Monday 30 May 2011

Holl/Schiff - Schumann, Brahms, and Schubert, 29 May 2011

Wigmore Hall

Schumann – Dichterliebe, op.48
Brahms – Vier ernste Gesänge, op.121
Schubert – Schwanengesang, D 957: Heine Lieder

Robert Holl (baritone)
András Schiff (piano)

Having arrived relatively early at the Wigmore Hall, I heard from outside the very end of the artists’ final rehearsal. I was a little surprised to hear 'Der Doppelgänger', but thought it might have been prepared as an encore; I was still more surprised to hear a voice that was not Thomas Quasthoff’s. All was revealed when I collected my ticket from the box office: Quasthoff had been replaced at very short notice by Robert Holl, with a complete change of programme. Out went Strauss and Mahler; in came Schumann, Brahms, and Schubert. I mention this only really because what I had expected to hear lingered in my mind somewhat, so that I was perhaps more alert than usual to the Mahlerian presentiments in at least the songs by Schumann and Schubert. András Schiff remained the pianist.

Schumann’s Dichterliebe was performed with an excellent sense of a cyclical whole and of progression within that whole. Schiff announced himself immediately, in the prelude to ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’, as a pianist rather than an ‘accompanist’; there can be few cases where that is more beneficial than in Schumann’s songs, the poetry at least as present in the piano part as in the verse, for which confirmation might be found in the pianist’s light-fingered response to ‘Und wüßten’s die Blumen’. Holl’s care with diction and the depth of his baritone likewise immediately announced an unusual dark (Mahlerian?) and almost Wolf-like text-based perspective upon the cycle. There is something about his German that inevitably reminds one of his Dutch nationality: not only the greater care taken than one might expect from a German, but also occasional aspects of the pronunciation. Given the clarity, one arguably benefits as an audience member, never more so than in verse by Heine, whose bitter-sweet irony one may therefore readily savour to the full. ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube’ was accorded an agitated reading from both musicians, whilst ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’ sounded properly stentorian, Schiff’s sharpness of grip upon the rhythm proving crucial, as had his telling, yet never attention-seeking, voice-leading in ‘Ich will meine Seele tauchen’. A gestural quality that would inform much of Holl’s performance, both here and in the second half, was readily apparent in ‘Ich grolle nicht’. But this was not merely a performance in which baritone and pianist shone individually, far from it; Holl’s touching vocal delivery in ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’ was finely complemented by Schiff’s harmonic command, whilst the intensification of its concentrated emotional drama was pursued in tandem. There were occasions when Holl’s tone was somewhat less than burnished; it proved a little dry, for instance, in ‘Allnächtlich im Traume’. However, this could sometimes be put to good use, as for instance in the appropriately and surprisingly wan delivery of the final line of ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’: ‘’Du trauriger, blasser Mann’ (‘You sad, pale man’). The anger without hysteria of the concluding ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’ was spot on, Schiff’s postlude as painfully beautiful as Heine’s words.

The Brahms songs continued, indeed intensified, the recital’s serious mood, though I felt that Holl’s performance did not quite plumb the metaphysical depths as I once heard Quasthoff do in Salzburg. Schiff, however, proved a far more interesting pianist than Quasthoff’s accompanist had. Holl nevertheless proved an adept guide to the extraordinary texts Brahms selected from Scripture, the Apocrypha included. The import of the words was permitted to speak for itself. One could hardly fail to think of Ein deutsches Requiem, nor indeed in the motivic working – especially during the final, Pauline ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen’ of Brahms’s place in a great German tradition extending at least as far back as Schütz and at least as far forward as Schoenberg, arguably to Stockhausen too. Yet timelessness, doubtless rather than real, was equally apparent, just as in the extraordinary final chorale preludes, the only pieces Brahms would write after these songs. If Holl’s head voice were at times a little imprecise, frailty was powerfully, movingly conveyed when the Preacher tells us that all is vanity.

We then returned to our first poet, with Schubert’s Heine settings from Schwanengesang. Schiff again immediately announced himself an expert pianist in the composer’s style, the opening song, ‘Das Fischermädchen’, proving both urgent and infinitely touching, its modulations especially well handled. ‘Am Meer’ came next, Holl imparting a sense of loneliness such as one might experience when viewing a Caspar David Friedrich landscape, Schiff increasing the tension nicely in the second stanza. Bitterness and anger, doubtless of a somewhat different variety for Schubert than for Heine, were the destination. ‘Die Stadt’, which followed, again demonstrated the benefit of having a concert pianist, Schubert’s will-o’-the-wisp figuration almost but not quite dissolving upon the horizon, whilst the unresolved nature of the song’s conclusion peered forward to those eternal kinsmen of the composer: Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern. ‘Der Doppelgänger’ was properly harrowing, Holl proving quite willing to make an ugly sound upon ‘Mir graust es’. The major-minor dichotomy of ‘Ihr Bild’ really told, prior to a final rage against the dying of the light in the drama of ‘Der Atlas’. It really seemed as though Holl wished to bear the whole world of sorrow of which the poet spoke. As an encore, ‘Der Taubenpost’ proved just the ticket, with nothing throwaway to a performance that took as great care over words and music as had the recital itself.

Sunday 29 May 2011

Müller-Brachmann/LPO/Jurowski - Haydn, Mahler, and Brahms, 28 May 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Haydn – Symphony no.88 in G major
Mahler – Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (Des Antonio von Padua Fischpredigt, Lob des hohen Verstandes, Rheinlegendchen, Trost im Unglück, Das irdische Leben, Der Tambourg’sell, Revelge)
Brahms – Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98

Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski (conductor)

Hanno Müller-Brachmann is a musician I have admired on a number of occasions, especially in Berlin, having assumed with distinction roles ranging from Amfortas to Papageno. (He has also recorded the latter with Claudio Abbado). Müller-Brachmann, a relatively late substitution for Christian Gerhaher, offered the most impressive contribution in an otherwise frustrating concert. Gerhaher’s indisposition had necessitated a change of programme, so we heard songs from Des knaben Wunderhorn rather than other Mahler and orchestrated Brahms. If the bass baritone’s delivery were perhaps not quite so impressive as it had been in Berlin, in a complete Wunderhorn set with Petra Lang and Michael Gielen, then it remained a fine performance. Diction was perfect, so much so that the slip in ‘Trost im Unglück’ when he sang ‘weiten weiten’ rather than ‘ganzen weiten’ was especially clear, though it mattered little. From the opening song, ‘Des Antonio von Padua Fischpredigt’, one had a real sense of a storyteller, avuncular yet mordantly so, assisted by Müller-Brachmann’s naturally dark tone. Unusually fruity woodwind from the London Philharmonic heightened the sense of irony. However, despite revealing and successful attempts to delineate Mahler’s modernistic colouring, here and in the following ‘Lob des hohen Verstandes’, Vladimir Jurowski rendered the bar-lines far too evident. In the latter song, Müller-Brachmann winningly brought more than a hint of Papageno to his rendition, and caused amusement with the final, braying ‘ija’. Jurowski proved to be on much better form in ‘Rheinlegendchen’, which, if on the fast side, benefited from a wistful lilt. The conductor’s bent towards modernistic sound really paid off with the percussion- and brass-led militarism in ‘Trost im Unglück’, though here I wondered whether Müller-Brachmann was becoming a little too hectoring. Fischer-Dieskau naysayers would certainly have thought so. ‘Das irdische Leben’ and ‘Der Tambourg’sell’ were possessed of a ghostly terror, voice and orchestra cooperating in the former to contrast the subdued and the biting, whilst horrible tread and vocal delivery in the latter looked forward to Wozzeck. Terror was also the child of rhythmical alertness in the final ‘Revelge’, whose orchestral military-band interludes made one realise once again why Mahler was accused of vulgarity, his marching tread meanwhile seeming increasingly prophetic of the cataclysmic first movement of the Sixth Symphony. Sweetness of tone and seductive irony, never more so than on ‘Ach Bruder, ach Bruder,’ rounded off a chilling rendition from Müller-Brachmann.

Haydn’s Symphony no.88 had preceded the Mahler songs. Jurowski’s performance began very well indeed, the first movement sounding cultivated, well articulated and motivically clear, through fine command of rhythm, harmony, and their crucial interaction. It was not hectic, as contemporary performances of Haydn so often tend to be, and the opening of the development possessed a true sense of the exploratory, with some beautiful pianissimo playing from the LPO. Though the orchestra was small (strings, it did not sound especially scaled down. Thematic working was quite rightly the order of the day, as one appreciated with the additional woodwind parts in the recapitulation: ‘essential flourishes’, I was tempted to call them. However, though benefiting from a nicely rustic sound, the slow movement suffered from extremely laboured phrasing. Lack of line stood in glaring contrast to the first movement’s coherence; Furtwängler and Karl Böhm could have taught the conductor a few valuable lessons here. Natural trumpets (not horns) and period-style kettledrums made for an abrasive ride, the blaring of the former suggesting a bizarre kinship with a work such as the Missa in tempore belli. The minuet stood midway between first and second movements, edging too close to the terse Beethoven of certain schools, yet marked by agogic accents that would not have been to all tastes; the relaxed trio fared better. Surprisingly, the fourth movement marked a return to the virtues of the first: the clarity and weight of Haydn’s thematic working granting it the status of a true finale. As I said, then, a frustrating performance taken as a whole, though with a good many more positive aspects than that of the Brahms symphony to come.

Perhaps most frustratingly of all, Jurowski’s reading of the fourth symphony began equally promisingly, his phrasing of those generative opening thirds immediately making sense, the sound unusually contrapuntal, Bach looming large. Unfortunately, the first movement soon settled into a foursquare routine, its bar lines again far too audible, to the detriment of phrasing and general flow. The opening of the recapitulation was extraordinarily laboured: whilst there is much to be said for a certain feeling of exhaustion here, there are limits. Sadly, the closing climax was merely hard-driven, recalling, despite splendid playing throughout from the LPO, a bandmaster such as Toscanini. This, alas, was not to be a performance on a similar level to the wonderful recording made by Wolfgang Sawallisch with the same orchestra. The slow movement began very slowly, arguably too slowly, but at least had a greater sense of line. However, the first appearance of the second subject reverted to Jurowski’s earlier habit of distending, whilst its sonority sounded inappropriately sugary, almost Tchaikovskian. Tempo fluctuations were throughout more extreme than Jurowski could convincingly handle: it is better not to try to be Mengelberg unless you are Mengelberg. The scherzo was breathless, unremittingly hard-driven, with irritating agogic interruptions. Some phrases, moreover, were absurdly, arbitrarily slowed, as if placed in inverted commas. The great finale had weight, but tended to petulance rather than tragedy. There was, moreover, no sense of a guiding thread between variations, certainly no sense of what Furtwängler called Fernhören (‘long-distance hearing’). Some variations were simply too slow and pulled around as if Sir Simon Rattle were at the podium, whilst others were charmless beaten into hurried submission. This was not a passacaglia, or even a passacaglia-derived movement, such as I could understand.

Saturday 28 May 2011

Scènes de ballet/Voluntaries/The Rite of Spring, Royal Ballet, 28 May 2011

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Stravinsky – Scènes de ballet

Frederick Ashton (choreography)
André Beaurepaire (designs)
John B Read (lighting)
Christopher Carr (staging)
Gary Avis (ballet master)
Ursula Hageli (ballet mistress)
Lauren Cuthbertson, Sergei Polunin (principals)

Poulenc – Voluntaries

Glen Tetley (choreography)
Rouben Ter-Arutunian (designs)
John B Read (lighting)
Bronwen Curry (staging)
Ursula Hageli (ballet mistress)
Leanne Benjamin, Nehemiah Kish, Sarah Lamb, Valeri Hristov, Ryoichi Hirano (principals)

Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Kenneth Macmillan (choreography)
Sidney Nolan (designs)
John B Read (lighting)
Monica Mason, Christopher Saunders (staging and coaching)
Steven McRae (principal: The Chosen One)

This made for an interesting triple-bill musically, with revealing connections and contrasts. Poulenc owed a great deal to Stravinsky’s neo-classicism, of course, though he could rarely help but supplement it with a dose or two of naughtiness and/or Romantic longing. Stravinsky, meanwhile, was represented by two extremes, though one could add a good few more, of his balletic output: the Scènes de ballet, one of his most lightweight works, and The Rite of Spring, that twin solar plexus of twentieth-century music, to supplement Pierrot lunaire in the description so generously bestowed by Stravinsky himself.

One thing I realised immediately was how much Scènes de ballet benefits from being seen as a ballet. Even the most fervent Stravinskian would be unlikely to claim that he listened to the score that often, but it seems a good deal more inspired when staged, especially when as excellently choreographed as by Frederick Ashton. Neo-Tchaikovskian – and neo-Petipian – elements remain, but are subsumed into a distanced relative abstraction, which seems very much to take its leave from the rhythmic cells upon which Stravinsky bases his score. There is, unlike The Rite, no narrative as such, yet one should be equally wary of speaking of purity, or absolutes, whether concerning music or choreography. Lauren Cuthbertson and Sergei Polunin acquitted themselves very well as the leading couple, their performances cutting to the heart of the (skewed?) balance between strictness and fancy that lies at the heart here of Stravinsky’s and Ashton’s work. André Beaurepaire’s set design remains bewitching. Barry Wordsworth’s conducting, however, sometimes lacked bite: an essential ingredient to the music of that most polemical of neo-classicists.

Voluntaries is Glen Tetley’s ballet to Poulenc’s Organ Concerto. Heard merely as a performance of the concerto, one might have been a little nonplussed, not on account of Thomas Trotter’s playing, as precise and well-characterised as one might expect, but rather because an electronic organ – at least I assume it must have been, on account both of the house and the sound – cannot really pass muster here. The split personality of Poulenc’s music, in this case torn between an idea, however dubious, of Gothic cathedral splendour and the music hall, needs a grander canvas. That said, Tetley’s choreography presents a fascinating blend – there is nothing of the split personality here – of classical tradition and modern dance, upon which Leanne Benjamin, Nehemiah Kish, and their colleagues thrived, imparting grace, personality, and just the right degree of physicality. There were instances when the corps de ballet was not always quite together, and also occasional disjunctures with the pit, but they tended to be occasions one merely noted rather than recoiled from.

The Rite of Spring certainly does have a narrative of its own, as well as having proved an inspiration in terms of allegedly ‘absolute’ music to almost every composer who has followed. It drew, I thought, the best performance from Wordsworth, with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House on fine form, its brass in particular. Whilst his conducting might have lacked something of the incisiveness of master conductors of this music in the concert hall, the experience as a whole proved considerably more engrossing than yet another rendition of the Rite-as-orchestral-showpiece such as one more often than not must nowadays endure. There was an impressive sense of line, which complemented Kenneth Macmillan’s light-footed yet primitivistically inexorable choreography. Dance rhythms likewise complement those of the score: not as much of a platitude as one might expect. Divergences, such as the employment of three elders rather than one sage, do no harm. Here we saw, in line with Macmillan’s own experiment from a 1987 revival, a male solo dancer, Steven McRae proving a fine first amongst equals. Both in itself, then, and in the context of the rest of the programme, this proved a refreshing Rite.

Thursday 26 May 2011

Pollini Project (4) - Stockhausen, Schumann, and Chopin, 25 May 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Stockhausen - Klavierstücke VII and IX
Schumann – Concert sans orchestre, op.14
Chopin – Prelude in C-sharp minor, op.45
Barcarolle, op.60
Ballade no.4 in F minor, op.52
Berceuse, op.57
Scherzo no.2 in B-flat minor, op.31

Believe not a single word you hear from the Pollini nay-sayers. They were out in force following the first concert in this series, a truly astonishing traversal of the First Book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. Suffice it to say, rarely if at all do they listen. They repeat their threadbare dismissal of Pollini as ‘intellectual’, ‘cold’, ‘cerebral’, and so forth, as if somehow it were possible to perform great music without engaging the intellect. Sometimes one might even be treated to a pointless comparison with a pianist such as Vladimir Horowitz, as if that settles the matter. The same sort of people will say the very same things about Pierre Boulez as a conductor; again, they may hear him but they never listen, and nor should we to them. Of course no artist, not even one so distinguished as this, will always perform at his best, but that is another matter and has in any case not applied to a single one of the four recitals heard so far.

This ought to have been the last in the series of five, but the fourth recital, scheduled for the end of last month, had to be postponed. Ending with Boulez’s second piano sonata will arguably make for a still more fitting climax, though I should be surprised if we were not treated to a little more Chopin by way of encores. The present recital, however, opened with two of Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke. It was said a few years ago that Pollini was set to record the entire set for Deutsche Grammophon; let us hope that that claim will prove to be true. One might choose to programme Stockhausen in the context of the avant-garde, or even solely within the context of his own extraordinary œuvre, but it is equally important to perform music such as these piano pieces for what they have become, classics of the repertoire: piano music as well as music that happens to be written for the piano. I could not help but regret that the pointillism with which VII opens had not been preceded, for contrast as well as comparison, by Webern, but there was boldness in opening with Stockhausen, especially when performed so magisterially as here. What was to be heard, were one to listen, was a performance slightly less crystalline, almost more Brahmsian, than might once have been the case, fully in keeping with the presentation of Stockhausen as classic. The same could be said of Pollini’s reading of the ninth. Serial processes are at work, of course, but so are deeply Romantic, expressive purposes. There was nothing to fault, indeed everything to praise, with the pianist’s exquisite diminuendo upon the celebrated repeated chords, but there was never a sense that this was ‘merely’ technique, nor of ‘iciness’ at all. Again, Brahms seemed closer than armchair decriers of Stockhausen would ever have imagined, had they deigned to listen. One had no need to know of the working of the Fibonacci series to sense something of its kind at work: neither composer nor performer sounded in the slightest didactic.

Schumann has long been a particular favourite of Pollini – and his Schumann has long been a particular favourite of mine. The Concert sans orchestre, moreover, has long been a work Pollini has championed. Inevitably, resonances with the Stockhausen pieces emerged, some mediated by Brahms, Schoenberg, and Webern, some more direct. Schumann seemed to gain in radicalism, whilst Stockhausen gained in classicism. It is all very well to say that, of course, but how? Well, the crystalline quality still present, if lesser than prejudice might have had one believe, in the Stockhausen certainly lived and worked its magic – yes, magic – in Schumann’s work. It enabled fantasy and indeed embodied it, but also imparted and embodied structure. The slow movement variations lost nothing in character, yet also peered forward to Webern’s op.27 – a hyper-Romantic work, if ever there were one – whilst the prowess of a concerto soloist, whether composer or performer, was put to fine use both dramatically and colourfully. More than once I thought of Pollini’s recording of the Schumann Piano Concerto with Claudio Abbado. The technique is still magnificent, if not quite so impregnable as once it was; the pianist’s profound, considered humanity, remains as strong as ever. Prestissimo possible in the finale is an invitation to good sense, to play as fast as is possible, not faster. Nothing was garbled that all might both excite and incite.

What to say of Pollini’s Chopin that has not been said before? Doubtless a great deal, for his enquiring mind has never, whatever his detractors might say, been one to settle upon a reading and repeat it. A greater freedom has continued to be more apparent in recent years, at least when one compares present performances with earlier recordings, stunning though those recordings undoubtedly are. (There may be equally great recordings of the Etudes or the Preludes, but there are none greater.) Perhaps, though, Pollini’s earlier concert performances always told a different tale from his recordings. Having recently heard Charles Rosen give, to my great sadness and surprise, one of the worst professional Chopin performances I have ever experienced, it was instructive, but far more importantly, a true delight to hear Pollini in some of the same repertoire. Where Rosen’s Barcarolle proved a drudge, as if the gondola were dredged, Pollini’s sense of line and unobtrusive phrasing, his infinite gradations of touch, enabled the emergence of a poetic impression such as could only be produced by a first-rate technique, though of course such technique is a beginning, a liberation of the poetic impulse, never an end in itself. The C-sharp minor Prelude bewitched, Pollini’s voice-leading here as elsewhere designed to facilitate harmonic and melodic momentum, not, as one too often hears from other pianists, to underline certain parts for the sake of sounding different. His touch, moreover, remains a wonder: both awe-inspiringly precise and yet perfectly capable of melting where necessary, or desirable, as in the ravishing first encore, the D-flat major Nocturne, op.27 no.2, and the Berceuse, which showed that charm and rigour are as one in performance and composition.

The F minor Ballade told a tale of anguish and anger, but equally of pianistic exploration. Liszt, who had originally been programmed rather than Chopin, was to a certain extent still present in spirit, though of course it is in many ways Chopin’s example that sets free Liszt’s musical, as opposed to technical, imagination. Moreover, the nobility with which Pollini told the tale was all the greater for its universalism. There was to this reading, as to that of the second scherzo, nothing narrowly nationalistic. Nor, indeed, is there to Chopin’s music. The vehemence Pollini imparted both to that coruscating reading of the scherzo and to truly bravura performance of the second encore, the ‘Revolutionary’ Study, was all the greater for having moved far beyond a simple, sub-biographical response. Art, in the hands of a true artist, poses difficult questions more often than it answers them.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Because it is summer...

..., because this work stands closer to perfection than any other opera will, because this was the opera I saw on my first visit to the Salzburg Festival (I chose it over Boulez conducting Moses und Aron: unwise, perhaps, but understandable, I hope), because one has not heard Mozart until one has heard it played by this orchestra, and because this film was the first opera I owned on video, a birthday present from my music teacher...:

Monday 23 May 2011

Oper Leipzig: Season 2011-12

The Leipzig Opera (Oper Leipzig) is a German secret too well-kept, not unlike a number of Saxon (and Thuringian) wines. One rightly thinks of the Gewandhaus and St Thomas’s Church when considering the city’s musical life, but just as important is the opera, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra playing for all three venues, a true municipal orchestra, itself descended from the Leipzig town pipers. Opera in Leipzig may be dated back to 1692, when Elector John George III granted a Dresden man, Nicolaus Adam Strungk, the privilege to open a public opera house, to present performances during the city’s fabled trade fairs. The first performances, of Strungk’s own Alceste, took place during the Easter Fair of 1693. (Telemann would be Strungk’s immediate successor.) In somewhat more recent years, I have enjoyed a number of excellent performances at the house where the late, much lamented, Joachim Herz once served as director of opera, including a magnificent triple bill of Schoenberg’s one-act operas and Peter Konwitschny’s unforgettable productions of Lohengrin and Nono’s Al gran sole carico d’amore. (Konwitschny now serves as director of productions.)

One Richard Wagner remains, of course, the city’s greatest son, though walking around Leipzig, one is more readily aware of Bach and indeed Mendelssohn, neither of whom was born there. Wagner indeed was born but a stone’s throw from the Comödienhaus, by then the home for opera in the city. Oper Leipzig will begin to stage the Ring in 2013, the bicentenary of the composer’s birth; in the meantime, it is presenting the dramas, under the baton of Intendant Ulf Schirmer, one by one in concert performance. This season marks the turn of Siegfried. Stefan Vinke, whom I have often had cause to admire for his Heldentenor roles, not least in the aforementioned Lohengrin, assumes the title role. There are seven premieres in all, the others being Tosca, The Cunning Little Vixen, Macbeth, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny, Iphigenie in Tauris (Gluck’s German version), and a Kellertheater staging of Bach’s Ich hätte viel Bekümmernis along with Rainer Bredemeyer’s Keine Bad Kleinen Kantate. Konwitschny directs the Bach project, Macbeth, and the latest instalment in the house’s Gluck-Konwitschny ‘Ring’, which will be joined this season by revivals of Alceste and Iphigénie en Aulide. (Where else will you see three Gluck operas in a season?) Tobias Kratzer and Schirmer work together on the Brecht-Weill ‘opera’. Other revivals are: Juan Crisostómo de Arriaga’s fairy-tale opera, The Arabian Princess (now where else have you seen that?), The Barber of Seville, La Bohème, Così fan tutte (Konwitschny), The Love for Three Oranges, a staging of the Brecht-Paul Dessau Deutsche Miserere, Eugene Onegin (Konwitschny), Hänsel und Gretel, Die Meistersinger, Parsifal (review here), Der Rosenkavalier, La traviata, Il turco in Italia, and Die Zauberflöte. Ballet, including Prokofiev’s Cinderella, and a strong tradition of operetta (Lehár, Lortzing, Johann Strauss, et al.) also feature.

Book Review: Barry Emslie - Wagner and the Centrality of Love

This review was published quite some time ago, in The Wagner Journal, 4/2 (2010), pp.92-96, but I thought it might still be of interest...

Barry Emslie, Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love (Boydell Press: Woodbridge,Suffolk, 2010). viii + 312pp. £50. ISBN: 978-1-843-83536-3

I enjoyed reading this book – an observation which may sound banal, but is no minor point. Books should be intended to be read, a point too often forgotten by their authors. That cannot be said of Barry Emslie, who writes engagingly, carrying one along with his way of thinking, and driving one to think for oneself. For instance, he writes amusingly of Kundry’s kiss, ‘The male is indeed fortunate if he not only doesn’t have to settle with the father before he usurps his place, but is also rewarded by a maternal kiss that is both a sensual pleasure and a religious benediction.’ (p. 238) A couple of sentences on, Emslie pithily dismisses ‘all decent and thereby false Wagnerites’. If only the opera houses of the world would unite and similarly lose their chains. The important point is that no one, but no one, will write a book on Wagner with which anyone, let alone everyone, else wholeheartedly agrees. One is bound, then, to be provoked: no bad thing. The question is, how? The greatest of Wagner’s critics, such as Nietzsche and Adorno, sometimes make one want to throw their books against the wall but also open up new possibilities, which, even if modified strenuously and severely, point toward a more sophisticated understanding of Wagner’s work. That is surely what anyone who cares about Wagner would wish to glean. And so, if I talk more in this review about that with which I take issue, it is partly because I have been positively provoked to take issue rather than negatively to discount.

I could not disagree more when Emslie calls the Ring ‘a mess’, except when he goes on to write of the ‘bad fit’ between its ‘sprawling story […] and Wagner’s compositional method’ (p. 55). Like George Bernard Shaw, Emslie sees incoherent collapse in Götterdämmerung, though he makes a more substantial case. It is perhaps not irrelevant to note here that the word ‘empirical’ arises too often, seemingly intended to signify a sort of common-sense (English?) corrective to German idealism rather than a highly ideological construct in its own right. Misunderstandings can follow. Emslie surely identifies Brünnhilde too closely with Wagner (p. 92); she is a character rather than a mouthpiece. He likewise misses the point of Brünnhilde’s refusal to return the ring to Waltraute (p. 91), though, in that she considers herself married and will therefore never give up her wedding ring, a point quite germane to Emslie’s broader concerns. However, if there is much to disagree with in the lengthy Ring chapter’s first part, ‘Contradiction, disorder and musical language’, I found that considerably more diverting than the concluding section on incest, which meanders somewhat, a little unclear as to its goal. Is incest quite so crucial to Wagner’s world-view as Emslie argues, both here and subsequently?

If Emslie cannot take this artistic ‘swindle’ as seriously as many of us, he clearly admires much of Wagner’s dramatic work: if not Götterdämmerung, then certainly Die Walküre, and still more Tristan, writing (p. 135), ‘When Marke sings of his love for Isolde […] anyone who is not deeply moved should never go anywhere near another performance of Tristan und Isolde again.’ Here Emslie valuably corrects a common misunderstanding of Stabreim, pointing (p. 155) to the importance of assonance as well as alliteration, and to the wider relationship with ‘sound effects in poetic language […] what the Germans tellingly call “the Lyric”’. Moreover, Emslie seems to stand in awe of Parsifal, rightly pointing to the importance of Christianity, which, given many commentators’ concerns, is more necessary than one might reasonably expect. It is, however, unfortunate that we should read ‘it is Easter’ (p. 242) for the third act, when of course it is Good Friday. Given Wagner’s concerns with the Cross, the Saviour, and  whether the latter might be brought down from the former, the Church calendar is not unimportant.

But let us address the concern of the book’s title more directly: love as a ‘unifying concept’ (p. 2) in Wagner’s work, albeit ‘seen – prima facie – in the context of two separate and arguably opposed categories: the spiritual and the sensuous’ (p. 3). Tannhäuser is explored in this respect. Moving on to Wagner’s uncompleted dramatic project Jesus of Nazareth, Emslie makes the interesting point (p. 32) that, for Wagner, an attack upon private property must first be an attack upon marriage. In his conclusion, Emslie neatly encapsulates the unifying concept and some of its implications (p. 291): ‘Wagner’s agenda, especially in the music dramas, is to plant as deeply as possible a concept of heterosexual love that turns out to be the royal road to a complex nexus of virtues: discovery of the true self, knowledge at its deepest and most abstract, physical bliss, redemption from sin and suffering, and (ultimately) renunciation of the world.’ The problem for Emslie is that this necessarily involves love’s dialectical opposite: hate, which for Wagner, it is claimed, manifests itself especially in his anti-semitism – love for the German nation entails hatred of the Other. It often has done, in different forms, but Wagner’s nationalism, such as it is, tends to be more ambiguous than is allowed here; it can permit of more than one dialectical opposite, for instance universalism. Indeed, I recall not a single reference to Wagner’s contrast in The Artwork of the Future between the national and the ‘un-national’ or ‘universal’. Whereas Greek tragedy had been ‘generically national’, the artwork of the future would represent the second of the ‘two principal moments in mankind’s development’ (‘Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft’, in Richard Wagner, Sämtliche Schriften und Dichtungen, 4th edn, 16 vols. (Leipzig, 1911) [SS], iii.61). In another of the Zurich reform writings, Art and Revolution, we read that the Athenian spectator had been reconciled with ‘the most noble and profound principles of his people’s consciousness’, whilst Wagner’s envisaged post-revolutionary audience would celebrate its membership of ‘free humanity’, a ‘nobler universalism’ ('Die Kunst und die Revolution,' in ibid., iii, 30, 23, 39). One may take the attitude that such words contradict Wagner’s practice, but they merit attention.

There are issues of history, intellectual and political, with which I am uneasy, for instance, the highly contentious claim (p. 188) that, by the time of Napoleon’s death blow, the Holy Roman Empire ‘had long been a joke’. Much recent work has highlighted the Empire’s 18th-century vitality. Moreover, its borders were not unstable in the way that Emslie supposes (p. 189). The Reich of blessed memory was not a state, more a legal and a cultural framework – a point relevant to Die Meistersinger. Its millennium in existence surely answers the writer’s question (p. 286): why a thousand years for the (successor but one) Third Reich? Emslie’s early references to Hegelian ‘synthesis’ may mislead the reader through employment of too positive a term. Hegel never employed the all-too-common formula, thesis–antithesis–synthesis, which vulgarises the sublating concept of Aufhebung: an invaluable, well-nigh untranslatable term for German cultural commentary, encompassing negation, preservation, mediation and more. ‘Mediated unity’ is probably as good as one can get; yet, if one can employ the German term Volk, surely one can Aufhebung too. Emslie does later (p. 235), though in a way that implies final resolution, rather than an invitation to further negation. This may or may not be what Wagner wanted. I do not think that he achieved it, even, as Emslie suggests, in Parsifal, and it is certainly not what Hegel meant. It seems to be implied in a ‘thereafter’ (p. 21) that Schopenhauer was a chronological successor rather than contemporary to Hegel. That ‘thereafter’ should pertain to most Schopenhauer reception, Wagner’s included, but not to Schopenhauer himself, an important point given his chronological proximity to the German Romantics. However, the thesis of Wagnerian presentiments concerning Jürgen Habermas, via Hegel’s Jena writings (p. 46) – the latter more important, I think, than Emslie allows – is a fascinating prospect, which deserves further attention.

An interesting point made is that drama ‘as genre is customarily focused on individuals and all its greater connotations (whether Fate, the Gods, the tribe, the nation, class struggle etc.) are difficult to dramatise in terms other than in the destinies of subject/actors’ (p. 138). It is a pity Emslie goes on to say that whilst ‘this is not an uninteresting conundrum – Marxist aesthetic theorists, for instance, tore into each other in the early decades of the twentieth century as they tried to come to terms with all the issues it raised – it is not strictly relevant here.’ For it is highly relevant to Wagner, whether in analysis of his own works or his legacy to theorists of different hues, and indeed to artists of the 20th century. Schoenberg springs immediately to mind, likewise Brecht; so does Die Meistersinger. Wagner’s dramas are distinguished from treatises in various ways, but one is the inherent tendency for radicalisation in drama, or at least in successfully dynamic drama. Ideas, abstractions, ‘greater connotations’, call them what one will, may at some level actually be more deeply probed through dramatic than analytical means, partly because of the way characterisation allows such exploration. This is not quite what Wagner says in Opera and Drama, but nor is it remote from that. It would have been interesting to hear more from Emslie on this, not least given his subsequent concentration upon nation and race. However, no book will be able to address everything; to suggest fruitful tangents on which the reader may choose to embark is a good deal of its purpose. Likewise, given Emslie’s continual, quite justified, insistence on the centrality of heterosexual love – the qualifier is usually attached – I wondered whether we should at some point be treated to a ‘queering’ of Wagner. There is certainly ripe material here; a starting point might have been Hans Werner Henze’s divining ‘something disagreeably heterosexual […] in all those rampant horn calls’ heard in Götterdämmerung (Bohemian Fifths: An Autobiography, tr. Stewart Spencer (Princeton, NJ, 1999), 207). Sadly, that was not to be, the sole, brief mention of homosexuality (p. 121) leading nowhere in particular. Perhaps the purpose was simply to suggest; again, a single book cannot accomplish everything.

We should return, however, to the posited dark side. More important than the ‘German’ to Emslie is the negative form of Wagner’s ‘love’, the ‘inimical, allegedly inadmissible bloodline’ (p. 198) of the ‘loveless’ (p. 217) Jews. Indeed, blood and race colour a great deal of this book. It is here that the writer truly goes on the attack, having little time for those he considers Wagner’s ‘apologists’. I do not consider myself an ‘apologist’, the writer’s favoured term for those who take a different view, nor a ‘literalist’, an ‘acolyte’ or a ‘loyalist’. It is certainly not the case that, in the face of evidence, I seek to excuse Wagner. When I challenge the general thesis of anti-semitism in the music dramas, I have given the matter some thought. Emslie is quite right to argue that ‘you cannot, or at least should not, put a firewall around the music dramas’, though one may still not accept that ‘the anti-semitic issue […] is an essential ingredient’ (p. 203). He is also right to argue that ‘there has to be an argument about interpretation’ (p. 205); likewise that it is not enough, though surely important, to point out that none of the music dramas ‘explicitly attacked Jews’ (p. 204). An argument concerning interpretation may begin in all sorts of places, yet there are worse places than with Wagner (and Cosima). None of the ‘accusers’, or whatever one might call them – were one inclined to regard them as Them – seems able to explain why Wagner did not once ever draw attention to an anti-semitic text or subtext. If Wagner’s 1869 decision to republish Das Judentum in der Musik was ‘courageous’ (p. 201) – I fail to see it as especially so – then why did he demonstrate such little courage in the present respect? He might well have failed to do so had this been an issue that cropped up once or twice – Beckmesser seems the most plausible of the usual suspects – but for something that has an allegedly ‘unparalleled epistemological function […] within Wagner’s conscious Weltanschauung’, and which is therefore alleged to permeate anything and everything? Emslie rightly, however, points to the lack of division of labour, more Romantic–nostalgic than Marxian, in Meistersinger. And though I do not see the prospect of Eva and Walther eloping as constituting betrayal of Nuremberg (p. 171), if one does, it fits well with the nasty, völkisch, almost totalitarian nationalism Emslie discerns. After all, Sachs prevents them from escaping.

Ultimately, though, the argument concerning the dramas remains circular: Wagner hates the Jews; certain characters and characteristics are bad; these characters and characteristics must be Jews; Wagner hates the Jews…. It is not clear why one should not do the same with Frenchmen or Jesuits; or rather, it is not clear why one should do it with any group. If ‘the Jew’, that is Alberich, ‘turns to gold and silver as substitutes for what might have been’ (p. 218), do we say this of Fafner too? Perhaps, at a push, Fasolt, once Loge advises him to take the ring? Presumably, since race and blood are so crucial, we should have to allow Fasolt, since brothers could hardly be of different races, and yet, he  could hardly have suddenly become a Jew at that point. And if Emslie calls Siegfried ‘a non-Jew if ever there was one’ (p. 260), one must ask why. What of a letter to Malwida von Meysenbug, in which Wagner contrasts the Messiah with the Jews who thought he would turn out to be an agent of political liberation: ‘Believe me, all our political freedom fighters strike me as being uncannily like the Jews.’ (Letter of 15 June 1862, Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, ed. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington (London, 1987), 546.) One might just as well, then, though quite absurdly, claim that Siegfried is really ‘a Jew’. For if one permits that there might be  something else at work, the whole ‘racist’ edifice collapses. Opposition to Jewish culture and religion is amenable to a less ‘literalist’ approach to plot detail; fundamental, as opposed to more incidental, racism is not. Renunciation of love, conversion of gold into capital, power-lust, and so on, issues that are treated onstage and in Wagner’s own comments upon his work, may actually be his fundamental points. It is possible that he might have wished to conceal ‘epistemological’ anti-semitism, but given the nature and the volume of his pronouncements, that seems highly implausible and requires explanation. If we permit that Wagner’s opposition to ‘Jewishness’ may partly have reflected some other concern(s), that opposition loses its ascribed function. This is not to say that what remains is unworthy of comment, simply that it cannot fulfil so ambitious a task. It seems more plausible to see Wagner’s reaction to Jewishness, in all its varieties, as in good part a consequence of his identification of ‘the Jew’ with the capitalist, instrumentalist modernity the composer so abhorred.

Sometimes Emslie runs into trouble when it comes to music. This is a difficult matter when writing for the elusive ‘general reader’, but one which, to the author’s credit, he does not shirk, though the brief description of the music of Tristan (p. 151) sounds merely naive. One issue may seem merely nomenclatural, when Emslie writes, in his author’s note, ‘Unlike Wagner, I have chosen to use the term “music drama” exclusively for all the theatrical works from The Flying Dutchman to Parsifal, and the term “opera”’ for the three preceding works. However, whilst the ‘traditional’ distinction between music drama and Romantic drama is not absolute, it serves a useful purpose, and Emslie’s redrawing of the boundaries confuses. ‘What’s in a name?’ one may ask, though, as the author elsewhere avers, the Lohengrin-like answer may be, ‘more or less everything’ (p. 17). For this reclassification sometimes appears to lead to treating works such as Tannhäuser as if they were ‘music dramas’ in the usual sense (p. 61), even though later on, Emslie, citing Arnold Whittall (p. 64), acknowledges development in Wagner’s method. It is true that the precepts of Opera and Drama are to some extent born of practical compositional experience – the works preceding Das Rheingold – yet, like Wagner’s leitmotifs themselves, they look forward as much as back. It is surely more revealing to follow Carl Dahlhaus in acknowledging a ‘qualitative leap in the evolution of symphonic style’, for which the traditional usage acts as shorthand (‘Wagner’s Place in the History of Music’, tr. Alfred Clayton, Wagner Handbook, ed. Ulrich Müller, Peter Wapnewski and John Deathridge (Cambridge, MA, and London, 1992), 110). A few typographical errors are more or less inevitable, though there are perhaps too many here. Many will find the split infinitives easier to overlook than I do. Nevertheless, I repeat that I enjoyed reading Richard Wagner and the Centrality of Love. It has given me much to ponder, much to contest. Other readers will doubtless respond in similar fashion.

To follow the debate that ensued, click here.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Happy Birthday, Richard!

Two years to go before the bicentenary...

A relatively rare nod to Leipzig's greatest son, at the site of his birth
(Good Friday, April 2011)

Almost everyone seems to have been at Glyndebourne yesterday for the new Meistersinger: not, alas I, though early reports tend to suggest a production somewhat lacking in Wahn and its darker implications. ('Riotous apprentices,' however, a friend approvingly remarks.) Though it looks as though I shall miss out on Wagner in Sussex, there will be a good few reports to come over the summer. Next month brings Götterdämmerung in Paris, to conclude the impressive new Ring there, and Pierre Boulez conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in the Faust Overture and the Siegfried-Idyll (along with Daniel Barenboim at the piano for both Liszt concertos). Early August offers four nights in Bayreuth, from where I shall report on the new Tannhäuser, Lohengrin (Hans Neuenfels), Tristan (Christoph Marthaler), and the final outing for Stefan Herheim's extraordinary production of Parsifal.

With Wagner, there is of course always more than enough to think about. At some point, I should like to revisit and to develop my thoughts concerning the Immolation Scene, which anyone interested will find in the final chapter of my book, Treacherous Bonds and Laughing Fire: Politics and Religion in Wagner's Ring (click here for  details on the publisher's website). In the meantime, however, here is the very end of that chapter, which may, even out of context, be of interest to some readers...

The uncertainty of the watchers’ position precludes talk of a ‘happy ending’, yet they stand a little advanced upon us, as a beacon of hope to a world that has destroyed neither Valhalla nor Nibelheim. Art, in [Herbert] Marcuse’s words, ‘cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness and drives of the men and women who could change the world.’ The watchers’ emotional witness serves to remind us not only of the hopes we might invest in the future, but also of the condemnation we should pronounce upon the present: mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur. If we have rejected Mother Courage, what, then, of the ‘cloth-capped workers out of Brecht-Weill’ in [Patrice] Chéreau’s production? [Michael] Tanner acidly remarks that the centenary Ring was, ‘after all, a Ring to make us think. There is no evidence yet that it has succeeded.’ On the contrary: the debate ignited has still not died down. The watchers might be seen, if not to represent a particular social class, then at least to provide a crucial social element to the Ring’s denouement: a counterpoise to the ‘interior’ ending to Tristan, a return to words from 1849:

How should man create from himself a greater strength than he possesses? – We see that man is utterly incapable in himself to attain his destiny, that in himself he has not the strength to germinate the living seed distinguishing him from the beast. Yet that strength, missing in man, we find in overflowing abundance in the totality of men. … Whereas the spirit of the isolated man remains eternally buried in deepest night, it is awakened in the combination of men …

Hegel had pointed out that ancient movements inimical to worldly actuality – Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Scepticism – had brought only an abstract, inward reconciliation, incapable of satisfying living Spirit, which longed for a ‘higher reconciliation’. This, in conjunction with the depravity of Roman – Gibichung? – politics, had brought Christianity into the world. [Moses] Hess too had warned of the dangers of ‘philosophical egoism’:

Is the consistent Philosopher, as he appears in Bruno Bauer, not the self-satisfied egoist, the solitary who is blissful and all-powerful in his self-consciousness? … Is he not but as the pious Christian who has been elevated and consoled by his Communion feast and so separated from this evil and fallen world? Has he anything other to do in the world except – to learn to despise it? – Read Bruno Bauer! No Church Father and no statesman has ever more cynically expressed his scorn of the world of the ‘mass’ than this recent philosopher …
The watchers express sympathy for Brünnhilde and amazement at the flames of Loge, but what do Brünnhilde and Loge care for the survivors? Is Brünnhilde’s capacity for sympathy really universal, or is her separation from this evil, fallen world more cynical, or at least more selfish? More fundamentally, might Schopenhauerian rejection of the world actually, if unintentionally, provide ideological cover for ‘critical criticism’? Loge threatened to burn Valhalla in his Rheingold soliloquy; perhaps Brünnhilde, having passed through the illusions of love, is now, as his instrument, led astray by the critical illusions of nothingness. Do the watchers provide a counterpoise to such ‘egoism’, or to the nihilism it might engender in Wagner’s audience? It is possible that they retain something of [Max] Stirner’s free union of individuals, come together voluntarily and ever at liberty to disperse. Yet the wondrous events appear to provide a stronger communal bond than Stirner would allow.

Some of these suggestions are tentative, but that follows necessarily from the suggestive nature of the Ring, and in particular of its ending. Wagner, even in his theoretical writings, is vague as to what form any future political system might take – but this holds for many social and political critics, Marx included. In the introduction to the Zurich reform works for the 1872 edition of his collected writings, Wagner claims, ‘I believed in the revolution, in its necessity and its inevitability,’ but adds that it was never his intent to define the new political order. This would ‘emerge from the ruins of a mendacious world’. Eight years later, we read:

Questions as to how this or that shall be altered or eliminated, e.g., what to do with animals, how to distribute property, order sexual unions etc., are not to be answered in advance by speculative guidance; they answer themselves of their own accord through the consequences of the act, when this proceeds out of a great religious awareness.
Indeed, in Art and Revolution, Wagner had attacked the ‘utopia’ of Christianity, whose dogmas had ever been unrealisable. His move towards Schopenhauer lessened his hostility, yet reconciliation is never completed: not in the Ring, nor even in Parsifal. On the other hand, as Wagner lapped up Schopenhauer’s metaphysics, the increasingly preferential role played by music in the Gesamtkunstwerk itself provided a utopian vision. Wagner rejected even the ‘Schopenhauer ending’ as tendentious, resolving to let the music speak for itself – even if, perhaps especially if, it should ultimately resist translation into words. The final grandeur of Valhalla ablaze and the glorious – prophetic? – memory of Siegfried and the ‘act’ lead us into that enigmatic final motif. Its enigma is as intrinsic, as insoluble, as that of the ‘Tristan chord’. It provokes the dangerous, yet creative questioning of Wotan and Loge, and the malcontent and rebellion of the Volsungs; through Brünnhilde and the watchers, it tantalises us with ‘religious awareness’, the possibility of redemption. Falling short of absolute reconciliation – as even Hegel had done – returns us to the dialectical conflict between ‘absolute’ Romantic music and critical utopian ideas.

It seems fitting to turn one last time to the Centenary-Ring, which has proved quite an inspiration throughout this book. In his Performer’s Notebook, Boulez writes:

There have been endless discussions as to whether this conclusion is pessimistic or optimistic; but is that really the question? Or at any rate can the question be put in such simple terms? Chéreau has called it ‘oracular’, and it is a good description. In the ancient world, oracles were always ambiguously phrased so that their deeper meaning could be understood only after the event, which, as it were, provided a semantic analysis of the oracle’s statement. Wagner refuses any conclusion as such, simply leaving us with the premisses for a conclusion that remains shifting and indeterminate in meaning.
Chéreau himself wished:

… that the orchestra pit be, like Delphi’s smoking pit, a crevice uttering oracles – the Funeral March and the concluding redemption motif. The redemption motif is a message delivered to the entire world, but like all pythonesses, the orchestra is unclear, and there are several ways in which one might interpret its message. … Should one not hear it with mistrust and anxiety?
Writing in 1873 about his conception of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus then under construction, Wagner had expanded in similar terms upon his discussion nine years earlier with Gottfried Semper, concerning the abortive Munich Festival Theatre for Ludwig II. Between proscenium and audience would lie a ‘mystical abyss’, out of which the sounds of the concealed orchestra should emerge as an aural equivalent to the steam that once had risen from Gaia’s primæval womb, underneath the seat of the Pythia. Once again, Boulez and Chéreau point us toward the interpretive implications of Wagner’s vision.

Just as the explorations of the Ring had beckoned during Lohengrin’s concluding bars, so now do those of Parsifal: the work intended explicitly, indeed solely, for the Oracle of Bayreuth. If sexual love has become embroiled in games of power-politics and shown to be a force more of destruction than of liberation, such dark intimations of Freud will be more fully explored in that great second-act confrontation between Kundry and Parsifal, next to which the awakening of Siegfried and Brünnhilde might stand in danger of appearing superficial or naïve. Wagner’s final drama will build upon the riddles adumbrated in the Ring, and climax in the most oracular pronouncement of all: ‘Redemption to the Redeemer’. Solution to Wagner’s sphinx-like riddle of redemption will once again be postponed. Is the answer ‘man’? At any rate, Feuerbach remains a tangible presence. We must continue to listen carefully to the final bars of the Ring, which seem ‘to be telling us that the ultimate form of asceticism is to renounce easy illusion and create in ourselves the void from which a new genesis may spring’. Is this Feuerbach or Schopenhauer? If the question is ‘revolution or redemption?’ is the answer ‘revolution in redemption’? It is not that these questions have ceased to matter, nor that they have been transcended; it is certainly not the case that they should not have been asked, nor that they should cease to be asked. Chéreau’s mistrust and anxiety must remain at the hearts of present attempts if not to interpret then at least to suggest an illusory, momentary ‘solution’.

Adorno rightly feared the ‘Happy End’. Siegfried and even Hagen would have profited had they too been able to do so. We should remain vigilant, lest the tempting nihilism of phantasmagorical resolution should lure us from our path. A twentieth-century mind’s ear – but what of the twenty-first century? – might have found less perilous the tragedy and catharsis of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Ravel’s whirling post-war vortex of disintegration in La Valse, or the inconclusive halt to which Berg so chillingly calls his Wozzeck. On the other hand, the redemptive halo in which, echoing Wagner, Berg bathed the end of his last completed work, the Violin Concerto (‘To the memory of an angel’) has often proved more problematical. Whilst considering the concerto more successful than Berg’s other ‘late’ works, Der Wein and Lulu, the young Boulez could not conceal his distaste at ‘this same desire for reconciliation’. Yet Boulez would subsequently conduct Parsifal and the Ring at Bayreuth – not to mention the first three-act performance of Lulu.

Adorno was quite justified to claim that serious consideration of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – perhaps the most enduringly enigmatic musical work yet written – could only result in its Brechtian alienation, in rupturing ‘the aura of unfocused veneration protectively surrounding it’. One of the greatest problems with respect to the Ring is that such rupture has become well-nigh impossible. To be aware of this is only a beginning, but better than nothing. We should remain grateful that the enigma of the Ring pales besides that of Beethoven’s work. If we could understand why Beethoven set the Mass, we should, Adorno claimed, understand the Missa Solemnis. Understanding why Wagner wrote the Ring and beginning to understand the work itself suddenly seem less forbidding prospects.

Wagner’s musical mastery should not render us deaf to problems, or indeed opportunities, which endure. We engage with those problems when we consider redemption not as something accomplished – which, for the most part, it patently is not – but as a possibility. We should do Wagner a gross injustice were we to consider the Immolation Scene as an attempt to return to Beethoven. No longer can a journey from C minor to C major, from darkness to light, enable a hero to burst open the portals of Heaven; the Fifth Symphony means something different after Feuerbach. The Ring might open in E flat, but to end in the flattened tonality of D flat, the key of Valhalla and the key in which Das Rheingold so unsettlingly concludes or fails to conclude, can hardly fail to provoke unsettling questions. Progressive – even ‘regressive’ – tonality did not fail to leave its mark upon Mahler, who at times appeared to speak to the later twentieth century more directly than any other composer.

Birtwistle, it may be noted, has continued to reject Beethovenian goal-orientation in his music, whilst benefiting greatly – for example, in Gawain (1990–94) – from his intensive study of the Ring and Wagnerian leitmotif technique. As Birtwistle’s dramatic œuvre, up to and including The Io Passion (2004), indicates, myth, whether Christian or pagan, has, with its dialectic between the linear and the cyclical, come to seem more fruitful for dramatic exploration than its Romantic roots might once have seemed to imply. Myth has proved far less sterile and dated, far more capable of renewal, than verismo or inter-war neo-classicism. Birtwistle himself composed incidental music – though the word ‘incidental’ does the depth of his labyrinthine invention no justice – in 1981 to Tony Harrison’s translation of the Oresteia for the Royal National Theatre. Boulez had plans to set a reduction by Heiner Müller of the Oresteia, frustrated by Müller’s untimely death. Xenakis pursued his own Æschylus-inspired ‘synthesis of the arts’ in Oresteïa (1965–66), a combination of incidental music and concert-piece, followed by the vocal works Kassandra (1987) and La déesse Athéna (1992). And Stockhausen, in his gigantic seven-part Licht myth of creation, would seem to court, even to crave, Wagnerian comparisons; the new purveyor of myths strives to see the world begin, if not end. (Lucifer may have other ideas, though.) Wagner’s oracle is of the nineteenth century, yet is no more confined to that century than that of Æschylus is to his. The Ring attempts to ‘make clear to the men of the Revolution the meaning of that Revolution, in its noblest sense’. Only a further revolution, it seems, will enable us fully to understand the oracle of Götterdämmerung; then, we may hope, shall the owl of Minerva once again spread its wings. In the meantime, the Ring’s final augury will keep us fruitfully occupied.

Saturday 21 May 2011

Mozart Unwrapped (5) - Cropper-Welsh-Roscoe Trio, 21 May 2011

Hall One, Kings Place

Violin Sonata in A major, KV 526
Piano Trio in G major, KV 564
Violin Sonata in E minor, KV 304
Piano Trio in E major, KV 542

This latest instalment in Kings Place’s ‘Mozart Unwrapped’ series was the third concert of trios and duos given by the Cropper-Welsh-Roscoe Trio. The performance took a little while to get going, the extraordinarily difficult A major violin sonata – I remember battling with it as a schoolboy pianist – receiving a sometimes unsettled, as opposed to unsettling, performance. There was vigour, especially from Peter Cropper’s violin, but Beethovenian stabbings in the first movement’s second subject proved too much for Mozart. Cropper’s wavering intonation did not help either. Those notorious problems of balance remained unresolved as often as not. Period instrumentalists often point here to the easier blend of fortepiano and Classical violin, but that should present a challenge rather than an impediment to musicians playing on modern instruments. Even in the first movement, however, there were passages in which both instruments sang, especially Martin Roscoe’s piano. Roscoe imparted a nice rhythmic bounce to much of his music too, likewise a welcome yet never excessive flexibility of tempo. The slow movement was poised and happily vocal in apparent performative inspiration. If sometimes the music sounded close to Beethoven, that is simply a reflection of the score’s qualities; in any case, the operatic cantilena was unmistakeably Mozart’s. If I readily admit to preferring a somewhat slower tempo in such an Andante, I appreciate that not everyone shares my apparently antediluvian preferences. The finale, however, emerged rather breathless at times, though Roscoe introduced charming moments of relaxation. Intonation, again, stood a little too distant from flawless.

When Moray Welsh joined the players for the G major trio, KV 564, balance immediately improved; the performance sounded more at ease too. There was sparkle without rushing, though occasional roughness remained. The slow movement benefited from a simple yet never simplistic – an exam script I marked the other day referred unfortunately to Die Zauberflöte as ‘a simplistic opera’ – dignity that again hinted at Beethoven, without quite reaching his still-foreign shores. Mozart’s chromaticism in the minor-key variation could only ever have been his: Roscoe delineated its twists very well. Cropper imparted a winning lilt to the finale theme when he took it over, proving refreshingly willing to play out: no Mozart as Meissen china here. Welsh’s cello tone was beautifully rich without straying into inappropriate territory; his sure touch with respect to the music’s harmonic contours was greatly appreciated.

The greater ease announced by the trio was not simply a matter of the extra player, for the E minor violin sonata, which followed the interval, received a fine performance, very much alive to the moment. The first movement (of two) possessed a quality of Sturm und Drang tempered by lyricism, that one might be tempted to call Schubertian, were that not a case of getting things the wrong way around. (And even then, I am still tempted to do so.) There are still awkward corners to be navigated at this stage in Mozart’s career – again, I retain not entirely happy memories here as a performer! – but Cropper and Roscoe handled them well. The Tempo di Menuetto movement proved truly moving, Mozart smiling, as so often, through (vocal) tears, that mixture of senses seeming especially apt here. It harked back to the fantasy-world of CPE Bach, albeit with none of that composer’s shortness of breath, a shortcoming of which Mozart could never be accused.

Welsh returned to the stage for the E major trio, KV 542. What a rare key this is for Mozart, if not for Haydn, nor for Beethoven! One immediately perceived its tonal warmth, aided by rich, lyrical instrumental tone. The Andante grazioso sounded like true chamber music, with all the natural give and take that seemingly innocuous description implies, and without loss to essential simplicity. Mozart’s sinuous line in the finale almost inevitably brought to mind the minuet of the Jupiter Symphony, but the movement had a character of its own, inviting none of the (neo-)classical formality of the other work. Again, it was treated to a fine example of unforced chamber music playing. The minor mode section was especially touching, its pathos genuine rather than overwrought.

Friday 20 May 2011

ENO, A Midsummer Night's Dream: other reviews

The following have struck me as interesting in their various ways. Some, which I shall not bother to mention, seem depressingly similar to the angry booing from the stalls. I may update this... (Here, meanwhile, is a link to my review.)

Michael White (Telegraph)
Classical Iconoclast
Simon Thomas (
David Nice (The Arts Desk)
Barry Millington (Evening Standard)
Edward Seckerson (Independent)
Mark Ronan's Theatre Reviews
Peter Reed (Classical Source)
Mark Valencia (also Classical Source)
George's Musings
Fiona Maddocks (Observer)
Andrew Clark (Financial Times)

A Midsummer Night's Dream, English National Opera, 19 May 2011

 The Coliseum

Images: Alastair Muir (click to enlarge)
The eve of the wedding...
Oberon – William Towers
Bottom – Sir Willard White
Tytania – Anna Christy
Lysander – Allan Clayton
Demetrius – Benedict Nelson
Theseus – Paul Whelan
Puck – Jamie Manton
Helena – Kate Valentine
Hermia – Tamara Gura
Flute – Michael Colvin
Snug – Grame Danby
Snout – Peter van Hulle
Starveling – Simon Butteriss
Quince – Jonathan Veira
Cobweb - Alexander Lee
Peaseblossom - Luke Saint
Mustardseed - Luke Dugan
Moth - Dominic O'Donnell
Changeling boy - Dominic Williams
Hippolyta - Catherine Young

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

Boys of Trinity School, Croydon (chorus master: David Swenson)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Leo Hussain (conductor)

Iestyn Davies (Oberon) and
Anna Christy (Tytania)
ENO’s superlative Return of Ulysses has been my operatic highlight of the season so far; This Midsummer Night’s Dream in many respects comes close: such a relief after the well-nigh unwatchable Damnation of Faust recently endured. But this was not easy ‘relief’, Christopher Alden’s production proving intent on exploring the darker side of Britten and his work. It was telling that the discomfort of a certain section of the audience manifested itself in the unpardonable boorishness of booing the production team. Reactionaries who might just about have reconciled themselves to Britten’s music – forget Birtwistle... – did not want their ‘enjoyment’ ruined by something that went beyond kitschy tales from the Athenian woods. For those with ears to listen, as well as eyes to see, an opera that has its weaknesses emerged stronger and, a signal achievement this, managed both to chill the spine and to elicit genuine comedy. How many times has one previously consulted a watch during the Tedious Brief Scene of Pyramus and Thisbe? Not on this occasion. Excellent personal direction and acting, not least from Sir Willard White’s Bottom, made that scene a genuine joy, focusing attention on Britten’s clever parodies, which thereby emerged as more than merely clever (often a danger with this particular composer).

That said, the darkness is really the thing. Alden daringly – and no, I am not using the word ‘ironically’ – reimagines the opera in terms of a mid-twentieth-century boys’ school. I immediately thought of Britten’s own – and Auden’s – Gresham’s, a connection reinforced both by Charles Edwards’s superb set designs and a mysterious figure strolling around, observing, and to a certain extent participating, suggestive of Britten himself. (More of that figure anon.) Just in case one were in any doubt, the inscription above the school entrance forbiddingly – invitingly for some? – reads ‘BOYS’. The fairies are the younger boys, with Puck an older, apparently knowing member of the community. Oberon and Titania are an especially twisted master and mistress, free with their favours, clearly in competition for the favour of their charges. A nice touch is Titania’s schoolmarmishly wooden beating time for the fairy choruses. When Puck gets things wrong, he is subjected to a spanking by his master Oberon, who may already have transferred his affections to the Indian Boy. Clearly Puck will have to redouble his efforts, though his relationship to the Britten-like figure seems to grant him extra kudos. Lysander and Hermia explore their sexual awakening behind the dustbins, whilst the sadistic rejection of Helena by Demetrius and her masochistic response are especially cutting and credible, given his status as a highly popular member of the rugby team. Sue Wilmington’s costumes, here and elsewhere, strike just the right note. One can quibble, no doubt, about what the girls are doing there at all, but their presence does not really jar, and girls have a habit of sneaking in to such environments, wanted or otherwise. During their explorations, the boys are initially as inclined to play with each other, similarly the girls, as old habits die hard. The magic, when it comes, is all, or at least mostly, to be attributed to whatever it is that Oberon is smoking. Puck passes around the cigarette to devastating effect. It may sound contrived, but it really works on stage. And he threatens to set the entire school ablaze at the end of the second act.

Paul Whelan (Theseus) and Jamie Manton (Puck)
Finally, the observer, himself earlier subjected to sado-masochistic tying up by Puck, is revealed to be the Duke, returned to his old school on the eve of his wedding and now again following the (play) reception. One often wonders, whether in Shakespeare or Britten, quite what the nature of his role should be: not here, for we were in for another turn of the screw. This is a tormented man, turned tormentor, who, following the rustics’ departure, manages to free himself from his respectable, echt-1950’s wife, returns to the school to revisit Puck, with whom he has earlier shared his neck-ties (a bond, it seems, born of a gift, or perhaps of identity). Puck, whom one might expect now to be triumphant, appears broken, perhaps literally. The abuse, and abuse it undoubtedly it is, has taken its toll. Rather than force himself upon the boy again, the Duke, perhaps chastened, as a Puck himself in later life, slinks away. Punk’s final words are defiant, but we know that this boy will remain troubled.

The cast entered into this scenario with gusto. Indeed, one had the real sense of a company performance, and even if it were not so in the strictest sense, it is surely no coincidence that many of these artists have worked together before. Iestyn Davies, sadly, was ailing, similarly his understudy Iestyn Morris, so Davies acted the role of Oberon, whilst Will Towers sang from the side of the stage. With that performance, Towers has doubtless ensured himself of a major role of his own at ENO before long, with a hauntingly beautiful rendition that never once lapsed into stereotypical hooting. (I cannot say the same for a certain other, highly celebrated counter-tenor, whom I heard a few years ago at Glyndebourne.) Allan Clayton was also, we were told, suffering from an infection, but one would barely have known: his Lysander remained an impressive portrayal. Benedict Nelson’s Demetrius was full of youthful masculine swagger, which yet retained a propensity, understated though it may have been, to equally youthful self-doubt. Tamara Gura and Kate Valentine made an impressive pair of female lovers. White’s excellent Bottom, blessed by a genuinely comic vocal delivery I have not heard in this artist before, was complemented by an excellent oddball assortment of rustics, from whom Michael Colvin’s Flute should be considered first amongst equals. The Donizetti parody truly hit home. Paul Whelan, whom I previously admired as Claggart in Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd, proved a haunted and haunting Theseus: this Duke will linger long in the mind. Jamie Manton was equally impressive as Puck, his adolescent cockiness twisted into something almost too painful to watch; memories of Manton’s fine performance will doubtless prove equally difficult to dispel. Magic, as the production suggested, only takes one so far: to treat it is a refuge from reality is at best irresponsible.

Underpinning this real company success were the excellent contributions of Leo Hussain and the ENO Orchestra. Hussain, making his ENO debut, conducted as if he were a knight of the realm, so readily did Britten’s style and structure speak from his baton. One would not have been surprised to discover that it was a Sir Colin, or a late Sir Charles, save that neither of those conductors, I suspect, would have warmed to Alden’s production. Magic was there: those harps, the woodwind, the slithering fairy-music. We were left in no doubt, however, that malevolence was always present too. (What, after all, is a forest? It is hardly a place of straightforward comfort. Think of Hansel and Gretel.) Above all, and this is crucial in music that can otherwise tend to meander, Britten’s score was shown to be constructed. The booers would doubtless have preferred not to be reminded of Britten’s twelve-note experimentation, but so much the worse for them. Boys from Trinity School, Croydon, proved impressive too, clearly well coached by their Director of Music, David Swinson.

It was an interesting coincidence upon returning home from the Coliseum last night, to post a quick summary on Twitter, to see the name of Melanie Phillips ‘trending’ there. (Reader: if you do not know who she is, may you at all costs strive to retain your blissful ignorance. Suffice it to say, that she is a ‘commentator’ to the humourless, far right fringe even of the rabid, petit bourgeois bigotry that infests the Daily Mail, Britain’s answer to Der Stürmer, both then and now. To its eternal discredit, The Spectator offers her a platform upon its website too.) It appears that Ms Phillips had wound up – and she appears to mean what she says – a good section of the television audience for BBC television’s Question Time, doubtless by spitting and cursing upon the slightest semblance of human charity. One can well imagine how she and her readers would have reacted to this production: not a justification in itself, but not a bad sign either. As Germaine Greer has pointed out, the obsession amongst large sections of our society with paedophilia reflects their own paedophilia: witness the photographic reproductions of missing children, especially girls, whereas for those of us not interested, we are simply not interested and should prefer to hear about something else (our ruling class desperately trying to keep it from us). They want to ‘hear all about it’ but react violently when their motives are questioned, let alone examined, hence the mittelständisch booing. The more vicious the society, the more vicious the individual, as we shall be reminded when the Royal Opera revives Peter Grimes next month. ENO would also seem to have set the scene very nicely for Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, from which I shall also report in late June.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Fantasy Opera: time to cast your (contemporary) vote

A little more than a fortnight ago, I asked readers which neglected (unstaged as yet at Covent Garden) opera they would most like to see next season. Since the polling gadget I used did not offer a closing date, that poll is still open, for anyone who would still like to participate. However, Birtwistle's Mask of Orpheus came out in front at the outset and has maintained that lead throughout, with Strauss's Die Liebe der Danae relatively soon settling into a good second place.

I thought it might now be interesting to see which contemporary composer readers would be most keen to have compose a new opera for an imaginary new season. Some choices will doubtless be absent, but I hope that everyone will be able to find something palatable from the following list. The selection veers, though not exclusively, towards more senior composers, if only because they will often have had more of a chance to make international names for themselves; it should certainly not be inferred that I should only wish to choose from their ranks. There is also probably something of a bias towards English composers, but again I hope not excessively so. Nor is inclusion in the list a sign of favour; I have tried to include at least a few composers whose music is not really to my taste at all. Finally, the order in which they appear has no significance whatsoever...

From which composer would you most like to hear a new opera?

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