Monday 30 August 2010

The Rake's Progress, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 29 August 2010

Glyndebourne Opera House

Trulove – Clive Bayley
Anne Trulove – Miah Persson
Tom Rakewell – Topi Lehtipuu
Nick Shadow – Matthew Rose
Mother Goose – Susan Gorton
Baba the Turk – Elena Manistina
Sellem – Graham Clark

John Cox (director)
David Hockney (designs)
Robert Bryan (lighting)

The Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

There was much to enjoy in this final performance of Glyndebourne’s season. Perhaps first and foremost was the playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, every bit as fine as it had been for Billy Budd in June. The opening scene did not seem quite settled – this went for the singers as well – but thereafter, Jurowski proved highly alert to the score’s changing moods and underlying consistencies. The LPO responded with disciplined yet warm playing: razor-sharp rhythmically, yet more than usually allusive to Mozart. One can play The Rake’s Progress in a number of ways, and Stravinsky’s own polemical sardonicism will surely never be eclipsed, but Jurowski is clearly his own man here, as I recall from a performance a few years ago for the English National Opera. Then it had been Stravinsky’s Russianness, even in this work, that seemed most apparent; here the distanced affection for Mozart’s most tellingly artificial opera shone through. For though Don Giovanni inevitably springs to mind in terms of the subject matter, the orchestra is of course, knowingly, unmistakeably reminiscent of that for Così fan tutte. Stravinsky’s knowingness and Auden’s too are part of what makes this so unique a work: difficult, perhaps impossible, to warm to, but equally difficult not to be intrigued by and to admire.

Quite what the audience thought was so incessantly funny about it, though, even into the graveyard scene, I cannot imagine; it simply took a new or old character to arrive on stage for some to erupt into distracting mirthful commentary. However, this was an even less discerning crowd than usual – as witnessed by applause during the epilogue, a goodly number having failed to register that the music had not stopped. An oddity, though: was Jurowski’s card-playing at the relevant point for his own amusement or ours? I do not think it would have been visible to many, though the view of the orchestra was some compensation for my partial view of the stage from the standing room of the Upper Circle.

Singing was generally impressive too. Following a degree of unsteadiness in that opening scene, Miah Persson’s Anne proved as pure and beautiful of tone as in stage presence. Topi Lehtipuu judged Tom very well: guilelessly attractive, corrupted, and then tragic, without the slightest sense of overdoing it. Matthew Rose’s Nick Shadow was well sung but lacked malevolence, if only of a mock variety. Elena Manistina’s Baba overstated the silly, ‘exotic’ voice earlier on, but excelled in her subsequent babbling. As the characterful auctioneer, Sellem, Graham Clark’s wickedly camp portrayal will take some beating. The singing of the Glyndebourne Chorus, splendidly trained by Jeremy Bines, was beyond reproach, rhythmically and verbally alert.

What, then, of John Cox’s production? Whilst it was interesting to see this venerable creature, first staged in 1975, and I can imagine that many will feel considerable affection for it, it does seem something of a museum piece now. David Hockney’s designs provide a direct link with Hogarth himself, of course, but they are the principal attraction. Whilst the sparkle has worn better than, say, the Texan transposition of Robert Lepage’s Covent Garden production (even on its first revival), I think it might not be a bad idea to call time now. The pauses for scene-changing – after every scene – become wearisome and provide a reminder of how some things at least have changed for the better. Whilst less out of place here than they would be in many works, Stravinsky’s determined non-through-composing being highlighted, the dislocation seems accidental rather than dramaturgical. Still, thirty-five years is good going by any standards.

Saturday 28 August 2010

Proms Saturday Matinee 4: Spence/Nash Ensemble/Gardner - Holloway and Schumann, 28 August 2010

Cadogan Hall

Robin Holloway – Fantasy-Pieces (on the Heine ‘Liederkreis’ of Schumann), op.16, incorporating:
Schumann – Liederkreis, op.24

Schumann – Piano Quartet in E-flat major, op.47

Toby Spence (tenor)
Ian Brown (piano)
Nash Ensemble
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Following on from the previous week’s Saturday matinee, which traced connections between Renaissance music and twentieth- and twenty-first-century composers, this Cadogan Hall Prom looked at Robin Holloway and Robert Schumann. Holloway’s music has long concerned itself with that of his predecessors, Schumann having proved an especially absorbing preoccupation. A new work, Reliquary: Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’ will be premiered at Prom 74, on 9 September. These op.16 Fantasy Pieces (1971), written to surround Schumann’s op.24 Heine Liederkreis, followed in the wake of his Scenes from Schumann (1970, revised 1986); indeed, Holloway’s commission arose from a performance in which Graham Jones heard those scenes and requested something similar to commemorate his silver wedding anniversary.

Of the five pieces, the first, a brief ‘Praeludium’, is heard before the Schumann cycle; the latter four are heard after. Holloway described the first movement’s chords as ‘scene-setting’, which might be understood not just in terms of the two works, but in terms of Holloway’s and his work’s historical position too: this music sounding somewhere between Schumann and that most gloriously and productively unrepentant of kleptomaniacs, Stravinsky. The warmth of the Nash Ensemble’s performance, ably directed by Edward Gardner, evoked Schumann, its clarity also hinting at twentieth-century conceptions. There followed a performance of the Schumann cycle itself, from Toby Spence and Ian Brown. Brown’s account of the piano part was impressive indeed, whether in the dignity imparted to Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen, the audible heart-throbbing – remember when this signified something a little more profound than Hollywood? – of Lieb Liebchen, leg’s Händchen, or the straightforward yet never matter-of-fact integrity with which his music enabled Heine’s poetry to shine in the marvellous final Mit Myrthen und Rosen, the one song Holloway does not use in his subsequent explorations, preferring instead to leave it as a ‘sacred farewell’. (Perhaps this might also be on account of its already recapitulatory status?) Spence’s reading could not be faulted in its sincerity: he often reminded me of a Meistersinger David. But if not far off what we want here, is it quite what is required? One can leave aside odd verbal slips, though Spence’s excellent diction rendered them crystal-clear; these things happen. However, he could hector a little too much, Es treibt mich hin perhaps being presented a little too literally. There were times, moreover, when his tone sounded forced: not unfitting, perhaps, in the madness ravaging the mind of Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden, but there are other, more suggestive possibilities. That said, the Romantic innocence of Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen, was powerfully, beautifully evoked: a highlight of the performance.

Brown’s piano provided immediate continuity with the remaining Holloway pieces: it was initially as if, in the second (the ‘Praeludium’ already having been performed), ‘Half Asleep’, the other instruments engaged in refracting commentary whilst Schumann continued to be heard from his own instrument. But soon commentary and combination of themes acquire their own life. The third piece, ‘Adagio’, heightens awareness of the continuing, indeed developing, instability of our own responses to ‘works’ we know well. Here sonorities put me in mind, especially when the clarinet began to sing, of Berio’s orchestration of the Brahms second clarinet sonata, though Holloway’s piece was written a good number of years beforehand. Here the piano’s grand Romantic chords – referring perhaps to the Piano Concerto or other concertante works? – initiated ensemble responses. Perhaps it was my imagination, or simply an unintended correspondence, but was there a brief evocation of Der Rosenkavalier? Certainly throughout the work there were references to other Schumann cycles: Dichterliebe, and more overtly, Frauenliebe und –leben. The fourth-movement scherzo’s taxing instrumental lines were despatched not only with ease but with contrapuntal and harmonic meaning by the players of the Nash Ensemble. Tossed between each other, yet with heightening cumulative effect, further impetus was afforded by Stravinskian syncopations. (The Symphony in Three Movements sprang to my mind at least.) A phantasmagorical trio provides splendidly ambiguous contrast: neo-Romantic in the best sense. Finally and immediately, there followed the finale, ‘Roses-thorns and flowers’, in which the songs of Mahler at times seem almost as present in tone as Schumann undoubtedly is in the material. The piano’s prominence, both in work and performance, heightened the properly Schumannesque sense of fantasy – which is, after all, contained in the title, and for me suggested Busoni at times, not least in the harmonies generated by superimposition. Excellent horn playing provided unavoidable allusion to the vernal freshness of so much German Romanticism.

It was subsequently good to hear again, after quite some time, the op.47 piano quartet (violin: Benjamin Nabarro, viola: Lawrence Power, cello: Paul Watkins, piano: Ian Brown). What a joyous work this is, and so it sounded in the Nash Ensemble’s performance. From the opening of the first movement, one sensed just the right sort of personal happiness being voiced: Schumann at his best is always intimate – as Holloway recognises. Poised just between Beethoven and Brahms, this account was always forward-moving, yet never rushed. Rich tone was put at the service of the music, without the slightest suspicion of narcissism. Sometimes the piano lines ran away a little from Brown at the beginning of the scherzo, which was unquestionably ‘Molto vivace’, but the musical sense was always there, thanks to exemplary string playing. The Andante cantabile was just that, suffused with a longing (the German Sehnsucht seems more apt) that looks towards Brahms, yet remains more unbuttoned. Intimacy again proved key to the performance, no playing to the gallery here, Schumann’s music therefore emerging as deeply, sincerely felt in performance as on paper. The finale burst on to the scene with palpable joy, its contrapuntal outpouring soon outdone by profusion of melody. Harmonic and rhythmic motion were so well judged that they did not register in themselves; one simply imagined that the players were channelling Schumann directly. A splendid performance!

Friday 27 August 2010

Wagner and anti-Semitism (II)

In July, I flagged the debate concerning Wagner and anti-Semitism on the online pages of The Wagner Journal between Barry Emslie and myself. Having both made five contributions, we have now drawn to a close. The complete discussion may be found here and (second page) here.

Saturday 21 August 2010

Proms Summer Matinee 3: I Fagiolini/Britten Sinfonia/Wigglesworth - Dowland, Britten, Gesualdo, Dean, Monteverdi, and Olivero, 21 August 2010

Cadogan Hall

Dowland – Flow, my tears
Britten – Lachrymae: Reflections on a song of Dowland, for viola and orchestra
Gesualdo – Responsories of the Office of Tenebrae for Maundy Thursday – II: ‘Tristis est animas mea’
Gesualdo – Sixth Book of Madrigals: ‘Moro, lasso, al mio duolo’
Brett Dean – Carlo
Monteverdi – Madrigali guerreri et amorosi: ‘Lamento della ninfa’
Monteverdi – L’Orfeo – Act II, Messenger Scene
Betty Olivero – Neharot, Neharot (United Kingdom premiere)

Lawrence Power (viola)
Ian Watson (accordion)
I Fagiolini
Robert Hollingworth (director)
Britten Sinfonia
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

Preliminaries out of the way as quickly as possible: first, the innovation of Proms Saturday Matinees at the Cadogan Hall is welcome, and programming appears to have been liberated by the smaller space; second, programme booklets could do with greater attention. Though free of charge, a welcome change from the excessive prices charged at the Royal Albert Hall for what is often little more than a collection of advertisements, that ‘little more’ at the main venue at least includes a modicum of information concerning works and composers. Texts and translations are provided, as are biographical notes on the performers, but it is a controversial hierarchy that considers them more important than works. There is, admittedly, a degree of spoken introduction, but I heard a few members of the audience comment that they would have liked to know who Brett Dean was. It is, moreover, not mere pedantry to wish that Monteverdi’s ‘Lamento della ninfa’ had been ascribed to his eighth book of madrigals, Gesualdo’s madrigal to his sixth book, and so forth.

As I said, the matinee programmes seem more intelligently constructed than some of their ‘big brothers’ in Kensington Gore. This concert examined three twentieth- and twenty-first century responses to ‘early’ or ‘Renaissance’ music: both descriptions beg more questions than they answer, but the same could be said of any categorisation. Dowland’s Flow, my tears thus preceded Britten’s Lachrymae. Clare Wilkinson sang, to Eligio Quinteiro’s sensitive, musicianly accompaniment on theorbo. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that Quinteiro impressed more consistently than his ‘soloist’. Wilkinson adopted a very ‘Early Music’ style of voice: strictly no vibrato, but little modulation in any respect. More worryingly, there were a couple of occasions on which her breath ran out before her words, leading to faltering at the ends of lines. Diction, however, was impeccable, and by the end of the song, we had become attuned to Dowland’s characteristic melancholy.

His tears flowed into Britten’s Lachrymae, which I had heard the Britten Sinfonia perform in Cambridge in 2008. The orchestra has been extremely fortunate in its viola soloists: first Maxim Rysanov, now Lawrence Power. Once again, I was struck by the way in which Britten’s music finds its voice, emerging out of something between nothingness and Dowland’s music. Melancholy has not only transposed but transmuted. I was also again reminded of Britten’s kinship with Berg: not just the Violin Concerto, whose Bach chorale foreshadows the full statement of Dowland at the end of Britten’s work, but also the febrile writing for string orchestra, suggestive of the Lyric Suite, blossoming under the firm yet generous hand of Ryan Wigglesworth. Moments of ecstasy raised the temperature in a gripping, arguably more dramatic account than that I had heard in Cambridge: both were fine performances, with similar and different virtues. There was not a hint of the intonational difficulties that can sometimes plague performances of works such as this. If only all ‘Early Music’ were performed with the passionate commitment devoted to the Britten…

The next pairing was Gesualdo and Dean. Gesualdo was presented in sacred and profane modes: the ‘Tristis est anima mea’ from his Tenebrae Responses, followed by the madrigal, probably to his own vers, ‘Moro, lasso, al mio duolo’. Christ’s words from Gethsemane, heard as the lights go out on Maundy Thursday, were given a very English reading by I Fagiolini. Hints of something more Italianate upon the word ‘fugam’, referring to the disciples’ flight, were more than balanced by a restraint that had more in common with Choral Evensong than Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Many works can take different performing ‘voices’, and I think Gesualdo’s can, but it was perhaps a pity not to hear something more full-blooded. The madrigal was less restrained, though a degree of vibrato would have imparted some sense of the sensuality the performance lacked. Dissonances and weird melodic twists nevertheless made their mark. However, Robert Hollingworth, the group’s director, is not, on the basis of this performance, possessed of the most ingratiating countertenor voice.

Brett Dean’s Carlo (1997, not that one would know from the booklet) followed, its title implying a response to the man and his scandal – at least to modern audiences – as well as to his music. Nevertheless, the work opens and closes straightforwardly with Gesualdo the composer on tape: the madrigal we had just heard. The downward chromaticism of the madrigal’s opening forms a thread through much of the composition, not least at the end of a glorious orchestral blaze, which put me in mind of a dubiously glorious auto da fé. Falling intervals, hand in hand with a beautifully judged diminuendo, prepared the way ultimately for the final statement of Gesualdo himself. But much had gone on between, all superbly realised by the Britten Sinfonia’s strings under Wigglesworth. Here one heard an ensemble of string soloists, not dissimilar to Richard Tognetti’s Australian Chamber Orchestra, for whom the work was written. The fractures of sampled sound provoked disapproval in a woman sitting in front of me, who turned to all and sundry, hoping, it seemed, to elicit a similar response. Fracture led, however, more often to mediated unity than to further fracture, though the breathy sounds heard later on belied the polite Englishness of the earlier performance. I was a little surprised by the reaction of the American woman seated next to me, who had more than once been politely requested to desist from her distracting fanning during the performance. At one point, she exclaimed, ‘total crap!’ It was still more surprising, then, to see her applaud vigorously at the end of the performance: perhaps she changed her mind; perhaps she was as sane as she was considerate. At any rate, this intriguing piece, which I should be keen to hear again, received a splendidly synchronised performance, complementary in the best sense to the Gesualdo on tape.

Monteverdi and the Israeli composer, Betty Olivero, formed the third and final pairing. Whilst there was none of the exhibitionism that characterises certain modern Italian groups in Monteverdi, there was much less inhibition in I Fagiolini’s performance than there had been in Gesualdo. Emma Tring proved a winning nymph in the lament: a pleasing voice, sensitive to the text and to the music with which it is intertwined. The magic of Monteverdi’s ground bass construction won through, from a continuo group comprising harpsichord (Catherine Pierron), theorbo (Quinteiro, again excellent), and organ (Hollingworth). This led on to the Messenger Scene from L’Orfeo. I Fagiolini’s presentation was somewhat puzzling, in that the Shepherds’ parts were shared out between various singers, confusing the two roles the audience would have seen listed in the programme. There seemed no obvious reason for this – and indeed it highlighted the relative weakness of one particular voice. However, Wilkinson really came into her own here as the Messenger, drawing on a considerably more varied vocal palette than she had employed for the Dowland. Nicholas Hurndall Smith’s Orfeo was not on the grand scale, but he proved as attentive to the text as Tring had in the previous piece. Whatever shortcomings there may have been in the performance, however, the sheer genius of Monteverdi shone through. Gesualdo may have the better biography, but Monteverdi has the infinitely more subtle, more ravishing, more truly dramatic music, even in 1607.

Fast-forward four hundred years to 2007, when Betty Olivero’s Neharot, Neharot was first performed. Distressed by scenes of the Israeli military onslaught upon the Lebanon the previous year, Olivero composed a tribute not only to Monteverdi, but to voices of female suffering. Seeking out such voices from Kurdistan, the Yemen, and elsewhere, she had them recorded by professional Israeli mourners, to provide the tape element for this work. ‘Neharot’, she explained, is the Hebrew for ‘rivers’, so Neharot, Neharot, ‘rivers, rivers,’ might be taken to refer to rivers of tears, rivers of blood. (Tears thus took us back to Dowland and Britten.) Solo viola (Powers again) and accordion (Ian Watson) joined the string orchestra for a clearly committed performance. Olivero considers the viola, not unreasonably, the ‘most intimate’ of the stringed instruments, whilst the accordion is a folk-like ‘voice of humanity’. Certainly the soloists’ performances lived up to these expectations, Powers rhapsodic yet purposeful, Watson soulful yet perhaps hopeful too. Here, of course, it was Monteverdi’s turn to be refracted not only across the centuries, but also geographically. The world of the Mediterranean and beyond is the scene for Olivero’s lament, with hints of the Voci of her teacher, Berio, doubtless drawing on Olivero’s Sephardic upbringing. As with the Dean piece, I should hesitate on the basis of a single hearing to hazard further predictions, but equally, I should be interested to hear the work again, and indeed to hear other works by Olivero. There is an interesting interview between the composer and Jessica Duchen in the Jewish Chronicle (click here).

Once again, then, kudos to the Britten Sinfonia for such imaginative and enlightening programming. Symphony orchestras and concert programmers, please take note…

Friday 20 August 2010

Salzburg Festival (6) - Goerne/Eschenbach, Die schöne Müllerin, 17 August 2010


(The mill wheel in St Peter's Abbey, Salzburg)

Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach have been performing the three Schubert song cycles (including Schwanengesang) as a super-cycle for some time now. I heard their extraordinary Winterreise at the Wigmore Hall last year. This summer, they are performing all three in Salzburg; sadly, I could only catch Die schöne Müllerin, but one is better than none.

Circumstances were less than ideal. One of the many refreshing aspects of a few days in Salzburg has been a higher level of audience consideration. No applause during Gluck’s Orfeo, for instance! Sadly this audience was no better than a typical London crowd. An unfortunate apparent coincidence was the booking of the Mozarteum by the Association for the Bronchially Challenged for precisely the same time as the recital. Some members of its provisional wing, Give Tuberculosis a Chance, were also in attendance, one immediately behind me. Goerne, hardly a prima donna, seemed visibly annoyed by the clash; other audience members were livid, since such constant interruption becomes all the worse on an occasion so intimate as a Liederabend.

Nevertheless, I made the attempt to listen through the audience; insofar as I could, I was richly rewarded. It took Goerne the first song to get fully into his vocal stride, but already Eschenbach was busy with telling interpretative touches, such as the slight agogic accents applied to the piano interludes. I thought it slightly odd that Goerne should slow for the wheels’ turning tirelessly: it worked musically, but seemed a less than obvious response to the words. Wohin? was already deeply troubled, less carefree than usual: neither Goerne nor Eschenbach has any truck with the idea of Die schöne Müllerin as a lighter counterpart to Winterreise. One can argue about whether clearer contrast within the cycle would be desirable; I think there is room for more than one approach.

Danksagung an den Bach was frightening in the inevitability of what was unfolding, Eschenbach’s command of rhythm and harmonic motion crucial. Am Feierabend was as angry as I have heard, whilst its successor, Der Neugierige, provided illusory contrast with the freedom of an operatic scena. The third and fifth stanzas, both opening, ‘O Bächlein meiner Liebe,’ were extremely slow, time freezing, though not yet frozen: there is still a long way to go. To sing at such a tempo requires, apart from anything else, extraordinary reserves of breath: no difficulty for Goerne. Ungeduld came at us fast and furious indeed, though Eschenbach’s fingers could not always cope with quite so swift a tempo. There was no doubting Goerne’s ardency however.

The almost hallucinatory quality of Morgengruß truly made one shudder, likewise the attempt, however doomed, to shake off the veil of dreams (‘Nun schüttelt ab der Träume Flor…’). Throughout, of course, the brook rippled: it is at least as important a protagonist as anyone else here, somehow both conniving in and contemptuous of the false hope, the unreality of strength these musicians conveyed in Mit dem grünen Lautenbande. Fischer-Dieskau-haters would not have liked Goerne’s hectoring in Der Jäger; a bit of dramatic licence here, however, does no real harm, and the terror of the conclusion would surely have effaced any such doubts. The delirium of Eifersucht und Stolz provided a frightening prelude to the piano’s devastation in Die liebe Farbe, straight out of the world of the late sonatas. Goerne responded, in Die böse Farbe, with such vocal power at its opening and ending, that one knew the struggle had not yet quite been lost, likewise his better exultancy in Trockne Blümen, subsiding into chilling nothingness.

It was grave sadness, however, that characterised Der Müller und der Bach: a sense of peace being worked out, though that peace be perhaps too dreadful to be granted a name. One thing alone could follow, the hypnotic piano-brook’s lullaby of the final song. The cruellest of consolations was offered, cruel on account, not in spite, of its beauty. At last came a shattering stillness: if only the audience could have kept its counsel during the rest of the performance.

Salzburg Festival (5) - Prokofiev, Ivan the Terrible, 17 August 2010

Grosses Festspielhaus

Prokofiev – Ivan the Terrible, op.116

Gérard Depardieu, Jan Josef Liefers (narrators)
Olga Borodina (mezzo-soprano)
Ildar Adbrazakov (bass)
Salzburg Festival Children’s Choir (chorus master: Wolfgang Götz)
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Thomas Lang)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

This was Riccardo Muti’s two hundredth performance at the Salzburg Festival: quite a milestone, if some way beyond whatever Herbert von Karajan must have notched up. 2010 also marks the fortieth year of Muti’s association with the festival, dating back to his invitation from Karajan to conduct Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Repertoire has ranged from Bach to Varèse, with a special focus, quite naturally, upon Mozart. Prokofiev has long featured in Muti’s programmes; three years ago I heard a superb Third Symphony from him and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as part of the tour that culminated in his appointment as Music Director, the post he will take up next month. For this celebration, Muti selected – at least I presume the choice was his – Ivan the Terrible.

I cannot help but wish he had not. Performances were in almost every way outstanding, yet if this ramshackle ‘oratorio’ cannot convince in so august a context, I doubt that it can anywhere. It is not the composer’s fault; what he wrote was film music, which was after his death reorganised, quite freely, by Abram Stasevich into the work we hear today. What doubtless works very well as music for Eisenstein’s epic does not necessarily stand up so well in the concert hall. Despite omissions and reordering, or perhaps in some case because of them, one has a lengthy work, somewhat lacking in variety and indeed in purpose.

That said, from the outset, Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic displayed razor-sharp discipline and an equally fine ear for orchestral colour. The Overture presented a Prokofiev recognisably the same as the composer of Lieutenant Kijé, albeit with more than a hint of socialist-realism-cum-new-simplicity, nationalist in a way that many will doubtless find problematical. I find it less problematical than not very good. Massed bells provided plenty of colour for the glorification of the Tsar, the debt to Boris Godunov all too obvious, a bit too much like a second pressing of olive oil, though the VPO’s percussion was certainly glorious. Motor rhythms were forcefully despatched, for instance in the orchestral depiction of ‘The Holy Fool’, virtuoso xylophone-playing worthy of especial mention. Viennese tubas almost convinced one that the longueurs of ‘To Kazan!’ were worth the effort.

The Rimsky-like ‘White Swan’ brought one of a number of fine contributions from the Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus. Weight and gradation were impressive in the humming choruses. Neo-Mussorgskian popular suffering was powerfully conveyed in the a cappella singing of ‘Ivan at the Coffin of Anastasia’, with sparing yet telling direction from Muti. The only problem was that Mussorgsky himself achieved his musical ends so much better than Prokofiev here.

The narrators, Gérard Depardieu and Jan Josef Liefers generally did a splendid job too, Liefers perhaps more consistently impressive than Depardieu, whose haranguing rendition could veer towards the hammy. Perhaps that is what is required though. Liefers arguably steered a little close towards camp in the guise of the Holy Fool but, again, what is one supposed to do here? Muti would unobtrusively, yet crucially, hand Depardieu a number of cues. Olga Borodina did not have that much to do, but did it very well; Ildar Adbrazakov had still less to do, and did it extremely well. His sole appearance, in the ‘Song of Fyodor Basmanov and the Oprichniki’ was a highlight of the performance, truly heroic, dangerous even. It was good thereafter to hear a hint of Prokofiev the ballet composer in the ‘Dance of the Oprichniki’. The final blaze of (hollow) glory – ‘On the bones of our enemies, on charred ruins, Russia is being united!’ – imparted as strong a sense of satisfaction as one could imagine it doing. My cavils, as I said above, in no wise relate to the performances, rather to the material itself. It is only just to relate that the audience reaction was ecstatic.

Thursday 19 August 2010

Salzburg Festival (4) - Elektra, 16 August 2010

Grosses Festspielhaus

(Images: © Hermann und Clärchen Baus. The Elektra shown is Iréne Theorin, not Janice Baird.)

Klytämnestra – Waltraud Meier
Elektra – Janice Baird
Chrysothemis – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Aegisth – Robert Gambill
Orest – René Pape
Orest’s Tutor – Oliver Zwarg
Young Servant – Benjamin Hulett
Old Servant – Josef Stangl
Overseer – Orla Boylan
First Maid – Maria Radner
Second Maid – Martina Mikelic
Third Maid – Stephanie Atanasov
Fourth Maid – Eva Leitner
Fifth Maid – Anita Watson
Confidante – Arina Holecek
Trainbearer – Barbara Reiter

Nikolaus Lehnhoff (director)
Daniel Dooner (associate director)
Raimund Bauer (set designs)
Andrea Schmidt-Futterer (costumes)
Duane Schuler (lighting)
Denni Sayers (choreography)
Martin Kern (video)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Thomas Lang)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

Elektra was the fourth and final of my Salzburg operas in 2010. Despite the virtues of the preceding three, Strauss’s greatest opera indubitably received the best performance and production of all. Given the cast, conductor included, I had suspected that it might, but expectations can all too often be confounded. Not so here. Whilst the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, a jewel in Salzburg’s crown second only to Mozart himself, proved excellent in all performances, I was simply astounded by its contribution on this occasion. Playing for a conductor it loves, such as Daniele Gatti, it remains without a shadow of doubt the finest orchestra in the world. The sweetness of string tone is one of the wonders of the world, likewise the mellowness of its horns and trombones; I could go on, and probably should… But what was especially striking here was its willingness to respond to the brazen modernism of Gatti’s reading. Greatly experienced not only in Mahler but also in Berg and Schoenberg – I recall a stunning Moses und Aron in Vienna – Gatti married the quintessential Vienna sound to savagery of attack and a revelatory orchestral phantasmagoria, which made one wonder why Strauss spoke so dismissively of Schoenberg’s Op.16 orchestral pieces. And yet, whilst I  may never have heard Strauss sound so close to Schoenberg, he never actually sounded like Schoenberg. The composer’s voice sang through, not least in the swing of his dance rhythms, in the kaleidoscopic intimations of Der Rosenkavalier, and in the soaring lyricism that even here foreshadows the composer’s fabled ‘Indian summer’. Gatti heard, and the VPO played, with a structural command that would surely have impressed Furtwängler: heard in one gigantic breath, this was Fernhören indeed.

I admit that my heart sank when it was announced that Iréne Theorin had succumbed to the filthy weather Salzburg was experiencing, confined to her bed with a sore throat. Janice Baird had responded to a telephone call the previous day, leaving her holiday in southern Spain. Carping excessively, there were occasional odd vowel sounds – her opening ‘Allein’ incorporating one of them – but otherwise, one would never have guessed that she had not been giving an acclaimed performance all the way through the run. This is, by any standards, a killer of a role, yet Baird emerged having given an intelligently conceived, dramatically urgent account, superior to many that grace the world’s foremost operatic stages. Waltraud Meier’s Klytämnestra was a subtler portrayal than one often hears; it is all too easy to turn the character into a caricature, a witch-like figure meriting little proper consideration. Here, Meier sometimes made one strain to hear, though one always could. There were splendidly dramatic gestures, but more common were passages of Lieder-like intensity. Eva-Maria Westbroek may well be the best Chrysothemis I have heard. The ‘normality’ of Elektra’s sister generally seems weirder than anything else; such is a valid reading. But Westbroek actually made some sense of her desires, her femininity, her hopes, and her determination. She sang gloriously, like the fine Sieglinde she is: radiant, but also meaningful.

René Pape’s Orest was just as fine. His voice is so extraordinarily rich and beautiful that one can sometimes find oneself mesmerised; one should resist the temptation, for he uses Hofmannsthal’s words just as intelligently as Strauss’s notes. The Recognition Scene, ever intensifying, was at least as moving as any I have heard. Why some critics claim Elektra suffers from longueurs I have never understood; if not quite so concise as Wozzeck, it is not far off. Certainly the intensity of the performance would not let one’s attention wander for a single second. Robert Gambill sounded in better voice than the typical Aegisth, yet without undue heroics that would have detracted from the character’s despicable weakness: a very tricky task to bring off, but Gambill did. All of the smaller roles were well taken; I especially liked the rounded high tenor of Benjamin Hulett’s Young Servant.

Nikolaus Lehnhoff has perhaps excelled himself here too, aided by Raimund Bauer’s striking, almost apocalyptical stage design. Indeed, one felt that this might have been a contemporary version of the Elektra Lehnhoff’s mentor, Wieland Wagner, had planned with Pierre Boulez, but which, owing to Wieland’s death, never materialised. There were no gimmicks; instead, we experienced an unremitting intensity of single-minded vision, born of myth, never fetishised, with hints of the early twentieth century, without undue specificity, convincingly welded into a dramatic whole. The starkness of the sets, of Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s costumes, and Duane Schuler’s lighting provided the perfect setting for the musical drama to emerge. There was no attempt to overshadow, to foist an irrelevant concept upon the drama; the production emerged all the stronger for it. The final revelation of the palace, Klytämnestra hanging, thus elicited a true horror, rather than the grand guignol lesser directors might have imparted to proceedings. (A certain recent Salome springs to mind.) It seems almost unconceivable that I should have emerged elated from Elektra, still less that I should readily have seen and heard it again immediately, but such was the case.

Salzburg Festival (3) - Don Giovanni, 15 August 2010

Haus für Mozart

(Images: Salzburg Festival/Monika Rittershaus)

Don Giovanni – Christopher Maltman
Commendatore – Dimitry Ivaschchenko
Donna Anna – Aleksandra Kursak
Don Ottavio – Joel Prieto
Donna Elvira – Dorothea Röschmann
Leporello – Erwin Schrott
Zerlina – Anna Prohaska
Masetto – Adam Plachetka

Claus Guth (director)
Christian Schmidt (designs)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Ronny Dietrich (dramaturgy)
Ramses Sigl (choreography)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Thomas Lang)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Members of the Angelika Prokopp Summer Academy of the Vienna Philharmonic (stage music)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor)

I have been fortunate enough to see a good few Mozart opera performances in Salzburg, including the wonderful Karl-Ernst and Ursula Hermann Così fan tutte three times. This, however, was my first Don Giovanni at the Festival. Though I have seen the opera, this ‘opera of operas’, on many occasions, it has always been brought home to me how extraordinary difficult it is to produce. From the mindlessly traditional (Harold Prince), through the merely mindless (Peter Mussbach and Francesca Zambello), to the flawed yet powerful visions of Calixto Bieito and Graham Vick, I have never felt that a production has ‘nailed’ the work; indeed, in many ways, I find Herbert Graf’s old Felsenreitschule production on DVD under Furtwängler preferable to watch, if dated in a way that the incandescent conducting could never be. Musical performances have varied enormously too, of course, a great regret being that Daniel Barenboim’s superlative conducting in Berlin did not have a better production than Mussbach’s, but that is another matter.

How does Claus Guth fit into this continuum, then? He is certainly more interesting than the brain-dead Zambello and Prince, but there are problems with his vision too. The premise, as revealed in a brief programme discussion, is that ‘Mozart tried to deal with all of our lives in the three hours he had for this opera. But what if he managed to compress everything that moves and occupies us into this framework? We must die. What do we do with our lifetime? Do we conform and subordinate ourselves, do we break out, do we try to fit in or break loose, cut our ties?’ What this seems to boil down to on stage is a bit more like a reality television programme: how does someone with three hours left to live decide to spend those three hours? By taking drugs and trying to have sex with a good few women in a forest, with the help of his slightly subordinate friend. I say ‘slightly subordinate’, since it is not at all clear what the relationship between the protagonists might be. Like so many directors, Guth ignores the social distinctions within Mozart’s work (and they are certainly within Mozart’s as well as Da Ponte’s contribution), and does not really provide an adequate substitute. The setting itself is good: the Salzburg Mönchsberg meets Hampstead Heath. (There is certainly more than a hint of the cruising ground here, though the action is strictly heterosexual: a missed opportunity?) It is absorbing enough in a modern filmic sort of way, but not a patch upon Guth’s brilliant rethinking of Le nozze di Figaro. Indeed, the circle through which we initially view the action – predictably beginning during the Overture – suggests a cinematic peep-hole. A car drives on to stage with Donna Anna and Don Ottavio: no harm done, but no evident gain accrued either. And I simply could not work out who the Commendatore was supposed to be at the end. A ghost seemed rather at odds with the setting; had he just come back to life? No one seemed to know, or to care.

I have seen worse then, but I have seen better, if not yet best. The musical performances tended to be of a higher calibre. It helps, of course, to have the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit; such was certainly the case here. The Viennese might be able to play this music like angels in their sleep, but the level of variegation brought out by Yannick Nézet-Séguin was noteworthy: that does not happen by itself, likewise the revelation and shaping of woodwind detail. Tempi were sensibly chosen: musical rather than ideological. Nézet-Séguin is of the modern alla breve school when it comes to the opening of the Overture and the Stone Guest Scene, but the music sounded thrillingly urgent rather than rushed, as so often it does when taken in this way. Extremely notable was Felice Venanzoni’s fortepiano continuo playing. Many would doubtless decry the high level of imagination, but it was extremely well thought out, and sounded genuinely improvisatory. References were made within the work, and there were some strange post-modern flights of harmonic fantasy. I found it fascinating, like an added commentary, though I should not necessarily always wish to hear it done this way. Robert Nagy’s cello playing was of equal distinction, more prominent, more musically imaginative than I can ever recall hearing before.

Christopher Maltman made a fine Don Giovanni. Though he clearly did not mind the chance to shed his shirt early on, there was much more to his portrayal than that. There was power certainly, but it was the tender moments that longest lingered in the mind. Erwin Schrott’s Leporello was predictably charismatic, though oddly, I thought the mindless vacuity of Zambello’s production (when he took that role, rather than Giovanni) permitted him greater freedom to play to his strengths than this. Schrott’s voice was in fine fettle, however, his onstage physicality and musicality never in doubt. Aleksandra Kursak’s Donna Anna has an edge to her voice, which some may find more troubling than others, but she threw herself into the character, once she surmounted early intonational difficulties. Dorothea Röschmann’s Elvira steered a sure course between hysteria and dignity. Joel Prieto was a fine substitute for the expected Joseph Kaiser (out for the entire run, alas). This was beautiful singing indeed, elegant too: aristocratic, or it might have been, had the production permitted of social hierarchy. Anna Prohaska’s Zerlina was equally impressive: convincingly girlish on stage, albeit with a kinky side to her innocence, but with a sexy, fully feminine bloom when it came to her vocal production.

There is, however, one final matter: the version of the score. I am relatively relaxed about this. Prague always seems to me preferable, in terms of the arias used, but here we had the familiar conflation, barring the duet between Leporello and Zerlina. I was quite unprepared, however, for the absence of the final scene. Yes, I know that Mahler did it, and I had a brief Romantic phase during my teens when I thought it would be a good idea too. The feeling of incompletion, however, is jarring, and Guth seems quite to have misunderstood the nature of the finale. In its Brechtian alienation it makes the work far more interesting; without it, we veer dangerously close to melodrama, especially odd given the general tone of the production. Guth claims that Mozart was ‘bowing to convention’, yet throughout the work Mozart has destroyed any such concept; the finale is still more radical in this context, inevitably to us suggesting Stravinsky and beyond. In any case, the music, surely, is begging for completion. Has Guth never heard the D minor Piano Concerto? It is interesting, then, to hear this venerable ‘version’, but it confirms the discrediting of the tradition.

Salzburg Festival (2) - Lulu, 14 August 2010


Images: Salzburg Festival/Monika Rittershaus

Lulu – Patricia Petibon
Countess Geschwitz – Tanja Ariana Baumgartner
Dresser, Schoolboy, Groom – Cora Burggraaf
Painter, Negro – Pavol Breslik
Dr Schön, Jack the Ripper – Michael Volle
Alwa – Thomas Piffka
Schigolch – Franz Grundheber
Animal Tamer, Athlete – Thomas Johannes Mayer
Prince, Manservant – Heinz Zednik
Marquis – Andreas Conrad
Theatre Manager, Banker – Martin Tzonev
Fifteen-year old girl – Emilie Pictet
Girl’s Mother – Astrid Monika Hofer
Artist – Astrid Monika Jofer
Journalist – Simon Schnorr
Professor of Medicine, Professor, Police Officer – Gerhard Peilstein
Servant – James Cleverton

Vera Nemirova (director)
Daniel Richter (set designs)
Klaus Noack (costumes)
Manfred Voss (lighting)
Jens Schroth (dramaturgy)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Upper Austrian Jazz Orchestra (stage music: first act)
Members of the Angelika Prokopp Summer Acacdemy of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (stage music: third act)
Marc Albrecht (conductor)

After the most boring production of Lulu imaginable – and then a bit more boring still – at Covent Garden (Christof Loy), I was predisposed to respond positively to a new staging. Certainly the feeling of immediate relief that there would be something to see, something that might respond to the words and music, was welcome. But it was not just a matter of contrast here: Vera Nemirova’s production had its particular advantages, not least a sense of theatre, and of appropriateness to the work, something of which one could hardly accuse Loy’s self-trumpeted ‘reductionism’. Daniel Richter’s designs played a crucial role in this respect, though the third act would prove more problematical. In fairness, it should be noted that to stage the third act at all was a relatively late decision. Quite why some people think there is any virtue nowadays in omitting Friedrich Cerha’s completion, I simply cannot understand. Perhaps it is a matter of not actually understanding what Cerha did, since I heard one person beforehand speaking of Cerha having ‘composed’ the music for the third act and how different it therefore sounded. It is difficult, though, to imagine that this could have been the motivation here. If I remember correctly, Nikolaus Harnoncourt was originally to have conducted, so it may well have been a matter of personal idiosyncrasy. Whilst Harnoncourt’s reading would doubtless have staked a claim to be filed under ‘interesting’, I cannot say that I was distraught to have had him replaced with Marc Albrecht.

Back to the production. It was not especially time-bound, which seems to me in this work a loss. People speak of the ‘mythical’ nature of the work, but equally important is a sense of time and place – which may or may not be the time and place specified, but might as well be – and, more importantly still, the interaction between specific and non-specific. There was compensation, however, to be gained in the sharpness of characterisation Nemirova imparted and in the sense, doubtless suggested by the Animal Tamer’s prologue, of meta-theatrical concern. Richter’s scenic designs added another layer to the ‘exhibition’: painterly backdrops, the first act flexible (often drooping) phallus, and the second act pyramid, out of which characters would emerge. I was baffled, however, by the end of the third act, which appeared to be set in a wintry, somewhat Russian-looking forest (or Parsifal, Act III?), a strange substitute for Whitechapel, at least the last time I looked. It raised irritating, rather than provocative, questions, along the lines of: whatever are these people doing here and what relation does this have to what we have seen before?

The Paris scene, however, was a triumph. It seemed that Nemirova had been liberated by the relatively short notice of staging and had relied upon theatrical instinct to extend her performative idea. There had been occasions earlier in which mirrors had revealed conductor, orchestra, and the audience, but the coup de théâtre was to open with toasts from within the audience, members of which were revealed actually to be characters. The action was thereafter played out in a space that blurred, if not quite obliterated, the boundary between ‘performance’ and ‘life’. I imagine that this might sound dreadful, but the question is whether it worked, and it did. Lulu’s emergence down the steps of the Felsenreitschule in a slinky, yet stylish gown (Klaus Noack’s costumes impressed throughout) enhanced her ‘star’ quality. I was unsure, though, about the animal masks donned by her retinue: presumably harking back to the prologue, but if so, reference during the first two acts would have helped. All the world, or at least all the riding school, was a stage, however, reminding one of Lulu’s oft-forgotten blackest of comedy. I thought it a pity that there had been no film for the film music: instead we merely saw some men of the world reading all about it from their newspapers. Still, at a time when video unnecessarily invades the most anodyne of productions, perhaps there was method in its absence.

Musically, there were many laurels to bestow. Patricia Petibon may not efface memories of Christine Schäfer – a wearily predictable comparison, I know – but she turns her particular abilities to good effect. I cannot say that I warm to her voice, but not warming to Lulu’s voice has its own dramatic consequences. A degree of alienation is no bad thing here, a blank canvas more telling than more naturally ‘expressive’ singing. Whilst some pitches are less accurate than others, one could doubtless say the same about every performance there has ever been. Most importantly, there was a strong sense of character, both on stage and vocally. Coloratura was in general effortlessly despatched, with a proper lack of heart. Pavol Breslik was simply outstanding as the Painter and the Negro. One really wanted the former to get away from Lulu as soon as possible, his honeyed tone making a bid for doomed sympathy belying his mere acts. (It probably did no harm that he was better looking than anyone else.) At any rate, he had his third-act revenge – sort of. Michael Volle was on just as good form here as at Covent Garden, but was given far greater opportunity, which he took, to flesh out Dr Schön as character rather than cipher. One rightly felt ambivalence and ambiguity, but one also savoured a fine command of line and subtle shading therein. Thomas Piffka replaced the originally slated Michael Schade as Alwa. During the first act, I was a little nonplussed, but this portrayal grew as time progressed – perhaps deliberately so? I was most taken with his selfishness as composer at the end of the second act: powerfully conveyed, whereas one often feels ‘mere’ sympathy for Berg’s partial self-projection. Tanja Ariana Baumgartner presented a less self-consciously ‘sympathetic’ Geschwitz than one often encounters; Lulu’s irritation was quite understandable. Perhaps we have at last progressed beyond the need to single out a lesbian character, though I must admit that I should not have minded a little more tugging at heartstrings here. It was good to welcome back Heinz Zednik (remember him in the Boulez-Chéreau Ring?) and Franz Grundheber, whose Schigolch was in the Norman Bailey class. There was a back story here, far beyond caricature, without attempting inappropriate dignity or, again, ‘sympathy’. Thomas Johannes Mayer, whom I did not recognise from his fine Wotan in Paris, did excellent work, especially as the ghastly Athlete, repellently raising the character to the level of an almost ultimate male response to Lulu’s charisma.

The Vienna Philharmonic was outstanding. One would have expected the devilish sweetness of the strings, though it still merits remark, but every section played superbly. I do not think I have ever heard, at least in this work, such fine xylophone playing, for instance. The sickness, the decadence, the beauty and the bite: all of these were there. This is of course the orchestra for which Lulu has always cried out. Albrecht’s direction was immeasurably superior to that of Pappano’s wishy-washiness at Covent Garden. Not only were there colour and depth; there was, crucially, iron-clad structure, on the micro- and macro-levels. Berg’s intricate writing needs to be projected in a way that relishes, is even seduced by, his formal games and turns them to dramatic ends. Orchestra and composer were here the brightest stars of all.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Salzburg Festival (1) - Orfeo ed Euridice, 13 August 2010

Grosses Festspielhaus

Images: © Hermann und Clärchen Baus

Orfeo – Elisabeth Kulman
Euridice – Genia Kühmeier
Amore – Christiane Karg

Dieter Dorn (director)
Jürgen Rose (designs)
Tobias Löffler (lighting)
Ramses Sigl (choreography)
Hans-Joachim Ruckhäberle (dramaturgy)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Thomas Lang)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Riccardo Muti (conductor)

I have occasionally debated with myself which work would open my fantasy new regime at Covent Garden: the one where Donizetti and Verdi are banished for ever more, where the demands for ‘star’ singers are simply ignored, where ‘corporate hospitality’ is banished still further away than L’elisir d’amore, where we have some modern equivalent to the eminently sensible proposals presented by Wagner to the King of Saxony. Busoni’s Doktor Faust perhaps? Still a front runner, not least on account of its continued absence from so many stages, London included. An Orfeo would have to be a serious contender, too, though, not least on account of its foundational myth of the power of music. The question is which – and despite various other fine works (later in the opening season?), it would have to come down to Monteverdi or Gluck. The former’s Orfeo, the first great opera, has as pressing a claim as any, but so does Gluck’s astonishing reform opera: a statement of intent not unlike that with which the new regime would begin. Moreover, Gluck seems barely more popular than Busoni with those who hold the reins of programming power.

Fortunately, Riccardo Muti, following a period of dissatisfaction with Salzburg opera under Gérard Mortier’s regime, is once again a fixture at the Festival, and Muti has long been an ardent advocate of Gluck. His live recording of Iphigénie en Tauride from La Scala is certainly the finest of the work in question and perhaps the finest of any Gluck opera. Muti now conducts his first Gluck opera in Salzburg, the first staged Orfeo ed Euridice since Karajan's more than half a century ago, in 1959. (John Eliot Gardiner conducted concert performances in 1990.) Though Muti’s Gluck remains blissfully, even defiantly, free of modish ‘period’ concerns, there was nothing routine to this reading: quite different from either his Milanese performances or indeed his New Philharmonia recording.

This must be ascribed in part to the presence of the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit. Its golden sweetness is quite unlike that of any other orchestra, especially when playing for a favoured conductor, as here. This was a more Mozartian Gluck than one often hears, or indeed has heard from this particular conductor: tender and seductive, as Orpheus should be. The VPO’s fabled strings were of course crucial in this respect, but likewise its Orphic harp, those melting horns – sterner when necessary – and, not least, its truly magic flutes. The size of the orchestra was neither small nor especially large, but seemed just right for the Grosses Festspielhaus. (Another, especially cretinous, aspect of fundamentalist criticism is furious insistence upon particular sized forces, irrespective of the venue and acoustic.) The harpsichord (Speranda Spaccucci), contrary to reports I had read, was audible throughout. I am unconvinced that this is necessary, but it was interesting to note that some writers must have decided beforehand that they would not be able to hear the continuo, and therefore did not – or so they claimed. Muti’s tempi obeyed no particular pattern, taking their cue instead from the requirements of the drama: on occasion, though only on occasion, daringly slow, especially during heightened sections of recitative, but the music never dragged. The overture had me slightly worried: rather hard-driven, à la Toscanini¸ but that was a single exception.

This performance was fortunate too in its singers. The Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus sang excellently throughout: intelligible, implacable, imploring. Genia Kühmeier was a beautifully toned Euridice and Christiane Karg a winning Amore: not at all irritating, which it is sadly necessary to note. It was, however, quite rightly Elisabeth Kulman’s Orfeo, along with the orchestra, who was the true star here. Kulman’s richly instrumental tone, redolent of the chalumeaux Muti perhaps surprisingly elected to use, acted both as Orpheus’s voice and his lyre. Detailed attention to words heightened rather than detracted from her often heartrending delivery of the vocal line. Che farò senza Euridice?’ sounded not as if it were merely that aria, but as a crucial part of the drama, prepared by recitative; though the voices are very different, the performance that most readily sprang to mind was that of Dame Janet Baker. (Her recording under Raymond Leppard remains the safest first choice, though there is always Furtwängler…)

Dieter Dorn’s production is often attractive, not least when it comes to Jürgen Rose’s costumes and the arresting images of Hades, with which the second act opens. It is difficult, however, to discern any especial view of the work: fine, up to a point, since it is perfectly capable of speaking for itself, but a little disappointing. Where the production really falls down is in the ballet scenes. They present a potential problem, but there is no need for them to fall as flat as the final one in particular does. A ballet would have done fine; one might have considered it the obvious option for ballet music… Instead, we have a tedious working out of what seems to be ‘how the story just told is relevant today’. It is not suggested that the power of music might be at work, but rather that we should all work through our problems and live with each other as best we can. The tedious ‘movement’ resembles the sort of thing one might see in primary schools: a pity.

Muti being Muti, we certainly do not hear the bravura aria that often closes the first act (stage-stopping, but perhaps not even by Gluck at all, and out of keeping with the reformist ethos), nor even the Dance of the Blessed Spirits. It is the Vienna version we hear. I see no problem in principle with performing a wisely assembled composite edition, but there is an integrity to Gluck’s first version that is justification enough. It was a brave and good decision to perform the work without an interval. We did not even hear applause until the end.

Please do not take as written the a priori criticisms of Muti’s Gluck from ‘period’ fanatics; they could have composed – and perhaps did – their fatwas before hearing the performances, as tiresomely predictable as a newspaper column from a Polly Toynbee or a Simon Heffer. These critics will never be satisfied until any semblance of humanity has been extracted from Baroque, Classical, and even much later music. To treat this foundational musical drama as music, and not as an exercise in pseudo-archaeology has become, astonishingly enough, a rare thing indeed. Only a conductor of Muti’s standing would dare do so today. The rewards reaped are rich indeed.

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Salzburg Festival 2010

It seems fitting that, quite by chance, my four-hundredth posting should concern what I maintain to be the greatest music festival in the world. My first visit to the Salzburg Festival was as an undergraduate, when I saw my first Figaro in the theatre. The cost, which, I have rued ever since, was missing Boulez conduct Peter Stein's production of Moses und Aron, but I can forgive myself for having let Mozart win. I also heard Sir Georg Solti in person for the first and last time - and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, in that same concert, for the first but certainly not the last time live. There was no Mozart in that particular concert (Haydn, Bartók, and Beethoven) but, on my next visit, I would hear the Mozart orchestra in his music for the first time (The Magic Flute in Achim Freyer's truly magical production). Henceforth, I should realise the truth that one has never properly heard Mozart until played by the Vienna Philharmonic.

There have been so many highlights since: for instance, Busoni's Doktor Faust, the first production of Henze's L'Upupa, Mozart's Mass in C minor in St Peter's Abbey itself, Bernard Haitink conducting the Staatskapelle Dresden in Strauss, my first encounter with the music of Helmut Lachenmann (enthused by Intérieur I, perplexed by Das Mädchen mit den Schwefelhölzern),  Robert Carsen's extraordinary staging of Der Rosenkavalier, my first, spectacular live encounter with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Claus Guth's brilliant production of Figaro, last year's Al gran sole carico d'amore, and of course, Mozartjahr 2006, when the Festival staged every one of the divine Amadè's operas. I only managed to attend a handful, but the possibility of seeing La finta semplice and L'oca del Cairo, almost irrespective of their productions, and in those cases, certainly irrespective of the infuriating high-pitched woman in a yellow jump-suit who infiltrated them, was something nowhere else would have afforded. Bayreuth is a thing in itself, of course, but Wagner is not the whole world. Salzburg offers almost everything - and at such high standards, in such a heartbreakingly beautiful setting.

I shall therefore shortly be setting off for a few days' sojourn on the Salzach. By way of a taster, here are the performances I shall be attending - and reviewing:

Orfeo ed Euridice (with the Vienna Philharmonic, under the greatest, indeed the only great, Gluck conductor still active, Riccardo Muti)

Lulu (Patricia Petibon in the title role, Michael Volle, et al., the VPO conducted by Marc Albrecht)

Don Giovanni (the one instalment in Claus Guth's da Ponte trilogy I have yet to see; a cast potentially of many pleasures, not least of which will surely be Erwin Schrott's Leporello; yet again, the VPO...)

Elektra (Daniele Gatti conducts the VPO, with a cast that could surely not be bettered: Waltraud Meier, Iréne Theorin, Eva-Maria Westbroek, René Pape...)

VPO/Muti - Prokofiev's Ivan the Terrible (one of the narrators is Gérard Depardieu)

and finally... Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach in Die schöne Müllerin.

The entire programme (spoken theatre too) may be found on the festival website.

I hope, however, that there will be at least a little time to savour some of the city's other delights too:

Prom 32: Rysanov/EUYO/Bamert - Tchaikovsky, Janáček, and Berlioz, 9 August 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Tchaikovsky – Fantasy Overture: ‘Romeo and Juliet’
Janáček – Taras Bulba
Berlioz – Harold en Italie, op.16

Maxim Rysanov (viola)
European Union Youth Orchestra
Matthias Bamert (conductor)

I have still yet to hear Sir Colin Davis conduct the Symphonie fantastique or Harold in Italy live, though I shall cherish memories of Les troyens for the rest of my life. Tonight was to have been the night for Harold, but Davis had to withdraw on health grounds: all Berlioz-lovers, Mozart-lovers, music-lovers will wish Sir Colin a swift recovery. Berlioz aside, this was perhaps not an obvious Davis programme; however, it does not, on the strength of this concert, seem to have been an obvious Matthias Bamert programme either.

Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet fared best: the European Youth Orchestra providing a vivid, heartfelt performance. The slow, sombre introduction proved full of foreboding, whilst Bamert’s flexibility of transition marked that to the urgent, sharply characterised first group and other passages too. There was, for instance, no sense of treading water until the ‘love theme’; the material was instead shown to be motivically, dramatically important. Strings were simply gorgeous, truly Tchaikovskian. The development brought precision, though not of the clinical variety, and urgency in exchanges between Montagues and Capulets – and how, later on, the love theme would soar as it suffered incursions from those families!

Though I am a passionate admirer of Janáček, his Taras Bulba has never struck me as one of his stronger works, even in the hands of a Kubelík or a Mackerras. And so it was here, under a deputising conductor who seemed to have little particular sympathy for the composer. The orchestra once again played very well. There were notable solos, for instance from leader, Sarah Sew in The Death of Andriy, and it was good to hear the Royal Albert Hall organ (Robin Green) in gentler music, properly contrasted with bells and military clangour. Yet the music was often too relaxed or (the second movement) too driven, and lacked the authentic Janáček edge. A sense of the whole, admittedly difficult to impart in this work, remained elusive. There were hints of the Glagolitic Mass at the conclusion, but they did not seem truly to emanate from the heart of the music.

Harold in Italy benefited from an outstanding performance from Maxim Rysanov, but the orchestral direction proceeded in fits and starts. The opening of the first movement was most promising: purposeful to an uncommonly, yet convincingly, Beethovenian degree. The bassoon’s baleful melancholy (Maria García Gallego) heightened expectations, which seemed set to be fulfilled – and they were – by Rysanov’s spellbinding reveries: some wondrous pianissimi here. Bamert imparted a reasonable amount of fantasy – though this of all composers needs more than ‘reasonable’ – but here and elsewhere, he seemed reluctant to draw out Berlioz’s array of orchestral colour. Moreover, his direction lacked the sense of line that Davis would doubtless have contributed. It would always have been difficult for the mystery of the second movement’s opening to have emerged through a concerted barrage of coughing. However, once the audience had (relatively) calmed down, the lack of magic was also to be attributed to Bamert’s hurried tempo and lack of affinity with Berlioz’s orchestration. The EUYO’s strings brought considerable warmth to proceedings, however. Again, there was excellent solo work from Rysanov. His gift for projection, especially when playing softly, is uncommon: the viola’s harmonics were both present and thematically meaningful. Sadly, the conclusion to this movement was not helped by what sounded like a passing aeroplane, soon to be drowned out by inter-movement audience hubbub. There was a nice lilt to the third-movement serenade, and a truly magical placing of the viola’s idée fixe against the orchestra’s contrasting rhythms and solos. The mind’s eye could see Berlioz’s Italian landscape, though it has been painted in less restrained fashion. An almighty cymbal clash announced the final movement – and showed the noisy audience who ultimately was in charge: not before time. The return of the opening material brought a renewed sense of purpose: this would seem to suit Bamert more than much of what goes in between. But that, of course, is only a small part of this movement. Here, the conductor had a tendency to drive too hard, though this is something very difficult to get right. (Sir Colin, by some miracle, always has.) Direction was also, at least at times, charmlessly metronomic. The solo strings played well, though.

Sunday 8 August 2010

Prom 29: NYO/Bychkov - Dukas, Anderson, and Berlioz, 7 August 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Dukas – L’apprenti sorcier
Julian Anderson – Fantasias
Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique, op.14

National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

I have never heard a mediocre, let alone poor, performance from the National Youth Orchestra; this Prom would be no exception. Under Semyon Bychkov, of whom we have recently, welcomely, been hearing rather more in this country, these young musicians played their hearts out, in a programme of three orchestral showpieces, which, in two cases out of three, where shown to be much more than showpieces. First was The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. From the opening bars, it was imbued with a magic that made it sound as if minted anew. Ravel came to mind – but then, it should really be the other way around. Sharpness of attack and, on occasion, proto-impressionist haze worked together to provide a sharply characterised account. What a joy it was to hear such a large orchestra too, one that worked with the Royal Albert Hall, rather than performing as usual and leaving the listener to pretend that he were hearing with other ears. Seven trombones, here and elsewhere, did the trick wonderfully, likewise the depth and gloss – not an ugly word, whatever Karajan-deniers might tell you – of strings.

Next came the London premiere of Julian Anderson’s Fantasias (2007-9), written for the Cleveland Orchestra. I cannot imagine that even that mighty orchestra would have given a better account than the NYO did. Whether it was worth the effort is another matter. If one wanted a piece of modern, albeit relatively conservative, orchestration to study, one could do worse, but again and again I kept asking what lay behind the orchestration; if one wanted ‘orchestra without music’, someone else, already mentioned, did it rather better. The first of five ‘fantasias’ opens arrestingly, for brass alone, and the NYO brass is spectacular indeed. Anderson describes it as ‘very polyphonic’: a somewhat odd qualifier, ‘very’, but never mind. The debt to Stravinsky is obvious from the word go, but the Russian master’s economy of means seems to elude Anderson. Doubtless taxing and enjoyable to play, this is somewhat prolix. Wonder of wonders, though, and this would be maintained throughout the evening: no applause between movements. The second fantasia seems most concerned with orchestral colour. String pizzicato playing was beyond reproach, likewise general orchestral keenness of response. However, the outstanding nature of the percussion playing only served to highlight the watered-down proximity to writing in Boulez’s Notation II: superficially similar, but without the distinction of material and transformation. The NYO’s depth of string tone served the third piece well; so did the superlative flute-playing of Joshua Batty, whom I admired in the NYO’s Debussy a little while ago. Messiaenesque writing hinted both at chorale and birdsong. I later read that this ‘nocturne … was partly suggested by the image of a rainforest and its acoustic’. That seemed merely to consist in a cultural imperialism that took a few sounds and ‘ethnic’ rhythms as emblematic of a culture that in no way seemed truly to inform the music. Occidentalism, perhaps? There was a glittering climax in performance to the third part of this fantasia, again wonderfully performed, before subsiding into more birdsong and vaguely ‘jungle’-like noises, but to what end? The fourth fantasia, scherzo-like, brings more of the same, only sped up. (Be grateful for small mercies!) Mid-period Stravinskian syncopation was dealt with very well by the performers. Co-leader, Rosemary Hinton performed her solo exquisitely. The final fantasia once again brought water-down reminiscences of that Boulez Notation, along with faint reminders of Janáček, without the individuality. It outstayed its welcome, like much of the rest, but gave the NYO players ample opportunity to display their virtuosity.

With the Symphonie fantastique we returned, of course, to compositional mastery. For once, moreover we had an orchestra a little closer to the size Berlioz desired: not quite there, of course, but closer than most – and it told. (Note a typical hypocrisy – inconsistency, if we are to be charitable – on the part of the authenticke brigade here.) The opening of the first movement, like that of the Dukas, brought sonorous magic – this despite the insistent presence of someone apparently in advanced stages of consumption, who seemed to infect others with terrifying rapidity. The main tempo of the first movement proper, once past the introduction, sounded on the fast side, but Bychkov proved eminently flexible, imparting that all-important nervous energy to Berlioz’s vision. This Berlioz was perhaps more excitable than the more Classical conception of Sir Colin Davis, but this standpoint is perfectly valid in its Romanticism. An especially beautiful oboe solo (Julian Scott) should be noted. Le bal went with a swing – and an equally ravishing flute solo, again from Joshua Batty. A mediocre performance of the Scène aux champs will inevitably lead one’s mind to wander: no such problem here, for I was gripped from beginning to end. Bychkov showed a fine command of line, melodic and harmonic, whilst his players excelled themselves. A suave melody from the cello section was worthy of especial mention, likewise a splendid clarinet solo from Oliver Pashley. Indeed, all the woodwind players were truly excellent. The climax was finely shaped, not overdone, the movement as a whole leisurely, but always moving. Character and discipline vitally informed the march to the scaffold, the NYO brass simply magnificent: quality and quantity, just as Berlioz wished. A mobile telephone disrupted the early bars of the finale, but this proved a welcome opportunity for the brass to obliterate this most unwelcome ‘interactivity’ – as our modish commentators would have it. There was some splendidly characterised woodwind playing: grotesque in the best way, as was the added heft of the string section, which also served to underline the oft-overlooked symphonic stature of Berlioz’s achievement. Off-stage bells and their echo were duly credible, indeed atmospheric , whilst the final brass Dies irae proved truly resplendent, surrounded by diabolical orchestral madness. The rollicking conclusion provided a fitting climax to a fine concert.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Prom 25: London Sinfonietta/Atherton - Bach and Stravinsky, 4 August 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Bach – Christmas Oratorio, BWV 248 – Chorale: ‘Ach mein herzliebes Jesulein’ (on organ)
Bach – Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her,’ BWV 769
Bach-Stravinsky – Chorale Varations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch’, BWV 769
Stravinsky – Threni

Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
Hilary Summers (mezzo-soprano)
Alan Oke (tenor)
Andrew Kennedy (tenor)
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone)
Sir John Tomlinson (bass)
Daniel Hyde (organ)
BBC Singers (chorus master: Paul Brough)
London Sinfonietta
David Atherton (conductor)

On paper, this looked like one of the most intelligently planned Proms in this year’s series. How would it turn out in practice? Just as well, a heartening reminder of how difficult and yet crucial good programming can be. Not only, astonishingly, was this the Proms premiere of Threni; the Bach-Stravinsky connection was explored in just the way conductors were able to do before period fundamentalists declared Bach off bounds for modern musicians – and, tragically, won. The counter-attack would have been aided by some ‘straight’, unhyphenated Bach being performed by the orchestra too, not just on the organ, but there is something about gift-horses and their mouths…

Daniel Hyde opened with Bach’s harmonisation of the Vom himmel hoch chorale for Christmas Day, albeit transposed down a tone, so as to fit with the Variations to follow. The organist gave a decent account of these extraordinary pieces of canonic wizardry, though he proved a little hidebound – forgive the pun – by more than a hint of the metronome, a few slowings down seeming arbitrary or necessitated by contrapuntal complexity rather than musical strategy. Registrations were relatively ‘Baroque’ by the standards of the Royal Albert Hall instrument, which of course is not very ‘Baroque’ at all, the reeds being something of an acquired taste, but Hyde steered clear of probing the labyrinthine, Bergian complexities of the music: brightness and order were very much to the fore. And yet, though this certainly is not my Bach, I began to realise that this was actually rather close to Stravinsky’s, which was probably more the point in this programme. The ‘sewing-machine’ approach of post-war organists, harpischordists, and chamber orchestras was very much the soil from which Stravinsky’s anti-Romantic Bach emerged. (Interested readers may care to look at Richard Taruskin’s work in Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (Oxford, 1995), and my own critique of Taruskin: ‘Romantic Modernism: Bach, Furtwängler, and Adorno,’ in New German Critique, 104 (Spring/Summer 2008), pp. 71-102.)

Stravinsky’s equally extraordinary recomposition followed: all of Bach’s counterpoint, further embellished. How rich, and yet how deliciously typical, or typically delicious, for someone who fulminated against others for creating Bach in their own image! (A favourite instance of mine is this: ‘The Saint Matthew’s Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach is written for a chamber-music ensemble. Its first performance in Bach’s lifetime was perfectly realized by a total force of thirty-four musicians, including soloists and chorus. That is known. And nevertheless in our day one does not hesitate to present the work, in complete disregard of the composer’s wishes, with hundreds of performers, sometimes almost a thousand. This lack of understanding of the interpreter’s obligations, this arrogant pride in numbers, this concupiscence of the many, betray a complete lack of musical education.’ The barefaced cheek of coupling an attack upon ‘this arrogant pride in numbers,’ whilst lauding a precise number of thirty-four musicians…) The London Sinfonietta under David Atherton played as Stravinskians to the manner born. At first I thought the BBC Singers a little underpowered, but soon realised that it would have been quite distorting – and not in a positive, Stravinskian sense – to punch out the chorale as if with an organ trumpet stop: the point here is the counterpoint, as it were, since we knew the chorale itself inside out by now. But there is simpler rejoicing to be had too: it is Christmas after all, as the opening brass reminded us, inescapably suggesting Renaissance polyphony. What struck me throughout was how utterly Stravinsky recreates Bach in his own image. The first variation teemed with life, Agon-like, Helen Tunstall’s harp in particular; the third sounded like a sequel to the Symphony in Three Movements. Michael Cox’s excellent flute solos should be given mention here. And the astonishing – even by Bach’s, Stravinsky’s, and Bach-Stravinsky’s standards – final variation wore its fast tempo lightly, quite justified by a performance in which one could hear every last contrapuntal artifice.

The neglect of Threni is incomprehensible to me, but then so is that of Webern. I am delighted to report that this fine performance will surely have made a host of converts. Stravinsky’s Lamentations thrived, as so often, counter-intuitively, do smaller-scale works, in the Royal Albert Hall. One has to listen and one does – and one is not expecting weight of sound. Such was clear from the canons in the Complaint of De elegia tertia. The opening Incipit made an instant sonorous connection with the Bach Variations, one maintained and furthered throughout the performance. Indeed, I was throughout struck by the vividness of Stravinsky’s sparing instrumentation – and its proximity to late Webern. The keenness of syncopation in the second part of De elegia tertia could have been nothing other than an utterly Stravinskian take upon the Austrian composer. Duets, for instance those of the two tenors in De elegia prima, were rich in musical reference: Webern certainly, but the Renaissance and Monteverdi too, all the way back to the synagogue. Soloists who made an especial impression were the rich-toned Hilary Summers, whom I recently admired in Le marteau sans maître, and the inimitable John Tomlinson. Somehow, as ever, he made this music his own, even with a wide vibrato one might have thought antithetical to Stravinskian intervallic precision. It did not matter; indeed, it humanised, and his diction was superb. Stravinsky’s authentic voice shone through his intellectual challenges: the originality of this work is something special even by his own standards. And the response to Jeremiah’s text is simply perfect, a setting that takes us all the way back to Hebrew roots, and yet down so many avenues thereafter, fused in an almost frighteningly coherent whole. The final De elegia quinta, in work and performance, invoked and indeed reconciled with the magical conclusion to the Symphony of Psalms. Simple, yet complex; distanced, yet close.