Wednesday 29 September 2010

Theseus Ensemble: two upcoming concerts

News from the Theseus Ensemble - patron Pierre Boulez, conductor Geoffrey Paterson - concerning two must-hear upcoming concerts:


Friday 5 November 2010, 7.30pm

Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music, London SW7 2BS

‘Out of the Labyrinth’

Brian Elias Geranos
Sir Harrison Birtwistle Verses for Ensembles

Tickets £10/£8 advance/£5 students, from or at the door.


Monday 14 February 2011, 1pm

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London WC2E 9DD

‘Sounds, Words, Music’

George Benjamin Upon Silence
Pierre Boulez Le marteau sans maître

Louise Collett, mezzo-soprano

Tickets free. A small number will be available in advance online from, with the majority available from 10am on the day at the Royal Opera House box office.


The Theseus Ensemble comprises some of the UK’s leading young professional instrumentalists. We are enthusiastically dedicated to the exploration of the labyrinths of modern music, and to sharing our discoveries with our audiences. Our work focuses on repertoire of the late 20th and 21st centuries, and through concerts and education projects we are committed to drawing connections between music and other areas of the arts, science and nature.

The Theseus Ensemble’s patron is distinguished conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, and its founder and conductor is Geoffrey Paterson, winner of the 2009 Leeds Conductors Competition and member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House. Please visit for more information.

For more information please contact the Theseus Ensemble’s mananger, Rosie Burton, on 07736 071847 or at

Monday 27 September 2010

Tristan und Isolde, Philharmonia/Salonen, 26 September 2010

Royal Festival Hall

(concert performance)

Tristan – Gary Lehman
Isolde – Violeta Urmana
Brangäne – Anne Sofie von Otter
King Marke – Matthew Best
Kurwenal – Jukka Rasilainen
Melot – Stephen Gadd
Shepherd/Young Sailor – Joshua Ellicott
Steersman – Darren Jeffery

Bill Viola (visual artist)
Peter Sellars (artistic collaborator)

Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan Oliver)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

As autumn hit London with a vengeance, my ensuing cold ensured that I missed the opening concert of the London Philharmonic’s new season: Vladimir Jurowski conducting Zemlinksy and Mahler. I was determined therefore not to miss the Philharmonia’s opening salvo. Almost irrespective of the results, it was quite a statement to open with Nietzsche’s ‘opus metaphysicum of all true art,’ Tristan und Isolde. Billed as a concert performance, it was not really, though I could not help wishing that it had been. Peter Sellars’s direction, or ‘artistic collaboration’, is restrained: generally a good thing in Tristan, which needs very little ‘doing’, though that very little can make all the difference. Would that Bill Viola showed such or indeed any restraint with his ‘video art’.

I saw his projections first at the Opéra national de Paris, two years ago. Then I was irritated and distracted, though there was a little more in the way of staging. Here, there was slightly less staging, which worked at least as well. The Royal Festival Hall was used imaginatively, singing from boxes providing, for instance, a nice impression of the ship: it actually put me in mind of the use of the same space for Nono’s Prometeo in 2008. However, I discovered on returning home that my distraction and the rest of my response tallied precisely with what I had written about the Paris performance, so my hopes for further understanding or at least ability to set Viola on one side were dashed. The Southbank Centre’s publicity read: ‘This concert performance will be set against the stunning backdrop of Bill Viola's film projections, further exploring the emotional subtexts of the work.’ Rarely, however, did these projections begin truly to engage with the work, let alone to explore texts or subtexts.

Distraction remains greatest during the first act. ‘Act I,’ to quote Viola, ‘presents the theme of Purification, the universal act of the individual’s preparation for the symbolic sacrifice and death required for the transformation and rebirth of the self.’ We are in the world of Orientalism – or ‘the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of Tantra that lie submerged in the Western cultural consciousness’. One wonders whether Viola has ever read Edward Said; he certainly seems blissfully unaware of the pitfalls of evoking ‘the East’ in such a way. Sellars made him aware of ‘this connection to Eastern sources,’ but the outcome was hardly a drawing into ‘Wagner’s 19th-century work’. The first act represents anything but purification; it is instead a reawakening and a headlong rush into catastrophe. As I commented last time, the death that approaches is not sacrificial, but the selfish bidding of Schopenhauer’s Will. (Schopenhauer’s Orientalism might have been well worth pursuing: no such luck.) As the act progresses, the video projections of ceremonial purification seem merely disconnected rather than daringly contradictory; worst of all, they make it difficult to concentrate on the surging musical drama. Some images later on work better: that across the sea at the beginning of the third act, for example, and the magical reverse drowning of the conclusion. But for the most part, this is a display of superimposed self-indulgent Californianism. Candles are lit, of course, since candles show ‘spirituality’. Indeed, throughout, the imagery evokes the tedium of 'New Age' self-fulfilment, which could hardly be further from Wagner’s vision – and which is not sufficient of a counterpoint to evoke true contrast either.

The musical performances were of course a different matter – and it was a sad thing that they were sometimes overwhelmed. Esa-Pekka Salonen steered a sure course through the work, though the miraculous opening prelude began with excessive ponderousness. Though JPE Harper-Scott’s programme note made a powerful case for Tristan as an avowedly tonal drama – I shall return to this at the end – Salonen tended to stress the presentiments of late Mahler and Schoenberg rather than the Romanticism of Wagner’s score. Tristan’s delirious monologue responded especially well to this approach: I am not sure that I have ever heard it sound so clearly as a male Erwartung. But to return to Nietzsche’s description of this as art’s opus metaphysicum, it was the metaphysical that was really lacking. Furtwängler, whose recording with this orchestra, remains the first choice of any sane – and perhaps even insane – listener, could not have been more distant. The Philharmonia played extremely well, the strings sounding more German than I have heard them in a while. It was all a little too clinical, though, too well-drilled. Often, I found myself asking: yes, but what does this mean?

Violeta Urmana’s approach was rather different, not in the sense of metaphysics but in assimilating her role to nineteenth-century grand opera. She sang very well and made as dramatic an impression as one could reasonably hope for, but this was Isolde as diva. Her concerns again seemed resolutely of this world, the possibilities of the Schopenhauerian noumenal failing to register. On the more earthbound level, a little Nilsson-like sarcasm or irony would have helped too. Gary Lehman marshalled his resources well as Tristan. His was not a large-scale portrayal, but he did much more than get through the role, which is in itself a rare achievement. The delirium of the third act was perhaps a little too Lieder-like, but it was conveyed, albeit without those metaphysical implications expanding its horizons yet further. Matthew Best’s vibrato was somewhat intrusive as King Marke, especially during the second act, but his third-act forgiveness was humanly credible. I found the vowels of Jukka Rasilainen a little too much in a tradition that seems to mark Finnish singers in German – it must be something to do with the language – but otherwise he did fair enough service, if without scaling the heights or the depths. Anne Sofie von Otter’s Brangäne, however, was impressive in its detailed response. If hers is not the sort of voice I immediately think of for the role, one should retain an open mind in such matters. Her way with the poem was second to none, and her relative coolness, suggestively different from the typical Brangäne, fitted well with Salonen’s approach. I was especially impressed by Joshua Ellicott’s Shepherd: quite heart-rending, as moving a rendition as I can recall.

To return, briefly, to the matter of tonal or atonal (to steal from Schoenberg’s Three Satires), this performance made me reconsider my position somewhat. I am broadly in agreement, or at least I was, with Harper-Scott and others, for instance Roger Scruton, who insist upon the tonal underpinning of Wagner’s score. I now worry a little more, however, that such a reading, tracing its roots ultimately to Heinrich Schenker’s analytical approach, carries with it the danger of underselling what happens in between the opening Prelude and Isolde’s transfiguration. We do not, I hope, simply sit waiting for the end, for that final cadence. Indeed, the generative association of Wagner’s motivic web as well as his harmony carry with them important seeds of the serial constructivism that could lead twentieth-century composers to expansive, open-ended new universes of sound. There is a strong tendency towards the totality in Wagner’s work, of course, but there is also resistance within the material. Salonen’s intimations of Schoenberg heightened this sense – which rethinking, whatever my reservations, is testament to a successful performance.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Dreaming Stravinsky

Rarely do I recall my dreams, however vivid they might have seemed at the time. However, in this case, I strained to repeat to myself what had happened upon waking and thereby managed to remember a considerable amount. I found myself walking into a school hall, somewhat gymnasium-like I think, where a particularly malnourished orchestra was performing The Rite of Spring to a rather small audience. As the performance stalled and restarted - I do not think these were intended as 'provocative' tempo fluctuations - members of the audience commented on the proceedings, some upping and leaving, their departure occasioning further consternation both from the audience and the orchestra. At a certain point, members of the orchestra, starting with two first violins at the back - I think there were only two more desks in total - began to leave too: rather like Haydn's Farewell Symphony. A new way to riot in the Rite? It seemed like an idea for a music-theatre piece...

Tuesday 21 September 2010

The Makropulos Case, English National Opera, 20 September 2010

(sung in English)


(Image: EM with Janek - Neil Libbert)

Emilia Marty – Amanda Roocroft
Dr Kolenatý – Andrew Shore
Vítek – Alasdair Elliott
Kristina – Laura Mitchell
Albert Gregor – Peter Hoare
Baron Prus – Ashley Holland
Janek – Christopher Turner
Hauk-Šendorf – Ryland Davies
Stage Technician – William Robert Allenby
Cleaning Lady – Morag Boyle
Chambermaid – Susanna Tudor-Thomas

Christopher Alden (director)
Charles Edwards (set designs)
Sue Wilmington (costumes)
Adam Silverman (lighting)
Claire Glaskin (choreography)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Nicholas Chalmers)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Sir Richard Armstrong (conductor)

Christopher Alden’s production of The Makropulos Case garnered considerable acclaim upon its first ENO outing. It benefited from a strong cast and from the guiding hand of the late Sir Charles Mackerras – to whose memory this performance was dedicated – but it has virtues of its own. Foremost amongst them are Charles Edwards’s powerful set designs, redolent of Eastern European civic architecture without fetishising a location that ultimately is neither here nor there: for the truly though not exclusively national, one turns to the music. These designs frame the action in a manner that manages to convey a degree of claustrophobia but also the public arena in which the drama plays itself out. Emilia Marty is an opera singer, after all – and a ‘famous’ one at that. But there is perforce coldness at her heart, such being the nature of her near-immortal predicament, and that coldness is reflected in the setting, not least Adam Silverman’s lighting. The men lined up outside look in on her world and occasionally participate, insofar as she permits them, though they never really understand it or her.

And yet, Alden seems to view the opera partly as a comedy, or at least has come to do so. (I do not remember this registering last time around, but that may just be my failure to recollect.) Karel Čapek’s original play is a comedy, though I cannot claim acquaintance with it. That has never, however, seemed to me to be the spirit in which Janáček prepared his opera. There are surreal happenings, to be sure, but playing Marty for laughs, as Amanda Roocroft often did, and turning Baron Prus into something of a Carry On figure, embarrassed and embarrassing in his underwear, does the work no favours. Moreover, one needs a good directorial reason to disregard the instruction that Kristina burn the Makropulos document, red Glückliche Hand-like glow of burning or otherwise; I am not sure that there is one here.

Roocroft’s performance was loudly acclaimed. During the first act, she impressed considerably. However, a reading that threatened to degenerate into farce seemed, at least to me, to undersell the nobility in the role. Diction and intonation deteriorated too. There was certainly enthusiasm to her portrayal; one could not fault her for effort, but it increasingly seemed misapplied. Cheryl Barker first time around gave a more complete account. Casting in general, however, remained strong. Andrew Shore and Alasdair Elliott provided subtly coloured and differentiated readings of Kolanatý and Vítek, whilst Christopher Turner and Laura Mitchell proved youthfully ardent as Janek and Kristina. There was strength, but strength aptly born of bluster, in Ashley Holland’s Prus. The serving roles – Cleaning Lady, Stage Technician, and Chambermaid – were characterised, some might say caricatured, with musical and verbal aplomb by Morag Boyle, William Robert Allenby, and Susanna Tudor-Thomas. Perhaps, though, someone – whoever issued instructions to this effect – should be informed that cod-Northern accents does not always sit well with operatic vocalism, and, more seriously, that geography does not equate to class. It was worth attending for Ryland Davies’s splendidly acted Hauk-Šendorf alone.

Sir Richard Armstrong often drove the ENO Orchestra fiercely. There was no want of dramatic verve in his reading; it echoed Mackerras quite strongly in fact. There were, moreover, moments, however fragile, in which Janáček’s musical phantasmagoria could truly beguile, supreme amongst which must be the waltzing harmonics that enable E.M. to reach the climax of her tale. The orchestra was on excellent form, strings especially sweet, and the full head given to pounding kettledrums dramatic rather than melodramatic. Perhaps most impressive was Armstrong’s handling of Janáček’s fragmentary technique. Snatches become parts of a whole, but the alchemy, like that of Makropulos’s formula, is mysterious. One knows it when one hears it – and one heard it here.

One other thing, though: Janáček objected to the freedom with which Max Brod prepared his German translation for the first German performance under Josef Krips; Brod was compelled to make many alterations. I dread to think what the composer would have made of this English version by Norman Tucker. One can argue about the merits or otherwise of opera in translation, especially since the advent of surtitles at the Coliseum, but if the libretto is to be translated, something that captures the spirit and perhaps even the sound of the original better than this would be welcome. Jarring colloquialisms appear thick and fast: ‘Cor Blimey!’ inevitably puts one in mind of Dick Van Dyke. It was difficult to discern any effort to provide a substitute for the Czech speech rhythms that so colour the composer’s music. Still, performances were of a high standard – and ultimately, the play’s the thing.

Monday 20 September 2010

Cecilia Bartoli and the Salzburg Whitsun Festival

As reported last week, Cecilia Bartoli will be assuming the artistic directorship of the Whitsun Festival from 2012, succeeding Riccardo Muti. Here are further details, direct from Salzburg:

20 September 2010

Press Release of the Salzburg Festival / Salzburg Whitsun Festival


The intendant designate of the Salzburg Festival, Alexander Pereira, has appointed Cecilia Bartoli to the post of artistic director of the Salzburg Whitsun Festival with effect from 2012.

Alexander Pereira: “I am tremendously pleased that Cecilia Bartoli’s long association with Salzburg, which has proved so inspirational in the past, can now be placed on a new footing.

“The admirable courage that characterizes Cecilia’s work in terms of its quality and imagination has persuaded me to ask her to become artistic director of the Whitsun Festival under my intendancy and to help in shaping the festival from 2012 onwards.

“In addition to her Baroque and Classical projects, Cecilia has in recent years made a distinguished contribution to the bel canto repertory. As a result, our work together will not be limited to Baroque projects, in spite of what has been written elsewhere, but will extend to all the different areas of artistic endeavour to which she has brought such commitment.”

Cecilia Bartoli: “As one of my earliest supporters, Alexander Pereira took me under his wing while I was still a young beginner and over the years has offered me many wonderful opportunities to realize my artistic ideas. And so it is an immense pleasure and an honour to think that our friendship will result in this new and exciting collaboration in Salzburg.”

“I am pleased that Alexander Pereira succeeded in engaging with Cecilia Bartoli a charismatic artist for the Salzburg Whitsun Festival. She will surely continue the great success of the Riccardo Muti´s five-year project of the “Scuola Napoletana” in her own personal way, says Helga Rabl-Stadler, Salzburg Festival President.


The idea is to work on one opera a year as an independent production and to perform it at least twice over the Whitsun weekend. Concerts will be planned around the opera and will take place on individual days, expanding that year’s particular focus of interest in thematically relevant ways.

As a novel feature, the opera that is produced at Whitsun will be taken over into the festival’s summer programme and performed five or so times with the same cast.

The detailed programme will be announced at a later date.


It was in 1988 that Herbert von Karajan discovered the young mezzo-soprano from Rome and laid the foundations for Cecilia Bartoli’s long-standing association with the Salzburg Festival. Since 1993 she has appeared in Salzburg on a regular basis, performing Mozart’s principal operatic roles and all her most important concert works and recital programmes, while working with artists of the stature of Daniel Barenboim, Patrice Chéreau, Christoph von Dohnányi, Riccardo Muti, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Sir Simon Rattle and András Schiff and with orchestras as diverse as the Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics, the Akademie für Alte Musik from Berlin, the Freiburger Barockorchester and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.


Cecilia Bartoli has been closely associated with the Zurich Opera for some twenty years and has appeared there in all her most important roles, including Mozart’s Da Ponte operas with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola and Handel’s Giulio Cesare and Semele. Together with the company’s intendant, Alexander Pereira, she has in recent years initiated a debate about works that represent an interesting addition to the operatic repertory from a historical point of view. Among these works are Haydn’s L’anima del filosofo, Paisiello’s Nina, Rossini’s Il turco in Italia and Halévy’s Clari. It was due, not least, to Cecilia Bartoli’s initiative that a series of staged performances of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno took place in 2004, the first time that Handel’s oratorio had been staged in modern times.

A new production of Rossini’s Le comte Ory is planned for next January. This will be based on a new edition using a reconstruction of Rossini’s own conducting score.


For more than twenty years Cecilia Bartoli has been one of the most important artists working in the field of classical music. It is a source of particular satisfaction to her that her projects find an echo in audiences far more diverse than those associated with the traditional concert repertory, making her the most successful classical artist of our generation. Her success is reflected in sales of ten million records, catapulting her into the world of pop stars in a way that is unique in classical music. In addition to her four Grammy Awards, she has been involved in a whole series of projects that have regularly ended up in the international pop charts among the top ten best-selling records. Her CDs have occupied this position for a total of more than 300 weeks.

This unique success has allowed Cecilia Bartoli to undertake a number of uniquely fascinating projects. Not only has she virtually single-handedly ushered in the worldwide renaissance of Vivaldi as an opera composer, but she has also rehabilitated Salieri as a composer worth taking seriously and paid homage to the artistry of the castrato in a programme unsurpassed for its complexity and virtuosity. More recently she has breathed new life into Italian bel canto operas by treating them as music dramas of immense subtlety, as is clear from her recent triumphant appearances in concert performances of Bellini’s Norma sung at the original pitch and adopting the vocal lines of the 1831 première.

“This is great artistry and at the same time a provocation” (Süddeutsche Zeitung)

“The public was on its feet roaring approval. […] It was not football that caused the excitement. […] It was Cecilia Bartoli’s first outing as Norma” (The Financial Times)

“Cecilia Bartoli is the most brilliant exponent of this art of vocal addiction” (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung)

An important aspect of Cecilia Bartoli’s work has always been her historically informed performances not only in terms of her own vocal artistry but also with respect to the ensembles she has chosen to accompany her. She owes this interest in the historical background not least to her mentor Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Cecilia Bartoli has received many awards for her work. In Italy she has been appointed Accademico effettivo di Santa Cecilia, in France she is a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and an Officier de l’Ordre du Mérite, and in Great Britain she is a Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music. She recently received the Medalla de Oro al Mérito en las Bellas Artes, one of the highest awards of the Spanish Ministry of Culture, and the City of Paris’s Médaille Grand Vermeil.

On the occasion of the celebrations marking the 250th anniversary of Handel’s death in 2009 Cecilia Bartoli was appointed an honorary member of the advisory board of the Handel House Foundation in Halle and the following year she received the city’s Handel Prize. Also in 2010 she received the coveted Léonie Sonning Music Prize in Copenhagen, in a ceremony that was attended by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. This eventful season was rounded off by the decision of the venerable University College Dublin to award Cecilia Bartoli an honorary doctorate for her services to music.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Launch of Arensky Chamber Orchestra, 16 September 2010

This is not a review as such, but I should like to note the launch at the Pall Mall Institute of Directors of a new professional chamber orchestra. With guest director, Andrew Haveron, The Arensky Chamber Orchestra, with performed Vivaldi's Four Seasons, interspersed with Artur Piazzola's responses: Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. Haveron brought charismatic leadership to a crack team of young soloists. Indeed, performances were throughout excellent, bringing to life a work that I should never have imagined wishing to hear again. What a relief to find musicians prepared to treat Vivaldi as music rather than a pseudo-archaeological freak-show, as has become all too common today. Piazzola provided something 'new' yet appropriate, nocturnal slinkiness relished by players and audience alike.

Part of the ensemble's mission is to 'strive to be creative in all that we do - not just with our playing - and are committed to finding new and exciting ways to deliver our music, through venue choice, programming, and challenging collaborations with other forms.' Certainly the venue, designed and built by John Nash, provided interest of its own, attested to welcome ambition from the orchestra's founder, Will Kunhardt. One of the Institute's two St James rooms, transformed during performance through lighting, boasted a surprisingly fine acoustic too: take note, other performers...

The four concerts planned for the orchestra's 2011 debut Cadogan Hall season will each benefit from a celebrated guest director: Haveron for the first, Clio Gould, Stephanie Gonley, and Melvyn Tan. A multi-media treatment of Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht sounds intriguing, likewise a 'late-night mystery concert', including Mozart's Requiem. For further details from the orchestra's website, click here.

Sunday 12 September 2010

'Pastiche, politics, and all that jazz' - Royal Academy of Music students, 12 September 2010

St Pancras Room, Kings Place

Weill – Die Moritat von Mackie Messer

Stravinsky – Piano-Rag-Music
Three Easy Pieces

Eisler – Über den Selbstmord
Lied einer deutschen Mutter
Mutter Beimlein
Lied des Händlers

Stravinsky – Tango

Weill – Je ne t’aime pas

Katie Bray (mezzo-soprano)
Jonathan McGovern (baritone)
Edwige Herchenrode and Reinis Zariņš (piano)

No one could seriously accuse Kings Place of a lack of ambition. This weekend festival boasted no fewer than a hundred concerts. I felt slightly embarrassed to be attending just the one, but such is life. At any rate, this seemed an appealing programme – and so it proved, though I was a little puzzled by the title. ‘Politics’, yes; ‘jazz’, well, sort of, if not quite; but ‘pastiche’? More importantly, however, to present Eisler not only with Weill but Stravinsky too made for a good mix.

Jonathan McGovern delivered the Ballad of Mack the Knife with an impressive command of Weill’s – and Brecht’s – idiom: nasty, without melodrama. McGovern’s Lied des Händlers was, if anything, more impressive. The biting satire of Brecht’s text and its desolate conclusion – we do not know what rice is, only its price, then the same for cotton, and finally for men – chilled, and reminded us that critique of capitalism is at least as necessary now as then, and nowhere more so than in London. (It so happened that, on the bus to the concert, I had been reading Vittorio Negri’s The Constitution of Time, a brave response to a totalitarianism of capital Brecht and Eisler would have understood only too well.) Which of the City’s bankers know what a man is? They probably cannot even be bothered with his price any more, unless there be a few hundred of them to trade. Eisler’s piano part was clearly delineated by Edwige Herchenrode. The halting progress of Mutter Beimlein, wooden leg and all, was wryly observed, in music as much as words.

Katie Bray was entrusted with the rest of the vocal programme. I wondered whether she was a little too emotive in the Eisler songs. Lied einer deutschen Mutter, the lament of the mother who now could see that her son’s brown shirt was his burial shroud, benefits from a little more distance: not quite Mother Courage, but something edging in that direction. Bray’s command of French – that most difficult language in which to sing – impressed, verbally and stylistically, in Weill’s setting of Maurice Magre, Je ne t’aime pas.

The solo Stravinsky items were performed by pianist Reinis Zariņš. Even the Three Easy Pieces are far from ‘easy’, especially in musical terms. Stravinsky loves to set straps and to defy expectations. His polemical dryness is a good deal of the story, but not the whole tale. There are moments of tenderness, for instance in the adorable Tango. (I recall playing it once as an encore, which even certain audience members of conservative bent enjoyed – until I informed them it was by Stravinsky.) But such moments must never, ever be milked, no more than in The Rake’s Progress; Zariņš had their measure. Motor rhythms not unlike those of Prokofiev’s seventh piano sonata, invaded the Piano-Rag-Music to thrilling effect. Ragtime similarly impressed: clear, yet never merely dry. Such chips from the master’s workbench are akin, say, to Beethoven’s Bagatelles; in both cases, they will only shine as gems in good performance.

All in all, then, a most enjoyable performance and an excellent showcase for the RAM. It was a pity, though, that the performers’ names were not included upon the sheet with texts and translations. I had to visit the Royal Academy’s website to find them.

Saturday 11 September 2010

Wigmore Hall opening concert 2010-11: 'Wigmore Memories' - Mattila/Katz, 10 September 2010

Berg – Seven Early Songs

Brahms – Vergebliches Ständchen, op.84 no.8
Der Gang zum Liebchen, op.48 no.1
Meine Liebe ist grün, op.63 no.5
Von ewiger Liebe, op.43 no.1

Sibelius – Illalle, op.17 no.6
Demanten på marssnön, op.36 no.6
Våren flyktar hastigt, op.13 no.4
Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote, op.37 no.5

Strauss – Der Stern, op.69 no.1
Wiegenlied, op.41 no.1
Allerseelen, op.10 no.8
Frühlingsfeier, op.56 no.5

Karita Mattila (soprano)
Martin Katz (piano)

The Wigmore Hall opened its 110th anniversary season in style with a recital from Karita Mattila and Martin Katz. A group of Anniversary Patrons has followed up support for Haydn Bicentenary celebrations in 2008-9 and last season’s Strauss Lieder series with funding for a number of concerts featuring artists returning to the hall after some time: a most welcome initiative, both in theory and now in practice.

Mattila, we were informed, was suffering from a cold but remained determined to sing. There were a few signs of her ailment during the opening couple of songs, but it can often take a little while for a musician to settle down in any case. Katz, moreover, made up for any initial (relative) shortcomings, ensuring that mists floated as they should in Nacht, the first of Berg’s Seven Early Songs, and revelling in that song’s extraordinary Debussyan whole-tone harmony. By the time we had reached the third, Die Nachtigall, Mattila sounded firmly in her stride. A mobile telephone intervention – and this from a relatively well-behaved audience – failed to prevent her from bringing fulsome tone to her climaxes, the piano too as full-bodied as a good claret. Liebesode was for me an especial highlight, the luxurious refulgence of Mattila’s tone compensating handsomely for occasional intonational slips, and Katz’s part properly orchestral without losing the specific post-Brahmsian quality of Berg’s piano writing. The final line of Sommertage, speaking of image upon image filling the heart, proved an apt summation of what had gone before.

The two Brahms folksongs were full of life, Vergebliches Ständchen vividly and cheekily characterised by Mattila, whilst keyboard sadness, subtly enhanced by judicious rubato, marked the Bohemian Der Gang zum Liebchen. I find it difficult to enthuse about the Felix Schumann setting, Meine Liebe ist grün, but doubtless the composer’s godson would have been delighted by it; Katz certainly seemed to relish Brahms in torrential piano-writing mode. Thereafter, both musicians revelled in the echt-Romanticism of the ballad, Von ewiger Lieber, in a reading that highlighted both the debt to Schubert and the grander, late Romantic means with which Brahms repaid his predecessor.

Mattila has an obvious native advantage when it comes to a Sibelius group, but that should not necessarily be taken for granted. She ensured, however, from the outset that a different compositional voice was to be heard, Illalle notably paying homage to Grieg. Its advertised successor, Vänskapens blomma, appeared to be replaced by another song; unfortunately, I am not well-informed enough about Sibelius or Scandinavian languages to be able to say any more. Våren flyktar hastigt brought with it a definite sense of the (European) East as well as the North. Mattila’s communicative skills brought understanding even to those of us for whom the languages themselves remain remote. There were more purely musical pleasures too, not least the grand climax she reached in the closing tale of lovers’ trysting, Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote. Sibelius is not a composer to whom I have ever readily responded, but I enjoyed the rare opportunity to hear some of his songs in recital.

Strauss is for me another matter entirely. Mattila and Katz were in their element here too. The Achim von Arnim setting, Der Stern, was perhaps a little too glamorous in performance for its straightforward means, but the ensuing Wiegenlied sounded just as it should: a very superior cradle song, nicely scaled down, but without limiting its horizons. Katz imparted proper dignity to the introduction to Allerseelen, continued and intensified by Mattila upon her entry. Finally, that extraordinary Dionysian Heine setting, Frühlingsfeier, whilst taxing the pianist to his limits, provided a veritable operatic scena with which to depart. Mattila’s cries of ‘Adonis! Adonis!’ at the conclusion to each of the three stanzas were truly blood-curdling, the overall conception Wagnerian in miniature. I said ‘finally’, but, despite her indisposition, Mattila returned on stage and announced that, unwise though this would be, reaching her fiftieth birthday had encouraged her to throw wisdom to the wind, so she would sing an encore after all. An evidently heartfelt Zueignung proved just the ticket.

A post-script: I am not convinced that ‘collaborator,’ Katz’s preferred alternative to ‘accompanist’, will catch on. The programme note entry, ‘One of the world’s busiest collaborators, Martin Katz…,’ and Katz’s book title, The Complete Collaborator, read somewhat unfortunately.

Friday 10 September 2010

BBC TWO Scotland - Talking Music

The senior producer at BBC Scotland Learning has just been in touch with news of what sounds like a very interesting new four-part series (click here), tracking rehearsals with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, meeting performing musicians as well as composers such as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. I am very happy to pass on the additional information sent:

Talking Music

The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is the star of this new four-part documentary series for BBC Two Scotland, going behind the scenes to look at the work of the musicians, conductors, composers and soloists who make up one of Britain's leading symphony orchestras.

Celebrating its 75th Birthday in December this year, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBC SSO) is recognised by the arts world as one of the finest and most versatile orchestras in the UK, a group that can turn its hand from the great classics to cutting edge new music. Over four programmes Talking Music speaks candidly to the players in the orchestra about the practice and absolute dedication required to stay at the top, offering a fascinating look into the lives of professional musicians. The series also features the orchestra’s team of leading conductors, some of the renowned composers who write especially for the BBC SSO, and soloists from the classical and pop music world who perform alongside the orchestra, including violinist Nicola Benedetti and Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch.

Talking Music: Conductors

Prog 1/4 NEW

Tuesday 14 September, 11.20pm – 11.50

Repeated 15 September, 2.00pm – 2.30pm

BBC TWO Scotland

Talking Music: Players

Prog 2/4

Tuesday 21 September, 11.20pm – 11.50pm

Repeated 22 September, 2.00pm – 2.30pm

BBC TWO Scotland

Talking Music: Composers

Prog 3/4

Tuesday 28 September, 11.20pm – 11.50pm

Repeated 29 September, 2.00pm – 2.30pm

BBC TWO Scotland

Talking Music: Soloists

Prog 4/4

Tuesday 5 October, 11.20pm – 11.50pm

Repeated 6 October, 2.00pm – 2.30pm

BBC TWO Scotland

Please note, viewers outside Scotland can access this programme on Sky Channel 971, Freesat Channel 960 or the BBC's iPlayer service -

Thursday 9 September 2010

Prom 74: BBC PO/Noseda - Schubert, Schumann, Holloway, and Mozart, 9 September 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Schubert – Symphony no.8 in B minor, ‘Unfinished’, D 759
Schumann – Introduction and Allegro appassionato, in G major, op.92
Robin Holloway – RELIQUARY: Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’ (BBC commission: world premiere)
Mozart – Symphony no.40 in G minor, KV 550

Dorothea Röschmann (soprano)
Finghin Collins (piano)
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)

This was not, thank goodness, the Last Night of the Proms, a jamboree better left to readers of the Daily Mail, but my last night of the 2010 BBC Proms. The principal attractions a priori were the Schumann Introduction and Allegro appassionato, a rarity in performance, and Robin Holloway’s new RELIQUARY: Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’. In practice too? By and large, for the performances of the two symphonic masterpieces on either side, whilst benefiting from fine orchestral playing, were marred by insensitive conducting from Gianandrea Noseda.

I did not necessarily expect Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony to sound so shattering as upon the last occasion I had heard it in concert, in a truly great performance from Bernard Haitink and the London Symphony Orchestra. However, I was nevertheless disappointed when an intriguingly nervy opening gave way to the merely abrupt, with stabbing accents that would have been out of place in Beethoven, let alone Schubert. Worse still, the music was never permitted to breathe. Toscanini-followers – perhaps a few still exist somewhere – might have enjoyed this, I suppose, but no one who has responded to Furtwängler. There were occasional oases of mystery in the development section, when Noseda was not hurrying – or better, harrying – the music along, but this remained a bandmaster’s reading. The swift ‘slow’ movement was similar: not only could one hear every bar-line, every beat; one could predict where those following would fall too, and a good deal hence. Beautiful playing, judged in itself, above all from the BBC Philharmonic’s woodwind section, was hidebound by such regimentation.

The Schumann piece emerged similarly, though mitigating circumstances of rarity and some impressive piano playing lessened the disappointment. The ‘Introduction’ actually sounded relatively relaxed, chamber-like, if still too obviously directed. One only had to recall Claudio Abbado’s conducting of the Berlin Philharmonic for Murray Perahia’s recording to realise how this fell short. Yet, if Finghin Collins is not Perahia, his pearly tone proved not wholly dissimilar. He managed to conjure up moments of true Schumannesque delicacy and fantasy, before being corralled by the bandmaster at his side. Occasional moments of orchestral intimacy again suggested what might have been, but they seemed snatched by the players rather than part of Noseda’s strategy. Ultimately, and despite real promise from Collins, this wonderful piece sounded both rushed and laboured – and insubstantial.

After the interval, it was, then, a great pleasure to turn to the premiere of Holloway’s orchestration and encasing of and commentary on Schumann’s Songs of Mary Stuart. In a new work – well, new and old, in this case – one is less likely to be distracted by interpretation and more likely to focus upon the work itself, whatever that might mean. Moreover, this premiere proved a splendid follow up to the Nash Ensemble’s Proms matinee performance of Holloway’s Fantasy-Pieces (on the Heine ‘Liederkreis’ of Schumann). I was intrigued by the Prologue, Holloway’s own. Marked ‘Brief, lamenting, calming,’ the orchestration sounds relatively ‘German’, but the harmony surprisingly Gallic, recalling Poulenc at his more solemn. The Abschied von Frankreich is characterised by ever-present harp, and occasional hints of Webern-like instrumentation, Wagner becoming more present in Holloway’s re-imagining of the epilogue, highlighting its Tristan-esque tendencies. Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes is more radical, with an orchestral ‘halo’, including iridescent celesta and woodwind, shining, in different tempo and tonality, above the song itself. Violins evoke a refractory dreamlike world somewhere between Rosenkavalier and early Schoenberg. The gravity of the concluding vocal ‘Amen’, here perfectly delivered by Dorothea Röschmann, draws attention back to the sombreness that has essentially characterised the contrasting vocal setting itself. An entr’acte of sarabande and bourrée, evocative of Mary’s happier days in France, prepares the way for her imploring, yet reproachful song to her cousin, An die Königin Elisabeth. Wagner again sprang to mind, and this time it was more Schumann’s doing than Holloway’s. These songs have been so undervalued!

Woodwind solos in the ensuing entr’acte provide Wagnerian presentiments of material that will follow, but also assist the sense of moving downwards, a perky enclosed miniature scherzino notwithstanding, to the sombre business of saying farewell to the world. Sadly, this most Mahlerian (almost inevitably so) of the songs, Abschied von der Welt, was disrupted by a barrage of coughing excessive even by the standards of this year’s Proms. A Romantic cello solo lies at the heart of the next entr’acte, harp and other strings prominent, woodwind responding thereto. The drum’s intervention hints ominously at Mary’s fate. The final song, Gebet (‘Prayer’) brings resignation, but also more play with the ‘past’. The vocal line, ‘Ersehne ich Dich,’ is echoed movingly by plangent viola, apparently joining cause with the viols of another age. And the arch-Romantic horn provides the solo that echoes, hopelessly, Mary beseeching her God to rescue her. Holloway’s ‘Epilogue’ provides a neat encapsulation of the conflict and synergy between centuries, the sarabande reprised, likewise material from the Prologue. As a whole, the song cycle appeared transformed, more akin to an operatic scena, and yet restrained, fastidious enough to mark the difference. Röschmann’s performance seemed beyond reproach, equally responsive to words and music, her vocal line modulated yet never strained.

Finally, Mozart’s Symphony no.40. This performance, again not unimpressive in purely orchestral terms, started off better than the Schubert, preferable to the appallingly mannered reading I endured from Sir Simon Rattle last year. The first movement was swift, on the light side, but nevertheless possessed grace. It was hardly Karl Böhm, and would have benefited from a more open response to Mozart’s astonishing proto-Romanticism – or, as ETA Hoffmann had it, simply Romanticism, and he should have known – but Mozart was not entirely misrepresented either. The slow movement flowed, more quickly than one used to hear, but it is an Andante. Noseda’s was a highly vocal conception, more Figaro-like than knocking at the Beethovenian door: a valid standpoint, even if somewhere in between might have revealed more. Repeats, though, made it a bit of a long haul. The third movement, however, took a turn for the worst. Noseda took it far too fast, almost waltz-like, albeit without the slightest hint of relaxation. It turned out rather choppy, each phrase here and in the inconsequential-sounding trio – how does one make Mozart sound inconsequential? – being merely followed by another, with no sense of overall line. The finale was fast – fair enough – but fatiguingly hard-driven. Tragedy is so much more interesting than this.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Prom 71: ONF/Gatti - Debussy and Stravinsky, 7 September 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Debussy – La mer
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Orchestre National de France
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

Bob Crow and company did their best to disrupt this Prom, so it was striking – if the pun may be forgiven – and, more to the point, heartening, to note a near full house in the Royal Albert Hall for the visit of the Orchestre National de France under Daniele Gatti. Gatti is by any standards one of the finest conductors at work today, though is not necessarily always acknowledged as such; perhaps the strong turn out suggested that the English remember fondly, as they should, his distinguished tenure as Music Director of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. This was also a relatively rare visit to these shores from the ONF: all the more reason to be grateful.

The concert opened with a languorous account of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Gatti’s willingness – and ability – to take his time put me in mind of his fine Bayreuth Parsifal. There was a splendid sense of freedom in the flute (Philippe Pierlot) arabesques, bar lines all but obliterated, the ONF’s harps equally delightful of tone. An elegance one can only term Gallic characterised the strings. Later on, Gatti made more of Debussy’s inner parts than is often the case: quite revealing harmonically.

My wayward progress to the Albert Hall – thank you again, Mr Crow – had involved a boat trip, but there was to be no confusing the Thames with the still broader horizons of La mer. The first movement did just what it should, evoking dawn as a coming to life through motivic teeming. There were darker, post-Pelléas intimations too: Debussy is nothing if not ambiguous. The great midday climax was wonderfully rounded and well-prepared, emerging naturally yet dramatically, the ONF brass especially impressive. And yet, the fleeting nature of this triumph remained: does one ever know what next the sea holds in store, physically or metaphysically? Jeux de vagues was elegant, beguiling too, though I wondered whether it might have offered a little more in terms of caprice. Much, I suppose, depends upon expectations. Gatti took the opportunity once again to reveal a great deal of instrumental detail. The Dialogue du vent et de la mer emerged, like the first movement, definitely post-Pelléas but also recognisably post-Wagner, not least in venting of the wind’s fury. I sensed – and given Gatti’s Mahlerian pedigree, perhaps there was something in this – an unexpected kinship with Mahler too, some motivic work recalling the Second Symphony in detail as well as ominous tread. But then, flickering, shimmering mystery was heard, which could only be Debussy, whether in harmony or orchestration. The final blaze of glory suggested another parallel: without straying unidiomatically, Janáček – the Glagolitic Mass? – sprang to mind. Intriguing, and more apt than one might initially suspect.

Stravinsky owed Debussy a great deal, of course, but one could never accuse the Rite of Spring of vagueness. Parallels were drawn, or at least could be perceived, without restricting the specific – in more than one sense – voice of the younger composer. The introductory woodwind solos were very much solos: it was as if characters, related yet distinct, were announcing themselves. There were a few passages during the first part – Auguries of Spring being one – in which I felt Gatti took the music a little too fast, or at least too lightly: the Rite should probably sound more primæval. But this Rite grew in stature, and the ONF’s brass and percussion soon more than compensated, quite shattering in the sage’s music and the Dance of the Earth. This was not an especially Russian Rite, as we have heard of late from, say, Valery Gergiev, but nor are Stravinsky’s own recordings: far from it. Indeed, as the first part progressed, one increasingly could sense the brave new world that would follow the Great War, Varèse suggested more than once. The second part’s introduction certainly possessed that primæval quality occasionally lacking earlier on. Hereafter, Gatti seemed to stress Stravinsky’s cellular construction, yet mystery prevailed, for only a dull interpreter or listener would oppose analysis and the mysterious. Dramatic momentum unerringly built up, leaving one in no doubt that this was a stage work – and, whatever Stravinsky might have claimed, a post-Wagnerian one at that. The true test of success in a performance of the Rite is whether it seems a mere showpiece – assuming the orchestra can play it... – or whether one marvels anew at this extraordinary work. There had been slips, some quite noticeable, and which could well have upset some listeners, but for me, Gatti and the ONF passed with flying colours.

And what a masterstroke it was to follow the Rite with Wagner: the Prelude to Act III of Die Meistersinger, that work at its most indelibly Schopenhauerian and thereby imbued with the resignation of the conductor’s beloved Parsifal. The ONF, its strings in particular, did Wagner and Gatti proud. My only regret was that we could not hear the entire act – and not solely, nor even primarily, so as to defer reacquaintance with the joys of Transport for London.

Sunday 5 September 2010

Prom 66: Mattila/BPO/Rattle - Wagner, Strauss, Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, 4 September 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Wagner – Parsifal: Prelude to Act One
Strauss – Four Last Songs
Schoenberg – Five Orchestral Pieces, op.16
Webern – Six Orchestral Pieces, op.6
Berg – Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6

Karita Mattila (soprano)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

What a maddeningly inconsistent conductor Sir Simon Rattle can be! After the previous night’s infuriating Beethoven and Mahler, he and the Berlin Philharmonic came up with a wonderful programme of Wagner, Strauss, and the Second Viennese School. The orchestra sounded transformed; indeed, it did not sound like the same orchestra at all. Rattle seemed much readier to allow the music to speak, which is not to say that it was uninterpreted, but merely that it was not subjected to apparently arbitrary decisions.

The Prelude to Act One of Parsifal set an entirely different tone from the outset. Luminous in performance as well as essence, this was undeniably the music Debussy unforgettably dubbed ‘lit from behind’. Audience spluttering detracted from the experience but could not obliterate it. Stentorian Berlin brass harked back to an imaginary past, born of Wagner’s study of earlier music, yet transmuted into something that sets in conflict time and eternity: the very stuff of Wagner's final drama. The violins’ sweetness on intoning Wagner’s Dresden Amens enabled one to forget their nondescript tone of the night before, whilst the BPO’s woodwind was ravishing as ever. Perhaps most importantly of all, Rattle exhibited a command of line those earlier performances had never attained, heightening the composer’s mystery. This was the same conductor of those excellent performances of Parsifal at Covent Garden a few years ago. Indeed, this performance made me want to hear the entire drama. Applause was as understandable as it was inappropriate.

Karita Mattila joined the orchestra for Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Everyone will have a favourite singer – or several – here, and the work is such that, try as one might to avoid it, one is likely always to draw comparisons. My ultimate favourite remains Gundula Janowitz, with this orchestra and Herbert von Karajan. Rattle’s reading of the opening Frühling was swifter than Karajan’s, closer perhaps to the intervening Claudio Abbado. It is spring, after all, if a somewhat autumnal spring. Parsifalian translucency persisted, developed into Strauss. Mattila’s tone proved beautifully instrumental in this song, the down side being that I struggled to hear every word in the notorious Albert Hall acoustic. Silvery violins added to the determinedly non-valedictory mood. September in Rattle’s hands sounded more modernistic – in a Rosenkavalier- like way – than one often hears. Tempo fluctuated but with good musical reason. Diction was improved, but, as so often, it was the ravishing horn solo that took one’s breath away. In the final of the Hesse settings, Beim Schlafengehen, Mattila’s diction was by now well-nigh perfect. (Doubtless the fault lay to an extent throughout with the acoustic.) These sounded like true Lieder now: a moving performance indeed. Im Abendrot continued the good work: I thought I heard an error but, upon consulting Eichendorff’s text, realised that the only error lay in my recollection. Rattle in his introduction conjured up a true Straussian sunset. Here, he was really rather slow, but wonderfully so: the lingering one would have had no other way. The BPO’s orchestral line was seamless, and again there was a hint of Parsifal, this time in its world-weariness.

As the perfect response to the arrant nonsense emanating from some quarters concerning ‘validity’ of applause between movements, Rattle made an announcement at the beginning of the second half, requesting that any applause be deferred until the end of the third set of pieces. During rehearsal, he and the orchestra had come to realise that the sets by Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg were best understood as one great, eleventh symphony by Mahler. This was just how they would sound in excellent, indeed great performances – though the lack of applause did not run to the lack of persistent bronchial commentary, those ensconced in the Royal Albert Hall’s boxes being perhaps the worst offenders.

Schoenberg’s op.16 Five Orchestral Pieces opened with a strong narrative, perhaps musico-dramatic, thrust that never faltered: symphonic in the best sense. Wilder, more barbaric even, than one often hears, the first piece seemed to presage, arguably exceed The Rite of Spring, likewise in the ultra-profusion of melody. Vorgefühle (‘Premonitions’) indeed! Stravinsky and Schoenberg are not always so distant as both composers would have liked to think. The languorous opening of the second piece, not least its beautifully voiced cello solo, seemed both to look back towards Mahler and forward to Berg’s Lulu: surely a work Rattle should conduct. Solo voices melted into a phantasmagoria of remembrance. This was music of beauty to rival Mozart, with a luminous recollection of Parsifal – again – in the bass. Farben was delicate but also Bergian: a striking reminder of the extraordinary nature of Schoenberg’s ear. Only a cretin – or should I say ‘only cretins’, since there are many who do – would deny that. (The same people speak of a lack of rhythmic understanding in the music of the Second Viennese School; the lack is entirely theirs.) There was so much under the surface – and one could hear both that surface and what lay underneath. The Salzburger Traunsee seemed unusually present, though never in an obvious, programmatic sense. Schoenberg’s fourth piece emerged scherzo-like, but with due languor in its brief ‘trio’ moments. The BPO and Rattle ensured that everything was exquisitely voiced and balanced. Post-Wagnerian unendliche Melodie was the hallmark of the concluding ‘obligate Rezitativ’. Whilst all was ever new, it somehow seemed also to fulfil the symphonic obligation of reprise.

Webern provided the central movement of this Mahler-Rattle symphony: the Six Orchestral Pieces, op.6. Kinship and difference were immediately announced in the first piece, Webern’s crystalline clarity as evident as his parallel melodic profusion. Webern’s – and his performers’ – ear for balance in the second piece precluded neither fury nor resignation (Parsifal?). How quickly everything changes; how intently one must listen; how extraordinary are the rewards. The Klee-like vision was striking, the BPO’s quartet of trombones simply outstanding. Solo voices in the third piece evoked a Mozart reborn, a serenade that has last its moorings – and is finding new ones. The celebrated Funeral March was immensely more powerful, more Mahlerian, than anything in the previous night’s ‘real’ Mahler, the onward tread truly remarkable, indeed quite shattering. Yet timbres looked forward as much as back: the brave new world of the 1950s, of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Nono was within reach. Finally, the sixth piece sang itself into oblivion, at least as moving as those Strauss Lieder of farewell.

Berg’s Op.6 Pieces rounded off the programme. The Präludium presented a truly primæval Werden (‘becoming’), again reminding one of the contemporary Rite, as well as what makes Berg utterly different. Rattle permitted echt-Bergian nostalgia (Mahler again) to sing in a way that might even today embarrass Boulez. Again, the onward tread was all – yet somehow never to the exclusion of detail. Ghosts of Vienna danced in Reigen – and how beautifully, how gracefully, how ominously. Wozzeck lay just around the corner. The exquisite nature of the BPO’s performance did not preclude dramatic involvement; it enticed one into the Bergian labyrinth. Mahler sang one last time in the final Marsch, which here sounded as martial as I can recall, perhaps more so. Berg, we could feel only too well, was telling a tale, which, like Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, ought to have been too terrible to tell. Throughout, Rattle revelled in Berg’s hyper-expressive complexity and thereby enabled us to do so too. Symphonic weight was equally present, bringing us to the threshold of the almost unbearable. Equally remarkable, though never in itself, was the precision of the BPO players, a true match to their undeniable commitment. I have never heard these pieces better performed, and find it difficult to believe that I shall. Revelatory in every sense!

And so, whilst I started by saying that Rattle could be maddeningly inconsistent, there is also something curiously consoling about the human element in performance here. One should never take anything for granted. Conductors, soloists, orchestras can all have off-days and can (mostly) all excel too. We are not, thank God, dealing with automatons.

Saturday 4 September 2010

Prom 65: BPO/Rattle - Beethoven and Mahler, 3 September 2010

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Symphony no.4 in B-flat major, op.60
Mahler – Symphony no.1 in D major

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

To my considerable surprise, I realised that this was the first performance I had attended of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony. Of course, I have been to plenty of concerts featuring Beethoven symphonies and have heard the Fourth, studied the score, and so on – but this was the final member of the sacred nine I had yet to hear in the flesh. It remains a relative Cinderella; one would have had to make a concerted – pun unintentional – effort never to have been to a performance of the Fifth, for instance. By the same token, the B-flat symphony is hardly a rarity – so it was more a matter of chance than anything else. Still, an exciting prospect…

What, then, would I have thought had this actually been the first time of hearing? Not very much, I fear; I might, perish the thought, have wondered what all the fuss about Beethoven was. The introduction to the first movement began promisingly, almost Mahlerian in sound, though straining back toward Haydn: both proper and intriguing. It was a pity that a watch alarm almost immediately intervened, the first but certainly not the last in a series of audience ‘responses’. Unfortunately, this expansive introduction proved the most interesting part of the entire performance. The exposition moved between fleet – fair enough – and hard-driven. Where, I kept asking, was the anticipated bloom of the Berlin Philharmonic strings? The end of the development section acquired a degree of mystery once again, yet very little lived up to the performance’s early promise. Indeed, had I not known, I should have described this as an anonymous, albeit technically impeccable chamber orchestra rendition. The slow movement looked back again towards Haydn, but more successfully on the whole; here, Sir Simon Rattle’s reading sounded somewhat less constrained. It ‘flowed’, as it appears slow movements must nowadays, unless one is to be castigated as antediluvian. But there was some very beautiful woodwind playing to be heard beyond the mobile telephone calls and strange groaning noises, which recurred throughout the evening from somewhere in the audience. There remained little sense, however, that this was the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Rattle’s scherzo was strangely rootless, the BPO’s bass peculiarly lacking. It sounded as if Rattle would have benefited from a crash course in Schenkerian analysis – or, better, a little time spent listening to his greatest predecessor, Wilhelm Furtwängler. The finale brought some bubbly woodwind playing, from Emanuel Pahud, Albrecht Mayer, and the principal bassoonist. It was otherwise unsmiling however, alternating between the inappropriately brutal and the inappropriately featherweight. Rattle’s micromanagement of phrasing impeded any sense of a longer line. A bitter disappointment.

I had higher hopes of Mahler’s First Symphony, Mahler being much more Rattle’s thing than Beethoven. There were better aspects to this performance but, alas, there were worse too. Oddly enough, the introduction to the first movement, or rather the opening to that introduction, was again the most impressive part of the performance. Mystery was present – and a sense of how it might relate to the opening of the Beethoven symphony. Off-stage brass were striking, likewise the flawless playing of the on-stage horns. The exposition was light, beautiful in its way, but without the unforced naturalness of, say, Rafael Kubelík, still for me a first choice when it comes to recordings of this work. This Mahler sounded sophisticated but without that sophistication becoming integrated in a point of view. (Look to Boulez for that.) Though the woodwind birdsong was beautifully performed, it often sounded strangely pointillistic, again without that seeming part of an interpretative strategy – for instance, pointing the way towards Webern. Fluctuations of tempo sounded arbitrary: virtuosic rather than musical. Something had changed by the end of the movement, but it was not clear how we had got there.

The second movement brought at last a strong sense of rhythm – and of how it might relate to harmonic progression. Horns again proved superlative. Yet there still lacked a sense of orchestral distinctiveness. The trio was coloured by string portamenti and a great deal of rubato; unfortunately, it all sounded rather appliqué. At its best, there was a nice swing to the music; I just wished that Rattle would have been more content to leave it alone. This he did early on in the third movement, much to its benefit, the music gaining impetus properly. (And there was none of that nonsense of allocating the opening solo to the double bass section as a whole.) Rattle clearly needed to intervene more during the Klezmer sections, but to start with did not overdo it. Unfortunately, the music from the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen marked a seachange. Eked out beyond endurance, it was transformed into a weirdly distended parody – and not in a good sense. The movement became more and more stylised as it proceeded. A pity…

The finale was afforded greater heft, though the BPO still lacked a recognisable, German sound. It can still boast that sometimes, whether under conductors such as Christian Thielemann or indeed Rattle himself (even in Ravel). Not on this occasion, however. Rattle’s interventionism now assumed grotesque proportions, the slow passages taken so v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y that narcissism would have been too generous a description. Just because one can do something does not mean that one should. Mahler needs some formal assistance in this movement; here he received the opposite, cracks being exposed where one had never suspected them. Other material was excessively driven, crudely performed, exceeding what had been done to the Beethoven symphony. Victory should be hard won but not in the sense that applied here. I found myself simply wishing for the end, which at times seemed ever more distant. Another bitter disappointment.

Friday 3 September 2010

4'33" Playlist: Karajan, Strauss, and ... Cage

John Cage's birthday falls on Sunday - as it happens, the day before mine. (I once remember looking in a 'Composers' Diary' and being a little crestfallen to find that the only composer I had even heard of who shared my birthday was H Balfour Gardiner, he of the purple-hued 'Evening Hymn'. My mother has Wagner...) Alex Ross has therefore created a playlist from his iPhone of tracks lasting four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Here is mine (you can click on it to enlarge):

This makes me realise how long it is since I added anything to my iPhone. It always seem too Herculean a task, but some day I really ought to make a little progress...

Despite the sawn-off titles, the identities of most tracks are pretty obvious. For anyone who might be wondering, the Handel cantata is 'Ah! crudel nel pianto mio', the Bach cantata is no. 108, ‘Es ist euch gut, daß ich hingehe’ (aria, ‘Mich kein Zweifel stören’), and the Haydn symphony is number 46, in B major. I am not sure that I should have guessed Strauss would appear most frequently of composers, nor Karajan of conductors. Composer and conductor appear together no fewer than three times, in tracks from Rosenkavalier, Ariadne, and Don Quixote... Chance?

Prom 63: BBC NOW/Roth - Rameau, Canteloube, Martin Matalon, and Mussorgsky (arr. Wood)

Royal Albert Hall

Rameau – Dardanus: suite
Canteloube – Selection from Chants d’Auvergne
Martin Matalon – Lignes de fuite (United Kingdom premiere)
Mussorgsky, arr. Sir Henry Wood – Pictures at an Exhibition

Anna Caterina Antonacci (soprano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
François-Xavier Roth (conductor)

A particular pleasure of this year’s Proms has been to hear so many British ‘regional’ orchestras on such good form, above all the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It is not that one doubts their prowess but, quite understandably, one does not often hear them perform in London, a capital city spoilt by an embarrassment of international riches. For whatever reason, the biggest international names have not been so conspicuous at the Proms this year, though the Berlin Philharmonic will shortly give a couple of concerts, both of which I shall be reviewing; at any rate, other orchestras have arguably become more prominent. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales acquitted itself well enough, if not so startlingly as the RLPO or the CBSO had, but what stood out most about this concert was its unusual programme. I found it difficult ultimately to discern a thread running through it: surely Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition would have been the more obvious companion piece to what one might consider to be two-and-a-half French works, Martin Matalon being Argentinian but having lived in Paris since 1993 and listing French composers (Messiaen, Boulez, Tristan Murail, Gérard Grisey) as his greatest inspirations. What we did have, however, was considerable opportunity to hear works we might otherwise have to travel some way to hear. Even Joseph Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne seem to be heard less frequently than was once the case.

A particular joy was to hear a suite drawn from Rameau’s Dardanus. Braving the authenticity police, whose fatwas have a tendency to make Iranian mullahs resemble woolly-minded liberals, not only did François-Xavier Roth perform Rameau’s dances on modern instruments; he used a fair-sized orchestra and resisted any pressure to make the players of the BBC NOW sound as if they were squeezing toothpaste. What emerged was a sequence of dances that was colourful, but on Rameau’s terms, for this was no Stokowskian vision, and highly rhythmical, though never hard-driven. The Overture, its dotted rhythms telling without exaggeration, was followed by the ‘Entrée des guerriers’ from the first act, a brace of delightful Tambourins from the third, the second act’s affecting ‘Air grave’ in which Isménor brings about a solar eclipse, the third act’s ‘Air en rondeau’, and finally the (relatively) celebrated Chaconne, which, like its predecessors, veritably danced. Given the towering Bachian example, one can readily forget that a chaconne is not necessarily a thing of great weight and import; came grace and pointed rhythms were to the fore. (Mozart, in Idomeneo’s ballet music, managed to combine both aspects – but then, he was Mozart.) Woodwind, contrabassoon and all (a very early usage or Roth’s emendation?) were characterful, convincingly French in their individual and collective timbres. And was this a first? Roth conducted from the drum.

Seven Songs from the Auvergne followed: the ‘Pastourelle’, the bourrées, ‘N’ai pas iéu de mio’ and ‘Lo Calhé’, ‘Une jionto pastouro’, ‘Té, l’co té!’, ‘Baïlèro’, and ‘Malurous qu’o uno fenno’. Roth’s guiding hand brought out the best from the orchestra, whose string sound was often ravishing, with solos – woodwind, violin, and piano in particular – very well taken. Anna Caterina Antonacci brought a touch of glamour to proceedings, which is no bad thing: Canteloube’s settings are hardly earthy. Antonacci’s command of line and depth of tone shone out, even in the Royal Albert Hall. Though they were once much loved, I cannot say that I find the orchestrations (1923-55) especially revealing, or even appropriate; Puccini comes to mind a little too often and this is certainly not Bartók. There is no harm, though, in the occasional outing; Baïlèro worked its rural, if slightly protracted, magic.

Martin Matalon’s 2007 Lignes de fuite (‘Lines of convergence’, in the sense of drawing) received its first British performance. Over a little more than a quarter of an hour, Matalon showed his command of orchestral writing, especially when it came to percussion. Beyond assured technique, however, I was not sure that I discerned a beating heart. This may, of course, be entirely my fault, but a succession of events, generally accompanied by glittering piano, celesta, and harp, appeared as a foil for what sounded like surprisingly conventional, yet meandering harmonic progression. It was a bit like hearing a substantially toned down version of Messiaenised excerpts from The Rite of Spring – albeit without the sharpness of rhythm.

The final work on the programme was Sir Henry Wood’s orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. This is a curiosity indeed: at times, bang on the money, with something reasonably close to an authentic Mussorgskian – at any rate, decidedly un-Gallic – voice, yet at other times wildly missing the mark, perhaps above all in the bizarre vulgarisation, pounding organ chords representing but one of the mildest symptoms, of ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ (here ‘The Bogatyr Gate at Kiev’). I do not know whether Roth was following Wood, or introducing his own articulation into the opening Promenade (the other Promenades are cut). Whichever way, the phrasing was short-breathed, mannered in a strangely ‘authenticke’ way that had not characterised the Rameau performances at all. For the most part, however, the BBC NOW’s performance impressed with its fleetness of response. ‘Limoges’ bustled and the catacombs were darkly fearsome. Ravel is a master orchestrator, of course, yet I have always felt that his version misses Mussorgsky’s point; the piano ‘original’ is vastly preferable to all. Of the other orchestrations I have heard, Stokowski’s seems most assured – though there are omissions – but if the Proms cannot honour Sir Henry Wood, then who can?