Friday 30 September 2011

Coote/Vinke/Philharmonia/Maazel - Mahler, 29 September 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Mahler - Symphony no.10: I. ‘Adagio’
Mahler - Das Lied von der Erde

Alice Coote (mezzo-soprano)
Stefan Vinke (tenor)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

My response to much of this and last year’s Mahler anniversary bonanza has been to stay away: certainly not out of antipathy, nor out of boredom, nor on account of any other negative reaction to the music of a composer whom I admire as greatly as ever, but simply because there are too many unnecessary performances of that music on offer. Whilst always interested in hearing great or potentially interesting Mahlerians, I simply have no need to hear Maestro x conduct orchestra y in a run-of-the-mill Mahler Symphony no.z. Hearing the symphonies (alas, bar the Tenth) and song-cycles (bar some of the Wunderhorn songs) from the Staatskapelle Berlin, Daniel Barenboim, and Pierre Boulez, in Berlin, in April 2007, was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my musical life. When the Philharmonia announced its 2011 Mahler cycle under Lorin Maazel, my enthusiasm was tempered. Nevertheless, I have heard good things, from a variety of sources, many of which I respect greatly, as the cycle has progressed. It therefore seemed time to experience Maazel’s Mahler for myself. On this showing, I am afraid, it emerges as barely preferable to that of Valery Gergiev, the miscast conductor of another (!) recent London cycle.

The opening work, or rather part of a work, the Adagio from the Tenth Symphony was as unbearable as Gergiev’s, albeit in rather different ways. At least Gergiev rushed through his equally micromanaged account; I wonder whether anyone has taken this movement so slowly, whether individually or as part of a complete symphonic performance. Maazel’s reading actually opened promisingly, the viola line tremulous in a good way, suggestive, if we dare follow so Romantically autobiographical a route, of the failing heartbeat more often associated, dubiously or otherwise, with the Ninth Symphony. Thereafter, torpor set in. I have nothing against a daringly slow tempo, but Maazel proved quite incapable of sustaining it, at least meaningfully. Whatever the truth of the minutes on the clock, the music sounded as if it were taken at half-speed, and worse still, a phrase at a time, often with meaningless pauses inserted between those phrases. Worse still again, almost every subdivision of every beat was visibly and, more to the point, audibly, conducted, sapping Mahler’s music of any life. The music collapsed, less under its own (undeniable) weight than under the conductor’s shallowness: there was not even the slightest suggestion that it meant anything, whether or no that ‘anything’ might be put into words. It was, I am sad to say, inert and insufferable. Much of Mahler’s music might well be understood as haunted by death, but that means nothing without the impulse to life, here utterly lacking. Oh for the late Kurt Sanderling, Conductor Emeritus of the Philharmonia…

Das Lied von der Erde was better, though mostly on account of the soloists’ contribution. The first movement, ‘Das Trinklied von Jammer der Erde’, did not initially show Stefan Vinke at his best. Intonational problems compounded the cruel, almost insupportable, challenge Mahler throws at the tenor in this song. However, Vinke improved considerably in the second and third stanzas, the latter evincing the heroism of a Siegfried – or rather the forlorn Mahlerian effort to return to a Siegfried, to which effort's failure the only answer is to fill the wine glass and to drink oneself into oblivion. If only the conducting had not been so regimented; for Maazel, alas, exchanged torpor for brash brutality, the unifying feature being lifelessness born at least in part of that direction of every last subdivision of a beat. Even Sir Simon Rattle at his most tediously ‘interventionist’ rarely conducts quite so fussily. Once again, I longed for Sanderling, still more so for Bruno Walter, cited by Julian Johnson in his excellent pre-performance talk.

The frozen quality, both temporal and sonorous, of ‘Der Einsame im Herbst’ suited Maazel better, if only by default. Alice Coote surmounted a viral infection  in a fine Lieder-singer’s account, equally attentive to words and line. The words ‘Mein Herz ist müde’ were imploring, touching almost beyond words. There was a true sense of this as a song, in which Maazel, mercifully, acted more as ‘accompanist’ than ‘conductor’. (I was again struck by the parallel with Rattle, who often emerges preferably when paying heed to a soloist.) ‘Von der Jugend’ emerged mechanically, but at least there was a Coppelia-sort of life to it, absent entirely during the first part of the concert. Vinke was on good form, by turns playful and nostalgic, doubtless benefiting from the reality that this song is much less of a vocal struggle. If both ‘Von der Jugend’ and ‘Von der Schönheit’ ultimately veered towards the neo-classical, failing to yield as Mahler should, then one could at least appreciate the pointing of the chinoiserie. Meaning in the latter, it must be said, seemed to hail entirely from Coote, not from the podium. Vinke once again showed some strain at the outset of ‘Der Trunkene im Frühling’, but settled reasonably into Siegfried-vein: his was not the subtlest reading, but it was for the most part well enough delivered. Leader Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay provided a delectable solo, but Maazel never proved more than efficient.

It was, then, something of a surprise to hear the baleful opening chords of ‘Der Abschied’ so resounding in menace, movingly responded to by Christopher Cowie’s excellent oboe solo. The problem was that this seemed to have come from nowhere. Mahler’s extraordinary finale needs to be approached, not implanted. One could draw solace that the music, at least to start with, moved fluently, but it rarely moved. Coote suffered a few moments where strain told, not least in a somewhat sour rendition of the words ‘die müden Menschen gehn heimwärts, um im Schlaf vergessnes Glück’, but more important were her palpable sincerity and textual understanding. The final blue light in the distance truly sounded as if it were such in eternity. With the best will in the world, however, it could not be said that her sensibility, even when ailing, was matched by Maazel, despite some fine woodwind playing (and an unfortunate, albeit brief, duet between flute and telephone). The laboured quality of the purely orchestral passages told their own story. Why, I could not help but wonder, did the Philharmonia not offer its Mahler cycle to a musician or musicians better suited?

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Exquisite Labyrinth: The Music of Pierre Boulez, Southbank Centre

It would be remiss, to put it mildly, were this of all blogs not to cover the Southbank Centre's coming celebration of the music of Pierre Boulez. Have no fear: I shall be reporting from all of the events. (Click here for a full programme.) The Southbank Centre has been in touch with a podcast heralding what is to come, with contributions from Gillian Moore, Pierre-Laurent Aimard (the series curator), Nico Muhly, and Clio Gould:

Exquisite Labyrinth: The Music of Pierre Boulez by southbankcentre

See also this and many other postings from Classical Iconcolast (here).

Salzburg and/or Paris: Herheim's Meistersinger, 2013

According to an impeccable source (click here), there will be a Salzburg-Paris co-production of Die Meistersinger during Wagner's bicentenary year. (I really should not be publicising this, since I do not want to deny myself the chance of a ticket!) The director will be none other than Stefan Herheim, whose Parsifal, Lohengrin, and Entführung aus dem Serail remain three of the greatest opera stagings I have had the privilege to see. Parsifal, we recently learned, will at last be recorded for DVD release, next year.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Happy Birthday, Sir Colin!

A clip from my performance of the year so far. Click here to read more.

The Passenger, English National Opera, 24 September 2011


Annaliese Franz – Michelle Breedt
Marta – Giselle Allen
Walter – Kim Begley
Tadeusz – Leigh Melrose
Katya – Julia Sporsén
Krystina – Pamela Helen Stephen
Vlasta – Wendy Dawn Thompson
Hannah – Carolyn Dobbin
Yvette – Rhian Lois
Old Woman – Helen Field
Bronka – Rebecca de Pont Davies
SS Officers – Adrian Dwyer, Charles Johnston, Gerard O’Connor
Steward/Elderly Passenger/Kommandant – Graeme Dandy
SS Officer/Kapo – Vanessa Leagh-Hicks

David Pountney (director)
Rob Kearley (associate director)
Johan Engels (set designs)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Fabrice Kebour (lighting)
Ran Arthur Braun (director)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Sir Richard Armstrong (conductor)

This is not to be taken in any real sense as a review but rather just as a few observations. ENO’s season, as so often, is a far more interesting prospect than that of its big brother across Covent Garden (three – or four, depending on how one counts – runs for La traviata!) Mieczysław Weinberg’s The Passenger, based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, receives its British premiere, in a staging by David Pountney first seen at Bregenz. It is in excellent company, alongside works by Wolfgang Rihm, Detlev Glanert, and ENO’s first ever staging of a Rameau opera, Castor et Pollux (to be reviewed next month).

The problem, I am afraid, is that, on the basis of what I heard, Weinberg’s music is catastrophically inept. It is not merely that it adds nothing to the story; its aimlessness and weirdly arbitrary inappropriateness detract from what ought to be a harrowing tale of Holocaust remembrance. The Passenger is not offensive in the way that Terry Gilliam’s narcissistic Damnation of Faust was – an ignorant anti-German rant that also managed to posit genocide as entertainment – for it is clearly meant well, but the best, or at least most arresting, of Weinberg’s music seems to be heard in the couple of minutes or so before the voices enter, and it is still not very good. Some loud kettledrums at least have an effect. Whatever is one to make of the xylophone runs interpolated later on, though? It is difficult to imagine either musical or dramatic motivation for them: they just come and go. Influences or at least strong likenesses come thick and thin: perhaps most oddly, Shostakovich in jazz mode whilst Annaliese informs her diplomat husband of her wartime activities in the SS. Weill this is not, though it seems pretty clear that there is influence there. Most glaring is a passage – we are on a ship, so I suppose it is deliberate – that sounds lifted straight from Peter Grimes. Hindemith and Busoni might also be present, though the likeness may be coincidental rather than anything else. Otherwise, voices declaim, sometimes break into aria-like writing, whilst thin, irrelevant instrumental lines fill in the space below. Male SS officers veer dangerously close to the unintentionally comic: this does not appear to be an ironic commentary upon their repellent desire to burn human bodies more quickly, merely a product of the composer’s inability to compose appropriate music. A female officer unfortunately reminds one, both in appearance and delivery, of Helga from ‘Allo ‘Allo! What might work in depiction of Occupied France is not, to put it mildly, necessarily the best thing for an extermination camp.

Pountney’s production seems as good as the work is likely to get – and better than it deserves. There would have been a far greater sense of claustrophobia and naked terror, had they not been undermined by the music. Designs (Johan Engels’s sets and Marie-Jeanne Lecca’s costumes) and lighting (Fabrice Kebour) do everything one might have asked of them. Sir Richard Armstrong’s conducting is incisive, the ENO orchestra on excellent, truly responsive form, generating a volume that surprises in the vast expanses of the Coliseum. The singers again make the strongest possible case, Michelle Breedt’s Annaliese properly conflicted and vibrant, insofar as the music will permit that, Kim Begley’s delivery as heedful of text as one would expect, and so on. However, as I said, this is not really a review. For one thing, I left at the interval, unable to drag myself back into the theatre. Perhaps the second act would have proved a revelation. Perhaps not.

Thursday 22 September 2011

Letter to the Guardian: the LPO Four, 23 September 2011

Many thanks to the musicians and academics (some of them both!) who signed this letter to The Guardian: click here.

The text and signatories are reproduced below:

The plight of the four musicians summarily suspended from employment with the London Philharmonic Orchestra (Letters, 19 September) continues. LPO chief executive Tim Walker and chairman Martin Hohmann announced this move as a response to the musicians' signing a letter asking the BBC to rescind a Proms invitation to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra on account of that orchestra's role as an "ambassador" for the Israeli state. To identify themselves, the musicians said they were members of the LPO. They did not claim to speak for the orchestra; nor could anyone reasonably thus have read their signatures, four out of many, in which other affiliations were similarly stated. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Chilingirian Quartet, for instance, have not seen themselves similarly implicated.

The LPO's action raises serious issues of freedom of speech. Yet the management went further still, stating: "For the LPO, music and politics do not mix." The most cursory glance at musical history and, indeed, contemporary musical practice would demonstrate otherwise. As Daniel Barenboim's work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has shown, the contribution of many musicians to create a performance that is greater than the sum of its parts could hardly constitute a more political act. We also note the LPO was happy earlier this year to make a film, introduced by Mr Hohmann, voicing solidarity with Dutch arts organisations facing hardship and extinction from swingeing government cuts: what is that if not mixing music and politics? Whatever our respective views on cultural boycotts, citizens of a democracy should be free to identify themselves with a cause without fear of discipline or silencing. We call on the LPO to reconsider its decision and reinstate these musicians.

Dr Rachel Beckles Willson Royal Holloway, University of London
Théo Bélaud Music critic, Le Petit Concertorialiste
Dr Mark Berry Royal Holloway, University of London
Dr Julie Brown Royal Holloway, University of London
Dr Gavin Dixon
Dr Michael Downes Director of Music, University of St Andrews
John Fallas
Dr Lucy Grig University of Edinburgh
Dr JPE Harper-Scott Royal Holloway, University of London
Professor Michael Harris University of Paris VII
Dr James Helgeson
Maxim Kosinov Violinist
Professor Erik Levi Royal Holloway, University of London
Jonathan Manson Cellist
Barry Millington Editor, The Wagner Journal
Dr Anna Morcom Royal Holloway, University of London
Dr Cornelia van der Poll St Benet's Hall, University of Oxford
Gavin Plumley
Professor Julian Rushton University of Leeds
Professor Jim Samson Royal Holloway, University of London
Roderick Swanston Music historian
Dr Jeremy Thurlow Robinson College, University of Cambridge
Dr Ross Wilson University of East Anglia

P.S. For any French-speaking readers - though I assume if you are readers, you have some English at least! - there is a French translation of the letter at Le Petit Concertorialiste (click here).

Alas, more vindictiveness towards LPO and now OAE musicians...

What a pity that the Daily Telegraph, which today published an excellent letter, in which many signatories protest at the LPO suspensions, should also now publish, albeit only as a blog item, a call (click here) for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment to follow suit. The piece is so riddled with errors and general offence, and is so often lacking in logical coherence (basic, let alone dialectical), that it is probably not worthy of further comment, but here are just a few points immediately worth making:

  • ' Would they ['the Lefty [sic] music establishment] have responded with equal outrage had the orchestral players been suspended for attacking the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra [etc.] ...?' Leaving aside the question of how many of us calling upon the LPO management to reverse its position could claim membership of any 'establishment', the answer is of course, 'yes'. The issue at hand is not whether we agree with the call from the 'LPO Four' and many others to cancel the Israel Philharmonic Prom. (For what it is worth, I was not at all in agreement with the call to boycott, and I know that many others were not.) It is the suspension of musicians as a consequence merely of having identified themselves as members of the LPO, without any implication that they were speaking on its behalf. I should have the same view no matter what the content of their letter to The Independent. 'Attack', moreover, is a problematical word to have employed, since it might well be read to implying a connection, when there was none, between LPO and OAE members signing the letter and the protests that subsequently took place in the Royal Albert Hall.
  •  'the East-Western Divan, whose Arab members represent some of the most vile regimes on the planet'? No, they do not represent any regime: that is part of the whole point of the orchestra. Indeed, many of the young Arab musicians experience great difficulty as a consequence of their membership of this inspiring project. Moreover, but a passing acquaintance with Goethe might have informed our writer that the organisation is called the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
  • ' Orchestral managements, it seems, are being forced into a corner. No longer will they be able to censure players who publicly associate their brands with offensive or extremist Left-wing views. But Right-wing ones?' And why should they censure players on account of their political opinions, 'offensive or extremist', or otherwise? As for referring to orchestras as 'brands', that is not a conception I or anyone else I know holds of music-making, whether professional or otherwise.
  • 'It's not as if the management is short of reasons to take action: defamation of the company name, demeaning the company by behaving in a discriminatory fashion, talking to the media without consent etc.' So an orchestral musician is a slave, who may not speak to 'the media without consent'?
  • 'The OAE, it seems, is willing to associate itself with discriminatory views against Israel and Israelis.' Given earlier talk of 'defamation', the orchestra in question may wish to pursue that claim further.
  • The mention of anti-Semitism deserves to be treated with contempt, not least given the high proportion, were one inclined to measure it, of Jewish support for the musicians. A classic attempt (which, in a mirror image of the language used here, would doubtless be dubbed 'right-wing extremist') to close off discussion by cynically invoking the dread word should not be permitted to succeed. And no, these are not 'self-hating Jews' or self-hating anyone-elses, another classic, cynical response to such objections.

Sunday 18 September 2011

R.I.P. Kurt Sanderling (1912-2011)

Mozart Unwrapped (8): Mozart for Four Hands - Owen/Apekisheva, 17 September 2011

Hall One, Kings Place

Adagio and Allegro in F minor, KV 594
Sonata in F major, KV 497
Adagio and Fugue in C minor, KV 426
Sonata in D major, KV 448/375a

Charles Owen (piano)
Katya Apekisheva (piano)

This latest ‘Mozart Unwrapped’ concert – Kings Place has chosen Brahms to be ‘unwrapped’ next year – featured piano music for four hands, the first half involving one piano, the second half two pianos. Charles Owen and Katya Apekisheva offered generally cultivated readings, though I sometimes found myself wishing for less politeness: this Mozart sometimes veered too close to Dresden china.

The F minor Adagio and Allegro, KV 594, written for mechanical organ, opened with admirable clarity, Mozart’s neo-Baroque chromaticism permitted to tell. The Allegro exhibited a good sense not only of Mozart’s orchestral imitation, not only of typical four-hand texture, but also of his organ writing, strong Handelian influence registering clearly and with purpose. There was lightness of touch but that did not imply superficiality. When the Adagio tempo returned, material sounded properly transformed by what had passed before. As in an opera shortly to come, La clemenza di Tito, even relatively ‘impersonal’ Mozart remains utterly personal.

Hints of Schubert in the textures of the opening movement of the four-hand F major sonata, KV 497, were welcome, though they might have been brought out more strongly. There was, moreover, more than an occasional sense of tentativeness to be heard, from Apekisheva in particular, in certain passages from the Adagio introduction. The performance improved once the main Allegro fell properly into its swing, particularly illuminating attention being paid to Mozart’s inner parts, where much of the joy of his writing for four hands is to be discovered. It was a relief to hear an Andante taken as an Andante, given time to breathe, especially with such a wealth of inner material. However, the slow movement as a whole sounded a little too tasteful, albeit better that than having irrelevant ‘personality’ stamped upon the music in exhibitionistic fashion. Contrapuntal intricacies were well handled, whilst the operatic style harked back (knowingly) to the two-hand F major piano sonata, KV 332/300k. The sense of a concerto finale was there in the third movement, but might have been stronger, more rollicking even. Still, there was much to savour in the complex, almost Schoenbergian working out of inner counterpoint.

The Adagio and Fugue in C minor received a delicate reading, but is delicate what it really needs? (I think especially of a 1947 performance from Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.) Owen and Apekisheva produced some exquisitely veiled playing, though, especially in the fugue, I could not help but wish they had gone for the jugular. The fugue, oddly, sounded as if it too had been written for mechanical organ, the sense of a Bachian – or Bergian – labyrinth lacking. One could hear a commendable degree of detail, but what did it mean?

The D major sonata for two pianos opened in less tentative fashion, but retained that sense of (neo-classical?) automation. Though the tempo for the first movement was to my mind a couple of notches two fast, the problem was at least as much that it never yielded. The players were technically secure throughout, but, even in a piece that is sunny but hardly full of hidden depths, the music felt somewhat skated over. Much the same could be said of the Andante, taken on the fast side and unyielding. I missed any sense of what was going on beneath the surface: where was the yearning in those operatic phrases? Though marked Molto allegro, the finale sounded more of a Presto – and, more to the point, on occasion a garbled Presto. Such human music must never sound as if engaged in a mere race to the finish; it must always be allowed to breathe. Even when a ritardando was applied, it sounded calculated, adding to the feeling of music by metronome.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Mozart Unwrapped (7): Immler/Melda/Aurora Orchestra/Collon, 15 September 2011

Hall One, Kings Place

Don Giovanni, KV 537: Overture
Die Zauberflöte, KV 620: ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’
Concert Aria: ‘Per questo bella mano,’ KV 612
Concert Aria: ‘Ich möchte wohl der Kaiser sein’, KV 539
Divertimento for two horns and strings, KV 522, ‘Ein musikalischer Spaß’
Piano Concerto no.20 in D minor, KV 466
Symphony no.35 in D major, KV 385, ‘Haffner’

Lara Melda (piano)
Christian Immler (baritone)
Ben Griffiths (double bass)
Samuel West (narrator)
Aurora Orchestra
Nicholas Collon (conductor)

The best came both interspersed and last. First the interspersed: Samuel West’s delightful readings from Mozart’s correspondence. It may seem an obvious thing to say but what an enormous difference it makes to hear Mozart’s letters read by so fine an actor! The characterisation brought without exaggeration to Mozart’s words proved something of a master-class. Letters to Constanze, Leopold, and Mozart’s cousin, ‘Bäsle’ (Maria Anna Thekla, ‘his ‘first love’), gave a taste of the white heat of compositional inspiration and its accompanying mood swings. Not that one would ever think Mozart anything other than lovable: exasperating, perhaps, but as impossible to take against as his music. Puppy-like enthusiasm and melancholy were conveyed in equally moving manner by West.

The concluding Haffner Symphony proved the highlight of the musical performances. Its first movement sounded – it is difficult to imagine it otherwise – brilliant, extrovert, taken and maintained by Nicholas Collon at a well-judged tempo. Aside from a few passages in the development section, the strings, violins especially, were permitted enough vibrato, which had not always been the case earlier on. The Andante was not rushed but kept moving, pulsating with life, whilst the minuet, taken at a quickish three-in-a-bar sounded winningly earthy without crudity, its trio an elegant interlude. Finally, the closing Presto sparkled with Haydnesque brilliance, the players of the Aurora Orchestra revelling in the virtuosity required. Their reading under Collon was impeccably precise, bar one minor, brief lapse of ensemble, and more importantly still, exuded a real sense of the music's direction and purpose, with only the most occasional fussiness imposed upon it.

There had been much to enjoy during the first half too. The opening of the Don Giovanni Overture was taken, as is now the fashion, at an unmistakeably alla breve tempo, yet benefited from a full orchestral sound. (Though the orchestra is on the small side, so is the hall, so it worked.) The Allegro section was urgent, in Collon’s hands perhaps more aggressive than high-spirited, but there is arguably warrant for such an approach. Christian Immler joined the orchestra for two concert arias and ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’. Throughout, Immler’s diction was excellent: one could discern not only every word, but a great deal of meaning behind every word. There was a certain dryness, however, to his vocal delivery, especially in the Magic Flute aria, though the glockenspiel (Simon Lane) enchanted. ‘Per questo bella mano’ benefited greatly from the obbligato double bass playing of Ben Griffiths: a rare chance to hear such virtuosity and musicality from the instrument. It almost sounded seductive! There was humour in the performance but, quite rightly, no silliness: if the combination of bass and double bass is a joke on Mozart’s part, it is better played straight. A rare opportunity to hear the Entführung-style music of ‘Ich möchte wohl der Kaiser sein’ was well taken in a spirited rendition: Immler sometimes acquired greater bloom to his voice, though there remained dry passages. To have such fine diction was a boon in an aria whose interest often lies as much in projection of the words, given its strophic form. To close the first half, we heard A Musical Joke, Mozart’s wicked parody of third-rate composition (and copying). It was played straight, as it must be, so that the humour was Mozart’s alone. Oh, the cultivated banality, the brilliance of the non sequiturs and mistranspositions! Thomas Gould played a superlative role as leader, especially in his slow movement solo passagework. I do not wish to hear this piece often, but when it is performed, may it be in a performance of this quality.

It was a pity, then, that the D minor Piano Concerto – perhaps a piece too many for the programme? – received a lesser performance, more on account of the soloist, Lara Melda, than the orchestra, though there one could not overlook, especially in the first movement, thinness to the string tone (there were only five first violins, boosted to six for the Haffner). At best, the piano part was efficiently despatched, nothing more: there was not the slightest evidence of Melda engaging either with the orchestra or indeed with the meaning of Mozart’s music. Looking ‘soulful’ and moving one’s head around during tutti passages is no substitute for the chamber-music interplay Mozart demands. Even the cadenza (Beethoven’s) was plodding. If there had earlier been a certain orchestral harshness to the opening movement, greater tenderness was permitted in the Romanze: woodwind sounded gorgeous, but the strings sounded warmer too. The piano part remained disconnected, almost as if the pianist were playing along to a Music Minus One recording, the central section heavy rather than stormy. In the finale, the Aurora players truly captured the spirit of Mozart’s D minor dæmon (reminding one of the Don Giovanni Overture, in a programme which, taken as a whole, took a tonal path that echoed its opening piece). I shall draw a veil over the bizarre cadenza. Melda, it seems, won the BBC Young Musician of the Year award in 2010. On the evidence of the present performance, she would benefit from further study before throwing herself further into the limelight.

Thursday 15 September 2011

Suspension of musicians from LPO

The Jewish Chronicle reports that four musicians have been suspended from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, as a consequence of having signed a letter to The Independent (click here and scroll down), which protested at the Proms' invitation to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to perform this season. The decision, it is claimed, has been made on account of the musicians noting their membership of the orchestra. That seems at best disingenuous: they do not claim to be speaking for the orchestra; they are merely identifying themselves, explaining who they are. Whatever one thinks of the musicians' position on the IPO, they are human beings who have every right to express their views. From an academic point of view, there are terrifying implications for those of us who might on this basis find ourselves disciplined, simply because we belong to an organisation, and the same point extends far beyond the orchestral and academic worlds.

What certainly extends far beyond disingenuousness is the claim by LPO chief executive, Tim Walker: 'For the LPO, politics and music do not mix.' If this were true, he LPO would surely be the only organisation in history to believe such a claim. Has Walker ever heard of Richard Wagner? Or the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra? Indeed, it is difficult to think of a more inherently political act than that of music-making; to claim otherwise is to adopt an ideological position that is 'political' through and through. This has nothing to do with what I or anyone else might think about Israel, Palestine, or any other political issue. I have no intention of discussing such issues here, and I should oppose the LPO's decision every bit as strongly, were I to hold diametrically opposed views on any of these questions. What a contrast, moreover, with Valery Gergiev praising Vladimir Putin and 'great Russia', and holding a 'victory concert' in South Ossetia: Gergiev certainly held that politics and music mixed, and the LSO does not appear to have taken any action - despite, I do not doubt, what must have been at best a mixed reception for their principal conductor's stance. We can take different positions on boycotts, whether of Israel, South Africa, the USSR, the USA, or anywhere else (or at any other time). It does not follow that we should attempt to silence, or at least to discipline, those who think differently.

I cannot help but wonder whether political and/or financial (donor?) pressures have been involved. Perhaps not, but whatever the reasons, the outcome is deplorable. Let us hope that the LPO will reconsider. In the meantime, many of us will have to reconsider whether to attend their concerts: a great pity, since I was much looking forward to a performance under Vladimir Jurowski on 24th. It would certainly be good to hear from Jurowski if necessary, on behalf of his musicians.

I was out of the country when the Israel Philharmonic concert took place, so have nothing to add on the protests that disrupted the performances. However, here is my account of the extraordinary events at the Wigmore Hall, when a concert by the Jerusalem Quartet was continually interrupted. (For what it is worth, and again irrespective of whatever I might think concerning the political issues, I thought that the 'protests', such as they were, did little but harm to the Palestinian cause.)

Mozart Unwrapped (6): ASMF wind music, 14 September 2011

Hall One, Kings Place

Overture: Der Schauspieldirektor, KV 486 (arr. Graham Sheen)
Divertimento no.1 in B-flat major, KV Anh. 229/KV 439b/1
Divertimento no.13 in F major, KV 253
Serenade no.10 in B-flat major, KV 361/370a, ‘Gran Partita’

Academy of St Martin in the Fields

Some good Mozart, followed by some great Mozart. I have no problem whatsoever with the former; indeed, the more I know the latter, the more I appreciate the former, the slightest felicities sparking a joy of recognition that as a mere beginner would doubtless have eluded me. To treat second-rank Mozart as unworthy of attention is an ignorant snobbery to be deplored infinitely more than any initial naïveté that might treat all Mozart’s music as if it were the same. Moreover, this programme of music for wind (plus double bass in the Gran Partita) reminded us that the soloists of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, here without conductor, remain a force to be reckoned with.

First came bassoonist Graham Sheen’s transcription (for two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, and two bassoons) of the overture to Der Schauspieldirektor. The music transferred effortlessly to the new medium, well assisted by a bubbly performance, though it lacked of course the weight that a great orchestral performance from the likes of the LSO or the VPO (under Sir Colin Davis and Sir John Pritchard, respectively) can bring to this woefully underrated score. Instead, fittingly for the programme, we heard the music sound more as a miniature divertimento, with solistic brilliance as compensation, even to the extent of a little clarinet ornamentation at the end.

Next came the first of the five divertimenti for three basset horns. The opening Allegro sounded suave yet not superficial, clean yet not clinical. It seemed as though there was undue compensation for the lack of bite at the very opening of the second movement minuet, but there was much to enjoy in the fascinating details revealed from this chip from the master’s workbench. The slow movement emerged in turn poised and sinuous, whilst its successor minuet and trio enjoyed a good sense of swing. Finally, the rondo boasted a Haydnesque sense of rhythm and fun, though some phrases sang as only Mozart’s can. Here, as elsewhere, there was much to admire in the ASMF players’ dexterity.

KV 253, for two oboes, two horns, and two bassoons, received a fine performance. The first movement’s theme was properly leisurely, the music permitted to breathe, detail permitted to emerge. Much the same could be said of the ensuing variations, the second particularly delightful in its conversational tone, the horns quite magical. The tempo for the slow, fifth variation was just right, well sustained, neither dragging nor rushed. I especially enjoyed the oboe-led trio to the second movement, whilst the finale was simply a joy: not abandoned, but civilised.

The second half was devoted entirely to the great B-flat major Serenade, KV 361/370a. One immediately registered the fuller sound and the right degree of breadth in the first movement’s Largo introduction: I was put in mind of the introduction to the magnificent B-flat major violin sonata, KV 454. The Allegro was taken at quite a lick, but lovably so, so that one could still luxuriate in Mozart’s extraordinary harmonies. If it were not for Furtwängler’s incomparable Vienna Philharmonic recording, there would probably have been nothing to miss at all, but such a comparison is more than usually odious, not least since this was a ‘chamber’ rather than ‘conducted’ performance. The double bass (Lynda Houghton) made its presence felt in the right way, as if it were a true continuo part. Occasional fierceness detracted somewhat, but this remained a superior performance. The second movement flowed, without being rushed, its first trio quartet (!) especially gorgeous. As for the great Adagio: well, I might have wished for Furtwängler’s tempo, but this more ‘flowing’ – to employ the modern near-euphemism – version worked too, the dialogues between Christopher Cowie’s oboe and Timothy Lines’s clarinet exquisite indeed. Better, then, to hear a movement one wished had extended over a little more time, than for it to outstay its welcome. The ensuing minuet smiled and danced. Mozart’s rusticity, unlike Haydn’s, is always secondary, arguably tertiary, but the second trio nevertheless exuded easy charm (which is not at all an easy task for the performers). The Romanza was exquisite, sounding as a true Adagio, and sustained as such, its Allegretto section acquiring considerable urgency without turning breathless. ‘Delightful’, even ‘life-enhancing’, would seem an apt description for the theme and variations, the delight rising upwards from the double bass line to the truly harmonious Harmoniemusik. Cowie’s oboe solo in the slow variation transported one at least as far as the gates of Elysium. After that, the finale had something of a deflationary effect. Molto allegro is an extremely difficult tempo to bring off in Mozart: think of the finale to the great G minor symphony, KV 550. This at times felt a little too boisterous, brusque even, especially from the clarinets, but the performance as a whole remained one to treasure.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

OBERTO (Oxford Brookes: Exploring Research Trends in Opera) Inaugural Conference: ‘Beyond Press Cuttings: New Approaches to Reception in Opera Studies’, 13 September 2011

Held at Oxford Brookes University, this study day stood in the shadow of technological as well as intellectual developments, the former most obviously highlighted in a round-table session entitled ‘The Audience as Critic’. Are we now dealing, a point with which Katharine Ellis in her thought-provoking final response agreed, with the death of the (professional, newspaper) critic in an Internet age? (Ellis cautioned that what might be true now should not dictate our response, for instance, to nineteenth-century musical life.) Hugo Shirley and Simon Evans-White drew attention to burgeoning online criticism, sometimes, as John Snelson pointed out, stretching to reviewing the reviewers. But, and this would be a persistent refrain throughout the conference, on what authority, and with what ‘validity’ (a word whose employment Roger Parker criticised)? Olga Pantaleeva focused on a particular production, the Bolshoi’s 2006 Eugene Onegin, replacing a 1944 predecessor, to sometimes personal and sometimes nationalistic controversy. What does ‘fidelity’ mean, and to what, if any, ‘original’ might the term justly be applied?

Reception refers not only to audiences in the opera house, nor only to performance. Charlotte Purkis’s discussion of poetry inspired by Rutland Boughton’s once-wildly-popular The Immortal Hour complemented Cormac Newark’s treatment of various cinematic treatments of The Phantom of the Opera. Other visual responses to opera ranged from Clair Rowden’s survey of Parisian ‘cariculture’ during the 1890s, not least the predictably virulent hostility towards Wagner and a production of Lohengrin, to Carlo Cenciarelli’s probing treatment of opera film paratexts, that is, those things lying upon the threshold of the ‘text itself’. Cenciarelli’s posited friction between medium and context led us from nineteenth-century tableaux vivants to visual and musical techniques employed in DVD presentations of Don Carlos. Flora Willson presented Meyerbeer’s funeral and memorial arrangements as an historical text, culminating in the reception of the composer himself at the Paris Opéra: at the end of the fourth act of its 398th performance of Les Huguenots, the cast, within a performance of the work, crowned with laurels a bust of the composer, previously honoured by massed choirs and orchestras at the Gare du Nord, prior to the return of his remains to Berlin.

Has everything, then, become ‘reception’, and has the term therefore reached its sell-by date? Ellis suggested we might wish in that respect to rid ourselves of the legacy of musicologists such as Carl Dahlhaus. To what extent, if any, is musicology to be distinguished from other cultural criticism? There seemed, however, in the closing, discussion, to remain some hope for the musical work, and not only as a nineteenth-century concept: for, if we do not treat with it, who will?

For more information on OBERTO, click here.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Maltman/Johnson: 'Friedrich Schiller – Ein Leben in Liedern': Songs by Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt, 10 September 2011

Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Elysium, D 584
Der Kampf, D 594
An den Frühling, D 587
Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, D 583
Das Geheimnis, D 793
Dithyrambe, D 801
Schumann – Der Handschuh, op.87
Schubert – Die Bürgschaft, D 246
Schumann – Des Buben Schützenlied, op.79 no.25
Liszt – Drei Lieder aus Schillers ‘Wilhelm Tell‘, S 292
Schubert – Strophe aus ‘die Götter Griechenlands’, D 677

Christopher Maltman (baritone)
Graham Johnson (piano)

A recital of Schiller settings from Christopher Maltman and Graham Johnson seemed an excellent way to open the Wigmore Hall’s new season, and ample compensation for Soile Isokoski’s indisposition. There was indeed much to admire and to interest, but, with the exception of Liszt’s William Tell settings, Schiller rarely seemed to have provoked the composers concerned to scale the greatest heights. Perhaps that is partly a consequence of the ballad form in which a number of these settings were written: it seems less to speak to us – or at least to me – than various other song forms. But even when the compositional level fell somewhat beneath outstanding, one could enjoy Schiller’s verse. Maltman’s excellent diction was of great importance in that respect: at times, it felt as though we were attending a musically heightened verse reading.

The first half was devoted to Schubert and a single song by Schumann, Der Handschuh. the latter vividly pictorial, Johnson clearly relishing the opportunity to paint tigers and lions. Maltman imparted a keen narrative thrust, even a winning feminine impersonation of Fräulein Kunigund. This 1850 ballad was not, however, to put it mildly, the inspired and inspirational Schumann of his celebrated ‘year of song’. The opening Elysium announced an initially Mozartian Schubert, albeit a little hesitantly at first, though soon turning itself into a full-blown operatic narration, Maltman’s stage experience clearly informing his delivery. When hearing of truth rending the veil (‘Wahrheit reisst hier den Schleier entzwei’), that was just what we heard in the music. A rapt stillness accompanied the grim reaper’s sickle falling from his hand, whilst the ‘Donnerstürme’ looked forward to The Flying Dutchman. Der Kampf, which followed, benefited from a strong sense of musical structure on Johnson’s part, Maltman presented an urgent, masculine reading, again not so far from the opera house. An den Frühling, the second of Schubert’s two settings, was charmingly sung, but there might have been greater sensitivity and shading from the pianist. Gruppe aus dem Tartarus emerged hellish than triumphant, a resounding tribute to the power of Maltman’s voice. Dithyrambe showed that he could be boisterous too, the poet’s cup verily overflowing.

Die Bürgschaft, which I think I last heard in concert in a spellbinding reading from Jonas Kaufmann in Munich, was heard in similar vein to the first-half items: highly dramatic, with an acute sense of verbal poetry and meaning. There was fine shading too, both voice and piano sounding truly silvery on the ‘silberhell’ description of the spring, almost as if we had suddenly exchanged a Steinway for a Bösendorfer and a baritone for a tenor. This may be far from Schubert at his greatest, but Schiller was permitted to sing quite movingly his hymn of Romantic friendship. There followed four songs from William Tell, one by Schumann, three by Liszt. The former’s Des Buben Schützenlied received a good-natured performance, but the piano opening to Liszt’s ‘Der Fischerknabe’ immediately announced a new level not only of piano writing, but also of compositional inspiration. Even in the hands of a less than first-rank Lisztian – there are times when Johnson sounds a little too much of an ‘accompanist’ – the composer’s figurations and harmonies cast their seductive magic spells. Maltman evinced a seemingly instinctive command of Liszt’s idiom, including his post-Schubertian harmonic shifts. (Intonation had not always been the strongest card earlier on, but there were no such problems here.) The seduction from the watery depths – ‘Lieb’ Knabe, bist mein! – could hardly have been resisted by anyone, certainly not by me. The pastoral setting, ‘Der Hirt’ struck a winning kinship with Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ, whilst sounding utterly characteristic of Liszt. The final song, ‘Der Alpenjäger’ is less interesting, but its closeness to the dramatic Schubert settings heard earlier provided its own programming justification. Finally, as an epilogue, came Schubert’s Strophe aus ‘die Götter Griechenlands’, in which at last the heart-rending feeling of loss that Schubert uniquely can summon was to be heard, somehow presaging the twin worlds both of the song-cycles and of the Moments musicaux. Eliza Butler’s Tyranny of Greece over Germany seemed more æsthetically justified – whatever Schiller’s steadfast resistance to political tyranny – than ever.  

Friday 9 September 2011

London Sinfonietta - Carter, 8 September 2011

Hall Two, Kings Place

Eight Pieces for Four Timpani (excerpts)
esprit rude/esprit doux
esprit rude/esprit doux II

London Sinfonietta

This is a brief review for a brief concert, but size is not everything, as this collection of solo and chamber works by Elliott Carter demonstrated beyond doubt. Members of the London Sinfonietta proved sure guides in a programme that above all displayed the life-enhancing quality lying at the heart of Carter’s œuvre. Form and its interplay with time lies at the heart of these (relative) miniatures, likewise – and audibly, despite what many might tell us – those intervallic preoccupations and implications that mark one of the most intriguing musical paths beyond Webern. (Carter stands closer to his countryman Milton Babbitt than one might suspect.) Certainly having the flute soloist in esprit rude/esprit doux initially announce the Boulez motif – this is Carter’s sixtieth birthday gift to his esteemed colleague – and his clarinettist colleague the response, leaving aside the tritone as the interval that (ironically?) would ultimately unite, provided an excellent way in for the audience. esprit rude/esprit doux II followed on seamlessly, with the beguiling addition of the marimba. Gra, the composer’s clarinet tribute to Lutosławski, lived up to its (Polish) gaming title, full of risk and fun, whilst Carter’s rhythmic explorations were heard to perhaps surprisingly tuneful effect in two of the Eight Pieces for Four Timpani. Studies they may be, but so after all are Chopin’s. Finally, and in many ways the highlight, came Figment for solo cello. Here, in Carter’s eighty-fifth birthday present to himself, was a work clearly written for the instrument rather than a work written and instrumented. One inevitably thinks back to Bach in such a setting, but there was no doubt of the personal, frankly emotional voice sounded here: a highly dramatic song without words.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Prom 70: Tetzlaff/BBC SO/Robertson - Bridge, Birtwistle (UK premiere), and Holst, 7 September 2011

Royal Albert Hall

Bridge – Isabella
Birtwistle – Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (United Kingdom premiere)
Holst – The Planets

Christian Teztlaff (violin)
Holst Singers
BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Robertson (conductor)

More odd programming at the Proms. It is not irrelevant to see Birtwistle in an English context, there being a strong vein of melancholy in his music to trace back at least as far as Dowland; it was nevertheless unclear that Frank Bridge and Gustav Holst were best choices as supporting composers for the British premiere of the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra. (The first performance took place in Boston earlier this year.) This is the first piece Birtwistle has explicitly named a concerto, despite forerunners in pieces such as Antiphonies for piano and orchestra. What I shall say is based upon but a single hearing, with all the caveats that must imply, but I was left in no doubt that we heard a masterpiece. The increasing importance of strings to Birtwistle’s tonal palette, as remarked upon in Jonathan Cross’s model programme note, was in evidence from the outset. Cross notes the precedent of Mendelssohn, of whose concerto Birtwistle is fond, in particular its ‘sparkle’ and the way in which the soloist throws the listener straight into the work. I also heard surprisingly strong echoes of Berg, both intervallic and harmonic, and not just at the opening. There also seemed to be reminiscences, whether conscious or otherwise, of Gawain, not least in terms of Birtwistle’s very personal use of metallic percussion. The violin part was throughout performed with outstanding musicality and virtuosity by Christian Tetzlaff; it is in many respects soaringly lyrical, though doubtless it will not have seemed so to tone-deaf reactionaries. For a composer who has long been associated with his native woodwind, it was delightful to realise how gratefully written for the instrument the piece is. Solos spark off orchestral strings and indeed the rest of the orchestra; there is, needless to say, some haunting woodwind writing too. There is an especially exquisite – yes, Birtwistle can be exquisite – not-quite-duet between violin and bassoon, the latter more shadow (Boulezian ombre, albeit in a non-electronic context?) than partner. Rhythm is a predictably strong driving force, but we also hear ravishing oases of reflection: bizarre though this may sound, I was put in mind of the precedent of Szymanowski. At other times, however, the listener is treated to a post-Messiaen world of wind and percussive sonorities, which never, however, sound as harsh as much of the composer’s earlier writing. Above all, as one would expect from the greatest English musical dramatist since Purcell, there is a true sense of the violinist as Faustian protagonist, at least as much so as, arguably still more so than, the soloist in Henze’s Third Violin Concerto (which presents three portraits from Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus). A subsiding, moving, tuba line leads us to the final solo pizzicato, completing a tapestry of unusually gorgeous quality. Teztlaff and David Robertson, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on excellent form, presented the work as the repertory piece it must become.

It is difficult to begrudge an occasional performance of Bridge’s symphonic poem, Isabella, not least since it was premiered by Sir Henry Wood at the Proms in 1907 and has not been heard in these concerts since. On the other hand, I cannot say that I am surprised by its absence. A quiet opening for violas and kettledrums sounds promising, if a little blatantly modelled upon Liszt’s Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe, the final symphonic poem written by the form’s inventor. Influences thereafter come thick and fast: Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Strauss, Debussy. Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet is clearly a model for much of the brass writing, but Bridge has none of the Russian composer’s melodic genius. The form appears to follow quite closely the example of Keats’s poem, Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil. I wished that it had done so rather more quickly.

The Planets received a good performance: at its best the BBC SO sounded very good indeed, though there were moments when it sounded a little lacklustre, if never so much as it tends to under its principal conductor. ‘Mars’, surely the finest movement in the score, was also the finest in performance: seething in its menace, mechanical in its barbarism, a true premonition of war so swiftly to come. The Royal Albert Hall organ, here and elsewhere, made a fine impact. Alas, elements in the audience elected to applaud after this and every other movement – save, of course, ‘Uranus’, though I am not sure that I should have put it past them then too. ‘Venus’ and ‘Mercury’ benefited from a nicely French sound, perhaps more Ravel than Debussy, and an excellent solo from leader, Andrew Haveron; both movements do, though, tend to overstay their welcome. We heard a bright and breezy ‘Jupiter’, bringing jollity as required; if parts of the score sounded a little like a concerto for orchestra, then that is really Holst’s doing. The ‘big tune’ hit home, sounding noble rather than mawkish. Robertson handled the onward tread of ‘Saturn’ well, also pointing up intriguing consonances with Parsifal. ‘Uranus’ mixed jovial magician with sorcerer’s apprentice to good effect. Perhaps, however, after ‘Mars’, the highlight was the expert, imperceptible way in which the off-stage female voices of the Holst Singers stole into the hall: that was really rather beautiful.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Prom 67: LSO/Davis - Beethoven: Missa Solemnis

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven, Mass in D major, op.123

Helena Juntunen (soprano)
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Paul Groves (tenor)
Matthew Rose (bass)

London Philharmonic Choir (chorus-master: Neville Creed)
London Symphony Chorus (chorus-master: Joseph Cullen)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis (conductor)

I shall not beat about the bush: this was a great performance. It seems to me inconceivable that I shall not look back in my dotage – assuming that I shall have one – and remember Sir Colin Davis conducting the Missa Solemnis at the Proms. Partly that must be a matter of my personal and, I flatter myself, intellectual obsession with the work. Furtwängler considered it Beethoven’s greatest work; if pushed, so do I. But its greatness is not that of Mozartian perfection: it lies in what, along with the late string quartets, must surely constitute Beethoven’s greatest challenge, both for himself and for us. It is both symphonic and, as Sir Colin points out in a brief programme interview, a work that, ‘constructed word for word … doesn’t lend itself to symphonic treatment’. The Mass both affirms and doubts – does it even deny? – belief in God, as a setting of the liturgy. It stands both as an affirmation, monumental and personal, in humanity, and a shattering demonstration of its nothingness in the face of the Almighty. Beethoven’s setting is both utterly characteristic in its strenuousness of purpose and strangely un-Beethovenian in other ways (something I have promised myself I shall think more closely about after several other projects: in the meantime, I shall refer the reader to Adorno). It is also well-nigh unperformable; Furtwängler simply stopped performing it. Indeed, a Furtwängler Missa Solemnis must be the ultimate fantasy recording; alas, it seems that it will remain a fantasy. We have Klemperer, though, in many ways a more meaningful dialectical antithesis to Furtwängler than the incomprehensibly venerated band-master Toscanini. And now we have Davis.

There was a special warmth to the applause Sir Colin received upon mounting the podium, a warmth that in London I otherwise only associate with Bernard Haitink. (The two conductors’ status as former Music Directors of the Royal Opera House, and their accomplishments in that post, doubtless has something to do with it, though Davis’s work with the London Symphony Orchestra may rank higher still in audience and critical esteem.) But this is not a conductor to be flattered, nor, crucially, to manufacture some easy, false sense of ‘excitement’. Beethoven’s opening bars thus resounded with spacious expectancy, as far removed from the idiocies of ‘period’ fashion as could be imagined. Indeed, there was a tentative moment of ensemble that suggested the orchestra, which has recently been performing Beethoven with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, might not quite be attuned to Davis’s reading. The moment was over in the twinkling of an eye, however, and it would, I think, be the sole criticism I could muster of a magnificent performance from the LSO. The massed ranks of the London Symphony Chorus and London Philharmonic Choir sounded quite staggering in heft, unity, and clarity, once again proving a nonsense of the claim sometimes heard that only small choirs can permit of contrapuntal or even homophonic clarity. And the soloists – first of all, soprano, mezzo, and tenor – sounded a voice for us, for frail humanity. One knew that this was intended, and believed in: by Beethoven, by the conductor, and indeed by the singers themselves. (Davis again: ‘You may not believe it immediately afterwards, but it [the work] doesn’t survive unless everybody is committed to it.’) The soloists’ echoing of the chorus upon ‘Christe’ intensified the sense of cosmological struggle – and this in the Kyrie, only the first, and arguably most ‘normal’ movement. Kettledrums sounded implacable throughout, as if intoning Holy Writ, or even trying to persuade us of it. Truth, then, shone from every bar: there was a real sense that the Lord might, just might, grant us that mercy besought in the liturgy.

Nothing, though, had prepared me for the opening of the Gloria – which is as it should be. It came like an explosion, a thunderbolt even, with the kind of electricity that Furtwängler himself used to impart to Beethoven, and few, very few, others have succeeded in eliciting since; it was as if the heavenly throng itself were singing the Almighty’s praises. I wondered whether Paul Groves was a little on the ‘operatic’ side during the ‘Gratias’ section, or at least not sufficiently Germanic in style, and one could have wished for greater resonance from Matthew Rose. But any such minor doubts were soon overtaken by the titanic, orchestrally-founded strength upon which we heard the choral ‘Domine Deus, Rex cœlestis’. Hints of Mozartian Harmoniemusik upon ‘Domine Fili unigenite Jesu Christe’ were gratefully received, but we were never in doubt that the Mozartian paradise had been lost for ever, woodwind in the ‘Qui tollis’ section now recognisable from the travails of the Ninth Symphony. Once again Beethovenian sincerity shone as a light through the performance, the imploring ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis’ signalling the composer kneeling. (And there is clearly only one person, or force, before whom or which Beethoven would ever kneel.) The ‘Quoniam’ captured to perfection that precarious balance, or rather dialectic, between certainty and uncertainty or downright despair, whilst the close of the movement recaptured the electricity of its opening. If the soloists’ final Amen sent shivers down the spine, the final choral shout of ‘Gloria’ went beyond anything I can even attempt to express in words.

The opening calls of ‘Credo’ announced the battle royal that lies at the heart of the work, the struggle of belief itself. Credo quia absurdum (a perennial misquotation of Tertullian)? Davis seemed here heavily to lean towards Klemperer’s Nietzschean ‘immoralism’. (One imagines Furtwängler would have given a very different impression, but who knows?) And crucially, there was a true sense of plainsong and Renaissance polyphony sounding through history, if not eternity. When Christ, as the liturgy has it, for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, he certainly did in performance, and with what majesty: I thought momentarily of the Advent hymn, ‘Lo, he comes with clouds descending’. The echoes of early music – in the best rather than the modish sense – sounded still more clearly upon hearing of the mystery of the Incarnation, as did the wonder of the human soloists and Gareth Davies’s transcendent flute. Groves emerged triumphant, or perhaps better as a true celebrant, intoning the climactic ‘Et homo factus est’, the Christian miracle of God become man. Likewise, one felt, almost as if in a Bach Passion, the unbearable agony of Gethsemane and Golgotha upon the word of suffering, ‘Passus’, Beethoven’s profoundest compassion expressed for Christ as man, evoking Fidelio, and yet, extending far beyond even Fidelio. The choral tenors’ shout of Resurrection, the sheer joy of Easter, reaffirmed hope that might have been lost. And yet, strain, partly a consequence of Beethoven’s notorious vocal writing, remained: does he, do we, believe? The uphill sense of struggle, almost a literal expression of ‘ascendit’ and yet of course meaning so much more than that, was valiantly, movingly expressed in the ‘Allegro molto’ section, until we returned to ‘Credo’, in this case, belief in the Holy Ghost. There was a sense of arrival, but also, strongly, that this was but the first foothill in our ascent. I was particularly impressed at the virtually flawless delivery of the sopranos’ cruel soft, high lines upon the words ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’. (Listen to Karajan’s Wiener Singverein should you wish to hear how poorly even a professional chorus can shape up to Beethoven’s demands.) By now, there was a sense of lid being kept on, prior to explosion. And so it came to pass, the movement ending with Klemperian inevitability.

Beethoven marked the Sanctus ‘Mit Andacht’ (‘with devotion’), which is just what we heard, trombones sounding their aequale across the Habsburg centuries. Davis’s mastery of transition was heard to great effect in the difficult section prefacing the calls of ‘Pleni sunt coeli’. The choruses once again sounded as if an angelic host: awe-inspiring, truly thrilling. And then, that extraordinary paradox: the ‘Praeludium’, in which the orchestra sounds almost more like an organ than an organ does (the organ part itself elsewhere being taken excellently by Catherine Edwards). Beethoven’s power of suggestion reminded me here of an instance in the E major piano sonata, op.14 no.1, in which he somehow manages to suggest portamento, writing a passage that would never work as the real thing on the violin. What spiritual inwardness, though, was expressed here: a mystery awaiting revelation, for which the LSO’s lower strings unerringly prepared us, ‘Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini’. Whilst the vocal contribution to the ‘Benedictus’ section was extraordinarily fine, Sarah Connolly’s richness of tone an especial marvel here, and Helena Juntunen, a late replacement for Carmen Giannattasio, also excellent, there was, alas, something of a disappointment to be endured from the all-too-secular sounding violin solo from Gordan Nikolitch. (It sounded and looked like a concerto: I cannot believe that it was a wise decision to have him stand.) That was a pity, but we were soon reconciled in true Handelian grandeur – or what used to be Handelian grandeur before the composer’s capture by ‘authenticity’ – of the ‘Hosanna’.

Finally, the Agnus Dei. Here, Rose impressed, dolorous and at times desperate, the other soloists responding in kind. The horrors of war – human reality as opposed to the human ideal? – terrified without lapsing into the grotesque, as so often they do; I have rarely heard them so integrated into the musical argument, save once again for readings by Klemperer. And there was again a properly Handelian sturdiness to the ‘Dona nobis pacem’. Whether or no there be an actual quotation from Messiah, and it is too readily forgotten just how greatly Beethoven revered Handel, it certainly sounded as if the resemblance to ‘And he shall reign’ was intentional. The performance was crowned, though it was too late, for we had been taken to the abyss. Pacem? Perhaps. In fact, probably not, for this was the most desolate conclusion to the work I have ever heard: desolate, and yet retaining a nobility which might remain our sole hope of peace.

Salzburg Festival (7) - The Makropulos Case, 25 August 2011

Grosses Festspielhaus

Images © Walter Mair/Salzburg Festival

Emilia Marty – Angela Denoke Dr Kolenatý – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Vítek – Peter Hoare
Krista – Jurgita Adamonytė
Albert Gregor – Raymond Very
Jaroslav Prus – Johan Reuter
Janek – Aleš Briscein
Hauk-Šendorf – Ryland Davies
Chambermaid – Linda Ormiston
Conscientious Objector performing Community Service – Peter Lobert

Jin Ling – Sasha Rau
Mary Long – Silvia Fenz
Anita Stadler – Anita Stadler

Christoph Marthaler (director)
Anna Viebrock (designs)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Joachim Rathke (associate director)
Malte Ubenauf (dramaturgy)

Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

My feelings about The Makropulos Case, or perhaps more accurately, my feelings during and after a performance of the work, remain somewhat in flux. Janáček does not pull the heartstrings so consistently as in some of his other works, but of course the coldness of E.M. is part of his point – and, by all accounts, she is treated far more sympathetically than in Karel Čapek’s play. Even more so than, say, Jenůfa or Katya Kabanova, the vocal writing is conversational, the composer’s restraint admirable, even awe-inspiring: there is no more playing to the gallery here than in Pelléas – well, little more. The orchestra, then, plays its role as Wagnerian Greek Chorus. And yet, occasionally, I find that I am missing something: the question is whether that something missing is deliberately absent, whether, again, it is the dramatic point. And more so than those earlier Janáček masterpieces, rather like From the House of the Dead, I find myself reflecting afterwards, and for quite some time afterwards, on what is at stake in the drama. It is, then, an opera that makes one think, but perhaps only truly moves at the end, in the final peroration, both vocal and orchestral, when one finds that very same cyclical affirmation of life in death the composer voices in The Cunning Little Vixen, and arguably as in the earlier cited tragedies too.

Christoph Marthaler’s fine production of Katya Kabanova originated in Salzburg, before making its way to Paris, where I saw it earlier this year. I half expected to see The Makropulos Case similarly transposed to a joyless post-war East European setting, but in many respects, the setting (splendidly designed by Anna Viebrock) is rather ‘traditional’: there is certainly nothing for ‘traditionalists’ to complain about. Unless, that is, one includes the new material with which Marthaler introduces the work: a spoken reflective conversation, not without humour. Themes that will be explored during the work, most obviously the shortness of one’s allotted years, and what alternatives there might be, are adumbrated, without overstaying their welcome. (At least I thought so, though some in the audience seemed restless.) It would seem that there is some degree of reinstatement from Čapek’s play, but I shall leave delineation of that to those better informed. (I wish that I were…) There is even humour, as there is in the opera, concerning the ways of opera singers. Otherwise, one sees a court room, as one would expect, and pretty much in ‘period’, though the voguish practice of employing the same set for each act does lead to confusion: a court room is a bit of an odd place for Marty to succumb to Prus. (Doubtless we are not supposed to understand it that way, but it is a bit odd.) Other touches to either side of the principal room work better. A railway waiting room nicely suggests transience. Whilst I can imagine that some would be irritated by the depiction of a care home – replete with Zivildienstleistender (conscientious objector performing community service: no, I am not making this up) – on the other side of the stage, it aptly suggests the alternative to EM’s immortality. And therefore, as I said, really does make one think: given society’s present treatment of the elderly and infirm, it is by no means clear that one would not give elixir a try. If Christopher Alden’s ENO production probably made more of an immediate (stylish) impression on me when I saw it the first time, it began to irritate the second time around; it is probably fair to say that Marthaler’s production has made me think more, especially after the event. One would hardly expect Marthaler to play the work for laughs, and we can be grateful that he does not.

Angela Denoke performs estimably in the title role. It would be possible to castigate infelicities of tuning, for this, as one might have expected, was a performance very much in the ‘singing actress’ mould. However, such faults seemed to matter little, given the burning heat of her performance. Indeed, one could understand them, even if they were not intended this way, as contributing to the drama between aspiration to perfection and the frailty of flesh. Denoke held the vast stage of the Grosse Festspielhaus as her own, and rightly so. She was in every respect preferable to ENO’s Amanda Roocroft, though Cheryl Barker, on the first London run, was perhaps equally fine. I am rather surprised, however, to report that the other parts were more consistently cast in London (despite, of course, the gross handicap of singing in translation). Peter Hoare, for instance, was a much stronger Gregor than Salzburg’s dry-sounding Raymond Very; curiously, Hoare here movingly sang the role of Vítek. Aleš Briscein and Johan Reuter also just about stood out, though I have heard both singers to greater effect elsewhere. For there was a touch of anonymity to the general company, a surprising sense of routine, not to be exaggerated, but equally not the most memorable of Salzburg performances.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting of the Vienna Philharmonic proved somewhat disappointing. Though there were times when the orchestra sounded predictably gorgeous – and, unlike some, I really do not mind that in Janáček – one also had to reckon with a few too many loose threads, whether in terms of smudged and even missed entries, or a general lack of rhythmic bite, such as Sir Charles Mackerras and Sir Richard Armstrong both brought to the score in London. The VPO certainly can play this music; it did so memorably for Mackerras, amongst others. Here, however, it sometimes sounded as if Janáček were new and slightly unwelcome territory. Salonen seemed unwilling or unable to control the orchestra as he might have done, indeed perhaps to be still less in sympathy with Janáček’s music, the score somehow meandering aggressively, at least until the final act. Lack of tautness and indeed of formal perception went hand in hand with a tendency to play with loud indifference. Perhaps that is unduly harsh, but I expected great, or at least very good, things, and did not hear them. To my surprise, then, it proved to be Marthaler’s night rather than Salonen’s, though it was at least as much Denoke’s.