quite a big part; it’s not a walk in the park.

MB: And it’s a huge cast too.

JT: Well, there’s only really actually half a dozen main characters, but then there’s a million smaller parts.

MB: Having looked down the cast list, they all seem to be taken by different people too, which must make putting the opera on pretty expensive.

JT: It probably does.

MB: It’s certainly not often staged, is it?

JT: It’s a very good piece too. Written by Prokofiev and based on this great book by Dostoyevsky. But it’s an odd piece, a bit of an oddball; it’s unique.

MB: It doesn’t really fit into any of our ready-made opera categories.

JT: There’s something of Pelléas et Mélisande, sometimes, that I hear, and also of course some Russian music, Mussorgsky and so on.

MB: Unavoidable.

JT: And I also hear some Bartók, some of Bluebeard’s Castle.

MB: Which you’ve sung quite often?

JT: Many times, yes.

MB: In Hungarian and in English.

JT: In Hungarian, yes. Oh, and of course, I did do a recording in English. I’ve done more recordings of Bluebeard than any other piece. One with the Berlin Philharmonic and Bernard Haitink, one with [the] Munich [Philharmonic] and James Levine, one for Chandos in English, basically the Opera North set-up, and another from the Proms, with [Jukka-Pekka] Saraste conducting. It’s such a wonderful piece. And I think one of the reasons it’s recorded so much is because it lasts about the length of a CD.

MB: And also, it seems to me, it loses so little by being recorded, by being listened to at home. If anything, the imagination is better at producing it than anything one could hope to materialise on stage. The opening of those doors is almost bound to be a disappointment in the theatre, unless one tries something extremely inventive, not at all obvious.

JT: It’s almost not a real opera; it’s half-way there, a bit like La Damnation de Faust. Whereas this [The Gambler] needs the theatre.

MB: Just to realise what’s going on; it all happens so quickly.

JT: It needs a great director.

MB: And actually, although this is a wholly different piece, though written not so long before, the situation is not wholly unlike that of Rosenkavalier. I remember when, as a teenager, I first listened to the work on CD, I thought it wonderful, but I didn’t really have a sense of what it might be like in the theatre; for one thing, the dialogue passes so quickly. I needed to see it in the theatre before I could really appreciate Karajan and Schwarzkopf.

JT: Yes, I can understand that. Some friends who listened today have likened the General to Baron Ochs. It’s similar, I suppose, in one sense that Ochs is the one character in my normal repertoire – you know, Wotan, Gurnemanz, Hagen – which is not huge in dramatic terms. Ochs is a wonderful acting part.

MB: I saw you in Munich in the role, a couple of years ago [see here].

JT: With Felicity Lott, possibly, was it?

MB: I don’t think it was [racking brains]. Oh yes, I remember, it was Angela Denoke, whom I saw a few minutes before coming in here. She’s playing Polina, isn’t she?

JT: Yes, she is. I think it might well have been her in Munich.

MB: And, of course, in that venerable Otto Schenk production, the one Carlos Kleiber conducted.

JT: With Jürgen Rose’s designs. So in a way, it’s the same sort of character to play, the same sort of world as Ochs’s, I suppose. But it’s different, too. Ochs loves life; he loves women; he loves having lots of women. The General is besotted with Blanche; he loves Blanche; he adores her. And he’s not a multiple ladies’ man. He’s been married a couple of times and is now completely enamoured of Blanche. And that’s what makes him go mad in the end: the lack of money. He loses all of his money. Blanche then goes on to the next rich man; she very much latches on to him.

MB: Really the demi-mondaine.

JT: Yes, as is the Marquis, who’s lending all the money. And my credit-worthiness depends upon the fact that my mother-in-law is going to die any minute. There’s a comedy element there.

MB: It’s actually a similar world to that of Lulu, particularly the beginning of the third act, with the buying and selling of Jungfrau shares.

JT: And, just to return to Rosenkavalier, there’s the similarity in terms of money. The whole story for Ochs is based on him marrying Sophie, so that he gets lots of money. He needs the money so that he can save Lerchenau, which is mortgaged up to the hilt. So there is that. And also, in the end, Ochs is undone and he’s sent packing. In this, the General’s world falls apart, so there is a similarity there.

MB: In a way, whenever the works are set, this seems a world that comes into its own very much in the twentieth century.

JT: And now, too. It’s wonderful: they’ve changed one world from Rothschild to Goldman Sachs. It’s incredibly topical: banking.
MB: We can’t open a newspaper at the moment without coming across the phrase, ‘casino capitalism’, and here this is, set in a casino.

JT: Another thing, just while I think of it: the animals in the production, this Richard Jones production. The first scene, instead of being in a park, is in a zoo, attached to the hotel. So you have the hotel, and part of the complex, a ‘leisure complex’, you have the zoo too. In a way, there’s an analogy between the people and the animals – and a lot of people are wearing furs. And there are the gamblers: the bear market and the bull market. There’s a strong connection between the behaviour of the animals and the behaviour of the people.

MB: And perhaps a sense that everyone is caged in some way by the dictates of capital?

JT: Yes, exactly, so it’s quite an interesting set up.

MB: And a very witty director.

JT: He’s a wonderful director. We’ve rehearsed for weeks – this is a seven-week rehearsal period – and it’s all been so detailed, even to the level of every brushstroke on the floor at the hotel: it’s almost choreographed. Not too much, not too little; not so much as to upstage anyone, but even so… Great concentration, this requires: it takes a long time.

MB: And you sang in his Ring here, of course.

JT: I did. I had a wonderful time. Of course, it was very controversial.

MB: I wonder whether it would be now. My suspicion is that it would be much less so now, because what audiences are used to has changed enormously over that time.

JT: But then, even in the ’90s, audiences were used to a lot of adventurous things, but perhaps it came a decade too early. If he did it now, who knows?

MB: I was an undergraduate at the time, and I remember coming down to London just for Götterdämmerung; it was actually the first time I had come to Covent Garden. And I thought it was amazing.

JT: Ah, you saw Brünnhilde with a paper bag over her head.

MB: Yes, a very powerful image. And yet I had seen it mocked by press critics, who seemed so extraordinarily reactionary and literalist in their attitudes – not all of them, but quite a few. I thought it was a very powerful way of registering the terrible shame she feels in the second act.

JT: People get really hung up on this business of updating productions. You know, there are good productions and bad productions. There’s good updating and bad updating. There’s good conventional and bad conventional. Perhaps there’s nothing worse than a bad conventional production, which is somehow nothing.

MB: The Zeffirelli sort of thing at the Met, where ‘patrons’ applaud the scenery.

JT: Yes. But this is an updated production and it’s a wonderful production. When I do these fundraising talks – we had one last week – there are always questions about: how do you get on with ‘modern productions’? People have really got a thing about that.

MB: A strange idea, that there is some thing, in inverted commas, called a ‘modern production’.

JT: And they’re not the same. Of course you get bad modern productions, but you get wonderful ones.

MB: And so much, it seems to me, depends on the sense of theatre a director has. He can bend the work to his will, he can penetrate to its heart, he can almost do what he likes, if he has a sense of theatre – and, of course, a sense of music, which, sadly, happens less often. Then he can make it work.

JT: A great director is worth his weight in gold – like a great conductor.

MB: Speaking of which, in the Ring, you had Haitink.

JT: Yes. But there were a lot of problems there too. Haitink and Jones didn’t see eye to eye. Bernard basically closed his eyes and conducted gorgeously. But here, Pappano and Jones are very much of one mind.

MB: They’ve worked together quite often, haven’t they?

JT: Yes, in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, for instance, when I played a particularly gruesome character, eating those mushrooms with rat poison.

MB: And Shostakovich, of course, is very different from Prokofiev, isn’t he? Quite different temperaments.

JT: Yes, same country, but quite different. And when was that written? It was written after this, wasn’t it?

MB: Yes, the 1930s, the height of Stalin’s terror. There was the terrible Pravda editorial after Stalin attended the premiere.

JT: I don’t think he liked the scene with the rat poisoning, as a dictator.

MB: Looking over his shoulder and paranoid to begin with… Just to go back to the Ring, I saw Götterdämmerung here, and then went to the whole cycle at the Albert Hall, which was my first time for a cycle. I was utterly bowled over.

JT: A lot of people were bowled over. All these theatrical awards I won were from a performance not in the theatre.

MB: There’s a wonderful irony to that.

JT: Yes. I won the Evening Standard award, the Royal Philharmonic Society award, various others: all for a performance that was not in the theatre. But of course, it was sort of staged – and, at its best, that can be more intensely theatrical. It can be.

MB: Partly, I suppose, because there’s less to watch: no scenery certainly. So gesture, in a way as Wagner had hoped, becomes so much more telling.

JT: It becomes incredibly crystallised, incredibly economic.

MB: Another thing I remember, though perhaps now it is a side issue, is the end: what was so terribly moving was Haitink then speaking directly to the audience and asking for help. I fired off my letter to the Secretary of State the following morning, not that I imagine it made the slightest bit of difference.

JT: This place was in the doldrums.

MB: Nobody knew what was going to happen, whether it would survive – and there was this truly great musical performance.

JT: It was terribly worrying. One forgets.

MB: And it’s not that long ago.

JT: No, ten years.

MB: But presumably, it must feel like a completely different world.

JT: It does. Yes, as soon as the new place opened, within a couple of years, we were onto a different momentum altogether. But I think Jeremy Isaacs is treated a bit unfairly here. It was an incredibly difficult situation. They had to close, for safety reasons. Where was the money going to come from? How do you raise the money? Planning permission: the local Covent Garden community were up in arms about this development; they were protesting on the street. It was a really difficult situation. Money was such a problem.

MB: And giving money to the Royal Opera House is unlikely ever to be a popular cause, especially given the tabloid press here, and of course a New Labour government.

JT: But they succeeded in getting all that money – and look at this development [pointing out of the window]. It’s just perfect: a real home for the company. Always we seem to come back to Wagner though. Of course, Wagner is a magnificent composer: the music is incredible. Whatever other music I do, coming back to Wagner is like coming home. And I think it suits what in particular I’ve got to give: my voice, probably the way my mind works as well. I think it all fits very well with the North European mythology, the way the whole thing is psychologically constructed. It all feels like a completely natural expression of the human condition in a way.

MB: Never more so than in the character of Wotan, but in the Ring as a whole. Every time I return to it, I find so much more than I had found before. It never ends – unlike the gods. So compared to that, Gurnemanz must seem like a bit of a break for you.

JT: In a way. The thing about him is that he’s a narrator.

MB: He doesn’t actually do anything.

JT: The story would take place without him.

MB: I suppose we wouldn’t really know what the story was, but it would take place.

JT: Exactly, whereas Wotan is absolutely the centre. It’s about Wotan from start to finish. When he loses his eye drinking at the Well of Wisdom, when he makes the spear from the World-Ash Tree: that’s the beginning of the story. And the end, the World-Ash, Valhalla burn: that’s the end of the gods.

MB: And in a way, he’s never more present than in Götterdämmerung. You hear him all the time in the music, even though he is never on stage.

JT: He’s there, just waiting in Valhalla. And everybody talks about him. The Norns talk about him; the Norns talk about the end of the gods. They talk about Wotan at the beginning, the beginning of Wotan, and the end that is to come. Then Waltraute comes on and talks about him, thinking with a smile of Brünnhilde. And at the very end, when the ring goes back to the Rhine, due to what Brünnhilde does, perhaps that smile will come again: a smile of acceptance, of love. It’s his dying moment.
MB: And there is the moment in the Immolation Scene when she seems to come to terms with him, singing ‘Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott’: a benediction, in which she puts the god to rest: a coming to terms from the two of them.

JT: It is. Just about…

MB: There’s the element of doubt, too: has she rid herself of her anger?

JT: She just about understands the predicament that he was in.

MB: She says that she’s not wise, but she sort of understands… Have you ever, then, been in a production in which what Wagner wanted to happen actually does, when one sees the gods in Valhalla as it burns? I’m sure I have never seen that on stage: not that one necessarily should, but I can imagine it could have quite an effect, a cyclical effect even.

JT: No, I haven’t: not the gods, but Valhalla. Though in the [Harry] Kupfer production [at Bayreuth, available on DVD], Wotan comes back in the Funeral March, throwing the spear back into the hole. Now purists object to that, because one of the Norns says that, to create the fire that consumes Valhalla at the end, Wotan plunges the spear into Loge’s breast. But, you know, that’s neither here nor there really: it’s powerful theatre.

MB: Which is what really matters, whilst others miss the forest for the sake of a spear from a single tree.

The Gambler opens on Thursday 11 February at 7.30pm and runs until February 25th. Ticket prices are especially enticing, with even the most expensive seats costing only £50. Further details are available from The Royal Opera's Box Office (Telephone: 020 7304 4000) or online here.

Sunday 7 February 2010

Kožená/Schiff - Janáček, Dvořák, Mussorgsky, and Bartók, 6 February 2010

Wigmore Hall

Janáček – Selection from Moravian Folk Poetry in Songs
Janáček – In the Mists
Dvořák – Biblical Songs, op.99
Mussorgsky – The Nursery
Bartók – Village Scenes

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
András Schiff (piano)

The diacriticals are out in force, making this not the easiest of reviews to type on an English keyboard – but what a minor inconvenience from so welcome a change. The Wigmore Hall’s programme is jam-packed with Schubert and Schumann songs, as are other halls’ schedules, yet how often are we treated to performances of songs by Janáček, Dvořák, Mussorgsky, and Bartók? The problem is in good part linguistic. Nevertheless, matters are rather different in the world of opera, so why not in the recital hall? The milieux and repertories do not call upon identical strengths. An estimable opera singer may or may not be equally gifted as a recitalist – I nearly said Lieder artist – and vice versa.

It would be good, then, to hear a wider range of singers tackle such repertoire, yet, on this occasion, there could be no gainsaying the authority of Magdalena Kožená’s contribution. In Janáček’s Moravian folksong settings, one heard the sadness and joy in life, two sides of the same coin: true humanity, both profound and commonplace. Through Love, Promise, Uneasy, Carnation, Tears of Comfort, and Musicians – there seems little point in employing the original language titles on this occasion – she never aestheticised the music, nor did she attempt to sound like a ‘real’ folk-singer. András Schiff’s playing was perhaps surprisingly muscular, though the insistence of his part permitted one to hear the composer’s suggestions of other instruments in his writing.

Schiff’s contribution became more problematical in the solo set of four pieces, In the Mists. It was a strange mix: sometimes a parodically rigid, heavy-handed near-Teutonism, sometimes playing of impressionistic delicacy. Janáček’s twists and turns were loving traced in the opening Andante, but the intriguing echoes of Chopin in the second movement were marred by soon being hammered out. I had expected to hear Schiff more in sympathy with Janáček's style than proved to be the case.

The rest of the first part was devoted to Dvořák’s ten Biblical Songs. I fear I found this too much of a not-so-good thing. This had nothing to do with the performances, but in these settings, Dvořák’s voice does not seem to me at its strongest, a suspicion confirmed by the contrast with the performers’ first encore, a deeply-felt Songs my Mother Taught Me. Here, much, though not all, tends towards the anodyne or insipid; Brahms’s Four Serious Songs these are not. Nevertheless, Kožená sounded committed, from the splendidly declamatory opening of Clouds and Darkness are Around About Him onwards. Schiff in general made the most of piano parts, which sometimes too openly aspire towards the orchestral, though a little more Lisztian Romanticism would have benefited Hear my Prayer, O Lord my God! (Schiff has spoken more than once of his contempt for Liszt, unusual for a Hungarian, though no more creditable for that.) Delicacy was better served than abandon. Kožená, however, proved winningly operatic in her projection. I liked the pastoral quality both artists imparted to God is my Shepherd. And the conviction Kožená brought to the final line of Turn Thee to me and Have Mercy – ‘Nebot’ v Tebe doufám’ (‘… for my hope is in Thee’) was unmistakeable.

With Mussorgsky’s cycle, The Nursery (or Detskaya), we were in very different territory, the voice of the composer immediately apparent. Kožená was very much in her element here, vividly characterising, both vocally and visually. (More puritanical Lieder-devotees might well have disapproved, but these are not Lieder.) She seems to have a particular connection to the world of children’s imagination, having shone in a similar way during a Berlin performance of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. In the Corner showed how readily she could switch ‘character’, very much the old crone and equally much the insolent child, whilst The Beetle left one in no doubt how much apparently little things can matter to a child. With the Doll proved a compelling lullaby, Schiff etching the rhythm unerringly, permitting Kožená to weave her magic above. Nanny’s love for the little monster of the nursery came through in Hobby-horse Rider, as did Schiff’s delineation of the accompaniment’s ‘character’. This was a fine account.

Finally, we returned to folksong, for Bartók’s setting of Slovak songs, Village Scenes. Once again, and even though the melodies are not his, the composer’s voice was unmistakeable from the opening. Schiff truly revelled in Bartók’s extraordinary piano writing, not least the harmonies. The way he shaded into nothingness at the end of At the Bride’s was an object lesson. Kožená’s wild peasant cry in Wedding was quite something, subtly taken up in the piano part thereafter. Lullaby was, rightly, mysterious and troubling: what might sleep bring? Yet with such a compelling narrator, sleep must nevertheless win out. Once again, Schiff imparted just the right character to the final Lads’ Dance, a strong rhythmic profile ensuring that both artists’ contribution would culminate in the requisite frenetic abandon.

Wednesday 3 February 2010

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Beethoven and Schoenberg (4), 2 February 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor, op.37
Schoenberg – Variations for Orchestra, op.31

Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor)
Staatskapelle Berlin

And so, the final concert, a fitting climax, and a greater tribute, I think, to Schoenberg than to Beethoven, which may have been Daniel Barenboim’s intention all along. Not that his account of the third piano concerto was not excellent, perhaps even, dare I say it, great, for it was. Barenboim employed the string forces he had for the fourth and fifth concertos, starting with twelve first violins and shading down to four double basses: a respectable but far from enormous band, with plenty of body but considerably short of, say, Furtwängler’s practice. Where Furtwängler was immediately apparent, and this was perhaps more so than in any of the preceding concertos, was in the opening combination of urgency and foreboding, doubtless in part a product of the tonality – Beethoven’s C minor daemon asserting itself – but not only that. Barenboim’s command of the long line was very much in Furtwängler’s tradition too: the master’s Fernhören (long-range hearing) not aped but truly practised. The large, arguably too large, scale of the first movement ‘exposition’ – the problem is perhaps that Beethoven has yet quite to reconcile his symphonic ambition with concerto form – was exploited for full dramatic effect: no need to apologise. And where Barenboim has never feared to employ broad brushstrokes, here he carefully but not at all fussily shaded both orchestra and piano. The cadenza was painted upon a grand, truly nineteenth-century canvas. If only the chorus of the bronchially challenged could have been consigned to an earlier century too… Then came the vehement coda, passionately felt – and I refer as much to the necessity of my response as to the performance itself.

The Largo was on just as exalted a level: spacious, serene, sublime. Alas, some cretin dropped an object upon the floor, causing a great clattering during Barenboim’s opening phrase. The line endured. Unfortunately, a mobile telephone intervention very close to where I was seated could not but disrupt the aura – at least for me, though not apparently for the musicians. Let us hope that the perpetrator will be shamed for life: a vain hope, no doubt. Persistent coughing was a confounded nuisance too. Still, Barenboim and his orchestra maintained a fine balance – or dialectic – between grandeur and intimacy. In the closing Allegro, Beethoven has his final reckoning with Mozartian ghosts. Well, not quite final, of course, but there was nevertheless a sense that it might be so in this performance. The twenty-fourth piano concerto of his revered predecessor haunted Beethoven – and must surely have inspired Schoenberg too, with its almost-twelve-note first movement theme – but it was difference as much as homage that resounded here, for Haydn would bid fair to win out in the coda, only to be trumped by Beethoven himself. The Staatskapelle Berlin’s woodwind section was on truly wonderful form, evoking Mozart in Salzburg and Vienna, whilst the strings and piano showed why such utopia was no longer an option. Barenboim ensured that the orchestral fugato passage exhibited clarity and meaning, but the same could be said of his pianism throughout. There could now be no doubt that this was the very same musician as that of the sonata cycle of two years ago.

More than half of the second half was afforded to a spoken introduction, with orchestral examples, to Schoenberg’s towering masterpiece, the Op.31 Variations for Orchestra, from Barenboim himself. I cannot imagine that anyone having bothered to listen, at whatever level of musical, let alone Schoenbergian, knowledge, would have failed to be informed and illuminated by what was, quite simply, a brilliant address. Barenboim announced his ambition to act as a museum guide to an unfamiliar exhibition, to address the ear, the ‘most intelligent organ’, and to show how complexity adds to, rather than detracts from, beauty. He demonstrated how the variations might better be understood as transformations (Veränderungen), in a line from Beethoven’s Diabelli set. Inversions, rhythmical and colouristic transformations, the relationship between Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme were all discussed –and illustrated. Most crucially, fundamental pitches were drummed into the audience’s memory. Someone utterly unfamiliar with serial principles would certainly not have been by the end. Likewise, anyone with ears to hear would never again feel the necessity of a tonal crutch. Post-Brahmsian ends are not dependent upon a Brahmsian language. As Schoenberg himself asked, he speaks Chinese, but what is he saying?

This ultimately would have been to little avail without the performance itself, of course, and I am delighted to report that the latter was every bit as distinguished as the previous occasions I have heard Barenboim conduct the work (both with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, for which, see here and here). Schoenberg’s score veritably teemed with material information, overflowing in its affirmation, yet our guide had ensured and continued to ensure that we were well prepared. The Brahmsian sound of the Staatskapelle Berlin anchored us firmly in tradition, and the right tradition at that, thereby permitted us to step out in to a brave new serial world. How bracing the air of another planet is, and yet how it sustains us! Woodwind reminded us of the serenades of both Brahms and Mozart, from whom Schoenberg learned so much. Barenboim ensured that the work had its due as a colouristic – harps and mandolin, violin and piccolo – masterpiece as well as a structural one: much more impressively than the younger Boulez did, I must admit, but then Boulez found it difficult to hide his distaste for the shadow of Brahms. And yet, the hyper-expressivity Barenboim revealed in the score has a counterpart in Boulez’s own early masterworks; there is common ground with, perhaps even influence upon, Le marteau sans maître. Or so it sounded here. Barenboim is perhaps uniquely placed, both biographically and aesthetically to offer such insights, and he did not squander his opportunity. Moreover, his revelling in Schoenberg’s rhythmic transformations surely gave the lie once and for all to the stupid accusation one still sometimes hears that the Second Viennese School neglected rhythm in its explorations. Indeed, it was a sense of post-Lisztian perpetual transformation that was the hallmark both of talk and performance. For the Variations emerged as constructivist, to be sure, but also searingly dramatic, Verklärte Nacht and Pelleas recalled, and Moses und Aron foretold. The triumph of the great BACH statement in the finale registered almost chorale-like, as if Mahler had somehow conquered his doubts. This performance was gripping, exciting, and profoundly satisfying.

But there was, briefly, more. Struggling, now without a microphone, to make himself heard above a noisy audience minority, Barenboim told of Milan Kundera’s recounting that Schoenberg had believed that, in fifty years time, his music would be whistled as if it were Johann Strauss. Kundera thought that Schoenberg overestimated himself; Barenboim thought that Schoenberg overestimated the future. So much the worse for Kundera, who perhaps overestimated himself, and so much the better for Barenboim. And, after the latter’s introduction, every audience member would at least have been able to sing the theme. Yet Barenboim defied my expectation that we might hear more Schoenberg, or even Webern, and gave a magnificent, edge-of-seat rendition of the Waltz King’s Unter Donner und Blitz polka. The orchestra had never sounded better – except, perhaps, in the Schoenberg.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim - Beethoven and Schoenberg (3), 1 February 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.2 in B-flat major, op.19
Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.4 in G major, op.58

Daniel Barenboim (piano/conductor)
Staatskapelle Berlin

After the disappointment of the previous night’s Emperor Concerto, this concert marked an indisputable return to form for Daniel Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin. It also marked the advent of a Schoenberg popularly, if erroneously, considered more ‘difficult’ than the composer of Pelleas und Melisande and Verklärte Nacht.

The B-flat concerto, numbered second but actually the first, does not represent Beethoven at his greatest, though it certainly demands inclusion in a cycle such as this. I was a little puzzled by the programme annotator’s claim, ‘Beethoven’s later dismissal of his Second Piano Concerto as “not one of my best compositions” now seems a little harsh.’ Does it? I cannot recall encountering anyone who thought this one of Beethoven’s ‘best compositions’, and should doubtless be baffled if I did. Anyway, even if Barenboim and his orchestra could not convince one of that, they certainly made a good case for the work. With an orchestra the size of that employed for the first piano concerto, Barenboim imparted a post-Mozartian sound and style to this performance, spirited if not entirely without untidiness in the piano part. More important, however, were the structural clarity and sharp melodic profile achieved. Woodwind interjections throughout the concerto proved especially delightful. I did wonder at the wisdom of taking us quite so literally into the world of the late piano sonatas during the first movement cadenza, but better that than playing safe and dull; there was at least a fine sense of the exploratory. The Adagio benefited from especially fine orchestral playing, whether woodwind soloists or pizzicato strings. It was expansive, though never excessively so, and was possessed of a true, honest dignity. Barenboim supplied a magical piano touch and an exquisite, chamber-like blend with his players. From the first statement of the rondo theme, the finale displayed a Haydnesque sense of fun and quirkiness. One could never, though, have doubted the identity of the composer, whose first set of piano Bagatelles often sounded especially close to the mood struck here. (How much more than chips from the master's workbench they are!) Again, Barenboim’s keen sense of Beethoven's tonal architecture was readily apparent, enabling modulations and their meaning truly to register. My only cavil was the occasional over-audible gear change.

I have heard Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin play Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces once before: an outstanding performance at home in Berlin. With the best will in the world, the Royal Festival Hall’s acoustic cannot match that of the Philharmonie: a not insignificant loss in music such as this. Nevertheless, the present performance yielded nothing to that in Berlin. The first piece was frenetic, but never too much; the utmost urgency characterised a gripping account; despite the huge orchestra, much playing was of the utmost delicacy. Colours, such as that of the xylophone, emerged, had their day in the sun, and retreated, whichever way one turned one’s ears. Crucially, here and throughout, a sense of direction was always paramount; with Barenboim, we were in safe hands. The cello solo at the opening of Vergangenes began almost as if a Brahms lullaby, stranded in a post-Mahlerian nightmare, yet we soon discovered that there was a great deal of gentle, consoling music in Schoenberg’s remembrance of things past. His myriad of instrumental possibilities, whether soloistic or in combination, truly set the scene for the Klangfarbenmelodie of Farben. And the beauty of that final chord of the second movement had to be heard to be believed. Dissonance, for Schoenberg, was always a matter of comprehensibility, not beauty. If the melody of colours took centre stage in the third movement, a more musico-dramatic impulse asserted itself for the peripeteia of the fourth. The dramatic moment was seized with relish, the spectre of Vienna (Mahler’s Seventh Symphony?) returning with a vengeance. The final piece showed Schoenberg and Barenboim at their most radically post-Wagnerian: unending melody at every turn, every level. Barenboim truly caught the dialectical nature of Schoenberg’s achievement: subtle and furious, wild and attentive, nightmarish and yet affirmative.

Barenboim employed a slightly larger body of strings for the Fourth Piano Concerto than he had for the Second, reverting to the forces of the Emperor. This was immediately a more alert-sounding reading than I had heard him give in Vienna last year, even if the strings of the Staatskapelle Berlin, for all their virtues, could not quite capture the sweetness of those of the Vienna Philharmonic. I took a little while, though not long, to be persuaded of Barenboim’s interpretative stance here. Initially, I wondered whether his dramatic forthrightness, implying a heroism closer than one generally hears to the Emperor, was really the thing for a concerto generally considered more ruminative. Even Barenboim’s tone sounded close to that expected in the concerto that would follow this. However, as with a similar account of the Violin Concerto a few years ago from Frank Peter Zimmermann, the LSO, and Bernard Haitink, I was entirely won over. This was Beethoven the revolutionary – and this is, after all, middle-period Beethoven. The first movement was relatively swift but, more important, convincingly flexible. Woodwind again proved delectable. There were some welcome surprises in the cadenza, which here, following the upsets of the Fifth, showed Barenboim in complete command of his instrument. Unfortunately, he had an equally commanding bronchial partner for a significant stretch of time.

The Furies of the slow movement were unusually angry in a highly rhetorical, almost pictorial account, which nevertheless always placed musical values first: a valuable lesson, not that it will be learned, for Barenboim’s ‘period’ foes. The contrast with the Classical serenity of the piano could hardly have been greater, or more dramatically telling. Part of the secret of success of this performance was surely that Barenboim was better able to conduct the orchestra than he had been in the Emperor, which will always be a struggle when directed from the keyboard. For many, the Fourth would be a bridge too far to play and to conduct, but not for him. The transition to the finale was exquisitely handled, with an unerring sense of rightness, born of deep understanding of where Beethoven is heading and why. The high spirits of what was to follow were all the better for having been so hard won during the mysteries of the Adagio. Now the full orchestral sound confirmed why, for those in the know, this ranks as one of Germany’s greatest orchestras. Again, the movement was more of a Romantic battle between soloist and orchestra than is generally the case, but the strategy paid off handsomely, with muscular responses on both sides. Not that there lacked moments of delicacy and beauty: that wonderful passage when the violas take pride of place, for instance. Once again, Barenboim’s structural command permitted Beethoven’s modulations to register with their full meaning, never more so than in the preparations for the cadenza. The final bars were thunderously exciting. This was fully worthy of a standing ovation.