Friday 31 December 2010

Some Thoughts on Anniversaries: Mahler, Chopin, Schumann, and LISZT

Having an enforced New Year's Eve in – accursed ‘flu – and unable to set myself to any proper work, I started thinking about this year and next, and lo and behold, the issue of anniversaries reared its head. It has of course become almost as tedious to rail at anniversaries as to experience them: not all of them, nor all aspects of them; nevertheless, it is probably the case that too much concert programming has now become signed over to composers x, y, and z, simply because they were born or died 150, 75, and 350 years ago. Fervent Mahlerian though I may be, I have been turned off by the quantity and quality of many offerings from 2010, and that is before the second anniversary year of 2011 even begins. I seriously wonder whether the greatest tribute we can offer Mahler would be a year of silence. It is not even as if there is really some second tier of neglected works: some of the songs, perhaps, and arguably the extraordinary Das klagende Lied (look out for performances from Vladimir Jurowski in London and Pierre Boulez in Salzburg), but, though I have played it, I do not wish to hear the Piano Quartet performed ad nauseam. And when an entire cycle in London is handed over to Lorin Maazel, one really does wonder what is going on. Many of the performances might turn out well enough, but I cannot imagine – and I shall be happy to be proved wrong – a great degree of enthusiasm being summoned, though there may be relief that at least it is not Valery Gergiev conducting.

Leipzig’s Mahler cycle – I dearly wish I could attend – opts for different pairings of orchestra and conductor, whilst that of Sir Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic pairs the symphonies interestingly with works by other composers. If one must, and yes, I can understand the temptation, then those are surely more interesting routes to take. By the same token, how welcome it is to have Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia celebrate the music of Bartók just in order to celebrate the music of Bartók!

Chopin’s 200th anniversary has brought some fine performances. Again, there are few rediscoveries necessary: those Chopin pieces that are rarely performed tend to be rarely performed for good reason. But the chance to hear the world’s greatest pianists at the top of their games in this repertoire will also be welcome. Pollini, Zimerman, and Uchida all impressed me mightily, and whilst I only managed to catch one instalment of Artur Pizarro’s complete cycle, I was delighted to have done so. (On the other hand, the concert I heard from another cycle was at best a workmanlike drudge.)

Schumann, sharing the anniversary, has been a welcome visitor too throughout the year. There is more to explore here, even relatively unfamiliar songs and piano pieces. It was a pity, though, that there seemed – at least where I have found myself – few opportunities to hear more truly off-the-beaten-track Schumann, not least his choral music. Das Paradies und die Peri, for instance, or better still, the Scenes from Goethe’s ‘Faust’. There are smaller gems too. Perhaps a renewal of interest might instigate performances in 2011? After all, we do not want to stop hearing the music now that the anniversary year is over.

Next year, however, brings a real possibility in terms of a major anniversary: the 200th of Franz Liszt’s birth. I cannot think of a more grossly misunderstood and misrepresented composer. Ernest Newman’s disgraceful character assassination (The Man Liszt) may or may not influence present-day readers and listeners; I hope not, since it is a typically philistine hatchet-job. But there remains more than a whiff of puritanism to many responses to Liszt, almost as if a Victorian Songs without Words sensibility still ruled over us. Mendelssohn-baiting serves no purpose now either, but the scale of ambition – and, on occasion, one must admit, the scale of failure – evinced by Liszt is far greater. That is not to say that he is a greater composer; he may or may not be. Yet this was a musician whose influence on subsequent generations was almost as great as Wagner’s and whose very real achievements in his own right have far too long been obscured. Just because this was almost certainly the greatest pianist of all does not mean he cannot also have been a great composer.

We hear a few of the piano pieces relatively often, some of them deservedly so, some arguably less so. But even a work such as the B minor Sonata, which is hardly neglected, can come off very poorly in the wrong sort of performance. What it should not sound like – and I realise I am being prescriptive here, but Liszt often needs help – is a celebration of virtuosity. Of course it requires virtuosic, almost transcendental, technique, but that, as Liszt realised, is only a starting point: a way to beat the mere virtuosi at their own game. After that, and above all, stand the musical challenges. Analysis of this score can operate upon so many levels that it is difficult to know where to begin, but only briefly to consider its formal ingenuity and the dramatic issues that presents is to realise the scale of the achievement – and of the challenge. Drawing upon Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann, Liszt goes at least as far as anyone before Schoenberg (I think especially of the First Chamber Symphony, op.9) in synthesising and radicalising the relationship between individual ‘movements’, if indeed they may now be thought of as such, and the form of the whole. Within a single movement, we also hear the traditional four, and that is before we even begin to consider issues such as the false dawn of a recapitulation denied, or rather deferred. And what does it all mean? Should it be considered in extra-musical terms? Faustian? Christian? This was, after all, the inventor, as even Wagner acknowledged, of the symphonic poem. Then again, do we perhaps pay Liszt a disservice by stressing potential or even real extra-musical associations? Are we again implying a certain lack of ‘absolute’ compositional rigour? The æsthetic debates about the superiority or otherwise of ‘absolute music’ take us nowhere, just as they took Eduard Hanslick et al. nowhere, yet at times we seem destined to replay them; might Liszt present a way out?

There are many even of the piano works we rarely or even never hear. Indeed, pieces continue to be rediscovered. Leslie Howard, for whom the word ‘indefatigable’ seems quite miserly, has now recorded his third volume (2 CDs) of ‘Liszt: New Discoveries’ for Hyperion. He will give two of the works presented there world premiere performances at the Wigmore Hall in January. (I hope to attend.) This, then, is the sort of anniversary performance that will certainly bring something new. Moreover, just think of all the connections one can make with twentieth-century composers through the late, strange piano works, some of which have ceased to be governed by tonal rules. No wonder composers such as Debussy, Bartók, and Stravinsky admired a piece such as Nuages gris.

Then there is the rest of the composer’s gargantuan output. As an ex-organist, I am only too well aware of quite how much there is, of varying but often high quality, which we rarely if ever hear. Organists, who are not blessed with a cornucopia of first-rate composers, especially from the Romantic period, tend to play no more than three of his works: all of them fine, but there are many more, far more interesting than anything by, say, the mysteriously ubiquitous (in Church, that is) Joseph Rheinberger. The songs are a treasure trove, often in multiple, competing versions. There is no need to choose: perform them all! The choral works, like those I mentioned of Schumann, are shamefully neglected, whether the smaller pieces for male chorus or works such as the Hungarian Coronation Mass, written for Francis Joseph’s coronation as King of Hungary, or the oratorios, Christus and Die Legende von der Heiligen Elisabeth. Schoenberg, writing one hundred years ago in 1911, observed that Christus was ‘a work whose effect has still to dawn’. We seem not to have progressed at all, so there is plenty of work to do.

Everything is not of the highest quality; it would be absurd to claim that. The question of versions can sometimes reach Brucknerian proportions – but then Bruckner had the sense to confine himself to far fewer works. However, I have yet to hear a Liszt work quite so formally incompetent as, say, the Third Symphony of Bruckner, in whatever version. This year, 2011, however, should be taken as a time to experiment, as Liszt himself did. Not everything will come off, perhaps, but it is surely better to try and to fail – again, as he himself did – than to play it safe. For, whatever the rights and wrongs of Liszt performance, safety should never be on the agenda.

Wednesday 29 December 2010

Hänsel und Gretel, Royal Opera, 23 December 2010

Royal Opera House

(Images: Royal Opera/Johan Persson)

Hänsel – Christine Rice
Gretel – Ailish Tynan
Gertrud – Yvonne Howard
Peter – Sir Thomas Allen
Witch – Jane Henschel
Dew Fairy – Anna Devin
Sandman – Madeleine Pierard
Echo – Kai Rüütel
Angels, Children

Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier (directors)
Elaine Kidd (revival director)
Christian Fenouillat (set designs)
Agostino Cavalca (costumes)
Christophe Forey (lighting)

Members of Tiffin Boys’ Choir and Tiffin Children’s Chorus (director: Simon Toyne)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Rory Macdonald (conductor)

After being appointed Music Director of the Vienna State Opera, Franz Welser-Möst made a remark to the effect – I cannot remember the precise words – that how a house handled a week-day repertory Figaro was just as crucial to its flourishing as a starry new production. Indeed. Whilst the situation at Covent Garden is somewhat different, in that it does not have a repertory system along the lines of many German houses, there is a case to be made that the quality of revivals matters as much as that of more ‘newsworthy’ new productions. One does not necessarily employ quite the same criteria; it depends. And so, this first revival of Hänsel und Gretel, whilst it lacks in some though by no means all cases the star quality of some participants from the first run, may be accounted a considerable success. One does not expect a young conductor to evince the lifetime’s experience of Sir Colin Davis, though Rory Macdonald did an increasingly fine job as the night went on. Likewise, it would perhaps be unreasonable to expect Angelika Kirchschlager and Diana Damrau on every occasion. But if the performance took a little while to settle down, notably assisted in that respect by the appearance of Yvonne Howard and Sir Thomas Allen, the sole survivor from the original cast reprising the role of Peter, this proved an enjoyable and ultimately moving evening.

Part of that is down to the delights of Humperdinck’s score. Derivative it might be, but the fairy-tale Wagnerisms enchant rather than irritate, though the Meistersinger-ish opening scene perhaps remains excessively dependent upon its weightier model. During much of the first act, I felt a slight lack of focus, never damaging, and something that I suspect will soon dissipate once the run of performances beds down. The luxuriance of Sir Colin’s interpretation lingered in the mind. However, as time went on, Macdonald imparted a different quality to the score, marking this out very much as his own reading. Woodwind suggested Mozart and Strauss; indeed, I was at times taken aback at quite how much the score’s textures seemed to presage the latter: hardly Elektra, but perhaps Ariadne.

I do not really have anything to add to what I said about the production last time (click here for the DVD). It works well, and has surprisingly dark moments given that it is at least partly aimed at children. There is proper contrast between the magical dream of Christmas and the industrial scale oven of the Witch’s house. Like a true fairy tale, there is more than tinsel to this Christmas offering. Elaine Kidd’s work as revival director seems assured.

Christine Rice presented a suitably boyish Hänsel, looking as well as sounding the part. Though I find it difficult to warm to Ailish Tynan’s thin tone, this Gretel certainly provided the best performance I have heard from her, and again she acted credibly. The parents, Yvonne Howard and Sir Thomas Allen, both impressed, as one might have expected. I was amazed once again how Allen could make so much out of so relatively little. His diction, vocal presentation, and stage presence once again proved second to none. Anja Silja had assumed the role of the Witch in 2008; I very much liked her portrayal, though some were more affected by its vocal shortcomings. Here, Jane Henschel proved a more than worthy successor. I could not help but think of her wonderful assumptions of the role of the Nurse in Die Frau ohne Schatten: a more ambivalent character, to be sure, but perhaps not wholly unrelated. In any case, she combined stage presence and a more secure vocal line than her predecessor. Sir Charles Mackerras was to have conducted; the performance was dedicated to his memory.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Performances of the Year, 2010

2010 has been a depressing year politically (can anyone remember one that was not?), but there has been much to celebrate in the arts. I am probably tempting fate by naming performances of the year now, but should any more come along in the next week-and-a-half, all the better. I have limited myself, as last year, to twelve, so averaging once a month. A good few performances have found themselves almost arbitrarily rejected, sometimes on the grounds of offering a broader selection, but all the reviews remain of course. Enough of the caveats; here they are, the order solely chronological, with links to the full reviews:

Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim: Beethoven and Schoenberg, Royal Festival Hall

Daniel Barenboim's survey of the Beethoven piano concertos proved a little more hit and miss than his sonata cycle. However, when the performances came off, they really came off, as in this account of the Third. Nevertheless, it was for Schoenberg, an enduring passion, that Barenboim truly pulled out all the stops. Not only did he and the Staatskapelle Berlin - may they never be forgotten! - provide a superlative performance of the Variations for Orchestra, op.31, something of a Barenboim speciality; Barenboim prefaced it with a straightforwardly brilliant spoken introduction to the work. Did he not already have a multiplicity of careers, I should recommend him as a university lecturer, though the rest of us might soon be out of our jobs...

The Gambler: Royal Opera House

Prokofiev's first opera, bar juvenilia, finally arrived on stage at Covent Garden, and in style! Richard Jones's production looked good, indeed very good, and managed more or less to make sense of the drama's hectic comings and goings. A fine cast had no weak links, but Susan Bickley's Babulenka truly stole the show. As ever with opera, there are simply too many variables to have no cavils at all (why did it have to be sung in English?) but this was a wonderful evening, a true credit to a company which, when it puts its mind to it, can equal any in the world.

Matthias Goerne/Helmut Deutsch: Schubert Lieder, Wigmore Hall

These musicians seem so unerringly excellent that they could readily be taken for granted - that is until one hears a recital such as this, haunted by death yet also ravishingly beautiful. Dramatic power and subtlety were employed in equal measure.

Maurizio Pollini: Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez, Berlin Philharmonie

Pollini had impressed mightly in one of the Royal Festival Hall's two 'birthday' recitals for Chopin. (So had Krystian Zimerman in the other.) This Berlin recital was, if anything, still finer. The complete Chopin Preludes emerged in perfect balance both as a tonal cycle and as a sequence of characteristic pieces. A selection from Debussy's first book proved a sonorous and musical delight; would that Pollini's detractors could have heard such warmth. Finally, Boulez's Second Sonata, as part of the Berlin Staatsoper's celebrations for the composer's eighty-fifth birthday. The work can surely never have been better performed, even by Pollini.

Hommage à Pierre Boulez: Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin

Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performed under Barenboim and Boulez for this birthday tribute. Messagesquisse and Anthèmes 2 received excellent performances, Hassan Moatez El Molla an exceptionally fine cellist in the former, with Michael Barenboim bravely and convincingly essaying the violin part of the latter. Le Marteau sans maître from the hands of Boulez himself sounded more beautifully, almost Mozartian, than ever: quite mesmerising.

Jerusalem Quartet: Mozart and Janáček, Wigmore Hall

Mozart requires but one thing: perfection. This is what he received here, in as winning a performance of any of his quartets (this time the D minor, KV 521) as I can recall. Janáček's Intimate Letters quartet was equally fortunate, in a performance as intensely dramatic as any of the composer's operas. What an age this is for young (and other!) quartets...

Quatuor Ebène: Mozart and Bartók, Wigmore Hall

The Quatuor Ebène, in another of the Wigmore Hall's delightful Sunday morning coffee concerts, proved every inch the equal of the Jerusalem Quartet. More Mozart: this time the early Divertimento, KV 136/125a, by turns richly expansive and light as quicksilver, was followed by another intense performance of a twentieth-century masterpiece, Bartók’s Second Quartet. The frozen viol-like opening of the final Lento was but one highlight of many.

Trpčeski/RLPO/Petrenko: Schumann, Rachmaninov, and Tchaikovsky, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall

Two young musicians proved that they are worth all the fuss - and more. Simon Trpčeski single-handedly - well, double handedly, with the orchestra and conductor - reignited my enthusiasm for a work I fancied I had heard too many times: Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. In an outstanding performance of Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Vasily Petrenko proved themselves at least a match for any metropolitan orchestra-and-conductor pairing.

Lewis/CBSO/Nelsons: Wagner, Beethoven, and Dvořák, BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall

My other Prom selection is strikingly similar in a number of respects: another outstanding combination of young pianist, young principal conductor, and rejuvenated 'regional' orchestra: Paul Lewis, Andris Nelsons, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Moreover, this was another far-from-outmoded overture-concerto-symphony programme. Lewis and Nelsons provided a wonderful, musicianly account of Beethoven's second concerto, far superior to Lewis's recording in which he is unfortunately lumbered with a dull conductor. The New World Symphony received a performance both thoughtful and exciting, another 'warhorse' fashioned anew.

Elektra: Salzburg Festival, Grosses Festspielhaus

Opera, as I remarked above, is well-nigh impossible to get right in every respect. This performance of Elektra came very close indeed. No star shone more brightly than that of the world's greatest orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic; truly it had to be heard to be believed. Daniele Gatti revelled in the orchestral sound and Strauss's, holding in as fine a balance as I have heard the demands of modernity and sweetness, and never for one moment losing the long musico-dramatic line. Nikolaus Lehnhoff's production proved just as single-minded, devoid of gimmicks, strong on truth. And with a cast including Waltraud Meier, Janice Baird (excellent last-minute replacement for an ailing Iréne Theorin), Eva-Maria Westbroek, Robert Gambill, René Pape, the deal was sealed.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida: Beethoven, Schumann, and Chopin, Royal Festival Hall

Utterly different from Pollini's Chopin, Uchida's proved equally distinguished. The late-ish Beethoven E minor sonata received a vigorous and dramatic as well as typically thoughtful account, whilst Uchida captured ths shifting moods of Schumann's Davidsbündlertänze to perfection. Her recent recording clearly needs to be sought out.

Piotr Anderszewski: Bach and Schumann, Barbican Hall

Despite my earlier protestations of balance, here was another piano recital I simply could not omit. More Schumann in a fortunate anniversary year: Anderszewski's own arrangement of the Canonic Etudes for pedal piano and the late, disturbing Gesänge der Frühe. (We are, I hear, now blessed by a recording too.) Anderszewski's Bach - here the Fifth and Sixth English Suites - is truly second to none: fiercely Romantic and musically profound. Bach, as ever, emerged as the greatest Romantic and the greatest composer for piano of them all.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Tallis Scholars - The Song of Mary, 21 December 2010

St John's, Smith Square

Taverner – Dum transisset Sabbatum
Taverner – Magnificat à 4
John Plummer – Anna mater matris
Taverner – Magnificat à 6
Monteverdi – Missa in illo tempore

Tallis Scholars
Peter Phillips (director)

St John’s, Smith Square is currently celebrating its twenty-fifth annual Christmas festival. Looking at the other names involved, there is very much an ‘Early Music’ emphasis, but this offering from the Tallis Scholars was more restrained, in temper and in content, with respect to its seasonal contribution than one suspects some others may have been. Indeed, two Magnificats notwithstanding, it was more a Marian than an Advent or Christmas survey.

John Taverner’s music occupied most of the first half. First came the Easter responsory, Dum transisset Sabbatum, telling of the three Marys going to the tomb intending to anoint the body of Christ, culminating in the first Alleluia since the onset of Lent. Though the Tallis Scholars tend not to occupy themselves with exaggerated wordpainting, there was a (relatively) sensual emphasis upon ‘aromata’, the aromatic oils the women would use. Plainsong sounded evocative in the best sense: restrained, permitting the words to speak, preparing the way for polyphony. All twelve voices had been employed for the responsory; four left the stage for Taverner’s four-part Magnificat, sung two to a part. The chant was nicely flexible, contrasting with what one might think of as audible, though not rigid, bar lines for the flowering of polyphony. Wordpainting could again be heard without exaggeration upon ‘dispersit’, the proud duly scattered. Save for an uncharacteristically weak bass entry upon ‘Esurientes’, this was again a fine performance, which, like that of the six-part setting, furnished a sense of the canticle as a whole.

In the latter, the sopranos who had now joined the throng were able to soar. There was naturally something of a more ‘choral’ sound to the ensemble with the greater numbers, but Taverner’s polyphonic lines remained crystal clear. I much appreciated well-turned melismata upon ‘nostros’ and ‘saecula,’ and a radiant culiminating doxology. All that was missing was Taverner’s other setting, in five parts, but the Tallis Scholars are due to record all three. In between the Magnificat settings, we heard John Plummer’s fifteenth-century supplication to Anna, the mother of the Virgin. Five solo voices, without Peter Phillips as conductor, created a lighter texture, through which one could hear very well what Alexandra Coghlan in her programme note referred to as ‘relentless F major’. In that sense, the work sounded relatively modern, yet the musicians’ delivery of their lines and occasional hints of a drone impressed upon us a more mediæval quality.

The second half brought Monteverdi’s parody mass on a motet by Gombert, the Missa in illo tempore, four hundred years old this year. Where the contemporary Vespers are full of avant-gardist seconda prattica, the a cappella mass displays the composer’s command of the old-style prima prattica. Phillips’s shaping of the Kyrie impressed: the opening ‘Kyrie eleison’ leisurely bit not staid, evincing the delight in sacred music as music that has always been a hallmark of his approach. Liturgical reconstructions and so forth are the province of others. The responding ‘Christe eleison’ and finally the second ‘Kyrie’ statement evinced a cumulative gathering of pace, the latter quite glorious. I cannot claim that I could discern every word of the Gloria, but the wash of sound was beautiful in its own right, and the calls of ‘Gloria’ could certainly be heard; the intonation of a new, more sombre mood upon ‘qui tollis peccata mundi’ was unmistakeable, within again a fine sense of the ‘movement’ as a whole. The Credo largely followed suit, an especial highlight being the properly luminous – obliquely seasonal? – ‘Lumen de Lumine’, whilst the Mystery of the Incarnation itself was movingly expressed in the still centre: ‘et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto, ex Maria Virgine, et homo factus est.’ The final section, from ‘Et in Spiritum Sanctum,’ provided a more overtly Venetian-sounding climax. Hints of this could be heard in the melodic aspects of the Sanctus and Benedictus, though more than equally apparent was the ghost of Palestrina. In the unhurried unfolding of the Agnus Dei, relatively austere and very much of the prima prattica, one was reminded once again – though how could one forget? – that musical beauty requires no instruments other than the voice. As an encore to this fiftieth appearance of the Tallis Scholars at St John’s, we heard a carol, Hieronymus Praetorius’s Joseph lieber, Joseph mein.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Trekel/Martineau - German Song 1840-1850, 17 December 2010

Wigmore Hall

Mendelssohn – Warnung vor dem Rhein
Venetianisches Gondellied
Altdeutsches Frühlingslied

Schumann – Liederkreis, op.24

Clara Schumann – Liebst du um Schönheit
Die stille Lotosblume
Sie liebten sich beide

Carl Loewe – Der Graf von Habsburg
Der gefangene Admiral

Roman Trekel (baritone)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)

The Wigmore Hall traversal ‘Decade by Decade – 100 years of German Song 1810-1910,’ has reached the decade (surely eleven years?) 1840-1850. Originally advertised as vocal soloist was Dorothea Röschmann, but she withdrew, leaving Roman Trekel, another Berlin Staatsoper regular, to offer a replacement programme with Malcolm Martineau as pianist.

The wealth of nineteenth-century German song is such that the Wigmore Hall could programme little else and still come up with great variety of programmes. The decade by decade approach is clearly an attempt to present works in a somewhat different context. It is often said that one appreciates the peaks far better once one knows the foothills; there is certainly something in that. Nevertheless, the present programme did not provoke any startling revaluations on my part.

Carl Loewe’s three ballads remain a taste resolutely unacquired. There used to be a fashion – perhaps there still is – to prefer Loewe’s Erlkönig to Schubert’s; I fail to understand why, but I have to admit the Erlkönig to be a more interesting setting than the three songs included here. Trekel and Martineau gave strong accounts, the tone of both instruments well judged. In the Schiller setting, Der Graf von Habsburg, the baritone proved declamatory within essentially though not exclusively strophic bounds, whilst the pianist pleased with occasional flourishes of pageantry. Ultimately, though, my appreciation was for Schiller’s verse, which one could certainly hear to good advantage, rather than for Loewe’s frankly tedious setting. Perhaps I am just not attuned to the form, but I am very happy to hear, for instance, Schubert’s ballads.

Preceding Loewe’s offerings were five songs by Clara Schumann. Commendably, Trekel and Martineau expended as much effort upon these as they had on her husband’s settings in the first half. They are pleasant enough, and show a fine taste in verse. The Heine Sie liebten sich beide permitted Trekel’s voice to move; the harmony has its moments, to which Martineau was highly alert. If it remains somewhat generalised compared to great Lieder settings, there is no harm in hearing it once in a while. The other Heine setting, Lorelei, seems to hark back a little too obviously to Schubert’s Erlkönig, but again it received a fine performance.

Six Mendelssohn songs opened the recital. The strophic approach can become a little wearying, but Trekel supplied ample good nature to the opening Warnung vor dem Rhein. The ensuing Venetianisches Gondellied almost inevitably put one in mind of some of the Songs without Words; perhaps the Lied is a little over-dramatised for its material. Nevertheless, Trekel here – and elsewhere – impressed with a beautiful, poignant mezza voce. Eichendorff’s Wanderlied was nicely impetuous, especially the piano part: agile but never merely facile. By the time we reached Frühlingslied, the initial slight dryness to Trekel’s voice had been surmounted, though there were cases in the following Altdeutsches Frühlingslied of notes being less than perfectly centred.

Schumann’s op.24 Liederkreis immediately sounded more relaxed, receiving an impressive reading from both musicians. Trekel’s mezza voce again stood out in lines such as ‘Und schlich mir ins Herz hinein,’ from Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen. Martineau’s prologue and epilogue to that song were just as beautifully voiced. The pathos in both parts was unmistakeably post-Schubertian; Winterreise came to mind when Trekel rendered his voice pale and wan for Lieb Liebchen, leg’s Händchen aufs Herze mein. The Brahmsian gravity of the brief, penultimate Anfangs wollt’ich fast verzagen was genuinely moving, whilst the closing Mit Myrten und Rosen sounded lovely indeed, the contrast in ‘O könnt’ ich die Liebe sargen hinzu!’ (‘Could I but bury my love here too!’) chilling indeed. This cycle and the recital encore, Du bist wie eine Blume were certainly the highlights of the evening for me.

Friday 17 December 2010

Owing the World a Tannhäuser

Sándor Liezen-Mayer,  Venus and Tannhäuser, c.1875 (Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest)

 (originally published as a programme note for the Royal Opera's 2010 production of Tannhäuser)

‘R. slept well and has decided to have a massage only once a day.’ Thus Cosima Wagner opened her diary entry from Venice for 23 January 1883, but twenty days before Richard’s death. We progress through Cosima’s characteristic desire ‘not to thwart or overburden the cherished workings of his mind,’ a ride to the Piazzetta during which Wagner extols Bach’s fugues, luncheon, visitors, R. yet again reading Gobineau, to: ‘Chat in the evening, brought to an end by R. with the “Shepherd’s Song” and “Pilgrim’s Chorus” from Tannhäuser. He says he still owes the world a Tannhäuser.’

This was not grouchy dismissal of an early work from an ailing composer. It was, if anything, quite the opposite: a vote of confidence, a sense of a more ideal instantiation of a Tannhäuser-in-itself, were only he vouchsafed the time. Wagner did not speak of other dramas like this; he did not still owe the world a Tristan, though he worried that the existing drama would drive audiences mad. Nor, with the partial exception of The Flying Dutchman, do we fret about which ‘versions’ of other dramas to perform, though occasionally we administer the odd, unwelcome – welcome, in Rienzi’s case – excision, or, for Lohengrin, reinstate excised material. We talk about the ‘Dresden’ and ‘Paris’ versions of Tannhäuser. That is harmless, if slightly misleading, for what was performed at the 1845 Dresden premiere and the 1861Paris production led to subsequent revisions prior to publication in 1860 and 1875 respectively. Stage directions differed even in Dresden, for what was only portrayed musically in 1845 – the third-act re-appearance of Venus and Elisabeth’s funeral cortège – was staged at the 1847 revival. (Fetishisers of Wagner’s instructions, kindly take note.) Nevertheless, the principal distinctions nevertheless remain those between ‘Dresden’ and ‘Paris’, however construed. To understand what is at stake, let us return to the world in which Wagner conceived his ‘great Romantic opera’.

(Aubrey Beardsley, Frontispiece for Venus and Tannhäuser, 1895)

Ironically, Wagner’s impetus for the ‘Dresden Tannhäuser’ seems to have come to him in Paris in 1841. His autobiography tells us that, having completed The Flying Dutchman and longing to return to Germany, he came, ‘quite by chance’, upon a chapbook about the Venusberg. Stewart Spencer’s detective work identified this Volksbuch as Ludwig Bechstein’s Der Sagenschatz und die Sagenkreise des Thüringerlandes, a collection of Thuringian legends. Wagner drew, consciously or otherwise, upon various contemporary treatments of the twin tales of Tannhäuser and the Wartburg song contest, Romantic (ETA Hoffmann, Ludwig Tieck, the Brothers Grimm) and avowedly post-Romantic (Heine’s ironic treatment). But Bechstein’s collection and subsequently a paper by Christian Theodor Ludwig Lucas, identifying the Wartburg’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen with the minstrel Tannhäuser, were crucial in bringing the two stories together: ‘incorrectly’ for the folklorist, fruitfully for Wagner.

Tannhäuser’s subsequent story, plot and history, encompasses a dramatic tension mirroring and responding to that conflation. The work’s proper title is Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg (‘Tannhäuser and the Song Contest on the Wartburg’); in that und – the agglomerative ‘and’, not the subtitle’s alternative ‘or’ – there lies as much trouble as in the fabled und of Tristan und Isolde. Furthering that tension is another conflict, based in the array of sources from which he drew: that between courtly love (the Minne of the Minnesänger) and sensual fulfilment (Venus). Both are empty and hypocritical and both are ultimately shamed by the mirror of honest chastity held up to them by another legendary figure, St Elisabeth of Hungary. There is historical disjuncture in this further addition, since the historical Elisabeth, born in 1207, was a mere babe-in-arms at the time of the Wartburg contest, if it ever happened. Wagner’s way, however, is to make connections, to explore and to contest them – and to pursue issues left unresolved in subsequent works. What is particular about Tannhäuser is that he does this not only within the same work, not only by extension to subsequent works, but in different versions of the same work. A related contest emerges between France and Germany – or Paris and Dresden, a tale of two cities.

Before taking the story forward, we should take another step back, to Wagner’s second opera, Das Liebesverbot (‘The Ban on Love’), which he wrote under the spell of ‘Young Germany’, a literary movement including Heine and Wagner’s friend, Heinrich Laube. To quote Wagner’s Autobiographical Sketch (penned 1842-3, whilst at work on Tannhäuser), his youthful opera pits ‘… in the spirit of [Laube’s novel] Young Europe … openly expressed sensuality … [against] puritan hypocrisy’. Loosely basing his plot on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, albeit transferred from Vienna to Palermo, Wagner savages the king of Sicily’s humourless viceroy, Friedrich: a German, be it noted. Not only does he clamp down upon citizens’ enjoyment, closing taverns, banning carnivals and the exercise of men’s – and women’s – natural sexual urges; he transgresses his own prohibitions and is eventually caught out at his own game. The concluding carnival in which citizens celebrate their victory might justifiably be considered Wagner’s first dramatic treatment of revolution – and a rare example of unalloyed revolutionary success.

Wagner’s miserable spell in Paris, having to endure the success of meretricious grand opéra whilst his own work went unperformed, and only narrowly escaping the debtor’s prison, made him rethink his preference for (Latin) sensualism, if not over German hypocrisy, then over some form of superior, if inchoate, German values. (In this as much else, Wagner would be echoed by Pierre Boulez, who announced in 1966, the year he first conducted at Bayreuth, his going ‘on strike against French musical officialdom,’ Paris having become ‘a capital in which music has become a ludicrous appendage’. It was ‘no secret that I have gone to Germany, having been unable to achieve anything on any decent scale in France.’) From Dresden, where Wagner was appointed Saxon court Kapellmeister, sensualism now appeared as hypocritical as the repression inflicted by Prince Metternich’s German Confederation upon Young Germany, resulting in Laube’s imprisonment. In his 1851 A Communication to My Friends, Wagner wrote that he had felt compelled to seek satisfaction in something nobler, something chaste and yet loving. However, he could only conceive of such love as unworthy of this world and necessary entailing death. In Tannhäuser, Wagner has not crossed to the dark side of Friedrich and Biedermeier hypocrisy; he has transformed its erstwhile foe, sensualism, into his present twin foe. Thus, the Minnesänger and Venus are both rejected by Tannhäuser; both he and Elisabeth express truer love in death.

(Codex Manasse, Der Tannhäuser, Zurich c.1300-c.1340)

Where Heine had ironised the legend, Wagner seemed partially to have re-Romanticised it. This was unlikely to satisfy him for long, if ever, any more than the failure of Tannhäuser’s successor as charismatic hero, Lohengrin, was likely to be accepted with a shrug as just the way things were. The 1849 failure of revolution in Dresden and Wagner’s subsequent Zurich exile further engaged him in wholehearted re-evaluation. Both catalyst to and symptom of Wagner’s rethinking was his immersion in the writings of Ludwig Feuerbach, who became ‘for me the proponent of the ruthlessly radical liberation of the individual from the bondage of conceptions associated with the belief in traditional authority’. Echoing Feuerbach’s Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, Wagner propounded his new aesthetic principles in theoretical works such as The Artwork of the Future, dedicated to Feuerbach. Part of this liberation was re-celebration of ‘sensualism’, the word Sinnlichkeit a constant refrain in Feuerbach’s writing. Another aspect, closely related, was denial of transcendence. Man was impoverished by alienating his most noble qualities to an external deity; true religion would restore them to man. No wonder, then, that Wagner felt compelled to stress, in A Communication to My Friends, that the Christian framework of his earlier works merely reflected their mediæval hue; their message was not Christian. It is difficult, moreover, to find fault with that. Tannhäuser is not saved by the Pope, who has condemned Tannhäuser’s Venusberg sojourn as having placed him beyond redemption. Salvation, through the intercession of a true saint, Elisabeth, is signalled by the miracle of what the Pope had thought impossible, his staff sprouting leaves. No one would have been more surprised, nor, one suspects, annoyed, than the head of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution that consistently provoked inveterate hostility from Wagner, even when he became more conciliatory to his youthful Saxon Lutheranism. Considering Tannhäuser, Wagner must now have regretted a missed opportunity to extol healthy sensuality, which would have vanquished the Minnesänger, the Venusberg, and transference of love to a world beyond.

However, the time for Feuerbach would pass; or rather, Wagner needed to supplement him with abnegation. When Wagner’s friend in Swiss exile, the poet Georg Herwegh, himself an old Young German, fetched him Feuerbach’s Essence of Religion, Wagner claimed that it had ‘scared me off by the monotony of its title alone … I closed the book with a bang before his very eyes.’ Herwegh soon cannily introduced Wagner to the world-denying, though still atheistic, gospel of Arthur Schopenhauer, which might once again seem to give the upper hand to the Dresden Tannhäuser. Yet Schopenhauer would both be celebrated and partially negated in the eroticism of Tristan, to which Wagner soon turned.

And so, when Napoleon III extended his invitation to stage Tannhäuser in Paris, Wagner had rethought his rethinking several times. He might just have left an old work as it was – though he also Tristan-ised The Flying Dutchman a little – but a Parisian opera must include a ballet. Wagner thus extended the Venusberg Music, with a frustrated and frustrating ‘sensualism’ uncannily reminiscent of his own intellectual struggles. The castanet-led straining towards unsuccessful climax certainly does their work in dramatising the dilemma. Disruption from the Jockey Club, accustomed to skipping the first act for dinner and arriving at the beginning of the second to leer at their favourite danseuses, conformed to and confirmed Wagner’s abhorrence of Parisian ways. It also put paid to the production after three attempts. The ‘Paris Tannhäuser’ nevertheless endured, though production history has witnessed Dresden and Paris do continuing battle.

Proponents of Dresden point to its successor’s stylistic incongruities, claiming the new music, written in the aftermath of Tristan, sounds hopelessly out of place in a work of 1840s Wagner. Consider, however, what Wagner added. Walther’s Wartburg solo was removed on practical grounds – the tenor’s inability to sing it – but the most important transformations lie in the opening two scenes. Feuerbach and Tristan have their say. Venus’s sensualism sounds more alluring, more richly upholstered. She becomes a more interesting character, less readily dismissed as merely ‘Parisian’. Her attempt to win back Tannhäuser looks forward to Kundry’s attempted seduction of Parsifal and attests to Wagner’s struggles. There is no resolution, but Venus becomes more of a match than before for the saintly Elisabeth. Wagner’s self-criticism is dramatised and itself criticised.

Moreover, the critique never ends. Listen to the Venusberg music and you will hear not only echoes of Tristan but intimations of Götterdämmerung: Gutrune’s music, the harmonic potion of Siegfried’s amnesia in the brewing. Whence does this come? Boulez has pointed out that the triviality of Siegfried and Gutrune’s pairing, as opposed to the hero’s true destiny with Brünnhilde, is marked by a recollection of opéra comique, in the particular guise of Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, still honoured upon the Palais Garnier’s façade. ‘A heartless fellow, Auber,’ Wagner told Cosima, ‘but a genius,’ quite a compliment when you think what he said about Meyerbeer, although his presence would continue to be felt too. Though Wagner shuns and unmasks Paris, he cannot but return there – similarly with Tannhäuser. Imagine what a ‘Venice version’ might have been – and was not Venice culturally closer to Paris than to Dresden? Would Wagner, had he not already accomplished this in Kundry, have presaged the modern stage director’s fancy of eliding Venus and Elisabeth?

Wagner may, then, have owed the world a Tannhäuser but the work’s very nature conspired against ultimate conclusion. Indeed, its ‘incompletion’ may render it one of Wagner’s most forward-looking statements. What would characterise for many the predicament and also the uncompromising virtue of the modernist artwork, Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron its musico-dramatic exemplar, was as present in a sense in this product of Young Germany as another, Georg Büchner’s fragmentary Woyzeck. The chilling, non-concluding halt to which Berg would call his Wozzeck is, however, a related tale for another evening.

Thursday 16 December 2010

ECO/Leppard - Messiah, 15 December 2010

Cadogan Hall

Mary Bevan (soprano)
Sarah-Jane Lewis (contralto)
Joshua Ellicott (tenor)
George Mosley (bass)

Rodolfus Choir (chorus master: Ralph Allwood)
English Chamber Orchestra
Raymond Leppard (conductor)

The ghost of Christmas past? What a joy to hear Raymond Leppard conducting Handel very much in the Advent present. Times have changed, of course, and a musician who once stood at the very heart of Baroque performance, in this country and across the world, has long been considered at best politically incorrect by the merely fashionable. Where a contemporary such as Charles Mackerras embraced much of the period-performance wave, the treasure trove of Leppard’s musicianship from Monteverdi onwards has endured a frankly disgraceful press from many who should know better, rather more so indeed than that of Neville Marriner, another contemporary resistant to the dubious calls of ‘authenticity’. One eminent conductor recalled not so long ago his determination to bring period instruments to Glyndebourne for Mozart, and this at a time when the festival, he claimed, was still performing Monteverdi’s music as if it were Brahms. Anyone listening to the fine DVD of L’incoronazione di Poppea from 1984 could never seriously have thought, let alone said, such a thing, but sadly the days when Monteverdi, or indeed Handel, could be approached as music rather than as pseudo-archaeology are long past.

Many of Leppard’s greatest triumphs have been with the English Chamber Orchestra, an ensemble with which he has worked for more than fifty years – that is, when it was still the Goldsbrough Orchestra. It was doubly welcome then to have the ECO/Leppard partnership reunited for this performance of the Messiah. This was an accomplished performance, perhaps not the most exciting will ever hear, but with a splendidly collegiate sense. Indeed, with the young voices of the Rodolfus Choir, all ‘veterans’ aged between sixteen and twenty-five from the Eton Choral Courses, there was more than a hint of a superior Oxbridge performance, albeit far better rehearsed than would generally be the case with undergraduate musicians. For there could be no gainsaying the skill of the choral singing, well prepared by Ralph Allwood. There were occasions when, even in the relatively small surroundings of the Cadogan Hall, I might have preferred larger forces –strings were scaled 6-5-3-3-1 – but intimacy reaped its own rewards. Sir Thomas Beecham is a wicked treat, which perhaps spoils us for everything that comes after, but it would clearly be as wrong to elevate Beecham’s Messiah over all others as puritanically to denigrate it. And the occasional thin moment aside, the cultivation of the ECO strings proved a joy. Not that there was anything sentimentally ‘Romantic’ about the performance, far from it, as the harsh passion music of ‘He gave his back to the smiters’ reminded us; but passion had another side too, as Leppard soon demonstrated in the aptly deliberate tempo adopted for the tenor recitative, ‘Thy rebuke hath broken His heart,’ plangently delivered by Joshua Ellicott. Moreover, the siciliano lilt to the ‘Pastoral Symphony’ both pleased and, in its tenderness, intimated sadness foretold.

The emphasis lay upon letting Handel’s music speak for itself, rather than imposing ‘effects’, as currently favoured by a number of fashionable ‘specialists’, although Leppard’s own edition nevertheless threw up a number of surprises, for instance the duet version for mezzo and soprano of ‘He shall feed his flock,’ the use of solo voices as well as chorus in ‘But thanks be to God,’ and the inclusion of the tenor recitative, ‘Their sound is gone out into all lands’. There is, thank God, no ‘correct’ text of the Messiah; it is always interesting to observe which choices a conductor and/or editor might make. Ornamentation was employed throughout, at times quite ornately, yet without exhibitionism. A particularly good example would be ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,’ when, aside from imaginative use of solo violin (leader, Stephanie Gonley), the reprise presented complemenornamentation from both soloists, Gonley and mezzo-soprano, Sarah-Jane Lewis.

Vocal soloists proved somewhat variable. Lewis had her moments but sometimes sounded a little soft of focus; I had the impression that this was a voice that will undergo considerable further development. Bass George Mosley, on the other hand, sometimes sounded dry, as if his voice had lost its bloom. In ‘The trumpet shall sound,’ the ‘B’ section sadly proved as startling a drop of inspiration as ever, but it was not helped by considerable drying of tone and intonational problems. That said, Mosley and the other musicians proved movingly sincere in the reprise of the initial material. Ellicott on occasion had a certain gravelly tone to his voice, but it soon disappeared; perhaps he was a little under the weather. At any rate, ‘Thou shalt break them,’ emerged in virile fashion, demonstrating that one does not have to be an heroic tenor in the mould of Jon Vickers (Beecham’s tenor) to impress here. Soprano Mary Bevan was the most consistently impressive of the soloists, beautiful of tone and long of breath. ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ was a true highlight of the performance. Diction was excellent from all.

We stood for the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus, which doubtless helped to send shivers down the spine. But even in a relatively restrained performance such as this, Handel’s genius would doubtless have accomplished that, likewise in the final ‘Amen’ chorus. Leppard did not at all play the showman, but his understated musicianship ensured that the extraordinary message embodied both in Handel’s score and in Charles Jennens’s selection from Scripture provoked wonder and thought. As we prepare to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, that is just as it should be.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Piotr Anderszewski - Bach and Schumann, 14 December 2010

Barbican Hall

Bach – English Suite no.5 in E minor, BWV 810
Schumann – Six Canonic Etudes, op.56 (arr. Anderszewski)
Schumann – Gesänge der Frühe, op.133
Bach – English Suite no.6 in D minor, BWV 811

I was a little surprised, upon taking my seat in the Barbican Hall, to look up to the stage to see Piotr Anderszewski seated on a chaise longue, reading and drinking what appeared to be a mug of tea. Perhaps there was to be some variety of pre-performance discussion, I thought, but no, when the lights dimmed, the pianist stood up and walked over to the nearby piano to begin the recital. The last thing I should wish to do whilst dealing with pre-performance nerves would be to sit in full view of an audience, but clearly it worked for Anderszewski, since what we heard was an immensely distinguished recital of music by Bach and Schumann.

First came the fifth of Bach’s English Suites. The opening Prelude set out Anderszewski’s stall very well: nicely variegated, beautiful touch, with a fine cumulative effect. Tender ambivalence and magically sung melody marked out the Allemande, courtly yet profound, with some truly ravishing softer tones. The Courante showed that, for Bach, ‘ornamentation’ is never merely that, but always meaningfully melodic. Whatever the truth about the title English Suites, the Sarabande left us in no doubt that this was a French processional, transformed by a German composer, Anderszewski’s command of line second to none. Once again, the pianissimo playing took one’s breath away – and made one listen, really listen. The Passepieds proved well contrasted, the musette enchanting, seemingly performed on a piano without hammers, whilst the first was spikier, though never too much: no Gouldian eccentricity here. Musical play was the thing, and delightful it was too. Finally, the Gigue presented staggering compositional and pianistic virtuosity. Phrases emerged perfectly shaped, so as to tease out the twists and turns of Bach’s contrapuntal chromaticism. The Second Viennese School was almost upon us.

Anderszewski has made his own arrangement of Schumann’s Canonic Etudes, op.56, originally written for player piano, working extremely well in the pianist’s new version. The opening study followed on perfectly from Bach, though Ansderszewski’s pedalling pointed us tentatively, perhaps even more than that, towards Debussy too. Melodic invention came to the fore in the second, Mit innigem Ausdruck, which sounded as characterised in Anderszewski’s hands as any more celebrated Schumann piece. Subtle harmonic undercurrents told without exaggeration; once again, we were treated to some ravishing hushed playing. Hints of Mendelssohn and perhaps Chopin too emerged in the beautiful third study; Anderszewski’s throwaway elicited a smile rather than inflicted brusqueness. The fourth piece presented a true marriage between contrapuntal ingenuity and high Romanticism, played with rounded, generous fullness of tone. ‘Impish’ said Harriet Smith’s uncommonly good programme note of the fifth study, and impish was Anderszewski’s performance, underpinned by absolute security of harmonic structure and motion. Moreover, this was a properly German Romantic impishness, as if freshly conveyed through the dew of a deep forest. The closing Adagio emerged as a typically Schumannesque ‘Epilog,’ suggesting to me an extended successor to that which closes the Arabeske, op.18. At times, though only at times, Bach made his presence clearly felt, as if we were returning to elements of the English Suite in the light of what had thereafter been heard. Anderszewski’s sheer beauty of touch never faltered; one could hear ample suggestion both of organ sostenuto and Romantic piano – as if a player piano had been reconstructed before our ears.

For the second half, Anderszewski again emerged from his chaise longue, this time to perform Schumann’s late Gesänge der Frühe. The pianist clearly feels attached to this disturbing late set; he performed them at the Royal Festival Hall only last year. The coming of dawn, at least as much metaphysical as physical, is the ‘idea’; what disturbs is the flickering ability of the composer to express it. As Smith noted, the first piece sounds Brahmsian; its plain-spoken gravity and hints of harmonic instability are combined, and were performed, with an unsettling general restlessness. Bifurcation is familiar throughout Schumann’s œuvre; in the second piece, Belebt, nicht zu rasch, it sounded both modernistic and something else – a something else very dark indeed. Anderszewski’s performance nevertheless brought out unsparingly, yet with deep sympathy, the characterisation of whatever it might be. Faschingsschwank aus Wien puts in an appearance, or seems to do so, in the third piece, yet its high spirits can no longer really be achieved – as Anderszewski knew. Split personality again comes to the fore in the fourth piece, likewise Schumann’s obsessiveness, both heightened by a sense, both in composition and performance, of fragmentation; the pianist’s beauty of tone rendered the music all the more fragile. The final piece seemed to collate forgoing tensions. A very Romantic – certainly not expressionistic – abyss opened up, all the more chilling on account of abiding sweetness.

At the Festival Hall, Anderszewski had requested that the audience refrain from applause following the Schumann pieces; here, he pre-empted the possibility, by running them into Bach’s Sixth English Suite. And so, the Prelude opened as if no man’s land: telling, yet frightening. The quiet rhetoric of its introduction, quite spellbinding, led into virtuosic thematic working out – by composer and pianist. Not for the first time, even in this recital, I felt that Bach was not only the greatest Romantic, but the greatest composer for piano – and that in the company of exquisite performances of Schumann. There were occasions when I felt that Anderszewski might have yielded a little more, but the echo of Schumann’s obsessiveness was compensation enough. The Allemande emerged truly contrasted; both Bach and Anderszewski demonstrated that somehow, suspended melodic animation and harmonic motion could coexist, perhaps even further one another. More than once, late Beethoven came to mind – and, make no mistake, this music is every bit as great. After that, the Courante proved the perfect foil: purposeful and teutonically frenchified. The world of the Orchestral Suites was summoned, but with the piano as our more flexible guide. As in the earlier suite, the Sarabande was the work’s still heart. Heartstopping, however, was Anderszewski’s pianissimo playing Bach’s music rendered too good – Mozartian? – for this world. Mozart, or rather the Mozart most influenced by Bach, came still more to the fore in the melodic profusion of the Double, likewise the Salzburger’s deceptive simplicity. Time went on and stood still. Anderszewski despatched the pair of Gavottes with ease, and rather teasingly. The catchiness of the first contrasted with the musette-quality of the second, the variety of touch mesmerising. Finally, the Gigue poured forth, Romantic in tooth and claw, implacable in jaw-dropping chromatic explorations and divine fury. The music sounded as thoroughly pianistic as anything by Liszt. Now could your harpsichord do that…?

Both composers returned in a brace of encores: a good-natured, yet ambivalent Schumann Novelette in D major, op.21 no.5, originally programmed along with another of the Novelettes, and a limpid Sarabande from the Fifth French Suite.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Tannhäuser, Royal Opera, 11 December 2010

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Tannhäuser – Johan Botha
Elisabeth – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Venus – Michaela Schuster
Wolfram von Eschenbach – Christian Gerhaher
Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia – Christof Fischesser
Biterolf – Clive Bayley
Walther von der Vogelweide – Timothy Robinson
Heinrich der Schreiber – Steven Ebel
Reimar von Zweter – Jeremy White
Shepherd Boy – Alexander Lee

Tim Albery (director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Jon Morrell (costumes)
David Finn (lighting)
Jasmin Vardimon (choreography)
Maxine Braham (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Semyon Bychkov (conductor)

Above all, this return to the Royal Opera House of Tannhäuser proved a musical triumph. Semyon Bychkov’s conducting was superior even to that of his Lohengrin last year. He generally took his time, but the score never dragged, given that Wagner’s long line was ever secure – bar the odd occasion when abruptness cannot quite be ironed out of the score. Climaxes were sparing and therefore all the more powerful when they came. Perhaps most importantly of all, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House was on superlative form. Brass onstage and off were weightily impressive without brashness. The woodwind choir evoked a Middle Ages that may never actually have existed, but certainly did in Wagner’s imagination. As for the strings, one might well have thought them from Vienna, so beautiful was their sheen. Equally fine were the chorus and extra chorus, properly weighty of tone without undue sacrifice to verbal meaning; Renato Balsadonna had trained them very well.

The cast was excellent too. Johan Botha is that rare thing, a dependable Heldentenor. His interpretation might not be especially novel or variegated, but the vocal reserves on which he can draw seem endless. It is a tough, far from grateful, role to sing, yet Botha surmounted its challenges commendably. Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram could not have been more highly contrasted, providing for an unusually stark dramatic contrast between the characters. This was as variegated, as Lieder-like, a performance as one could imagine – and then more. The sheer beauty of his tone was breathtaking, but even more so were his vocal shading and verbal acuity. I do not think I have ever heard the part, not least ‘O du meiner Abendstern’, so sensitively brought to life. Volume was much less than that of his antagonist, but miraculously one could hear every word; indeed, one might have taken dictation. Eva-Maria Westbroek presented an unusually vivid Elisabeth. Saint she might become – though this, not unreasonably, was downplayed – but one could never doubt her very real human desire. This Elisabeth stood closer to Sieglinde or Brünnhilde than would generally be the case, shedding refreshing light upon a character who can readily tend to the implausible. Michaela Schuster dragged Venus – as does Wagner in this ‘Paris’ version of the score – towards Kundry: a powerful, insinuating, yet indubitably feminine portrayal. I have admired Christof Fischesser in a number of roles in Berlin, mostly at the Komische Oper; he did not disappoint here, offering a younger sounding Landgrave than one often hears. The ‘supporting’ cast generally impressed too; special mention should go to Jette Parker Young Artist, Steven Ebel, as Heinrich der Schreiber. The one emendation to the ‘Paris’ version was the reinstatement from Dresden of Walther’s song, quite justified by Timothy Robinson’s rendition. (It was only originally omitted on account of vocal inadequacy.)

I preferred Tim Albery’s production to his Flying Dutchman, though I suspect that this may have been by default. By that, I mean that Albery’s concept of cosseted creativity in the Venusberg, symbolised by a reproduction of the Covent Garden stage’s own proscenium, liberated by release into the outside world, symbolised by a vision of Elisabeth bidding Tannhäuser return, seemed soon to run out of steam, permitted the music more or less to speak for itself, which may not have been the intention. I could not understand the relevance for the song contest and the third act of what seemed to be an Eastern European warzone, for which Michael Levine’s set designs and Jon Morrell’s costumes were finely accomplished; but it was not difficult simply to disregard the setting and to concentrate upon the work. Nevertheless, the Venusberg to valley transformation worked very well. Jasmin Verdimon’s choreography tied in extremely with the Bacchanale’s frustrating attempts to climax, the dancers lithe and accomplished, whilst the new scene both contrasted with and retained something of the phantasmagorical effect. I was intrigued to find myself asking how ‘real’ this new world actually was – above all for Wagner. However, whilst the addition of distant Mahlerian cowbells was certainly evocative in a far from unwelcome modernistic fashion, I am not convinced that the experiment should be repeated.

Saturday 11 December 2010

Elliott Carter at 102

Many happy returns to America's greatest composer! Is it already two years since we celebrated his centenary? The Southbank Centre's tribute on the day, from the Ensemble Intercontemporain, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and Pierre Boulez, still lingers in the mind. Here is a performance from Tanglewood of Carter's Luimen:

Click here for the first and second in a series of filmed interviews with the composer in his Manhattan apartment (the third will follow next year), presented by Boosey and Hawkes and directed by Tommy Pearson.

Monday 6 December 2010

Hewitt/Philharmonia/Dohnányi - Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven, 5 December 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Mozart – Piano Concerto no.21 in C major, KV 467
Schubert – Symphony no.8 in B minor, ‘Unfinished’
Beethoven – Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67

Angela Hewitt (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor)

At about the time this concert was due to start, a team of stagehands arrived to move centre stage Angela Hewitt’s Fazioli piano. The programme had been billed to open with Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, but Alastair Mackie, chairman and principal trumpet of the Philharmonia, now had to announce a change in the running order. Mozart’s twenty-first piano concerto would now open the concert, since one of the clarinettists had arrived at the Royal Festival Hall with only half of his instrument. That would give time for the other half to arrive.

Whether this alteration threw Angela Hewitt, I do not know, but she suffered one glaring memory lapse in the first movement and another noticeable slip in the finale. Otherwise, her passage work ‘flowed like oil,’ as Mozart famously wished, though there was an apparent want of depth beneath the beautiful surface: Mozart as Meissen china. I suspect that the bright tone of her favoured Fazioli, lacking the depth of a Steinway or indeed the silvery quality of a Bösendorfer, contributed to that impression. The Philharmonia under Christoph von Dohnányi was in chamber orchestra mode, with but ten first violins down to three double basses. Hewitt’s and/or Dohnányi’s tempo for the first movement was faster than stately, but not rushed: a relief. The cadenza was Hewitt’s own; I was not entirely convinced, but she had to endure, as did the entire performance, a great deal of coughing. There was some delectable woodwind playing, perhaps especially during the slow movement, but also elsewhere, and the pizzicato strings proved noteworthy too in unanimity and beauty of tone. Dohnányi’s command of line was notable, though one perhaps only noticed it in retrospect, for his was not an interventionist performance. Hewitt embellished the text quite freely, not always to welcome effect, whether in the slow movement or the finale. Paul Badura-Skoda’s cadenza was employed in the latter movement: some odd modulations, I thought, but at least it did not outstay its welcome.

If the Mozart were a curate’s egg, better orchestrally than pianistically, the delayed Schubert symphony proved an unalloyed success. Dohnányi employed a much bigger orchestra, the eight-strong double bass complement immediately audible. This was a weighty reading in the best sense: full of import and direction, thanks again to the conductor’s command of line. Taking the first movement’s exposition repeat again stressed its stature, whilst the development opened up Mahlerian vistas – and abysses. Consolation was not yet to be had. The recapitulation was just as it should be, Schubert’s material transformed by what had gone before. Sweetness was counterbalanced by ominous tread in the second movement, properly unsettling. The clarinet solo, when it came, made one appreciate why we had had to wait; indeed, the Philharmonia’s woodwind section was distinguished all round. Deep strings formed the bedrock of the symphonic contest, for this was to be a hard won battle, ultimately enabling the music to float away blissfully, as if on the verge of breathing the Schoenbergian air of another planet.

A slighter larger string section again was employed for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, first violins increasing from fourteen to sixteen. Dohnányi went straight down to business, the fabled opening motif sounding almost as soon as he ascended the podium. Division of violins paid dividends when it came to thematic development, likewise again the conductor’s sense of line. The extraordinary concision of the first movement hit home, heightened in a sense by the rare luxury of the oboe’s cadenza, finely performed by Gordon Hunt. What ultimately this movement and the symphony as a whole lacked was a sense of metaphysical battle. Musically impeccable though it was – and this contrasts with a great number of contemporary renditions – was it quite the triumph of the human spirit it might be? Furtwängler remained distant. The slow movement flowed, perhaps a little too much: beautiful, but what did it mean? On the other hand, it is a rare thing now to have a conductor who can hear it in one breath, so there was much for which to be grateful. Throughout, the Philharmonia played gloriously. The scherzo’s reprise was properly ghostly, though it and still more that holiest of holies, the transition to the finale, were ruined by mass bronchial intervention from the audience. When the finale came, it did not quite seem that the gates of heaven were being stormed. A little more rhetoric would have helped, as perhaps would a slightly more relaxed tempo. There was little or no perceptible tempo variation, though Beethoven spoke pretty well for himself. If not the Beethoven Fifth of one’s dreams, whether of a Furtwängler or Klemperer persuasion, there remained a palpable sincerity and integrity to Dohnányi’s conception. Flowing lava or implacable granite were replaced by something more ‘objective’, but there was no grandstanding, no empty showmanship.

Friday 3 December 2010

Steinbacher/Philharmonia/ Dohnányi - Weber, Schumann, and Brahms, 2 December 2010

Royal Festival Hall

Weber – Der Freischütz: Overture
Schumann – Symphony no.1 in B-flat major, op.38, ‘Spring’
Brahms – Violin Concerto in D major, op.77

Arabella Steinbacher (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi (conductor)

The renown of both the Philharmonia and Christoph von Dohnányi has always been founded upon core German repertoire. It was fitting then that this programme of German Romanticism should open with the overture to Der Freischütz, the clarion call for that movement in music. Immediately striking was the depth of tone to the Philharmonia’s strings: no fashionable scaling down here, with a section ranging from sixteen first violins to eight double basses, the odd sign of violin fallibility serving to illustrate general excellence. The warmth of truly Romantic horns was equally welcome. Dohnányi’s was a decidedly symphonic conception: fair enough, given that this was a symphony concert and the overture was therefore being treated as a concert overture. Early on, I felt an occasional four-squareness, but hair was let down in the final rejoicing, with an accelerando that threatened to turn Furtwänglerian, even if it just held back from doing so.

Dóhnanyi reduced the double bass complement to six for Schumann’s First Symphony (likewise for the Brahms Violin Concerto); otherwise, the strings remained constant. Again, this marked welcome refusal to condescend to fashion – and, more importantly, recognition that the crucial determinant of orchestral forces should be hall size, not incoherent dogma. We seem to have moved from a situation in which Schumann’s orchestration was generally excoriated to one in which it is claimed that all one needs to do is drastically to reduce the size of orchestra; neither case seems to me to have much merit. Throughout, Dohnányi concentrated upon delineation of structure, his handling of the transition from first movement introduction to exposition proving especially impressive, imparting a sense of Beethovenian purpose here and in the development, even when Schumann arguably falls a little short. Split violins echoed each other nicely; there was room to enjoy the sometimes colourful view too. Not every crack could be papered over, especially when it came to the recapitulation, but there is only so much a conductor can accomplish here. The slow movement was beautifully sung, not fashionably rushed. Cellos were especially rich in tone, whilst the delectable woodwind section hinted at Brahms. In the scherzo, Schumann was placed, aptly, midway between Beethoven and Brahms, whilst the rustic response to the opening bars proved utterly charming. Metrical dislocations were felt without the diminishing returns of exaggeration. Brahms again came to the fore in the finale; I was especially put in mind of the parallel movement in his Second Symphony. Perhaps most impressive was the buoyant sense of fun achieved, without compromise to structural integrity. Once again, Schumann’s mood swings registered without attention-seeking exaggeration.

Arabella Steinbacher joined the orchestra for the Brahms concerto. Though I had heard of her, this was the first time I had encountered her in performance, whether ‘live’ or on record. I was most impressed – and equally so by the orchestral contribution. Dohnányi elicited Romantic depth from the Philharmonia, married to properly Classical clarity and structural command. Steinbacher sounded the perfect partner to this approach, her silken sweetness redolent of another age; indeed, one could fancy her opening flourish Joachim-like. Though capable of greater toughness when required, hers was not an overtly ‘masculine’ approach such as one might hear from, say, Nikolaj Znaider or Anne-Sophie Mutter. There was occasional loss, perhaps, but this verges upon carping for its own sake; it is better, I think, to acknowledge that one performance is unlikely, arguably unable, to encompass all possibilities proffered by a masterwork. Certainly there was never the slightest doubt from all musicians concerned that the greater line would ever be sacrificed. And how the second subject sang, whether from violin or orchestra! There was power in the tutti passages, but beautiful orchestral shading too. Above all, the music-making sounded ‘natural’, unforced. The cadenza displayed not only perfect double-stopping intonation but unerringly musical phrasing. Applause, seemingly initiated by a single demonstrative figure in the choir, won but a few adherents; nevertheless, it was as unwelcome as it was immediate. The slow movement was beautifully judged. Dohnányi demonstrated that ‘flowing’ need not mean precipitate and need not preclude sensitive tempo fluctuation. Wind lines – and not just the oboe, fine though Gordon Hunt’s solo certainly was – were warm and inviting, well married to Steinbacher’s sweetness of tone and parallel abilities to sing and to shape a phrase. The abiding impression of the finale was once again of a perfect balance between the Classical and the Romantic. Though the ‘Hungarian’ quality was real enough, motivic articulation was never compelled to take a back seat. I can imagine that some might have found the movement as a whole just a little ‘controlled’; I was happy to appreciate its symphonism. As an encore, Steinbacher offered Fritz Kreisler’s Recitative and Scherzo, almost managing to convince one that it might justly serve as a pendant to Brahms.