Wednesday 29 June 2011

Pollini Project (5): Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez, 28 June 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Chopin – Preludes, op.28 (complete)
Debussy – Préludes, Book I (selection)
Boulez – Piano Sonata no.2

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

This scintillating conclusion to the Southbank Centre’s ‘Pollini Project’ reprised the programme I heard Maurizio Pollini give in Berlin last April. Fitting though it seemed to conclude with Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez, it had actually not been Pollini’s intention to do so: this was to have been the fourth instalment of five, but was postponed in April, owing to illness.

Not only had I heard the programme before; it was the third time within less than a year and a half that I had heard Pollini play the complete Chopin Preludes, the first occasion having been here at the Royal Festival Hall, for a Chopin birthday recital. Pollini’s forward-looking yet never anachronistic conception of Chopin arguably benefits still more from being placed in the context of his successors. Or rather, one hears the music differently – and that may well in part be due to Pollini playing it differently. One can debate the ontological status of the musical work until the cows come home; at the moment, that debate seems to have reached something of an impasse. Performance, however, seems to offer something of a way out. Most great works – I was about to say ‘all’, but thought that an unnecessary hostage to fortune – are better than they can be played, not only in the sense Schnabel intended for Mozart, but also in the sense that no single interpretation will be capable of capturing what may sometimes at least be contradictory aspects of their greatness. Contradiction is a perfectly valid way to approach performance, yet so is something that emphasises particular qualities and trajectories.

Pollini’s Preludes were not here merely forward-looking, though I realise immediately that ‘merely’ is a misnomer. Yet the éclat of, say, the G major Prelude inevitably looked forward to Debussy, just as the fury of the B-flat minor Prelude set the scene for Boulez. On the other hand, more ‘traditional’ and just as necessary virtues such as beauty of touch, clarity of tone, and impeccable, more to the point harmonically revealing, voice-leading were equally to the fore, albeit harnessed to a profoundly musical, rather than externally pianistic account of the score. As Liszt appreciated, a pianist must employ virtuosic means to vanquish the merely virtuosic. What struck me in Berlin as it did here, was the balance struck – or better, dialectic experienced – between the demands of the book as a whole, and characterisation of individual pieces. One might have taken the melting accounts of those deceptively simple E minor and A major Preludes by themselves as text-book accounts of miniatures, just as one might have done the limpid ‘Raindrop’ or the post-Mendelssohn A-flat song without words, or indeed the final tempest of the D minor Prelude, perfectly poised between the D minor fury of Don Giovanni and that of the Second Viennese School. Yet, at the same time, one discerned their place in an unstable, yet viscerally thrilling panorama of tonality, which cannot now quite achieve the comprehensiveness of Bach (click here for the beginning of Pollini’s present journey) and which yet develops, perhaps even questions, the implications of Bach’s example.

With Debussy we heard, as the composer wished, a piano without hammers. Yet Pollini ensured equally that there were direction, harmonic motion, and heightened awareness of the composer’s place between Chopin and Boulez. This was no mere impressionist haze, though that should not be taken to deny ‘atmosphere’; there is much, much more to Debussy, though, than atmosphere. I listened to the selection of Préludes – and I am sure this had at least something to do with Pollini’s performance – more as abstract intimations of the Etudes than as character pieces. The titles came last, as they famously do in Debussy’s own practice, placing them at the end, rather than the beginning, of the pieces. That said, there was no lack of wind, albeit never merely pictorial, in the sails of whole-tone exploration in Voiles, nor in Le vent dans la plaine and the sweeping Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest. Boulezian perfume, of the night doubtless but more akin to Mahlerian Nachtmusik than a darkness in which precision cannot be perceived, was to be felt in Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir. A sure hesitancy – if that can be imagined – heightened the exploratory nature in the steps of Des pas sur la neige, which drew, in Pollini's hands, upon a seemingly infinite array of dynamic gradation. La cathédrale engloutie proved a fitting culmination, never too eager to crown: this music simply ‘was’. And in its apparent ‘being’, the monument stood more proudly still.

Despite some extraordinary rudeness from the audience – one woman sitting on the stage almost ran into the pianist in her eagerness to depart before hearing the next piece, whilst a woman two seats away from me shuffled and, mid-performance, asked her husband whether they might leave – Boulez’ second piano sonata, that dialectical work par excellence, offered a truly spellbinding conclusion to this five-concert series. One heard the sonata not simply in the context of Chopin and Debussy, though the technical and harmonic implications of those composers’ works were certainly teased out by the pianist; one also heard ghosts from the earlier composers featured, even when, as in the case of Stockhausen, they came afterwards. Beethoven’s Hammerklavier could not fail to come to mind, of course, as much in the intensification of quasi-fugal destruction and disintegration unleashed in the finale as in the rarity of the air – of another planet? – breathed in the sonatas’ respective slow movements. Yet Bach seemed to be reckoned with too: if the 48 already contains with in itself the chromatic seeds of its own tonal destruction, then Boulez seemed both to celebrate that achievement and to dance upon its grave. Rhythm, in Pollini’s reading, seemed to challenge harmony, not to achieve victory, but somehow to intensify it, very much in the line of Bachian dance and Beethovenian scherzo. The transformations to which Boulez subjected his own scherzo were revealed by Pollini with tender and yet violent care: a typical Boulezian dialectic. For if this were billed as a recital of ‘French’ music, and indeed in a way it was just that, it was only so in one way. There are many paths, and for Boulez, as for modernist music as a whole, the dialectics of a Schoenbergian view of musical history – even when, as in this cycle, and perhaps surprisingly so, the Second Viennese School was not featured – tend to win out. Those who, echoing the young Boulez’s peremptory – albeit in reality, far more nuanced than lazy caricature would suggest – dismissal of Schoenberg, might declare Boulez est mort, should look, and more importantly, listen all around them. This, Pollini showed us, was music that speaks just as intensely to us as it did to the doomed yet understandable desire to scorch the earth in 1948. As the Boulez sonata becomes a classic, and the labyrinth through which Pollini leads us seems to become ever more Bergian, we have not resolved earlier difficulties; they transform themselves, sometimes gracefully, sometimes violently, into new challenges. This is music, Pollini showed us, that will last, that will grow yet further in scope and stature, its implications as limitless as those of serialism itself.

(Pollini's Boulez from 1976)

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Mozart's Last Aria: Guest Posting from Matt Rees

Matt Rees writes about the research conducted for his latest novel, Mozart's Last Aria:

On location: Researching the scenes for MOZART’S LAST ARIA

By Matt Rees

Historical novelists recreate the emotions and events of distant times. For some novelists, this is a matter of supreme imagination and invention, because they write about periods on which historical research is sketchy at best.

Writing about Mozart for my new novel MOZART’S LAST ARIA ( required considerable imagination. Yet I was able to tie the fiction to existing clues about the world in which the great composer lived. In turn, I hope that makes the book closer to the real emotional and physical life of its characters.

The first of these anchors to reality is Mozart’s music. No doubt in our agnostic times my hearing of the Requiem is different to that of Nannerl Mozart, the composer’s sister and the narrator of my novel. Still, I believe there are underlying connections between the way she heard and I hear Mozart, so that I feel at least some hint of her long-gone emotions when I experience his compositions.

I also found I could recreate the speech of the time from letters Wolfgang exchanged with his father Leopold, his sister, and his Viennese friends. This took me beyond the scatological buffoonery of “Amadeus” (By the way, Leopold was rather more potty-mouthed in his letters than Wolfgang, even if the latter did describe his wife’s behind as a “kissable arse.”) I melded the playfulness of the Mozarts’ letters with the relative formality of the time to create a voice which represents something both modern and of the period.

Almost as important to my research as the music or the voice was the finding of locations which had touched Wolfgang’s life. After all, it was my visits to Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and the Salzkammergut mountains which transformed me from a bit of a Mozart music buff to someone prepared to devote years of his life to writing a novel about the great man’s last days. (In MOZART’S LAST ARIA, the composer’s estranged sister, Nannerl, goes to Vienna to uncover the truth about his premature death. She discovers a story of intrigue, espionage and secrets hidden in The Magic Flute – as well as a new perspective on the love between her and her brother.)

Many of the places where Wolfgang played his music still exist. In many cases the décor – as well as the basic structure – remains the same as in his day. I was able to set much of the action of MOZART’S LAST ARIA in existing streets and buildings where Mozart lived and worked.

In MOZART’S LAST ARIA, Nannerl investigates her suspicion that Wolfgang was poisoned. She’s aided by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an important patron of her brother. Swieten was Imperial Librarian, and you can see the majesty and learning of that time arrayed on the shelves of the Prunksaal, the great library attached to the Hofburg, the Emperors’ palace in central Vienna. The library is open to the public, but you’ll rarely find more than five or six other visitors there at one time – most people are shuffling with the crowds through the Emperor’s rooms down the way. It’s a gem hidden in rather plain site.

The house where Mozart died was destroyed some time ago (though you can visit an excellent museum in the house where he wrote The Marriage of Figaro nearby on Domgasse). There’s a plaque on the wall of a department store there now, on Rauhensteingasse. But if you stand with your back to the spot, you can look to your left, your right, and in front of you, and you’ll see just what Wolfgang would’ve seen – except there’ll be less horse manure on the streets.

Even when the buildings of Mozart’s time have gone, there are traces I was able to use. The interior of Mozart’s last home has been the subject of a number of academic theses about the furniture and layout of the apartment. (Some years ago, the startling discovery was made that not only did he have two windows on the front of his studio, but he also had another one on the side. It sounds like a triviality – well, it IS a triviality -- but I’m very grateful to those dedicated Mozartians.)

You can look at a photo tour ( of other Mozart sites in Vienna on my website.

But it isn’t only in the city where he died that Mozart’s presence can be felt. When I first visited Vienna, I took a train north to Prague, where I saw a production of Don Giovanni in the Estates Theatre. It was here in 1785 that the “opera of operas” was premiered. During the summer, the theatre rotates Don Giovanni, Cosi Fan Tutte, and The Marriage of Figaro. The performances are quite good, but most of all it’s astonishing to see opera in an unchanged, historic theatre of such intimacy -- where Mozart actually performed and where the concert scenes of the film Amadeus were shot.

Mozart reputedly wrote the overture to Don Giovanni at his friends’ house Villa Bertramka on the day of the first performance. You can visit Bertramka, which is not far from the city center. It was a country retreat in Mozart’s time, though now it’s ringed around by shiny new office towers and shopping centres. It’s one of the more intimate spaces in which one can try to feel the lingering sense that Mozart was there.

Naturally Mozart’s birthplace, Salzburg, is filled with places to visit for his fans. But for me the most significant place was an hour’s drive up into the Salzkammergut mountains. There I came across St. Gilgen, the tiny village where Mozart’s mother was born. It also happens to be the spot where his sister Nannerl was packed off to be married to a boring local functionary. I imagined how it must have been for her after her years as a child piano prodigy, playing in the great palaces of Europe with her brother. It was in this village that I had the idea of transplanting her to the Imperial capital to probe her brother’s death.

From the little house where she lived, I looked out across the lake. As I watched the sun on the glimmering surface of the water, the first intimations of how I would write my novel came to me. I hope you’ll visit the village and see if Nannerl speaks to you too.

Matt Rees is the author of five crime novels, the latest of which is MOZART’S LAST ARIA. For more about his books, go to For his podcast and blog, go to

Monday 27 June 2011

In case being the greatest living pianist were not enough: Pollini contra Berlusconi...

The Southbank Centre five-concert Pollini Project concludes tomorrow, with music by Chopin, Debussy, and Boulez. I heard the same programme last year in Berlin and cannot wait to hear what Pollini does with it this time... Click here for tickets.

Here is a taste of his Boulez:

Sunday 26 June 2011

Graffin, Kovacevich, Mørk, et al. - Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, and Debussy, 25 June 2011

Wigmore Hall

Beethoven – Cello Sonata in D major, op.102 no.2
Brahms – Piano Trio no.3 in C minor, op.101
Schoenberg – Phantasy, for violin and piano, op.47
Schoenberg (arr. Webern) – Chamber Symphony no.1, op.9
Debussy (arr. David Matthews) – Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune

Philippe Graffin (violin)
Truls Mørk (violoncello)
Juliette Hurel (flute)
Chen Halevi (clarinet)
Stephen Kovacevich (piano, crotales)
Claire Désert, Marisa Gupta (piano)

This was a delightful programme of music from the Consonances Festival at Saint-Nazaire, whose twentieth anniversary was also celebrated here in London. Though Philippe Graffin is founder and director, his collegiality was immediately demonstrated in the opening piece: Beethoven’s D major Cello Sonata, op.102 no.2, performed by Truls Mørk and Stephen Kovacevich. Kovacevich’s Beethovenian credentials need no introduction; he was on fine form, announcing his depth of tone from the opening bars. Both players presented a first movement full of vigour, without the slightest hint of ‘period’ restraint or preciousness: Beethoven for today, as he must be, not for an imaginary museum. There was beautifully hushed playing where necessary; the scope and gradation of the final crescendo had to be heard to be believed. Motivic working was very much to the fore, preparing the way for Brahms. The slow movement proved both soulful and weighty, for Kovacevich and Mørk – not to forget Beethoven – were speaking of serious things. It passed in a long breath, conceived and executed as a whole. The finale took us back to Bach, of course, though forward to Bach always seems a more apt way of thinking; equally notable, however, was the scherzo-like, or rather scherzo-plus character imparted. Strong, indeed overwhelming, rhythmic impetus was the order of the day, balanced or rather questioned by the ‘late’ almost-but-not-quite-fragmentary quality of the writing. Form, likewise, was externalised and attacked, as if in preparation for the truly late Missa solemnis. There were occasions here and in the following piece where Kovacevich did not always hit all of the right notes, but the spirit was present, just as in the best of Daniel Barenboim’s Beethoven.

Graffin joined the musicians for Brahms’s C minor Piano Trio, which received a turbulently Romantic, not necessarily ‘late’ performance, especially in its opening Allegro energico. The full-blooded sound was a wonder in itself, but there was nothing narcissistic about this urgent, probing account. Ghostly strangeness announced an immediate transformation of mood in the scherzo. Now we truly heard Brahms the Schoenbergian Progressive, the intensity of motivic working we had already experienced in Beethoven given a further turn or two of the screw. Most noteworthy of all was the passing and development of material between parts, not only a splendid indication of true chamber-playing, but clearly prophetic of Webern. One could say much the same about the sense of concision: it is there in the music, never a note wasted, of course, but the players really made it sound. The final two movements presented a dialectic between near-imploding difficulty and Beethovenian, plain-spoken gruffness. (What excellent sense the programming made!) Yet there was a guiding thread through the Brahmsian labyrinth, that of harmonic rhythm. Intensity always came from within and was all the greater for that.

If the first-half performances were excellent, the Schoenberg Phantasy, op.47, which opened the second half, received as fine a performance as I have ever heard, arguably better. Quite why violin-and-piano duos are not queuing around the corner to perform this masterly work, I genuinely do not understand, but then I have never understood the aversion to Schoenberg’s music in certain quarters. One needs excellent, preferably great, performances, and one needs to listen. Graffin and Claire Désert presented a panorama of Schoenberg within the piece’s relatively brief span. Haunted by Brahms, and by old Vienna – those waltz rhythms that will not die – this was equally a forthright, forward-looking, declamatory Schoenberg. Graffin offered superlatively centred playing, revealing the work’s kinship with the meaningful, indeed hyper-meaningful virtuosity of the scandalously neglected Violin Concerto. Both players proved unfailingly alert to rhythm and harmony. Most importantly, their performance sang, as Schoenberg’s music must (even when it is spoken!) The Phantasy emerged as an Erwartung-like monodrama with violin as soloist, now heard through the emotional prism of the slightly earlier String Trio, and a worthy successor to that unqualified masterpiece. This was a truly outstanding performance.

Webern’s arrangement of Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony welcomed Mørk back to the stage, with newcomers, flautist Juliette Hurel and clarinettist Chen Halevi also joining Graffin and Désert. I am in two minds about this reduction, which it really is, for one hears little or nothing of Webern’s compositional personality. Schoenberg would doubtless never have allowed such free rein. It is peculiar to hear the first note from violin, though flute, cello, and clarinet soon reminded us of the ‘correct’ timbres for much of their material. What we hear is really the chamber symphony edged back into chamber music, more Brahms than Strauss. One can only pity the poor pianist, having to negotiate both super-Brahmsian textures and an excess, even by Schoenberg’s standards, of melodic profusion. Désert accomplished that as well as could be reasonably expected, arguably better. The tempi adopted were often breakneck, though not in the relaxed tension – a typical Schoenbergian dialectic – of the slow movement, yet even when they recalled, perhaps even exceeded, the young Boulez with his Domaine musical players, the performance was so full of life that it never felt unduly driven. Indeed, one appreciated anew, despite the imperfect instrumentation, what a life-affirming piece of music this is, every bit as much as a symphony by Haydn. There are occasions where, I think, the arrangement does not really work, not least the strangely Ivesian textures at the end of the scherzo, yet there could be no faulting the performance, whose fullness of sound made one wonder what on earth a full performance of the chamber symphony as composed would sound like.

After that, David Matthews’s new arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune allowed some paradoxical cooling in its languid warmth. Marisa Gupta joined the band as second pianist – Matthews writes for piano duet – and Kovacevich returned to play the peculiar part for crotales (antique cymbals). I am not sure that the latter added anything very much; they had something of a drowning effect when employed. Nor am I convinced that the arrangement itself is of particular interest, though it does its job well enough. Again, it seems more of a reduction than a reimagining. Benno Sachs’s transcription has obvious Second Viennese School lineage in such a context. The performance was good, though, Hurel’s flute whetting the appetite for a rendition of Debussy’s original.

Saturday 25 June 2011

Nico Muhly, Two Boys (world premiere), English National Opera, 24 June 2011

The Coliseum

DI Anne Strawson – Susan Bickley
Brian – Nicky Spence
Rebecca – Mary Bevan
Fiona – Heather Shipp
Anne’s mother – Valerie Reid
Jake – Jonathan McGovern
Peter – Robert Gleadow
Cynthia – Anne-Clare Monk
Doctor – Michael Burke
Brian’s mother – Rebecca Stockland
Brian’s father – Paul Napier-Burrows
Liam, detective constable – Philip Daggett
American suburban mother 1 – Clare Mitcher
American suburban mother 2 – Claire Pendleton
American suburban girl – Eleanor Burke
Celebrant – Geraint Hylton
American Congressman – Anton Rich
American congressional page – Peter Kirk

Bartlett Sher (director)
Michael Yeargan (set designs)
Catherine Zuber (costumes)
Donald Holder (lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Rumon Gamba (conductor)

DI Anne Strawson (Susan Bickley)
Images: Richard Hubert Smith

A huge publicity drive had been lavished upon this, the premiere of Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, not least a Youtube video with at best a tenuous connection to the opera. With a libretto written by Craig Lucas, it is described as ‘a spellbinding tale of intrigue and attempted murder, loosely inspired by an incredible but true story’. Whatever the truth or otherwise, it is, I am afraid an incredible but dull story, considerably less compelling than your average, or even below-average episode of The Bill, which might at least possess a certain degree of competence in its construction. A boy sitting at home, Brian, chats to another, younger boy, Jake, the latter inventing a number of online personas: Rebecca, Fiona, Peter, an older Jake. A preposterous yet uninvolving scheme is constructed in which those personas persuade Brian to kill (the real) Jake. The motivation seems to be – though my accompanying friend thought I was reading too much into it – Jake’s desire to be remembered for the beauty of his treble voice, and therefore to die before it breaks: implausible and creepy, but alas, not in an interesting way, since nothing is developed. A spot of online masturbation is presumably intended to provoke controversy, or at least to show how ‘with it’ the story is; it does not even prove embarrassing, merely dull. DI Anne Strawson investigates by reading through the Internet transcripts. That is about it. There are other characters, but they merely seemed present for the sake of creating more characters. The sub-plot concerning Anne’s mother is especially hapless. An ailing woman who lives with the detective is presumably intended to give some insight into the latter’s character. It might have worked in an episode of a television detective series, but here seems irrelevant in the extreme, having no discernible connection with the rest of the action. I am at a loss when it comes to some of the supporting characters lower down the cast list: presumably they appear, but it is unclear when or how. Since characterisation is nil, it is difficult to tell.

Rebecca (Mary Bevan) and Brian (Nicky Spence)
Moreover, the libretto does not seem able to work out where the action is taking place; delivery of the words consequently veers uncomfortably across both sides of the Atlantic. One minute the inspector laments her inability to contact MI5, the next we are plunged into a host of Americanisms. Perhaps some point is being made; if so, it went over my head. ‘Dunno’ and the like certainly do not sound well when sung in the Queen’s English. The text-message-speak is particularly odd, entirely dependent upon the titles, since correct English is sung. One sees ‘omg’ but hears ‘Oh my God!’ It comes across not as a clever navigation between worlds, if that were intended, but as confused flailing. And do we really believe that any of us beyond teenage years can convincingly imitate whatever argot might be current? Attempts seemed doomed to resemble the stereotypical trendy vicar. The Internet and its world of potential and multiple identities ought to offer many possibilities for a libretto, but the choice of subject matter is not enough. A chorus of Internet users is not a bad idea, at all, but it is a starting point that the music never even begins to develop, the score, whether for individual voices, chorus, or ensemble, sounding effortfully churned out. We need another ten minutes here, to fill out a round of pointless questioning: select option five and out comes the anonymous music.

Chorus of Internet users, Brian
For Muhly’s music is the real problem. I had thought that Donizetti hit rock bottom with respect to operatic composition until hearing this score. It does not even have the courage to become truly unbearable, in the manner of Muhly’s mentor, Philip Glass. What tends to happen is that a chord, apparently chosen at random, is repeated a good few times, a little decoration is applied above, welcome is outstayed, and then another chord is chosen. The vocal writing is aimless; it would have sounded neither better nor worse if turned upside down or back to front. (Indeed, a spot of retrograde inversion, however unmotivated, might have added slight interest.) At best, it sounds like music that would have been rejected for The Bill. There is a real craft, after all, to writing commercial music. This, however, comes across as music by formula, and I do not mean that in Stockhausen’s sense; it is more akin to a musical representation of a dot-to-dot colouring book. There has to be some way to fill in the musical gaps, though the drama, such as it was, would have been less tedious without the music. Occasional loud notes for the tuba appear to no discernible purpose; other ‘dramatic colour’ is provided by repeated drum strokes, repeated too often before something else was tried. Perhaps the most jarring moment – I use the term relatively, given the glacial rate of harmonic change – comes with an apparent attempt at gravity, when a progression straight out of the Enigma Variations arrives and re-arrives, and re-arrives…

We are told of Muhly’s love for Anglican church music. It is odd, then, that the faux versicles and responses from a church scene – which seems to be there less for any dramatic reason than because the composer presumably wanted to write some such music – are less distinguished than even the common-garden variety a parish church might offer for a Thursday Evensong in November. An average member of a choral foundation might at least have proffered more ‘interesting’ harmony. I do not exaggerate when I say that I have seen far better writing amongst undergraduate compositional exercises I have idly leafed through. Indeed, the whole enterprise resembled nothing more than an A-level music and drama collaboration. The staging, save for Anne's peculiar habit of interviewing her suspect at considerable distance, was perfectly adequate: expensive-looking in terms of some of its designs, yet with nothing to frighten away the horses.

Jake (Joseph Beesley) and Brian
A highly talented cast was utterly wasted. Susan Bickley gave a typically strong performance as the detective. Nicky Spence displayed a fine, musical tenor line as Brian, though – and this is not his fault at all – the age gap between him and Jake seemed too wide. In the latter role, Joseph Beesley showed a far greater command of the operatic stage than most trebles: his was an excellent performance indeed. Mary Bevan and Jonathan McGovern did what they could with two of Jake’s personas: more should definitely be heard from both of these fine voices. The same could be said, yet more strongly still, of Robert Gleadow’s virile bass-baritone, here expended upon the make-believe villain, Peter. The orchestra sometimes sounded half-hearted: my only surprise is that as much as half a heart could be mustered for such a score.

When one thinks of the plethora of highly talented young composers at large – and multiplies it considerably, given the number of whom one will not have heard – this seems a wasted opportunity. I can think of a good few whom I know personally, let alone those whose work I know, who would certainly have presented more interesting scores. Marketing, alas, seems to have been all on this occasion, for Muhly has some fashionable backers in New York, whose Metropolitan Opera is co-producing the work. Perhaps, though, there is a lesson to be learned. An experience such as this helps one appreciate anew the level of craftsmanship present even in relatively undistinguished operas, let alone in fine but flawed works or masterpieces. Few operas will so much as approach Tristan or Così, but most will have considerably more to offer than Two Boys.

Friday 24 June 2011

2013: Collaboration between Leipzig Opera and Bayreuth Festival

Exciting news from Leipzig: a 22 June meeting of the city council approved an 'extraordinary grant' ('außerordentlichen Zuschuss') to support celebrations for the upcoming two-hundredth birthday of the city's greatest son, Richard Wagner. Oper Leipzig, under the leadership of Intendant Ulf Schirmer, will work in collaboration with the Bayreuth Festival. Full details haveyet to be announced, their revelation being scheduled for a Berlin press conference on 27 October. However, the collaboration will involve performances, both in Leipzig and in Bayreuth, of those early operas never previously performed at Bayreuth: Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi. A visit either to Leipzig or to Bayreuth will, it seems, prove mandatory...

Thursday 23 June 2011

LSO/Haitink - Ravel and Mendelssohn, 23 June 2011

Barbican Hall

Ravel – Ma mère l’oye
Mendelssohn – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opp.21 and 61

Sarah-Jane Brandon (soprano)
Daniela Lehner (mezzo-soprano)
Sir Thomas Allen (narrator),
Eltham College Boys’ Choir
London Symphony Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

This was a wonderful concert: delightfully programmed and performed, with only the occasional blemish to rob it of greatness. Blemishes, alas, matter more in Ravel and Mendelssohn than in many other composers. After some highly uncharacteristic slight hesitations from the London Symphony Orchestra’s wind at the very opening of the Prelude, Ma mère l’oye was a joy to experience; soon, a veritable magic carpet was unveiled, as Bernard Haitink’s ear for orchestral blend and balance revealed itself. Moreover, the LSO, especially its strings, managed to sound convincingly ‘French’ in tone: not perhaps an absolute necessity in this music but highly desirable. It was perhaps northern France, the warm, utterly un-Boulezian glow edging towards the land of Haitink’s fabled Concertgebouw recording, but none the worse for that. A sharp ear for drama was present too: the Sleeping Beauty’s finger was well and truly pricked, without the slightest need for exaggeration. The dignified sadness that characterised the pavane was an object lesson: nothing maudlin, but the line spun so as to allow a slower tempo than most conductors could sustain. There were not so many occasions when the orchestra was truly given its head: Ravel does not permit that. When there were, however, the LSO sounded magnificent. Climactic passages, culminating in the final bars of ‘Le jardin féerique’, benefited from a perhaps surprising degree of nervous energy and orchestral bite: none of Debussy’s vagueness here. Solo work was first-class too, not least that of leader, Roman Simovic and principal flautist, the ever-excellent Gareth Davies. The LSO woodwind provided surprisingly realistic – if with a proper hint of Ravelian clockwork – birdsong too: Messiaen, it seemed, might have learned from Ravel. But the final triumph, though supported by the LSO, indeed impossible without it, was Haitink’s: his careful shaping of the closing pages was possessed of an unforced nobility that might have been Elgar’s. Perhaps that is not so surprising when one considers what a great Dutchman conducting such utterly French music might sound like.

Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music was given in a performance edition with narrator by Ara Guzelimian. I rather liked it, and not just because the narrator was Sir Thomas Allen. We discussed his upcoming engagement to perform this work with Haitink in Chicago, when I interviewed Sir Thomas in 2009, and it was clear from the present performance that the baritone’s ambitions, which we also discussed in that interview, to branch out into spoken theatre, are well founded. He has a naturally musical way with Shakespeare’s text, the occasional missed word going for nothing against such a winning and meaningful delivery: old-school, doubtless, but none the worse for that. The shift into broad Geordie for the rustic prologue was a delight, though I suspect it would have bemused anyone whose first tongue was not English. It was a pity, though, that the Barbican resorted to amplification: it was unnecessary, given Allen’s projection and diction, and undesirable in terms of balance. Sarah-Jane Brandon proved a fine soprano, and the Boys of Eltham College sang splendidly too. The only real fly in the fairy ointment was Daniela Lehner’s mezzo, who sounded as though she were auditioning for the role of Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas, quite out of keeping with the other performers.

I was startled at the hard-driven quality of some of the Overture, especially the first group, despite the LSO’s gossamer – the word is as unavoidable as it is predictable – strings. It was a relief that Haitink relaxed for the second subject, but the brass blared and the music turned relentless again during the recapitulation, so that was clearly how Haitink wished to take the music. I was put in mind of quasi-Lisztian bombast, notably absent, ironically, from Haitink’s recordings of Liszt’s music. On the other hand, the moment of exhaustion at the end of the development section was captured to perfection: I do not think I have ever heard it sound so magical. Haitink brought true symphonic and dramatic impetus to the scherzo, which sang with a real sense of woodland danger and emerged far more substantially than in most performances. During the fairies’ chorus, the twinning of trumpets and drums, so characteristic of Mendelssohn, sounded far more balanced than it had during the overture. As the tale progressed, we even heard Wagnerian musico-dramatic intimations: we were, after all, listening to arguably the greatest living conductor of Wagner. Unfortunately, an exceptionally selfish member of the audience ruined the narrated passage between ‘Andante’ and ‘Intermezzo’ with a long-running alarm. The ‘Intermezzo’ itself displayed a freedom and turbulence that can rarely have been bettered; Haitink’s shaping of the cello line and the cello section’s execution, were ravishingly beautiful. And then, the rustics’ music was captured without overstatement: I could not help but wonder what indignities more exhibitionistic conductors might have unleashed upon it. The great Nocturne was perhaps a little too plain-spoken, at least to begin with; moreover, I should have loved Haitink to dare to take it more slowly and to place less emphasis on the bar-lines. At least, though, it resolutely steered clear of sentimentality. The middle section, moreover, was rivetingly dramatic, doubtless benefiting from Haitink’s long experience in the opera house. There remained occasional doubts: the Wedding March might have smiled a little more – its steely glint seemed more apposite to Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony – but the trio relaxed nicely, without dragging. No one could doubt, moreover, Haitink's alertness to the precendent Mendelssohn set for Mahler in the little funeral march. And even if the preceding performance had not proved for the most part so beguiling, the miraculous glow brought by Haitink and the LSO to Mendelssohn’s final chord would have made the visit to the Barbican worthwhile.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Peter Grimes, Royal Opera, 21 June 2011

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Peter Grimes – Ben Heppner
Ellen Orford – Amanda Roocroft
Captain Balstrode – Jonathan Summers
Swallow – Matthew Best
Mrs Sedley – Jane Henschel
Auntie – Catherine Wyn-Rogers
Ned Keene – Roderick Williams
Hobson – Stephen Richardson
Rector – Martyn Hill
Bob Boles – Alan Oke
First Niece – Rebecca Bottone
Second Niece – Anna Devin
Dr Crabbe – Walter Hall
Boy (John) – Patrick Curtis

Willy Decker (director)
François de Carpentries (revival director)
John Macfarlane (designs)
David Finn (lighting)
Athol Farmer (choreography)

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

London is doing well by Britten at the moment: Christopher Alden’s outstanding ENO production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is now joined by a fine Covent Garden revival of Willy Decker’s Peter Grimes. There was, I recall, indignation in certain quarters upon the production’s first London outing in 2004 – it was first seen at La Monnaie – but it is now difficult to imagine why. One would have to be a paid-up member of the Campaign for Real Barnacles to object to John Macfarlane’s powerful designs, which are hardly abstract in conception. Costumes are inoffensively in period, contributing to the sense of the Borough’s stifling bigotry and hypocrisy, the scarlet of the evening dance bringing out into the open the real interests of those erstwhile clad in monochrome. I suspect that hostility must have emanated from the quarters of those who are now outraged by Alden’s reimagining A Midsummer Night’s Dream: generally of an older generation, wishing to confine Britten to the safe, unthreatening pigeonhole of an ‘English composer’, when it is his demons that make him most interesting.

Claustrophobia and provincial small-mindedness are very much the order of the day in all aspects of Decker’s staging. (We, alas, know only too well the consequences of harrying outsiders, of hysterical accusations, of cynical pleas to ‘law and order’; it was a sad irony that this production opened on the very same day that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom announced wholesale capitulation to the tabloid press in terms of reductions in prison sentences.) The Established Church becomes a powerful presence, not least in terms of the Cross carried by the witch-hunters. We are also reminded that Bob Boles, as a Methodist, has a dissenting edge to him, protesting rightly at the practice of buying apprentices from the workhouse. Unpalatable though many of their views may have been, Evangelicals would after all take a lead in a great deal of nineteenth-century social campaigning. Assent to the norms of the Borough is enforced congregationally both at the beginning of the first act and in the final scene. Even Ellen Orford raises her hymn sheet at the last, to complete a closing of ranks: a final, chilling unanimity, in which the true villain of the piece, the Borough, emerges tragically triumphant.

Sir Andrew Davis made a welcome return to the pit, summoning up as visceral and intelligent an account of the score as I can recall. Doubtless this will be anathema to the elder Brittenites, but I found it a more moving condemnation even than Britten’s own recording. The orchestra was on splendid form throughout, clearly responding with enthusiasm to Davis’s dramatic impetus, the brass in particular searing. There remain weakness in what is after all Britten’s first opera – Paul Bunyan is a rather different kettle of fish – but I cannot imagine them being better papered over than here. The sooner Britten shed outmoded taints of Verdi – the thin ‘Embroidery Aria, for instance – the better. Talk of Berg often seems like special pleading, but the reminiscences of Wozzeck – and Mahler – at the evening dance for once seemed real enough, a telling correspondence with Berg’s tavern scene, even if the latter’s music remains on an entirely different compositional level. I have never, moreover, heard the introduction to the second act sound so Stravinskian, the tightness of rhythm recalling the Russian master’s anti-symphonic ‘symphonies’. Britten only gains by relation to continental developments: those who would confine him to visions of an Aldeburgh that never was do him nothing but harm, and would do well to remember his fervent desire to study with Berg.

What, then, of the vocal performances? Ben Heppner’s portrayal of the work’s anti-hero is powerful indeed. The flawed vocalism will doubtless dismay many: it certainly would me, if this were Tristan or Siegfried, but somehow it seems to matter less in so damaged a role as this. There is certainly vocal power, though unpredictably so: more Jon Vickers than Peter Pears, if without the former’s steely determination. One also needs to overlook, and I can imagine many being unable to do so, what are sometimes severe difficulties not only with respect to intonation but concerning wholesale pitching of lines, the entry to the Boar Inn the ultimate case in point. No, this is not a musical performance on the level of the three recently deceased artists to whom the present revival is dedicated: Robert Tear, Philip Langridge, and Anthony Rolfe Johnson. But it moved me nevertheless, since it exhibited such sympathy with Grimes’s predicament. Moreover, I was surprised by the improvement in Heppner’s acting. Partly it is a matter of his somewhat awkward stage presence chiming with the demands of the role, but it is not only that. He puts what might be a disadvantage to good use, intensifying the lumbering quality, ever a loner. Amanda Roocroft also suffered from vocal insecurities, especially at the top, but by the same token also threw her dramatic all into the role of Ellen. Her goodness not only shone through, but seemed credible rather than sentimental. This is clearly an artist who requires careful casting, her recent Meistersinger Eva an unfortunate mistake, but there was much to admire on the present occasion.

A number of other assumptions stood out, none more so than Roderick Williams’s excellent Ned Keene: ever attentive to words and musical line, with finely judged, disconcertingly ambiguous stage presence. Balstrode seems to me a quintessential Thomas Allen role, but Jonathan Summers evoked a powerful human presence that was far from disgraced by the comparison. Alan Oke’s Boles captured well the air of the righteous fanatic, without ever resorting to mere caricature. Catherine Wyn-Rogers made for an unusually subtle portrayal of Auntie: nothing was ever straightforward with her kindliness or her slight brashness. Again, there was no need for caricature, and one could not help but respond to the warmth of her voice. Her ‘nieces’, Rebecca Bottone and Anna Devin both made strong impressions too, their proper air of grotesquerie never allowed to proceed too far. Then there was Jane Henschel’s wonderfully malicious Mrs Sedley. Somehow even the American accent did not jar, granting an air of Angela Lansbury to the crime addict’s already potent brew of Frau ohne Schatten Nurse and Anne Widdecombe. I could not take my eyes off her. Once again, there was a credible air of character rather than caricature, for which some of the praise must surely be accorded both to Decker and to revival director, François de Carpentries.

For there was certainly nothing of the routine to this revival. Even when something went wrong, a failure in a stage motor necessitating alterations to the second-act scene changes, the reworking was accomplished so professionally that I have to admit I did not notice, only learning of the difficulty afterwards. Finally, no praise is high enough for the magnificent contribution of the Royal Opera Chorus, as trained by Renato Balsadonna. Weight, intensity, diction, stage performance: all of these were irreproachable. Britten was well served indeed. And, just as Theodor Adorno in 1951 urged the necessity to defend Bach from his puritanical ‘devotees’, so should we, even those of us sometimes ambivalent in our response to the music of Benjamin Britten, defend him from his.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Götterdämmerung, Opéra national de Paris, 18 June 2011

Opéra Bastille

Siegfried – Torsten Kerl
Gunther – Iain Paterson
Alberich – Peter Sidhom
Hagen – Hans-Peter König
Brünnhilde – Katarina Dalayman
Gutrune, Third Norn – Christiane Libor
Waltraute – Sophie Koch
First Norn, Flosshilde – Nicole Piccolomini
Woglinde – Caroline Stein
Wellgunde, Second Norn – Daniela Sindram

Günter Krämer (director)
Jürgen Bäckmann (set designes)
Falk Bauer (costumes)
Diego Leetz (lighting)
Otto Pichler (choreography)
Stephan Bischoff (video)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Patrick Marie Aubert)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

And so, the Paris Ring comes to an end, though complete cycles are scheduled for 2013. Alas, though Wagner wrote to Liszt in 1853, ‘Mark well my new poem — it contains the beginning of the world and its destruction!’, this world, often highly promising, came to an end not with a bang but a whimper, and not in the sense intended by TS Eliot. Günter Krämer’s production, which I have previously admired, if not without reservations appeared to have run out of steam, as if to give succour to those followers of George Bernard Shaw who regard the Ring’s culmination as its fatal weakness. How anyone reading the score or poem, let alone both together, could possibly think such a thing, I do not know, but it is a point of view, albeit seemingly presented more by default than design on this occasion. Remaining with Eliot, one might charitably think the scenario a ‘heap of broken images,’ though there is no sign of the sun beating here. The erstwhile Speer-like GERMANIA is now reduced to the shell of a stadium: Nuremberg-like, I suppose, though there seems something of a confusion, admittedly commonly-held, between stadium and Kongresshalle. That, alas, more or less seems to be it. There are other touches, some irritating, some not, but I struggled to discern much of an idea, let alone something that would properly unite Götterdämmerung with the rest of the cycle. Falk Bauer’s costumes continue to do good service, here in an all-purpose relatively contemporary fashion, but none the worse for that.

It falls to me, then, with little pleasure, to delineate those ‘other touches’. Hagen is wheelchair-bound: the cliché did no harm and indeed gave physical presence to his ‘degeneracy’, though it is an image as insensitive toward the disabled as Mime’s camp extravaganza to homosexuals. What really lies behind this confinement, however, is a greater role allotted to Alberich. During the Prologue, Hagen is wheeled around by an unidentified hooded figure: I thought it might be Hagen’s father or mother, though it might merely have been an extra. That figure is present for much of the first act, eventually revealing his identity. So Hagen is doing Alberich’s bidding in a far more straightforward way than usual: a pity, since Wagner renders the ‘Schläfst du, Hagen, mein Sohn’ confrontation so rich in its ambiguity – Boulez describes it with atypical hyperbole as ‘amazing’ – but never mind. Things really fall apart, however, when it comes to the third act. Alberich, not Hagen, stabs Siegfried, but it is not clear what is gained by this. Hagen is merely wheeled off by Gutrune, whereas it is Alberich who returns onstage to deliver the final line, ‘Zurück vom Ring!’ Alberich is then speared in turn by the Rhinemaindens, and lies dead on stage as the curtain falls. (Siegfried is still there too.) The question ‘what happens to Alberich?’ is resolved, but instead one might ask, ‘what happens to Hagen?’ Is there any point in the exchange? So bold a rewriting ought at least to have provoked; here it seems merely haphazard, part of a final couple of scenes which might have arisen had one asked someone unacquainted with the Ring to guess ‘what happens next?’ There are no ‘watchers’, so crucial to the remnant of society and the possibility of a future, either. Whereas Krämer has tended previously to avoid video, now it is all over the place, first for water and fire and then for a bewildering portrayal of a Valhalla-like hero – or is it several heroes? – ascending something akin to a virtual Jacob’s Ladder during Siegfried’s Funeral March. Is heaven being reinstated, or is it merely a Feuerbachian critique of immortality that is obliquely being reiterated? The problem is: one is granted no reason to know and, frankly – sadly – little reason to care. The final video game shoot-out following Brünnhilde’s farewell was simply an embarrassment.

Haphazardness is the impression, moreover, one gains from the non-appearance of Siegfried and Gutrune at the end of the second act. They are there in the music and clearly should be on the stage: one might argue that musical presence renders visualisation unnecessary, yet I could not help but wonder whether Krämer, in his arbitrary haste to disregard Wagner’s stage directions in favour of pretty much anything, had even studied the score. Blood brotherhood is for some reason accomplished as if Siegfried were an unsuccessful vampire: again, the idea seems to have emerged from nowhere and to lead nowhere. A final case of undue confusion, which I can hardly avoid mentioning, comes at the end of the first act. There are difficulties, of course, in staging the Siegfried-Gunther-Tarnhelm matter, but having Siegfried come along with Gunther, first hiding behind Gunther – one wanted to call out, pantomime-style to Brünnhilde, ‘He’s behind him!’ – and then under the table, merely popping out to grab the ring – now, ‘He’s behind you!’ – only serves to make matters worse and to add to a general sense of tiredness. Whatever the Tarnhelm, actually visible on stage, was supposed to accomplish, it did not, but nor did a critique of its powers seem intended. A weird interpolation beforehand had been some dirndl-clad men dancing during Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. It was good to see the Rhinemaidens during that scene, however, affording a sense of place all too often absent elsewhere.

It was a visual mess, then, but Philippe Jordan might conceivably have salvaged something. Alas, the prologue and first act proved equally undisciplined in terms of conducting, despite generally impressive playing from the orchestra. Slowness without direction was the order of the day, a sluggish transition from the Gibichung Hall to Brünnhilde’s rock seemingly interminable. Yes, there is a sense of world-weariness to this drama, but forward impetus should be difficult rather than impossible. (Again, unless one conceives the work as a failure and wishes to expose it as such.) Having said ‘not with a bang but a whimper, and not in the sense intended by Eliot,’ then, there was something of Guy Fawkes’s torture rack to be endured. It has sometimes been alleged that the combined prologue and first act are simply too long, but never does it feel that way in a great, or even good, performance. For instance, Bernard Haitink’s long-distance hearing at Covent Garden almost made Wagner’s great span fly by. The Waltraute scene probably came off best, moving between extremes of speed, yet with a proper sense of the whole, rather as if it were a cantata, which in a way it is. It undoubtedly benefited from wholly committed performances on the part of Sophie Koch and Katarina Dalayman. The second and third acts were paced much better, but it was arguably too late to regain confidence by then. Perhaps Jordan was simply having an off day: his readings of the earlier dramas had certainly had their moments.

Vocally, there were two undeniable stars, who just about persuaded one not to relinquish the will to live. Hans-Peter König’s Hagen was, one strange moment of wild tuning aside, impressive indeed: black, forthright, clear of text. Dalayman continued to impress as Brünnhilde, powerful of voice, but equally attentive to the role’s subtler demands. Her Erwartung-style account of the final scene in the second act was a true wonder to experience: reminiscent of Gwyneth Jones, but in tune. Iain Paterson’s assumption of Gunther grew in stature. It is a difficult role at the best of times: to portray weakness without sounding vocally weak is no mean task. Paterson was thoughtful, conflicted, and careful with his words. Torsten Kerl simply does not possess the strength of voice to sound as a true Heldentenor, but he did what he could in a similarly thoughtful reading; it was undoubtedly a pity, however, that in any encounter with Brünnhilde, let alone Hagen, this Siegfried was so utterly overpowered. Unfortunately given the greater role allotted by the production, Peter Sidhom’s Alberich lacked presence, though all the notes and words were there. Strangely, Christiane Libor’s Gutrune came into her own in her final scene; she had previously seemed merely anonymous, without the slightest hint of the corrupting allure for which Wagner’s potion is not entirely a substitute. The end when it came, then, was welcome for all the wrong reasons – and not only because a 6 p.m. start ensured that the performance would conclude ten minutes short of midnight.

Gutrune (Christian Libor), Gunther (Iain Paterson), and Hagen (Hans Peter König)
(Elisa Haberer/Opéra national de Paris)

Alberich (Peter Sidhom)
(Charles Duprat/Opéra national de Paris)

Brünnhilde (Katarina Dalayman) and Waltraute (Sophie Koch)
(Elisa Haberer/Opéra national de Paris)
Hagen, Siegfried (Torsten Kerl), Brünnhilde, and the Chorus
(Elisa Haberer/Opéra national de Paris)

Siegfried, Gunther, Brünnhilde, and the Chorus
(Elisa Haberer/Opéra national de Paris)

Gunther, Hagen, Gutrune, Siegfried, Brünnhilde, Chorus
(Charles Duprat/Opéra national de Paris)

Siegfried's Death (Funeral March)
(Elisa Haberer/Opéra national de Paris)

Monday 20 June 2011

Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart/EIC/Mälkki - Ivan Fedele, Johannes Maria Staud, and Bruno Mantovani, 17 June 2011

Salle des concerts, Cité de la musique

Ivan Fedele – Animus anima II, for vocal ensemble
Johannes Maria Staud – Par ici! (world premiere, Ensemble Intercontemporain commission)
Bruno Mantovani – Cantata no.1, for six singers and ensemble

Neue Vocalsoloisten Stuttgart
Robin Meier (IRCAM sound realisation)
Franck Berthoux (IRCAM sound engineer)
Ensemble Intercontemporain
Susanna Mälkki (conductor)

This was a splendid concert: three fine contemporary works, one of which was receiving its first performance, in performances that seemed fully worthy of their stature. One expects excellent things of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, of course, but that is no reason to take its achievements for granted. The concert slotted nicely into two slots, IRCAM’s Agora Festival, and the Cité de la musique’s Fifth Vocal Art Biennale, the latter ranging from Dufay to Scelsi via Monteverdi, Mendelssohn, Schoenberg, and many others.

First up was Ivan Fedele’s Animus anima II, a 2009 work to texts by Giuliani Corti. The solo voices of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart seemed quite at home with it, as well they might, since that ensemble commissioned the work. Formed of four movements, lasting about twenty minutes in total, this is a piece made up of an array of words, more concerned, according to Corti, with animus, whilst voices provide the anima: a binary opposition fundamental to the work’s progression. Each of the four movements takes its name from a figure of the anima: ‘Incipit’, ‘Eros’, ‘Vox’, and ‘Anghelos’. The language being Italian, almost every word – but not quite – ends with a vowel, which, at least to a non-Italian ear, imparts a certain sort of musical vocalism already. Is it noteworthy that the first word, ‘caos’ (‘chaos’) provides an exception? Perhaps, for we seem to undergo some form of creatio ex nihilo, especially when one comes to consider Fedele’s music.

Corti’s programme note confined itself to aspects of his text, so, a newcomer to Fedele, I had no idea what to expect, a situation that lent an apt, expectant sense of creation to my listening. Sounds became song in ‘Incipit’, answering negatively my initial questioning as to whether the vocal writing might remain stranded in a world too overtly inspired by aspects of Nono and Lachenmann. The words’ sounds remain, however, of crucial importance, to musical development. There is, as sometimes with Nono, a sense of Renaissance music – in this case, the vocal consort – being refracted and rejuvenated through contemporary means. ‘Eros’ opens with a swifter, more jubilant tone, soon transformed into spoken debate, thereafter into whispering, before returning to jubilant song, often in triple time. At its more ornate, I sensed a kinship with Monteverdian madrigal-writing. Flowery solo moments, including an especially lovely mezzo contribution (Truike van der Poel) characterise ‘Vox’, along with an impression – not simply pitch-based – of ascension. ‘Anghelos’ opens at a fast tempo, not unlike ‘Eros’, with an almost Messiaenesque (bird) chorus – albeit here accomplished through words and the sound of words. Alternating between such material and slower sections, this ultimately proved an exultant finale. The performance had no conductor, but was directed where necessary – often it was not – by a member of the ensemble, whose contribution, so far as I could tell, was thoroughly excellent.

Johannes Maria Staud’s Par ici!, for ensemble, received its world premiere from the Ensemble Intercontemporain under Susanna Mälkki. Taking its name from a line in Baudelaire’s ‘Voyage’ (the last of his Fleurs du Mal), it is composed instrumentally for flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, percussion, violin, viola, cello, double bass, and electronic MIDI piano, the latter creating in effect a micro-tonal instrument whose temperament may be modified by touch, Staud’s inspiration being the piano scordatura of Gérard Grisey. ‘Impure’ intervals present not an out-of-tune instrument of weird ‘effects’ – we can leave that to the ‘authenticke’ brigade – but a micro-tonal array of new harmonic possibilities, quite in keeping with the perfumed possibilities of Baudelaire:

The opening flute line, here delivered by long-time EIC member, Sophie Cherrier, triggers off contributions from the other instrumentalists, including the modified piano (Dimitri Vassilakis). This is a febrile opening, full of tension within a slow tempo. Post-Ligeti (perhaps also post-Xenakis) string swarming continues the musical development. For there is a real sense of dramatic trajectory here, within the eight minutes of Staud’s work; it is almost a Lisztian tone poem for the twenty-first century. I very much look forward to hearing it again and indeed to further exploration of the composer’s work. Mälkki and the EIC seemed fully to have the piece’s measure: let us hope for a recording.
Nous nous embarquerons sur la mer des Ténèbres
avec le cœur joyeux d’un jeune passager.
Entendez-vous ces voix, charmantes et funèbres,
qui chantent : «Par ici ! Vous qui voulez manger
le Lotus parfumé !»
Finally came Bruno Mantovani’s Cantata no.1, in which instrumentalists (clarinet, horn, percussion, piano, viola, and cello), conductor, and vocal soloists were united. I admired Mantovani’s opera, Akhmatova, earlier this year; if anything, I thought this 2006 work finer still. Or perhaps it was that I found it easier to grasp as a whole. At any rate, the form is almost ‘traditional’, in that it takes eleven poems by Rilke, and sets them sequentially but as part of a greater whole, for the most part with instrumental interludes. The order is as follows: ‘Es ist noch Tag auf der Terrasse’, ‘Gesang der Frauen an den Dichter’, ‘Der Tod der Geliebten’, ‘Herbst’, ‘Das Lied der Bildsäule’, ‘Pietà’, ‘Träume, die in deinen Tiefen wallen’, ‘Ein weißes Schloß in weißer Einsamkeit’, ‘Wir haben lange im Licht gelacht’, ‘Um die vielen Madonnen’, and ‘Schlußstück’. I was actually put in mind more than once of a chamber reimagination of Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony, though have no reason to think that anything more than my own fancy.

The opening clarinet solo, here in the expert hands of Alain Damiens, announces a post-Boulezian musical legacy of arabesques, more violent than their counterparts in Akhmatova, against which a counter-tenor solo movement may be heard, Daniel Gloger’s rendition pure, precise, and yet nevertheless sensuous. That violence is resumed in the first interlude’s cello part, giving way to ravishing piano-led harmonies (the interludes between fourth and fifth songs, and fifth and sixth, sound frankly post-Debussyan), and a sustained horn note around which the piano can play, such play skilfully, sensitively accomplished by Vassilakis. Mantovani deploys a great deal of variation in terms of forces used: solo voices, higher or lower groups of voices, full vocal ensemble, and the a cappella writing of ‘Träume’ and ‘Um die vielen Madonnen’. Interaction with the instrumentalists provides further variation and continuity, as for instance in the viola and clarinet protests against a trio of higher voices in ‘Gesang der Frauen an den Dichter’, which seem to persist in the subsequent cello reaction to the vocalists, or the monotonal percussion response to four male voices in ‘Der Tod der Geliebten’. One really gains a sense, then, of a cantata written in a sense responding to, without imitating, Bach’s supreme and often highly experimental example. Indeed, the employment of bass and B-flat clarinet (both played by Damiens) in 'Herbst' reminded me of the richness of Bach’s woodwind family, only occasionally recaptured in subsequent music. Likewise, the tenor’s arioso-like writing in ‘Das Lied der Bildsäule’ necessarily has resonances with earlier music. Repeated attempts, eventually successful, to voice the word ‘Träume’ both recalled the opening of Fedele’s work and substitute for an instrumental interlude. Mantovani’s a cappella setting proved haunting in itself and an apt preparation for the resumption of Boulezian hostilities in the instrumental transition to the next song, ‘Ein weis Schloß in weißer Einsamkeit’, whose near-hysterical climax upon the ‘Schloß’ of ‘Es blinkt das Schloß’ leads ultimately to delirious entwining of two soprano voices, almost a duet-response to Strauss’s Daphne, in ‘Wir haben lange im Licht gelacht’. The opening warbling ensemble of the penultimate ‘Um die vielen Madonnen’ brought to mind the post-Messiaen writing of the final movement of the Fedele piece, but Mantovani’s setting proved more focused upon the words rather than their sounds, not unlike some of Schoenberg’s choral writing, though doubtless the German language is an issue here too. There was to be no interlude between that movement and ‘Schlußstück’, with its immediate, violent fortissimo outburst from all concerned, hanging over the rest of the poem. Percussion and viola sound the final instrumental voices, an equivocal signal of something akin to life in the light of Rilke’s verse:
Der Tod ist groß.
Wir sind die Seinen lachenden Munds.
Wenn wir uns mitten im Leben meinen,
wagt er zu weinen
mitten in uns.
Three excellent works then, by three excellent composers, in three excellent performances. Though I imagined that the highlight of this visit to Paris would take place at the Palais Garnier or the Opéra Bastille, there can be no question that it was here, in the Cité de la musique, at the intersection of two festivals.

'Artistic terrorism' in Orkney and Paris

An excellent intervention from the Master of the Queen's Music concerning the 'artistic terrorists' who ruin performances by having their infernal mobile telephones ring out: click here. It would take a greater optimist than I to think that Sir Peter Maxwell Davies's plan to write to telephone companies to collect the fines will succeed, but at least he is doing something. Saturday's performance of Götterdämmerung at the Bastille unleashed one of the most extraordinary audience reactions I have yet experienced. Amidst a barrage of coughing and chattering, two particular instances stood out. The heavy-breather seated next to me, who clearly fancied himself some sort of 'expert', not only 'conducted' (mostly out of time) and imitated (entirely incorrectly) woodwind fingering patterns, but actually sang along from time to time. I had never thought of Wagner dramas as obvious candidates for 'community singing', but clearly I am a bear of very little imagination. In another apparently unprecedented move, a woman initaited loud applase roughly three-quarters of the way through Siegfried's Funeral March. Unless she were both deaf and blind, in which case Götterdämmerung might be thought an eccentric choice of six-hour pursuit, she surely could not have thought the work was over. Perhaps her act was intended ironically, though irony and motivation were difficult to discern. Oh for the days when the Jockey Club disrupted Tannhäuser with a relative modicum of style...

Saturday 18 June 2011

Così fan tutte, Opéra national de Paris, 16 June 2011

Palais Garnier

Fiordiligi – Elza van den Heever
Dorabella – Karine Deshayes
Guglielmo – Paulo Szot
Ferrando – Matthew Polenzani
Despina – Anne-Catherine Gillet
Don Alfonso – William Shimell

Ezio Toffolutti (director, designs)
André Diot (lighting)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Patrick Marie Aubert)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Philippe Jordan (conductor)

William Shimell (Don Alfonso), Paulo Szot (Guglielmo), Elza Van Den Heever (Fiordiligi), Karine Deshayes (Dorabella), Matthew Polenzani (Ferrando) and Anne-Catherine Gillet (Despina)
Images: Agathe Poupeney/ Opéra national de Paris

Così fan tutte is such an integral part of any music-lover’s life that one readily forgets how recently it became more than a connoisseur’s piece. Sometimes, given what this most fragile of works has inflicted upon it, one almost wishes that it had remained so. Busoni and Strauss were heralds of a more enlightened age; festivals such as Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence, and of course Salzburg also played their part. It is not an easy opera to stage, though I am not sure what is. Herbert von Karajan thought it an opera for recording rather than stage performance. Moreover, Così is certainly not an easy opera to perform either; nothing by Mozart, whether vocal or instrumental, is. It is salutary to note that the work only entered the repertoire of the Opéra Comique, in a ‘French adaptation’, in 1920, and had to wait until 1963 for that same company to present the work as would be more readily recognised, borrowing a production from Aix. The Palais Garnier came even later to the party in 1974, though the list of participants looks mouthwatering indeed. The production was by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, conducted by no less a Mozartian than Josef Krips, with a cast that reads as if it were assembled for a recording: Margaret Price, Jane Berbié, Tom Krause, Ryland Davies, Teresa Stratas, and Gabriel Bacquier. That was then, this is now. Leaving recordings aside, I have had two, arguably three since one counts twice, revelatory experiences of the work: Hans Neuenfels’s Salzburg Festival production, which took the work seriously, as it must be taken, presenting its trajectory as a dangerous exploration of something wonderful and ineffable, and Sir Colin Davis’s conducting of the work for the Royal Opera (twice). Alas, Sir Colin’s truly great direction from the pit was on both occasions allied, heartbreakingly so, to Jonathan Miller’s vulgar travesty of a staging. Less revelatory, perhaps, but still very good, and more consistently so, was my first viewing of a successor to that Salzburg production: a painterly depiction by Karl-Ernst and Ursula Hermann, conducted by Philippe Jordan.

I might have been inclined to scepticism concerning the wisdom of conducting overlapping productions of Così and Götterdämmerung (review, indeed listening, to come), yet Jordan’s contribution to this Paris performance was for the most part impressive. Tempi were judiciously chosen and appropriately varied: nothing sounded ‘wrong’, as one generally finds. Light and shade were present throughout, without ever sounding forced; most of the reading sounded as natural as breathing, Mozartian art concealing art. In this, Jordan was aided by excellent playing from the Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris. It was the first time I had heard the orchestra in Mozart, but will not, I hope, be the last. Strings were warm and refined; woodwind veritably bubbled. If this were not the Vienna Philharmonic of that Salzburg performance, then the comparison is more than unusually odious. There were just a very few occasions when Jordan’s momentum sagged, most notably part way through the second-act finale, but nobody – apart from Mozart – is perfect. Even when I was not entirely convinced by tempo decisions, for instance during ‘Soave sia il vento’, faster than I might have expected, less ravishing than I might have hoped for, Jordan managed to bring off the unexpected, in this case in a Klemperer-like plainspoken fashion.

Anne-Catherine Gillet (Despina)
and Karine Deshayes (Dorabella)
The vocal picture was more occluded. Pride of place should be accorded to the Despina of Anne-Catherine Gillet, hers a new voice to me. Far too often reduced to a caricature of a ‘character’ role, this Despina was beautifully sung, making one realise what one far too often misses. Phrasing was unerringly Mozartian. Karine Deshayes presented a good account of Dorabella’s part, with which I could find no real fault. Elza van den Heever started off very well as Fiordiligi, her ‘Come scoglio’ well despatched, with admirable firmness of tone, necessary to the crucial element, sadly unappreciated by most stage directors, of seria parody. However, ‘Per pietà’ provided uncomfortable listening, the line unsustained and one trill not so much fumbled as disintegrated. It is a stern task, admittedly, but Mozart is a cruel taskmaster and offers nowhere to hide. William Shimell made a decent enough job of Don Alfonso, bar one highly noticeable faltering during the first scene, but that served mainly to remind one that, given the limited resources of the role’s creator, Francesco Bussani, this is not a role given to vocal display. So long as were not expecting Sir Thomas Allen, this was a reasonably performance. Paulo Szot’s account of Guglielmo sometimes proved coarse. The character may not be an intellectual, or indeed especially sensitive, but Mozart should never sound crude. There were better moments, however, especially during the first act, when a gift for stylish phrasing displayed itself. Most surprising, though, was Matthew Polenzani’s Ferrando. I had admired Polenzani in this role at Covent Garden under Paris, but here he sounded strangely miscast. ‘Un aura amoroso’ received great applause, but this was an emoting delivery, vibrato disconcertingly wide, the all-too noticeable ‘effect’ of his mezza voce more appropriate to Puccini than to Mozart. It was almost Pavarotti-lite, without the personality.

As for Ezio Toffolutti’s staging, what can one say? This is a revival of a production mothballed during the Gérard Mortier years, not quite on the level of the recent reconstruction of Giorgio Strehler’s Figaro – a bizarre undertaking, surely more a riposte to Nicolas Joël’s predecessor than a serious artistic statement – but even so… To begin with, I thought that the pretty eighteenth-century sets and costumes might provide a harmless enough setting for the coruscating dissection of human conduct that Mozart presents; artificiality, the only way one can bear a work that unsparingly goes beyond Tristan, might even be heightened. However, mere prettiness becomes coarsened by ‘comic’ touches, which, if not so disastrous as those of Jonathan Miller, nevertheless misunderstand the work, even if pleasing a reactionary element in the audience, wishing to remain resolutely unchallenged. In Così, the form of comedy is employed in order to present something that could not be further removed from the ‘comic’; this is not Rossini. An element, albeit utterly non-amusing, of the Carry On films has no place here. Jordan’s conducting and the orchestral playing more or less saved the day, but they, and Gillet’s Despina, let alone Mozart, deserved a far better production.