Saturday 30 July 2011

The Week Ahead

Tonight brings a return to the Proms, to hear Midori, Andris Nelsons, and the CBSO (Strauss, Walton, and Prokofiev). Tomorrow morning, at some unearthly hour, I shall be off to Heathrow to catch a flight to Munich, and thence to the Bayreuth Festival, where I shall be seeing four of this year's five productions: this year's new offering Tannhäuser as staged by Sebastian Baumgartner, Lohengrin (Nelsons again, in Hans Neuenfels's production, new last year), Parsifal (I cannot wait to revisit Stefan Herheim's production, again conducted by Daniele Gatti), and finally Tristan (Christoph Marthaler's staging).

In the meantime, here is an excerpt showing that, whilst we may never hear this conductor's like again, bronchially-challenged audiences are nothing new. Yet listen through, and marvel at the magnificence of the brass. The chorus is not bad either...:

Friday 29 July 2011

Specialisation/authenticity/period performance/call it what you will (and many of us do)...

Just when one abandons all hope that the battle has been lost, the occasional green shoot springs up: Alexandre Tharaud's Rameau, Raymond Leppard returning to London for a Messiah, or Riccardo Muti conducting Gluck. Likewise, a valuable debate has been opened on On an Overgrown Path, initially headed 'Specialisation is damaging classical music'. Amen to that: one cannot play Bach without Boulez, nor vice versa. I posted a contribution, which I am flattered to say has now received its own page ('The specialists will never allow that').

Thursday 28 July 2011

Wishing Riccardo Muti a Happy 70th Birthday...

... and hoping that he will reconsider his inclination no longer to conduct opera in Salzburg. (With apologies for the bizarre opening to the Handel clip...)

Monday 25 July 2011

Frank Castorf to direct 2013 Bayreuth 'Ring'?

It seems still to be a matter of rumour, but here (click) is a report in the Hamburger Abendblatt. Castorf is Intendant at Berlin's Volksbühne. I have not seen any of his productions, and should be very interested to hear from those who have, but from what I have gleaned concerning his politico-æsthetic stance - a 1990 post-GDR Die Räuber onwards - and his rejection of linear narrative, it sounds as though he may turn out to be an interesting choice. Stefan Herheim should still have been asked though...

(Click here for the results of the readers' poll on who should direct the 2013 Ring.)

Thursday 21 July 2011

David Fray - Mozart and Beethoven, 20 July 2011

Wigmore Hall

Mozart – Piano Sonata no.9 in D major, KV 311/284c
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.15 in D major, op.28, ‘Pastoral’
Mozart – Fantasia in C minor, KV 475
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.15 in C major, op.53, ‘Waldstein’

More than two years have passed since I enthused about a Wigmore Hall recital given by David Fray. Whether the earlier programme suited him better – I suspect that may have been a good part of the story – or something else has happened, the pianist’s Gould-like platform mannerisms certainly having become far more pronounced, I was only intermittently impressed on this occasion. The Mozart C minor Fantasia and much of Beethoven’s Pastoral Sonata offered much to enjoy, but the first and last works proved less successful. I could not help but wonder, as was eventually suggested by Fray’s encore, whether he – and I – would have been happier with Bach than with Mozart and Beethoven.

That Fray treated Mozart’s D major Sonata, KV 311/284c seriously is to be commended; however, in his apparent determination to portray it is as prefiguring Beethoven, we lost a great deal of what makes it Mozart. Fray’s refusal to treat the modern piano with kid gloves was to be commended, especially during the first movement’s development section and the slow movement, but a greater array of dynamic contrast, would have been welcome: Pierre Monteux’s remark about ‘the indifference of mezzo forte’ sprang to mind. The finale flowed but was somewhat heavy-handed. Ultimately, it remained earthbound, lacking in Mozartian sparkle and magic. Mozart may, as HC Robbins Landon noted, surprise us with the expected (as opposed to Haydn surprising us with the unexpected), but here he did not surprise us at all.

Beethoven’s D major Sonata, op.28, fared better. The opening movement benefited from a fine, underpinning rhythmic command. Again, Fray’s disinclination to rush reaped rewards, heightening Beethoven’s insistence upon the pitch of D. Schubertian premonitions in the Andante were welcome, especially during those telling instances of left-hand ‘commentary’. The scherzo, however, remained as earthbound as the finale of the Mozart sonata. Again, during the finale, Beethoven’s insistence upon the pitch and tonal centre of D shone through; one could trace them and their shadow throughout the movement. There was, moreover, some beautiful pianissimo playing, and the build up therefrom proved equally impressive.

The highlight of the programme was undoubtedly Mozart’s great C minor Fantasia. Fray’s dynamic shading was infinitely more subtle and considerably more extended than it had been during the earlier Mozart piece. There was a fine sense of line, and palpable relish (Bachian?) to the exploration of Mozart’s chromaticism. The fast sections were taken at considerable speed, but without rushing. Both the contrasts and the essential binding together of the composer’s fantasy form were well handled, Fray imparting a true sense of inevitability to those utterly unpredictable – unless one should know them – twists and turns. And yes, the end brought the necessary tragic pay off. What Gluck needs words for, Mozart can accomplish with notes alone – and even better.

It was then, a disappointment, to turn to so prosaic, uninvolving a performance of the Waldstein Sonata. The first movement was probably taken too fast: at any rate, it sounded too fast, much of Beethoven’s music merely skated over. There was also a great deal of distracting noise from within the piano. The development – and I apologise for sounding like a weather report – was muddy at times, whilst the lead in to the recapitulation curiously halted just at the moment of return. The Introduzione was very odd indeed. Line was obstinately absent, the movement seemingly assembled note by note, quite lacking in mystery. Whilst the very opening of the finale sounded magical, Fray’s touch apparently melting the keys, there would not be much else to applaud. Fortissimo outbursts may have been impressive in themselves, but they sounded disconnected from Beethoven’s argument. The overall impression was wearisome, unrelenting. Though the coda was taken at high speed, it still often sounded heavy-handed, workmanlike.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Prom 7: Belcea Quartet/Erben - Schubert String Quintet, 19 July 2011

Royal Albert Hall, London

Schubert - String Quintet in C major, D.956

Corina Belcea-Fisher (violin)
Axel Schacher (violin)
Krzysztof Chorleski (viola)
Antoine Lederlin (violoncello)
Valentin Erben (violoncello)

On the face of it, chamber music in the Royal Albert Hall is an absurd prospect, yet on several occasions, I have found the way an excellent group of players can draw one in to provide for a more satisfying, often moving, experience than a typical orchestral performance, which can undoubtedly suffer form the hall’s barn-like acoustic. So it was here: doubtless the players would have sounded different in, say, the Wigmore Hall, but I remained utterly convinced.

For this was a distinguished reading indeed of Schubert’s C major quintet, full of ambivalence, regret, and yet determination. Life in the inner parts, from the very opening of the first movement, reminded one that life more generally must go on – even if, in Schubert’s own case, it would not. Framed by an inevitably fragile sadness, which never tipped over into the lachrymose, one realised that both life and death came out of the music, rather than appearing as tacked on pseudo-autobiographical concepts. Some beautifully hushed playing drew one in, ever underpinned by the driving force of Valentin Erben’s cello. Length was heavenly and yet all too mortal: I wished the movement could go on forever, yet at the same time began to realise that it was lulling me, Erlkönig-like, to enter into something beyond: the Romantic seduction of death itself. That call became even more marked in the slow movement, taken at a judicious tempo that neither dragged nor skipped. The vital sense of a heartbeat persisted, though, in a performance that was quite simply flawless, though not of the skated-over, superficial variety one occasionally associates with certain other quartets. Schubert’s sighing phrases elicited from the Belcea players a longing that rightly extended beyond eroticism. There was, moreover, real, heartfelt anger to be heard during the central episode. But applause: after this of all movements?! The only word for it, or the only printable one, is barbarism.

The scherzo was possessed of a vigour it is tempting to describe as Beethovenian, whilst the melodic gift revealed was of course entirely Schubert’s own. Well captured indeed was the balance between sadness and stillness of the trio: chillingly so, suggesting a song without words that both horrified and consoled. Despite, or rather on account of, the excellence of execution, the finale sounded like an uphill struggle, or at least its attempts to dance did, rhythms requiring ever more effort to achieve that aching swing. But then, featherlight articulation took over, to take us beyond that – though to what? This was Viennese in the best sense: unheimlich, Schubert revealing something that was already denied to successors such as Brahms.

Prom 6: Capuçons/Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Chung - Weber, Brahms, and Stravinsky, 19 July 2011

Royal Albert Hall

Weber – Oberon: Overture
Brahms – Concerto in A minor for violin and violoncello, op.102
Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Renaud Capuçon (violin)
Gautier Capuçon (violoncello)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Myung-Whun Chung (conductor)

It seems that the core German repertoire is not really Myung-Whun Chung’s thing. Neither Weber’s Oberon overture nor Brahms’s Double Concerto received bad performances, but neither especially impressed – or if the latter did, it was on account of the soloists. Weber’s overture opened beautifully, the opening horn call (unconducted) as weich – the German seeming so much more apposite than ‘tender’ – as any I can recall. The rest of the introduction was very slow, yet retained its line. However, the ensuing Allegro proved too much of a contrast at breakneck speed, with an enormous slowing for the second subject that definitively turned the overture into a mere operatic pot pourri. The Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France played well throughout, though, clean string playing a decided boon in Weber’s brief fugato passage.

Chung’s Brahms again opened promisingly, the orchestra sounding more at home than it had during the previous night’s Beethoven Triple Concerto. There was a good sense of world-weariness, of swimming against the tide in an expansive account, which permitted one to hear and to consider a wealth of instrumental detail – this truly is the land of developing variation, whence Schoenberg hails – if ultimately there would prove to be a little too much ‘mere’ accompaniment from the podium. The richness of Gautier Capuçon’s cello tone was an immediate joy upon his entry, his brother Renaud’s violin equally delectable, once again displaying a golden-age ability so elegantly to turn a phrase. It was the soloists who performed most of the dramatic shaping, but they accomplished that most convincingly. And how they sang, whether alternately, or in duet, never more so than in the almost Elgar-like lines of the slow movement. The finale benefited from a perfectly chosen tempo, the cello’s voicing of the second theme and the violin’s response a particular joy. Greater fire from Chung would have helped, though; he sounded too relaxed. Once again, it was left to the Capuçons to provide direction, which they maintained, even intensified, in a mesmerising encore performance of the Handel-Halvorsen Passacaglia. It made one long for more Baroque music from this quarter.

Chung emerged as a conductor transformed for The Rite of Spring – which, notably, he conducted without a score. The OPRF sounded in its element too, from the opening, unmistakeably ‘French’-toned bassoon, to the last. I was intrigued by the way the rest of the woodwind blended with and cast into relief the bassoon to turn the Introduction into a strange variety of Harmoniemusik – at least until the intervention of a mobile telephone. Rhythms were tight throughout, but also generative, Stravinsky’s cellular method properly to the fore. (It is perhaps worth noting that Chung appeared to use Boulez’s redrawing of the bar lines.) Energy never sapped, permitting that extraordinary melodic profusion that is the Rite’s greatest boast truly to be heard, never more so than in the sage’s music. If I say that the orchestra’s playing was cultivated, then I mean it in the best sense: it was not precious, but treated the music as music rather than as an extravaganza, dynamic gradations of an almost infinite nature proving especially telling. The percussion section deserves particular note, unfailingly secure in rhythm and in the precise presentation of colour. This excellent Rite was followed by a brief, showy encore from Carmen.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Prom 5: Braley/Capuçons/Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Chung - Messiaen, Dusapin, and Beethoven

Royal Albert Hall

Messiaen – Les Offrandes oubliées
Dusapin – Morning in Long Island: Concerto no.1 for large orchestra (BBC co-commission with the Mitto Settembermusica, Radio France, and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra: United Kingdom premiere)
Beethoven – Concerto for violin, violoncello, and pianoforte, in C major, op.56

Frank Braley (piano)
Renaud Capuçon (violin)
Gautier Capuçon (violoncello)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France
Myung-Whun Chung (conductor)

Messiaen’s early Les Offrandes oubliées provided a splendid, indeed resplendent, opening to this concert from the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France and Myung-Whun Chung. Its tripartite form was admirably clear, though that is as much Messiaen’s doing as the performers’. The recognisably ‘early’ harmonies of the outer sections, marked ‘Très lent’ and ‘Extrêmement lent’ shone through, recalling the contemporary organ work, L’Ascension, later orchestrated by the composer, perhaps above all the fragrant ecstasy of its concluding ‘Prière du Christ montant vers son Père’. The OPRF’s string tone was recognisably ‘French’ in tone, vibrato sweetly pleasing. If I could have imagined the ‘Très lent’ section emphasising more the ‘très’ part of Messiaen’s instruction, there had to be room for contrast with the third, communion-based section’s ‘extrêmement’. At any rate, the earlier section flowed and thereby doubtless created less of a problem for Messiaen sceptics. The central, ‘Vif’ section provided a brilliant contrast, the musicians’ sharpness of attack and rhythmic command scintillating in its depiction of man’s depravity, though its post-Dukas harmonies sound less ‘characteristic’. It is a pity, however, that such a fine performance was introduced by such a poor programme note. Usually I pass such things over in pained silence; however, it would be remiss to fail to note that that whilst the writer says next to nothing about the music, he nevertheless finds time to make the following extraordinary claim: ‘Messiaen is almost alone among the major figures of the 20th century’s avant-garde years – Witold Lutosławski is closest to joining him – in leaving a substantial contribution to several repertoires which shows no sign of evaporating.’ Boulez? Stockhausen? Berio? Nono? Xenakis? Ligeti? Carter? Henze? I could go on and on, even before coming to composers from our own shores; I shall not go on, but it seems that Robert Maycock would benefit from a crash course in mid-twentieth-century music before writing another such note, especially for a festival such as the Proms, which has always prided itself on its commitment to new music.

‘Stasis’ is a word often employed in connection with Messiaen, perhaps slightly misleadingly: there is progression, but it is often as much ritualistic as, arguably more so than, dialectical in a Beethovenian tradition. Certainly the progression of Les Offrandes oubliées was far more purposeful than Pascal Dusapin’s Morning in Long Island, a BBC co-commission, here receiving its British premiere. I was disappointed, given that I have admired a number of Dusapin’s works, including his string quartets and his opera, Passion, which I reviewed in 2008 from the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Essentially it is a tone poem, though I doubt whether Dusapin would use the term, in three sections, not necessarily evoking in ‘direct’ terms a morning in Long Island, but apparently inspired by it. The first movement ‘Fragile’, culminating in an ‘interlude’, seemed to me the strongest. From the outset, the spatial aspect is to the fore, three brass players – trumpet, horn, and trombone – placed around the hall, inciting and commenting upon the action, providing incidentally a far better impression of a fanfare than Judith Weir’s piece for the First Night. There was certainly a sense of a Sibelius-like landscape, whom Dusapin admires, albeit transposed into more contemporary terms, many long-held, high-lying lines shifting and creating harmonic motion. In many ways, the music, excellently performed, so far as I could tell, proved quite hypnotic. What a pity, then, that the second section, ‘Simplement’, proved more of a trial. It seemed to go on for ever, though my watch claimed that it did not. Perhaps it was that Sibelius became more of a presence still. (I freely admit the Finnish composer to be a blind spot for me.) But there seemed to be no reason why it could not have been half the length, the apparently static music proving resolutely unmemorable, despite two contrasting loud outbursts. The final section, ‘Swinging’ struck me as merely embarrassing, all too redolent of the dreaded ‘trendy vicar’. Though the music may have tried to swing, it seemed studied, forced even, the Latin rhythms sounding all too evidently appliqué; Dusapin’s congested scoring certainly did not help. It never achieved the lift off of riotous apparent predecessors such as the ‘Hunt of the Menads’ from Henze’s The Bassarids or indeed the second of Boulez’s orchestral Notations, remaining resolutely earthbound.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto seemed an odd companion piece. It would have done so even if Martha Argerich had been able to play, but her exit undoubtedly shifted the centre of programming gravity, even though she was ably replaced by Frank Braley. The problem, then, lay not with the soloists but with Chung, who, at least on the evidence of the present performance, is no Beethovenian. This concerto needs a sharp hand – think of Karajan – to prevent it from seeming unduly discursive; Chung, however, did little other than ‘accompany’. There was no fire; merely ‘pleasant’ Beethoven is, alas, barely Beethoven at all. Tutti passages sounded disconnected from the argument constructed by the fine chamber soloists. That was a great pity, for the Capuçon brothers in particular proved excellent soloists, showing how one might on occasion ‘love’ the music without disruption to its purpose. Renaud’s violin tone was often exquisitely sweet, yet never over ripe, recalling past masters such as Jacques Thibaud; I was left wishing for a ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata or two instead. Gautier’s responses sounded possessed of just as much quicksilver, with finely judged vibrato throughout; indeed, the opening of the Largo made me wish, not for the first time, that Beethoven had written a cello concerto. Braley’s tone hardened at times, especially when it came to repeated notes – it must be recalled that he was a late replacement – but at its best was almost an equal joy: pearly, yet never precious. Perhaps the most magical moment of all, however, was followed the cello opening to the finale, which had sung as beautifully as I can recall, when Renaud Capuçon’s response truly made Beethoven’s modulation tell. If only the subtle elegance with which he proceeded to turn his phrases could have been matched by such commitment from the podium.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Prom 2: Santa Cecilia Chorus and Orchestra/Pappano - Rossini, Guillaume Tell

Royal Albert Hall

William Tell – Michele Pertusi
Arnold Melchthal – John Osborn
Walter Furst – Matthew Rose
Melchthal – Frédéric Caton
Jemmy – Elena Xanthoudakis
Gessler – Nicolas Courjal
Rodolphe – Carlo Bosi
Ruodi – Celso Albelo
Leuthold – Mark Stone
Mathilde – Malin Byström
Hedwige – Patricia Bardon
Huntsman – Davide Malvestio

Chorus and Academy of the Academy of Santa Cecilia, Rome (chorus master: Ciro Visco)
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Operatic fashions are fickle and, more to the point, often plain wrong. We all have our grievance lists of works that are ‘scandalously neglected’. No one would claim that, Riccardo Muti notwithstanding, ‘serious’ Rossini was in fashion. On the basis of this Proms concert performance of Guillaume Tell, I cannot say that I feel deprived. Indeed I should express unalloyed relief, were it not for the fact that its place tends to be assumed by less rather than more interesting works. Schiller’s wonderful play, Wilhelm Tell, becomes something tedious and uninvolving – and, moreover, tedious and uninvolving at very great length. One gains no real sense of the characters as characters, of why one should or even might care about them. Now it might well be that individual psychology is not the point; it certainly is not in, say, Fidelio. Yet there one has a noble, overwhelming instantiation of the bourgeois idea of freedom at its greatest. Here one has interminable exchanges between men from different Swiss cantons ramble on uninspiringly about a Swiss fatherland, but never with fervour, lest Rossini’s monarchist protectors become alarmed. The nationalism – or, perhaps better, caricatured anti-German sentiment – is so preposterous that one can only hope nobody took it seriously even at the time. Certainly if this were a German work and the boot were on the other foot, we should expect howls of protest. The romantic element, between the Habsburg princess Mathilde, who rejects the wicked governor Gessler, and Arnold Meuchtal, a Swiss conspirator, is implausible – and implausible at great length. And how much lolling about in the sun by peasants can anyone reasonably be expected to take? Music can express languor very well; think of Debussy. Here, however, it less expresses boredom than becomes lamentably nondescript – at, you guessed it, inordinate length. Indeed, the entire first act could be cut without the slightest harm to the plot; on this occasion, it was the fourth that suffered, being cut down to twenty minutes, creating the rather odd impression of a rush to the finishing line far too late. I have never attended an operatic performance at which so many in the audience were constantly checking their watches, nor, indeed, in which so many leaped to their feet and departed, as soon as the performance was over, not even waiting to engage in the most desultory applause.

So much for the work: I was genuinely interested to have the rare opportunity to hear it, but now do not feel the need to do so again. What of the performances? Well, Antonio Pappano has his cheerleaders and he had his moments, perhaps more so in the crowd control of the choral exchanges and some of the recitative passages. Yet I could not help but wonder what a conductor such as Muti would have brought to the work; perhaps his iron grip might have had one believe in something as implausible as this. Even the overture failed to impress. It is sectional, of course, but surely a conductor ought to try to mask that just a little; there was no discernible attempt at transition whatsoever. The storm section was absurdly hard-driven, and the whole quite lacked charm, despite some fine woodwind playing from the Santa Cecilia orchestra. Though the strings on occasion sounded a little feeble here, they were on good form for most of what was to come. To have members of the orchestra take solo bows following the overture was straightforwardly bizarre.

Vocal performance remained. The choral singing was generally very good indeed, and improved as the night went on: Ciro Visco is clearly an excellent choral trainer. Michele Pertusi, sad to say, made a dull Tell. Someone charismatic in this role might have pulled off a miracle, but that was not to be. Most of the rest of the cast outshone him, not least John Osborn’s outstanding Arnold, his fourth-cast aria, ‘Asile héréditaire’, proving the evening’s high-point: sweetly and elegantly sung. (Pappano should not, however, have allowed the prolonged intrusion of applause thereafter.) Elena Zanthoudakis sang well as Jemmy, Tell’s son, though her French vowels often left a good deal to be desired. The wideness of Patricia Bardon’s vibrato as Hedwige, Tell’s wife, would not have been to all tastes, and was certainly not to mine. Bar the odd unfortunate moment, such as a culiminating shriek in her Act II Scene 3 exchange with Arnold, Malin Byström proved impressive as Mathilde, her coloratura almost always precise and tasteful, though the end of the third act brought some notably flat singing. Nicolas Courjal’s Gessler in many ways came the closest to a convincing portrayal of character, certainly as close as one could imagine, suavity of line and demeanour suggesting a more sophisticated malevolence than one might have expected.

The singing, then, or rather some of the singing, was the only real point of interest. I can imagine that a staged performance with an outstanding conductor – a Muti or an Abbado – and an interesting, properly deconstructive production – from, say, a Stefan Herheim or a Peter Konwitschny – might work wonders, though I suspect one would tend to think that such talents might be better employed elsewhere. At least the celebrated scene with the apple, for which everyone not unreasonably appeared to be waiting, might elicit some sort of impact, whereas in concert, one merely notes the lack thereof. I am far from a Rossini devotee, but give me the sparkle of Il barbiere di Siviglia any day over this, and if it must be grand opéra, then Rienzi, which boasts some truly extraordinary music, let alone the masterpieces of Berlioz. Even Meyerbeer if necessary… I could not help but think of Wagner’s Opera and Drama, in which he portrays nineteenth-century opera as having degenerated into a chaotic farrago of different elements, randomly mixed and presented, permitting each spectator choosing whatever took his fancy: ‘Here the dainty leap of a ballerina, there the singer’s daring passage-work, here the set-painter’s brilliant effect, there the amazing eruption of an orchestral volcano.’ In this way, Wagner, claimed, composers such as Rossini had become the toast of the ‘entire civilised world’, and acquired the protection of Prince Metternich (the Austrian Prince Metternich, be it noted) and his European System, reinforcing rather than questioning the social order. Such a work, then, is undoubtedly of historical importance; its modern-day interest, however, largely escaped me.

Saturday 16 July 2011

First Night of the Proms: BBC SO/Bělohlávek - Weir, Brahms, Liszt, and Janáček's Glagolitic Mass, 15 July 2011

Royal Albert Hall

Judith Weir – Stars, Night, Music, and Light (BBC commission, world premiere)
Brahms – Academic Festival Overture, op.80, arr. Sargent
Liszt – Piano Concerto no.2 in A major, S.125
Janáček – Glagolitic Mass (September 1927 version)

Benjamin Grosvenor (piano)
Hibla Gerzmava (soprano)
Dagmar Pecková (mezzo-soprano)
Stefan Vinke (tenor)
Jan Martiník (bass)
David Goode (organ)

BBC Singers
BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiři Bělohlávek (conductor)

The First Night of the Proms seems to be edging back, if a little hesitantly, from the strange, unsatisfying tasting menu approach adopted for a few years. Last year it reverted to the long-established tradition of a single large-scale work, often but not always choral, with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. This year we heard an excellent performance of Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, but with a first half whose programming did not really come off. A fanfare followed by an overture followed by a concerto probably had at least one piece too many, but might have persuaded had the two opening works proved more convincing. It seemed an excellent idea to open with a newly commissioned work and Judith Weir seemed an interesting choice. Stars, Night, Music, and Light, written for chorus and almost the same orchestral forces as Janáček’s mass (minus harps, offstage clarinets, and celesta) sets words from George Herbert’s Man:

The stars have us to bed;
Night draws the curtain, which the sunne withdraws;
Musick and light attend our head.
So far so good, yet the opening kettledrum rolls and brass fanfares signalled a damp squib of a curtain-raiser. My friend put it succinctly: ‘a cross between Vaughan Williams and MGM’. And whilst there seemed to be an aspiration to a briefer (three-minute) version of RVW’s Serenade to Music, it was quite without that work’s magic. ‘Lush’ tonal harmonies, too shop-soiled by popular entertainments for us to be able to take them anything other than ironically, jostled with descending scales on the organ that sounded as if straight from the music hall: Poulenc, but again apparently without irony. There was a little more bite from the brass, but the overall effect was of camp without wit. I suspect that this is destined to remain an ‘occasional piece’.

The following Brahms Academic Festival Overture was heard with Sir Malcolm Sargent’s additional part – restoration, if you will – for chorus at the close: the Gaudeamus igitur, with an ‘occasional’ final line from Sargent: ‘Vivant academiae musicale!’ (‘Long live music colleges!’) If you like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing you will like; it sounded a bit like an attempt to resurrect a 1950s world of school prize days. Jiři Bělohlávek took the overture at so swift a pace, despite generally alert playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, that it actually sounded quite frantic at times: a first for me and, I hope, a last.

That over with, we were treated to an estimable performance of Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto. If Liszt is not having quite the anniversary year some of us had hoped for – where is Christus or The Legend of St Elisabeth? – then the Proms are to be commended for featuring his music throughout the season. Bělohlávek and the BBC SO immediately sounded much more at ease; I had the impression, rightly or wrongly, that the piece had benefited from greater rehearsal time than the Brahms. Moreover, string tone, previously somewhat wiry, now mellowed and blossomed. That was before Benjamin Grosvenor, at nineteen years old apparently the youngest Proms piano soloist, had played a note. There was nothing jejune about Grosvenor’s performance, which deserved to be taken seriously indeed. From the outset, his pearly piano tone rendered Liszt’s line both clear and meaningful, rhythmic alertness from all concerned adding much to that sense of direction and meaning. Much of the concerto, quite rightly, was taken as chamber music – the real reason that Liszt wrote relatively little ‘pure’ chamber music is that, like Wagner’s, it is there in his larger-scale works – with piano and orchestral contributions nicely shaded, never unduly forced. When the music turned martial, such transformation was never overstated: that vulgarity of which Liszt, not entirely unjustly, has often been accused was not present on this occasion. Indeed, Bělohlávek and Grosvenor proved well attuned to the subtleties of Liszt’s transformational technique, which was to cast such a shadow over the course of twentieth-century music, to the Second Viennese School and beyond. Virtuosity never appeared as mere virtuosity: even the diabolical had something of the classical to it. True, one did not experience the electric shock of Sviatoslav Richter’s glissandi, but one encountered a pianist who seemed to have as sure a grasp of Liszt’s form. An auspicious Proms debut indeed!

The Glagolitic Mass was given in a new edition by Jiří Zahrádka and Leoš Faltus, which apparently restores passages simplified prior to the first performance in December 1927. According to the programme, the changes included simplification of rhythms, removal of the ‘offstage’ marking for a passage for three clarinets in the ‘Věruju’ (Credo) and cuts to both that movement and the ‘Svet’ (Sanctus). More may be read here concerning the edition, which Zahrádka modestly terms ‘an informative curiosity of sorts’. For what it is worth, I tend to prefer the practice of opening the Mass with the Intrada, but here we heard the Introduction, which to my ears fizzles out by comparison. Perhaps it remains more important, however, to recount that the Mass received a performance as impressive as that of the Liszt concerto. One can often tell a great deal – as, indeed one did during the Liszt – from the opening bars of a performance. Such was also the case here, for sharpness of attack, command of the composer’s idioms, and a fine ear for what one might call the ‘pastoral’, did the term not seem so constricting in Janáček’s all-embracing sound-world, characterised those bars. If the conclusion of the Introduction sounded somewhat sedate, that was my only real cavil. The ‘Slava’ (Gloria) made it clear, as did so much of the rest of the score and its performance, that this was a God of Nature, of wide-open spaces, of pantheistic, Cunning Little Vixen-like wonder. Oddly, then, one proceeds the passages referring to Christ almost as if they were tales of an ancient saga – Bartók’s Cantata Profana came to mind, though it was written slightly later – rather than items of faith relating to the second person of the Holy Trinity. Or at least that is what I did on this occasion, guided no doubt by so fresh and ‘open’ a performance. Stefan Vinke’s delivery was not without strain, but one can hardly expect Janáček’s lines to be despatched otherwise: crucially, there was imparted a sense of wonder, of intoxicated lyricism. Much the same could be said of Dagmar Pecková’s contributions. Those soloists, the tenor in particular, have the lion’s share of the solo work, but Jan Martiník and Hibla Gerzmava impressed where they could too. It was, though, the combined forces of the BBC Symphony Chorus and BBC Singers who made the greatest vocal impression of all, whether in tossing cries of glory from male to female sections, and back again, or in the beautiful a cappella singing of the ‘Agneče Božij’(Agnus Dei), in which the chorus sounded as dynamically malleable as the orchestra. There was a great deal to praise from the BBC SO too, whether in solo work (the three pairs of kettledrums, or Stephen Bryant’s sweet-toned violin solo at the opening of the ‘Svet’) or in the almost overwhelming closing peroration of the Intrada. The dark, even sinister imprecation of the ‘Agneče Božij’ (no ‘Dona nobis pacem’ here, be it noted) was indeed first and foremost orchestral. David Goode’s performance, both during the 'Allegro' organ solo and elsewhere, was first-class, well-chosen registration and dextrously-navigated changes of manuals turning the monster of the Royal Albert Hall organ into a musical instrument, and a modernistically interesting musical instrument at that. There was no comparison with the puny electronic instrument Sir Colin Davis’s recent Barbican performance had to endure. And behind, or rather in front of, the vast forces, was the wise, guiding hands of Bělohlávek. He has sounded out of sorts in too many BBC concerts; yet, in the right repertoire, whose idiom he clearly understands, and which he evidently relates to Slavonic (or, more often, Czech) speech rhythms, he remains an impressive musician. For the Glagolitic Mass to come across in so apparently ‘natural’, unforced, yet exultant fashion must have been in good part his doing.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Le nozze di Figaro, Opera Holland Park, 10 July 2011

Holland Park

Figaro – Matthew Hargreaves
Susanna – Jane Harrington
Count Almaviva – George van Bergen
Countess Almaviva – Elizabeth Llewellyn
Cherubino – Hannah Pedley
Dr Bartolo – Lynton Black
Marcellina – Sarah Pring
Don Basilio/Don Curzio – Andrew Glover
Antonio – Henry Grant Kerswell
Barbarina – Jaimee Marshall
First Bridesmaid – Katherine Everett
Second Bridesmaid – Kate Warshaw

Liam Steel (director)
Emma Wee (designs)
Colin Grenfell (lighting)

Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Matthew Waldren)
City of London Sinfonia
Matthew Willis (conductor)

I am delighted to report of an estimable performance of Mozart’s imperishable masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro, above all from the City of London Sinfonia and conductor Matthew Willis. Although I worried slightly during the Overture – and not just because of irritating stage business, of which more anon – the somewhat driven rendition of Mozart’s opening number did not persist any further. Though small in number (the strings numbered only, the orchestra did not sound meagre; indeed, it sounded much fuller of tone than many bands heard in ‘major’ houses, often too fearful of playing out, lest authenticist fatwas be issued (and quite ignoring Mozart’s avowed preference for string sections of a size such as he would never be accorded today). The woodwind was alert, perky, and often magical: here it is, of course, that we often hear the composer at his most tender, the joy and pain of love never more keenly felt. And if one might have felt that heart-rending pain a little more keenly at times – it may not be quite so unbearable here as in Così fan tutte, but it is present nevertheless – there was joy aplenty to be heard. Willis generally chose sound tempi; more to the point, for there is no ‘correct’ answer to questions of tempo, he permitted the music to breathe and showed thoroughgoing understanding of its forms, whether operatic or more ‘instrumental’. (Some would deny the importance of sonata form in Mozart’s operatic writing, but then some would claim that the Earth is flat.) A special word of praise should be accorded to the lively yet never exhibitionistic harpsichord continuo player, Catriona Beveridge, for the ebb and flow between recitative and aria is key to musico-dramatic coherence.

Often, one seems to find either the principal male roles or the principal female roles more strongly taken. Such was the case even at Covent Garden a little over a year ago, when the astounding Count of Mariusz Kwiecien and Figaro of Erwin Schrott quite overshadowed some surprisingly disappointing singing from across the gender divide. This time, though the gulf was not so great, the ladies had it. Jane Harrington made an enchanting Susanna, no irritating soubrette, but a credible, intelligent human being. After occasional early vocal fuzziness – and it was only occasional even then – Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Countess combined with great success beauty of tone and poignancy of affect. Their stage presence was first-rate too. Matthew Hargreaves lacked charisma as Figaro, often sounding a little dry of tone and wooden of manner, and George van Bergen’s Count, whilst musical, lacked a certain masculine punch. There was much to enjoy, however, from Hannah Pedley’s Cherubino and Sarah Pring’s Marcellina, the latter more a woman, less an old hag, than one often hears, and all the better for it. Lorenzo Da Ponte might create stock characters, but Mozart by this stage in his career could not fail to humanise them. Jaimee Marshall also took her brief opportunity to shine in Barbarina’s cavatina. (The ‘traditional’ cuts were employed in the fourth act, though I seem to be almost alone in regretting them.) So whilst this was not the sort of outstanding vocal performance one might hear, say, in Salzburg or Vienna – though one certainly cannot guarantee that even there – there was a commendable sense of company, with all contributing to a palpable sense of love and enthusiasm for Mozart’s score. Fine choral singing played its part here too.

Unfortunately, Liam Steel’s production somewhat detracted from that overall success. I have seen far worse, but, as so often with Mozart’s operas, I felt that too much emphasis was placed upon a narrow understanding of ‘comedy’, as if the form of opera buffa necessarily implied farce. Mozart, we should always remember, is never sadder than when he is smiling. Steel’s production, the programme informs us, takes place in the England of 1914. Quite why, we were not informed. Nothing seems to be gained: perhaps the idea was that an English public would respond more readily to the world of Upstairs Downstairs than to the time and place in which Figaro is set. It is not the end of the world, but struck me as pointless, since this is not an updating in which any positive virtue seems to be made of the new setting. It jars somewhat, therefore, with the eminently ‘period’ backdrop, though one would be clutching at straws to discern such post-modernist jarring as intentional, and again, the question would return, why specifically there and then? That would not matter so much if there were a stronger emphasis lain upon the conflicts that lie at the heart of the drama, but little is made of class distinction, despite sharp direction of the characters on stage, in which one truly has the impression that movement has been thought through and well executed. There is no discernible sense of Mozart’s, let alone Beaumarchais’s, Figaro as chafing at the revolutionary bit. Quite why Susanna appears initially in her underwear and knee high boots remains obscure, for it is an isolated instance in what is certainly not otherwise a raunchy or even erotic production. The incessant stage business, reminiscent of David McVicar’s irritating Covent Garden production, is very well choreographed, almost balletic, but, however well presented, the plethora of extra servants ultimately irritates. In at least nine times out of ten, less is more. What seems on occasion a sensible approach to furniture removal and replacement – that is, a servant does the job – soon becomes an end in itself, with things being moved around to no evident purpose. A good few members of the audience, however, seemed to find hilarious a chair being pushed from one side of the stage. Presumably many of them were the same people who laughed – unforgivably – at the Count’s final plea for forgiveness. Ultimately, this, then, is a production that fails to distinguish between comedic form and serious content, a production whose main purpose seems to be to ‘entertain’; Mozart’s score is so much richer than that. And anyone who finds amusing a plea for divine forgiveness, for that is what the Countess, miraculously, is offering, should steer well clear of Mozart, or indeed of anything more elevated than Donizetti.

Opera Holland Park nevertheless deserves to be taken seriously indeed. This was not a Figaro for which one needed to make ‘allowances’, as one often feels with smaller companies; it was a thoroughly professional performance. It was not perfect, but it compared favourably to what I have sometimes heard in ‘mainstream’ venues – infinitely preferable, for instance, to a recent, truly dreadful effort from the Komische Oper in Berlin – and there was a great deal to enjoy, especially when it came to the orchestra (and there can be few more demanding Mozartians than I in that respect). On that note of being taken seriously, although the translation provided in the surtitles often left a great deal to be desired – it is not to be sung, so why can we not have something stylish and faithful, literal even? – it remains a great relief that OHP continues to present works in the original language. Mozart sounds especially dreadful in English, but I have yet to meet a younger listener who preferred opera in translation. I mention this only because I overheard one man complaining about the use of Italian. There remains, bewilderingly, a category of listeners, generally of a certain age, who extol the non-existent virtues of opera in translation; the greater part of the opera-going public is perfectly content to hear Da Ponte, perhaps if necessary – horror of horrors – even doing a little work beforehand, and to benefit from the titles that have made such translation obsolete. I know plenty of people who stay away from ENO because, sadly, they cannot bear to hear works performed in translation. Perhaps they go too far, but I have neither encountered nor heard of a single person who boycotted the Royal Opera for presenting works in the original language. Three cheers, then, to Opera Holland Park for offering us the real thing and for declining to condescend.

Monday 11 July 2011

Arensky Chamber Orchestra - Schoenberg, Verklärte Nacht, 8 July 2011

Cadogan Hall

The Arensky Chamber Orchestra continued its pattern of presenting fine musical performances in unusual and revealing fashion, this evening focused upon Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Not only were there two performances – one for the original string sextet, one for chamber orchestra – but surrounding them were other collaborative efforts, offering different ways of approaching the work. A great deal of effort had gone into preparation, including a blog in which various instrumentalists addressed various aspects of the perceived ‘Schoenberg problem’. Impatient as I tend to get with an approach that concedes the ‘problem’ in the first place, given that I have never really perceived it – or at least no more than I have done with, say Brahms – it would perhaps be unduly ostrich-like to bury one’s head in the sand and deny that some listeners, rightly or wrongly, have a tendency to flee from the composer’s dread name. I should be happier to substitute ‘audiences’ for ‘listeners’, though, given that many of the perceived ‘difficulties’ dissolve or are at least moderated by fine performances. The poor quality of performances of new music was of course the crucial factor in driving Pierre Boulez to found the Domaine musical series in the Paris of the mid-1950s: well-meaning amateurs, lacking in technical proficiency, did, to his mind, Schoenberg, Webern, et al. more harm than good. What truly surprises, however, is how long reactionary attitudes, for they may no longer be considered merely conservative, have persisted: Schoenberg died in 1951, the emancipation of the dissonance is more than a century old, and Verklärte Nacht now finds itself at the grand old age of 113. Much as I wish the world were otherwise, not everyone loves or, more to the point, even knows, the String Trio or Die glückliche Hand. Given that the problem persists, the ACO finds itself in an honourable lineage indeed, extending back beyond the Domaine musical, to Schoenberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (‘Society for Private Musical Performances’), though the master’s defiant authoritarianism has now been supplanted by a greater openness that yet at the same time may be traced back to his own other interests, not least in the visual arts. Schoenberg is surely the finest painter amongst composers; not for nothing was he admired by Kandinsky.

And so, emphasis was also lain upon the visual. Collaborative work with art students resulted in video projections being played in the entrance hall – Thomas Völker’s ‘shadowy dancers’ – as well as during the performance of the string orchestra version of the work. I felt that the latter worked less well, longing merely to hear ‘the music’, but its strong narrative thrust doubtless helped persuade some doubters. Likewise the dramatic presentation of Richard Dehmel’s verse in the pine-laden foyer whilst we sipped our drinks, and artistic director Will Kunhardt’s speaking of Schoenberg’s words in which he relates the music in straightforwardly narrative form to the poem. If I cannot help but wish that Schoenberg had thrown away the ladder of the programme, he did not, and there is nothing to prevent us curmudgeonly Brahmsians from listening to it in more ‘absolute’ fashion. It is good for us, though, to be reminded of the composer’s own inspiration. It was also good to be reminded, through Cristiana Cojanu’s presentation, of Schoenberg’s innovatory Coalition Chess: a complication of the original game whose example some might well have allied to the composer’s complexity of musical expression. Perhaps, then, it was a pity that we did not hear some later Schoenberg too: a possibility for another concert, I hope…

Returning to the Domaine musical, though, all this would have been of little import, had the performances not been of such a high standard. I am delighted to report that they were, both of them. The second, string orchestral, version was securely directed by Stephanie Gonley. As is its wont, this version sounded more Romantic, less pioneering than the original, but a secure command of form prevented undue wallowing in the undeniable gorgeousness of Schoenberg’s harmonies. Perhaps an imperative to follow the narrative of Dehmel’s verse played a role too. The work is full of magical moments, of course, but especially magical was that echt-transfigurative revelation of reconciling, unsullied D major. As the reader may have gathered, my preference tends to be for the sextet version. That received a reading just as fine, arguably even more so, performed by six excellent instrumentalists. Here, as befits the form, expression seemed more urgent. One truly revelled as a listener – and one felt that the players did too – in the sophisticated interplay between chamber music and the musico-dramatic aspect of Schoenberg’s aspirations. Clichéd it may be, but the image of him reconciling, or in many respects furthering the dialectical opposition between, Wagner and Brahms sounded as true as ever. Whilst the orchestral version was presented in conventional concert form, audience members were permitted to wander during the sextet: not a gimmick at all, but a fascinating opportunity to watch over the players and their parts, at least for those of us who occupied the stage. Schoenberg once attempted to dissuade puzzled listeners from preoccupation with twelve-note writing by a linguistic analogy: he is speaking Chinese, but what is he saying? That question is just as relevant to his early tonal works, and, even if the composer’s Idea leaves Dehmel’s verse and indeed all words standing, there could be no doubt that the players communicated that Idea with technical assurance and passionate commitment. More, later, Schoenberg please!

Thursday 7 July 2011

City of London Festival: Francesco Piemontesi piano recital, 7 July 2011

St Mary Abchurch

Chopin – Prelude in C-sharp minor, op.45
Chopin – Mazurkas, op.59
Debussy – Préludes, Book I (selection)
Schumann – Kreisleriana, op.16

An especially welcome feature of this year’s City of London Festival is a series of early evening concerts (6 p.m.) featuring BBC New Generation Artists, all of which will subsequently be broadcast on Radio 3. This piano recital was given by the young Swiss pianist, Francesco Piemontesi, about whom I had heard a number of good reports. On the basis of the present performance, I hope and expect that we shall hear much more from him.

The opening Chopin C-sharp minor Prelude took its time, which is not to say that it was sluggish; far from it, for Piemontesi seemed to be framing it as a prelude to the programme as a whole, communicating joy and wonder in its harmonic revelations, closer to the C major Prelude from Book One of the Forty-Eight than I can recall hearing before. Yet it was not all harmony: Piemontesi demonstrated beyond doubt that he knew how to deliver a melting Chopin melodic line. The blurring acoustic of St Mary Abchurch did the two op.59 Mazurkas no favours. Though lovingly explored, there were occasions, especially during the first of the pair, when the rhythm – this is partly a matter of accent too – sounded closer to a relatively slow waltz than to a mazurka. A touch more rubato would not have gone amiss either.

Danseuses de Delphes received an impressive performance indeed, its cumulative power undeniable yet never exaggerated, founded upon a marriage of secure harmonic understanding, underpinned by accomplished Debussy pedalling, and finely spun legato, negating the piano’s irksome – in this context – hammers. Piemontesi seemed to highlight the post-Wagnerian qualities of Debussy’s harmonic writing, the legacy of Parsifal in particular. Voiles and Minstrels proceeded in not entirely dissimilar vein. The pianist’s emphasis upon harmonic revelation in time, connecting back to the opening Chopin Prelude, was welcome indeed, and never less than thought-provoking, but lightness of touch, which need not entail skating over those progressions, might sometimes have been more to the fore. Maurizio Pollini’s recent account of Voiles managed more fully both to provoke and to satisfy, to scintillate too, but it is surely evidence of Piemontesi’s artistry that one might even consider such a comparison.

The opening two movements of Kreisleriana impressively portrayed Schumann’s dialectic between Florestan and Eusebius, Piemontesi’s sure command of rhythm enabling him to unleash and to underpin both fire and fantasy. The second, ‘Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch,’ acquired an almost hypnotic quality, yet equally important, almost a counterbalance, was the palpable sincerity of the composer’s voice as sounded by Piemontesi. Later on, the acoustic – and, one sensed, perhaps the pianist’s inclination – tended to favour poetic introspection over passionate volubility. Faster passages when louder could sometimes become mere washes of sound, though the impishness of passages in the fifth and final movements came across very well, the darkness of the latter too. The magic, however, of Piemontesi’s Schumann as dreamer cast quite a spell, revived in an utterly rapt encore account of Der Dichter spricht, whose questing harmonic exploration, simpler perhaps but equally powerful, returned us anew to the virtues of that opening Chopin Prelude.

The recital will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Friday 22 July at 1 p.m. I hope that the increasingly raucous sounds from outside the church – could the adjacent wine bar not have requested that its well-heeled City patrons remain indoors for but an hour? – will intrude less than they did on the evening itself.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Music and Philosophy conference (II): Artistic representation in Schoenberg's 'Moses und Aron'

(Below is my own brief paper given at the aforementioned conference. For anyone interested, a much fuller, more extensive version, originally published in Music and Letters, may be downloaded here.)

Schoenberg always conceived of his musical and artistic development as a journey: more an ongoing search for faith than following a trustworthy map. In 1909, he wrote to Busoni that interpretation of his recent compositions demanded ‘belief and conviction’. They could only be played by ‘someone, who like yourself, takes the side of all who seek’. Such mystical seeking after faith might seem to have been outmoded by the more obvious constructivism of his later works, but little is ever outmoded in Schoenberg. Instead, the dialectic becomes more complicated as the search becomes more intense, the journey more arduous. Faith and organisation both oppose and necessitate one another.

I shall look specifically at Schoenberg’s opera, Moses und Aron. Written between 1927 and 1932, Moses started life as an oratorio text, then was transformed into an opera libretto. Notwithstanding Schoenberg’s continual insistence upon his intention of completion, the work remained unfinished, his only music for the third act amounting to a few sketches. Only the first two acts of the work are usually performed, although the composer sanctioned the possibility of presenting the final act in spoken form.

A preceding spoken, almost agitprop, Zionist drama, Der biblische Weg (‘The Biblical Way’), deals with more obviously contemporaneous political issues, yet at its end returns to religious mysticism. When its hero, Max Aruns lies dying, he recognises his hubris, addressing God thus:

Lord, thou hast smitten me. Thus I have brought it upon myself. Thus [his antagonist, David] Asseino was right, when he accused me of being presumptuous, of wanting to be Moses and Aron in one person. Thus I have betrayed the Idea … I am dying, but I feel that thou wilt allow the Idea to survive. And I shall die in peace, for I know that thou wilt always provide our nation with men ready to offer their lives for this concept of the one and only, eternal, invisible, and unimaginable God. (dies)
Politics seem to have brought us back to the necessity of theology, a necessity upon which Schoenberg himself had earlier insisted, in works such as his – again – unfinished oratorio, Die Jakobsleiter (‘Jacob’s Ladder’). Schoenberg would explicitly ‘follow on’ from Aruns’s words in Moses und Aron, for they are the first words of his opera. Having flirted with spoken drama, Schoenberg wished to reintroduce music. Partly this is a product of Schoenberg being first and foremost a composer; yet music for him also vouchsafed the possibility of remaining steadfast to the Idea or imperative of sacrificing one’s life in more than a political sense, to an unimaginable God. The more ‘difficult’ Schoenberg’s music became for the public – or so, at least the public believed, for often it disdained actually to listen to the music – the more absolute became the necessity for Schoenberg to express himself musically. This creative dilemma is not only akin to but also in some sense an historical representation of the original impossibility of Creation. For God, the Unrepresentable, commands His own representation. Might ‘spiritual’ or metaphysical music actually become both more specific and more abstract than the signification of mere words, let alone the easy seduction of all-too-material images?

Every bar in Moses, every note even, is derived from the initial twelve-note-row, just as everything ultimately must come from the Eternal One. As Webern put it, ‘To develop everything … from one principal idea! That’s the strongest unity… But in what form? That’s where art comes in!’ Law and creation are two sides of the same coin; yet, is it given to man to create? It seems that the astonishing variety of expression, from the hushed tones of the Burning Bush to the depravity of the Golden Calf Orgy, could only come forth from such strict organisation. Such, then, is the Unity of Creation. Only through this increasingly draconian system can autonomy be maintained. The row, however, is not employed thematically. Indeed, like God Himself, it is ever present in its ordering capacity but rarely heard ‘whole’. The ability to partition notes between different voices had granted Schoenberg’s twelve-note technique not only the requisite initial unity but also creative variety. As the row moved into the compositional – and auditory – background, its grip could be exerted over greater stretches of music. In Moses, it is not until the second scene that the row is presented in linear fashion in a single voice, and this is upon the appearance of Aron, who wishes to represent God’s message in order to aid popular understanding, perhaps suggesting something idolatrous about thematic understanding or employment of a row.

There is already, then, a problem of representation, which will only be intensified as the work proceeds. Adorno would summarise the problem of using what seem to be autonomous musical structures, which yet remain the product of subjective intention:

If the text creates the theological scandal of speaking of the One God as the idea [Gedanken], then this is a scandal that is duplicated in the texture of the music, though rendered almost unrecognisable by the power of the art. The absolute which this music sets out to make real, without any sleight of hand, it achieves as its own idea of itself: it is itself an image of something about images – the very last thing the story wanted.
Schoenberg at the opening comes perilously close to representing God, at least musically, although the abstract ‘Voice’ – in fact, a chorus and six solo voices – does not appear on stage. Indeed, for that brief introduction prior to the curtain’s rise, we have pure song, set to the vowel ‘O’ rather than human language. The energy of the opening wordless chords may be understood to represent God’s own self, yet as soon as the human world comes into its presence, the chordal singing sonority of the six-voice choir is combined with a rustling Sprechstimme choir not heard before. Music, it seems, may permit a divine presence that could never be staged, yet we must always be on our guard against a false divinity. And on what grounds can we judge?

From the moment of human involvement, signalled by Moses’ spoken voice, an unbridgeable chasm opens between spoken truth, Moses’ Sprechstimme, and Aron’s song. Moreover, even were Moses somehow to acquire the ability to express himself, he could still never return to this opening realm of spirit, of wordless or uninterpretable divine immediacy. For God to be represented and for the Idea of God to be interpreted, would turn them into a god and idea – both in lower case – unworthy of representation or interpretation. Likewise, were God swayed by sacrifice, as Aron considers possible, then that would render Him a particular, tribal god. The climactic orgy round the Golden Calf therefore must end in the tragedy of destruction, suicide, and ultimate nihilistic exhaustion. God is unimaginable in the literal sense of it being impossible to make Him into an image. Were the Israelites to succeed in seeing Him, He would no longer be their God.

Yet Moses’ inability to express his thought is as much a cause for despair as the straying of his people. He does not even appear always to be right. Aron points out to him that the Tables of the Law are ‘images also, just part of the whole idea’; to acquiesce to representation is but to ‘yield before necessity’. Likewise, Aron is quite right to argue that the pillars of cloud and fire, which Moses, in a startling transformation of the Biblical narrative, condemns as idolatrous images (Götzenbilder), are actually sent by God: ‘The Eternal One shows not Himself, but the way to Himself.’ He shows the way, as opposed to the Christian understanding in which He is the Way. As Adorno pointed out, the only way in which the Mosaic prohibition can be dramatised is through changes in the text. This would not usually matter, but ‘where the subject matter dons the authority of a sacred text, it verges on heresy.’

That accusation of heresy reminds us that Schoenberg had a Christian as well as a Jewish heritage. Never one to make life easy for himself, he had converted in the Vienna of 1898 not, like Mahler, to Roman Catholicism, but to Lutheranism; the Lutheran Bible – I have seen his annotated library edition – would be a constant companion upon his journey. The great controversy over the Second Commandment, involving Luther’s claim that it applied only to pagans, not to Christians, and its subsequent ejection from the list of ten, is of importance here, the relevant passage from Exodus making uncomfortable reading for a Christian artist:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.
Reformation controversy over iconoclasm fed into the classical German concept of self-cultivation or Bildung, the very word incorporating Bild, or ‘image’. That was the basis upon which Jewish emancipation had proceeded, connecting individual (Kantian) autonomy and the universality of humanism, just as the political right began to see community as based upon ties of blood.

If humanism had failed, Schoenberg connected that, drawing upon his Lutheran and Jewish heritages, with the hubris of representation. Music had traditionally been considered imageless and therefore exempt from the Bildverbot; Romantic and post-Romantic dreams of artistic unity rendered this exemption more problematical. His conception of what was forbidden is expressed in very broad terms in the text (his own) to the first stanza of the chorus, Op. 27 no.2 (1925):

Thou shalt not fashion thyself an image!
For an image limits,
demarcates, grasps,
what should remain undemarcated and unrepresented.
The opera’s status as a work about itself, about the impossibility, even blasphemy, of music-drama not only shines through, but deals the very concept of the artwork a savage blow. Moses’ final lament is ‘O word, thou word that I lack!’ yet his lament is not sung, but spoken. It is song rather than words that in one sense at least he lacks. Such is the price paid for truth; no one will or even can listen. Moses would be more God-like than God and predictably fails. The state of divinity, lying beyond the Kantian division of noumenon and phenomenon is unknowable to us, even to Moses – indeed, one might suggest, particularly to Moses with his one-sided rigidity. God knows, should we dare speculate about His Idea, that the communicative strategy of Aron or something similar is necessary.

Aron’s error lies not so much in the attempt to communicate to a people on the verge of revolt but in communicating through the old gods, who would urge him – and Schoenberg – to complete their work. A little æsthetic, political, or religious compromise seems a price worth paying to avoid absolute rupture; after all, perfection is divine, not mortal. Aron is seduced into seducing; his representation brings him perilously close as Leader – Führer, one might say – to becoming the object of representation. The music surrounding the Golden Calf, rigorously dodecaphonic though it be, seems too seductive, too comprehensible – at least when judged by the stringency of the Schoenbergian Idea. Schoenberg appears to be perpetrating the sin of which George Bernard Shaw accused Wagner in Götterdämmerung, of succumbing to grand opera; and yet, to dramatise the opposition between Moses and Aron he could hardly do otherwise.

Moses’ Idea appears truer than the all-too-easy bel canto simplifications of Aron, yet if it cannot be expressed truthfully, how can Moses bear witness, how can he lead his people? It is hardly surprising that they have turned away. As the Chorus laments during the Interlude between the two acts, ‘Abandoned are we! Where is his God? Where is the Eternal One? Where is Moses?’ The final words of Act II, and therefore the final words set to music, render this antinomy painfully clear:

Unrepresentable God!
Inexpressible Idea of many meanings,
wilt thou permit this explanation?
Shall Aron, my mouth, fashion this image?
Thus, I have fashioned an image too, false,
as an image can only be!
Thus, I am defeated!
Thus, everything I believed before was madness,
and can and must not be voiced!
O word, thou word that I lack!

Moreover, the rupture is musical as well as verbal. A long F-sharp violin unison builds to a fortissimo and then subsides into silence. Such unity is by now perhaps the only way one might musically represent God; the textural richness of the God heard in the Burning Bush would, paradoxically, seem diffuse and unmediated: negative dialectics indeed. Beyond the F-sharp does there lie God, nothing, or the unity of God and nothingness? We need to know, yet cannot.

Now generalisations about modernism are as elusive – as useless? – as generalisations about Romanticism, but the belief that a work’s æsthetic should be derived from its structural integrity, rather than from its surface characteristics and ornamentation, is a sound claimant to the title of fundamental principle. Always the Idea, one might say. It is no coincidence that Schoenberg had belonged to the Vienna Circle of Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos, for whom rejection of ornament was as much an ethical as an æsthetic principle. Loos indeed had branded ornament a crime in 1908, the year of Schoenberg’s break with tonality.

Schoenberg’s refusal to separate style and idea evinces a stand against idolatry, a Platonic stand against the illusory retreat into a world of appearances. However, Schoenberg’s imperative is not only negative. That Op. 27 no.2 chorus ends not with the first stanza’s Bildverbot but with a positive commandment, its necessity or ‘must’ twice reiterated: ‘Thou must believe in the Spirit! … Thou must, Chosen one, must, to remain so [chosen]!’ This thought, which harks back to Die Jakobsleiter, to Mahler’s Second Symphony, suggests that Jewish mystical belief might yet salvage the German tradition, with its punishing yet creative dialectic between freedom and organisation, whose burden and privilege Schoenberg felt so keenly. For the goal, however unattainable, is a higher form of spiritual awareness, in which the Idea may perhaps yet be perceived: a metaphysical Promised Land, following years, perhaps an eternity, of wandering in the Wilderness. An ‘Unrepresentable God,’ in the words of Schoenberg’s own libretto, is also ‘the inexpressible Idea of many meanings’.

Music and Philosophy conference

A while ago, I mentioned the then-forthcoming inaugural conference of the Royal Musical Association Music and Philosophy Study Group, which took place last weekend. Some interesting participant discussion has ensued, and I hope will continue, following a splendidly provocative blog posting by my colleague, JPE Harper-Scott. Click here to follow the discussion.

Sunday 3 July 2011

Pollini plays Prokofiev

Maurizio Pollini's legendary recording of Prokofiev's seventh piano sonata has long been available on a CD whose contents seem almost embarrassingly generous, the other recordings being an equally coruscating Stravinsky Three Movements from Petrushka, a glistening Bauhaus-like account of Webern's op.27 Variations, unequalled in its way though there are of course other ways to perform such music, and the classic recording of Boulez's second piano sonata. (I cannot help but wish that he would re-record at least the latter two works, since his present way with them is in many ways quite different, as demonstrated by Tuesday's recital at the Royal Festival Hall.) Yet other music by Prokofiev, a composer to whom Pollini's gifts would seem eminently suited, has been thin on the ground. It would be wonderful, for instance, to have the Visions fugitives or the Sarcasms, or indeed some of the concertos - conducted, say, by Claudio Abbado or even Pierre Boulez, who has been known to conduct some of their number. Pollini's repertoire is, like that of many thoughtful musicians, far greater than what he plays in public; I live in hope that we might one day hear some of his Szymanowski. And dare we hope that the Art of Fugue might be included in that 'shadow repertoire' at least? In the meantime, however, I have come across, quite by chance, a live recording on Youtube of Prokofiev's Third Concerto - certainly his most classical in form - conducted by Maxim Shostakovich: not the most obvious collaborator for the greatest of modernist pianists, one might have thought - and the orchestral sound is certainly more 'Russian' in quality than one would expect to hear from Abbado or Boulez. Limiting Prokofiev by nationality helps his misunderstood cause no more than it does Elgar or Ravel. The gleaning passage-work of the finale has to be heard to be believed - and I am not quite sure that I believe it even then. For what it is worth, I find the tension between Pollini and Shostakovich Jr compelling - and the neo-Romanticism of some of the orchestral movements suits Prokofiev's bitter-sweetness well. This is, after all, the composer of Cinderella as well as The Fiery Angel. In the rush to throw out the socialist realist bathwater, we should not forget the Prokofievan baby's natural lyricism, for surely Prokofiev is one of the great melodists of the twentieth century.Whatever one's tastes in such matters, however, the present performance is very well worth hearing, and makes me wonder what else might be out there...