Thursday 24 February 2011

BPO/Rattle - Brahms, Wolf, and Mahler, 23 February 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Brahms – Es tönt ein voller Harfenklang, op.17 no.1
Wolf – Mörike Lieder: ‘Elfenlied’
Mahler – Symphony no.3

Anke Hermann (soprano)
Nathalie Stutzmann (contralto)
Choir of Eltham College
Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus
Ladies of the BBC Singers
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Wonderful programming! Unfortunately, the magical Brahms and Wolf introduction proved by far the most musically satisfying part of this concert; not that the mannered – almost beyond belief – performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony prevented an inattentive audience of chatterers, consumptives, and mobile telephone users, sometimes all three together, from rising to its collective feet at the end. Hype is a dangerous thing; my fear is that Sir Simon Rattle, an extraordinarily able conductor, has fallen prey to the hype surrounding him one time too often. For we heard a glimpse of what might have been: those opening woodland scenes sounded ineffably beautiful, closer to a Platonic Idea of German Romanticism, horn calls and all, than perhaps ever they have done. When, moreover, shall we have the opportunity to hear them again? Reader, kindly refrain from holding your breath…

The first movement of the symphony was simply an incoherent mess. I have heard a few people describe the symphony as sprawling, but have always until now remained incredulous. This movement alone seemed as though it would never come to an end. Astoundingly beautiful playing from the Berlin Philharmonic alternated with brash, commonplace, hard-driven, Shostakovich-like marches,. The latter represent a point of view, I suppose, though not one I share; yet they seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with the rest. Frustratingly, aspects of a superior performance thereafter shifted into (aural) view and shifted away just as quickly. Part of the problem seemed to be that the BPO could accomplish pretty much anything. Yet just because it can, does not mean that it should be asked to do so. Phrases were chopped up or elongated at will, likewise swelled or tapered. Had Nikolaus Harnoncourt not publicly declared his aversion to Mahler, one might have imagined him to have been at the podium. The posthorn solo was, I admit, achingly beautiful, though one sometimes struggled to hear it amidst the bronchial auditions for an intensive care ward. Nathalie Stutzmann gave as fine a rendition of her Nietzsche song as I can recall, and when Rattle ‘accompanied’, he proved sensitive indeed. We had to endure his trademark reading of the ‘hinaufziehen’ marking, though; it convinced me no more than it ever has done, sounding as if it would be better off in Tin Pan Alley than Pan’s world reawakened. If I had been summer marching in, I should have marched straight back out again. And the choral singing, especially that of the Choir of Eltham College, was first-rate in the fifth movement, Rattle’s shaping and the Berliners’ playing alert to parallels with the opening Brahms and Wolf pieces.

Then came the nadir: the opening of the great Langsam finale. Not only have I never heard it so butchered; I have never heard a performance that has come close. The first paragraph was so grotesquely disfigured by pulling around, chopping up, and arbitrary insertion of pauses, that I almost lost the will to live: this in a work I love beyond words. After that, it was too late for any sort of recovery to be made. Whatever the narcissistic beauties of much of the performance, there was a rootlessness, harmonic and rhythmic, that militated against meaning. Mannerisms became fewer, though still present, but I simply awaited, Wotan-like, the end. Ravishing woodwind could offer only incidental relief; by the same token, an unfortunate slip mattered little. The audience erupted…

Monday 21 February 2011

Prohaska/Members of the BPO/Rattle: Schubert, Schoenberg, and Mahler, 20 February 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Schubert – Quartettsatz in C minor, D 703
Schoenberg – String Quartet no.2, op.10
Mahler – Piano Quartet in A minor
Schoenberg – Chamber Symphony no.1 in E major, op.9

Anna Prohaska (soprano)
Bishari Harouni (piano)
Members of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, including string quartet:
Guy Braunstein, Christoph Streuil (violins)
Amihai Grosz (viola)
Ludwig Quandt (violoncello)
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Whatever the fortunes of the remaining three concerts from this joint Berlin Philharmonic residency at the Barbican and the Southbank Centre, the bar was set high with its opening chamber concert. Schubert’s 1820 Quartettsatz arguably opens too many quartet concerts – there are not that many overture equivalents – but there was no sense of the routine on this occasion; indeed, from its febrile opening onwards, this C minor single movement emerged far more substantially than is generally the case. Schubert emerged as a more formidable contrapuntist than is often suspected, not least on account of some especially telling viola interventions from Amihai Grosz (the BPO’s first principal viola and also violist in the Jerusalem Quartet). Tempo was flexible, yet never drew attention to itself, following demands or suggestions in the score rather than imposing itself.

For Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, the players were joined by Anna Prohaska, whose star is unmistakeably in the ascendant. A member of the ensemble at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden, she has recently signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon, and will be singing with Claudio Abbado, Maurizio Pollini, and Pierre Boulez later this year. First, of course, the players must fend for themselves – which they did at least as well as they had in the Schubert. A relatively cool opening phrase was answered with music that rightly sounded like Verklärte Nacht turned expressionist, especially when it came to the two inner parts (Grosz and second violinist, Christoph Streuil). ‘Where are we?’ one might well have asked. The score’s dense complexity suggested Brahms, the performance’s dramatic thrust the Schoenberg of Pelleas und Melisande. Despite the audible – even at this stage – pulling away from tonality, the first movement remained definitely anchored in F-sharp minor and sonata form remained capable of operation, albeit in a more compressed fashion than a naïve listener might expect. Yet operate it can, and did: this is 1908, not 1948. The development section brought some wonderfully rich playing from first violin (Guy Braunstein) and viola, the instruments echoing and inciting, whilst the concluding bars ushered in true, pregnant stillness. It is not easy to bring the scherzo off, but these players did so with aplomb, presenting an almost-but-not-quite-fragmentary movement, the ‘not-quite’ bit proved by a properly unifying Schoenbergian Idea. Violence and melodic profusion were shown to be two sides of the same coin, held in dialectical relationship through various forces, not least by a sharp rhythmic profile. The celebrated ‘Ach, du liebe Augustin’ quotation (not ‘Augustine’, as the booklet note had it!) emerged with a cheeky lilt, which lilt and cheek were intensified on subsequent appearances, likewise the fury of the scherzo material. With Schoenberg, as these players readily understood, there is no mere repetition, but developing variation.

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of presenting the soprano as a soloist in the final two movements; they can and must remain part of a ‘string quartet’, albeit a highly unusual quartet-plus-soprano. The players ensured that the mood of a litany (Litanei) was set even before a note had been sung. It was intriguing to note proximity, despite the soprano voice, to the Nietzsche setting of Mahler’s Third Symphony: the Zarathustrian world is deep indeed. Songful, as opposed to aria-like, Prohaska’s delivery imparted a fine sense of line and faultless diction to both of Stefan George’s poems, dramatic flair too, though never straying beyond what was appropriate. Gradually, we seemed to edge towards the world of Pierrot lunaire, and of course, the air of another planet, though Brahms was never entirely banished – nor should he be – from our frame of reference. The final line, ‘gib mir dein glück!’ permitted a step backward, to wonder verbally, and simultaneously forward, to the music that was to come: perfectly judged from all concerned. Entrückung really did seem to bring that long-awaited air: as bracing, rare, and life-affirming as I can recall hearing. Prohaska floated and intoned the line itself: ‘Ich fühle luft von anderem planeten’. How tame so much twentieth-century music seems by comparison! The musicians seemed to place Schoenberg just as he should be placed, yet often is not: his music as erotic as anything in Berg, yet as Alpine as Webern, arguably in this particular case, meta-Alpine. Schoenberg and the quartet showed triumphantly how loss of tonal moorings does not entail loss or even suspension of harmonic direction: there is a whole new world, indeed universe, out there. Again, we seemed but a stone’s throw from Pierrot, and there were a couple of occasions when Ligeti seemed to beckon. For all that, Schoenberg’s music looks back too: I was especially impressed by the chamber-Wagnerian presentation of the line, ‘Ich löse mich in tönen, kreisend, webend’. Chamber Wagner is, of course, precisely what it is: Tristan suggested in words and tones. Vocal climax, when it came, was ecstatic, never forced, after which the strings sounded transfigured, sending shivers down the spine. Does, however, the consonant ending still work? It could barely have satisfied Schoenberg for long.

Mahler’s early Piano Quartet movement opened the second half. For this, three members of the quartet were joined by the excellent Palestinian pianist, Bishara Harouni. The shading he imparted to Mahler’s opening chords announced a musician of great musical and pianistic gifts. Moreover, blend with the string trio was well-nigh perfect: a far more difficult task than many would assume. The movement’s Brahmsian inheritance proved productive rather than oppressive, its expressive metrical clashes holding no fears for these players. Hushed passages were especially ravishing, Mahler’s prentice work suffering no condescension. I find it difficult to imagine the piece receiving finer advocacy, an impression reinforced by the delicate, heart-rending beauty of the coda in performance.

Sir Simon Rattle and other members of the Berlin Philharmonic ventured onstage for an excellent performance of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony. If the Second String Quartet affirms life more strongly than one might be led to believe, then this sunny masterpiece does so as much as any work by Haydn. I heard Rattle conduct it at the first Prom I ever attended; he has not lost his touch with music of the Second Viennese School. Had I not heard Pierre Boulez lead an expanded Scharoun Ensemble (also drawn from the Berlin Philharmonic) a couple of years ago, I suspect this would rank as the finest performance I have heard. As it was, and belying popular misconceptions of Boulez as a conductor, he managed to elicit just a little more post-Wagnerian warmth from players and score. Nevertheless, Rattle’s remained a fine achievement, flexible without being pulled around, displaying no hint of the mannerisms that have bedevilled some of his more recent music-making. Balance was as faultless as under Boulez: an extraordinary achievement, given Schoenberg’s challenging scoring. The BPO’s woodwind proved as characterful as they had under Karajan (who, I seem to remember, thought the piece well-nigh unperformable), whilst brass sounded both cultivated and vital. Rattle exhibited a sure command of form and character, the foundational status of Schoenberg’s fourth intervals audible for all to hear. The Adagio section sounded both rapt and febrile, not least thanks to some extraordinarily expressive cello playing (Ludwig Quandt). This, then, provided an excellent conclusion to a thoroughly excellent concert.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Fantasy Opera: definitely the final season, with four commissioned works

After this I shall (almost) definitely stop, but ten seemed a properly rounded number, and I wanted partially to rectify an omission to which I have already referred more than once, namely the lack of new work. I therefore decided on a very modest number of four commissions (extremely modest, given that there have been none at all during the previous nine seasons). Fantasy? Doubtless. But we have a decade to make it work.

Brian Ferneyhough, new work
Stravinsky, Renard, Carter, What Next? and Stravinsky, Mavra
Monteverdi, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria
Mozart, Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Birtwistle, Gawain
Tchaikovsky, The Queen of Spades
Unsuk Chin, new work
Henze, Boulevard Solitude
Rameau, Les Indes galantes
Strauss, Feuersnot
Alexander Goehr, new work
Mussorgsky-Rimsky-Korsakov, Boris Godunov
Schoenberg, Erwartung and Feldman, Neither
Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Handel, Jephtha
And finally, what must be the longest-awaited opera by any composer in history: a new work by Pierre Boulez.

Saturday 19 February 2011

Fantasy Opera: ninth, extra season

I should probably have quit whilst I was (relatively) ahead, and do not doubt that nothing could top bowing out with Parsifal and Europeras. However, I am told that one should never say never again, so, at the risk of seeming like one of those people who insist and insist again, 'just one more time,' here goes...:

Stockhausen, Dienstag
Mozart, Don Giovanni
Monteverdi-Berio, Orfeo
Pfitzner, Palestrina
Gluck, Iphigénie en Aulide
Janáček, Jenůfa
JC Bach, Amadis des Gaule
Rimsky-Korsakov, Tales of Tsar Saltan
Rameau, Zéphire, and Strauss, Friedenstag
Purcell, The Fairy Queen
Dvořák, Rusalka
Weill, Der Silbersee
Enescu, Œdipe
Handel, Theodora
Birtwistle, Yan Tan Tethera
Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

Friday 18 February 2011

World premiere: Anna Nicole, Royal Opera, 17 February 2011

Royal Opera House

Anna Nicole - Eva-Maria Westbroek
Old Man Marshall - Alan Oke
The Lawyer Stern - Gerald Finley
Virgie - Susan Bickley
Cousin Shelley - Loré Lixenberg
Larry King - Peter Hoare
Aunt Kay - Rebecca de Pont Davies
Older Daniel - Dominic Rowntree
Blossom - Allison Cook
Doctor - Andrew Rees
Billy - Grant Doyle
Mayor - Wynne Evans
Runner - ZhengZhong Zhou
Daddy Hogan - Jeremy White
Gentleman - Dominic Peckham
Trucker - Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Deputy Mayor - Damian Thantrey
Four Lap Dancers - Yvonne Barclay, Katy Batho, Amy Catt, Amanda Floyd
Four Meat Rack Girls - Kiera Lyness, Marianne Cotterill, Louise Armit, Andrea Hazell
Onstage Band - John Parricelli (guitar), John Paul Jones (bass guitar), Peter Erskine (drums)

Richard Jones (director)
Miriam Buether (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Mimi Jordan Sherin and D M Wood (lighting)
Aletta Collins (choreography)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

From the sublime (Parsifal, the night before) to the not-even-ridiculous. It would be difficult to come up with a more contrasting work than Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, not simply, nor even principally, from a gendered standpoint. Written in collaboration with librettist, Richard Thomas, we have a new opera, which, as almost everyone by now will be aware, is based upon the life of Anna Nicole Smith. Having spoken to a considerable number of people over what must be approaching a year, I can only recall one having heard of her, but apparently she is more celebrated in other quarters. A woman who physically suffered and financially gained from excessive breast enhancement, Smith ‘apparently’ died from a drugs overdose. Such is not the inspiration for Anna Nicole, in that little effort seems to have been expended to produce an independent artwork; rather we have something akin to a report of what the lawyers have permitted Thomas and Turnage to reproduce. Apparently changes had to be made very late in the day indeed, which may or may not be connected with the setting aside in January of this year of Howard K Stern’s conviction for providing Smith with controlled substances.

The music is more or less entirely without interest. One barely notices it, beyond dubious pastiche, in the first act. At best, it aurally resembles sub-sub-Broadway Weill, with hints of even further sub-sub-Berg. Closed forms are the order of the day, but they come across as short-winded, formulaic even, rather than polemical. Weirdly selected near-bits of Stravinsky are thrown in, for instance, passages for woodwind almost straight out of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments. And a parody that is barely a parody, of the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream music, covers over the cracks for Anna Nicole’s wedding to Old Man Marshall. The music for the second act, supposedly more tragic in tone, is mawkishly sentimental and, like everything else about the act, sounds over extended by at least half an hour. (Both acts last for about an hour.) Puccini might just have made something of this; Turnage cannot. Moreover, the writing for chorus, which makes up so much of the first act, suddenly disappears. Doubtless the claim will be that that ever so subtly marks a tightening of tragic focus. However, like the increasingly tired feel of the sets – even Richard Jones and his design team can only do so much with such material – the impression is of an attempt to spin out something that has long since been exhausted.

The jokey-cum-profane libretto is worse, attention-seeking and utterly banal. One tires of its childish provocations quickly, indeed within a few seconds. Incessant swearing tires rather than shocks. Perhaps someone finds a litany of alleged synonyms for breasts amusing; perhaps that would be the same person who has a real-life interest in this sorry tale. Nothing is remotely erotic; the opera is more akin to The Benny Hill Show. Anna Nicole is not, to put it mildly, Lulu. The legal wranglings arising from the deaths of Marshall and Smith might have made useful dramatic fodder, but these are not explored. Perhaps it as well, for one cannot imagine, to put it mildly, Anna Nicole becoming The Makropulos Case.

I am suspicious of any work that seems designed to disallow almost any adverse criticism. Stravinsky accomplished that magnificently in The Rake’s Progress; yet, as so often, he seems to be a glorious exception. Anna Nicole is not, etc. If one complains about the ‘musical’ element, one will doubtless be assailed as ‘élitist’, as if somehow wishing for the best were something of which to be ashamed. Likewise all the popular culture elements. If one questions the banality of the libretto, not only ‘élitism’ but prudishness will also be alleged. Far from it, in my case: I find much of what is said straightforwardly puerile, and not in the slightest shocking, let alone hilarious. (An audience that laughs uproariously at crudely rhyming ‘profanities’ may need to get out a little more.) Puerility will then doubtless be part of ‘the point’, but one can say that about anything. This seems merely trashy rather than ‘about trashiness’. Question the musical language, insofar as it may exist, and one will be accused of ideological ‘élitism’: the horror – the ghost of Darmstadt!

Whether dealing with music or text, true characterisation approaches zero; everything is simply a matter of plot and situation. Is that the point? Again, if so, ‘the point’ is surely wrong. Certain works can operate very well, even achieve greatness, without conventional characterisation at their heart, instantiating in its place an idea. However, Anna Nicole, is not, to put it mildly, Fidelio. Not only Stern but even Anna Nicole herself seems a mere caricature, without the caricature making a dramatic point. Nor is there anything of interest in the way the story is told. Hopes rise when Anna Nicole’s mother, Virgie, dissents from the way Stern tells a part of the story – the death of Anna Nicole’s son, Daniel – and it seems as though we might be in for some sort of re-telling from a different perspective. It is really just a matter, however, of recounting her dissent. Anna Nicole is not, to put it mildly, The Mask of Orpheus.

The opera – it actually seems more like an attempt at a musical – is also offensively and, frankly, childishly anti-American. Many of the rest of us have noticed that capitalism is not a solely American phenomenon. The use of ‘American’ accents, sometimes more successfully Texan or indeed American than at others, is odd at best. We do not ask singers in an opera with a French setting to sing as if they were Inspector Clouseau. It all seems intended to make fun of a cultural setting of which the writers seem to have little more knowledge and understanding than many of the rest of us. Imagine the horror that would rightly be expressed, were someone to decide to do something similar about India, Zimbabwe, Argentina, or indeed just about anywhere else. This is, with apologies to Edward Said, Occidentalism that is not even interesting.

Everything, moreover, seems to hang on the fact that this is ‘based on a true story’. We seem to be led to believe – and I tend to believe it myself – that it would be of no interest to anyone, if the story were presented fictionally. At best, then, the work becomes reportage, concerning an unfortunate soul to be cruelly mocked; for those of us who have little or no interest in the life story of the aforesaid unfortunate soul, it is not clear what the point might be. At least an opera such as John Adams’s Nixon in China deals with a political event of considerable importance, whilst remaining musically negligible. In ‘historical’ operas worth their salt, the ‘history’ is not the sole point, but a spur to artistic invention. Anna Nicole is not, to put it mildly, L’incoronazione di Poppea. Perhaps worst of all, the treatment of Smith herself and, still more, her son seems straightforwardly exploitative. Is this a proper way to memorialise Daniel Wayne Smith? (I am unsure even whether to mention him here.) Does he deserve to be served up as entertainment? These people’s predicament is not, despite the presence of a press pack, really explored, let alone analysed; it is just retold.

Jones does what he can, with great attention to detail, and colourful sets, especially during the first half. Moreover, the opera is truly cast from strength, whether with respect to members of the Royal Opera Chorus, such as the Four Lap Dancers and the Meat Rack Quartet, or the starring roles. The cast is huge, putting one in mind of another recent Jones production, though Anna Nicole is not, to put it mildly, The Gambler. Yet the unsubtle amplification, whilst ensuring that every word can be heard, crystal-clear, begins to tire as much as the melodramatic antics of the plot. The ever-reliable Susan Bickley makes the best of what she is given as Virgie. Alan Oke proves frighteningly credible in age as Old Man Marshall and sings as well as we have come to expect – which is very well indeed. Eva-Maria Westbroek gives a truly bravura performance in the title role; the lack of characterisation is not hers. If Westbroek’s gifts were wasted, then I do not know what the term would be for the squandering of Finley’s resources. Antonio Pappano seemed to have the measure of the score, marshalling his forces with tight rhythmic control. The orchestra played with verve, as well drilled as one could imagine. To what end, though?

Was the increasing high pitch of the promotion – it seems to have worked, for performances have sold out – possibly related to a fear that the music and text were so weak? One has to take risks with new works; it is heartening that the Royal Opera was willing to do so. Let us hope that the next new work will prove more fruitful, and perhaps – dare I suggest it? – take the world, not just this country, as its compositional oyster. Previous commissions include works by Henze, Goehr, Birtwistle, and Berio. Just think of the time – I wish I could have been there – when Stockhausen’s Donnerstag received its premiere at Covent Garden. Better luck next time, I suppose…

Parsifal, English National Opera, 16 February 2011

The Coliseum

(Images: Richard Hubert Smith)

(sung in English)

Amfortas – Iain Paterson
Titurel – Andrew Greenan
Gurnemanz – Sir John Tomlinson
Klingsor – Tom Fox
Parsifal – Stuart Skelton
Kundry – Jane Dutton
First Knight – Adrian Dwyer
Second Knight – Robert Winslade Anderson
First Squire – Julia Sporsén
Second Squire – Stephanie Marshall
Third Squire – Christopher Turner
Fourth Squire – Michael Bracegirdle
Voice from Above – Amy Kerenza Sedgwick
First Group of Flowermaidens – Sarah-Jane Davies, Julia Sporsén, Helena Dix
Second Group of Flowermaidens – Meeta Ravel, Sarah Jane Brandon, Stephanie Marshall

Nikolaus Lehnhoff (director)
Dan Dooner (associate director)
Raimund Bauer (designer)
Andrea Schmidt-Futterer (costumes)
Duane Schuler (lighting)
Denni Sayers (choreography)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera and additional chorus (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Mark Wigglesworth (conductor)

This production retains a special place in my heart: its first outing in 1999 was my first Parsifal in the theatre. Saving up my student pennies, I made the journey not once but twice from Cambridge to London, was mightily impressed the first time and a little irritated the second. Even though I began to harbour doubts about some aspects of Nikolaus Lehnhoff’s production, above all its ending, it remains preferable to many I have seen in the meantime. Stefan Herheim’s astounding Bayreuth version stands in a class of its own. Leaving that aside, however, Lehnhoff is immeasurably superior to, say, the pitiful, incoherent offering from, say, Klaus Michael Grüber for Covent Garden – why on earth did the Royal Opera revive a universally derided non-production? – or Bernd Eichinger’s confused effort for the Berlin State Opera, let alone glimpses of Tony Palmer’s cod-mediævalism for the Mariinsky. Lehnhoff’s conception, powerfully aided by Raimund Bauer’s stage designs, stands very much in the shadow of the Holocaust, taking as a further, generally productive cue the Waste Land’s ‘heap of broken images’. Apposite both to Wagner’s drama ‘in itself’ and to how we may now feel compelled to consider it, we encounter in the first act a community clearly in need of rejuvenation; by the time of the third act, much has turned to rubble and stone, it not being clear until the end whether there should remain any hope at all, even under Parsifal, of that rejuvenation. The second act seems less sure of itself, its abiding images being the bizarre costumes Andrea Schmidt-Futterer allots to Klingsor (weirdly space-age) and Kundry (a strange chrysalis, out of and into which she awkwardly squeezes herself). But compared to the horrors of Grüber’s Covent Garden production, we perhaps should not concern ourselves unduly with that. What the whole lacked, I thought, was more incisive direction on stage, doubtless a consequence of Lehnhoff’s absence through illness: there was more than the occasional hint of a routine ‘revival’, a great pity given the ideas presented.

The broken railway line present during the whole of the third act is a powerful ‘broken image’, presumably intended to refer to Auschwitz. But what is being said there? That the variety of revival offered by the community’s new leader leads to racial rather than Schopenhauerian annihilation? That would be wrong-headed in the extreme, but a point of view at least, yet it seems undercut by the joy with which Kundry – she does not die – and Parsifal begin their journey along the line. The implication seems to be that they are wandering off to initiate a sexual relationship: bewildering, and arguably offensive, in the production’s context. The production, understandably, appears to waver between a quasi-Adornian attempt to ‘rescue’ Wagner and a desire to condemn him. Part of the reason, I suspect, why this conundrum presents itself is the production’s absolute refusal to engage with the work’s complex relationship towards Christianity. (I should direct anyone interested in my thoughts on the latter to an article in The Wagner Journal, 3/3, pp.29-59.) Simply to ignore the issue seems to me an unduly easy way out. And yes, that includes the deflating absence of any substitute for the second-act Sign of the Cross; text and music cry out for something, whatever it might be.

Mark Wigglesworth’s conducting was for the most part something to savour. Parsifal is by any standards a tough proposition, but the structure was largely in place, most impressively of all in the first act, which opened with a beautifully slow yet sustained prelude. The third act occasionally dragged: not a matter of tempo as such, but of faltering line; however, I should not wish to exaggerate. The score’s dialectic between horizontal and vertical demands was more surely navigated than I have often heard. Moreover, the ENO orchestra gave perhaps the finest performance I have ever heard from it; I have certainly never heard it finer. Strings had weight, sweetness, and silkiness, as required, whilst the rounded tone of the brass, sepulchral and never brash, proved exemplary.

Allowances had to be made for some of the vocal portrayals – and for almost all of Richard Stokes’s English translation. The latter is doubtless an horrendously difficult task to undertake, but some of the inaccuracies – why change a gander to a ‘duckling’, making nonsense of the relationship to a goose? – and banalities could surely have been improved upon. Choral singing was generally very good. Jane Dutton’s Kundry was sadly below par; one could only regret the absence, owing to ‘artistic differences’, of the originally advertised Iréne Theorin. Sir John Tomlinson’s voice is becoming increasingly threadbare at the top, but there was no denying the overall majesty of his Gurnemanz, however impoverished the great narrations may have been by the act of translation. Iain Paterson had a slightly shaky start as Amfortas, but recovered well, soon erasing unfortunate memories of his bizarre miscasting by ENO as Don Giovanni; here, instead, we had a typically detailed response to text and music, and a credible dramatic assumption, for the most part finely acted on stage. Tom Fox and Andrew Greenan made their respective marks without blemish as Klingsor and Titurel, both rising vocally above the handicap of their strange costumes. Stuart Skelton displayed a fine Heldentenor in the title role, very much in the baritonal, ‘Bayreuth’ tradition. As with many of the best exponents of the role, he left one initially a little disappointed, an apparent disappointment rectified by the appreciation of dramatic strategy: the first act Parsifal should sound somewhat vacant, in order to allow for the extraordinary development the character undergoes. (Even ‘extraordinary’ is to put it mildly.) The voice lacks nothing in power; if anything, the thought occurred that it might have benefited from a larger space.

Indeed, I still wonder whether a theatre other than the Bayreuth Festspielhaus is a suitable venue for staging Parsifal at all: not out of misplaced ‘Bayreuth Idealist’ piety, but rather because other, non-theatrical spaces, from Siena Cathedral to the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, might prove much more appropriate. A work that has so far transcended the narrow horizons of the Italianate opera house – or, in the case of the Coliseum, the music hall! – jars somewhat in such a setting. Whether one considers that jarring productive may be a matter of taste, however, and the problem, such as it is, is not ENO’s alone; far from it.

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Pollini Project (2): Beethoven, 15 February 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Sonata no.30 in E major, op.109
Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, op.110
Sonata no.32 in C minor, op.111

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

For the second of his five recitals, Maurizio Pollini followed up Book One of the piano’s Old Testament with the final three chapters of the New, though one might perhaps be better to leave Hans von Bülow on one side and speak of the holy ground of Mount Sinai. Without the slightest preciousness – indeed, I cannot think of a less precious pianist – Pollini left us in no doubt of the sheer greatness not only of the final three Beethoven sonatas but of his musicianship. This, quite simply, was musical performance of a kind one would be blessed to hear but once in one’s life – and there are still three recitals to come.

Wisely, Pollini elected to give the three sonatas without an interval, allowing one all the more clearly to make any connections one might wish. They were not elided into one super-sonata, but the kinship as we ascended Parnassus was undeniable. Opening with the E major sonata, op.109, we were immediately plunged into a world both rarely divine and utterly human. The complaints one occasionally still hears concerning alleged distance, coolness, whatever it might be, could not have been more soundly refuted. This was pianism of an intensity that both incorporated and surpassed what one might almost dare to call ‘mere’ Romanticism. The first movement’s tempo changes were as convincingly handled as I have heard, not merely in technical terms, but above all with respect to Beethoven’s meaning: we might not be able to convey that meaning in words, but that does not mean it is not there. The sheer beauty of the chordal passages was something to savour in itself, though never narcissistic. Now that Pollini is occasionally a little more fallible technically than once he was, one might argue that the sense of struggle is all the greater; such was certainly the case with the Prestissimo. Not that there is anything technically lacking, far from it, but the way a pianist approaches this music at different times in his life can – and certainly did – emphasise certain aspects more or less. I should never want to be without earlier recordings, but, had I to choose, the philosophical humanism of this account would win out. The closing theme and variations were a case in point: Gesangvoll mit innigster Empfindung, Beethoven writes for the theme, adding the vocal mezza voce, and this was precisely what we heard – and what we heard extended, transformed, throughout the movement’s progress, the trills as melodic, as non-ornamental, as anyone could ever have heard. For once, I shall leave the matter of coughing aside, irritating though it was; however, I am sad to report that it became increasingly difficult to listen, try as one might, owing to what sounded like a malfunctioning hearing aid. Doubtless it was an accident, but might I make a plea to those sporting such devices to take care as paranoid as mine when it comes to my telephone? It was a great sadness indeed to have such a performance severely compromised.

Songfulness was equally the hallmark of the first movement of op.110, its trills again being a case in point. The Allegro molto was urgent, vital in every sense of the word, but never brash. Pollini seems to have developed a mellower touch – and I suspect that he was assisted by an excellent instrument in this case. Rarely if ever can the una corda passage have sounded so magical; whatever the ideologues might tell you, there is absolutely no need for a period instrument here. The handling of the ensuing recitative was equally fine, capturing in perfect balance – or dialectic – the demands of the apparently improvisatory and dramatic necessity, before arioso painful and yet consoling beyond words was heard. Fugal lessons learned from Bach – both by Beethoven and Pollini – were very much to be heard thereafter, its inversion in both composition and performance as much a masterstroke, or so it seemed, as the Art of Fugue itself. Now could Pollini be persuaded to perform that…?

Beethoven’s C minor daemon was not yet slain, of course, as op.111 showed beyond doubt. Yet Pollini captured to near perfection the tension between recollection, perhaps even intensification, of earlier struggles, and a new, ‘late’ voice. This should not sound like op.13, and did not, though the composer was recognisably the same; something more was at stake. Counterpoint and harmony sounded as two sides of the same late Classical coin, which is just as it should be – though far rarer in performance than one might suspect. The second movement captured equally well the balance and/or dialectic between sublime simplicity and necessary complexity. Pollini made no apologies for passages that lesser souls might consider harmonically ‘simple’; the placing of every note was truly made to tell. There are, or at least were, many great tunes still to be written in C major, with apologies to Schoenberg. Rhythm, including harmonic rhythm, was key throughout. I cannot recall a performance in which the astounding ‘boogie-woogie’ variation sounded so well-performed; it still astonished, of course, but it grew inexorably from what had gone before. Beethovenian variation is something very special indeed. So were these performances.

Later this month, we shall hear the final three Schubert sonatas...

Monday 14 February 2011

Collett/Theseus Ensemble/Paterson - Benjamin and Boulez, 14 February 2011

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Benjamin – Upon Silence
Boulez – Le marteau sans maître

Louise Collett (mezzo-soprano)
Theseus Ensemble
Geoffrey Paterson (conductor)

Whilst posters around town regaled us with the uninviting promise of ‘Valentine’s Day Romantic Classics’ and the like – who actually goes to these concerts? – the Theseus Ensemble and its founder Geoffrey Paterson presented something far more interesting. If that sounds like faint praise, it was certainly not meant as such, for any ensemble, let alone one that has been in existence for less than a year, which performs Le marteau sans maître deserves praise most fulsome, especially when presented as well as it was here.

First on the menu, however, was George Benjamin’s Upon Silence. Written for the viol consort, Fretwork, in 1990, Benjamin arranged it for seven strings (two violas, three cellos, and two double basses) the following year. As Paterson pointed out in his programme note, ‘with astonishing imagination and skill, Benjamin managed to retain the distinctive qualities of the original’. Vibrato is forbidden, save for certain instances, when it really tells; moreover, the players perform throughout with wooden mutes. The febrile, glassy string tone with which the performance opened contrasted with and yet complemented the more muted – in more than one sense – general timbre. Mezzo-soprano Louise Collett delivered Yeats’s words (from Long-legged fly) with great clarity of line and diction. One might characterise the vocal writing as restrainedly melismatic, recognisably that of the composer of Into the Little Hill. The refrain, ‘Like a long-legged fly upon the stream / His/Her mind moves upon silence’, seemed both to impart and to transform the work’s form. The second stanza, dealing with Helen of Troy, ends in ‘silence’ accompanied and succeeded by a plaintive cello line, which one could well have imagined actually was a viol. By contrast, the end of the third and final stanza, that of Michelangelo, presented rich cello vibrato, truly striking and liberating, likewise the ensuing string harmonics, building to an ecstatic climax, subsiding, then preparing the way for the final, questing and questioning vocal crescendo upon the final ‘silence’.

As in November’s Theseus Ensemble concert, Paterson also provided an illustrated introduction, on this occasion only to Le marteau sans maître. It was succinct but telling, providing an excellent ‘way in’ for audience members who might have been daunted by Boulez’s 1953-5 masterpiece and, even for those of us who fancy we know the work a little better, providing an important key not only to the work but also to the performance. The ensemble’s stated mission is, ‘with thoughtful programming and approachable presentation, … to illuminate the sometimes forbiddingly labyrinthine complexities’ of ‘challenging works of the later 20th and 21st centuries’. It certainly scored upon programming and presentation here. Paterson described and the players performed three types of music, corresponding to the three poems, L’artisanat furieux, Bourreaux de solitude, and Bel édifice et les pressentiments. The first was characterised as ‘making’, the craftsmanship of the poem’s title, not ‘furious’ until the performance, since we heard it slowed down; the second had a ticking, clock-like pulse; finally, the third, corresponding to the more human imagery of the verse, was more temperamental, rhetorical, gestural, and passionate. (Far more passionate, one might say, than the greetings card culture awaiting us outside.) The tale of the piece was to be how the three types of material interacted, preparing the way for final disintegration.

That, I think, was very much what we heard, amongst other things of course. What also struck me was the dialectic between similarity and dissimilarity concerning a work that equally defined so much of the first half of the twentieth century, Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire. The ensemble is not identical, of course, though a number of works would take as their cue that fabled Pierrot ensemble, but there are points of reference – flute, albeit alto flute, and viola – as well as the percussion instruments very much of Boulez’s own time and presaging what was to come. The singer: well, she sings rather than speaks, but recall Boulez’s notorious, beautifully ‘sung’ recording with Yvonne Minton. There were times when, not unreasonably, Collett seemed a little uncomfortable, but she was clearly suffering from a cough; if her pronunciation was not always perfect, once again, one could hear every word, and her intonation was generally excellent too. Paterson ensured early contrast between the different types of material; the contrast between the first two movements was admirably clear, that of the first commentary on Bourreaux de solitude sounding almost like an exoticised, Webernised, Ravel (Stravinsky’s ‘Swiss watchmaker’), or to put it another way, sounding precisely like what it was, namely Boulez. If tension flagged slightly part way through this movement, it was a minor blemish, for all players evidently gave their best throughout, and it showed. Invidious though it may be to single out any one member of the ensemble, I feel I must mention Matthew Kettle’s valiant and successful struggle with Boulez’s well-nigh impossible viola part. (Click here for an interview in which the conductor and I discussed the work beforehand).

The second commentary showed how even when one might fancy the music to be pointillistic, it is connections that count: this is not Stockhausen. I especially liked the way the closing triangle note was left to resonate: a nice touch of detail and expression. When it came to Bourreaux de solitude itself – two of the three commentaries precede the verse itself – one could still hear the ticking, albeit slower and perhaps more luxuriant, if one can conceive of luxuriant ticking. (The phrase almost sounds as though it might have come from René Char!) Its interaction with the other varieties of material became increasingly marked, so that, during the third commentary, we could readily hear, well primed as we were, its subversion of craftsmanship and rhetoric, and the other way(s) around too. Breakdown under the strain of such intricate interrelationship thus came as an expressive and intellectual necessity during the ninth and final movement, the double of Bel édifice et les pressentiments. Was Pierrot perhaps our uninvited guest to the disintegrating feast? Gongs and alto flute opened up a void at the end, both ominous and inviting.

Evgeny Kissin: Liszt, 13 February 2011

Barbican Hall

Etudes d’exécution transcendante, S.139, no.9: ‘Ricordanza’
Sonata in B minor, S.178
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S.173: ‘Funérailles’
Années de pèlerinage: Book I, ‘Suisse’, S.160, ‘Vallée d’Obermann’; ‘Venezia e Napoli,’ S.162 (supplement to Book II, ‘Italie’)

What a strange pianist Evgeny Kissin is! Not that his legion of fans seemed to notice, or indeed to care: if this was not quite Lang Lang hysteria, then it contrasted starkly with the reception granted, say, Maurizio Pollini in his recent Bach recital, which musically stood on an altogether more exalted level. Kissin has little in common, I hasten to add, with the meretricious Lang: a crude circus act, Liberace without the jokes – or the style. Yet, given that Kissin will reach forty later this year, the shortcomings – and like everything else he does, they are remarkably consistent – ought to concern all but the least discerning listener; they can no longer be explained away as something that greater experience will necessarily impart to an indubitably gifted prodigy.

First, let it be said that Kissin certainly has the technique for Liszt. Pretty much every bar of his recital proclaimed that, contrasting with the plodding offerings of completist Leslie Howard’s recital last month. The opening Ricordanza, Liszt’s ninth Transcendental Study, displayed Kissin’s technique off to excellent advantage. Not only could he execute Liszt’s increasingly extravagant, though never empty, roulades with a glorious range of colour, the clarity with which he did so was quite extraordinary. He can certainly turn a melody too. Yet ultimately, there was aloofness too, or that was how it seemed at first: as time went on, one realised that what was lacking was any sense of feeling what the composer was saying. What did it all mean? I was still asking that question by the time of the first encore, the Schumann-Liszt Widmung.

The B minor Sonata would prove a greater test, of course, and here, once again despite the technique, one could only ask what was at stake, for nothing much seemed to be. This was no Faustian and/or Christian struggle for life and death. We could argue until the next Liszt centenary about the presence or not of a programme to Liszt’s crowning masterpiece for piano, but there was not the slightest sense that such issues had occurred to Kissin. Where were the metaphysics? His virtuosity was properly transcendental, but for Liszt, this is but a starting point, a means of beating mere virtuosi at their own game in order to achieve musical ends. Much of Kissin’s rendition was mercilessly hard driven. Even the exposition’s second group opened in unyielding fashion; it melted later, but one never sensed that this was felt, that it happened for any reason other than because this was how he played it. Some of the big chords merely sounded brutal. A rare finger-slip in the fugato served mainly to demonstrate the excellent technique elsewhere, but this was a glittering display rather than a human statement that wrestled with the divine. Needless to say, the notorious recapitulation double octaves held no fears for the pianist, but is it not preferable that, in some sense at least, they should? Ultimately, Liszt’s great formal and dramatic achievement sounded like a giant transcendental study, or better a series of studies.

Funérailles was more suited, despite its undeniable emotional content, to Kissin’s approach. For one thing, the sheer volume he elicited from the instrument would have put most pianists to shame. Though he remained detached, the sense of an elegy observed was not entirely inappropriate for Liszt. Yet even here, and more so in the following Vallée d’Obermann, every aspect of the performance, not least Kissin’s rubato, seemed so calculated that there was an impression of a pianist imprisoned. Technique staggered, but is wonder observed (or dictated?) wonder at all?

The three pieces of Venezia e Napoli summed up the problem. In Gondolieri, rhythm was perfectly judged, which sadly meant that it did not quite work, for it should sound ‘natural’ rather than ‘judged’. We are dealing with a gondola rather than an oligarch’s yacht. Liszt’s fioritura was despatched with extraordinary control and clarity, but what did it mean? The Canzone sounded darkly passionate, but whose passion was it? Finally, the Tarantella’s opening suited Kissin to a tee: the way he despatched Liszt’s challenges was straightforwardly stunning. The central section, however, sounded – reader, you will have guessed it – observed rather than experienced, and the final material, in which characteristics of both earlier sections need to be combined, reproduced the first virtue and the second void. In a concerto, a conductor can fill in some of the gaps; in a recital, or at least in this recital, the listener who is not a hollering fan remains acutely aware of what is missing.

Saturday 12 February 2011

Living Monteverdi: Janet Baker and Raymond Leppard; Thomas Allen and Hans Werner Henze

Ottavia's lament from L'incoronazione di Poppea, the greatest (surviving) opera of the seventeenth century, indeed probably the greatest before Mozart:

And here, on stage at Glyndebourne, in a role Dame Janet was surely born to play, Penelope, from Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria:

The entire performance may be seen on DVD.

How distant those days seem - and how I wish I could have known them at first hand - when Monteverdi's music was performed as music, as part of a living, dramatic tradition, rather than as a dry archaeological exercise or a mere freak show. (Nikolaus Harnoncourt was a different matter entirely, but he is probably as unfashionable today as Leppard.)  Perhaps our only hope, and it is a slim one, is for composers again to re-imagine Monteverdi's music. Here is the Prologue from Henze's tremendous realisation. Has Monteverdi's music ever sounded so utterly of the Mediterranean? Sir Thomas Allen, Ulysses in this 1985 Salzburg Festival production, discussed it with me in a 2009 interview (for which, click here). Jeffrey Tate conducts the ORF Symphony Orchestra, and what a splendid supporting cast we have too:

In March, we shall see what ENO makes of Ulisse...

Friday 11 February 2011

Some thoughts on Richard Strauss's Capriccio

Capriccio has been much on my mind over the past week. Not only am I part way through writing a chapter concerned with Strauss; I gave a paper at the University of Surrey on Capriccio and also gave a talk at the Peterhouse History Society on Music in the Third Reich (starting with Triumph of the Will and moving via Furtwängler to Strauss). Here are a few thoughts that have arisen (some taken from an earlier Edinburgh Festival review, for which I hope I may be forgiven).

For what it is worth, it seems to me that, if we must confront the 'facts' with which people are so obsessed when it comes to the Third Reich, Strauss acted in a pretty ordinary way: neither ‘great’ nor ‘disgraceful’. Perhaps that in itself is a problem for us: we find it easier to deal with heroism or evil; perhaps we fear that we, with our everyday concerns and fears would actually have acted in too similar a way to Strauss, yet he has no excuse, since he was a Composer – and that should be a force for good in the world. Strauss certainly proved no hero, though there were occasions when he acted well, as in his defence of Stefan Zweig. He was less of a figure of opposition, say, than Furtwängler, whom many consider nevertheless deeply compromised; there is no equivalent to the anger expressed in some of Furtwängler’s wartime performances, though there is some equivalent to that expressed privately in Furtwängler’s notebooks, albeit perhaps more disdain than anger. Sadly – and one can hardly help feeling a certain sadness, if one cares about Strauss’s music – politics were not of interest to him; art was. There were particular personal difficulties: his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren, for instance, whom, with considerable difficulty, he managed to save from being sent to a concentration camp. That seems to have been a reason for accepting the presidency in 1933 of the Reichsmusikkammer – that, and it may be noted, an apparently genuine desire to safeguard the performance of music by Jewish composers, such as Mendelssohn and Mahler. That post came to an end the following year, however, upon the Gestapo’s interception of the letter to Zweig, in which Strauss protested in no uncertain terms about Nazi cultural policy towards Jewish artists. Likewise, Strauss refused to have Zweig’s name as librettist removed from the programme for the premiere of Die schweigsame Frau; Goebbels refused to attend, and the work was soon proscribed. The former is just as one might expect, I might add, for someone who, whatever he believes or does not about anyone else, does believe in art in a way that goes far beyond self-interest. One might well dissent from such a world-view but it is far from cynical.

Capriccio itself of course originated in an idea from Stefan Zweig, derived from his British Library researches into eighteenth-century opera; taking his cue from a rival of Lorenzo da Ponte, Abbé Giovanni Battista Casti, Zweig had wished to create a new work exploring one of the fundamental issues in operatic creation, namely the relationship between words and music. Upon his flight from Austria, Zweig had hoped that Joseph Gregor would take up the plan for a libretto, but Strauss, always a productively difficult taskmaster in these respects, found Gregor’s proposals wanting, eventually proposing to the conductor, Clemens Krauss, that he take on the task. Krauss and Strauss ended up writing the text in collaboration, though the music was of course entirely Strauss’s own. What arose was a metatheatrical conversation piece, very much in the line of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal Ariadne auf Naxos. Set in the salon of Countess Madeleine outside Paris in 1775, that is at the time of controversy over Gluck’s operatic reforms, we witness disputes between the countess, her brother, the composer Flamand, the poet Olivier, and the theatrical impresario La Roche, over the nature of music, drama, and opera; the Count hits upon the idea that the events arising should themselves be turned into an opera, a collaboration between the artists present. The Countess, at least on the surface, proves as incapable of choosing æsthetically between words and music as she is romantically between poet and composer. Unlike Strauss’s preceding opera, Capriccio received wartime performances, being premiered at the Nationaltheater in Munich on 28 October 1942, and moving on to Dresden and Vienna in 1944.

The opening string sextet – the conceit being that it is itself a new work by the composer, Flamand – had already been performed at the villa of Baldur von Schirach, the Vienna Gauleiter. Schirach would receive twenty years imprisonment in Spandau prison at Nuremberg; he was one of the two defendants, the other being Albert Speer, who spoke against Hitler. Krauss, whom it is probably fair to describe as a skilled careerist, managed to secure the premiere by persuading Goebbels, with whom Strauss was once again out of favour, to assume patronage of the occasion.

What, then, do we make of an opera conceived and first performed in such circumstances? It is hardly a work of protest, though how could it be? In what I am tempted to call its ‘aristocratic’ refinement, both verbally and musically, it stands at one level about as distant from the catastrophe enveloping Europe as one could imagine. Yet when one begins to think about it a little more deeply, all sorts of difficulties, intentional or otherwise, emerge. This might seem facile, but the very setting in France has resonances. Moreover, To have the Countess comparing the musical merits of Rameau vis-à-vis Couperin at this time in Nazi Germany is perhaps more telling than one might think. Such composers were not part of the musical mainstream, even leaving aside matters of nationality; indeed, many composers, let alone others, would not necessarily have been well acquainted with their music, though Strauss certainly was – and showed through his composition that he was, sometimes through direct quotation, for instance the ‘Air italien’ from Rameau’s Les indes galantes, when the composer is mentioned, at other times through allusion. There seems, then, to be an assertion of humanist, perhaps aristocratic, values, lightly done, as it had to be, but which connects very well with his increasing re-immersion in the work of Goethe. The apolitical, especially at times such as this, might actually be read as highly political, whatever the straightforward intention.

Arguably true, perhaps, but the Rococo – or should that be neo-Rococo? – setting cannot help but seem like a refuge, a retreat. (We are back, perhaps to the Rosenkavalier problem, yet intensified, for retreating from harmonic experiment after Elektra is one thing, withdrawing from a world of war and genocide quite another. At least that is how many of us would see it…) Even in eighteenth-century terms, the aristocratic salon with exquisite manners and rarefied æsthetic debate contrasts sharply with what we know was to come after 1789: the alleged ‘truth’ of revolutionary art, exemplified by, the studio of Jacques-Louis David, let alone the Paris of the sans-culottes, seems distant indeed. Once again, masks and games both gratify and haunt us: Straussian detachment and irony.

And since so much of the drama concerns itself with artistic patronage, we can hardly help consider the patronage of Schirach and Goebbels. What then, are we to make of a work in which it is the patroness, the Countess, who insofar as anyone can, resolves dramatic conflicts? Having said that, if, as seems clear, the representation of La Roche takes an affectionate cue from the Jewish impresario, Max Reinhardt, an old and valued collaborator with Strauss from beyond even the foundation of the Salzburg Festival, indeed from the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier, then letting La Roche/Reinhardt have his say, above all in his dignified panegyric to the theatre, is not without its importance.

A recent production from the Cologne Opera, which I saw at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007, heightened the contrast between political reality and work, and made a powerful case for political reality as part both of the work and our inevitable response to it. That contrasts strongly and tellingly with the San Francisco DVD I have (see above YouTube link) as ‘traditional’ a production as one might conceive, but which one necessarily reads in a different way once one has started to think about these issues. In one of the archetypal operas about the making of an opera, it is more than usually appropriate to add another narrative layer, in which the era of the making of Capriccio itself features. Our first sight, disturbingly set against the beauties of the sextet – some might be tempted to call it the Schirach sextet – was of the Wehrmacht marching down the Champs-Elysées. The opera therefore remained in France, somewhere outside Paris. The bulk of the action, Capriccio's creation of an opera as opposed to the production's creation of Capriccio, took place in eighteenth-century costume: a final house party, in which the coming of the Gestapo might be put out of mind for a couple of hours. One might have been tempted to wonder: is this perhaps what Strauss himself was doing?

There were from time to time reminders of approaching fate, which grew more numerous as time – a crucially important concept – went on. Every aspect of the production, be it 'political' or 'aesthetic', showed the dichotomy to be false and worked inexorably towards the denouement: the Count's preparation of a cyanide capsule, the last vain attempt to answer or perhaps to evade not only the vexed question of words or music, but arguably to answer or to evade other questions too, and perhaps most chillingly of all, the prompter, Monsieur Taupe, replete with his yellow star, being left behind by the departure of the main party and offered his own carriage ‘home’. In this context, the actress Clairon’s constant refrains that she must depart for Paris sounded differently indeed.

The final scene then depicted the Countess saying farewell. Who knew when or indeed whether she would ever return after being escorted to the railway station? And yet, there was another, equally important side to what was going on. Strauss's music arguably offered some sense of hope, ‘utopian’ in a sense Ernst Bloch might have understood, against this terrible backdrop. Whether the hope were vain or even irresponsible remained unanswered, at least explicitly. Yet just as surely as music always wins out against the words, for the apparently insoluble argument is answered by Strauss in the glory of the closing music set against the banality of the Major-Domo's announcement that supper is served, so perhaps, in Strauss’s very own sense, does art against its surrounding evil. The former certainly does not prevent the other, but nor does it necessarily submit entirely. For the music to the final scene, some of the most heartrending Strauss ever wrote, becomes all the more moving when it confronts rather than retreats from evil. Or at least when, masks or otherwise, it is made to do so. Is the mask slipping, or is it just deployed in a way that utterly convinces the listener? We should not expect – and yet we seem to do so – Strauss necessarily to know himself. Indeed, as Strauss read in Goethe’s Zahme Xenien, which he would consider setting, though instead he wrote Metamorphosen, ‘Niemand wird sich Selber kennen/sich von seinem Selbst-Ich trennen’ (‘No one can know himself/separate himself from his very self.’)

If the beauty – the Mondscheinmusik simply had to begin with a horn solo – of Strauss’s music and, of course, its irony enable us to see more clearly and to ask questions, if he stands as an object of suspicion in the eyes of conventional, whether justified or otherwise, ways of conceiving of music and morality, then we might consider him rather differently. Hans Werner Henze’s accusation that Strauss had never given a thought to the moral function of his work seems untrue; it was, rather, rare for that function to provide the intentional subject matter of his work, quite another matter. Though even that is perhaps untrue: some of the works after all not only delight artistically but are in some senses about artistic delight. For many, Strauss included, that is a moral function – and I should like to think that Henze and other decriers of Strauss would recognise that too.

Philharmonia/Salonen: 'Infernal Dance' - Bartók and Stravinsky, 10 February 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Bartók – Cantata Profana
Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Attila Fekete (tenor)
Michele Kalmandi (bass-baritone)
Gulbenkian Choir (chorus master: Jorge Matta)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

The Rite of Spring drove much of the audience wild – well, relatively so, for this was a Royal Festival Hall audience, and a considerable number as ever jumped up to depart as soon as the music was over – but, for me, it was the Bartók pieces that received the more convincing performances. This was the second concert in the Philharmonia’s series, ‘Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók’. One can always quibble about the non-inclusion of certain works; my gripe would be the absence of the Four Orchestral Pieces, op.12, surely one of Bartók’s most suggestive works as he confronts the explorations of the Second Viennese School. Sadly, though, few conductors other than Boulez seem interested. Nevertheless, the present series, supported by the Meyer Foundation, deserves our support and gratitude, not least since it breaks free of the tyranny of anniversaries, and brings Bartók’s music to our attention simply because it is worthy of that attention.

Op.12 might be missing, but the rarely performed Cantata profana was not. Doubtless part of the reason for infrequency of performance is the text: soloists, let alone choirs, are not always highly proficient in Hungarian. Bartók’s songs suffer similarly. The Hungarian text is Bartók’s own translation from a Romanian epic, which tells the tale of an old man whose nine sons, ‘blooms of his proud manhood’ in Thomas Land’s English translation, pursue a deer and its magic tracks, and are then transformed into stags. Though the man finds them and beseeches them to return, not least on account of their mother’s suffering, they will not: ‘we must drink our fill not from your silver goblets but from cool mountain springs’. It is a wonderful piece, which appeared in Sir Georg Solti’s final recording, aptly enough his ‘homecoming’ to Hungary, with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. I was surprised upon rehearing it, to note how close some of the orchestral introduction’s harmonies sound to Busoni’s Doktor Faust. Perhaps it is mere coincidence, or common influences, but it is far from impossible that Bartók might have known the score, adding a new connection to those more often cited and indeed explored during this series. The opening chorus showed a strong narrative drive, in both verbal and musical senses, the music clearly related to yet not dictated by the words. When the time came for solos in the second movement, Attila Fekete was rather tested by the difficult tessitura. His was a forthright rendition, hardly subtle, but often uncertain in intonation. Initially, Michele Kalmandi’s performance was similar, though the tuning was always less wild; however, he consistently impressed later on. Indeed, both baritone and orchestra sounded very close to the world of Bluebeard’s Castle. Plangent Philharmonia woodwind proved evocative of the delights and sadness of the forest. The dignity of the brass, including three trombones and tuba, was greatly appreciated in the third and final movement. Both Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Gulbenkian Choir ensured clarity in Bartók’s counterpoint, the toing-and-froing of choral responses honouring, though never pedantically so, the Passions of Bach.

The Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta followed. Salonen’s shaping of the first movement was impressive: patient yet inexorable in its cumulative power and remission, ensuring unambiguous projection of Bartók’s fugal arch. Piano (Elizabeth Burley) and celesta (Helen Crayford) made their presence felt in the second movement, likewise the fine kettledrum playing of Andrew Smith. Salonen ensured that Bartók’s neo-Lisztian technique of transformation was audible and meaningful. The Adagio sounded magical, not least on account of Hugh Webb’s harp-playing. During the final, as elsewhere, the quality and depth of the Philharmonia’s string sound and the interplay between the two string groups proved a joy, though there were a couple of minor instances of ensemble uncertainty. There were times here, however, when Salonen’s stopping and starting detracted from a sense of the whole; his deliberation often worked wonders, but the integration was not always quite there. The level of execution was very high, though, for which the orchestra deserves praise indeed.

The same might also be said of The Rite of Spring. Rarely if ever have I heard the Philharmonia on more thrilling form. Yet Salonen’s direction veered between fascinating revelation and ‘orchestral showpiece’ brashness. Making a sense of the whole is not an easy matter, especially in the context of Stravinsky’s apparent anti-Teutonicism, yet some form of or substitute for the organic needs to be found, as for instance Boulez, in his constantly evolving interpretations, has always done. Salonen started off cool, but ‘Augurs of Spring’ brought intriguing connections with, verging upon reminiscences of, Petrushka. One heard them again, just as vividly, in the ‘Ritual of the Rival Tribes’. Yet the Jekyll to his Hyde reared his head in between: one does not expect the Rite to be consistently soft or even consistently subtle, but the brass was really too loud, at least for the acoustic. The performance was certainly exciting, or at least excitable, and sections received intensive individual characterisation, but did it quite cohere? It was almost as if – perhaps this actually was the case?! – Salonen was attempting at times to exemplify in performance Bartók’s own claim, mentioned in the programme note by Malcolm Gillies, that a ‘mosaic-like construction’ was sometimes ‘broken’ by Stravinsky’s overlaying of various repetitive chord sequences. The second part elicited similar interpretative contrast. Its introduction was superb, full of subtleties of colouration, its mysteriousness intensified by breathtaking instrumental clarity from the Philharmonia. And yet, when the music heated up, the performance, though marked by outstanding orchestral playing in itself, it was often far from clear how what we heard was connected to what we had heard or to what we were about to hear. Some passages therefore sounded robbed of their context and strayed dangerously close to American minimalism. (That may well have been the intention.) The Philharmonia’s execution certainly outstripped that of the Orchestre national de France in last year’s underrated Proms performance, yet Daniele Gatti’s subtler approach, one mishap notwithstanding, garnered greater musical laurels.