Tuesday 30 November 2010

Così fan tutte, Royal Academy Opera, 29 November 2010

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

(Don) Alfonso – Frederick Long
Ferrando – Roberto Ortiz
Guglielmo – Charles Rice
Fiordiligi – Ruth Jenkins
Dorabella – Katie Bray
Despina – Mary Bevan

John Cox (director)
Gary McCann (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)

Royal Academy Sinfonia
Jane Glover (conductor)

This Royal Academy Opera production of Così fan tutte proved considerably more enjoyable than a number of higher profile Mozart performances I have endured recently. (ENO’s Don Giovanni stands, unfortunately, freshest in the mind.) John Cox’s production translates the action to an academy of its own, recalling the work’s subtitle, ‘The School for Lovers,’ and emphasising the action’s focus upon experimentation – and, it would seem, its questioning of ‘scientific’ results. The young men are students in behavioural science and army reservists; Alfonso (he loses the ‘Don’) is their tutor, wishing to test his hypothesis that women are genetically programmed to be promiscuous. Their girlfriends, still sisters, are musicians, and Despina both Alfonso’s research assistant and the girls’ landlady. Both she and the male students have training in the dramatic arts, which they put to use in disguising their identities. It works well enough, given the widespread supposition that a modern audience cannot accept a work to be set when and where it was intended. I have no particular problem with such updating, which at least seems to have been thought through; the only real issue is that it, rather than the work’s dramatic core, tends to become the point at issue. Abstraction, as witnessed for example in productions for the Salzburg Festival by Hans Neuenfels (I seem to have been the only person who liked that) and Karl-Ernst and Ursel Hermann, probably works better.

However, there is something to be said for a production that speaks specifically to its audience, in this case a collegiate institution and friends. Gary McCann’s designs painted the lecture theatre, Despina’s house, and so on very well, whilst the lit evocation of evening from Jake Wiltshire was particularly pleasing – and credible. Jonathan Burton’s surtitles veered between recomposition to fit the production conceit and a more literal approach. Such is ever an issue when it comes to relocation, but the split approach proved a little confusing at times (unless one actually knew what was being sung, which one can hardly assume – and if one could, there would be little need for titles).

Jane Glover, Director of Opera, conducted the Royal Academy Sinfonia and a sixteen-strong student chorus. The latter does not have that much to do but nevertheless did it well. Orchestrally, Mozart is a cruel taskmaster indeed, for there is truly nowhere to hide in his scores; there were perhaps a few too many orchestral slips and infelicities. A certain edge to the upper strings – too few in number really, even for a small theatre – and occasional intonational problems could not be entirely wished away, though the former would seem to have been related to Glover’s general brusqueness. She delineated the structure clearly enough – a definite advantage – but seemed reluctant to allow the music to breathe, to permit it to seduce us, which after all is or should be a good part of the dramatic point. One could not help but wish that the occupant of the International Chair of Conducting and Orchestral Studies, Sir Colin Davis, had been in the pit. The cellos, however, often proved delightful, as did a number of woodwind soloists.

What, then, of the Academy’s singers, for whom this acted as a showcase? There were two casts; I caught the ‘second’, though that is purely a numerical matter, not an issue of quality. Ruth Jenkins’s Fiordiligi impressed. It is not easy even to cover the notes – and it will be painfully evident if the soprano fails to do so – but Jenkins imparted a good deal of meaning to them too, her parodies of grand opera seria arias especially noteworthy. Katie Bray proved a good foil as Dorabella, her acting skills of a high standard too. Mary Bevan’s Despina was of a similar class to Jenkins’s Fiordiligi: not at all irritating, and more rounded a character, musically as well as on stage, than we often experience. One thing that all singers had in common, of course, was their youth: this holds advantages in straightforward dramatic credibility and disadvantages in terms of vocal maturity. I felt that Frederick Long’s Alfonso, who obviously does not ‘need’ to appear young, therefore suffered a little on stage: no fault of his own, and he sang well, though the ‘elderly’ moustache perhaps did him no favours. Roberto Ortiz’s Ferrando, however, often lacked the vocal security the cruel role of Ferrando requires, and his style diverged a little too much from the Mozartian, likeable though he may have been on stage. As Guglielmo, Charles Rice generally impressed, his swagger increasing as time went on, making payback the more moving. There clearly lies a good future ahead for many, perhaps all, of these artists.

Friday 26 November 2010

Claire Booth - Berio and Poulenc, 25 November 2010

Hall One, Kings Place

Berio – Sequenza III, for soprano
Berio – Petite Suite*
Poulenc – La voix humaine

Claire Booth (soprano)
Christopher Glynn (piano)
Alasdair Beatson (piano)*
Netia Jones (director/video)

On the face of it, Berio and Poulenc do not have that much in common; they probably do not beneath the surface either. However, the programming here made sense in at least a couple of ways – apart, that is, from proving a showcase for the talents and versatility of the ever-impressive Claire Booth. Berio’s early (1947) Petite Suite, the piano interlude between his Sequenza III and Poulenc’s La voix humaine, proved a neo-classical surprise, its melodies and harmonies not so very far removed from Poulenc’s, albeit without the indulgent naughtiness we know and cannot help but love. Debussy, above all Children’s Corner, is surely an influence, Stravinsky too. I cannot say that it is a work I should hasten to hear again: it is ‘interesting’ as juvenilia, but presents none of the challenges and rewards of the composer’s maturity. Nevertheless, Alasdair Beatson performed its five short movements with panache and without condescension. Booth remained on stage but at least had opportunity to rest her vocal chords.

The two principal works have something in common too. La voix humaine is of course a masterly Cocteau-Poulenc collaboration depicting a woman on the telephone, attempting to survive the end of her affair. (I saw a brilliant double-bill with Pierrot Lunaire in Leipzig a couple of years ago.) Sequenza III was written for Cathy Berberian in the wake of her divorce from the composer. Netia Jones’s video imagery helped bind the works loosely together, wisely without forcing the connection. The use of recorded and real-time pictures of Booth alternated with images of greater (patterned) and lesser (1950s cityscape) abstraction. I was not sure what it meant, or indeed what it added, but it did no harm.

The Berio Sequenza is a gestural piece par excellence, a true tour de force of extended vocal technique. But there remains an almost extravagant vocalism, affectionate towards tradition, at its heart, which Booth ensured that we heard. I ought not to exaggerate; this is not the Verdian rapprochement of La vera storia, but nor is Berio’s exuberance solely of a militant avant-gardist variety either. Berio described the work as a ‘three-part invention’ of ‘text, gesture, and expression’: again, this was precisely what we heard. Only a highly-accomplished artist should even consider performing so technically and expressively demanding a work. Booth passed the test with flying colours: a coloratura display of objects found and transformed.

For La voix humaine, she was joined by pianist, Christopher Glynn. I had never heard the work with piano before; there is loss, but there is perhaps also neo-classical, Stravinskian gain too. The instrument’s relative coolness imparts a different but not entirely inappropriate quality to the work, and there could be no gainsaying Glynn’s surety of navigation when it came to the score’s twists and turns, gestural in a gentler way, no doubt, than Berio’s but nevertheless deeply felt. Those ominous Stravinksian ostinati so powerfully present in the Dialogues des Carmelites once again provide structural foundation, as Glynn proved so clearly. I should have imagined the loss from translation into English to have been greater, but in practice, the conversational quality – however much one might have hankered after the delivery of the inimitable Denise Duval – worked well. I was not sure, though, why a few passages remained in French. Just when I thought I had worked out the reasoning, my logic was found wanting. That was a bit odd: all or nothing would have been preferable. At any rate, Booth powerfully conveyed the delusion and depression, to neither of which Poulenc was a stranger. She elicited pity, knowing recognition, and black humour, even though Poulenc’s wish that the music be ‘bathed in sensuality’ was never quite fulfilled. The counterpoint between failures of the telephonic and nervous varieties was at any rate abundantly clear.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Interview with David McVicar: The arts and our political class (and something on Adriana Lecouvreur too...)

I have not always been the greatest fan of David McVicar's productions, though some - La clemenza di Tito, The Magic Flute, and The Turn of the Screw - I have greatly admired. However, here he is spot on concerning our verminous political class, its pandering towards the dregs of the culture industry, and its poisonous hostility (from Rupert Murdoch downwards - or is it impossible to move downwards from there?) towards the arts.

There is a host of reasons for everyone to feel betrayed by the Liberal Democrat political leadership. Working at a university, I know that as well as most. But to remain with the arts, contrast this (I confess: I was duped) with what is transpiring... The far right of the Lib Dems (i.e., David Laws) must be thinking all his (taxpayer-funded) Christmases have come early. Since my MP, Simon Hughes, at least appears to be one of the few decent remaining Members of Parliament, I am tempted to bear with him - after all, where else is there to go? - but these are bleak days indeed. Still, so long as the money remains to kill a few more Afghans, all will doubtless be well in the end...

Angela Hewitt's Bach Book, 23 November 2010

Wigmore Hall

Bach – ‘Chromatic’ Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903
Kurt Schwertsik – Fantasia and Fuga, op.105
Bach – Three-part Inventions, BWV 796-801
Dominic Muldowney – Fantasia on BACH
Elena Kats-Chernin – Bach Study
Bach-Walton – Chorale Prelude: Herzlich tut mich verlangen, BWV 727
Bach-Howells – Chorale Prelude: O mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde gross, BWV 622
Bach – Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV 894

Angela Hewitt (piano)

A worthy idea: ‘to ask,’ in Angela Hewitt’s words, ‘composers of my time to write short pieces inspired somehow by Bach’. This was the second of two concerts in which the results, commissioned by the Wigmore Hall with the support of the Fondation Hoffmann, were programmed. I could not help but wish that the three composers featured here had followed the precedent of Sir William Walton, Herbert Howells, and other contributors to the earlier Bach Book for Harriet Cohen, and confined themselves to transcription, for the three new compositions proved less than inspiring.

Best was Dominic Muldowney’s Fantasia on BACH, which did not seem to take itself too seriously. The fabled musical letters were audible yet somewhat transformed in their post-modernist treatment, which made its way swiftly thought ‘clockwork’ chorale, four-part fugue, two-part invention, stretto, ‘badly remembered’ recapitulation, and three-bar coda. The tango rhythm that kept resurfacing amused. Kurt Schwertsik’s programme note, speaking of tension between Sebastian and Emanuel Bach, read more interestingly than Schwertsik’s music. Its fantasia brought to mind, in its harmonic language at least, Prokofiev – not exactly a Bachian figure – more than anyone else, mixed with Hindemith. There was absolutely nothing to suggest that this might have been written after the year of the composer’s birth, 1935. The fugue seemed to lose Prokofiev and to transfer its affections to Shostakovich, though Hindemith remained. It ambled on amiably enough for a while, before an admittedly cheeky close. Elena Kats-Chernin’s Bach Study was allegedly ‘a reflection on Bach’s most famous Cello Suite in G major’. ‘Reflection’ was not immediately apparent, the result sounding more like imitation Michael Nyman, its vapid minimalism suggesting a suitable home on a Channel 4 ‘drama’ of a certain vintage.

After that low point, it was an extraordinary relief to return to Bach. (Is it ever not?) Walton and Howells showed restraint and mastery in their transcriptions of two chorale preludes. In collaboration with Hewitt’s pianistic skills, the works transferred very well to the piano, though they made this sometime organist wistful for the instrument on which he once would play this music. Hewitt’s way was not to accentuate the labyrinthine chromaticism of Herzlich tut mich verlangen: it sounded closer to Walton than, say, to Berg. But there was great dignity to both performances, and she allowed herself greater Romanticism in the Howells transcription, Bach as ever proving the greatest of all the Romantics. The exploratory harmony is, even by his standards, truly extraordinary, and so it sounded here.

Unhyphenated Bach did well too. The ‘Chromatic’ Fantasia benefited from a vigorous opening flourish, whose implications worked themselves out in what was to come. Hewitt offered a beautifully shaded account of this and the fugue, her legato touch impeccable. The fugue was more Apollonian – though certainly not, thank God, neo-Classical – than Dionysian in quality, the delight in Bach’s invention ‘purely’ musical. Lack of Gothic grandeur may to an extent be attributed to the brightness of Hewitt’s favoured Fazioli instrument. Six three-part inventions provided a wonderful sample, the opening contrast between no.10 in G major and no.11 in G minor especially winning. The former flowed easily, whilst the latter hinted at something more frenchified, perhaps even with a suggestion of Scarlatti in the minor mode; at any rate there was a sense of relative unpredictablity. A major brought warmth, whilst A minor proposed a sublimated, never arch, courtliness. Suggestions of Claude Daquin in the B minor piece (no.15) were gracefully apt. In the closing A minor Prelude and Fugue, Hewitt sounded liberated by the experience of the Walton and Howells transcriptions, her greater freedom redolent of an ‘encore’ moment, though not at the expense of thoughtful dynamic shading.

Three encores, when they came, perhaps proved one too many, though it was good to hear a transcription (Hewitt’s own?) of In dulci jubilo (BWV 729, I think) and considerably more than ‘good’ to close with a rapt account of the ‘Aria’ from the Goldberg Variations. Therein, one knew, lay the ‘real thing’.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Alexander Raskatov: A Dog's Heart, English National Opera, 20 November 2010

United Kingdom premiere

The Coliseum

(sung in English)

(Images: Steven Cummiskey. As ever, click to enlarge.)

Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky – Steven Page
Peter Amoldovich Bormenthal – Leigh Melrose
Sharikov – Peter Hoare
Sharik the dog (unpleasant voice) – Elena Vassileva
Sharik the dog (pleasant voice) – Andrew Watts
Darya Petrovna – Elena Vassileva
Zina – Nancy Allen Lundy
Shvonder – Alasdair Elliott
Vyasemskaya – Andrew Watts
First Patient – Peter Hoare
Second Patient – Frances McCafferty
Provocateur – David Newman
Proletarians – Ella Kirkpatrick, Andrew Watts, Alasdair Elliott, Michael Burke
Fyodor/Newspaper Seller/Big Boss – Graeme Danby
Secretary – Sophie Desmars
Investigator – Matthew Hargreaves
Drunkards – Michael Selby, Christopher Speight
Old Women – Deborah Davison, Jane Reed

Puppeteers – Robin Beer, Finn Caldwell, Josie Dexter, Mark Down

Simon McBurney (director, choreographer)
Michael Levine and Luis Carvalho (set designs)
Christina Cunningham (costumes)
Paul Anderson (lighting)
Toby Sedgwick (movement)
Finn Ross (projections)
Blind Summit Theatre: Mark Down and Nick Barnes (director of puppetry)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Garry Walker (conductor)

Three cheers – at the very least – for the English National Opera! ‘The current climate’ is a dreary, defeatist phrase, generally an excuse for enemies of all that it is to be human to diminish our humanity further; nevertheless, it seems to inform so much of what we do and even hope for at the moment, that to have a new opera by an un-starry Russian composer, of whom most of the audience most likely will never have heard, performed at the Coliseum is worth a cheer or two in itself. (The current practice of many companies and orchestras in parochially commissioning works only from British artists is unworthy of organisations that would claim a place upon the world stage.) A couple more cheers – again, at least – must be granted the show’s resounding theatrical success. For more than anything else this is a triumph for Simon McBurney and Complicite. After a number of false starts in its current mission to import values from the non-operatic theatre, however one wishes to term it, ENO, in collaboration with the co-producing Holland Festival, really hits the target this time.

A fuller synopsis can be found elsewhere, but briefly, A Dog’s Heart reworks Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire. Cesare Mazzonis’s libretto is here translated by Martin Pickard. The opera opens with a stray dog – the superb puppet work inspired by Alberto Giacometti (click here for the sculpture in question) – mistreated by men, apparently rescued and promised a dog’s paradise by a distinguished scientist, Professor Filipp Filippovich Preobrazhensky. The parallelism between the new workers’ state and the animal’s condition is revealingly maintained and deepened throughout, likewise the repellent superior pretensions of Preobrazhensky – the name will be familiar to students of Bolshevism and Stalinism – both as scientist and as human. Eventually, the professor sees his chance for true scientific glory. Having fed up the dog, whom he has named Sharik, he transplants human testicles and a pituitary gland, to create a ‘new man’, Sharikov. Sharikov’s antics leave him, the professor notes, at the most rudimentary evolutionary level, yet that is hardly Sharikov’s fault; indeed he garners hope from association with proletarian organisations, further horrifying his creator. The professor disowns him and conducts a second operation. The creature is once again a ‘mere’ dog. I could not help wondering about a potential English play on words: is the dog man another representation of our desire to create a god man?

What marks A Dog’s Heart out from many collaborations is that it was collaborative from the beginning, a joint project involving composer, librettist, and Complicite. This tells; I suspected it must have been so before I discovered that it was. A true sense of theatre is present from the very outset, the opera opening without warning. Pacing is keen throughout and the stage direction puts most to shame. The puppetry, previously mentioned, is wonderful – this includes a cat, whom Sharikov cannot help but chase – but so are mechanics such as scene changing, so often something hapless to endure in the opera house. Sets from Michael Levine and his assistant, Luis Carvalho, are exemplary: never fussy, but evocative both of period and of their stage in the drama. The grandeur of the professor’s rooms – envied by the proletarian house committee, but our scientist has friends in high places – provides an apt link with an older Moscow, whilst Finn Ross’s NEP-style projections make clear what has changed. The silhouetted – in part – operation was very well handled, bringing subsequent gore into greater relief.

This is, to my knowledge, the only opera whose first act closes with the injunction, ‘Suck my cock!’ Why, in the supertitles, coyly write ‘c*unt’ thus, when everyone could hear the word, and why suppose, especially in such a context, that the sensibilities of Daily Mail readers should be considered? The ‘profane language’ is not, in that bizarre circumlocution, ‘gratuitous’, but integral to the plot, above all to the dog-man’s characterisation. Where it can somewhat irritate in Ligeti’s Le grand macabre – though there is, of course, Dadaist (un-)reason for it there too – it would be several suburbanisms too far for anyone to object in the present case.

Music, it must be said, takes second billing, though that is not a unique phenomenon: Gérard Mortier’s parting shot at the Opéra national de Paris, Am Anfang, billed Anselm Kiefer’s installation before Jörg Widmann’s score, and Widmann is a more famed composer than Alexander Raskatov. And yet, though I flatter myself that I can be called a musician, I did not mind, which must say something about the sum of the parts. It was far from easy to discern where one ‘contribution’ began and another stopped. For instance, doubling of parts seemed to have a point beyond economy. This is not Lulu; there is none of Berg’s carefully-crafted parallelism and symmetry. But the taking on of different roles said something about anonymity, appearance from and disappearance into the proletarian crowd, and Warhol-like moments in the limelight.

I cannot imagine wishing to hear to Raskatov’s score outside the theatre – and whilst I should definitely be tempted by a subsequent dramatic project, I should find it difficult to evince enthusiasm for hearing his music in the concert hall. Nevertheless, it works in the theatre. (People say that of Verdi, but that apparent success has always eluded me.) It is recognisably ‘Russian’- sounding, closer perhaps to Schnittke than anyone else, though there may be other influences of whose work I am simply unaware. Often somewhat cartoonish, it occupies its (relatively) subordinate role cheerfully and has its individualistic moments, for instance in the use of bass guitar. Connections to earlier Russian composers are manifest too. This is not Prokofiev (certainly not Prokofiev at his operatic best, for instance The Gambler or The Fiery Angel), but it is a good deal more entertaining than most Shostakovich – or Schnittke, for that matter. I cannot say that I could hear much or any influence from late Stravinsky or Webern, music to whose qualities David Nice, in his helpful programme note, suggested that Raskatov aspired. (Incidentally – actually, not incidentally, but importantly – the programme features, McBurney’s contributions included, were of an unusually high standard.) Thinning of textures on certain occasions aside, it was difficult to discern any kinship with the iron discipline of those serialist masters. But Raskatov’s closed forms, whilst obvious, exert their own dramatic impetus in tandem with the events on stage, even if the vocal writing – melismata, scalic passages, and so on – swiftly becomes predictable. A passcaglia signals darkening of mood, likewise the odd Mussorgskian choral moment: again, perhaps, predictable, yet again, perhaps, ‘effective’: a word I recall my A-level music teacher counselling against using, but here undeniably ‘effective’.
Garry Walker’s command of the score sounded exemplary. The sweeping dramatic drive he imparted made me keen to hear him back at the Coliseum very soon. He certainly knew how to bring the best out of the excellent ENO Orchestra – who deserved a good number of cheers of their own. The musicians played their hearts out – perhaps an unfortunate metaphor in the context of the present work – so much as to make one tempted truly to believe in Raskatov’s score. Steven Page presented a convincing dramatic portrayal of Preobrazhensky’s dilemma: no hint of caricature here, though the vibrato may have proved a little much for some tastes. Peter Hoare did likewise, albeit in very different manner, for Sharikov, repelling and provoking sympathy. Other noteworthy performances included the aburdist coloratura part of Zina the maid (Nancy Allen Lundy) and the grotesque cameo of Frances McCafferty’s elderly Second Patient. How could anyone refuse? How could anyone not? The dog as dog has two voices: unpleasant, the distorted, loud-speaker-hailing soprano Elena Vassileva (also impressive as the professor’s housekeeper, Darya Petrovna), and pleasant, the fine counter-tenor, Andrew Watts. There was certainly no finer musicianship on stage than that of Watts, whose plangent tones inspired the most genuine sympathy of all without sentimentalising.

The theatre seemed full and the audience responded enthusiastically. I saw two composers – Raskatov aside – so I suspect there will have been more. So no, this was not a musical event to rank with the recent premiere of Alexander Goehr’s Promised End – English Touring Opera’s initiative rightly described by Michael Tanner in The Spectator as ‘astoundingly heroic’ – but as a musico-theatrical event, it scored very highly. Unlike, say, the dismal recent Rufus Norris Don Giovanni, which, had ‘theatre people’ come to see it, might well have put them off opera for life, this might just have intrigued some of them to explore musical drama further. Our political and financial masters would never understand this, let alone agree, but that is something to which one cannot affix a price.

Friday 12 November 2010

Suwanai/Philharmonia/Sokhiev - Debussy, Prokofiev, and Tchaikovsky, 11 November 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Debussy – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Prokofiev – Violin Concerto no.2 in G minor, op.63
Tchaikovsky – Symphony no.4 in F minor, op.36

Akiki Suwanai (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Tughan Sokhiev (conductor)

Rather to my surprise, given a conductor with a particular reputation in Russian music, it was Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune that came off best in this programme. Languid, heated, yet never uncontrolled, this was a Prélude à l’après-midi in a line from Tristan to Pelléas, several degrees warmer than that heard on the recent Proms visit from the Orchestre National de France and Daniele Gatti, yet equally valid in conception. Paul-Edmund Davies’s flute arabesques were exquisite, veritably dissolving the bar lines; so, however, were the other woodwind contributions and the harp parts too. The warmth of the Philharmonia strings hinted at the strong Russian orchestral influence upon Debussy: often overlooked, but not here.

This was my third hearing this year of Prokofiev’s second violin concerto. A work I had thought could more or less play itself seems to be proving far more elusive. Neither Chloe Hanslip nor Viktoria Mullova really emerged from the runway, both experiencing considerable technical difficulties. Akiki Suwanai was preferable in that respect, with the partial exception of the finale, but seemed neither to have anything to say about the work, nor to appreciate that a concerto is a collaboration between soloist, orchestra, and conductor. It was difficult to discern a single instance of interaction on her part. Tughan Sokhiev and the Philharmonia were forced merely to follow her mechanical rendition. Sokhiev pointed rhythms were he could, but his hands were largely tied. A clockwork character was not entirely unsuited to the second movement, and Sokhiev relaxed a little where possible, mostly when Suwanai was not playing; interaction again seemed entirely one-way, most glaringly during the soloist’s pizzicato ‘accompaniment’ at the end. The finale brought more of the same, albeit with instances of technical insecurity. What a pity, since the Philharmonia sounded colourfully unanimous throughout. Suwanai’s rush to the final climax, however, sounded more like Paganini than Prokofiev, quite devoid of personality.

I had expected Sokhiev to shine in Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, but it was not really to be. The outer movements emerged brash, vulgar even, though there were more character and emotional depth to the inner movements. More gloomy than defiant, the opening brass struck an intriguing tone, albeit one that was not to be maintained. Hints thereafter of Prokofiev’s motor rhythms hardened into something all too rigid, whether in quicker material, or slower, the latter tending towards stasis. The Fate motif, when it returned, sounded disconnected, merely tacked on. Tchaikovsky sounded hollow, despite the undeniable brilliance of the Philharmonia’s performance. Unsurprisingly, the movement seemed over long. The Andantino in modo di canzone was much better, the Philharmonia still on fine form, but what had previously sounded incongruously mechanical now possessed an ominous yet warm tread, song-like in character. The folk-like quality of the movement’s central material was apparent to an unusual degree, but it developed with ease into something more symphonic. String pizzicati were flawless in the properly balletic scherzo, though woodwind intervention could have been announced a little less jarringly, more organically. The finale simply sounded rushed, unduly driven; again, Tchaikovsky sounded empty and vulgar.

Znaider/LSO/Davis - Mendelssohn and Elgar, 10 November 2010 (Centenary Performance of Elgar Violin Concerto)

Barbican Hall

Emily Howard – Solar (world premiere)*
Mendelssohn – Symphony no.3, in A minor, op.56, ‘Scottish’
Elgar – Violin Concerto in B minor, op.61

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)
London Symphony Orchestra
Nicholas Collon (conductor)*
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

First came a surprise: the latest in the UBS Soundscapes: Pioneers series, Emily Howard’s Solar, commissioned by LSO Discovery. Apparently, Howard’s piece, conducted with typical verve by Nicholas Collon, aimed ‘to create a musical image of our sun, our life-force’, deriving particular inspiration from the sun’s magnetic forces. It began high-pitched, strident, and very LOUD, and went on for a relatively brief amount of time, sounding rather like film music. I surmise the temptation to employ all of the LSO’s forces must be great, when handed such an opportunity. There was a quieter, ‘atmospheric’ section – again in a filmic sort of way – before the ending reverted to very LOUD, culminating in melodramatic bell-tolling. Throughout, the pulse was slow. The piece was a relatively inoffensive curtain-raiser, I suppose, but whatever happened to confronting the complacencies of a bourgeois concert audience? Might it not be possible to shake one’s fist, just a little? Moreover, though the format of the short orchestral piece might be considered constricting by some, just think of Webern…

Mendelssohn would seem ready-made for Sir Colin Davis’s gifts, though I am not sure that composer and conductor have been especially associated over the years. I am pleased to report that this account of the 'Scottish' Symphony was very fine indeed. The first movement’s opening woodwind evinced a gravely post-Mozartian resonance (perhaps no surprise, given the conductor), whilst the strings’ response to this opening Holyrood statement proved pregnantly dramatic. Then the Allegro un poco agitato opened just as Mendelssohn prescribed: beautiful, expectant, yet never unduly forced. Davis shaped the drama naturally and lovingly, though turbulence – in the Flying Dutchman premonitions, for instance – was certainly there, without ever resorting to cheap ‘effects’. Structure was clear and meaningful, line unbroken, Mendelssohn emerging as a true symphonist. What a relief, after Vladimir Jurowski’s recent fussiness with the ‘Reformation’ Symphony.

The scherzo opened light of touch, rhythmically precise, the LSO’s richly upholstered virtuosity – what a welcome change from ‘period’ fads – once again serving purely musical ends. Without a hint of indulgence, the Adagio was sung in warmly Romantic fashion, though its Klemperer-like tread generated considerable dramatic intensity, almost prefiguring the Elgar of the concert’s second half. As the reader may by now have guessed, symphonic drama was very much the key to Davis’s approach. The finale opened with a jolt but a musical jolt. Rhythmic momentum was crucial to the generation of almost Beethovenian purpose, though Bach of course was equally present in Mendelssohn’s contrapuntal working out. Romantic freshness could be heard without diminution to the performance’s grand scale: an object lesson to those who think one or the other must be chosen. The descent into Holyrood gloom proved duly evocative, mists and all. If even Sir Colin and the LSO at full throttle could not quite convince me in the final peroration – Mendelssohn’s sense of form seems oddly distended in this movement as a whole – theirs was a valiant attempt.

Elgar: Violin Concerto  
Nikolaj Znaider has devoted a good part of this centenary year to Elgar’s Violin Concerto, recording it with Sir Colin and the Staatskapelle Dresden, but also performing it in sixteen concert halls across the world. One hundred years to the day, Znaider returned the work to London, playing on Fritz Kreisler’s violin: that is, the very instrument upon which Kreisler gave the first performance. That is all very well and good, of course, but the proof of the performance is in the hearing. I am delighted to report that Znaider, Davis, and the LSO – an Elgar orchestra of pedigree and distinction – did Sir Edward proud. The orchestral opening was unusually purposeful: no lingering, though tempi proved eminently flexible where necessary. Znaider’s entry sounded darkly beautiful, almost viola-like in tone, vibrato and portamento employed at the service of Elgar’s solo line. It was – and this goes for the performance as a whole – Romantically impassioned rather than Anglo-reticent or ‘Edwardian’. Cobwebs were swept away with a conviction that led one to believe they had never been there in the first place. That should not be taken to imply a lack of tenderness, readily, movingly apparent in the second subject, yet Znaider and Davis ensured that this Elgar would not go gentle into whatever form of night it was that approached. The composer, quite rightly, emerged as the modern master hailed by Strauss.

Elgar’s Brahmsian inheritance came to the fore in the slow movement, though there could be no mistaking the nobility and magic as orchestra and soloist wove an utterly distinctive textural and motivic web. Znaider navigated what can be tricky corners with ease – unsurprising, perhaps, given that plethora of performances this year – yet there was not the slightest hint of complacency to conception or execution. This entire Andante was sung like a great aria, and I do not refer to the solo line alone. I was immediately impressed by the kinship announced in the finale between this concerto and its successor for cello – as well as the continuation of the Brahms connection. There was a touching, genuine innocence to the announcement of the second theme, but orchestral doubts chilled: again, no complacency. Even behind the most apparently affirmative music there lay uncertainty: Elgar the modernist? (I refer you to the excellent book written by my colleague, JPE Harper-Scott). Doubt may have been part of the conception, but there could be no doubt concerning the excellence of the performance from all concerned: the cadenza was simply spell-binding, and that goes as much for the gossamer orchestral ‘accompaniment’ as Znaider’s rapt delivery of the solo line. Happy Birthday!

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Salzburg Festival 2011

The Salzburg Festival's 2011 programme has now been announced. Click here for the website. The operas were announced a while ago, but highlights would be Die Frau ohne Schatten (Christian Thielemann, who will also conduct a Vienna Philharmonic Strauss programme) and The Makropulos Case (Esa-Pekka Salonen). Claus Guth's Mozart Da Ponte trilogy will be performed for the first time in its entirety (all three parts are reviewed on this site, from August 2007, 2009, and 2010.)

Elsewhere, there is a typical horn of plenty, including Pierre Boulez and the Vienna Philharmonic in Berg and Mahler (Das klagende Lied), Nono's Prometeo (Metzmacher, in Fischer von Erlach's magnificent Kollegienkirche, pictured above: last time I visited, it was undergoing restoration...), Stockhausen from the SWR Freiburg Studio (Cosmic Pulses, etc.), Morton Feldman's Beckett opera, Neither, Salvatore Sciarrino's Macbeth, Pollini in Beethoven, two concerts from Riccardo Muti's visiting Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Beethoven and Mahler, etc., etc. If only Markus Hinterhäuser had been appointed permanently as artistic director...

Sunday 7 November 2010

Don Giovanni, English National Opera, 6 November 2010

The Coliseum

(sung in English)

(Images: Donald Cooper)

Don Giovanni – Iain Paterson
Commendatore – Matthew Best
Donna Anna – Katherine Broderick
Don Ottavio – Robert Murray
Donna Elvira – Sarah Redgwick
Leporello – Brindley Sherratt
Masetto – John Molloy
Zerlina – Sarah Tynan

Rufus Norris (director)
Ian McNeil (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Jonathan Lunn (movement)
Finn Ross (projections)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Kirill Karabits (conductor)

I was unsure whether things could get much worse for Don Giovanni, following the Deutsche Oper’s new production from Roland Schwab. They could and they did. Rufus Norris’s debut as an opera director lacks even the occasional glimpses of coherence vouchsafed in Berlin. The setting seems to vary, or is it just unclear? We seem in general to be somewhere mid-twentieth-century: perhaps the 1950s, I thought, though it did not really seem to matter. A vulgar flat, apparently done up by a teenage girl – full of hearts and pink balloons – sometimes does service as a setting; sometimes there is a wall; and at one point it appears that the action has shifted to a community centre. Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are as mixed as Ian McNeil’s sets, and often simply hideous. Leporello appears to be a tramp, though I could not work out how this might fit with anything or anyone else.

There is no sense of danger, nor indeed any sense of who these people might be and why we should show any interest in them. I wondered whether the metallic semi-circle that often hovered in the air might be a reference to a circle of the Inferno. Perhaps it was, but when it came to the Stone Guest Scene, it did not seem to act as such; instead, Don Giovanni touched it and appeared to be electrocuted. (There were occasional 'electrical' sounds throughout, to uncertain purpose.) Moreover, whereas everything previously appeared to be presented – it was almost impossible to be sure – as something bordering on desperately unfunny farce, that all suddenly disappeared during the Stone Guest Scene itself, when some orange-clad monk-like figures arrived on stage. It was a challenge and a challenge that did not seem worth the effort to connect what we saw on stage with the libretto, let alone Mozart’s music. I never thought I should find myself saying this, but I actually preferred Francesca Zambello’s vacuous Royal Opera offering. What a pity, then, when ENO had a truly extraordinary production on its books from Calixto Bieito, a production that scintillatingly grappled with the prospect of a life and a society on the edge of the most terrifying abyss. This seemed to cross the worst of Zambello with the sub-farcical reductionism of Barrie Kosky’s dreadful Marriage of Figaro for the Komische Oper, Berlin. To add insult to injury, a blinding blue light, reflected – accidentally, I assume, though surely this ought to have been checked – from a stage mirror made sitting through part of the first-act finale a physical ordeal. Various patrons, when able to distract themselves from heavy-duty coughing, were compelled to hold their programmes over their faces. In the circumstances, perhaps that was not so great an ordeal.

Musically, there was more to enjoy. Kirill Karabits conducted a generally well-mannered performance, rarely exciting but with an attention to musical values sadly lacking in the stage direction. Phrasing was carefully handled; tempi were mostly well chosen and notably lacking in weird variation or other would-be iconoclasm. The ENO Orchestra played beautifully, especially its woodwind, though it could often sound a little under-powered: a large space such as this really needs more strings. In any case, this is a vigorous score, indeed a dæmonic one; beauty is necessary but not sufficient. The Stone Guest Scene, however, and its presentiment at the beginning of the Overture, were taken faster than I have ever heard: an eccentric and unwelcome contrast, even allowing for the fashionable nature of an alla breve reading.

Unfortunately, Iain Paterson proved wholly lacking in charisma in the title role. Granted, the production did him no favours, but even so, there was not the slightest sense of menace or allure in his reading. He seemed utterly miscast. One does not have to be Christopher Maltman, let alone the stupendous Erwin Schrott, though it certainly helps, but one needs to suggest and rather more than suggest what the attraction might be. Likewise, Brindley Sherratt’s Leporello was hamstrung by the production, yet his delivery – not least the all-purpose ‘regional’ pronunciation – was often coarse and his general assumption of the role unconvincing. John Molloy’s Masetto too often sacrificed pitch to rhythm, most glaringly when he first appeared on stage. Some may also have found his 'Irish' – or was it West Country, for it seemed to vary?  – delivery irritating and unnecessary.

The rest of the cast was pretty good, however. Sarah Redgwick was a late substitute for the ailing Rebecca Evans. Save for a little trouble with coloratura in ‘Mi tradì’, one would never have known. She alternated between pride and vulnerability, convinced on stage insofar as the production would permit her, and presented a properly Mozartian vocal line. Katherine Broderick’s Donna Anna evinced all of those virtues and more: an outstanding performance, which made me long to hear her in Italian. The accuracy and warmth of her second-act aria put a recent Salzburg Festival incarnation to shame, even if focus could sometimes wander. Sarah Tynan's Zerlina was finely sung and sexy too. Robert Murray was a sincere Ottavio; the role is thankless, but his delivery did not lack beauty of tone. Matthew Best was a powerful, sonorous Commendatore; again, if only he had been afforded a different setting…

If, however, I were given to violent thoughts when it came to the production, they became positively – negatively? – terroristic when enduring Jeremy Sams’s translation. I do not think I have previously encountered a translation that so wilfully draws attention to itself and away both from libretto and score. At least bad, it is full of jarring colloquialisms and forced, cringe-worthy rhymes, with occasional, bizarre reversions to something more literal. (Perhaps they were intended to be ‘meaningful’, but it was difficult to discern any pattern.) Much, however, was wholesale reinvention. Leporello’s Catalogue Aria lost any indication of geography, let alone the correct numbers. Italy, France, and Spain were all gone, replaced by months of the year. Why? Was it solely to annoy? Some of us happen to consider Lorenzo Da Ponte a more than able librettist; might he not perhaps be accorded a little more respect than that? Somewhere the word ‘spreadsheet’ appeared too, which elicited widespread hilarity amongst a particularly noisy audience. (It was difficult for someone to walk on stage, however nonchalantly, without provoking hysterical guffaws from some.) At another point – I forget when, but am pretty sure it was somewhere during the first act – a ‘jacuzzi’ appeared in the text, the sole apparent reason being to enable another ‘hilarious’ rhyme, with ‘floozy’. Perhaps worst of all, and once again with no discernible justification, the plot was changed, so that instead of having encountered one of Leporello’s sweethearts, he had flirted with his manservant’s sister instead. These are but a few examples. Da Ponte deserved much better.

ENO, please may we have Bieito’s Don Giovanni back? It may be flawed, but it is uncompromising in its vision and provides the opportunity for serious musical drama.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Theseus Ensemble/Paterson - 'Out of the Labyrinth', 5 November 2010

Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall, Royal College of Music

Brian Elias – Geranos
Sir Harrison Birtwistle – Verses for Ensembles

Theseus Ensemble
Geoffrey Paterson (conductor)

Launched in April, with a concert programming Ligeti’s Piano Concerto and Boulez’s Dérive 2, the Theseus Ensemble, ‘dedicated to the exploration of the labyrinths of modern music, and to sharing our discoveries with our audiences,’ now turned its attention to two English composers: Brian Elias and Sir Harrison Birtwistle. Skilful programming on founder and conductor Geoffrey Paterson’s part revealed a certain post-Stravinskian kinship in these two ensemble pieces, without prejudice to the composer’s individual voices. Paterson’s spoken introductions to both works, along with brief musical excerpts from the players, were clear, engaging guides to what one might profitably listen out for, but such was the high standard of performance that one could hardly have failed to sit up and listen.

Elias’s 1985 Geranos was written for the Fires of London. Like so much of Birtwistle’s music, there is an audible inspiration of archaic Greece. Here, Elias’s interest in ancient metrical feet – dactylic, anapæstic, bacchic, and so on – provides a basis for the work’s generative rhythmical cells; such was made clear both by Paterson’s introduction and by the performance itself. The word ‘geranos,’ Paterson’s programme note explained, has two meanings: when the stress falls upon the final syllable, it connotes a dance imitating the flight of cranes in line; when falling upon the first, it refers to Theseus’s dance to celebrate the rescue of seven youths and seven maidens from the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Elias scores this piece of three interconnected movements for six players: piano, piccolo/flute/alto flute, violin/viola, E-flat clarinet/bass clarinet, and percussion. Each of these players had a chance, well taken, to shine in solo and ensemble.

Following a slow introduction, in which Christopher White span a pregnant single line – a labyrinthine thread, perhaps? – which led us into an almost impressionistic haze of instrumental response, the rhythmically driven character of the first movement fully revealed itself. Jonathan Rees’s early ecstatic cello solo incited others, Elias’s post-Stravinskian soundworld soon fully established. Flights of fantasy from piccolo and percussion proved orientally suggestive. The slow, second movement put one in mind of a processional, its growth in intensity owed as much to percussion as to the leading figure of the E-flat clarinet (Sarah Thurlow), evocative of the mournful antique aulos gingras. The transition to the final movement seemed especially well handled, resulting in the alternation of various ‘feet’ in a generative, almost Dionysian frenzy. There were, however, more phantasmagorical sections too, in which the players created a sense of slowed, but not quite suspended animation. Throughout the ritual, twists and turns clearly unfolded, until the concluding near-stasis – written before such things became wearisomely popular – of tuned percussion.

As a prelude to performance of Birtwistle’s classic Verses for Ensembles (1986-9), Paterson and his players took us through the seven types of music present in the work: audible signposts, though as Paterson admitted, the delineation is so clear in Birtwistle’s writing, that it would be well-nigh impossible not to register their character. The visual-dramatic aid of players moving around the stage assists in that respect too, of course. Material was throughout clearly but meaningfully delineated, whether in introduction or performance.

Immediately, we were thrust into a violent soundworld, pulsating with drama both visceral and perspectival: unmistakeably Birtwistle. Hard-edged – have glockenspiels ever sounded more so? – and yet with moments of true tenderness, for instance from Alec Frank-Gemmill’s fine French horn, the character of this world was finely judged. Trumpet fanfares from Huw Morgan and Dimitrios Gkogkas harked back to Monteverdi and beyond, the spatial dimension contributing to the impression of Gabrielian ghosts at the modernistic feast – and how greatly so much music of this period is influenced by the Venetian example: think, for instance, of Stockhausen. The controlled riot of percussion (three players here: Stephen Burke, Oliver Lowe, and Scott Wilson) suggested an archaic threefold – or more – intensification of Messiaen’s rhythmic explorations, whilst all the time the hieratic example of Symphonies of Wind Instruments and, of course, The Rite of Spring incited. Rhythmic precision and definition are crucial in such respects; the Theseus Ensemble succeeded triumphantly in imparting them. At least as impressive, however, was the true sense the performance instilled of geography to the work’s ‘location’. As so often with Birtwistle, we are engaged in audition of differing perspectives upon different ‘places’, their characters sometimes variant – as in the three-line woodwind stanzas – and sometimes invariant. Secret Theatre seemed to beckon, inescapably: a privilege afforded by this fine performance.

The Theseus Ensemble’s next performance will be at the Linbury Studio Theatre of the Royal Opera House on 14 February 2011, at 1 p.m. George Benjamin’s Upon Silence will preface Boulez’s iconic Le marteau sans maître. Further information concerning the ensemble may be found at http://www.theseusensemble.com/.

Friday 5 November 2010

Weill, Songs from a Hotel Bedroom, 4 November 2010

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Angélique – Frances Ruffelle
Dan – Nigel Richards
Tango dancers – Amir Giles, Tara Pilbrow
Jimmy – James Holmes (piano, conductor)
Louis – Charlie Brown (violin)
Lester – Neil Charles (double bass)
Rich – Clive Deamer (percussion)
Mich – Steve Pretty (trumpet)
Nathan – Dai Pritchard (reeds, flute)
Romano – Romano Viazzini (accordion)

Kate Flatt, Peter Rowe (directors, scenario, and dialogue)
Kate Flatt (choreography)
Peter Rowe (dramaturgy)
Chloe Lamford (designs)
Anna Watson (lighting)

‘More in sorrow than in anger,’ is, like most, indeed perhaps all clichés, tedious; nevertheless, it is genuinely in sorrow and not at all in anger that I find myself having to write that I was straightforwardly bored with this show. Despite a generally high standard of performance, a slender storyline and lacklustre music from Kurt Weill’s American years combined to disappoint. Essentially, what we have is the on-off relationship of a French singer, Angélique and an American songwriter and bandleader, Dan Silverman. He treats her badly, disappearing on work for long stretches of time, when she would prefer them to set up home together. She eventually has enough. He writes to her once again and they meet, where he tells her he is dying and would – finally – like to spend the rest of his life with her. This involves reception of various letters and telephone calls, resulting, somewhat implausibly, in an immediate transatlantic flight taken during the austerity years following the end of the Second World War. Nothing untoward happens; there are no surprises or twists (unless one counts the self-referential framing of the action during the months ‘May to December’). As a story, one imagines it might once have found a place in a women’s magazine, but quite some time ago.

Sets, built and painted by Watford Palace Theatre Workshops, are simple but evocative. (The work is a co-commission from ROH2 and Segue Productions, and was premiered in Watford.) Stage direction likewise does the trick without drawing undue attention to itself. The brace of tango dancers, Amir Giles and Tara Pilbrow, impresses, providing a bite and slinkiness generally lacking elsewhere. Indeed, I thought the dance music more interesting than the rest; it came therefore as little surprise to note afterwards that it was drawn partly from earlier music, notably the ‘Tango Angèle’ from the 1927 Georg Kaiser collaboration, Der Zar lässt sich photographieren. James Holmes’s arrangements are skilful, as were his ensemble’s performances. Frances Ruffelle’s Angélique provided stage presence and a certain allure – so long as one were not expecting Marlene Dietrich – and showed that she could sing too, though she occasionally wavered between a ‘French’ and ‘American’ accent. The contrast with Nigel Richards was unfortunate: he tended to shout throughout, whether speaking or singing; the amplification may have been at fault, I think, but that does not explain the lack of variation in tone until the hammy ‘faltering’ end. Moreover, his acting was wooden in the extreme and, sadly, he looked a little long in the tooth to be a credible romantic lead in so ‘realistic’ a setting.

In September 1942, Weill wrote to Lotte Lenya concerning a meeting with Marlene Dietrich, during which he had tried to persuade her to star in the musical, One Touch of Venus: ‘Marlene liked the music, but started that old business about the different quality of my music here in America. I cut it short by saying, “Never mind those old German songs. – We’re in America now and Broadway is tougher than the Kurfürstendamm.” That stopped her.’ Perhaps it did, though I have no idea what he might have meant by that, nor why Dietrich should thereby have been stopped. For I am afraid, on the basis of the American Weill heard on the present occasion, I find it more or less impossible to disagree with Theodor Adorno’s obituary: Weill seems simply to have ‘become a Broadway composer modelled on Cole Porter’. What a terrible waste, whatever the reason(s). The Second Symphony and the Violin Concerto are masterpieces, not that we ever seem to hear them in concert, whilst the collaborations with Brecht and many other late Weimar works are indelibly part of what ‘Weimar culture’ and its opposition to what was to come mean to us. I wish it were otherwise, but I simply cannot understand how one can fail to see Weill as having sold out – completely. As his teacher – and fellow Busoni pupil – Philipp Jarnach put it in 1958, ‘These later works signify a complete renunciation of the composer’s earlier serious goals, and I believe it’s impossible today for anyone to cling to the notion that they have any stylistic significance.’ Next time, please mine the Weimar years instead…

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Das Rheingold, Staatsoper, Berlin, 31 October 2010

Schillertheater, Berlin

Images: (c) Monika Rittershaus (as usual, click to enlarge)

Wotan – Hanno Müller-Brachmann
Donner – Jan Buchwald
Froh – Marco Jentzsch
Loge – Stephan Rügamer
Fricka – Ekaterina Gubanova
Freia – Anna Samuil
Erda – Anna Larsson
Alberich – Johannes Martin Kränzle
Mime – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Fasolt – Matti Salminen
Fafner – Timo Riihonen
Woglinde – Aga Mikolaj
Wellgunde – Maria Gortsevskaya
Flosshilde – Marina Prudenskaja

Guy Cassiers (director, stage designs)
Enrico Bagnoli (stage designs)
Tim Van Steenbergen (costumes)
Enrico Bagnoli (lighting)
Arjen Klerkx, Kurt D’Haeseleer (video)
Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (choreography)
Michael P Steinberg, Detlef Giese (dramaturgy)

Dancers from the Eastman Company
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

Not at all what I was expecting: Berlin’s new Ring opened with a puzzling whimper – visually, at least. Already staged at La Scala, Guy Cassiers’s production seems to have little to say, hence the puzzlement, given that this is a work positively overflowing with ideas. Cassiers doubtless has a point concerning Chéreau-epigones: so many productions from the last thirty years or so have taken as read the insights afforded by Patrice Chéreau’s ‘Centenary’ Ring for Bayreuth and, consciously or otherwise, that of the late Joachim Herz for Leipzig. Günter Krämer’s Paris Ring, due to be concluded with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung this season, stands very much in this line, though I think it benefits greatly from doing so. Nevertheless, I can appreciate that someone might want to try something different, even in Das Rheingold, the ‘reddest’ of all Wagner’s dramas. It is difficult, however, to discern anything much to Cassiers’s production beyond ‘taking the politics out’, and not just the nineteenth-century politics, of a deeply political work. What has been put in place of Wagner’s revolutionary socialism? And why was there a programme article with the subtitle, ‘Reflexions über politische Aspekte von Wagners “Ring”’? Answers on a postcard, please.

The most striking aspect of the production is the inclusion of dancers. Members of the Eastman Company did very well what they were asked to do. That seemed more relevant when they actually interacted with members of the singing cast; their coming together to represent the Tarnhelm was a genuinely effective stroke, mirroring the rootless menace and mystery of Wagner’s harmony and orchestration. For the most part, however, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography simply had them attempting to turn the work into a ballet manqué. It is a point of view, I suppose, though not one I can understand, let alone endorse. Nevertheless, it was boorish and misplaced for a minority of the audience to boo the dancers, who impressed upon their own terms. They certainly contributed a litheness absent from the concept. Stage designs (Cassiers and Enrico Bagnoli) make little impression either way, with a few exceptions, such as the ‘real’ water for the Rhine: initially noteworthy in a positive sense, less so when it degenerates into a juvenile paddling pool. Video projections are inoffensive, but the shots of what seems to be a generic ‘ancient’ civilisation do little to contribute to a greater idea. Costumes veer slightly between dampened down ‘operatic’ and hints of science fiction. The giants became giants by virtue of large shadows cast upon the backdrop: fair enough, but hardly a coup de théâtre.

The singing was generally of a standard one would expect from the Staatsoper, though I have heard more inspired evenings from the company. René Pape had played Wotan in Milan but was already booked to sing Boris Godunov in New York; he was therefore replaced, apparently for Das Rheingold alone, by Hanno Müller-Brachmann. Müller-Brachmann, it was announced, was suffering from cold and a fever. At the beginning, one could certainly hear intimations of that in his voice, but the adrenalin must have begun to flow, for his performance rallied and, as one might have expected, proved attentive to words and music. His mesmerised reaction to the ring, despite its shiny vulgarity, was a powerful moment on stage. I doubt that Müller-Brachmann would flourish as a Walküre Wotan, still less as the Wanderer, but that is not at issue here. Johannes Martin Kränzle was an impressive Alberich, less black of tone than some, but as attentive as his dialectical antithesis to Wagner’s poem. If anything, his reading of the text tended to take priority over musical line, and there was arguably too much hissing exaggeration, but one certainly gained a feel for the character. Perhaps the best stage assumption, as so often in Rheingold, was that of the Loge, Stephan Rügamer. He was the sole singer to dance too: presumably attributable to his status as demi-god, but then why not the giants, say? At any rate, he handled well the handicap of his bizarre sci-fi costume – if only we could have had the Paris production here, with Kim Begley in drag as cabaret artiste – to insinuate and to criticise.

Matti Salminen (his predecessor, not him, pictured to the left), sang the role of Fasolt for one night only, making the most of his plangent bass to evoke sympathy for the sole character who feels something akin to true love. Timo Riihonen did his job as Fafner, though true malevolence only really came to the fore at the very end. It was difficult to imagine Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s Mime as a master craftsman, creator of the Tarnhelm, but he was hardly responsible for the production’s ‘idea’ of him essentially as a big baby. Ekaterina Gubanova and Anna Samuil sang with considerable beauty of tone as Fricka and Freia, but again seemed hamstrung by the production, which appeared to have little interest in them at all. Jan Buchwald blustered as Donner, whilst Marco Jentzsch, the odd slip aside, displayed an appropriately attractive lyric tenor as Froh. The Rhinemaidens sang well enough for the most part, though there were occasional peculiarities of pronunciation – and not just when it came to vowels. Last but not least, Anna Larsson’s Erda was a brief joy to encounter: a true Nordic goddess on stage and in voice: perhaps not quite so deep of tone as many, but that is a matter of taste as much as anything else.

What truly surprised in the musical performance, however, was Daniel Barenboim’s conducting. I wonder how much of this was due to the acoustic of the Schillertheater, the Staatsoper’s temporary home, but I do not think it can have been the only factor at work. Barenboim seemed to have rethought his approach from earlier Ring performances. Now we heard a more chamber-like reading, more so even than Karajan. There was also a slight distancing of tone – perhaps the acoustic – which led to an alienating impression not entirely dissimilar to interwar Neue Sachlichkeit. Barenboim retained sense of line from his erstwhile hero, Furtwängler, but otherwise he seemed to be in rebellion. There were moments of greater, deeper orchestral sonority, but these were reserved for climaxes. Whether this, or indeed the temper of the production, will be pursued into Die Walküre remains to be seen – and heard.

BPO/Rattle - Schoenberg and Mahler, 30 October 2010

Philharmonie, Berlin

Schoenberg – A Survivor from Warsaw, op.46
Mahler – Symphony no.2 in C minor, ‘Resurrection’

Hanns Zischler (speaker)
Kate Royal (soprano)
Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Berlin Radio Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Full marks for programming. Sir Simon Rattle’s anniversary traversal of Mahler’s symphonies will combine each work with an illuminating companion, or illuminating companions. He will bring the Berlin Philharmonic to London early next year, where the Third and Fourth Symphonies will be performed alongside hors d’œuvre from Wolf and Brahms, and Stravinsky’s Apollo respectively. Still more intriguing and imaginative is the selection of Purcell’s Queen Mary Funeral Music to introduce the Fifth. Schoenberg’s coruscating Survivor from Warsaw has often been selected, for instance by Michael Gielen, as a prelude to Beethoven’s Ninth; here it introduced and brought into question Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony. Karajan was no foe of Schoenberg, quite the contrary, so I was a little surprised to see that the work’s BPO premiere came as late as 1986, with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gary Bertini; Fischer-Dieskau reprised his role with Claudio Abbado in 2001. Rattle has placed himself, then, in a relatively brief but undeniably distinguished tradition.

The music of the Second Viennese School is repertoire in which Rattle has long excelled, and so it proved again: I do not think I have heard a finer performance of A Survivor from Warsaw, even from Abbado. Orchestral response was viscerally intense from the outset; it never let up. Mahlerian vistas opened up in concision, for instance following ‘you don’t know what happened to them [your children] how could you sleep?’ only for their hope to be necessarily denied. Moses und Aron sounded close in the angry percussion of ‘In vain! Much too noise…’ whilst one heard more than a hint of Bergian grand guignol at ‘It was painful to hear them groaning and moaning’. Key to the performance’s success was, of course, Hanns Zischler’s Speaker. His refusal to exaggerate paid dividends: what one needs above all is dignity, which is what we heard. That is not to say that dramatic contrast was absent: it was brutally evident in the shift from the agonising slowness of ‘It had become very still – fear and pain,’ to the sergeant’s shouting ‘Abzählen!’ Moreover, the ‘stampede of wild horses’ sounded just like that. Moses und Aron was once again invoked as the male chorus defiantly sang the She’ma Yisroel. It terrified, inspired, and then moved us beyond words, as the funeral march opening of Mahler’s symphony was taken attacca

There was no denying the kinetic energy with which the symphony thus opened; Rattle and his Berliners hit the ground running, though without sounding rushed. There was a great deal of tempo fluctuation, most of which convinced, certainly much more so than it had in the summer’s Proms performance of the First Symphony. That said, there were times when I felt Rattle leant a little too much towards the rhapsodic, though structure tightened in the second half of the development and the recapitulation. There was awesome power to be heard from the Berlin strings, and some beautiful, fitting portamenti too. Mahler’s own vistas were both prepared and subverted by those of Schoenberg. Now we had to ask, whether or no we wished to do so: what can the Alps, whether physically or metaphysically construed, mean after Warsaw? Inevitably, in this context, one suspected and heard something of a phantasmagoria. Baleful brass premonitions of the Seventh Symphony brought a roller-coaster ride to a close, and duly haunted our memory. It was a great pity, then, that some members of the audience took the short pause at the end of the movement as an opportunity to chatter. Indeed, in context, such behaviour tended towards obscenity.

Rattle judged the balance between affection and irony extremely well in the second movement: that would seem to augur well for the Fourth Symphony’s neo-classicism avant la lettre. Some may have found his interpretation too ‘moulded’, but I thought the moulding worked in general, though it could at times be overdone. Special mention must be given to the superlative harp playing of Marie-Pierre Langlamet. The third movement was commenced without a break. Menace and malice were operative words from the very outset: we stood not so far from the Ninth Symphony’s Rondo Burleske. Rattle wisely emphasised rhythmic progression here and the ‘busy’ quality of Mahler’s counterpoint: ‘learned’ but also prefiguring the terrible explorations of the Fifth. There were times when I felt the lack of greater warmth, however, not in the sense of sounding clinical, but occasionally there was a sense of tonal anonymity. Then Hell broke loose, however, to dispel momentary doubts as to where we might be heading. Magdalena Kožená emerged in startling scarlet from within the orchestra, like an angel – or should that be a demon? It was theatrical, but Mahler can be just that. Off-stage brass were simply magical as a frame for her Urlicht, whose diction could not be faulted. Was Kožená's vibrato too much? Certainly it was not Urlicht as we generally hear it, but I thought it worked. There was a distinctly contralto-like quality to some of her singing, her voice seeming to have deepened, quite apt for this Wunderhorn song of Nature and God.

The vast finale opened furiously. Thereafter, however, it tended somewhat towards the sectional. There was not the blazing intensity of direction, of ‘rightness’, that conductors from Klemperer to Boulez have brought to the score. Rattle seemed to be trying to characterise every section too much, with diminishing returns. The BPO’s playing was extremely fine, of course, and the climax of the great march came with full-blooded tone, though lacking the darkness of, say, its Berlin neighbour, Barenboim’s Staatskapelle. The chorus’s entry, when it came, sounded somewhat obscured in diction, though not nearly so much as Kate Royal’s rendition of those two opening stanzas; I could not discern a single word that she sang. The Berlin strings, however, ravished with newfound warmth. There was greater focus, from the chorus at least, to the second stanza, ‘Wieder aufzublüh’n…,’ choral blend well-nigh perfect. Kožená’s handling of ‘O glaube…’ stood in stark contrast to what we had heard from Royal. The words were not only audible, but meaningful, almost painfully imploring. Royal’s response showed marked improvement, though her tone remained lacklustre. There were times when I wondered whether a larger chorus, not on the scale of the Eighth Symphony but nevertheless larger, would have benefited the performance. Nevertheless, the backward connection and clash with Schoenberg’s Survivor registered strongly in the attempted affirmation of ‘Aufersteh’n…’. The BPO brass once again proved simply outstanding, whilst the organ (Sigurd Brauns) sent shivers down the spine. There may have been faults to the performance – these are human beings, after all – but transcendence, however, fleeting, was attained. In the company of the Schoenberg work, one could argue that that in itself was a remarkable achievement, a testament to Mahlerian endurance.