Thursday 31 March 2011

Siegfried, Opéra national de Paris, 30 March 2011

Opéra Bastille

Siegfried – Torsten Kerl
Mime – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
The Wanderer – Juha Uusitalo
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Fafner – Stephen Milling
Erda – Qiu Lin Zhang
Woodbird – Elena Tsallagova
Brünnhilde – Katarina Dalayman

Günter Krämer (director)
Jürgen Backmann (set designs)
Falk Bauer (costumes)
Diego Leetz (lighting)
Otto Pichler (choreography)

Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

Mime (Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke) and Siegfried (Torsten Kerl)
 (Image: Elisa Haberer)

What to do for a Siegfried, or indeed for a Siegfried? Our age stands, not without reason, suspicious of charismatic heroes. Nietzsche would doubtless have pointed to our décadence and likened our descent to that from Homerian epic and the dramas of Æschylus and Sophocles, to the dramas of Euripides he so despised. After Freud, we tend to prefer the neo-Euripidean psychology of anti-heroes – not that psychology is absent in Wagner; after Hitler, we tend to prefer the venal sham of so-called representative democracy to those who would overthrow it, out of fear, a quality quite unknown to Siegfried, that we might arrive at something even worse. Either way, we remain ensnared by what Adorno and Horkheimer so tellingly termed the dialectic of enlightenment, which they traced as far back even as Homer’s Odysseus. Yet Siegfried remains. We struggle to find anyone who can sing the role, let alone to believe in him, at least in the drama that bears his name, the betrayals and tragedy of Götterdämmerung perhaps speaking more easily to us. Siegfried remains too, the ‘scherzo’ of the Ring, an aptly Beethovenian description – Wagner rarely sounds more Beethovenian than at the end of the first act – yet a challenge to an age that rarely seems able to deal with Beethoven, at least the symphonic Beethoven, either. We can only marvel at Furtwängler, quite unable, it would seem, to match him, rarely even to approach him. Yet it is not so straightforward even as that, for the tale of the boy without fear becomes intertwined with that of Wotan’s final renunciation. Of the four Ring dramas, Siegfried makes least sense by itself; it can only be understood as the third part of the cycle. Performers and directors need not only to balance the two, but to bring them into fruitful conflict.

If it would be an exaggeration to say that Günter Krämer straightforwardly sets his Siegfried in the 1960s, there are certainly elements of that era to the setting, which makes chronological sense in terms of the Speer-like designs for Valhalla at its height in Die Walküre. Mime appears to live in a relatively swish, if undeniably bad-taste, apartment. The plant growing there looks as though it might explain a good deal, including the bear’s exit through a lift: were both Siegfried and Mime hallucinating? The time-setting makes a good fit with Wagner’s conception too, given that hopes for revolution were still in the air: a Junge Siegfried twinned with les événements is far from absurd, especially in Paris, though it is a moot point whether Peter Wapnewski’s ‘rebel without a consciousness’ (Richard Wagner in seinen Helden (Munich, 1978), p.169) should have lost it through smoking marijuana rather than never having possessed it in the first place. Designs for this act are garish, verging upon psychedelic.

However, a crucial aspect of Mime’s portrayal edges us into the 1970s. Perhaps it would be hoping too much for subtlety in this respect, since it might therefore have gone unnoticed, but Mime appears, through Krämer’s direction, Falk Bauer’s costumes, and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s acting on stage, to be an outrageously caricatured homosexual, hand gestures, dancing and all, with definite tendencies towards transvestism at least. (Is that yet another dig at Wagner and his pink silk, I wonder?) Given that (s)he appears as something of a cross between John Inman and Mollie Sugden, I could not help but wonder whether Krämer were a devotee of Are You Being Served? Indeed I half expected Miss Johannes Brahms to enter stage left à la Baba the Turk. The concept takes us away from endless debates, whatever one thinks about them, concerning anti-Semitism, and retains the character’s outsider status, and actually seems to be permissible on stage, in a way that a ‘Jewish’ caricature of Mime, were one so inclined, would not be. It also opens up a new angle upon the echt-heterosexual Siegfried’s instinctive aversion towards a parent who claims to be both mother and father, though is actually neither, and who certainly has no offspring of his own. Whilst preparing to forge, Siegfried – immediately, one assumes, bien dans sa peau – mockingly mimics Mime’s gestures; clearly the outcast’s place is in the kitchen. Whether we consider it all a bit of fun, veering dangerously close to homophobia, or even, implausibly, making a serious point concerning gay adoption, is probably more a matter of taste, or at least sensitivity, than anything else. It occurred to me that someone with post-modernist inclination towards hyphens and parentheses might have entitled the first act ‘Mime: (A) His/her-(s)tory’; it is certainly one way to address the paucity of women in the drama. Perhaps a thesis has been launched. At any rate, a possible way of representing Siegfried’s upbringing somewhat overshadows, indeed becomes, the plot.

The Wanderer arrives as a tramp: fair enough. In an interesting touch, he sheds his vagrant’s clothes to become a more recognisable chief of the gods as his wager, whose brutality is often glossed over, with Mime progresses. Brutality, in terms of the aftermath of war, is certainly present in Neidhöhle too. The staging of the second act Prelude is especially interesting. Nude soldiers – although, thanks to Diego Leetz’s thickly atmospheric green lighting, it is quite some time before one knows whether they are nude – carry the Nibelung hoard in dragon formation. (One sees what one hears in the music: an all too rare occurrence in stage direction.) The hoard is composed of crates, which, one eventually makes out, have ‘Rheingold’ inscribed upon them. At the end of the Prelude, the soldiers open the crates, to reveal the weaponry with which the hoard will be defended. Rentier capital – Fafner’s Proudhonian ‘What I lie on, I own’ – constitutes power as lethal as Donner’s hammer or indeed the machine guns we see. Fafner, when he actually appears, is carried aloft, replete with crown: there is something tellingly phantasmagorical to this portrayal, almost Wizard of Oz-like. And that, of course, is at least part of the key to the Tarnhelm’s magic.

If that hits home with considerable dramatic punch, other elements of the production, especially later on, convince less. The Woodbird’s representation on stage as another wartime refugee will not please everyone, and it is a decidedly peculiar conception of an unsullied Voice of Nature. Whatever one thinks of that, it seems needlessly confused to have her played by an actress, whilst Elena Tsallagova sings the role – on this occasion, not without uncertainly – offstage. The office environment of the Wotan-Erda scene does no particular harm, but makes no particular point either: it seems somewhat clichéd. However, there is tightening of tension thereafter. The confrontation between Wotan and Siegfried for once genuinely seems a real struggle. Wagner’s emphasis might have changed from his original conception, but this is still the moment when the sword of revolution shatters the spear of state. For all our – and in many respects, the production’s – reluctance to deal with revolutionary heroism, this deed of an Hegelian world-historical hero registers with surprising force. The backdrop to the final scene both confuses and illuminates. By returning us to the Walküre and Rheingold Speer set, some form of continuity is registered, likewise the changing fortunes of ‘GERMANIA’, now down to only its first three letters. One has to accept that this is just a backdrop rather than Valhalla itself, for the sake of any sense of place.

What possesses genuine dramatic power is the idea of having Valhalla’s heroes, old-fashioned in (almost) genuine Teutonic helmets and so forth, on stage above what ought to be Brünnhilde’s rock, ready and yet unable to defend or perhaps even to attain her, unlike Siegfried, the apparent harbinger of a new age – or should that be a New Age? Wotan, or rather, as I discovered at the curtain call, his body double, staggers up the steps, yet has to be assisted by his heroes, and even then it remains a struggle. So the balance or dialectic between the two principal plot strands, if not perfect, is reinstated. Moreover, the spatial separation between Brünnhilde and her old life is rendered glaringly apparent: she is now ‘purely human’, or, as we shall doubtless discover, ‘human, all too human’. Balanced against that signal achievement, I did not find much sense of annihilation, whether political or metaphysical, at the end. Perhaps the words are held to accomplish that by themselves, and perhaps they should, though my experience is that, somewhat bafflingly, audiences often seem oblivious to what precisely Siegfried and Brünnhilde have actually been singing.

In the pit, Philippe Jordan seemed to have the ‘scherzo’ element well in hand. Masculine drive, delineating the trajectory of Siegfried’s behaviour, was counterbalanced by a welcome ‘French’ – perhaps ‘feminine’ – range of colour in the orchestra. Adorno would surely have applauded the sense of phantasmagoria, which yet did not seem, as sometimes it did during the Berlin Philharmonic’s Aix-en-Provence performances, to be present merely for its own sake. For the most part, the orchestra was on fine form, the ‘Forest Murmurs’ magical indeed. Moreover, I do not think I have heard more impressively resounding kettledrums in this work than here: not a trivial point in recounting the tale of Fafner. It seemed, however, that the early third-act slackening of tension onstage was mirrored in the pit too. The structure of this act is especially difficult to hold together: I have heard far worse, but there were moments of meandering.

Ablinger-Sperrhacke’s vocal performance was as impressive as his stage portrayal: the first act really was Mime’s story. His wheedling second-act deceptions were just as impressive, likewise the ‘evil stock-jobbers’ satire’ (Hans Mayer, ‘The “Ring” as a bourgeois parable. Wieland Wagner’s new conception and its realisation in Bayreuth,’ in Programmhefte der Bayreuther Festspiele, booklet for Götterdämmerung, 1966, p.33) confrontation with Peter Sidhom’s verbally attentive Alberich. Juha Uusitalo handled well the changing demands of role and production: both Wanderer and the emerging-returning Wotan were finely characterised and well delivered. Stephen Milling’s Fafner, however, threatened to overshadow all and sundry; his was an excellent performance in every way. The deep beauty of Qiu Lin Zhang’s voice and the dignity of her stage presence made for a notable Erda, though there were moments of less than perfect intonation. It is a cruel thing to leave Brünnhilde’s entry so late and then to expect her to do what she must. Katarina Dalayman’s delivery was not perfect but nevertheless offered moments of scintillation that augur well for Götterdämmerung. What of the hero himself? Torsten Kerl emerged with considerable credit. His resources, quite understandably, were sapped somewhat during the third act, but he recovered for a powerful final duet. Kerl was surprisingly vigorous throughout: his vocal reserves would appear to have grown considerably. What, then, to do for a Siegfried or a Siegfried? One could do much worse than start here.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Fidelio, Royal Opera, 29 March 2011

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Leonore – Nina Stemme
Florestan – Endrik Wottrich
Rocco – Kurt Rydl
Marzelline – Elizabeth Watts
Jaquino – Steven Ebel
Don Pizarro – John Wegner
Don Fernando – Sir Willard White
First Prisoner – Ji Hyun Kim
Second Prisoner – Dawid Kimberg

Jürgen Flimm (director)
Daniel Dooner (associate director)
Robert Israel (set designs)
Florence von Gerkan (costumes)
Duane Schuler (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)

A major attraction to this Fidelio had been the opportunity to hear Kirill Petrenko in the pit. Unfortunately, back problems rendered him unable to continue rehearsals. Petrenko has been named the next General Music Director in Munich and will also lead the 2013 Bayreuth Ring. Though Covent Garden audiences have had chance to admire him before, in my case in the 2009 Rosenkavalier and, some time previously, in a splendid double-bill of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung, his absence was a disappointment. Sir Mark Elder, in situ for rehearsals of the forthcoming production of The Tsar’s Bride, was his replacement, though David Syrus will take over the end of the run. Elder, known principally for later music, took some time to find his feet here. The overture married unsteadiness with charmless adherence to the metronome. Strings sometimes struggled to make themselves heard, though from a purely orchestral perspectives, horns and woodwind sounded quite magical. As can often be the case, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House outplayed its conductor. The first number continued along an unsteady path, mixing a somewhat Italianate lightness – doubtless some would claim to find this refreshing, though I found it straightforwardly inappropriate – with arbitrary tempo changes, suggestive less of Furtwängler than of a caricature of Mengelberg by someone who has never heard him. Elements of such arbitrary juxtaposition remained later on, but for the most part it was a surer Fidelio that emerged. There were, however, a few too many discrepancies between pit and stage, none more noticeable than during Don Fernando’s music in the final scene. The orchestra continued to play very well indeed, certainly far better than it had under the dispiriting leadership of Antonio Pappano last time around in 2007. My suspicion would be that Elder’s reading will settle down in subsequent performances, though there are only three left that he will conduct.

A vocal report must also be mixed. Nina Stemme, though she did not quite nail the climax of ‘O, namenlose Freude,’ was in every other respect very impressive indeed, quite justifying her reputation, fine intonation combined with Classical purity of line, no matter what hurdles Beethoven placed in her way. She made a relatively plausible ‘boy’ too, for those who care. Endrik Wottrich, however, was simply not up to the task. I shall doubtless be forever spoiled by the staggering achievement of Jonas Kaufmann as Florestan, but odious comparisons aside, Wottrich proved both feeble of tone and unable to hit a startling proportion of his notes. Kurt Rydl stood out by virtue of credible delivery of his dialogue; the rest of the cast tended to speak as if in a foreign-language school play. Unfortunately, Rydl’s wobble became too distracting even for those of us inclined to charity on account of past glories. Elizabeth Watts, however, made a sparkling Marzelline and Steven Ebel a similarly winning Jaquino. John Wegner’s Pizarro was darker and more convincingly malevolent than many of the cartoon villains we often endure: a significant achievement that. Willard White’s Fernando did little to convince, however, again showing a singer past his prime. Second Prisoner Dawid Kimberg shone in his brief moment of glory – not for the first time. The Royal Opera Chorus was truly excellent, full of sound, which could yet be withdrawn when necessary, and startlingly impressive in diction, putting many German choruses to shame.

As for Jürgen Flimm’s production, this time revived by Daniel Dooner, it remains a depressing affair. Perhaps less full of arbitrary goings on than last time, it seemed still more lacking in coherence. Updated to what appears to be a mid-twentieth century Latin American country, albeit to no particular purpose, there is little or no focus upon Beethoven’s burning flame of freedom; Marzelline’s ironing makes more of a (tiresome) impression. Far from feeling enclosed and oppressive, Florestan’s cell is vast, so much so that one can almost understand why Leonore fails to see him to start with. The final scene simply falls apart, direction of the characters faltering whilst garishly clad prisoners’ spouses and children parade around. It feels as aimless as that…

Sunday 27 March 2011

Heinz Holliger in Profile, 'Childhood and Encryptions' - Schumann, Holliger, and Berg, 26 March 2011

Hall One, Kings Place

Schumann – Pieces from Album für die Jugend, op.68, interspersed with:
Holliger – Duöli (2008/2010)
Holliger – Præludium, Arioso, and Passacaglia, for solo harp (1987)
Berg – Chamber Concerto

Ursula Holliger (harp)
Alexander Lonquich (piano)
Muriel Cantoreggi, Florence Cooke, Alexander Harris, and Curtis Wilkinson (violins)
Wind players from the Royal Academy of Music
Heinz Holliger (conductor)

This was the second of two concerts, curated by Christoph Richter, welcoming Heinz Holliger to Kings Place. We did not hear him as oboist, but we heard him both as composer and as conductor – as well as lecturer in a pre-concert analytical talk on Berg’s Chamber Concerto. The first concert had been entitled ‘Fantasies and Journeys’, offering music by Sandor Veress, Schumann, Holliger, and Kurtág. I wondered whether the second, ‘Childhood and Encryptions,’ might have made more sense in the context of having heard the first. As it was, ‘childhood’ inhabited the first half, and ‘encryptions’ the second; it was not always clear what connected the two.

However, there was much to enjoy. Alexander Lonquich offered an excellent selection from Schumann’s Album für die Jugend, both precise and Classically alluring of tone; I should have been happy to have heard more, and suspect that I cannot have been the only audience member taken back to my own childhood assaults on Schumann’s exquisite miniatures. It was interesting to hear interspersed with the Schumann pieces Holliger’s Duöli, the work title as those of the individual pieces given in his native Swiss German. Whether one wish, outside a Holliger series, to hear all of these violin ‘duos’ (confusingly, they occasionally involve three or four players) is another question. I am sure they work very well as teaching pieces, rather like Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, to which they sometimes sound close in language. There is humour, whether in the titles, for instance, ‘It is really not so difficult,’ or ‘Two Little Pieces that do not quite fit together,’ or in the additional noises (cat-song, the canon for two or three snorers) the instrumentalists are sometimes called upon to provide. Moreover, there are moments of considerable beauty, for instance the droplet music, which sounds as one might expect, or the occasional ventures into Nono-like near-inaudibility. There are also instances of a somewhat soft-centred version of Lachenmann-like re-examination of the violin’s possibilities, though without Lachenmann’s intensity. It was encouraging to note that two young violinists from the Junior Guildhall, Alexander Harris and Curtis Wilkinson, stood up perfectly well in comparison with their professional colleagues, Muriel Cantoreggi and Florence Cooke. Nevertheless, a selection might prove a better way to programme the pieces, for a certain monotony, compositional variety notwithstanding, sets in.

Holliger’s wife, Ursula, opened the second half with the Præludium, Arioso, and Passacaglia. The piece is dedicated ‘for Ursula for 8.6 and 7.7’. We are not informed what these numbers signify, but are told that they form a structural role in the music as a whole. (I am afraid I should need to be informed how…) Whatever the meaning of these encryptions, it is a fine addition to the solo harp repertoire, combining neo-Baroque form, or at least an echo thereof, with decidedly twentieth-century style. Ursula Holliger was clearly in command throughout.

Finally – and this was what I had been waiting for – came a splendid performance of Berg’s Chamber Concerto. Holliger has good form in Berg: I highly commend his recording of the Violin Concerto with Thomas Zehetmair. Having heard a detailed description of the various encryptions in the earlier lecture, it was all the easier to receive the work as much as a dramatic exploration of various Romantic ‘characters’ – Berg, Schoenberg, Webern, Rudolf Kolisch, and so on – and their interaction. The performances were certainly impressive, woodwind players from the Royal Academy of Music proving full of drive and character. One could truly relish their engagement with the score – and doubtless with the conductor too. Lonquich proved an estimable pianist, finely balancing post-Romantic expressive considerations with complexity and structure. Cantoreggi played the violin part; initially she sounded somewhat disconnected, taking a little while to get into her stride, but when she did, she proved impassioned indeed. Holliger’s overall command of Berg’s form was as clear as his attentiveness to detail. I have never understood why some people claim to love Berg’s music yet to be put off by this work. In its marriage of labyrinthine complexity and hyper-expressivity it could hardly be more typical of the composer. A very good performance such as this, or the outstanding West-Eastern Divan Orchestra performance at the 2009 Proms, ought to convince any remaining doubters. It was interesting, moreover, to note how different the work sounds in a small hall: much more 'concerto', much less 'chamber'.

Saturday 26 March 2011

Boulez rehearsing the Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Mahler

After the grotesquely disfigured rendition of the Third Symphony's finale we recently endured from Sir Simon Rattle (click here for a brief review and comments from others), what a relief it was to come across the following. Though only a rehearsal, prior to a Carnegie Hall performance, line and meaning, quite absent from that Berlin Philharmonic performance, are gloriously reinstated. Sentiment is never confused with sentimentality; musical values are always paramount. Pierre Boulez was substituting for Claudio Abbado, who had just conducted the orchestra in the same work at the Proms (click here for review). This, make no mistake, is the real thing. Even from a 'mere' rehearsal extract, I was moved to tears. A little taste, then, of what I experienced in the complete 2007 cycle from Boulez and Daniel Barenboim (my first ever blog post):

Mahler and the Philharmonia

As regular readers may recall, I have reservations concerning the present Mahler anniversary goings-on. However, for those less jaded than I, there remains a great deal to enjoy this year. The Philharmonia Orchestra is about to launch its symphony cycle under the baton of Lorin Maazel. Going beyond the concerts themselves, the Philharmonia has also launched a Mahler mini-site (click here), replete with interviews and a splendid collection of programme notes from Julian Johnson. Here are three videos, which may be of interest:

Lorin Maazel on Mahler's Music

Lorin Maazel on Mahler, the Man

Interview with Sarah Connolly

Friday 25 March 2011

Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria, English National Opera, 24 March 2011

Young Vic Theatre

(sung in English, as The Return of Ulysses)

Penelope (Pamela Helen Stephen)
Images: Johan Persson
L’Humana Fragilità, Pisandro – Iestyn Morris
Il Tempo, Antinoo – Francisco Javier Borda
La Fortuna, Minerva – Ruby Hughes
Amore, Melanto – Katherine Manley
Penelope – Pamela Helen Stephen
Ericlea – Diana Montague
Eurimaco – Thomas Walker
Ulisse – Tom Randle
Minerva – Ruby Hughes
Eumete – Nigel Robson
Iro – Brian Galliford
Telemaco – Thomas Hobbs

Benedict Andrews (director)
Börkur Jónsson (set designs)
Alice Babidge (costumes)
Jon Clark (lighting)
Sean Bacon (video)

Members of the Orchestra of the English National Opera
Jonathan Cohen (conductor)

Minerva (Ruby Hughes) and Ulisse (Tom Randle)
ENO has hit form again, offering my best operatic experience since Elektra last summer in Salzburg. And with Monteverdi: I should hardly have expected it, not least since my prejudices lie very much against contemporary performance practice and translation of his libretti from Italian. The intimate, verging upon claustrophobic, space of the Young Vic was doubtless crucial: a proper rather than merely fashionable experience of theatre ‘in the round’, which could never have worked in the Coliseum.

Though in a literal sense it would be quite true to say that I had travelled over the course of two evenings from musical drama of the present day (Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s new opera, Kommilitonen!) towards the early days of opera, the statement might be found misleading, for this was a thoroughly modern Monteverdi we encountered. Kommilitonen! proved enjoyable but also a little dated. Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, as one of the two surviving late operas by Monteverdi, already stands quite distinct from his first, L’Orfeo, let alone from slightly earlier works by other composers. The dramatic orbit of Ulisse and L’incoronazione di Poppea almost inevitably puts one in mind of Monteverdi’s contemporary, Shakespeare; both dramatists remain strikingly modern, not least when contrasted with many of their seventeenth- and eighteenth-century successors. Purcell notwithstanding, one must look to Gluck and then to Mozart to find a musical dramatist fully worthy of the honour of heir, if unwittingly so, to Monteverdi. Yet, if Poppea still shocks to the core, its devastating psychological realism placed in the service of a truly amoral, (quasi-)historical tale, its Homeric predecessor has struggled somewhat to escape its shadows. ENO’s decision to devote its now-annual excursion to the Young Vic to Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, or The Return of Ulysses (to his Homeland), was therefore welcome indeed – and must surely have convinced any doubters that this is a work fully worthy to be ranked with its more celebrated sibling. As ever, there remained the problem of translation into English, but this translation, Christopher Cowell’s, was much better than most of those recently foisted upon us: it respected Giacomo Bodoaro’s libretto after Homer, for which many thanks.

Three suitors (L-R: Iestyn Hughes, Samuel Boden, Francisco
Javier Borda), Penelope, and Minerva
The Prologue makes it quite clear that this is a contemporary drama. Human Frailty is abused, Abu Ghraib style, by Time, Fortune, and Cupid, the evidence gloatingly captured on camera. I was reminded of Barrie Kosky’s Iphigénie en Tauride for Berlin’s Komische Oper; perhaps the resemblance is not entirely coincidental, for director, Benedict Andrews, also Australian, divides his time between Sydney and Berlin, and works at the Schaubühne Theatre. During this abuse, we see Penelope’s parallel agonies on screen, Sean Bacon’s excellent video footage permitting us still-closer-up attention to detail, often but not always that of Penelope. As the Prologue comes to an end, Ithaca’s palace comes into our view – and will never leave it. A stylish, modern apartment (or hotel room?), encased by glass that is smeared by a series of depredations, it is Penelope’s prison: the ever-visible space for the ‘life’ of a ruler’s wife. Börkur Jónsson’s set designs are first-rate, drawing us in and yet repelling us at the same time. Maids fuss and conspire – whom can she trust? – whilst sharply-suited dressed political suitors roam. The tie pins give them away, though: we know that none would be able to string the bow of Ulysses. These cowards, brutal if ultimately ineffectual, pleasure themselves with no thought of Penelope as a woman. In what seemed to me a rare miscalculation, she appears to respond briefly to them physically as they offered their gifts. Perhaps her acts are intended as a trap, but they jar with her constancy and do not seem to lead anywhere.

Suitors, Ulisse, Iro (Brian Galliford), and Melanto
(Katherine Manley)
Some scenes are missing, of course: one cannot help wondering what the sea-music for nereids and sirens was like, likewise the ballet of the Moors. To augment the ravages of time, the director introduced large cuts, the remaining score running – according to the programme, though I did not check – for two-and-a-quarter hours, three acts compressed into two parts. Neptune, Jupiter, and Juno disappear completely. As so often, we seem uncomfortable allotting the gods their role. Minerva remains, though, adopting Penelope’s form and availing herself of the suitors, she perhaps seems more the trickster than Ulysses; is she a goddess at all? Apart from the musico-dramatic loss in itself, there are dramatic consequences, for we miss out on Neptune’s crucial emphasis upon ‘ritorno’ (‘return’). Andrews’s emphasis, however, seems quite different: this is less the story of Ulysses’s return, or rather still less than is often the case, and more Penelope’s tale. However, it works: there is no claim that this was a definitive Ulisse, but it was a powerful musico-dramatic experience.

Moreover, at the end, the balance shifts once again. Reminding us of the images of war that have permeated the drama throughout, not least on the apartment television screen (war in the Mediterranean? surely not…), we suffer Ulysses’s pain upon return: the lack of a role, the rejection, and of course, the bloody revenge he inflicts upon those who have defiled his home, captured on film, just like the initial abuse of the Prologue. After that, his extended shower scene attempts to cleanse, but the only hope, and it may prove vain, lies with Penelope; whatever the beauties of the final duet, the future is uncertain. Cuts may have reshaped the drama but ultimately they did not distort it.

Eurimaco (Thomas Walker), Iro, Penelope, and

Jonathan Cohen led members of the ENO Orchestra with great dramatic flair. I might hanker after Raymond Leppard, or, better still, Hans Werner Henze’s extraordinary Mediterranean realisation, but this was not hair-shirt Monteverdi, puritanism that would be quite at odds with his Renaissance/Early Baroque world - as a celebrated former Ulisse noted in an interview he gave me not so long ago. The musicians may have been relatively few in number, but a large band was not necessary in the Young Vic; again, the Coliseum would have been another matter. The continuo group was varied. Rebecca Miles’s recorder added variety to the one-to-a-part strings during certain ritornelli, whilst the introduction of Daniel Jamison’s bassoon brought just a hint of Henze’s earthy pagan reimagining.

Penelope and Ulisse (final scene)
If ever a role were made for Dame Janet Baker, it was that of Penelope, though it is hard to imagine Pamela Helen Stephen’s great predecessor in this particular production. It is to Stephen’s credit that she very much made the role her own; I only mention Baker since she would have been an inevitable reference point for many. What Stephen lacked in refulgence and sheer nobility of tone, she made up in dignity – and misery – of stage presence. We felt her pain in anything but the modern, debased, sentimental way. Tom Randle is such an intelligent musical actor that it would be easy to take him for granted, but one hardly could on this occasion. The complexities, some of them dark indeed, of Ulysses’s character were searingly portrayed, without the slightest hint of melodrama. Thomas Hobbs made an interesting Telemachus, vulnerable – including memories of the accursed Helen – and scarred by his experience, not least that of ‘rescue’ by Ruby Hughes’s ambiguous Minerva, another fine portrayal. Katherine Manley and Thomas Walker played dangerous, erotic – and utterly convincing – games as Penelope’s maid, Melanto, and her lover, Eurymachus; their lust, for power and for pretty much everything else, was an ongoing reminder of the real (godlike?) forces at play. My only regret concerning Diana Montague’s Ericlea was that she did not have more to sing: what a pleasure it was to hear Montague again, and to share in so faithful – in every sense – a performance. It was an equal pleasure to welcome back long-standing Monteverdian Nigel Robson, who provided a moving portrayal of the honest shepherd, Eumaeus. Brain Galliford’s childish, yet nevertheless sinister, parasite, Irus offered splendid contrast, though the strange scene of his demise, in which Monteverdi’s speech-rhythms seem (at least) to presage Mussorgsky and Janáček, offered pathos too. A ghastly trio of suitors completed the cast, Francisco Javier Borda, Iestyn Morris, and Samuel Boden, all throwing themselves wholeheartedly into Andrews’s – and Monteverdi’s – vision. I was especially taken by the finely shaped tenor of Boden and the icy clarity of Morris’s counter-tenor.

This, then, strikes me as essential theatre for anyone who can still acquire a ticket. Three cheers to all concerned!

Thursday 24 March 2011

Fidelio: Kirill Petrenko withdraws

The Royal Opera House has just announced that back problems have prevented Kirill Petrenko from continuing with rehearsals of Fidelio, due to open next Tuesday, 29th. Sir Mark Elder, already scheduled to conduct The Tsar's Bride in April, will lead the first performances, with David Syrus conducting on 11 and 16 April. A pity: I had been looking forward to hearing the next General Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera (also due to conduct the 2013 Bayreuth Ring). Let us hope that Nina Stemme will remain as Leonore...

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Kommilitonen! Royal Academy Opera, 23 March 2011

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre

The Oxford Revolution

Voice of Pokayne – Jonathan McGovern
James Meredith – Marcus Farnsworth

Die Weisse Rose

Sophie Scholl – Aoife Miskelly
Willi Graf – Frederick Long
Hans Scholl – Johnny Herford
Christoph Probst/The Evangelist – Stephen Aviss
Alexander Schmorell/The Grand Inquisitor – John-Owen Miley-Read
First Clerk, Prison Guard – Irina Gheorghiu
Second Clerk, Gestapo Officer 1, Janitor – Jonathan McGovern
Gestapo Officer 2 – Maximilian Fuhrig

Soar to Heaven

Li Jingji (Mother) – Irina Gheorghiu
Wu Taianshi (Father) – Jonathan McGovern
Wu (Son) – Katie Bray
Li (Daughter) – Belinda Williams
Two Younger Children – Hannah Bradbury, Annie Rago
Zhou (Red Guard) – Ruth Jenkins
Red Army Officer 1 – Belinda Williams
Doctor, Red Army Officer 2 – Laura Kelly
Red Army Officer 3 – Irina Gheorghiu
Puppeteers – Helen Bailey, Nicholas Crawley, Kerri-Lynne Dietz, Thomas Elwin, Fiona Mackay, Sarah Shorter

David Pountney (director)
Robert Innes Hopkins (designs)
James Farncombe (lighting)
Carolyn Choa (choreography)
Mark Down (director of puppetry)
Nick Barnes (puppetry designer)

Royal Academy Opera
Royal Academy of Music Sinfonia
Jane Glover (conductor)

Never say never again: Sir Peter Maxwell Davies had declared that Mr Emmet Takes a Walk (first performance, 2000) would be his last music-theatre piece. However, upon appointment to a position at the Royal Academy of Music, Davies first declined and then, five minutes later, accepted: ‘OK, I’ll do it – but it must be about students and I want to do it with David Pountney … and we should try and do it somewhere else, as well as the Academy, and make it a joint commission.’ And so, it has come to pass: Pountney has acted as librettist and director; the Juilliard School has acted as co-commissioner; the new piece is indeed about students, as indeed was Royal Academy Opera’s recent production of Così fan tutte.

Kommilitonen! presents three stories of student activism, an idea suggested by Pountney to Davies on account of its alleged unfashionability. (It depends where one looks really.) In the meantime, however, the idea has become more topical than the creators might have expected. The three stories are those of the Mississippi Civil Rights pioneer, James Meredith (The Oxford Revolution) Munich students’ heroic wartime resistance (Die weisse Rose), and Chinese students turning upon their parents during the Cultural Revolution (Song to Heaven). Short scenes alternate between the three stories, not always ‘in turn’ – we do not visit China until the fifth scene – but nevertheless so as to provide a panorama of student political experience. The difficulty seems to be how to bring the stories together, and I was not entirely convinced by the synthesis attempted at the end, partly because the ‘message’ is unconvincingly optimistic – we win because we survive – and partly because the appearance of characters in each others’ worlds simply seems forced. Moreover, the superimposition, during the second of the two acts, of a choral voicing of the Passion narrative (in Latin) upon Die weisse Rose, itself somewhat confusingly sometimes in English and sometimes in German, seemed equally forced, though religious and theological concerns have for some time been of great importance to the composer. The introduction of a Grand Inquisitor was, I assume, a deliberate nod to Dallapiccolla’s magnificent one-act opera of political commitment, Il prigioniero, or perhaps it was to Schiller, but it seemed a little arbitrary in the face of what otherwise remained realistic, reportage even. When compared dramaturgically with a work such as Il prigioniero, let alone the daring marriage of agitprop and experimentalism in the operas of Luigi Nono, this did not always convince, enjoyable – perhaps curiously so – though it certainly was. Incidentally, I have no idea why Kommilitonen has been translated as ‘Young Blood’; it is neither a literal nor a contextual translation. ‘Fellow students’, or, if one wished to be more ‘political’, ‘(student) comrades’, would surely be preferable.

What of the music, though? Davies did a thoroughly professional job, as one would expect. The composer has long been associated with music for younger musicians, children included, and with other community projects. This, I can imagine, was a joy for the young musicians of Royal Academy Opera to work upon, nothing too ‘difficult’, grateful for the voices, an important choral part, and much to enjoy from the (chamber) orchestral standpoint too. Davies clearly did not want to present student performers with something unduly daunting, but at the same time, I could not help but wonder whether something a little less conservative in terms of musical language might have worked. Very little, if any, of the music would have been inconceivable to a composer working in the 1920s. Berg (a honky-tonk piano inevitably puts one in mind of Wozzeck, though there are of course precedents in Davies’s work too) and still more so Weill often come to mind in what was in general a frankly tonal score. Britten seemed a guiding presence too. Despite the division into twenty-eight scenes, the two acts are through-composed. There are, though, several memorable moments, not least the choral marching to glorify the Cultural Revolution, and a splendid trumpet solo (very well taken) during the confrontation of the Inquisitor with the Munich students. There is a good bit of parody, long, of course, a preoccupation of the composer; one could not help but smile at the incongruent jazz-band puppetry for the Maoist party scene (no.23). Nevertheless, I equally could not help but wish for the old bite of a work such as Eight Songs for a Mad King; it might have been an angry young man’s music, a line difficult to sustain forever, but its radicalism still takes one’s breath away.

Davies had collaborated with Pountney before; indeed, he was the librettist for Mr Emmet Takes a Walk. ‘I knew,’ Davies remarks, ‘that the stage direction would not be a travesty of text and music’. And the direction did seem to serve the work well – hardly surprising, I suppose, if director and librettist are one and the same person. The stories are generally told clearly and with wit; puppetry, in danger of becoming merely fashionable on the opera stage, does not fall into that trap here. Set designs and changes are skilfully conceived and executed. The intimacy of the Jack Lyons Theatre helps, but great credit is nevertheless due to all concerned.

Musically, this was very much a company performance rather than any sort of star vehicle, for which enabling credit is certainly due to composer and librettist. It seems in that context invidious to single out particular vocal performers, since all convinced, though I wish the unwelcome trend of having American characters sing in pseudo-American accent might be curtailed. No equivalent was attempted with the German and Chinese stories, so why do so when it comes to the United States? More importantly, however, one truly gained a sense of singers’ musical and dramatic interaction, having developed a work from scratch. There were no weak links whatsoever. Jane Glover directed the excellent Royal Academy Sinfonia with verve and formal clarity.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

LSO/Davis - Stravinsky, Strauss, and Beethoven, 20 March 2011

Barbican Hall

Stravinsky – Symphony in Three Movements
Strauss – Four Last Songs
Beethoven – Symphony no.6 in F major, op.68

Sally Matthews (soprano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

Only a tone-deaf fool could doubt Stravinsky’s compositional genius, even if some of us who flatter ourselves that we are neither entirely foolish nor entirely tone-deaf may harbour doubts about some of those works where the composer fell most deeply into the quicksands of neo-classicism (Orpheus and Apollo, for example). Yet his æsthetic influence, or at least the influence of the æsthetic propounded under Stravinsky’s name – the Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons is far from exclusiveely his work – has been more questionable, not least the typically polemical nonsense about music being unable to express anything other than itself. Even his compositional legacy remains ambivalent: if Stravinsky, by virtue of his very genius, could convincingly play with hollowed-out tonality beyond its sell-by date, that does not absolve his camp followers from the twin charges of tedium and populism: an odd pair, but unquestionably combined in a great deal of minimalism.

So how would Sir Colin Davis fare in a work such as Symphony in Three Movements, a work tipping its hat towards the symphonic form in which Davis so often excels, yet which is better understood as anti-symphonic? Very well, as it happens, reminding us that the conductor once led a good number of performances of Stravinsky’s music. For one so unfailingly alert to the humanity of Mozart’s music – an increasingly rare gift in an age of unforgivably brutalised Mozart – Sir Colin rendered the first movement of Stravinsky’s work mechanistic to a tee, those ‘inspiring’ wartime news-reels coming to life before our mind’s eyes. The LSO’s precision came as no surprise, given its accustomed excellence, but should still be noted, not least the barbarism – in a positive sense! – of its brass section. Occasionally, I felt that the tempo might have benefited from being a little swifter, but clarity and general relentness by and large compensated. The fantastical development of the harp-led second movement proved evocative of the ballet: Stravinsky’s Scènes de ballet and Jeu de cartes came to mind. The LSO’s woodwind section seized its opportunity to shine, with delightful interventions from the strings. The darker, more sinister moments were equally well painted. (And this, whatever Stravinsky’s anti-Romantic declarations, is surely ‘programme’ music as well as its supposedly ‘absolute’ antithesis.) The final movement was mercilessly triumphant in its dehumanised and dehumanising glory, if anything more so at a slightly more measured tempo than we generally hear. Heft and attack were impeccable, as were the more soloistic moments: there was some superb bassoon playing in particular. In Davis’s hands, rhythms both harked back to the Rite – of which, once again, he used to be a noted exponent – whilst the fugue also looked forward to works such as Agon and even Movements, for all their difference in musical language. Is it yet too late to hope that we might hope for some late Stravinsky from Sir Colin? (Or indeed from anyone else, for it is music that is scandalously neglected, whether by conductors or concert promoters…)

For all the continued excellence of the LSO’s performance, some gorgeous orchestral detail revealed, the Four Last Songs that followed were best forgotten, the worst account I have heard. Sally Matthews was a late substitution for Elza van den Heever. Matthews’s small voice is simply not up to the task, nor is her strange, merging into indistinct, German diction: when one could hear the words, they sounded closer to Dutch. To begin with, I wondered whether some fault lay as much with the conductor: Strauss has not formed a major part of Sir Colin’s repertoire, though he has brought magic to Ariadne auf Naxos, both at Covent Garden and on DVD from Dresden. The beat was laboured in Frühling, and September was very slow indeed, distended even, its bar lines again far too evident. Yet, in the latter, it sounded very much as though the slowness was that of the soloist (and I love slow tempi when they work: think of Janowitz and Karajan…). Matthews, however, was merely making a meal out of it, audibly taking breaths within phrases. And yet, there was stillness at the end, in preparation for that horn solo, heart-rendingly delivered by David Pyatt: a true sense of an old man’s farewell. Beim Schlafengehen again brought orchestral revelations, not least from inner parts, violas in particular. Yet it sounded less like ‘going to sleep’ than long since turned comatose. Upon Matthews’s entry, the music slowed, the introduction having been relatively swift; throughout, the vocal line was effortful. Roman Simovic’s violin solo was, as expected, exquisite, with a beautiful touch of portamento. Strings were rich for that final orchestral hurrah, the introduction to Im Abendrot. The rest, you will be able to write for yourselves by now…

The day was saved by an excellent account of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. After the laboured Strauss, a perky first movement – never, be it noted, driven – came as quite the antidote. The LSO sounded wonderfully cultivated: everything well articulated, without exaggeration. Perhaps there was something slightly neutral to the first movement performance, but the occasional doubt disappeared in a beautifully shaped, which is to say ‘natural’-sounding, Scene by the Brook, which flowed more quickly than one might have expected. Articulation was again exemplary, especially woodwind phrasing. Davis imparted a splendid sense of building momentum, from which one could happily enjoy the rest of the aural view, grainy bassoons and magically pure flute and clarinet solos included. In a less than excellent performance of this movement, I have been known to tire: no such chance here. The third movement emerged as a true scherzo, alternately light-footed and vigorous, woodwind again superlative. Its trio was rustic without the slightest hint of crudity; this was very much a dance, joyful rather than driven. Transition to the fourth movement was seamless, full of uneasiness, foreboding, whilst the storm clearly presaged Berlioz, the LSO as magnificent as in Sir Colin’s performances of Les troyens, rhythmic attack and colour equally crucial. The finale brought that serene nobility which might be considered Beethoven’s – and Davis’s – stock-in-trade, but which one should never take for granted. Earlier virtues of articulation and colour (woodwind and horns) were very much present, as was true, unforced exultancy.

Friday 18 March 2011

Arensky Chamber Orchestra/Gould - Rautavaara, Grieg, Vivaldi, and Schnelzer

Cadogan Hall

Rautavaara – Pelimannit (‘The Fiddlers’), op.1
Grieg – From Holberg’s Time: Suite in the Olden Style, op.40
Vivaldi – Violin Concerto in D major, ‘Il Grosso Mogul,’ RV 208
Albert Schnelzer – Emperor Akbar (British premiere, orchestral version)

Arensky Chamber Orchestra
Clio Gould (violin, director)

Last September, I reported enthusiastically from the Arensky Chamber Orchestra’s launch at the Institute of Directors. I am delighted to say that this concert’s performances proved of an equally high standard. A crack team of young soloists combined under the leadership of Clio Gould to provide an object lesson in stylish, dynamic string playing.

To stand out amongst a host of chamber ensembles, the ACO has resolved to do things differently, not for the mere sake of it, but to attempt to present works in interesting new ways, both through programming and presentation. Interesting connections abounded: Scandinavian string music from Einojuhani Raatavaara, Edvard Grieg, and Swedish composer, Albert Schnelzer, the string orchestral version of the latter’s Emperor Akbar also fitting nicely with one of Vivaldi’s two Mogul excursions, the D major concerto, RV 208.

As we entered the Cadogan Hall, members of the orchestra greeted us from a balcony above the stage with their own arrangement of folk material collected by fiddler Samuel Rinda-Nickola (1763-1818), thus preparing us for Rautavaara’s The Fiddlers, which also makes use of Rinda-Nickola’s material. A student work, indeed his op.1, The Fiddlers (or ‘Pelimannit’) is full of exuberance; at least it was in this typically energetic performance. The informative programme notes informed us that Rautavaara originally wrote a piano piece, which he subsequently arranged for string orchestra. From the idiomatic rendition here, one would never have guessed, though the composer perhaps sounds closer to the likes of Honegger than to his later self (no complaints here). Depth and richness of tone combined with sharp characterisation of individual movements, relishing but never unduly exaggerating the composer’s ‘wrong-note’ harmonies, to provide a memorable account. Another programming idea: perhaps a potential companion piece to Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s riotous Rheinische Kirmestänze?

Grieg’s Holberg Suite followed: another work originally composed for piano and subsequently arranged for string orchestra. It is an unfashionable work; indeed, one might say much the same of Grieg as a composer: a pity, since its evocation of the Baroque suite is charming and never resorts to pastiche. Lightly nostalgic, the ACO’s account paid homage to an imagined eighteenth century, whilst making abundantly clear that this was a nineteenth-century work. Grieg’s harmonies delighted, not least on account of well-judged harmonic rhythm under Gould’s wise direction. String tone itself was expressively rich, though never overwhelmingly so: light and rich are not necessarily antonyms. The Air (‘Andante religioso’) was sung especially beautifully, never descending into the realms of the maudlin. Gould’s solos proved beguiling, but so did those from other section principals, amongst whom Steffan Rees’s finely shaded cello line deserves especial mention.

Gould was the soloist for Vivaldi’s Il grosso mogul concerto. I cannot claim to be a paid-up Vivaldian – Dallapiccolla’s line, popularised by Stravinsky, about writing the same concerto a few hundred times dies hard – but this was a fine reading that never outstayed its welcome. Once again striking was the richness, though not a ‘Romantic’ richness, of tone displayed by the orchestra as a whole, a fine backdrop for Vivaldi’s – and Gould’s – flights of violinistic fantasy. The slow movement, for solo and continuo, showed that there is variety within Vivaldi’s box of tricks, even if I could not help – heretically? – thinking that Bach’s arrangement remains superior to the original. But what a joy it was to hear such warmth from the orchestra: utterly distant from current attention-seeking ‘authenticity’. I was put in mind of the English Chamber Orchestra in its heyday.

Finally came the British premiere of the orchestral version of Albert Schnelzer’s Emperor Akbar, its quartet version written for the Brodsky Quartet. Where the inspiration for Vivaldi’s title remains obscure, Schnelzer pays explicit homage to Salman Rushdie’s portrait of the Mogul Emperor in The Enchantress of Florence. Indeed, we heard readings from Rushdie prior to both the Vivaldi and Schnelzer pieces. Schnelzer, according to his biography ‘has openly declared that communication is a key element in his music.’ I am not sure that there is anything particularly unusual about that, though the implication would seem to be that (relatively) straightforward is better. The dance-inspired rhythms and melodies were once again expertly despatched by the orchestra, though I could not help wishing that something a little more intellectually engaging were on offer. Ferneyhough perhaps: I suspect these players would cope…

The next ACO concert will feature Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, both in its original sextet version, alongside an exhibition of new works from the Royal College of Art, and in the version for string orchestra. Perhaps my belief in the original’s superiority will be challenged; we shall see… For further details on the Arensky Chamber Orchestra, please visit the orchestra’s website (click here).

Monday 14 March 2011

Biss/LSO/Davis - Beethoven (and Maistorovici), 13 March 2011

Barbican Hall

Vlad Maistorovici – Halo (world premiere)*
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.3 in C minor, op.37
Beethoven – Symphony no.7 in A major, op.92

Jonathan Biss (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Clemens Schuldt (conductor*)
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

Vlad Maistorovici’s Halo was given its previously unannounced – as is the custom – premiere as part of the LSO’s Panufnik Young Composers Scheme. Doubtless there are very good reasons for the practice: acquiring a full audience for a young composer’s opportunity to be performed by one of the world’s greatest orchestras (whatever one controversy-manufacturing newspaper journalist might say) is certainly a worthy aim. However, I cannot help but wonder whether such new works might also benefit from better contextualisation. There were many influences, or at least connections, one might have discerned from earlier music, but it was not clear to me that the two Beethoven works had anything in common with Halo, nor indeed that the concerto and symphony benefited from such juxtaposition as opposed, say, to being prefaced by a Beethoven overture.

That said, Maistorovici, born in Romania in 1985, and by all accounts a fine violinist as well as a composer, certainly did benefit from the advocacy of the LSO and Clemens Schuldt, who seemed to me to conduct the work as if it were already a classic. (I very much hope to hear more from Schuldt before long.) Halo is in many ways relatively straightforwardly pictorial, opening with a light source (a reference, according to the composer, to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, Mahler’s First, and Kurtág’s Stele) with musical motion quickly tending towards the halo’s glow. To say that it is pictorial does not mean that it is not tightly organised; far from it, for audible symmetries and reflections abound. Nevertheless, an audience versed in superior film music would at least have some point of entry. It seemed to me that Mahler and Messiaen were obvious points of comparison, whether ‘influences’ or otherwise. Particular things to listen out for – or rather, which one could hardly fail to hear – were a high-lying violin line, prominent tuned percussion, and low bass lines across the various instrumental families. Though Maistorovici did not mention Ligeti, I wondered whether the strings’ swarming was inspired by the Hungarian master. Whatever the ultimate fortunes of the piece – and it is a fool’s game to say too much after a single hearing – this composer is clearly one who already understands the craft of orchestration and who does not fear bold gestures. I suspect that we shall hear more from him.

The performance of Beethoven’s C minor concerto was in many ways impressive, and the LSO’s performance again proved outstanding, yet doubts lingered concerning some aspects of Jonathan Biss’s reading. Sir Colin Davis was, I am delighted to report, firing on all cylinders throughout, reminding us that he is a Beethovenian of distinction. His Staatskapelle Dresden set of the symphonies is certainly one of the best available in digital sound; his Dresden collaboration with Claudio Arrau on the piano concertos remains a justly esteemed classic. Davis is also, of course, a Mozartian hors concours; it was interesting therefore to note that his opening tutti audibly took its leave from Mozart’s C minor concerto – which Beethoven revered – but also made it clear that the composer was Beethoven, not his predecessor. The orchestral contribution, then, proved urgent and grand. Biss’s piano performance was beautifully shaded and articulated, yet ultimately perhaps a little on the controlled side. (There was a curious mismatch here between the somewhat awkward Romantic flailings one often witnessed and the school of Murray Perahia Beethoven one tended to hear.) The first-movement cadenza illustrated Biss’s approach rather well: relatively big-boned, always clear, yet lacking the sense of physical grit, of metaphysical struggle, that a musician such as Daniel Barenboim would always bring to the work, even when seeming a little out of practice. Davis’s structural command proved impeccable throughout. The slow movement was, again, beautifully delivered, structurally clear. If the piano cantilena occasionally tended towards Chopin, that is only because it does in the score. Bassoon and flute solos from the LSO principals were simply delightful. I missed again, however, in the piano part the Barenboim-like sense of taking the music by the scruff of its neck. Still, as Apollonian goes, this was impressive. What a pity, then, that the inhabitants of an intensive care ward appeared to have descended upon the Barbican, doing their best to obliterate the music with excessive – even by usual standards – bronchial intervention. The finale was taken attacca. Here, as elsewhere, the tempo sounded just right. Perhaps the rondo theme might have exhibited greater cheek than it did in Biss’s hands, but it was always well delivered. The LSO once again sounded magnificent in its marriage of tonal heft and pin-point accuracy; there were some especially lovely cello passages to be heard. Davis remained supportive in his wisdom, the transformation effected by C major release judged to perfection.

Then came Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. The first movement introduction prepared the way not only for the rest of the movement but the symphony as a whole, Klemperer-like in its integrity, doggedly un-Furtwänglerian in the best sense, yet with an equally fine sense of chiaroscuro. Once again, the LSO was on superlative form, its woodwind especially ravishing. Everything combined to render palpable a truly Beethovenian sense of the nobility of the human spirit. (Perhaps this is why we find Beethoven so difficult to perform today.) The growling bass line of that first-movement coda was ominous indeed, yet not for its own sake, but as part of a properly organic whole. Weber – at least according to Schindler – could not have been more wrong: Beethoven was ripe for anywhere but the madhouse. My only frustration concerned the lack of the exposition repeat: I am sure that it can work without, but the grand scale suffered a little, the movement over a little too quickly. However, the gruff opening of the second movement, out of which grew a procession of enormous, indeed overwhelming, cumulative power, was truly a thing of awe. It was as if – and here I thought both of Wagner’s Opera and Drama and Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces, op.6 – music were actually developing, taking form, out of something less choate. Light and shade had their structural place too; there was nothing of the monochrome to Sir Colin’s reading, nor to the LSO’s execution. That subjectivity which lies at the core of the Beethovenian problematic was here to be sure: defiant yet not unyielding.

I neither know nor care how the scherzo matched up to Beethoven’s metronome marking; what I can say is that the tempo sounded just right in performance. It was certainly fast but undeniably human. There was none of Karajan’s coldness, for the music pulsated with life, just as the Eroica scherzo would or should. Moreover, this was a real dance, with a spring in its step such as one rarely discovers. (I hope that the Almighty will spare me from having to endure Toscanini in Beethoven ever again.) The trio was considerably slower, in the ‘traditional’ manner, and rightly so. It harked back to Mozartian Harmoniemusik, the LSO woodwind again quite magical, but retained Beethovenian force through strings, brass, and kettledrums. The scherzo was then experienced properly as release, the trio again as respite, and so on. An acid test for me concerning a good performance of this symphony is whether I become bored through the twofold repetition of the trio: no chance of that on this occasion. Davis’s command of line and drama once again marked his performance of the finale, yet victory remained, as it must, hard-won. There are no easy answers in Beethoven – and they are certainly not to be found in the ticking of the metronome, as satirised by the composer himself in the symphony that would follow. Rhythm, including harmonic rhythm, is crucial to the success of this and many another movement by Beethoven: Sir Colin provided a masterclass in how to navigate the tricky twists and turns of Beethoven’s ebullience. The LSO’s string section really dug into their strings, as if their lives depended upon it; we were never far from Fidelio. This was a performance that was exciting in the truest sense, as opposed to the merely excitable accounts for which too often we must settle. The Pastoral awaits, next Sunday.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Mozart Unwrapped (4) - King's College Choir/Cleobury, 11 March 2011

Hall One, Kings Place

Missa brevis in B-flat major, KV 275/272b
Divertimento in F major, KV 247, ‘First Lodron Night-Music’
Gradual (Introit): Sancta Maria, mater Dei, KV 273
Missa brevis in F major, KV 192/186f, interspersed with:
Church Sonata in F major, KV 224
Offertorium de B.V. Maria: Alma Dei creatoris, KV 277
Communion: Gregorian chant

Krysia Osostowicz, Giles Francis (violins)
Judith Busbridge (viola)
Bernard Gregor-Smith (violoncello)
Steven Stirling, Sue Dent (French horns)
Peter Buckoke (double bass)
Ben-San Lau, Parker Ramsay (Organ Scholars)
Choir of King’s College, Cambridge
Stephen Cleobury (conductor)

Mozart continues to be ‘unwrapped’ at Kings Place. I confess that I no more understand the designation than I did before – or than I did for Beethoven and Chopin – but more importantly, this exploration of sacred and other music for Salzburg offered a delightful evening. The Choir of King’s College under Stephen Cleobury made a welcome debut at the festival, joined by the Dante Quartet and other instrumentalists.

At the heart of the programme stood two missae breves. KV 275/272b, in B-flat major, opened the concert. The unassuming nature of the performance put me in mind of the delightful St John’s recordings of Haydn and Mozart under George Guest. (Cleobury was one of the Guest era’s numerous organ scholars.) That said, the sounds of King’s and John’s remain distinct: the former ‘whiter’, more ‘English’, the latter more ‘Continental’ in timbre. King’s, however, had been joined by a notably fruity tenor, especially prominent when intoning ‘Credo in unum Deum’. After the Credo, a little echo reminded me of its big brother in King’s Chapel itself, but the new location of Hall One, Kings Place, could otherwise hardly stand more distinct from the choir’s home. There were, then, no musical – or rather anti-musical – shock tactics; instead, straightforward musical virtues, such as clarity of line and diction, cleanness of counterpoint, and a decent affection for Mozart’s setting, were to the fore. The Sanctus sounded nicely but never pedantically ‘constructed’; structure is always central, indeed crucial, to Mozart performance. Boys’ voices had a particular opportunity to shine, well taken, in the Benedictus. And the lovingly extended ‘Dona nobis pacem’ music sounded every bit as catchy as it should be.

The rest of the first half was devoted to the First Lodron Night-Music. Three members of the Dante quartet and double bass were now joined by the remaining quartet member (viola) and two horns. This equally delightful divertimento received a performance that was sharp yet warm, and eminently cultivated, its first movement inflections effortlessly ‘natural’: characteristics that ought to go without saying in Mozart performance, yet are frequently notable only by their absence. Inner movements proved elegantly turned indeed, yet each possessed its own particular character, whether the ravishing horn beauties of the third or the joy of the inner parts’ interplay during the fourth. The latter’s minor-mode material provided dignified pathos, without exaggeration, whilst the pizzicato lines of the fifth movement were simply delightful. Mozart’s finale proved as cheekily catchy as the ‘Dona’ music from the mass, all the more so on account of the players’ resisting any temptation heedlessly to rush.

For the second half, the Missa brevis in F major, KV 192/186f, was presented semi-liturgically. That is, to say, there was no celebration of the Mass, but accompanying music was provided, from the introductory Gradual to Gregorian Chant – ‘Beata viscera Mariae Virginis, quae porta verunt aetemi Patris Filium. Alleluia' – which led straight into the Agnus Dei. South German Rococo joy was present, yet never overdone, in the opening Sancta Maria, KV 273: in Mozart, less so often proves more. Once again, musical structure was admirably clear. The Kyrie imparted an apt sense of earlier-century Neapolitan sacred music, its delights heightened once again by admirably cultivated string playing. Viennese style of Caldara and still more Fux came effortlessly to the foreground in the Gloria. It was a joy to hear the chamber organ (Ben-San Lau) for one of those glorious Epistle Sonatas that we seemingly never have opportunity to hear. (If only they could be programmed every time in place, say, of a Vivaldi concerto!) The Credo’s foreshadowing of the triumph of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony’s finale – its quintessentially Fuxian contrapuntal tag, C-D-F-E, here of course in F major, so F,G, B flat, A – was all the more welcome for being simply presented rather than hammered home. Alma Dei creatoris, the offertory hymn, was distinguished by a radiantly imploring treble line: how could the Mother of God decline to intercede? The censer – albeit English rather than full-bloodedly Austrian Baroque – was almost rendered visible in the jubilant ‘Osanna’.

I look forward to the second instalment on 12 October, when the Second Lodron Night-Music will join two further missae breves, in G major, KV 140 and D major, KV 194/186h, the latter interspersed with further Gregorian chant, the D major Church Sonata, KV 245, the Offertorium, Venite populi, KV 260 and that ineffably sublime late motet, Ave verum corpus, KV 618. For further details concerning ‘Mozart Unwrapped’, click here.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Mozart Unwrapped (3): Joshua/Aurora Orchestra/Collon, 9 March 2011

Hall One, Kings Place

Le nozze di Figaro, KV 492: Overture
‘Non più. Tutto ascoltai… Non temer, amato bene,’ KV 490
Symphony no.27 in G major, KV 199
Adagio and Fugue in C minor, KV 546
‘Bella mia fiamma, addio… Resta, o cara,’ KV 528
Symphony no.31 in D major, KV 297/300a, ‘Paris’

Rosemary Joshua (soprano)
Thomas Gould (violin)
Aurora Orchestra
Nicholas Collon (conductor)

Let me get my one real disappointment out of the way: Nicholas Collon opened this latest instalment in Kings Place’s ‘Mozart Unwrapped’ season with a breathless, hard-driven Figaro overture. It was very well played indeed by the Aurora Orchestra, even if the kettledrums boomed a little loudly in the Hall One acoustic. Yet in this, the overture to that most human of all comedies, it sounded as though the sole purpose was to despatch Mozart’s notes (too many?) as quickly as possible, the composer’s smiling replaced with an extended grimace.

Thereafter, however, Collon relaxed, and his uniformly excellent band of young musicians truly came into their own. Rosemary Joshua joined them for two items. The first was an insertion aria for Idomeneo, ‘Non più. Tutto ascoltai… Non temer, amato bene’. From the opening of Mozart’s rich recitativo accompagnato, the orchestra pulsated with Gluckian drama. Wonderfully ripe woodwind distinguished themselves. There was, moreover, fine flexibility on display from orchestra and soloist. Leader Thomas Gould, who had distinguished himself in an earlier concert as concerto soloist, provided silvery violin obbligato. Joshua stood quite beyond reproach in terms of clarity of line, diction, and delivery of coloratura. It was a little odd, during the recitative, to hear her assume the roles of both Ilia and Idamante, but that was not her fault. ‘Bella mia fiamma, addio! … Resta, o cara,’ is a bona fide concert aria. If anything, it proved even finer. Flexibility was once again commendable, as was the genuine pathos Joshua brought to the vocal part. Mozart’s chromaticisms here are as erotic and as threatening of tonal disintegration as anything in Tristan und Isolde; however, they held no fear for our soloist. The final climax was impressively and expressively despatched.

Surrounding that aria in the concert’s second half were the great C minor Adagio and Fugue for strings, and the Paris Symphony. The former’s Adagio was given a rhetorical account, in which rests were truly made to tell. It is not the only way to perform the music, and I could not help hankering a little after the majesty of Karajan (especially in Vienna); nevertheless, the strings dug deep in a performance that sounded closer to chamber than orchestral music. The fugue had more than a hint of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, not least in the threat of disjuncture: nothing comfortable here. The Paris Symphony was, of course, written for a much bigger orchestra than the Aurora, something about which the ‘authenticists’ tend to remain silent, but there is no need to be fundamentalist: in a small hall, a small orchestra can work well. The first movement benefited from not being rushed; again, it was somewhat rhetorical in tone, but never irritatingly so. There were several instances of illuminating musical detail, not least the development’s clarinet imitation of the celebrated opening coup d’archet. The slow movement – Mozart’s original, as is usually performed – was pleasant, if not always probing. And one could forgive the driven nature of the finale, for it was despatched in style. This is, after all, Mozart showing off to the Parisians, and revelling in the skill of the great orchestra of the Concert Spirituel. As ever, the players of the Aurora Orchestra delivered with verve.

For me, however, the earlier performance of the G major symphony, no.27, was finer. During the opening movement, great care was taken with varieties of articulation, without descending into fussiness. Mozart, one sensed, as in the later Paris Symphony, was relishing the delights of the orchestra, albeit a smaller band. Minor mode vehemence was present in the development without the grotesque exaggeration that disfigures so many ‘period’ accounts. Above all, there was that truly Mozartian joy that had been remarkable by its absence in the Figaro overture. The second repeat was taken: unnecessary perhaps, but one could understand why the players might have wanted to give us the music again. Andantino grazioso was not an inappropriate marking for what we heard in the slow movement: it was certainly graceful, and if the walk was a little on the brisk side, it never turned into a canter. Rhythms were nicely sprung, and the quiet passages truly made one listen. The fugal opening of the finale is a rare case of Mozartian awkwardness: it seems unmotivated, though the later fugal treatment works much better, even seeming prophetic of mature masterpieces. It was brilliantly performed, the violins in particular truly scintillating. Quite properly, the opera house never sounded distant.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Pisaroni/Rieger - Schubert, Rossini, and Liszt, 6 March 2011

Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Il modo di prender moglie, D902/3
L’incanto degli occhi, D902/1
Il traditor deluso D902/2
Rossini – La promessa
Liszt – Im Rhein, im schönen Strome, S.272 (second version)
Vergiftet sind meine Lieder, S.289
O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst, S.298
Die Vätergruft
Tre sonetti de Petrarca, S.270 (first version)

Luca Pisaroni (baritone)
Wolfram Rieger (piano)

(Image: Marco Borggreve)

I was surprised to discover that this was Luca Pisaroni’s Wigmore Hall debut. On the basis of this splendidly planned recital, he should return very soon indeed. I admired him enormously as Salzburg’s 2007 Figaro and he has recently been garnering plaudits in the same role in Vienna’s somewhat more ‘traditional’ production. It is therefore a delight to report that Pisaroni is just as much at home in the recital room, and every bit as comfortable with German as Italian song.

Schubert opened the recital, but in the guise of his three Metastasio songs, D 902, dedicated to the Italian bass, Luigi Lablache. (They were also published with a German translation.) Pisaroni made something very particular out of them, turning their mixed German-Italian nature into a point of interest rather than a mere compromise. The opening Il modo di render moglie, in which the narrator asks why he might not choose a wife for money, had something of the opera too it: Mozart in the third stanza, moving to Rossini at climax, but Pisaroni was always careful to present these songs as songs; they never overstepped the boundary into aspirant opera, despite the tumult one could only really describe as ‘operatic’ in the recitative of Il traditor deluso and the subsequent portrayal of Metastasian furies. The central L’incanto degli occhi sounded closer to German Romanticism, and were blessed by a beautiful richness of tone especially apparent upon the deeper bass notes. It was a pity that pianist Wolfram Rieger could sometimes, especially in the outer pair, prove a little plodding, but that did not detract from Pisaroni’s artistry.

Schubert, as we hear in his Sixth Symphony, was far from immune to the Rossini craze that swept Vienna, even though he would always remain much closer to Beethoven. It was time to hear from Rossini himself: again, not in aria, but in song, and Pisaroni was every bit as successful in ensuring that the three Rossini songs were heard just as that. One could certainly hear that he would make a fine Rossini singer in the theatre, not least from his beautifully sustained line, but that was not the point on the present occasion. Indeed, we heard, especially in La promessa (Metastasio again), a more Romantic and songlike Rossini than would generally be the case, without stepping too far from the classical poise of the text. Rieger imparted a nice, if slightly Germanic, spring to the piano part for L’orgia, but it was Pisaroni who stole the show, his naughtily confiding ‘Gulliva ravviva / Rinnova ogni cor’ an especial joy, on account of a subtlety one does not necessarily expect to hear applied to Rossini.

Then, a true mark of intelligent programming, we moved to Liszt: German, but not quite, closer to Italian music than, say, Wagner or Brahms. Pisaroni’s diction and sense of style had been predictably yet still creditably fine in the Italian songs; they were no less so when it came to Heine, Freiligrath, and Uhland. Im Rhein, im schönen Strome, announces the first song (‘In the Rhine, the beautiful river’), and that is very much what we heard, but beauty heightened the rapt response to Heine’s verse rather than drawing attention from the words. Rieger seemed more at home in Liszt than during the Italian songs, though it took him a couple of songs or so to get going here. The second Heine setting, Vergiftet sind meine Lieder, was more impassioned than the first, yet stood some way from abandon. One was doubly thankful, then, for the Romantically ardent baritone whose songs, were they poisoned (vergiftet), could not but tempt one to taste of his poison. O lieb, so lang du lieben kannst! would become the celebrated Liebesträume no.3. In Pisaroni’s rendition, its Italianate vocal line blended perfectly with German verse and harmonic direction: Lisztian alchemy indeed. Die Vätergruft emerged in ghostly fashion: an old man, clad in armour, entered an ancient chapel, and, floored by a song of exhortation, fell to his final rest. Midway between Schubert and Wagner (perhaps even Mahler’s Das klagende Lied), it retained the twin Italian and German virtues of the previous Liszt songs. I can honestly say that, had I not known the nationality of the singer, I should never have guessed from his German that he was not a native speaker. Matched with rare beauty of tone and unerring control of line, this made for something special indeed.

Finally came the Petrarch Sonnets. Those very virtues of tone and line, married once again to fine diction, permitted the beauty of Petrarch’s verse to emerge afresh. Expectation upon no.104’s ‘E temo e spero, ed ardo e son un ghiaccio’ (‘I fear, yet hope; I burn, yet am turned to ice’) turned dramatically yet naturally to soaring in the heavens for ‘E volo sopra ‘l cielo’. No.47 was perhaps a little less impressive, opening in comparatively casual fashion; there were, moreover, a few moments when intonation wavered, though when it did not, which was most of the time, there was much to savour. Such was the clarity of diction that one readily detected typographical errors in the printed text, such as ‘primo’ for ‘promo’. And when Pisaroni concluded Sonnet no.123 with the words ‘Tanta dolcezza avea pien l’aere e l’vento’ (‘Such sweetness had filled the air and winds’), one could only concur. If one is to hear a lower voice rather than a tenor in these songs, I cannot think of anyone I should rather hear. Rieger too had seemed incited by the poetry and produced some magically Lisztian beauty, not least in the final postlude. As an encore, we were treated to Es muss ein wunderbares sein, S.314, Pisaroni’s treatment as rapt as the Heine setting with which the Liszt selection had opened. One Thomas Hampson, seated with his partner immediately behind me, apparently unbeknown to his son-in-law on stage, was impressed too...