Friday 30 April 2010

Joshua Bell/Sam Haywood, 29 April 2010

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – Violin Sonata in B-flat major, KV 454
Beethoven – Violin Sonata no.7 in C minor, op.30 no.2
Ravel – Violin Sonata in G major
Tchaikovsky – ‘Méditation’ from Souvenir d’un lieu cher, op.42
Sarasate – Introduction and Tarantella, op.43

Joshua Bell (violin)
Sam Haywood (piano)

The programme above, with Mozart and Beethoven sonatas in the first part and the other pieces in the second, looked odd on paper and proved so in practice. Performances were split accordingly, with distinctly unimpressive Classical works followed by a much improved second group following the interval.

The Mozart sonata, KV 454, opened promisingly, with a properly expansive Largo introduction. Joshua Bell applied nice touches of portamento and generally phrased well. Thereafter – and this set the pattern for the rest of the sonata – the tempo was simply too fast; Mozart reacts poorly to being hurried. Sam Haywood’s rendition of the piano part had its moments of passion, but there was too much Meissen china. Likewise, Bell had some fine moments, not least some beautiful playing on the G string, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts. The slow movement was more song than aria, its piano part strikingly matter of fact, nowhere more so than in the startling prosaic broken chords; what magic should be here. Greater pathos emerged with the turn to the minor mode, but it was not fully integrated. I am not sure I have ever heard so fast an Allegretto as the finale; it sounded more akin to an Allegro – at least. Where the conclusion to this movement should astonish in the diminution of note values, so fast a tempo pre-empted surprise. It was not just a matter of tempo; there was an impetuous, even showy aggression that sounded quite out of place in Mozart. As Stravinsky once commented on a typically hard-driven Solti performance, ‘Mozart is poorer than that’. By which, of course, he meant that Mozart is richer than that.

The Beethoven sonata likewise opened promisingly, with a sense of ebb and flow. It quickly became clear, however, that Beethovenian cragginess would be conspicuous by its absence, the performance veering between Romantic-virtuosic show and pseudo-eighteenth-century preciousness. In the slow movement, Haywood’s piano opening utterly lacked the requisite noble simplicity. Phrases were fussily broken up and the tempo was once again too fast, extraordinarily so for a movement marked Adagio cantabile: this sounded like an Andante – at least. The Beethovenian sublime was nowhere to be heard. Playful and aggressive, the scherzo marked a noteworthy improvement, though it was rather late in the day and arguably overdone. The finale proved excessively, externally ‘passionate’, leaving little room for structural backbone. As with much of the sonata, it never sounded like Beethoven.

Ravel celebratedly disdained interpretation in favour of performance, at least in terms of his music. A pose? Perhaps, but he certainly permits less license, seemingly benefiting this duo, who instantly sounded more at home in Ravel’s G major violin sonata. Bell’s tone was straightforwardly gorgeous, and, more to the point, appropriate to the work. The modal piano passages sounded midway between the Middle Ages and the jazz age – which is to say, they sounded Ravelian. Perhaps the performance was a bit smooth at times, but it marked a great improvement. The slow movement was more bluesy, less Romantic than is often the case: nothing wrong with that. There was aggression too, some of the violin part sounding startlingly, revealingly close to Bartók, for the music, thank goodness, was never sentimentalised. The finale brought a similar kinship to the G major Piano Concerto and furthered that tension, as opposed to collaboration, between piano and violin: a hallmark of the sonata as a whole.

Tchaikovsky’s Méditation sounded, at its best, like a missing aria from Eugene Onegin, though there were strange moments of disconnection between violin and piano: perhaps a hangover from the Ravel? Bell took the opportunity nevertheless to lavish his rich tone, upon the music, greatly to its benefit. As for Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella, the piece does not amount to anything much, but nor does it outstay its welcome. Bell despatched it as to the manor born. Every difficulty thrown at him he turned into an opportunity, evincing a true stylistic affinity lacking in the first ‘half’ of the programme. In a nod to this year’s Chopin anniversary, the players gave an encore arrangement of the C-sharp minor Nocturne. On this evidence, the music gains nothing and loses a great deal from such arrangement, but Bell gave his admirers further opportunity to swoon.

Thursday 29 April 2010

In case you were wondering how you might cast your vote...

It is not enough, not nearly enough, but, as Tim Rutherford-Johnson on his excellent blog The Rambler points out, at least one party leader is talking about the arts. Click here and for the full piece from Nick Clegg, here. After New Labour's despicable philistinism - remember the early attack upon the Royal Opera? - things could hardly get worse. Or could they? There is, also, of course the small matter of the invasion of Iraq...

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Powder her Face, Royal Opera, 26 April 2010

Linbury Studio Theatre

Duchess – Joan Rodgers
Hotel Manager, Duke, Judge – Alan Ewing
Electrician, Lounge Lizard, Waiter, Rubbernecker, Delivery Boy – Iain Paton
Maid, Confidante, Waitress, Mistress, Rubbernecker, Society Journalist – Rebecca Bottone
Actor – Tom Baert

Carlos Wagner (director)
Conor Murphy (designer)
Paul Keogan (lighting)
Tom Baert (choreography)

Members of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House and Guest Artists
Timothy Redmond (conductor)

First performed in 1995 by Almeida Opera at the Cheltenham Music Festival, Thomas Adès’s Powder her Face has received a number of productions: a rare accolade for any ‘new’ opera. This production from Carlos Wagner was first seen at the Royal Opera in 2008, but is based on the director’s production for De Vlaamse Opera. That said, though I have heard much about it and have heard excerpts, this was my first full encounter.

What to make of Powder her Face, then? It is certainly preferable to The Tempest, which I heard on its first night, sounding like imitation Britten, with a dash of greyest Hindemith tossed in to churn out the requisite number of bars. By contrast, the music here can be fun, even if, in its relentless parody, it soon wears thin. Peter Maxwell Davies did something superficially similar quite some time ago, albeit with more winning and, I suspect, more substantial results. There are all sorts of resemblances: Berg, Strauss, Weill, Britten, popular music, and so on. But they only ever seem to be resemblances, for what makes the ‘original’ sounds into music is absent; almost everything here is but skin deep. That may be the point; it certainly seems to be a suggestive starting point for Carlos Wagner’s excellent production. Is it, though, enough? Allusion not only veers perilously close to pastiche, but a heartless pastiche, whose real character seems to lie in the admittedly brilliant rummaging around in the ruins of tonality, the brittleness, the not-quite-disjunctures. More of those and less of the parody might ultimately have proved more productive. As a first opera, this would by any standards represent an auspicious debut, but is it more than that? I realise that I am falling into the trap intended, wishing for ‘profundity’ in worthy, Teutonic fashion, yet is the work as clever as it thinks it is? Adès’s music is clever enough, but Philip Hensher’s libretto is startlingly variable, sometimes far too attention-seeking for its own good. If the work is an indictment of celebrity, is it not straining at celebrity a little too much itself? Much of the final scene, especially the Duchess’s solo ‘mad scene’, acquires a surprising gravity, however, reminiscent in its broken chorale and its instrumentation of Busoni; one can see why it would be undercut – ‘Darling, nothing so vulgar as a tragedy,’ one can hear the creators saying – but, in a way, that is a pity, since what follows is once again too clever, too lengthy, and more tedious than anything else.

Performances, however, were of a high standard. Joan Rodgers threw her all into the role of the Duchess, dramatically and vocally, and even succeeded, in that final scene, in engaging one’s heart. The only kindness she has ever experienced, as she laments, is that for which she has paid. Alan Ewing, suffering from a throat infection, coped well with the muiltifarious demands of his roles; one could readily have heard much worse from someone in better health. Iain Paton likewise convinced in his considerably more varied roster of portrayals, lightness and agility of voice in evidence throughout. I find Rebecca Bottone’s high soprano a bit shrill and unvaried, but it chimes with what she is asked to do, and she can act too. Paton and Bottone make a truly grubby pair of rubberneckers, pleasuring themselves at their moral disapproval during the trial: how the Daily Mail would love them and the judge, who follows suit and goes still further. If the constant turnover of roles is confusing – I assume that Lulu is the model here, but there a clear point is being made – then that is no fault of the cast, though the production could sometimes have been more helpful in that respect. It surely does matter precisely who these people are. Diction, however, was not always what it might have been. Timothy Redmond conducted the orchestra with verve and precision, the players responding in kind, clearly relishing the dance rhythms and the array of soloistic colours. Again, if it all becomes a bit loud and unyielding, they are not the ones to blame.

Carlos Wagner’s production plays on the Duchess’s star quality, Conor Murphy’s stylish designs – and if the opera is anything, it is stylish – including outsize beauty products, the most striking of which is the neo-Botticelli compact from which the heroine emerges. The mimed fellatio scene from the electrician at the beginning neatly presages what is to come, though the real thing is actually a little puzzling. When the Duchess is at work on the waiter, a naked, more conventionally alluring man emerges in between them: presumably her fantasy, as opposed to reality, but I am not quite sure that such should be the point here. Her search, at least, does not seem to be for physical perfection. Elsewhere, however, production and performances did the work proud. As for the opera itself, though, celebrity seems more to have been more attained than deconstructed.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Elegy for Young Lovers, English National Opera, 24 April 2010

Young Vic

Hilda Mack – Jennifer Rhys-Davies
Elisabeth Zimmer – Kate Valentine
Carolina von Kirchstetten – Lucy Schaufer
Toni Reischmann – Robert Murray
Gregor Mittenhofer – Steven Page
Dr Wilhelm Reischmann – William Robert Allenby
Josef Mauer – Stephen Kennedy
Servants at Der Schwarze Adler – Joyce Henderson, Stephen O’Toole, Sam Taylor, Emma Vickery

Fiona Shaw (director)
Tom Pye (designer)
Peter Mumford (lighting)
Lynette Wallworth (video)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Stefan Blunier (conductor)

Three cheers to ENO for staging Henze! It is more than time that one of our major companies did, nine years having passed since the Royal Opera’s superb Boulevard Solitude. (If only that might be revived, though there are of course more pressing concerns, such as hearing x and y in multiple revivals of La Traviata…) This Elegy for Young Lovers is on a smaller scale, but so is the work itself – and smaller is not necessarily lesser. Performances are generally good, and Fiona Shaw’s direction in the intimate space of the Young Vic impresses.

Elegy for Young Lovers is one of those works concerned with the figure of the artist: a subject that not unnaturally tends to delight a good number of artists. The writer, Gregor Mittenhofer exploits all those around him for the sake of artistic inspiration – which seems in his case to be more transcription of events than sublimation into something greater. Poor Hilda Mack, who lost her husband forty years ago, is of value only on account of her visions, which he greedily plagiarises. When Elisabeth forsakes him for his godson, Toni, he gives his blessing, but then, when the Alpine guide calls to warn of a blizzard, claims that he knows of no one out on the mountain, having sent them to gather flowers for him. The point is less revenge than that they can serve as the ‘inspiration’ for his new poem, Elegy for Young Lovers. It is with a public reading in Vienna – here on video – that the opera ends.

Shaw’s setting is essentially when and where it should be: the Austrian Alps in the early twentieth century. She directs the cast well, doubtless drawing upon her own theatrical experience, and even manages to get the singers’ spoken dialogue to sound as if it is delivered by actors: no mean achievement, as veterans of The Magic Flute or Fidelio will tell you. All, quite rightly, is ultimately focused upon Mittenhofer’s ego, but delineation of other characters is not neglected. A true coup de théâtre, for which Tom Pye’s design work should also be credited, comes at the end of the second act, when the ice clock, which has been chiming the hours, is smashed by Mittenhofer in his impotent rage, wishing the lovers dead but surely also an expression of his artistic inadequacy. What makes this especially memorable, is the reappearance of Hilda, who now realises how she has been exploited. She picks up a little ice for her drink, undercutting the melodrama – that is, Mittenhofer’s egocentric melodrama.

Stefan Blunier, whom I recently heard give a fine account of The Love for Three Oranges in Berlin, was equally impressive here – not in the pit, but above the stage. The balance between drive and tenderness was well chosen, and the mélange of styles – Berg and Stravinsky, not for the first time, loom especially large – was given its due, without ever sounding incoherent. Solo instrumentalists from the chamber orchestra were without exception excellent; it would be invidious to single out anyone in particular.

Steven Page commands the stage as Mittenhofer. Vocally, there are a few less than perfect moments, but the portrayal of the role is all: monstrous, self-satisfied, ultimately hollow. Lucy Schaufer brought out both the pride and the sadness in the Gräfin von Kirchstetten: an aristocrat and, more important, a woman who abases herself for the dubious cause of the artist. (In a telling moment, Mittenhofer acknowledges the other characters’ inadequacies, though not directly his own; the dramatic truth is that he is right, at least with respect to them. They are human, all too human, too.) I was not sure why her accent veered towards the transatlantic though. Kate Valentine and Robert Murray were likeable as the young lovers, and their final scene, in which they imagine their old age and the course of their married life, was genuinely moving. It is difficult, however, to consider Murray a success as a romantic, or Romantic, lead; character roles should be more his thing. Jennifer Rhys-Davies’s turns – in more than one sense – as Hilda Mack were appropriately show-stealing. Her increasing lucidity proved both convincing and unnerving. Is she more unhinged than the ‘artist’? It appears not. I found the aggressive Irishness of Stephen Kennedy’s mountain guide (a spoken role) rather out of place, but this was a blemish upon the production rather than a fundamental flaw.

It is interesting to note that Auden and Kallman dubbed the work – their equivalent to Arabella, dedicating it to Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Arabella is far from my favourite Strauss opera; indeed, I have never been able to make much of it at all, despite some wonderful moments. Moreover, apart from the hotel setting, it is not especially clear, at least to me, why they should think of Arabella. But one can see at least why the librettists might have been thinking of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, with their fondness for reflection on art and artists. Could Henze, though? He has often struck me as a Strauss-like figure, despite – or perhaps, on some level, because of? – his antagonism, which goes far beyond comments he might sometimes have made concerning, say, Wagner, Schoenberg, or Webern (though never, so far as I am aware, Stravinsky). ‘Beethoven regarded his whole enterprise as a contribution to human progress. As with Marxism, his goal is not God but Man, whereas there are other artists who have never given a thought to the moral function of their work; for instance Richard Strauss, who is for me – perhaps I’m going too far – something like a court composer to Kaiser Wilhelm II.’ Does the writer of these words, Henze himself, protest a little too much? And which artist is closer to Mittenhofer? A sadness for composer and librettists must be that they are constantly in danger of exploiting human experiences for the sake of something called art. Perhaps the imperative therefore ought to be that the art produced is good, for, as Adrian Mourby writes in a programme note concerning the Yeatsian inspiration for Auden: ‘It was Yeats’s failures as an artist that concerned Auden most. It was from these that he wished to distance himself. Mittenhoffer is not just a monster. He is probably not much of a writer.’ This production helps vindicate Henze and his librettists from at least that charge.

Thursday 22 April 2010

Maltman/Johnson - Schwanengesang, 20 April 2010

Wigmore Hall

Schubert - Schwanengsang, D 957

Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Graham Johnson (piano)

Some of Schubert’s strangest music may be found in his final collection of songs, Schwanengesang. It is an unsettling collection and it unsettled here, though perhaps not to the extent that last November’s quite outstanding performance of Die schöne Müllerin from the same artists, Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson. That cycle and Winterreise possess an intrinsic unity, narrative and otherwise, that was never intended for the songs in the present collection, but there can be opportunity, in imparting a unity of one’s own – as, essentially, Schubert’s publisher, Tobias Haslinger did in the first place. Maltman and Johnson had no intention of shirking that possibility, the ‘cycle’, never light in the first place, darkening considerably through the Heine settings. There were a few technical blemishes. Maltman’s intonation sometimes wandered, especially in the higher register; though this did not bother me unduly, it might have done some. And Johnson on occasion could sound a little effortful, as if Schubert’s piano writing did not come so easily to him as once it had, though one should not exaggerate. On the whole, however, this proved an excellent performance.

One was certainly drawn in from the very opening, the piano sounding the murmuring brooklet (‘Rauschendes Bächlein’), to be followed by the baritone, this water, as so often in Schubert, suggesting far more than just a natural phenomenon. The change of mood in the third stanza of this opening Rellstab setting, Liebesbotschaft, was subtle yet palpable, telling of ‘her’, whoever she may be, lost in her dreams. In Kriegers Ahnung, the agitated insistence of the piano part came across clearly, if, as I suggested above, a little less readily than once it might have done: still, there is nothing ‘easy’ about Schubert in any case. Maltman brought to the final stanza an almost Wagnerian climax – many a battle still calls – before subsiding into desolation. The expectancy of the following song, Frühlings-Sehnsucht was thus all the more poignant, and all the more ready to be dashed, especially as the protagonist’s Romantic ardour increased. Much the same could be said of Ständchen, an unsettling serenade if ever there were one, all the more so for its relative containment. Thus, when Maltman really let rip in the second stanza of Aufenthalt – his tears as waves – the sentiment was overwhelming. Johnson always proved adept at teasing meaning from Schubert’s modulations, nowhere more so than in the interludes to the final song from this group, Abschied.

And so, on to Heine. ‘Ich unglücksel’ger Atlas!’ we heard (‘I, unfortunate Atlas!’) Unfortunate, indeed wretched, he sounded, though, quite rightly, richly so: Maltman’s is a beautiful voice. The contrast between major and minor was telling in the first stanza of Ihr Bild and, still more revealing, almost eradicated in its final stanza, as the lover tells of having lost ‘her’. Only Mozart is quite so heartbreaking when he smiles through tears. I used the word ‘unsettling’ earlier: it is apt too for the strange harmonies of Die Stadt, which here sounded close to, arguably beyond, the world of the late piano sonatas. It was an excellent idea to move without pause into the beauty of loneliness instantiated in Am Meer. I could not help but think that the bitterness with which the final poison of tears is recounted might well, for the composer, refer to Schubert’s ‘other’ poison(s) too. And then, Der Doppelgänger, that terrible, unbearable song, almost, but not quite a scena: just to watch Maltman, let alone hear him, one would have known what sort of ghostly confrontation this was. The touching sincerity of Die Taubenpost could not but sound strained after that. Two encores, Herbst and Der Winterabend, both beautifully, limpidly performed, continued, but unsurprisingly could not quite achieve, the dissipation of such tension.

This performance, like those of Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, has been recorded for the Wigmore Hall Live in-house record label.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Oper Leipzig's new season, 2010-11

The renaissance of Oper Leipzig under its new director of productions, Peter Konwitschny, seems set to continue. The season 2010-11 will witness no fewer than seven new productions. Fifty years to the day since the opening of the Leipzig Opera House on 9 October 1960, the same work, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, by Leipzig’s greatest son, will mark the anniversary in a new production from Jochen Biganzoli, and conducted by Axel Kober. Konwitschny continues his Gluck cycle with Iphigénie en Aulide, conducted by Paulo Carignani, and brings two other new productions to Leipzig: Così fan tutte and Elektra. General Music Director, Ulf Schirmer will conduct the latter, as well as concert performances of Die Walküre. Other new productions are of Hänsel und Gretel, conducted by Schirmer again (director: Birgit Eckenweber), the first ever stage production of Deutsches Miserere by Bertolt Brecht and Paul Dessau, from director Dietrich Hilsdorf, and the first European performance of the children’s opera, Die arabische Prinzessin, with music from the short-lived Juan Crisostómo de Arriaga. Revivals to note are another Konwitschny production, Eugene Onegin, Willy Decker’s Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Kober, Parsifal, under Schirmer’s baton, and La Rondine. The Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra plays for all performances.

A full schedule may be found by clicking here.

Varèse 360° (2) and (3) - London Sinfonietta/National Youth Orchestra/Atherton/Daniel, 18 April 2010

Queen Elizabeth Hall and Royal Festival Hall

Varèse – Hyperprism, for wind and percussion
Un grand sommeil noir, for voice and piano
Offrandes, for soprano and chamber orchestra
Poème électronique
Intégrales, for wind and percussion

London Sinfonietta
David Atherton (conductor)
Cathie Boyd (staging, director, video, lighting)
Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
Sound Intermedia
Pippa Nissen (video)
Zerlina Hughes (lighting)
Dan Ayling (stage manager)

Varèse-Chou Wen-Chung – Tuning Up
Varèse – Arcana
Nocturnal, for soprano, male chorus, and small orchestra

Elizabeth Watts (soprano)
National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Paul Daniel (conductor)
Same production team as previous concert


These two Sunday concerts completed the Southbank Centre’s presentation of the complete Varèse, initiated with a London Sinfonietta concert two nights previously. The Sinfonietta under David Atherton played for the first, again in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, after which we walked across to the Royal Festival Hall, to hear the National Youth Orchestra.

Hyperprism opened the Sinfonietta concert, immediately impressing upon us the urban nature of Varèse’s musical landscapes. Brash and virile, it also had its sleazier moments, in which I fancied I could hear a kinship with another Busoni pupil, Kurt Weill. Un grand sommeil seems to be the only surviving work from Varèse’s pre-1921 period, the others having been destroyed in a warehouse fire: myth-making for a year zero that is almost too good to be true, and yet appears to be just that. It was fascinating to hear this Debussyan Verlaine setting from Elizabeth Atherton and John Constable. The former’s diction was outstanding, though she was a little too tremulous in her delivery. For the first time in the series, we heard a stringed instrument, a double bass, in Octandre. The sinuous woodwind opening, especially Gareth Hulse’s oboe solo, contrasted strongly, as it should, with subsequent jaggedness. As so often with Varèse, one heard echoes of Stravinsky: here the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. Offrandes, the first of Varèse’s American works, followed. Here, we heard a few more strings (two violins, viola, cello, double bass, and harp), softening the general tone a little, and providing a very tentative bridge with tradition. Elizabeth Atherton seemed more at home in this highly dramatic performance, in which trumpeter Alistair Mackie also shone in his solo work.

One cannot really say anything about a ‘performance’ of the still extraordinary Poème électronique. The last time I had heard it was in a Sinfonietta concert at Kings Place, in which Le Corbusier’s original film was shown. Here the images were more abstract, arguably permitting one to concentrate more closely upon the music, though the former experience was probably the more interesting. At any rate, this sonic tragedy, initiated by tolling bells and culminating in electronic storm-winds, had lost none of its raw, elemental power. Finally came Intégrales: Varèse surely wrote nothing more masterly than this. The performance again brought out Stravinskian antecedents, the Rite of Spring in particular, through the sharp, insistent repetition of rhythmic cells. Oboe solos once again stood out as particularly exquisite, but it was perhaps above all the hieratic nature of the work that shone through, the chorales presaging a sharply materialist version, if that can be imagined, of Messiaen.

And so to the Festival Hall, to hear the NYO under Paul Daniel. Or not under Paul Daniel, in the opening Tuning Up, Varèse’s witty parody of the opening procedure of a typical orchestral concert. I especially enjoyed the quotation from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, but most captivating was the sense of an event coming into life. I am yet to be convinced that the full orchestra – and the NYO was more than full! – presents the best of Varèse, but Arcana is surely the best of orchestral Varèse. What one heard – and indeed saw – most of all was the sheer enthusiasm with which these young musicians, none older than eighteen, approach and execute their task. It is testament to their achievement that no thought of ‘difficulty’ entered the mind: Varèse was above all enjoyable. Once again echoes of the Rite were heard in what sounded like a veritable concerto for orchestra. And at last one heard soaring strings given their head.

The second half opened with Varèse’s last work, Nocturnal. Elizabeth Watts and the vocal group Laudibus gave a committed performance, replete with histrionics of crucifixion. I cannot claim to understand a work I find frankly bizarre – whoever would have linked Varèse and Anaïs Nin?! – but one cannot gainsay its dramatic effect. We then heard the British premiere of the original, 1921 version of Amériques, including offstage brass and music excised from the composer’s final, slightly more practical, version. The sheer extravagance of the orchestration was relished by Daniel and the orchestra, though I think more is probably ultimately less here: interesting but not necessarily to be preferred – unlike, say, Petrushka or The Firebird. Fantastical, optimistic, sprawling, full of incident, this was clearly the America of Varèse’s dreams, even if they were never to be fulfilled. There was also, however, or at least I fancied so, a more Gallic edge to some of the music that would be excised, indicating a soul in transition. It was, then, all the more fitting that, for an encore, we should hear the work which, when Varèse heard it in Turin, convinced him to become a composer: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. And after the complete Varèse, it was perhaps a relief to hear a Debussy performance that was warm, almost Romantic, rather than stridently modernist. The true radicalism of this first piece of twentieth-century music will, in any case, always tell. I suspect that this will not be the last time we shall hear the excellent flautist Joshua Batty so sensitively voice its tones.

Sunday 18 April 2010

Varèse 360° (1) - London Sinfonietta/Atherton, 16 April 2010

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Varèse – Ionisation, for thirteen percussionists
Varèse – Density 21.5, for solo flute
Varèse-Chou Wen-chung – Dance for Burgess, fragment for chamber orchestra
Varèse – Ecuatorial, for bass and ensemble
Varèse-Chou Wen-chung – Etude pour Espace
Varèse – Déserts, for wind, piano, percussion, and tape

London Sinfonietta
David Atherton (conductor)
Cathie Boyd (staging, director, video, lighting)
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
EXAUDI Vocal Ensemble
Jonathan Golove, Natasha Farny (cello theremin)
Sound Intermedia
Pippa Nissen (video)
Zerlina Hughes (lighting)
Dan Ayling (stage manager)

The complete Varèse in three weekend concerts was a brave undertaking, the fruition of a long-held ambition of Gillian Moore, the Southbank Centre’s Head of Contemporary Culture, richly rewarded in a queue for returns outside the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I admit that I was surprised, though delighted, and wondered how many of the audience were drawn in by the multi-media presentation. For me, that aspect was the least interesting, much of it barely going beyond something one might see on a computer screen-saver, though it often had the merit of changing form in a fashion that delineated structure, doubtless a useful ‘visual score’ element for some. Still, it did no harm, and seemed to elicit appreciation from many.

Ionisation – could one ask for a more ‘twentieth-century’ title? – sounds barely less radical than it must have done seventy years ago. It received from the percussionists of the London Sinfonietta, under David Atherton, a performance of great impetus, fierce in its uncompromising radicalism, like a miniature Rite of Spring on speed – in more than one sense. As with so much Varèse, this is in many respects an utterly urban landscape: music for Le Corbusier, if you will. And yet, an African primitivism also shone through. Density 21.5 also bares its scientific inspiration in its title, in this case the density of platinum: the work was written for a new platinum instrument, made for flautist George Barrère. This evening’s flautist – Michael Cox, I think – gave an unusually, yet refreshingly, muscular account, which could yet hark back to Debussy when necessary. Dance for Burgess is an occasional work, written, believe it or now, for Burgess Meredith’s musical comedy, Happy as Larry, whose run lasted all of a single night. The Sinfonietta presented a raucous, almost Ivesian fragment, with gleaming, hard-edged brass: a typical Varese sound, with more than a nod, as Malcolm Macdonald’s excellent programme notes suggested, to Cubism.

The first half culminated in the extraordinary Ecuatorial, which might here have been subtitled ‘John Tomlinson sings Varèse’: perhaps only surprising to those who think of this searching artist simply as a Wagnerian. Birtwistle, Henze, and many others would tell us otherwise. Tomlinson provided a proper tension between raging reminiscent of a bass Gurrelieder Waldemar, if you can imagine such a thing, and something still more elemental, more sage: the Rite again? There is, and I do not mean this in a negative sense, something nonsensical to a modern, Western listener about this Mayan incantation. And there are, of course, many unexpected sounds from the orchestra, not least, in such a setting, the organ, here played by Iain Farrington. It is interesting that, in its – unconscious? – homage to the Doktor Faust of Varèse’s teacher, Busoni, the instrument actually elicits more surprise than the two theremin cellos.

A certain mediævalism, perhaps an almost inevitable consequence of choral writing, announced itself in the Etude pour Espace, ‘orchestrated and arranged for spatialised live concert performance’ by one of Varèse’s pupils, Chou Wen-chung. The EXAUDI vocal ensemble acquitted itself very well, both chorally and soloistically, the work emerging majestic, triumphant, like coronation music for the twentieth century – and beyond. Again, Varèse showed us that uncompromising need not equal ‘difficult’, and indeed ‘difficulty’ is often as much a product of listeners’ prejudice as anything else. Déserts presents quite another landscape, and here the video images seemed well judged in presenting suggestions of a nuclear age world. The performance was implacable, both immediate and, from its muted brass, distanced. Woodwind are equally crucial, of course, likewise the tape interpolations that so shocked the 1954 audience at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. The block writing – tape and instruments are never heard together – coincided with visual variation, but I cannot imagine that anyone would have failed to register the change aurally. One could hear the deserts, whether urban or extra-terrestrial, of the title far better than they might ever be seen.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Razumovsky Ensemble - Beethoven and Brahms, 13 April 2010

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven – Piano Trio in B-flat major, op.97, ‘Archduke’
Brahms – Piano Quartet no.1 in G minor, op.25

Boris Brovtsyn (violin)
Yuri Zhislin (viola)
Oleg Kagan (violoncello)
Ronan O’Hora (piano)

Chamber music on the grand scale here, with Beethoven’s Archduke Trio and the first of Brahms’s piano quartets, but did the performances match up? In many ways, they too were projected on such a scale, notably through a recognisable, refreshingly ‘Russian’ string tone, reminiscent of many recordings we know so well. The piano playing of Ronan O’Hora, though, proved somewhat reticent, not quite from the same mould. This ensured that his instrument did not emerge excessively dominant, especially in the Brahms work, with its notorious problems of balance, but greater heroism might have proved a better fit. What undoubtedly shone through both performances, however, was a welcome clarity of texture.

The Archduke opened in perhaps surprisingly soloistic fashion, at least from the string players, violinist Boris Brovtsyn and cellist Oleg Kagan, founder and sustainer of the Razumovsky Ensemble. This Beethoven was lyrical through and through, though with structure clearly demarcated. The blend between piano and pizzicato was especially pleasing. There was a nice spring to the rhythms in the scherzo, without loss to the lyrical impulse. The trio’s chromaticism emerged, properly, as both continuation and contrast: not an easy trick to pull off. However, it was with the reprise of the scherzo that the interpretation veered towards the sectional. Underlining of thematic material was a little laboured: by now, we should know it well enough. The slow movement proceeded with dignity, though the piano part often veered towards the matter of fact, with the strings more overtly ‘emotional’. There was a good sense of progress throughout the variations; overall, however, the mood was perhaps a little too relaxed. Lyricism should not equate, especially in Beethoven, to lack of tension. The finale once again witnessed melody to the fore, but the sectional quality of some of what had gone before was equally apparent.

Brahms’s G minor Piano Quartet opened promisingly, with an instantly ‘Brahmsian’ sound. The arrival of violist Yuri Zhislin certainly aided richness of texture, but also seemed in general to galvanise the performance. That Brahms’s lines sang so freely as they did is testament to the hard-won clarity achieved, without sacrifice to tonal refulgence, at least from the strings. Occasional lapses in intonation registered but one should not exaggerate. The second movement is an intermezzo, not a scherzo, but it retains aspects of the latter, and so it did in this performance, albeit with ghostly shadows also making their presence felt. Often on the cusp of daylight, without ever quite striding forth, this was most convincing. It was a pity, then, that the major-mode trio lacked focus. When its material recurred, following the scherzo’s reprise, it was too throwaway: it needs greater poise, more magic. The Andante con moto was more con moto than Andante; it needs greater room to breathe, emerging somewhat straitjacketed. There was, however, some gorgeous string playing, considered on its own terms, and there was a splendid martial swing to some of the later music, straining towards the symphonic. The Hungarian finale impressed with the unanimity of its opening and continued to impress when the strings led. In pizzicato passages and on other occasions when the piano should have been more prominent, there was not quite the same sense of direction, with the consequence that the movement again gave a somewhat sectional impression

Saturday 10 April 2010

Le nozze di Figaro, Komische Oper, 6 April 2010

Images: Monika Rittershaus

(sung in German, as Die Hochzeit des Figaro: translation by Bettina Bartz and Werner Hintze)

Count Almaviva – Tom Erik Lie
Countess Almaviva – Ina Kringelborn
Susanna – Christina Landshamer
Figaro – Tilmann Rönnebeck
Cherubino – Olivia Vermeulen
Marcellina – Christiane Oertel
Basilio – Thomas Ebenstein
Don Curzio – Peter Renz
Bartolo – Hans-Peter Scheidegger
Antonio – Hans-Martin Nau
Barbarina – Julia Giebel
Two Young Girls – Saskia Krispin, Mechthild Sauer

Barrie Kosky (director)
Jasmina Hadžiahmetović (revival director)
Klaus Grünberg (designs)
Marianna Häntzsche, Birgit Wünschmann (costumes)
Franck Evin (lighting)
Werner Hintze (dramaturgy)

Choral Soloists of the Komische Oper, Berlin (chorus master: Robert Heimann)
Orchestra of the Komische Oper, Berlin
Patrick Lange (conductor)

Comedy clearly means different things to different people, and, to be fair, it can unquestionably mean different things in different contexts. I was, however, quite unprepared for Barrie Kosky’s reduction of Mozart’s and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s – not to mention Beaumarchais’s - sophisticated comedy into an incoherent farce centring, bizarrely and apparently arbitrarily, around a middle-class Jewish wedding. Having greatly admired Kosky’s Abu Ghraib production of Iphigénie en Tauride for the Komische Oper, I was intrigued as to what political point might be made here. None at all, it seemed – and, indeed, it was difficult to find any point whatsoever being made. Moreover, where Kosky’s sensitivity towards Gluck’s score had been noteworthy, it was difficult to find any sense even of respect towards Mozart’s, since more than once, it found itself interrupted by directorial imposition, whether from the Count’s extraordinarily loud mobile telephone, a weird, Klezmer-like accordion interpolation during the third act dances, or, perhaps worst of all, Bartolo’s rendition of My Way in the middle of the fourth act.

I eventually gave up trying to discern any coherence to this Carry on Figaro. Insofar as it matters, various people – it is not at all clear why they were living together in the same house – seemed to be gathered for a wedding. Many extras kept appearing out of highly contrived – and not in Da Ponte’s sense – stage openings and engaging in slapstick activities. Sometimes the libretto, in German translation, was tampered with. Marcellina’s cry of ‘Mazel tov!’ was not the first and certainly not the last instance. At other times, the more-or-less original text was rendered nonsensical: what on earth did it mean to speak of the Count’s embassy to London, Cherubino’s commission, or the old days in Seville? It seemed very odd that the Countess should sleep in a closet, by which I mean a place for storing clothes, rather than anything more interesting, though the brief interlude of lesbian dancing during the third act female chorus might have led somewhere – alas, it did not. The truly bizarre transformation of Basilio into something beyond Sascha Baren Cohen’s Brüno, replete with tight cycling shorts and a desperate tendency to try to hump every male leg that moved, amused some, but for this reviewer seemed merely to regress beyond the days of the late Kenneth Williams. As for the strange scent of apples sent out through the theatre at the beginning of the fourth act, I cannot begin to attempt to explain. Where were the social tensions, whether of Mozart’s declining society of orders, or any other time? There was no fruitful tension, or even just tension, between work and staging, so far as I could tell, just a lack of connection. Doubtless this is all terribly anti-post-modernist of me, but here I stand…

It is, then, a relief to relate that the musical side of things was much superior. Figaro in German is always going to sound odd to me; I listen to it for Furtwängler’s sake, but that is generally the only reason to do so. And the German language is no more suited to Mozart’s lines here than English is. German does not lend itself to such quicksilver delivery, especially during recitatives, a necessary qualification not always realised in performance. It was thus a relief to hear Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio in Italian; presumably the idea was that Cherubino had written the song in a foreign language. Quite why, who knows? The particular elegance and sentiment of slower arias does not translate well either.

Nevertheless, as I said, the general level of musical performance impressed. Patrick Lange encouraged a full, decidedly non-authenticke sound from the orchestra, which played with verve and with tenderness. There were occasions when tempi were on the fast side, but few conductors nowadays, Sir Colin Davis excepted, are likely to satisfy entirely in that respect. There was a commendable flexibility to Lange’s approach, which stood light-years from today’s merely fashionable. I was a little puzzled by the fortepianist, Pawel Poplawski’s Meistersinger interpolations, and a little more puzzled that no one else appeared to notice.
Given that the singers’ energies were perforce often directed to the business of stage action, there was much to admire vocally too. Tilmann Rönnebeck, himself a substitute Figaro, was ailing, but did a more than manful job in the title role. Hoarse by the fourth act, he had managed to hold a little in reserve for his final lines, and could certainly act. Christina Landshamer was a lively, sweet-toned Susanna, without a trace of the irritating quality that can sometimes attach itself to portrayals of the character. Tom Erik Lie had the masculinity of voice required by the Count, but his consort, Ina Kringelborn, did not quite attain the requisite grace and nobility. She was not, of course, helped by a production that presented her merely as an annoyed, pampered wife, whose ultimate forgiveness was childlishly undercut by a final finger-wagging. (That moment of forgiveness should be divine in its nature; here, theology was replaced by the sitcom.) Christiane Oertel and Hans-Peter Scheidegger’s Marcellina and Bartolo emerged as more central characters than is generally the case: well-sung and, in Oertel’s case, convincingly sassy. Thomas Ebenstein certainly threw his all into Kosky’s outlandish conception of the Almavivas’ music-master. Clearly a talented singing actor, it would be good to hear him again (see here) in a more conventional portrayal.

Perhaps it indicates a lack of a sense of humour that I do not find lots of coat hangers falling down or someone manically waving around a vacuum cleaner intrinsically hilarious; perhaps it renders me ‘elitist’ that I look for something more in The Marriage of Figaro. But there it is. It seemed to me a great waste of considerable musical talent. At least the production was not inflicted on the more fragile Così fan tutte.

Friday 9 April 2010

Berlin Festtage (5) - Tristan und Isolde, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 5 April 2010

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Tristan – Peter Seiffert
King Marke – René Pape
Isolde – Waltraud Meier
Kurwenal – Roman Trekel
Melot – Reiner Goldberg
Brangäne – Ekaterina Gubanova
Shepherd/Young Sailor – Florian Hoffmann
Steersman – Arttu Kataja

Harry Kupfer (director)
Hans Schavernoch (designs)
Buki Schiff (costumes)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

To direct Tristan und Isolde must be one of the most difficult tasks in the operatic world, though not of course so difficult as to perform it. Wagner, notoriously yet surely correctly, fretted about its power, writing to Mathilde Wesendonck, ‘I fear the opera will be banned – unless the whole thing is parodied in a bad performance –: only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, – I cannot imagine it otherwise.’ If a ‘perfectly good’ performance in the strictest sense remained elusive – has anyone other than Furtwängler accomplished that? – this was, in terms of staging and performance, probably the best overall that I have seen and heard. No one in my theatrical experience has matched the conducting of Bernard Haitink at Covent Garden, and he too was blessed by a good, albeit generally uncomprehended production, that of the late Herbert Wernicke, but the startling, indeed staggering, vocal inadequacy of the Tristans conductor and audience had to suffer could not, alas, be entirely overlooked. Moreover, of the three Tristans in the theatre I have heard conducted by Daniel Barenboim, this was surely the best, above all in as searing a first act as I have ever heard, reminiscent of Karl Böhm at Bayreuth.

But let us return first to the matter of directing Tristan. The difficulty seems largely to centre upon the necessity to do very little, not something that comes easily to many directors. And by saying ‘do very little,’ I do not suggest reliance upon a superficial, empty minimalism, for, at the same time, something must be done. A concert performance could certainly work, up to a point, and would be vastly preferable to most of what is put before us, but staging nevertheless makes all the difference. Perhaps it is because, in Tristan, Wagner came closest to the Attic tragedy he so revered, that straightforwardness seems the only viable course here. (A production with masks might be an ‘idea’ with potential.) There is no point in suggesting that Tristan is ‘about’ anything other than what it is about, which might sound tautological and probably is, but it is certainly the case that some productions, profoundly unfaithful to a work, can succeed in turning it into something else. This does not seem to be the case with Tristan.

It needs, then, an intelligent director with the humility to recognise these difficult truths. In this resurrection of Harry Kupfer’s 2000 production, its thirty-second performance, the drama found just that. (About the intervening production, which I saw twice here at the Linden opera house, the less said the better, or at least the more deferred until another occasion the better. Covent Garden’s recent mishap with Christof Loy was considerably worse.) Kupfer is not a director averse to ‘intervention’, but here he shows an awareness of when not to intervene. To transform Wagner’s metaphysics into bourgeois drama might tempt some – though I cannot imagine why – but Kupfer and his team (Hans Schavernoch and Buki Schiff) avoid that trap. Non-specificity seems to suit this particular myth best, and that is what we saw here. The work is no more ‘about’ Cornwall than it is ‘about’ whatever directorial conceit one often must suffer. Nor is it in a straightforward sense ‘about’ the time at which Wagner wrote it, though considered references as opposed to wholesale relocation will probably do no harm. So we have a mix of the timeless and vaguely nineteenth-century costume, neither fetishised, both at the service of the drama. And likewise we have as the centrepiece of each act a fallen angel, with a Victorian touch of ‘bad nineteenth-century,’ such as Thomas Mann would surely have appreciated, but more importantly, a revolving space for the true, inner action, and an ever-present reminder of the fallen human condition. If Schopenhauer had understood, he would have approved.

Barenboim’s musical direction was equally fine. I have already mentioned the outstanding first act, heard as if in one breath, and with a dramatic surge such as one might fear one would never hear again. The following two acts were perhaps not quite pitched at the same level, but nor did they fall far short. And the playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin, whose praises I have often had cause to sing, was simply magnificent. The depth and tone of the strings were such that one could have mistaken them for Bayreuth of a certain vintage: no Philharmonic-style internationalisation here. The woodwind solos – not just that bass clarinet – were, aided by Barenboim’s balancing, dramatically telling and radically prophetic of Wagner’s successors, from Debussy to Schoenberg and beyond. One of Barenboim’s strengths in Wagner has been his awareness of a certain degree of ‘French’ style that can work here, whilst remaining fundamentally true to Furtwänglerian inspiration. This orchestra truly sounded as if it were representing the Schopenhauerian Will and the Greek chorus, twin poles of Wagner’s orchestral æsthetics.

It may come as no surprise to hear that Waltraud Meier turned in a superlative performance as Isolde, but it still must be said. She lives the role like no one else alive and perhaps offers a more rounded, nuanced portrayal than many of her revered predecessors. Commanding the attention through vocal and stage presence, she was so much more suited to this production than to that in Paris. And, crucially, the production permitted her dignity, assumed as to the manor, or rather to the crown, born. My accompanying friend, whom I had doubtless bored to tears by previous raving, now understood why I had tested her patience so. René Pape must likewise surely be today’s Marke of choice. It is a role in which many succeed, as grateful as that of Tristan is not. But to ally dignity and forbearance with quite such beauty of tone is a rare gift indeed. Roman Trekel had a surprisingly shaky start as Kurwenal, sounding tired, but this was soon overcome by a searching, moving account. Amongst the smaller roles, Florian Hoffmann proved as sweet a toned Shepherd as I can recall, marrying to that vocal allure a deeply considered account of the words. And then, there is the role that is anything but ‘small’. Peter Seiffert attempted the impossible and came off with credit. So many singers are so unequal to the task that one steels oneself the moment a Tristan comes on stage, but Seiffert had the stamina and, by and large, the technical resources. It was a somewhat generalised portrayal, but within its own parameters it worked. What was odd, though, was the number of verbal lapses, when Seiffert sang words that perhaps rhymed with what they should have been or bore some other similarity. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – I cannot recall precise examples, but there was too much violence to verbal meaning for comfort, let alone for Wagner’s ‘perfectly good’ performance. Yet, in many other respects, the present performance came close. What a wonderful conclusion to the Staatsoper’s 2010 Festtage!

Thursday 8 April 2010

Berlin Festtage (4) - Hommage à Pierre Boulez: Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Boulez and Barenboim, 4 April 2010

Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Boulez – Messagesquisse, for violoncello solo and six violoncelli
Anthèmes 2, for violin solo and live electronics
Le Marteau sans maître

Hilary Summers (contralto)
Michael Barenboim (violin)
Hassan Moataz El Molla (violoncello)
Andrew Gerzso (IRCAM computer music designer)
Arshia Cont (IRCAM computer production)
Frédéric Prin (IRCAM sound engineer)
Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez (conductors)

It was not quite Pierre Boulez’s 85th birthday, which had fallen on 26 March, but this all-Boulez concert at the Linden opera house, bilingually entitled Hommage à Pierre Boulez zum 85. Geburtstag, marked the climax of the Berlin celebrations for this anniversary. Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra were led by Daniel Barenboim in the opening Messagesquisse and the composer himself in Anthèmes 2 and Le marteau sans maître.

The young Egyptian cellist, Hassan Moataz El Molla, was the excellent soloist in Messagesequisse, joined by six colleagues: Sary Khalifeh, Alberto Martos Lozano, Noa Chorin, Jana Semaan, Linor Katz, and Nassib Ahmadieh. Although there is no electronic element, the use of six other cellos provides a spatial element. These instruments are less an ‘orchestra’, at least in the typical concerto sense, than agents that further, develop, deepen, amplify the solo line. Sometimes akin to a penumbra, sometimes providers of kinetic energy, they present a commentary upon and broadening of the serial processes at work, which, typically for Boulez, provide unity even if they cannot necessarily be heard in themselves. (Here, actually, one can, hear them, at least at times.) Careful shading is crucial – and so it was in this performance. Boulez’s tribute to Paul Sacher, written in 1976 for that great musical patron, became a fitting opening tribute to the composer himself.

Anthèmes 2, which I had heard from Carolin Widmann in Salzburg last year, was now bravely essayed by Michael Barenboim. As pointed out in the excellent programme notes by Yuri Isabella Kato, Boulez’s titles for both the former and present work are portmanteau neologisms, derived from messages and esquisses in the one case, and thèmes and the English ‘anthems’ in the latter. This performance, though hardly without virtuosity – how could it be? – seemed perhaps less overtly so than Widmann’s, live electronics, expertly provided by the IRCAM team under the composer’s supervision, very much to the fore, with speakers placed around the relatively small house. Boulez’s sound world could now be truly transformed, technological developments enabling the electronic developments of which he had long hoped. There was to this performance a fine sense of the open-endedness, the lack of closure, which for Boulez has always been a crucial aspect of serial procedure. It was telling and appropriate, then, that the electronic sound should fade after that of the violinist.

After the interval came what perhaps remains the composer’s most celebrated work, Le Marteau sans maître. Hilary Summers, who sings the contralto part in Boulez’s most recent recording, was joined by Guy Eshed on flute, violist Ori Kam, Caroline Delume on guitar, percussionist Tomer Yariv, and Pedro Manuel Torréjon Gonzáles and Adi Morag on vibraphone and xylorimba respectively. It is by now unavoidable, and indeed quite right, that Le Marteau sans maître has become a ‘classic’, but that did not prevent a sense of rediscovery, doubtless aided by the youthful enthusiasm of the instrumentalists. What an opportunity for them – and how well taken! Allusions, subtle but to this listener unmistakeable, to Pierrot lunaire were to be heard even in the first movement: the lineage is not straightforward but certainly exists. The precision of rhythmic underpinning ensured that warmth and fantasy could be developed above. Voices were both distinctive and complementary, sometimes even merging, as in the flute and viola’s near-marriage at the end of L’Artisanat furieux and the increasing ‘instrumental’ quality of the contralto’s contribution to the final movement, the double, Bel édifice et les pressentiments. Summers’s diction was exemplary throughout, and her almost simple - never simplistic! - directness was something refreshingly different from the qualities other singers have brought to the work, every bit as compelling. Each instrumentalist had an opportunity to shine. Particular instances I noticed were the fine viola playing of Ori Kam in the fourth movement, the stereo pointillism of tuned percussion in Bourreaux de solitude, and, in the penultimate movement, the third commentaire on that poem, the counterpoint of underpinning percussion, tuned and untuned, with the ravishing beauty of the punctuated arabesques of Guy Eshed’s flute solo, already looking forward to …explosante-fixe…. The seventh movement had proved Webernesque in its concision and expressive quality, whilst the final double was perhaps the most seductive of all, once again in Eshed’s solo, but also in the mesmerising closing bars. It is a tribute to the performers that one could only wonder at why many listeners initially found this music so ‘difficult’.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Berlin Festtage (3): Barenboim/Staatskapelle Berlin/Boulez - Webern, Schoenberg, Boulez, and Berg, 3 April 2010

Philharmonie, Berlin

Webern – Passacaglia, op.1
Schoenberg – Piano Concerto, op.42
Boulez – Improvisations sur Mallarmé, no.2
Berg – Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6

Christine Schäfer (soprano)
Daniel Barenboim (piano)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Pierre Boulez (conductor)

It was a little disappointing to arrive at the Philharmonie to meet with a change of programme: two of Boulez’s Improvisations sur Mallarmé having been replaced by Webern’s Passcaglia, with a subsequent re-ordering. Not that hearing Boulez conduct Webern is a disappointing prospect, but to hear more of Pli selon pli would have been more welcome still, especially with Christine Schäfer on hand. At any rate, Boulez and the Staatskapelle delivered a first-rate account of Webern’s opus one. The opening soft pizzicato chords were perfectly audible – and meaningful. It was interesting to note that the opening was slower than Boulez has often taken the work, indicative of a greater flexibility that he now seems willing to employ. Mahlerian sounds have always been present in his Webern, but this was perhaps even more the case on the present occasion. It was, moreover, remarkable quite how Viennese in tone he made the Berlin strings sound, and the Staatskapelle’s woodwind soloists proved equally ravishing. This was a splendid opening, then, to the concert.

To have Daniel Barenboim as concerto soloist, with another conductor, is now a relatively uncommon occurrence, but Barenboim’s partnership with Boulez dates back to the early 1960s. They have performed the Schoenberg concerto together a number of times; the experience told. From the very opening, there was a strong melodic profile to the piano, taken up by the orchestra, as if this were Brahms chamber music. (Is Boulez finally overcoming his dislike of Brahms?) Key to the performance’s success was a keen rhythmic spring throughout. Barenboim’s voicing ensured that the particular characteristics of Schoenberg’s piano writing, for instance octaves and his favoured harmonies, shone through, likewise the composer’s weighting of chords. Soloists from the orchestra gratefully took their opportunities to shine during the Adagio, as Boulez span the music’s sinuous lines to moving effect. It perhaps goes without saying, but should not, that conductor and pianist provided coherence of line and harmonic progression throughout the performance. There was a true sense of narrative, even if that could not be translated into words. Barenboim’s beauty of touch provided much to savour too. Schoenberg emerged, then, as once again saying ‘yes’ under trying circumstances; victory was not easy and was therefore all the sweeter when it came.

The remaining Boulez Improvisation was the second, ‘Une dentelle s’abolit’ (‘A lace abolishes itself’). He seems to relish the multivalent meanings of Mallarmé’s text just as much as conductor as he did as composer. Time emerged both suspended and in motion, whilst those ravishing sonorities were certainly given their due by the excellent Staatskapelle players. Instrumental lines sparked off one another, whilst Schäfer spun her line above. It was luxuriant yet sharp, making one wish for more.

Finally came the Berg Op.6 pieces, to which Boulez brought a lifetime of experience. And a great deal now of Mahlerian experience, too, immediately apparent in the opening of the Präludium: a sense of following on from the Ninth Symphony as music emerges from nothingness. Again, it probably goes without saying, though should not, that Boulez’s distinction between Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme was revealing throughout, likewise his weighting and placement of Berg’s climaxes. Especially during this first movement, I heard a number of telling premonitions of Wozzeck. Viennese rhythms and sonorities were once more to the fore in Reigen, but accompanied by a looseness of mooring, a sense of frightening fantasy. The solos resembled appearances by operatic characters; indeed, Lulu did not sound distant. But Wozzeck returned, its final interlude palpably close, in the conclusion. Once again, Mahlerian points were made in the final Marsch, not least that unleashing of the forces of Hell so reminiscent of the Sixth Symphony. There were occasions, though, when the rhythmic and orchestral detail of Boulez’s reading seemed to contribute to a holding of fire. The pay-off was not quite what it might have been: my sole, if important, cavil concerning a fine performance.

Berlin Festtage (2): Eugene Onegin - Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 2 April 2010

Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin

Larina – Katharina Kammerloher
Tatiana – Anna Samuil
Olga – Maria Gortsevskaya
Filipievna – Margarita Nekrasova
Eugene Onegin – Artur Rucinski
Lensky – Rolando Villazón
Prince Gremin – René Pape
Triquet – Stephan Rügamer
Saretzki – James Homann
Captain – Rosen Krastev

Achim Freyer (director, designs, lighting)
Tilman Hecker (assistant director)
Lena Lukjanova and Amanda Freyer (costumes)

Freyer Ensemble
Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Eberhard Friedrich)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

I had hoped that I might see the light concerning Achim Freyer’s production of Eugene Onegin, which I first saw a year-and-a-half ago here in Berlin. Alas not, and I did not even have the element of surprise from the first viewing. In terms of the production, I really do not have anything much to add to my earlier review, which may be read here. In brief, Freyer has decided not only to jettison nineteenth-century Russia – on that, I am pretty neutral, and am happy to judge by results – but to turn everyone in the cast, most of whom are ‘extras’, into a joyless clown. Or rather, he has adopted his usual practice of doing this, irrespective of the work in question. Everything is meaningless would seem to be the refrain, which might be a point to make, but no discernible effort – again, I tried… - to connect this with Eugene Onegin. One could do the same thing to any work, with similar results. I felt no Brechtian alienation, merely boredom, the first time around; the same was the case here, allied with an impulse to scream, to hit someone, to do something, anything to break the tedium. Chairs are still twirled in slow motion and are sometimes suspended in mid-air. I am none the wiser why this should be done, but again it provides some desperately needed variation.

It seems to me that if one has no sympathy with a work, one might be better advised to stay away from it. If one finds it unconvincing, as I assume Freyer must do Onegin, then perhaps it might be better to find something that does convince. I can see why some people might not respond to this opera, though it actually seems to me reasonably straightforward if one accepts what Tchaikovsky accomplished in spite of his apparent intention, in making the friendship between Onegin and Lensky the central focus, with Tatiana as a voice for the composer’s frustrated desires. It does not, however, seem to me anything like so bad a work that one would wish to do this to it. (For what it is worth, I do not think it a bad work at all.) One can perversely admire the intricate direction of each clown’s movements, but what on earth have they to do with Eugene Onegin?

On the first occasion, the performance compensated. Indeed, I wrote at the time: ‘Rarely can Eugene Onegin have been conducted better than it was here under Daniel Barenboim. He conceived the work in one span, yet with impeccable attention to the needs of the moment.’ Sadly, this evening did not witness Barenboim on form, especially during the first ‘half’ (the interval came following the fourth scene). That first part seemed interminable. I do not know how long it took in ‘real’ terms but it seemed both extremely slow, for the most part, and generally listless. There were occasions when the music came into focus and there were a few when the conductor simply drove the music too hard, but these were certainly in the minority. The Staatskapelle Berlin played beautifully throughout, not least its gleaming strings. And there was much greater focus to the second, shorter ‘half’, the duel scene especially well judged: flexible but never arbitrary. The Polonaise, however, was once again excessively driven: it might have been Solti in the pit!

Alongside the orchestral playing, the singing was probably the only thing to impress, though, as one might expect, it varied. Smaller roles tended to be taken very well. Margarita Nekrasova truly brought a sense of Mother Russia to proceedings as the nurse, Filiepevna. René Pape was predictably excellent as Prince Gremin: despite his costume, sonorous of tone and noble of bearing. And Stephan Rügamer made the most of the Frenchman, Triquet. Anna Samuil emerged creditably as Tatiana, increasingly moving within the confines of the production, though she could sometimes prove a little anonymous. Artur Rucinski was also a good Onegin. Sometimes he sounded a little stretched, but again, he was hardly assisted by the production, and revealed as time went on a handsome, intelligently inflected baritone. Maria Gortsevskaya made little vocal impression, however, as Olga, though she was called upon to do a great deal of ‘clowning’. Then there was Rolando Villazón’s Lensky. Likewise called upon to be on stage and acting for most of the time, even after his death, he clearly threw everything into his performance. There were unfortunate moments, for instance during the fourth scene, when almost an entire phrase was alarmingly out of tune. But there was a winning sincerity to so much of his performance that one wanted to forget that the sound of his voice is not especially suited to Tchaikovsky. Rather to my surprise, the chorus often sounded out of sorts, and was a little too often out of sync with the orchestra, but its members were required to do so much irrelevant miming on stage that one could forgive a great deal.

Friday 2 April 2010

Berlin Festtage (1): Maurizio Pollini - Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez

Philharmonie, Berlin

Chopin – Preludes, op.28 (complete)
Debussy – Préludes, Book I (selection)
Boulez – Piano sonata no.2

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

What a difference both programming context and the audience make! A month ago, I had heard Maurizio Pollini perform the Chopin Preludes in London, at the Royal Festival Hall, as part of an all-Chopin recital. That had been a fine performance by any standards, but this one seemed to benefit from the forward-looking context to Pollini’s modernist Chopin – and certainly benefited from a quieter audience (not difficult, given the outrageous level of coughing in London).

Where the overriding concern of the London concert, insofar as one could discern through the audience participation, appeared to have been to present the twenty-four Chopin preludes as a tonal cycle, there now seemed to be a more perfect balance with the impulse to characterise individual preludes. Tonal unity was certainly present; it seemed, however, more of a springboard for further exploration, perhaps with the Debussy and Boulez works to come in mind. It reminded me that Boulez, whom one might expect to have favoured the late, atonal works of Liszt, once remarked that he found the middle-period works of that composer, like many piano works by Chopin and Schumann, most important, since they had so expanded the horizons of the instrument. Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez certainly all did in the works – and performances – heard this evening. After a relatively neutral C major opening, its relative minor successor took on the form of a mysterious processional, suggestive if necessarily ambiguous in narrative terms. The next piece, the G major prelude already suggested the technical and poetic experimentation of Debussy, as the penultimate F major piece would also do, likewise the almost but not quite abstract aquatic sense of the F-sharp major prelude, in which Ravel and Boulez might also be heard to beckon. Simple dignity in the E minor prelude highlighted the subtlety of Chopin’s left-hand harmonic shifts. A kinship with Liszt’s pianistic outpouring announced itself in a number of pieces, for instance the preludes in F-sharp minor and its diabolically virtuosic – certainly in this performance – counterpart in B minor. (What it might be to hear Pollini perform Liszt’s Transcendental Studies!) And filigree delicacy of fingerwork was to be heard in abundance in the trio of numbers nine to eleven. The blackness, and not just in terms of the notes on the keyboard, of the E-flat minor prelude coruscated, providing the perfect setting for contrast with its successor, the ‘Raindrop’, which emerged here as the focus of the entire cycle. Peerless voicing, the beauty of Chopin’s cantilena, and the grandeur of the climax were equally impressive. And anyone who says Pollini cannot do charm should have heard the almost Mendelssohnian A-flat prelude. A rare slip in the opening of the F minor prelude reminded one that, thankfully, the pianist is not quite infallible; otherwise, his virtuosity in this piece truly scorched. The C minor prelude shone: implacable yet tender. And finally, we heard Polish defiance in the D minor conclusion, the pianist’s command of line so complete that one barely noticed.

Pollini had originally been advertised to perform Debussy’s Etudes, but he elected instead to play an equally appropriate selection from the first book of Préludes. Those who have called him cold should have heard these performances – though coughing unhelpfully intervened – for as full a realisation of Debussy’s poetic imagination as one might conceive. A new yet related sound-world announced itself from the outset of Voiles, likewise the instrument with hammers the composer so desired. Perfection of fingerwork in Le vent dans la plaine never sounded merely efficient. Its successor, Les sons et les parfums dans l’air du soir demonstrated that Pollini can sound sultry too, whilst still permitting is to hear every note. Subtle insistence of the ‘Scotch snap’ permeated the melody and structure of Des pas sur la neige, whilst Lisztian inheritance stood very much to the fore in Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest. La cathédrale engloutie was a wonderful choice for the conclusion: dignity, grandeur, and a delight in harmony and sonority in perfect counterpoise.

This was the first, but will not be the last, of the Berlin Festtage to celebrate Boulez’s eighty-fifth birthday. It is astonishing to think that the second sonata, a landmark in new music, is now more than sixty years old, but so it is. Here we heard a performance upon an instrument that alternated between hammerless Debussy and violent presentiments of Le Marteau sans maître, the ultimate hammered work (which will be heard on Easter Sunday). The opening brought instant éclat, reminding one of Messiaen’s description of his young pupil as like a lion flayed alive. There was something in the first two movements both of the rhetoric of the earlier, brief Notations, but also of the serial expansionism that the pianist conveyed to perfection. In the second, Webernesque pointillism blossomed into something considerably more expansive, though its roots remained discernible. (Look no further than Pollini for an unbeatable performance of the Austrian composer’s Variations.) Poetry could be heard just as much as in Chopin and Debussy, with this slow movement proving a focal point equivalent to the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude in the first half. And then, the appearance of a malignant sprite – post-Liszt? post-Ravel? better just to say Boulez – provided the impetus for this movement’s further deconstruction of Beethovenian sonata form, a process continued in what one might consider the ‘scherzo’, characterised by pyrotechnics aplenty, albeit pyrotechnics with an almost Bakunin-like ‘creative destruction’ in mind. One heard in the opening of the final movement, as elsewhere, Debussy vying with Beethoven in the Boulezian penumbra. Here truly was an attempt to forge a new language, a new structure unfolding before our ears. Is this work becoming a classic? It probably already has, but no more than its antagonist, the Hammerklavier sonata, will it ever solely be that; the challenges for performer and listener will always be great, likewise the rewards. I recalled my head spinning from the first time I ever heard this work, on Pollini’s ‘classic’ recording; that can still happen, and did here. The detail of response was remarkable, but perhaps most memorable of all was that stillness, eerily reminiscent of the Alpine air breathed in the slow movement of Beethoven’s op.106, remade and re-breathed in the coda.

The composer was present and clearly delighted. Eventually, prodded by Daniel Barenboim, also in the audience, he went to the stage to greet Pollini and to acknowledge the applause. A standing ovation for both musicians was inevitable yet deserved.