Saturday 29 May 2010

Interview with Constantinos Carydis, Royal Opera House, 28 May 2010

Constantinos Carydis will shortly make his Covent Garden debut in a revival of Francesca Zambello’s production of Carmen. He kindly made time to speak to me concerning this and other musical matters. The conversation took place in a mixture of English, German, and very occasional French. I have therefore been a little more active editorially than would be my usual practice, translating the foreign language sections into English, occasionally retaining a foreign word where it might be useful to do so, and eliminating some repetition and explication. I began by asking how everything was going during his first visit to the house.

CC: It is all very nice, really nice. Everyone is very open, all of my colleagues with whom I work. I am enjoying it very much.

MB: And have you worked in London before, with another company or with one of the orchestras?

CC: No, this is the first time. I have visited London many times, of course, but only as a tourist.

MB: Quite a lot of your work has been in Germany, hasn’t it?

CC: Yes, in Germany, Austria, France, Italy…

MB: And Carmen in Munich, at the Theater am Gärtnerplatz, I believe?

CC: Yes, I conducted a new production at the Gärtnerplatz theatre and then also at the Staatsoper, in the older Lina Wertmüller staging.

MB: So you come here with quite some experience of the work already. How do you find the production here at Covent Garden?

CC: Honestly, I haven’t seen the production here before, because to watch something on DVD, you don’t see exactly what something is like.

MB: At best, a cameraman’s – or cameramen’s – view. You can’t look where you like, at least with most technology as it stands.

CC: Exactly. I don’t feel that I can understand a production until I see it, am involved in it, myself. I would like to have the opportunity to see it step by step here, to see how it works. It comes much more alive (lebendig) that way.

MB: I’ve seen this production once before and it put me very much in mind of West End theatre: the emphasis upon spectacle, the experience of the ‘show’. There’s a lot of theatre, a lot for people to see. And of course, one of these performances is going to be screened across the country, so you will have a huge audience…

CC: Yes, it will be an opportunity for people who cannot go to the opera, who have maybe never been to an opera performance, to go perhaps for the first time.

MB: Do you think Carmen is a good piece for people seeing opera for the first time?

CC: Yes, I do. It’s perhaps the most popular piece, certainly one of the most popular pieces, perhaps with the exception of Zauberflöte.

MB: At least in Germany... For people who haven’t seen or heard Carmen before, what will be the main points?

CC: The first impression of the opera will be that they know the popular melodies. They will have heard them on film or in adverts, or as excerpts. Then there will be big choral scenes. And of course the music is extremely direct. It is popular because it speaks straight to the heart.

MB: It’s not philosophical?

CC: It is philosophical but in a different way.

MB: So nothing that will frighten someone off? Not like Wagner?

CC: Yes, not so intellectual. But the dramaturgy, the construction of the piece, is wonderful.

MB: And the idea of fate…

CC: Yes, of course.

MB: And thinking of philosophy, a great philosopher, Nietzsche, used Carmen to show what opera might be, as opposed to Wagner. Something to dance to, which one probably wouldn’t think of with Tristan… This time, are you using the dialogue or the recitatives?

CC: The dialogue. Most performances do now. It is closer to the original idea of opera comique, a very important element of the theatre. Also, there are many elements here of a middle way between singing and speaking. Whether one sings or speaks, one must always concentrate very much here on the words. The text is always very important – not only the language itself but the meaning. This bridge is fascinating for me, between spoken text and grand opéra, this place in between.

MB: And it is a very realistic opera of course. You don’t have a character taking ten minutes to voice an emotion whilst the action stops.

CC: Very realistic. That is probably another reason why it is so popular: people can identify with the characters. They can find parts of themselves in the characters, whether dark sides or bright sides. It is a great quality of the piece.

MB: And Carmen herself, for someone who has never seen the opera, how would you describe her?

CC: For me, Carmen is a self-destructive character. We see that at the end, of course. I don’t know if she wants to die, but that possibility is there all along in her life. She is a fatalistic woman. And I think self-destructive people have these extremes in their lives. They have very nice, charming sides, and a side that is darker, unfathomable (abgründig). Everything that seems frivolous, light, on the surface, comes from a very deep feeling.

MB: Which is again similar to something Nietzsche extolled: the Greeks, he said, being superficial – out of profundity. One can see what might have attracted him to Carmen.

CC: Exactly. And I think that, all the time, this discrepancy between surface and what lies below, between lightness and that which is abgründig, one has to manage the balance between them. Actually, there is no balance, because all the time it is changing. There is never for me a moment when you can say: Carmen is like that or the situation is like that. And she doesn’t realise why she changes: it happens.

MB: She doesn’t reflect, then?

CC: Everything is for the moment. She is very intuitive.

MB: Why does she choose Escamillo?

CC: I don’t know whether I can answer the question. Perhaps it is more comfortable for her not to have a man who is similar to her, like Don José. He also has a dark side, is complex. Escamillo is a more normal person. But she loves Don José really. For me, it is quite clear in the harmony.

MB: The music tells you the real story?

CC: Yes. When Carmen says, ‘Ah, je t’aime Escamillo, je t’aime,’ every time the tonality moves away from its normal focus. It is perhaps a way for Bizet to say: she is lying when she says, ‘I love Escamillo’. The tonality is not so well established (begründet). Bizet is saying: no, she loves Don José; it is uncomfortable.

MB: The sort of subtlety in the music, then, that might have appealed both to Wagner and Brahms, both of whom thought highly of the work. As you say, its realism helps with popularity, it must be quite a long way the most popular in French. Far more so than say, Pelléas, which will never have that popular appeal.

CC: The whole story, Maeterlinck’s story, is so very different. It is much more difficult to understand. And people can identify much more easily with the characters in Carmen.

MB: Identifying with Mélisande might be rather difficult… And you are thinking with symbols. Debussy of course did write a lot of music concerned with Spain, as did Ravel. And it used to be said, somewhat unfairly, that most of the best Spanish music was written by Frenchmen. But the location, Seville is very important for the drama of Carmen.

CC: And the sense of folklore, but not in a touristic way. The instrumentation is very fine…

MB: Very clear?

CC: Yes, and very subtle. It is not always the real sound of something, more suggestive of it, the atmosphere: the Spanish music is not always in the foreground, but there whilst something else is going on.

MB: Another composer whose music you have conducted a great deal in the opera house is Mozart. Do you find any similarities here? The realism perhaps?

CC: And the simplicity of the music, which then goes deep beneath the surface. The ambivalence in the characters too: you never know exactly where the darkness is, and where the light. They are human beings. Also, the instrumentation: so fine, so simple, and so effective.

MB: Everything is there for a reason. You hear a clarinet, and you know or at least feel what it means, likewise the tonality.

CC: Exactly.

MB: And you have also conducted Gluck. There is a DVD from Stuttgart of Alceste. So dramatically truthful a composer – and work…

CC: Very much. He wrote, when composing the second, French version of Alceste, that he hadn’t slept whilst at work, because he was so committed to the piece – and I think I can hear that in the music. It is honest music, a part of him, of his soul.

MB: The truthfulness I find inspiring, and cutting down the music to what is essential, without show or display, just as his librettist, Calazbigi wrote in the famous preface to the Italian version of Alceste.

CC: He wanted everything to be there for the drama.

MB: You feel that it is a way to present, to make alive ancient Greek drama in the modern world.

CC: Yes, it brings alive the characters, the drama, for today.

MB: Again, it is easy to see why Wagner approved. Have you conducted any Wagner yet?

CC: No, but I would like to try.

MB: Anything in particular?

CC: For me, Tristan is one of the most inspiring works of all, but I’d like to explore other works too. Tristan above all though.

MB: I can understand that. I often find it a work difficult to speak about; it is such a thing-in-itself (Ding an sich).

CC: Precisely. And sometimes we can speak too much about music; it is there in itself. If we can explain the music completely, we do not need the music. It is sometimes better to listen.

MB: Just to return, though, to Carmen, what about the singers with whom you are working?

CC: I like them very much.

MB: Christine Rice as Carmen, for example: such a versatile singer.

CC: Yes, she is wonderful. And it is a young cast.

MB: … which is good for Carmen

CC: Yes, they are all great singers and a joy to work with.

Carmen will open at the Royal Opera House on 5 June, running until 26 June. (See the Royal Opera House website.) The 8 June performance will be shown on screens across the United Kingdom; for further details, please click here.

Monday 24 May 2010

Jerusalem Quartet - Mozart and Janáček, 23 May 2010

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.15 in D minor, KV 421
Janáček – String Quartet no.2, ‘Intimate Letters’

Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler (violins)
Amihai Grosz (viola)
Kyril Zlotnikov (violoncello)

Following the previous night’s Mozart and Janáček from the Jerusalem Quartet, there came a Sunday morning bonus, performed at just as distinguished a level. The second of Mozart’s ‘Haydn’ quartets, that in D minor, opened in achingly beautiful fashion, relishing the composer’s chromaticism, whilst imparting lilting grace to the first movement’s second subject. Mozart’s reminiscences of Gluckian noble simplicity – for instance the Don Juan ballet music, also in D minor – were married to a veiled menace entirely the younger composer’s own. The development section was properly intense, thematically oriented, whilst the recapitulation bore its tragic burden stoically. Quiet intensity characterised the slow movement, which once again succeeded in conveying an underlying, if illusory, sense of simplicity; art concealed art. A passionate cello-led episode led one to wonder at the richness of Kyril Zlotnikov’s tone: fine playing indeed. The vehemence – Mozart’s D minor daemon again – of the minuet was never astringent; quality of tone must never be sacrificed here. But that would have been as naught, had it not been for the players’ strong underlying rhythmic pulse. The trio caught perfectly the ambience of a Mozartian outdoor serenade – and serenaded to we were too, by Alexander Pavlovsky’s sweet-toned first violin. Backed by his pizzicato band, he would then be joined in an unerringly well-judged duet by Amihai Grosz’s rich-toned viola. (No wonder that the players would encore this trio at the end of the concert.) The minuet’s reprise would sound still more heartfelt. Pathos of tonality and siciliano rhythm marked the opening statement of the finale’s theme. Intensity of feeling if anything increased during the variations, tragedy heightened by voiced delight in Mozart’s developmental ingenuity and an unfailing appreciation of its dramatic implications. Grosz’s viola solo truly provided something to savour in the third variation, whilst the grace of the turn to the major mode in its successor proved both balm and illusion enough, rendering the return to D minor all the more poignant.

As with the previous night’s performance, the opening bars of the Janáček quartet, in this case his second, Intimate Letters, brought an instantly convincing identification with the composer’s sound world – and his harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns. The very difficult trick to bring off is to convey an overriding formal continuity to this music, without underselling the dramatic thrust of its discontinuities. Add to resounding success in that respect an extraordinarily wide expressive range, from red-blooded passion to harrowing bleakness, quiet stillness to jealous anger, and you might approach as fine a performance as this. The Adagio brought moments of transfiguration – Katya Kabanova sprang to mind – but anger and sadness remained. In keeping with the highly dramatic framework, I could imagine the third movement as if it were the opening of a new act in a Janáček opera: the forlorn heroine glimpsed at home, reflecting upon her predicament, trying to reach some form of resolution, its implications becoming clear, likewise the urgency to act. Fanciful? Doubtless, but indicative of the dramatic commitment at work here. Final resolution did not prove easy in the final movement, nor should it have done. It looked back but equally provided something new, crucial to dramatic conclusion. Interruption was as much the thing as the interrupted dance. Somehow, almost miraculously, but in fact testament to the Jerusalem players’ understanding, movement and work proved utterly coherent.

Jerusalem Quartet/Power - Mozart and Janáček, 22 May 2010

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – String Quartet no.20 in D major, KV 499, ‘Hoffmeister’
Janáček – String Quartet no.1, ‘Kreutzer Sonata’
Mozart – String Quintet in C major, KV 515

Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler (violins)
Amihai Grosz, Lawrence Power (violas)
Kyril Zlotnikov (violoncello)

What a pleasure it was to welcome the Jerusalem Quartet and Lawrence Power back to the Wigmore Hall. In March, they played a Mozart quartet and quintet alongside the Debussy quartet; this time, Janáček was the ‘second composer’, equally well served.

The Hoffmeister Quartet, KV 499, received a reading that generally balanced – a crucial word with Mozart – elegance and richness of tone, contrapuntal clarity and harmonic direction. Where many players would have been tempted, probably more than tempted, to rush the opening Allegretto, Allegretto is what we heard. Mozart’s sinuous chromaticism beguiled. The vigorous development section truly, purposefully developed the thematic material, bringing to mind the German Durchführung: this section provides proportional balance but there is much more to it than that. I very much liked the throwaway coda: not too much, just enough. The minuet was excellent, its pace and swing permitting Mozart’s chromaticism once again to tell. Tone was properly Viennese, without a hint of the fashionably astringent. After that, the trio provided a proper contrast, its brooding minor-mode character looking forward to Beethoven. It was a relief to greet an Adagio that was an Adagio, rather than a modishly fast movement such as we hear too all often. The key to this is to have the measure of long phrases and of the detailed writing within. There were some beautiful first violin flights of fantasy from Alexander Pavlosvsky and rich-toned duetting between him and Amihai Grosz. Quite rightly, however, shadows were never too distant; I was put in mind of the slow movement to the G major piano concerto, KV 453. I missed a little more sparkle in the finale, but the quartet’s richness of tone compensated, likewise the density of counterpoint that yet never sounded didactic.

That, however, was my sole reservation concerning the evening’s performance. There followed a marvellous account of Janáček’s first string quartet. The opening bar immediately plunges us into the composer’s unmistakeable sound-world. Longing and vitality were two sides of the same musical coin, ever suffused in lyricism. Repetition and modification of short figures formed the cellular basis for greater musical spans. The second movement shared these characteristics but now in the form of a strange, interrupted polka, vehement and tender, albeit with a bias towards the former. Sadness characterised the third movement, again interruptedly so, on this occasion by truly coruscating tremolando playing on the bridge. There was violence here, which miraculously blossomed into songs of ardent love: not unshakeable, and therefore all the more convincing. The passion of the final movement was again utterly credible, not least for its non-romanticised qualification, for there was startling rawness of emotion in the performance, an ever-present sense of decidedly non-folksy Moravian roots. And yet, there was ecstasy too, an ecstasy that connected the quartet with the composer’s operatic writing in The Cunning Little Vixen and Jenůfa. I have not heard a more convincing, all-consuming performance than this.

Lawrence Power once again joined the players for a Mozart quintet, on this occasion KV 515 in C major. The richness of tone previously heard deepened still further, providing a cushion of velvet upon which Mozart’s melodic twists – how he surprises us with the expected! – to be properly loved, likewise the carefully-crafted irregular phrasing. (How he there reassures us with the unexpected!) There was especial joy to be had in the first movement from Kyril Zlotnikov’s rising cello arpeggio figures: sensitively yet ardently voiced, as life-affirming and yet also as prophetic of Schubert as anything in Mozart. The performance was vocal and conversational throughout, without the slightest hint of the routine; always one felt that the music was of supreme importance, which of course it is. Had I been counting, I should have lost track of the number of occasions on which I smiled knowingly, so much was there to relish. By Mozart’s standards, the minuet is a little dour, or perhaps I simply have not learned to appreciate it. At any rate, the passages in thirds showed how much, in more than one sense, the players were truly in harmony with each other. The trio, however, is an utter delight, graceful and sinuous in performance, fun too: this music has it all. Grosz and Pavlovsky once again seized the opportunity to shine in the slow movement, supported and responded to by every other musician. Control of line was impeccable throughout, with none of the short-breathed phrasing – or rather non-phrasing – all the rage in fashionable quarters. If I had entertained the odd doubt about the finale to the Hoffmeister quartet, I had none in this case. The final movement pulsated with life: sounding easy, though it is of course anything but, voiced with a fine tonal quality one could readily take for granted but should not. Pavlovsky provided some ravishing portamenti, though never for their own sake. The movement as a whole had the character of a dashing sonata-rondo, even if the form is a little more tricky to define, for there was a serious developmental side to it that was neither overlooked nor overplayed. Balance again… I am sorely tempted to describe this as a great performance. Let us hope that the Jerusalem Quartet and Power will record this and the other Mozart quintets. Some Janáček too, please!

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Boesch/Martineau - Schubert, Wolf, Zemlinsky, and Krenek, 18 May 2010

Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Prometheus, D 674
Schubert – Gesänge des Harfners, D 478-80
Wolf – Three Michelangelo Lieder
Wolf – Prometheus
Zemlinsky – Die Schlanke Wasserlilie
Zemlinsky – In die Ferne
Zemlinsky – Wandl’ich in dem Wald des Abends
Zemlinsky – Waldgespräch
Krenek – Seven Songs from Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen, op.62

Florian Boesch (baritone)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)

An enterprising programme, but did it come off? I found myself rather in two minds, at least with respect to Florian Boesch, for Malcolm Martineau’s piano contribution was uniformly excellent. Boesch is an unconventional Lieder-singer: not for the purist, given an approach that often proved frankly operatic. I mean this not in the sense of placing line and tone over words, quite the opposite, but in terms of an overtly physical presentation with a great deal of stage movement and gesture.
Schubert’s Goethe setting, Prometheus, thus opened the programme with a virile piano introduction, fully matched by Boesch’s entry and recitative-like delivery. It was not beautiful but angry, prophetic perhaps of Wagner’s Dutchman. And the final stanza – ‘Hier sitz ich, former Menschen/Nach meinem Bilde …’ (Here I sit, fashioning men/after my own image) – possessed Beethovenian humanistic purpose. The following Gesänge des Harfners, Goethe again, were properly scaled down, sharply characterised. Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt projected the bleakness of enforced solitude, Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß weary resignation with one’s earthly lot, and An die Türen an almost ghostly presence. Did the latter, though, verge too close to Sprechgesang?

Doubts resurfaced in the Wolf Michelangelo-Lieder. Martineau provided quasi-orchestral colour in the introduction to Wohl denk’ich oft, Boesch responding in musico-dramatic style. But Alles endet, was entstehet proved a case of commitment to verbal meaning at the expense of intonation and tonal production, though pianistic darkness was no less than an object lesson. I liked the apt sense of quickening in Fühlt meine Seele, but when returning to Goethe’s Prometheus, for Wolf’s setting, physical expression combined with hectoring to suggest that less might have been more.

Repertoire in the second half was more unusual. Four Zemlinsky songs turned us instantly to a fin-de-siècle world, though we do not hear the composer here at his most adventurous. A highlight was the Heine setting, Wandl’ich in dem Wald des Abends, nicely poised, with a Schumannesque delicacy that would be echoed in the Schumann encore. Boesch’s response was full of interesting detail, for instance the crescendo and diminuendo upon the final word, ‘einher’. (Whether that were in the score, I do not know: if so, it was respected; if not, it was an imaginative touch.) The Eichendorff setting, Waldgespräch, benefited from the full musico-dramatic treatment, revealing a Zemlinsky successor to Erlkönig.

Finally came a selection from Krenek’s Reisebuch aus den österreichischen Alpen. I had awaited this keenly, if only for the welcome opportunity to hear repertoire from off the beaten track, but I was less convinced about its intrinsic quality. Perhaps I should have paid closer heed to the date: 1929, for this musical travel diary pre-dates the twelve-note Karl V. I could find little to unite the musical style beyond a certain anonymity and the texts, the composer’s own, are rather wordy. Boesch and Martineau nevertheless relished the opportunity of performance, whether in raindrop word-painting during Wetter – ‘Weather’, a singularly uninspiring title! – and Regentag, or the theatricality of Alpine collapse (‘einstürzen’) in Friedhof im Gebirgsdorf. Boesch, in Regentag, showed a seductive quality not readily evident during the first half, whilst his unmistakeably Austrian style and pronunciation paid off handsomely in Unser Wein (Dem Andenken Franz Schuberts). Alpenbewohner witnessed the adoption of a cabaret-like style of delivery, not inappropriate to the text, the song emerging as a demented successor to Schoenberg’s Brettl-Lieder, albeit without the mastery of form. There was much food for thought then, even if certain reservations persisted.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Hanslip/RPO/Slatkin - Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky, 17 May 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Prokofiev – Symphony no.1 in D major, op.25, ‘Classical’
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.63
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.6 in B minor, op.74, ‘Pathétique’

Chloe Hanslip (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin (conductor)

A disappointing concert, alas: I hope that this was a one-off rather than being indicative of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra’s fortunes since the departure of Daniele Gatti. Memories of Gatti’s Mahler Ninth will, I am sure, remain me for a long time; those of this performance will, I hope, prove more fleeting. Leonard Slatkin has often had a bad press in this country, contrasting starkly with his fortunes in his native USA. His tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was less than happy, but he has found a new London home with the RPO. On the evidence of this concert, however, there did not seem to be much rapport between orchestra and conductor.

The first piece, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony began promisingly enough, the RPO’s cellos digging deep and the orchestra as a whole exhibiting crucial precision. Mendelssohnian woodwind added to a favourable initial sound world in the first movement. However, the music soon began to sound a little mechanised. A valid interpretative strategy? Perhaps, anticipating the motor rhythms of later or indeed some contemporary Prokofiev. But there are places at which the music benefits from some relaxation, which was not afforded here. A tempo that was arguably excessively fast led to more than a few imprecisions as the music progressed. The Larghetto simply sounded too fast, equivalent to a latter-day ‘authenticke’ approach to Classicism; whatever one thinks of that, it is hardly germane to Prokofiev’s concerns. Violins often sounded thin, perhaps under strain from their relative lack of numbers. The abiding impression was unyielding: more Stravinsky than Prokofiev. Ditto the gavotte, which certainly benefits from greater heft than was permitted here; it sounded ultimately inconsequential. The finale was much better, bolting like a Mannheim rocket, to mix a couple of metaphors. Part of the problem, I think, was that the RPO was somewhat scaled down – ten first violins, if I remember correctly – which made it neither a full-scale symphony orchestra such as Karajan’s Berlin Philharmonic, peerless in this work, nor a crack chamber orchestra performing at full throttle. The half-way house, as so often, does not quite satisfy.

That said, the symphony received a better reading than Prokofiev’s second violin concerto. Here the fault lay squarely with the soloist, Chloë Hanslip. Maybe she was having an off day, but on the evidence of this performance, this was music that lay beyond her reach, both technically and interpretatively. Her opening phrase encapsulated both strains of shortcoming: far too slow, strangely deliberate, and highly uncertain of tuning. Thereafter tempo changes, which seemed largely to be dictated by how fast she was able to play, lacked motivation, and double-stopping generally exceeded her capabilities. There were times when the first movement, marked Allegro moderato, almost ground to a halt: more of a Shostakovich-like Moderato or even Andante. The slow movement started more promisingly, less ponderous and with greater orchestral warmth. However, Hanslip’s solo line soon exhibited the vibrato of a particularly wobbly soprano, especially on high notes. The tempo began to sag towards the middle of the movement – and continued to do so, torpor being the order of the day by the end. A better job was made of the finale, though it remained on the light side. There were, however, nice touches of ‘Russian’ vibrato from the trumpets. One of the great twentieth-century violin concertos never had a chance here though.

Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony benefited from a larger body of strings. The first movement was the most convincing: rather impressive even. Its introduction was taken slowly but convincingly so, with real depth to the violas. The exposition proper commenced with urgency, though there was sometimes a certain edge to the violins, which dissipated as the work progressed. Brass blared a bit too. From the moment we reached the second subject, however, the movement really hit its stride. In a soulful reading, the strings could really shine. And this wound down beautifully, so that the opening of the development could shock. Perhaps the movement as a whole sprawled a little, lacking the utter inevitability of a Mravinsky, but it was unquestionably the highpoint of the concert. There was something hauntingly funereal, cortège-like, to the coda, even though it sounds in the major mode. The waltz was not bad, but, ironically given its celebrated 5/4 time signature, somehow remained resolutely foursquare. It lacked easy-going charm, sounding all too effortful. The march was similar, the RPO’s response impressive enough in purely orchestral terms, though Slatkin’s direction was unduly metronomic. Yet there was no sense of subtext. Where was the anger? Should this sound merely enjoyable? Some members of the audience took Slatkin at his word, not only applauding, but cheering. (To his credit, the conductor was having none of it.) The final Adagio was songful, most convincing when the (more or less) full orchestra sounded, but it was hardly a threnody. Applause intervened immediately, presumably from the same morons who had made their presence felt after the march. Slatkin’s hands remained raised, leading to the somewhat farcical outcome of the applause dying down, before resuming. And whatever this symphony might be, a farce it is not.

Sunday 16 May 2010

Michel van der Aa: After Life, Barbican, 15 May 2010

Barbican Hall

(semi-staged performance)

Chief – Claron McFadden
Bryna – Helena Rasker
Ilana – Margriet van Reijsen
Sarah – Yvette Bonner
Mr Walter – Richard Suart
Aiden – Roderick Williams

Michel van der Aa (director, video)
Robby Duiveman (costumes)
Otto Tausk (conductor)

I was rather excited about this performance – as a prospect. No one could fault the Barbican Centre’s enterprise in bringing across from the Netherlands a new opera by a highly regarded composer, Michel van der Aa: just what an enterprising arts venue should be doing, in this case as part of its Present Voices season. (Henze’s Phaedra had been given its British premiere in January. April had witnessed Heiner Goebbels’s I Went to the House and did not Enter.) A promising team of performers, not least the crack ASKO|Schoenberg ensemble and soloists such as Claron McFadden and Roderick Williams, was slated – and did not disappoint. Why then was I disappointed?

Try as I might, I could find little to recommend in the work itself. In brief, the action is set in a ‘way-station between heaven and earth’. New entrants must choose from their single lives a memory that was ‘most meaningful or precious’ to them. The staff help them do this and put together brief films of those memories, rather as if they were on Blue Peter. One of them, Aiden, is eventually enabled to leave by finding his own memory; he must therefore leave behind Sarah, who may have fallen in love with him. At the end, the films are shown. However, interspersed with this principal action are testimony from ‘real people’: ‘video insert documentaries’, which range from the interesting – well, one of them – to the insufferably banal. Tessa, a South African who turned her back on apartheid represents the former; a short documentary concerning her life and experiences might well have been of interest in its own right. Flint, a little boy who lost his dog, stood at the other end of the scale. Inclusion of children is usually a cheap trick, to prey upon sentimentality; whether that were the intention here, I have no idea, but it was certainly the result, as nauseating audience cooing commenced. (I was put in mind of the dreadful ENO Messiah from last Advent.)

The libretto, adapted by the composer from a story by Hirokazu Kore-eda, was perhaps the worst aspect: not only unmusical but prosaic to a degree that almost defied competition. Here, chosen at random, is a brief excerpt:

But those are just memories.
And ultimately, we end up
turning memories
into our own images.
Of course, they really happened,
so they feel very real, but …
Say I construct the future,
as though I’m making a film about it.
As I imagine all kinds of situations,
I think that what I create,
would feel a lot more real
than some memory.
And that’s a lot more meaningful than
looking back at the past.
Living with a single moment from my past,
would be too painful for me.

I think you’d better reconsider.

It’s your whole set-up here
That needs rethinking.

Ilana, I think, spoke truer than she knew. A theatrical treatment of the state of Limbo, recently put under siege by the Pope but still dear to many believers’ hearts, might have been a more promising idea. The banality of responses to the opera’s great question on a dedicated website suggests that just about anything might have been. But religion, astonishingly, was entirely absent.

Of course, some memorable operas succeed in spite of their texts. Alas, I could find nothing to interest me in the music either. It seemed to rely upon a few repeated figures, vaguely minimalistic, post-Stravinskian at a stretch. After a certain degree of repetition, they changed slightly, and were joined from time to time by electronic elements. At certain ‘emotional’ moments there was more heightened ‘emotional’ music, in a generalised fashion. There was nothing offensive; I rather wish there had been. It was all just mildly boring. Perhaps such uneventful music was an attempt to characterise a a ‘way-station between heaven and earth’. Who knows?

The performances, however, seemed to me excellent. There was no faulting the commitment of the ensemble, nor Otto Tausk’s direction. Standing out amongst the singers, as one might have expected, were Claron McFadden’s Chief and Roderick Williams’s Aiden. Insofar as the latter could move us, he did. But all of the cast contributed impressively; it was just a pity that the cause were not a little less enervating.

Friday 14 May 2010

Takács Quartet - Beethoven, 13 May 2010

Queen Elizabeth Hall

String Quartet no.7 in F major, op.59 no.1, ‘Razumovsky’
String Quartet no.13 in B-flat major, op.130, with Grosse Fuge, op.133

Edward Dusinberre, Lina Bahn (violins)
Geraldine Walther (viola)
András Fejér (violoncello)

This was the final concert in the Takács Quartet’s survey of the complete Beethoven quartets at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, itself part of the Southbank Centre’s Cycles of Beethoven series, from which I heard Daniel Barenboim’s presentation with the Staatskapelle Berlin of all five piano concertos (see reviews for January and February). Alas, this was the only of the Takács concerts I attended: on this evidence, I wish I had heard all of the performances. The players certainly went out in style, with the first Razumovsky quartet and op.130, replete with Grosse Fuge. (They had given the same quartet with the alternative finale in the first concert, back in November.) Despite the temporary loss of second violinist, Karoly Schranz, to rotator cuff surgery – he is due back on the platform in September – members of the quartet, welcoming Lina Bahn to the fold, seemed utterly at home with each other, individually and corporately.

There was an apt sense of new possibilities to the first Razumovsky quartet. Beethoven’s middle period only seems less extraordinary than his late period because so many of the works are so apparently familiar. What one needs to do is listen to be jolted out of complacency. The Takács Quartet ensured that listen is what we did, drawing us in with storytellers’ wit and sheer joy in the composer’s ingenuity, here every bit the equal of Haydn’s. Counterpoint was not only clear but meaningful, propelling us through Beethoven’s tonal plan and, especially during the first movement, relishing tonal ambiguities and their emphatic resolution. Such an approach was a hallmark of the entire performance, for instance during the strange opening of the second movement, those celebrated repeated notes pregnant with possibility. ‘Which way will Beethoven turn?’ one asked, even though, as a consequence of that ‘apparent’ familiarity, one thought one already ‘knew’ the answer. Underlying all exploration and resolution was the absolute security of cellist András Fejér’s cello bass line: not just secure but decisive – and not just decisive but subtle of inflection.

The Adagio molto e mesto was mesto (sad) indeed, but never maudlin. Players who think that maintenance of momentum involves faster tempo should listen to this: not that it felt especially slow; it simply felt ‘right’, like any well-chosen tempo. Nor was there any of the short-breathed phrasing that passes for Beethoven performance today; that naturalness of unfolding, concealing a great deal of art, was present throughout. One often thinks of the ‘finale problem’ with respect to Beethoven; in many respects, it is a problem of our own devising. Just because greater weight was ascribed to open movements, it does not necessarily follow that Beethoven encountered difficulty in balance and conclusion. A huge amount of nonsense is spoken about the Eroica finale in this respect. Listen to a good performance – easier said than done, I admit – and the ‘problem’ disappears, ‘surmounted’ in triumph. This quartet’s finale is less triumphant, but again there is no problem. The players successfully navigated between apparent ‘lightness’ of mood, born of the Russian theme, and the requisite weight and purpose demanded by Beethoven’s goal-oriented trajectory. Nothing drew attention to itself; there was no need to do so.

With one important exception – to which I shall come shortly – the players equally had the measure of op.130. The first two movement, and not only these, impressed with the sense of dislocation, fragmentation, and eventual piecing together. Quite rightly, this entailed effort on the listener’s part – how could it be otherwise? – but such effort would be in vain, were one not in capable performing hands. The variety of touch, sonority, vibrato, indeed of anything on which the quartet could legitimately draw: all this contributed to a fine exploration of what Beethoven offers, suggests, and eventually demands. First violinist Edward Dusinberre’s tonal gradation was an especial joy in the Andante con moto, ma non troppo – itself a further example of the players’ gift for making tempo choices sound right. As with all the best games, the sense of play in the Alla danza tedesca served to heighten the understanding that something important was unfolding – but only at the end might one begin to piece together what it had been and what it would be.

However, the Cavatina emerged a little plain-spoken, and this brings me to my only real reservation concerning the performance. Beethoven’s sublime simplicity is an extraordinary difficult thing to bring off – especially so in our distinctly unheroic, non-transcendental age. The song was beautiful, but I missed that crucial sense of transcendence. Delight in the composer’s ingenuity takes us along away, but that particular sense of vouchsafing divinity was not to be experienced; such would perhaps have been a greater fault in a performance of the symphonies or piano sonatas, but it registered nevertheless. There was, however, much compensation to be had in a truly coruscating performance of the Grosse Fuge, all niceties flung aside, Beethoven’s endlessly striving radicalism thrust firmly centre stage. I was taken aback – and positively so – by the refusal to prettify or beautify, by the sheer violence of the Takács Quartet’s response. And the central section here did achieve that transcendence I had missed earlier. This truly is music that threatens to make even Bartók sound conventional.

Thursday 13 May 2010

Artur Pizarro, Chopin, 11 May 2010

St John's, Smith Square

Ballade no.1 in G minor, op.23
Two Nocturnes, op.27
Waltz in A-flat major, op.34 no.1
Waltz in A-flat major, op.69 no.1, ‘L’Adieu’
Mazurka in C major, op.67 no.3
Mazurka in G major, op.67 no.1
Scherzo no.2 in B-flat minor, op.31

Two Nocturnes, op.32
Impromptu no.1 in A-flat major, op.29
Twelve Etudes, op.25

Over the course of 2010, Artur Pizarro will perform the entire corpus of Chopin’s solo piano works at St John’s, Smith Square. This fifth recital took in the period 1833-7, as part of a pragmatically chronological scheme. (The sixth recital, scheduled for 21 September, will run from 1836 to 1839.) Cycles clearly appeal to Pizarro, since he has previously performed the complete solo works of Debussy and Ravel in England and Denmark. Chopin, readers will hardly need to be told, is all the rage in this year, the bicentenary of his birth. Indeed, this was my fourth all-Chopin recital of 2010. Maurizio Pollini and Krystian Zimerman both offered memorable one-off recitals at the Royal Festival Hall: quite different events in kind from series instalments such as Pizarro’s. Nevertheless, the Portuguese pianist was not shamed by comparison and, on this evidence, emerged as a far superior Chopin pianist to the presenter of an alternative London cycle.

The G minor Ballade is not an easy work to begin with, or indeed to place at any point in a recital, but Pizarro’s Romantic sound immediately captured our attention. His opening tempo was unusually slow, the work emerging rather like a nocturne with furious outbursts. Occasionally, it was perhaps a little too stretched, distended even, but there was compensation in Pizarro’s sense of fantasy, especially when it came to spinning of Chopin’s fioritura. The two op.27 Nocturnes followed, the C-sharp minor work like a gondola song emerging through Venetian harmonic haze, with an impressively gauged central crescendo, its D-flat major successor refracting Chopin’s beloved Bellini through an infinitely more sophisticated harmonic prism. Attention to the composer’s harmonic twists and their meaning was a hallmark of Pizarro’s performance, likewise a truly melting touch. Teasing rubato characterised the A-flat major waltz, op.34 no.1, despatched with a winning insouciance to which Pizarro would often return in subsequent items. Its tonal confrere, Op.69 no.1 was delicately charming.

Rarely if ever can I hear too many Chopin mazurkas; op.67 no.3, in C major, is a particular favourite. Pizarro performed it with a well-nigh perfect balance of ‘Polishness’ and salon-based storytelling; that is, the latter recalled the former. The G major mazurka from the same set evinced a similar sense of narrative in miniature. There is of course nothing miniaturist about the B-flat minor Scherzo, with which the first half concluded. Pizarro skilfully wove together hints of the more fleeting pleasures previously heard with its larger scale, but song or, better, aria remained very much at the heart of his interpretation.

The second half opened with another brace of Nocturnes, those from op.32. That in B major evoked restlessness in its twisting and turning. Whereas this piece perhaps became a little too ‘interestingly’ disjunct, its A-flat major successor emerged spun from a single thread: not without contrast, but more integrated. The op.29 A-flat impromptu occasionally sounded gabbled, but in general exuded salon charm.

Then came the op.25 Etudes. The first two were beautifully despatched, if perhaps a little generalised. But Pizarro’s insouciance paid off in the third and fourth. Technical challenges were surmounted – and musically, but as the musical demands deepened, so in general did the interpretative scope. Rubato proved seductive in the fifth, E minor study: a truly charming performance. Ravel-like aquatic glitter impressed in the sixth. It was, however, the seventh Etude, in C-sharp minor, which emerged as the ‘black pearl’ of the series, the dolorous heart for which Pizarro’s emotional range quite properly deepened. It was interesting to note his successful adoption of a slower tempo than is often heard for the ninth, G-flat major study, rubato again well judged. The concluding minor-mode trio started a little steadily, the tenth piece suggesting that storming the heavens, Pollini-like was not on the menu. However, during the final two studies, both in A minor, Pizarro proved imperious – or should that be revolutionary? – enough, rendering comparisons irrelevant. There was a freedom here not always apparent in the earlier numbers from the set, much to the musical advantage, and the final piece concluded with truly orchestral sonority. As an encore, Pizarro offered a nocturne by Paderewski: perhaps a little limited in its material, but with an apt sense of the late night to it.

Saturday 8 May 2010

DVD review: Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar


Siegfried – Johnny van Hal
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster
The Wanderer – Tomas Möwes
Erda – Nadine Weissmann
Mime – Frieder Aurich
Alberich – Mario Hoff
Fafner – Hidekazu Tsumaya
Woodbird – Heike Porstein
Donner – Lars Creuzberg
Froh – Steffen Bärtl
Grane – Erika Krämer
Hagen – Johannes Martin
Voice of the Norns – Burkhard Wolf
Siegfried as child, Hagen, Loge, Grane doubles, Forest Birds, Bear – Supernumeraries of the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar

Arthaus DVD 101 357 (2 DVDs, 251 minutes; recorded live at the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar, 2008)


Siegfried – Norbert Schmittberg
Brünnhilde – Catherine Foster
Gunther – Mario Hoff
Hagen – Renatus Mészár
Alberich – Tomas Möwes
Gutrune – Marietta Zumbült
First Norn/Valkyrie – Christine Hansmann
Second Norn/Erda/Waltraute – Nadine Weissmann
Third Norn/Valkyrie/Woglinde – Silona Michel
Valkyrie/Flosshilde – Christiane Bassek
Valkyrie/Wellgunde – Susann Günther-Dissmeier
Valkyries – Kerstin Quandt, Annegret Schodlok, Elke Sobe
Grane – Erika Krämer
Fafner – Hidekazu Tsumaya
Ravens – Theatre Club of the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar

Opera Chorus of the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar
Gentlemen of the Weimar Philharmonic Chorus
Supernumeraries of the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar

Arthaus DVD 101 359 (2 DVDs, 277 minutes; recorded live at the Deutsches Nationaltheater Weimar, 2008)


Michael Schulz (stage director)
Brooks Riley (television director)
Dirk Becker (designs)
Renée Listerdal (costumes)
Wolfgang Willaschek (dramaturg)

Staatskapelle Weimar
Carl St Clair (conductor)


A glance at the cast-list for these two recordings attests to intensification of Michael Schulz’s strange obsession with introducing extra characters into der ring in weimar. (Click here for review of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre.) Of the multifarious accusations hurled at the Ring, a paucity of characters is new to me. Before the music begins, we see the boy Hagen sitting under a table, playing with a sword and reading a book, presumably the story so far. There is also a male ‘Voice of the Norns’. During the Prelude to the first act of Siegfried, Fafner appears and celebrates his hoard. At least – this is a rare thing – that is consonant with the music and might even help explain it to newcomers. Fafner is not strictly an ‘extra’, since he is scheduled to appear later, though we see him again before the second act anyway. There are other guest appearances: unidentified henchmen, whom the Wanderer brings with him to question Mime, characters who turn out, by process of elimination from the booklet cast list, to be Froh and Donner. Alberich and the boy Hagen also pop in at the end of the act, just as Siegfried’s bear for no apparent reason gets up and leaves. Fafner, supposedly in his cave, peers through the window. Another boy – Siegfried looking at his later self? – appears and fights with Hagen. It is difficult to establish who forges Notung; everyone has a go.

I have not the inclination to catalogue all these ‘walk-ons’, but should mention a few more. The end of Siegfried has three ‘Grane doubles’ – the ‘real’ Grane remains an elderly woman – who walk to and fro, moving furniture and preparing for dinner. One has her/his/its hair done by Brünnhilde. All of the Valkyries traipse on for Waltraute’s visitation; all practise the one-eyed salute, presumably to Wotan, which characters seem to adopt when the bewildering stream of other ideas has momentarily run dry. Some teenagers, identified in the booklet as ‘ravens’, are brought on at various points, one of them being kissed by Siegfried, when the text would have the latter drink from Hagen’s draught.

Another continuing trait is the confusing, apparently arbitrary sharing of roles. It is common enough for substitutes to be used, whether through illness, diary clashes, or just to give someone else a chance, and even for different singers to be employed for different incarnations within the cycle. Here, however, when the cry of ‘all change’ is sounded at the end of each instalment, it seems that a dramatic point is being made. Unless it be to dismiss Wotan, Alberich, Hagen et al. as being ‘all the same’, I cannot work out what it is – short of sharing the misery of Mario Hoff. The Rheingold Wotan, he returns in Siegfried as the lightest-toned Alberich I have heard, subsequently proving a startlingly inadequate Gunther. Tomas Möwes, who did earlier service as Alberich, is an unsteady Wanderer, who reverts to Alberich in Götterdämmerung. Straining towards competence, he never quite achieves it in either role.

Catherine Foster appears on all three occasions as Brünnhilde. Perhaps this is ‘significant’, perhaps not. Hers is one of the better performances: arguably too ‘operatic’ in Siegfried but, in general, intelligently sung and acted. Of the two Siegfrieds, I have heard worse than Johnny van Hal (not ‘Hall’, as the booklet has it). Yet, wearily accustomed as one becomes to distinctly mature and unheroic portrayals, this goes too far. He often shouts and appears straightforwardly moronic, quite devoid of charisma. Norbert Schmittberg has a shaky vocal start, though he always looks more credible onstage. He improves considerably so as to make a creditable hero by the third act. There is, however, an unfortunate passage during the second act, when it is unclear whether Gutrune is covering her ears on account of being (rightly) troubled by his tuning. Renatus Mészár has a reasonable stab at Hagen, especially considering the director’s insistence on making him an abused child throughout. No one else, save an unpleasantly shrill Third Norn, makes much vocal impression either way, though Mime’s housewife garb registers without amusement.

Carl St Clair’s musical direction veers between the unremarkable and the life-sapping, while the orchestra is as ropy as I have heard in the Ring. ‘Chugging’ would be a generous description of the third act Prelude in Siegfried; no sign of a world-historical turning point here. The violins’ intonational difficulties during Siegfried’s first ascent of Brünnhilde’s rock provide an extreme but not unusual example, while the sound, orchestral and choral, for the Vassals’ Scene might be considered inadequate for a provincial performance of Donizetti.

Götterdämmerung seems little more than a children’s game gone wrong. Has so little ever been at stake? Yet, at the end of the second act, this odd game suddenly and inexplicably incites Brünnhilde and Gunther, of all people, to have sex. There is no sign whatsoever of Gutrune and Siegfried, while Gutrune’s presence during the Funeral March makes a nonsense of the action to come. The Immolation Scene has no fire, but a spot of concluding rain to fall upon an exclusively female group of watchers – Wagner stipulates ‘men and women’ – who have wandered onstage too late to watch Brünnhilde and Siegfried walk away. Those extra characters one might have expected, the gods in Valhalla, are nowhere to be seen, nor is their fortress. Undistinguished, uninvolving, unnecessary.

This review first appeared in The Wagner Journal, 4/1, pp. 70-72. Click here for further information on the journal, including subscription details.