Sunday 30 October 2011

Lulu, Opéra national de Paris, 28 October 2011

Opéra Bastille

Lulu – Laura Aikin
Countess Geschwitz – Jennifer Larmore
Dresser, Schoolboy, Groom – Andrea Hill
Painter, Negro – Marlin Miller
Dr Schön, Jack the Ripper – Wolfgang Schöne
Alwa – Kurt Streit
Schigolch – Franz Grundheber
Animal Tamer, Athlete – Scott Wilde
Prince, Manservant, Marquis – Robert Wörle
Theatre Director, Banker – Victor von Halem
Fifteen-year old girl – Julie Mathevet
Girl’s Mother – Marie-Thérèse Keller
Artist – Marianne Crebassa
Journalist – Damien Pass
Professor of Medicine, Professor, Police Officer – Johannes Koegel-Dorfs
Servant – Ugo Rabec

Willy Decker (director)
Wolfgang Gussmann (designs)
Hans Toelstede (lighting)

Orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris
Michael Schønwandt (conductor)

Lulu in Paris: one immediately thinks of the first performance of the full work, as realised by Friedrich Cerha. What it must have been to be present at the Palais Garnier when an opera hitherto known only through its first two acts (and the Lulu-Suite) finally saw the light of day, conducted by Pierre Boulez and directed by Patrice Chéreau. Bafflingly, Chéreau’s production seems never to have been revived, being supplanted in 1998 by Willy Decker’s staging for the Paris Opéra, now at the Bastille, here revived for the first time.

There is no initial curtain, so one is immediately confronted with Wolfgang Gussmann’s set, in which a stage of sorts is viewed by something akin to an amphitheatre above. Sometimes, there are people watching the events onstage, sometimes not; they are nearly always men. A red stepladder forms the initial circus-like – remember the Prologue with the Animal Tamer – setting for Lulu to be observed and manhandled. Ladders prove important throughout, not least in permitting some degree of movement between the ‘audience’ and ‘stage’: the final scene with Jack the Ripper has several. The focal point for the scene with the Painter is a sofa in the form of red lips, stylishly evoking, like much else, a vague sense of design-led era and also reminding us that this is often as much the blackest of comedies as it is tragedy. (Contrast with Wozzeck is instructive.) Gussmann’s designs – costumes and hairstyles in particular – look strikingly similar to those for Decker’s well-travelled staging of Die tote Stadt, which I saw in Salzburg, as strong a case as is ever likely to be made for a rather overblown, more than a little ridiculous work. But this Lulu of course came first – and the style is certainly appropriate. Serried mannequins in the final scene of the first act are a splendid touch of artificiality as well as an opportunity for an existentially bored Lulu to select her latest performing outfit.

One only has to recall Christof Loy’s dreadful ‘minimalism’ for the Royal Opera – in which no one and nothing were distinguished from anybody and anywhere else, Berg’s carefully-crafted parallelism coming to naught – to appreciate this lively, colourful setting in which the drama could be understood and experienced in all its bewitching variety. It does not especially matter where the different scenes are set, but there needs to be a sense of difference – which there is here. Loy achieved what one might have thought impossible, to render Lulu boring – with considerable help from a conductor, Antonio Pappano, utterly at sea with Berg’s music – but Decker draws one in, paints a picture but allows one to imagine and to think as well. Mention of the picture reminds us that, unlike at Covent Garden, there is one, into which – a very nice touch this – Lulu blends at the end. Likewise, there is, crucially, a sofa on which Lulu can chillingly remind Alwa of his father’s death. (The absence of any such props, or substitutes, simply made nonsense of the work in Loy’s hands.) And the phalanx of men all drawing their knifes upon Lulu at the end makes still more explicit what has been apparent all along.

Michael Schønwandt led a very good account of the score: perhaps not quite revelatory– we can listen to Boulez for that – but unfailing alert to the longer line as well as to the ever-shifting balances between the myriad orchestral voices. If I regretted somewhat the lack of film for the palindrome turning-point – why is it that directors, often so eager to use film in quite unnecessary places, seem reluctant to do so where it is actually stipulated? – the black curtain had the beneficial consequence of allowing one only to listen. It is testament to Schønwandt’s formal control that Berg’s design was searingly audible, with all the dramatic implications that follow. Another interesting point made was the closeness of the music for Lulu’s appearance in that act, before the scene with Alwa, to that of Gurrelieder, for which Berg of course provided the vocal score and an introductory thematic guide. Schønwandt and the excellent orchestra conjured up a golden yet darkly Teutonic sound quite in keeping with such references. Indeed, the orchestra was on splendid form throughout, strings silken and woodwind quite delectable.

Laura Aikin’s performance in the title role was in most respects excellent. Except for a couple of lines in the Paris scene, in which I could hear nothing at all, as if she were miming, she had the necessary stamina. If I were to quibble, I might say that her German, both sung and especially spoken, was a little too American-accented, but I should not wish to exaggerate. There was also the issue of presenting a relatively mature Lulu: the eternal childlike aspect of the character was often downplayed. (I am sure that it could be made to work, and indeed could truly intrigue, but it would require more appropriate direction.) In the first scene of the second act, Lulu seemed a little too comfortable as Hausfrau of the Schön residence. Wolfgang Schöne’s Dr Schön – what’s in a name? – was better acted than sung: the vocal performance had its moments, but dryness of tone inevitably led one to invidious comparisons with earlier performers such as Fischer-Dieskau. Kurt Streit was an impressive Alwa, thoughtful yet also honeyed of tone, the composer’s self-portrayal tugging the heartstrings as it should. Jennifer Larmore seems to have made the role of Geschwitz her own for the moment: hers once again was a moving portrayal, melding words and music together with beauty and meaning. As for Franz Grundheber’s superlative rasping and grasping Schigolch, I can only repeat what I said about his performance of the role in Salzburg last year: it was in the Norman Bailey class. Scott Wilde made a strong impression, both virile and humorous, as Animal Tamer and Athlete. Marlin Miller offered a finely observed Painter, not least in terms of uncommonly sweet-toned vocalism. What a delight it was also to welcome back the veteran Victor von Halem as Theatre Director and Banker, quite in his element as both.

Whatever misgivings I may have voiced about certain aspects of this performance, the ultimate truth lay in the work emerging once again as a towering masterpiece. Contrast that with Loy and Pappano at Covent Garden, who contrived to make Lulu neither look nor sound recognisable, or even comprehensible, let alone great: had that been the only Lulu of one’s life, one would most likely have wondered what all the fuss was about. Lulu in Paris continued to enchant, to disturb, to make one think.

Bronfman/Philharmonia/Salonen: Bartók, 27 October 2011

Royal Festival Hall, London

Suite: The Wooden Prince
Dance Suite
Piano Concerto no.2

Yefim Bronfman (piano)
Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay (violin)
Mark van de Wiel (clarinet).

The penultimate concert in the Philharmonia’s series, ‘Infernal Dance: Inside the World of Béla Bartók’ maintained, indeed built upon, the high standards heard earlier this year: Esa-Pekka Salonen really seems to be in his element in Bartók’s music, as does the Philharmonia. First off was Contrasts, for which soloist Yefim Bronfman joined the orchestra’s leader, Zsolt-Tihamér Visontay and principal clarinettist, Mark van de Wiel in a true chamber-music performance. Balance between the players was as finely judged as that between slinkiness – as Malcom Gillies put it in his programme note, ‘creative reinterpretation of [commissioner Benny] Goodman’s musicianship, deliciously filtered through Bartók’s remarkable ethnomusicological ear’ – and echt-modernist Bartókian rhythm. From the first movement onwards, musical kinship with composers such as Prokofiev and Ravel (I thought especially of the latter’s violin sonata) was in evidence, likewise a real sense of the three musicians as dramatic protagonists. The clarinet cadenza was superbly despatched. Mystery was struck from the outset of the second movement, ‘Pihenő’ (‘Relaxation’), its bitter-sweetness properly touching, violin harmonics and subdued piano rumbling – casting a glance backward to the First Piano Concerto – exemplary, the music’s growing intricacies finely charted. Visontay’s violin set the pace for the others in the third movement’s diabolical drama – I was put in mind of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale – though van de Wiel’s clarinet riffs sounded every bit as impressive, likewise the softer, creepier passages, which emerged both menacing of full of delight in the composer’s fabulous musical invention.

The 1932 suite from The Wooden Prince followed, perhaps for me the highlight of the concert. Bartók’s Prelude evoked Nature’s Rheingold-style awakening more evocatively than one had any right to imagine. The music grew with great cumulative power, magnificent orchestral weight, and Ravelian colouristic fantasy in more or less perfect equipoise. Salonen did not lose sight of the ballet; one could certainly picture the music being danced to, though alas it would be unlikely to sound anything like as good as this in a danced performance. The dances were all characterised by sharp rhythmic profile, with some especially splendid brass playing, but the fantastic realm vied equally for attention, a Szymanowski-like magic carpet brought before our ears. Both luxuriant warmth and the more forward-looking elements of the score were equally apparent; even the celesta hinted at the Music for Strings. If only we could have heard the entire ballet from these musicians: maybe another time…

The Dance Suite opened almost as if pure rhythm, gradually melodised, as it were, by Amy Harman’s superb bassoon solo, Bartók’s far-from-easy piano part – I remember playing it in a student performance a few years ago – in the highly capable hands of guest principal, Elizabeth Burley. More wistful moments, in the first movement and elsewhere, displayed Salonen’s astute distinction between sentiment and sentimentality. The third dance, ‘Allegro vivace’, was taken at a considerable pace, yet seemed just right – as Bartók must. (That one need not slavishly follow his metronome markings is illustrated by his own performances, yet the tempo has to sound as though it is the only one possible.) Rhythmic precision and depth of string tone distinguished a fine performance throughout.

Bronfman returned to the stage for the Second Piano Concerto, the first movement’s solo part immediately pounding and implacable, yet equally notable in dialogue with wind – the Philharmonia brass especially – and percussion. Bronfman imparted clarity as well as power, permitting Bartók’s Bachian heritage to shine through. Silent during the first movement, strings at the outset of the second sounded anything but lush, Bartók’s glassy alienation arguably going further than ever Stravinsky dared; the piano could therefore not only respond coolly, but had ample opportunity to grow in intensity. Lively, even helter-skelter episodes were not purchased at the cost of bite, though I occasionally wondered whether it was all a little too unremitting. (One might with justice respond that so the music should be.) The finale united the virtues of both earlier movements, never losing sight of Bartók’s profusion of lyricism. Bronfman’s Romantic manner was arguably not always quite to be identified with Salonen’s more modernistic impulse, but the slight tension proved productive rather than glaring.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Book Review: Peter Conrad, 'Verdi and/or Wagner'

This review originally appeared here for Times Higher Education.

Verdi and/or Wagner: Two Men, Two Worlds, Two Centuries

By Peter Conrad
Thames Hudson, 384 pp., £24.95
ISBN 978 0 500 515938
Published 24 October 2011

“Fafner und Siegfried, Siegfried und Fafner,” sings Mime in Siegfried, gleefully anticipating the deaths of both. Perhaps there are a few (Baroque- and/or contemporary-inclined?) opera-lovers who long for the twilight of “Verdi und Wagner”; many more, however, would elevate one composer born in 1813 above the other. Peter Conrad addresses that constituency on behalf of those adapting the “und” from Tristan und Isolde to unite twin peaks of nineteenth-century opera.

Conrad opens with an arresting image of two, separated busts in Venice’s Giardini Pubblici. However, the anticipated union never quite materialises, though we take in amusing vignettes such as George Bernard Shaw suggesting that Henri Bergson, champion of instinct over intelligence, direct Il trovatore. Indeed, tales of reception often prove more illuminating than treatment of life and work. Conrad barely addresses the music beyond descriptions such as “a yelping exchange of high notes, including two high Cs from Isolde”: a serious drawback when discussing men who were first and foremost composers. It is notoriously difficult to write about music, its structure, and its meaning for non-musicians; it remains necessary to try.

Sometimes the comparative framework drives Conrad too hard to discern discrepancy, agreement concerning a sunken orchestral pit coming to indicate a practical-mystical distinction. Verdi’s description of “musicians in tailcoats and white ties […] jumbled in the sightline with the Egyptians, Assyrians or Druids onstage,” as “absurd,” actually complements utterances from Wagner, who, steeped in German idealism, unsurprisingly cast his argument in more metaphysical terms. Farther-flung comparisons seem strained: “Siegfried imitates … [the Woodbird’s] song, like Rameau who mimicked a hen’s pecking …, or Messiaen … in his Catalogue d’oiseaux.” What to conclude, beyond the likelihood that the writer also knows two French composers? More seriously, there is misrepresentation in an unspecified connection posited between the necessity of fundraising and Conrad’s claim that “Wagner was no anarchist”. For a crucial period of his life, “anarchist” justly describes this reader of Proudhon and comrade-in-arms of Bakunin. Verdi’s counterpointed, reluctant participation in Italian civic life has no bearing on that either way.

Listing substitutes for true analysis and argument. Comparisons come thick and fast, often arbitrary, even somewhat homespun: “Verdi’s longing was for rootedness, stability, not the heaving Wagnerian flux that gave [Eduard] Hanslick qualms.” For all Conrad’s undeniable richness of reference, we expect more than a final acknowledgement that the Venetian statues will never quite exchange glances.

The scales, moreover, are persistently tilted towards “humanist” Verdi: “Wagner was a drug, … Verdi … a tonic.” Verdi’s music “is good for us”; Wagner’s is, contra Nietzsche, simply not harmful. Whereas Verdi addresses love, Wagner trades in (mere) eroticism, though Tristan surely stands after Così fan tutte as the most devastating indictment of Romantic love. Even Verdi’s viewing opera as the means to transform self-styled peasant – his father was an innkeeper – into millionaire is preferred to Wagner’s revolutionary-socialist opposition to capitalism. Moreover, Wagner “had no shame” in asking others for money, yet Verdi’s “respect for avarice in others” was “healthy”.

Pretence at balance vanishes with generalisations such as: “Germans are troubled by Wagner because they feel disgraced by him. Italians are troubled by Verdi for a different reason: they feel unworthy of him.” Clearly Conrad and I know different Germans. Often “troubled”, certainly “problematised”, but “disgraced”? Even smaller German companies are moved to stage Wagner more regularly than our British houses, so in thrall to Verdi and Italian opera.

Conrad is entitled to weigh Wagner in the balance and find him wanting. Impartiality may prove not only impossible but undesirable – or worse, uninteresting. Doubting Thomases from either camp remain unlikely to be convinced.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Letter published in International Record Review, November 2011 edition

Dear Madam,

Robert Matthew-Walker opens his review (October 2011) of Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s recording of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, proclaiming: ‘It is upsetting that confusion continues to exist regarding the correct middle movement order of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.’ It is doubtless a matter of regret that RM-W should feel upset, though his intemperate closing dismissal of Saraste’s favoured movement-order as ‘wrong’ might lessen the sympathy of some uncharitable souls. This is not the only place in which the writer has expounded at considerable length about the absolute rightness of his chosen cause. He is perfectly entitled to his preference, but he might possibly garner a few more converts, were he to recognise that the distinction he posits between ‘facts’ and ‘opinions’ remains both philosophically and historically questionable. Let us leave philosophy behind for the moment, except to note that nineteenth-century positivism does not yet seem ripe for an intellectual comeback.

More importantly, the arguments put forward by Henry-Louis de la Grange, one of the most distinguished Mahler scholars of our or any other time, for the opposing movement-order of Scherzo-Andante are simply ignored, in favour of an ex cathedra pronouncement from Reinhold Kubik, current chief editor of the Mahler Complete Critical Edition, should ‘settle’ the matter ‘once and for all’. Kubik’s Critical Edition, it may be noted, includes Sander Wilkens’s widely-ridiculed decision to assign the celebrated double bass solo of the First Symphony’s third movement to the entire double bass section, something against which any listener’s ears might have counselled.

More importantly still – and this is a trait common amongst members of the Andante-Scherzo Taliban, motto ‘No dissent brooked’ – RM-W makes no reference whatsoever to the evidence of our ears as listeners and our eyes as analysts – and our minds as both. For me, whatever the ‘truths’ of what Mahler might or might not have said to Mengelberg and so forth, the proof of the pudding lies in not yet having been convinced by a performance of the Sixth that adopted RM-W's preferred order. He has sneered elsewhere that Erwin Ratz, Kubik’s predecessor, ‘was not a scholar, nor an historian, but an analyst,’ whereas experience informs some of us at least that the three roles are not necessarily mutually exclusive and may even support one another. It will not surprise the reader to be reminded that Ratz’s preference was for Scherzo-Andante. Of what is it that RM-W et al. are so afraid? That our eyes and ears, alert to the devastating tonal and dramatic impact of placing the intensifying Scherzo immediately after the first movement, might help us to make up our own minds? For rarely do proponents of Andante-Scherzo offer any musical arguments to support their case. What of other present-day conductors as different as Pierre Boulez, Michael Gielen, and Bernard Haitink? Are they and their performances to be dismissed quite so peremptorily, whether ‘right’, ‘wrong’, or God forbid, just ‘different’? I make no secret of my preference to date for Scherzo-Andante, but am perfectly willing to be convinced otherwise; why would anyone wish to silence discussion in the way that RM-W and others imply?

Yours etc. ...

Robert Matthew-Walker's response to my letter may be found in the same edition of IRR. Click here for the journal's website.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Castor et Pollux, English National Opera, 24 October 2011

The Coliseum

(sung in English, as Castor and Pollux)

Telaïre (Sophie Bevan) and Castor (Allan Clayton)
Image: Charlotte van Berckel
Telaïre – Sophie Bevan
Phébé – Laura Tatulescu
Castor – Allan Clayton
Pollux – Roderick Williams
Jupiter – Henry Waddington
High Priest of Jupiter – Andrew Rupp
Mercury/Athlete – Ed Lyon

Barrie Kosky (director)
Katrin Lea Tag (designs)
Franck Evin (lighting)
Ulrich Lenz (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Merry)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Christian Curnyn (conductor)

My first Rameau opera in the theatre – and certainly not out of indifference: even Gluck, Rameau’s great and scandalously-neglected successor, fares better than the composer of Castor et Pollux. In recent years, I have enthusiastically – at least, I hope so – spoken to undergraduates of works such as Hippolyte et Aricie and Le Temple de la gloire, yet have never previously been able to point to actually, existing performance they might attend. ENO has never previously performed an opera by Rameau; the Royal Opera has staged Platée, once. The problem is not England's alone: German houses are little better, and as for Italy, let alone further afield... France, as one might expect, does a little better, though Rameau has been well and truly captured in his homeland by those Pierre Boulez so memorably dubbed ‘specialists in nullity’. There once were exceptions, whether French or foreign: for instance, Roger Désormière, Hans Rosbaud, Sir Antony Lewis, and Raymond Leppard (who conducted Monteverdi but not Rameau at Sadler’s Wells and Glyndebourne, yet led a memorable Dardanus in Paris). Boulez himself conducted Hippolyte et Aricie in concert in 1964. But those days are long distant. Where the music has more recently been performed, it has largely been confined either to those who inclined to unpleasant-sounding pseudo-archaeology, or to those who would trivialise the French Baroque by treating it as merely fanciful spectacle, perhaps to be ‘updated’, but hardly to be taken seriously as drama. I was intrigued, then, to see what Barry Kosky, whose Abu Ghraib-style Iphigénie en Tauride I so greatly admired in Berlin, would make of Castor et Pollux, and also how the ENO Orchestra, ‘Baroque’ bows and flutes notwithstanding, would fare.

Pollux (Roderick Williams) and actors
Image: Alastair Muir

Let us consider the production first. Kosky says many of the right things – and some more questionable things – in a programme interview. In the former camp we read ‘firstly – and as with all of my productions – I have to understand the architecture of the music,’ whilst in the latter, he claims, ‘what you have to do is “de-Frenchify”’ Rameau. The problem concerning the former remark is that, whatever the intent, the architecture rarely comes across in terms of what one sees on stage. Perhaps the greatest problem concerns the ballet music, of which there is a great deal, Rameau taking dance every bit as seriously as Tchaikovsky as a force for dramatic expression. Kosky’s handling works better when the dances are simply the background for something else taking place on stage. However, movement that veered closer to dance – why not collaborate with a ballet company? – tends to be merely embarrassing, the faux disco-dancing in the opening scene an apparent nadir, to be trumped by poor Télaïre’s running round and round the stage in a circle at the end. She even has to continue when the music had stopped, this far from the only instance in which noisy stage business threatens to drown out the music, a strange way of responding to the latter. That is a pity, since Katrin Lea Tag’s designs are stylish, at least, and ought to have provided a setting for the human drama upon which Kosky seems to have wished to focus. (Though here, of course, we come across a perennial problem: what, then, to make of the gods?) The creatures of Hades are weird and wonderful too, a fine example of how one might engender both Baroque fantasy in a modern yet not effete sense.

Image: Alastair Muir

Kosky seems keen to play up the role of the women, Télaïre and Phébé. He praises the 1754 version of the opera – essentially that which is used, though some numbers from Rameau’s earlier score are interpolated – for dealing more interestingly with them. Fair enough, but the extra emphasis placed upon them, that final scene for instance, tends to unbalance the drama, which should probably be more focused upon Castor and Pollux. Perhaps surprisingly, there is no hint of the homoerotic in their relationship – Kosky resolutely avoids that in his Iphigénie en Tauride too – but a great deal of sexual experience for the sisters, much of which comes across as merely silly. A hand emerging from Castor’s burial mound – consider that, Dr Freud – acts as a tool of pleasure for a while, until even the recipient tires of it. (We had done so quite some time before.) Underwear is a particular interest: a couple of actresses have an apparently endless supply, constantly shedding it, only to reveal more underneath. Many others end up walking around aimlessly with underwear around their ankles: at one point, the stage resembles a class for mature potty-training. One would have to be possessed by rather unusual tastes to find any of those goings-on erotic in the slightest. I was left longing either for a more ‘conventional’ production or for the likes of Calixto Bieito.

Castor and Telaïre on the burial mound
Image: Alastair Muir

Christian Curnyn led a lively, varied account of the score, despite a few lapses in ensemble. Dances were well pointed, the drum beat especially welcome. There was rightly no rigid distinction made between air and recitative: in that respect, Rameau is already close to Gluck, to the Mozart of Idomeneo, even to Berlioz. I longed for a little more warmth from the strings: is vibrato that abhorrent an instrument of expression? Eighteenth-century writers certainly did not think so. There was, however, much to enjoy from the woodwind contribution, not least the splendidly Gallic-sounding bassoons. A nod was made to the size of the Coliseum in raising the pit, but the music would have benefited further from a more sizeable band, one of the peculiarities of contemporary Rameau performance being a refusal – financially-motivated? – to recognise the size of orchestra he, let alone modern houses, expected. The singing was, with one exception, excellent, the finest aspect of the performance. That exception was the chorus, which time and time again fell glaringly out of sync with the pit. Whether this were the fault of conductor, chorus, unreasonable directorial demands, or a combination of the three, was difficult to tell, but it was a repeated blemish impossible to ignore.

Mercury (Ed Lyon) and Pollux
Image: Charlotte von Berckel
The soloists, though, managed to make as fine a case for Rameau in English as one has any right to expect, Amanda Holden’s sensitive translation happily assisting. It would be absurd to claim that there is no loss, just as it would be with performances of Racine, Corneille, and Molière, for the vocal writing is so tied not only to the sounds – and endings – of the French language but also to its very particular declamatory style. Yet not only did the cast deliver the words with conviction, we heard a real effort to nudge the English sounds in a way that blended with the notes on the page. Allan Clayton’s Castor sounded as if a true haute-contre, a remarkable achievement by any standards. Roderick Williams was outstanding as ever as Pollux, his tone as seamlessly adapted to the composer’s style as if he were a French bassoonist, his diction beyond reproach. Sophie Bevan and Laura Tatulescu portrayed the sisters as if they had been performing Rameau all their lives, natural ebb and flow hand in hand with dramatic commitment. Ed Lyon surmounted the weird limping handicap of Kosky’s direction to emerge an epitome of vocal style, neither precious nor overblown, but elegant and dramatically ambivalent. Henry Waddington and Andrew Rupp both impressed in their roles too. For once, there really was not a weak link in the cast.

Phébé (Laura Tatulescu), Telaïre, and Pollux
Image: Alastair Muir

Whatever the shortcomings of Kosky’s production, it is a wonderful thing to see – and more importantly, to hear – Rameau at the Coliseum. One can but hope that this will prove a turning point, not only with respect to Rameau but also to predecessors such as Lully and Charpentier. Tragédie lyrique is in so many respects truer than high Baroque opera seria to modern dramatic sensibilities that the current prevalence of the latter, at least in Handelian guise, is mystifying. (It is not, of course, that Handel is not a great composer, but oratorio form generally permitted his musico-dramatic genius to blaze far more strongly.) It would nevertheless be gratifying if future stagings might take more seriously the particularity and ingenuity Ramellian musical construction. Boulez said in an interview prior to the aforementioned concert performance of Hippolyte et Aricie that what he found ‘most interesting’ in the work was ‘the tragic side (not the mythology), together with the choruses and great flexibility of the construction. I love composers who construct their music.’ Messiaen, also present, commented, in what must have sounded very much rather like the proverbial red rag to the bull, ‘Basically, you have very French tastes.’ Messiaen’s star pupil most likely erred in claiming ‘this style of opera’ to be ‘terribly dated’, but a sympathetic approach, both on stage and in the pit, remains vital – in every sense.

Sunday 23 October 2011

And as ENO prepares to stage its first ever Rameau opera...

... Castor et Pollux, opening night tomorrow, here are a couple of excerpts ancient and modern. The first comes from the work's predecessor, Hippolyte et Aricie, conducted by that great pioneer, Roger Désormière:

The second is taken from Castor et Pollux itself, hailing from what may be an unexpected yet welcome quarter. Bruno Procopio conducts the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela:

As for the staging, let us hope that it will stand closer to Barrie Kosky's brilliant Iphigénie en Tauride than to his dreadful Marriage of Figaro...

As Liszt enters his third century...

... a less piano-centric selection.

From the oratorio Christus, which many of us had hoped would surface in London this year:

Written many years before Siegfried's Funeral March:

The 'Benedictus' from the Hungarian Coronation Mass:

Gundula Janowitz weaves her inimitable magic with this Herwegh setting:

A single representative from his large body of work for organ (four volumes in the Hungarian edition from which I used to play), played by Dame Gillian Weir:

But it is only right to return to music for piano solo at the end:

Saturday 22 October 2011

Letter to the Editor of 'The Times' (published 24 October 2011)


I was puzzled to read, in Geoff Brown’s review (21 October) of the recent recording of Liszt’s piano concertos by Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez, that, ‘before this year’s anniversary celebrations, Pierre Boulez kept well away from conducting the scores.’ Liszt is badly served by many conductors and even, beyond a few works, by many pianists, but Boulez has long been a champion. In his first season as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, he programmed no fewer than five works by Liszt, the 1971 opening concert featuring Totentanz, with Jorge Bolet as soloist, the second introducing Malédiction, and the third given over entirely to The Legend of St Elisabeth, a work scandalously absent from London halls. The second concerto has received at least one outing, with André Watts in 1974, prior to the present tour with Barenboim. Boulez has directed performances of another of the oratorios, Via crucis, both in New York and in Paris. For the centenary of Wagner’s death in 1983, Boulez presented in a special Bayreuth concert not only Wagner’s Siegfried-Idyll, but also Liszt’s late symphonic poem, Von der Wiege bis zum Grabe. Those examples are indicative rather than exhaustive. There is every reason to lament posterity’s treatment of one of the most visionary nineteenth-century composers, but such advocacy should be lauded rather than denied.

I remain, Sir, your most obedient servant,

Mark Berry


(And some people still wonder why most of us do not believe a word we read in the newspapers...)

Happy Birthday, Franz Liszt!

Two hundred years old today, yet both as youthful and as woefully misunderstood as ever... Click here for some thoughts on that matter. In the meantime, here is the truly legendary recording of the First Piano Concerto from Sviatoslav Richter, Kyrill Kondrashin, and the LSO, all on incendiary form:

Here is Krystian Zimerman, exquisite in the late, visionary, Nuages gris, so greatly admired by Debussy and Stravinsky:

That philosopher-king amongst pianists, Claudio Arrau - it is only puritanical arrivistes who disdain Liszt's music - performs the fourth Transcendental Study, 'Mazeppa':

And finally, on film, Arthur Rubinstein in the third Liebestraum. Sound leaves something to be desired, but listen through the distortion and the rewards are great:

Janáček Theatre, Brno: Plea for Support

It is a wearily familiar tale: under the guise of reconstruction, a much beloved opera company faces extinction. (Remember New Labour's vicious early assault upon the Royal Opera, thwarted at the last by Bernard Haitink's public appeal?) The Janáček Theatre in Brno faces at best an uncertain future as its ensemble is suspended. Please consider signing a petition in protest: click here for details and for the English version of the petition.

Hvorostovsky/Ilja - Fauré, Taneyev, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky, 21 October 2011

Barbican Hall

Fauré – Automne, op.18 no.3
Sylvie, op.6 no.3
Après un rêve, op.7 no.1
Fleur jetée, op.39 no.2
Taneyev – All are sleeping, op.17 no.10
Menuet, op.26 no.9
Not the wind, blowing from the heights, op.17 no.5
The winter road, op.32 no.4
Stalactites, op.26 no.6
The restless heart is beating, op.17 no.9
Liszt – Oh! quand je dors, S.282
Sonetti del Petrarca, S.270/1 and 3
Tchaikovsky – Six Romances, op.73

Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
Ivari Ilja (piano)

This was in some ways rather a strange ‘event’. It is not entirely unheard of for a singer to be the main attraction in a song recital, but I have never seen it illustrated to the extent that the singer was allotted his own ‘solo’ bow whilst his poor companion stayed offstage. That was clearly what Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s fans wanted, however, for they reserved their greatest applause for that moment – even more than when they ruined the conclusion of Liszt’s first Petrarch Sonnet by pre-emptively applauding so as to obliterate the final piano chords. An equal annoyance was the insistence upon applauding after every song, worst of all during the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Six Romances, op.73. But there was clearly no reflection from such listeners; they simply wanted to applaud and then to hear the next number. Hvorostovsky did not of course invite such behaviour directly; nor, however, did he entirely discourage it. Granting encores, he veered dangerously close to the manner of a cruise-line crooner. Moreover, his general bearing was often more that of a singer delivering a recital of arias rather than of song. His figure-hugging suit and matinée idol looks doubtless contributed to the hysteria: he certainly has an excellent line in smouldering, impassive stance .

Much of that is a great pity, for Hvorostovsky is a fine singer, who deserves to be heard as such. Admittedly, the opening Fauré group was odd. One can certainly respect Hvorostovsky's journey outside the comfort zone: this is someone who could undoubtedly satisfy, even inspire, audiences if he never strayed from Russian song. By the same token, however, one cannot ignore the weirdness of idiom. This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, very Russian-inflected, or rather Russian-accented, Fauré, not just in terms of pronunciation, though there were some very odd vowel sounds indeed, but also in terms of style and general tone. Pianist, Ivari Ilja to a certain extent followed suit. Indeed, I should not have been surprised to hear that the opening Automne had been written by Tchaikovsky. Sylvie was lighter, both in vocal and pianistic terms; Ilja handled Fauré’s modulations particularly well. Yet it was unclear that the words meant anything very much in performance, an impression underlined by Hvorostovsky’s broad grin at the end, when the words read – one could not necessarily hear them – ‘Tout pour mon cœur n’est que douleur!’ Après un rêve was more operatic than one might expect, but could take it (just about), and there was a splendid sense of anger to the closing Fleur jetée, though some words were again simply incomprehensible. The piano part was despatched in grandly Romantic fashion: impressive, if not quite what Fauré might have expected, even in this, somewhat atypical song.

The Taneyev group fared much better. Although Hvorostovsky really only came into his own in the second song, there was already  in the opening All are sleeping a marked improvement in terms of idiom. The Menuet benefited greatly from the classicising quality imparted to its opening by Ilja (not entirely unlike M. Triquet in Eugene Onegin). Both artists properly darkened their tone for the fourth and fifth stanzas, in which the mood of the ball is disrupted, and presented a fine portrayal of disintegration thereafter. This is really rather an interesting song – at least on a first hearing. Hvorostovsky’s gift for characterisation, even when of a stock nature, was on display recounting the timid gaze that shone with a tear. Not the wind, blowing from the heights proved a charming interlude prior to the cold urgency with which the striking song, The winter road, was brought to our attention. Though Hvorostovsky’s tone could sometimes harden, it really did not matter. Stalactites – I cannot imagine there are many vocal treatments of the theme – seared itself into the consciousness through the fine performance of the piano part, its downward freezing patterns highly evocative. (Were one to need reminding of the difference between stalactites and stalagmites, this would be a useful aide-mémoire.) Operatic urgency told in The restless heart is beating: the heart was clearly restless – and relentless – indeed. Taneyev emerged here as a considerably more interesting composer than his chamber music suggests.

That said, there was no doubting the rise in temperature occasioned after the interval by the arrival of Liszt. Hvorostovsky’s French sounded somewhat improved in Oh! quand je dors, but it was in the two Petrarch Sonnets that he truly shone. (What a pity we could not have heard all three!) His Italian was much better than his French, but more important still was the Romantically impassioned, at times almost Wagnerian, quality he imparted to delivery of words and music. There was the occasional coarseness to climaxes, notably in the first stanza of ‘Pace non trovo’, but the proof of the pudding lay in being reminded what magnificent songs these are. I really did not mind them being more or less transformed into arias, save for the aforementioned applause. Even the occasional slip concerning the words – something very odd happened in the final line of ‘I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi’ was of relatively minor importance.

Finally came the enchanting set of Tchaikovsky romances. It was clear from the outset that both singer and pianist had command both of form and of that ineffable Tchaikovskian sadness, though it was unpardonable that the ending of ‘We sat together’ was compelled to compete with a mobile telephone for attention. ‘Night’ was especially impressive, the lugubrious piano introduction truly foreshadowing the intensifying words that followed; ‘The candle is flickering…/The gloomy darkness fermenting …/And my heart is being squeezed/so mysteriously by sorrow…’. ‘On this moonlit night’ was performed with grand sweep, almost as if in a single breath, whilst ‘The sun has set’ was genuinely moving, clearly heartfelt. The final ‘Again, as before, alone’ was darkly tragic, marked by a painful tread of regret that would not have been out of place in the ‘Pathétique’ Symphony.

There was a very odd claim, however, in Christopher Cook’s programme note that ‘Tchaikovsky’s ear was as much tin as Richard Strauss’s when it came to poetry!’ Having almost no Russian myself, I cannot comment when it comes to Tchaikovsky’s choice of verse, though surely his use of Pushkin was not entirely arbitrary. However, it seems to me a bizarre claim in the case of Strauss: it would be almost impossible to find a better-read composer. But then, Cook’s assessment of Liszt – ‘here is a composer who reminds us that you can change your national style as easily as exchanging a silk shirt for the Abbé’s soutane – was at least as misleading.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Der fliegende Holländer, Royal Opera, 18 October 2011

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Images © The Royal Opera / Mike Hoban
The Dutchman (Egils Silins)
The Dutchman – Egils Silins
Senta - Anja Kampe
Daland – Stephen Milling
Steersman – John Tessier
Mary – Clare Shearer
Erik – Endrik Wottrich

Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Jeffrey Tate (conductor)

Tim Albery (director)
Michael Levine (set designs)
Constance Hoffman (costumes)
David Finn (lighting)
Philippe Giraudeau (movement)

Tim Albery’s production of The Flying Dutchman, first seen in 2009, now returns to the Royal Opera for a run of six performances, of which this was the first. It remains a wasted opportunity on stage, but irritated me less than last time. (Since the production team did not appear on stage, I assume that it was entrusted to a house revival director: ironically, then, it comes across better than it did before.) In musical terms, the performance proved preferable too, if nevertheless mixed in quality.

Senta (Anja Kampe) and Erik (Endrik Wottrich)
As so often, much depends on where one is seated. Last time, from the Balcony, I found the ‘sole virtue’ of the production to have been during the Overture, ‘with a surprisingly effective suggestion of wind and rain upon a makeshift stage curtain’. From the Stalls, however, David Finn’s lighting proved a little too strong, almost blinding at times, whilst the continued suggestion of the sea and its ebb and flow elicited mild nausea. Perhaps the impression of sea-sickness were intended; if so, it should not have been. Albery’s stance that a vaguely modern, working-class community is somehow equivalent to, or an appropriate replacement for, an earlier ‘straightforward’ life by the sea remains to my mind both wrongheaded and patronising. Yet the attempt at social ‘realism’, most clearly incarnated in the factory girls who change their clothes for a tarts’ night out, seems toned down in the revival, a welcome development, permitting a little more emphasis upon the ‘ghost story’ element to the drama. It remains a problem that the Dutchman seems to hold so little interest for the director. His plight not only loses its metaphysics; it barely seems to exist. The same, needless to say, holds for redemption – or lack thereof. Senta is again mostly left to her own devices, seeming less hysterical than just a little peculiar. Her toy ship remains an inadequate substitute for the picture, making nonsense of the Ballad, yet without real suggestion of reinterpretation.

It is a good thing, then, that the Dutchman and Senta were both strongly cast. Last time, Bryn Terfel, who will always be lauded by his legion of uncritical fans, was disappointing in the extreme, unsupported by the staging and veering between bark and crooned whisper. The Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins proved superior in every respect. One heard every word – as, to be fair, one did with Terfel – but now the words meant something, both in themselves and in proper Wagnerian musico-dramatic alchemy with the notes. Vocal tone was just right, properly suggestive of Wotan: indeed, there were a couple of occasions when I was put in mind of the desperate, tortured Walküre monologue. (It is heartening to see that Paris has signed Silins for its complete Ring in 2013.) Anja Kampe assumed the role in 2009 too; on both occasions she impressed both in terms of textual response and stamina, though the production does her no favours whatsoever. Endrik Wottrich showed some strain, most glaringly at one point during the third act, but this was a much stronger performance than his recent Royal Opera Florestan. There is clearly a Siegmund-type voice locked within; the pity is that the voice production is often constricted. Still, he looked and often sounded handsome, no mere cipher, as is so often the case. Stephen Milling proved impressively attentive to words and text as Daland, as did John Tessier as the Steersman: his song emerged as a true Lied, moving in itself and not simply a plot device. Clare Shearer’s Mary, reprised from 2009, is hampered by the production’s frumpy portrayal, but again made little impression vocally either.

The Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus certainly did make a powerful vocal impression, testimony to fine training from Renato Balsadonna. Weight and line are equally present, and the chorus members do what they can with the staging. The orchestra was just as impressive. Germanic in heft and hue, it once again showed that , on a good night, this is a group of musicians to compare with any. Jeffrey Tate’s conducting, however, proved more of a mixed bag. On at least nine-and-a-half times out of ten, one can discern the progress of a musical performance from its opening bars; this proved an exception. Whilst they were very much on the driven side, the second subject was drawn out and lifeless, setting the pattern for much of the first and second acts. The Spinning Chorus and Senta’s Ballad pretty much ground to a halt. There was also major discrepancy at the beginning of the chorus not only between pit and stage but within the pit (cellos and woodwind). Yet the end of the second act and the third act sounded reinvigorated: more incisive, without being rushed. I suspect that the rest might come more sharply into focus throughout the run of performances: the orchestral sound is certainly there already.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Les Arts Florissants/Agnew: Monteverdi, First Book of Madrigals, etc., 13 October 2011

Union Chapel

Monteverdi – Lapidabant Stephanum
Vecchi – Ardo sì, ma non t’amo
Riposta: Arda e gela à tua voglia
Monteverdi – Quando sperai del mio servir mercede
Raggi dov’e’l moi bene
Ingegneri – Ardo sì, ma non t’amo
Ardi e gela à tua voglia
Marenzio – A che tormi il ben moi
Questa ordi il laccio
Monteverdi – Ardo sì, ma non t’amo
Ardi e gela a tua voglia
Arsi e alsi a mia voglia
Madrigals: Book One

Les Arts Florissants, under the directorship of Paul Agnew, are performing a complete cycle of Monteverdi madrigals across Europe between 2011 and 2014. This concert took in the first book but, given its relative brevity, offered a first half setting that collection, published in 1587, in historical context. And so, we heard the first piece from Monteverdi’s first publication, ‘Lapidabant Stephanum’ from the 1582 Sacrae cantiunculae tribus vocibus, followed by a brief spoken introduction from Agnew and other madrigals from 1583-7.

I think it might have taken me quite some time to guess the composer of that opening motet, beautifully written though it may be. The performance was not auspicious either: a little too delicate in sound, albeit with an unpleasant nasal quality intruding from time to time. The madrigals, however, were much more impressive in performance. A couple of settings by Orazio Vecchi opened, the first the first composition we know of Giovanni Battista Guarini’s ‘Ardo, sì, ma non t’amo’, which, according to Agnew, received no fewer than sixty-two settings. (Presumably then, there will be settings we have lost too.) It benefited from a fuller sound, unsurprisingly more dramatic too, with hints of the street, at times almost spat out, though the tenderness of the penultimate line (‘Perch’ho già sano il core’) was equally striking. ‘Ardi o gela a tua voglia’, also from Vecchi’s 1573 First Book of Madrigals, came in this context as an answer from womankind, excoriation of an unfaithful, merciless girl followed by the same concerning an unfaithful, shameless man. The final cadence was especially well handled, properly climactic.

Three pieces from Monteverdi’s First Book of Canzonette, all for three voices, followed. Perhaps I am reading too much into such an early work (published 1584), but ‘Canzonette d’amore’ already sounded more than a little erotic. ‘Quando sperai’ emerged as a study in male plangency, echoing the sad final stanza:

Così per sé far l’ape ogn’anno crede
Miser ail mele, e mai non lo possiede
Che altri le fura e toglie
Il dolce frutto e le sue care spoglie.
Others will always steal the sweet honey the bee thinks it is making for itself. ‘Raggi dov’è il mio bene’ permitted the women to respond in flighty fashion, though subtly so. If the vocal quality sounded more girlish than womanly, then that may well have been the intention.

Monteverdi’s teacher, Marc’Antonio Ingegneri, was featured with a couple of madrigals from his 1587 Fifth Book, the first another setting of ‘Ardo, sì, ma non t’amo’, both performances clearly relishing the composer’s strikingly beautiful harmonies (perhaps more striking than his word-setting). Two madrigals from Luca Marenzio’s Book Four displayed courtliness (‘A che tormi il ben mio’) and a ‘busy-ness’ that truly seemed to presage Monteverdi (‘Questa ordì il laccio’). Finally in the first half, we had a sneak preview, as it were, of the final three madrigals from Monteverdi’s collection, beginning with his setting of ‘Ardo, sì, ma non t’amo’: animated, undeniably human as well as humanist. The post-Vecchi dramatist was already to the fore in the other two settings, both of Tasso.

Even the opening madrigal of Monteverdi’s First Book, ‘Ch’ami la vita mia nel tuo bel nome’, seemed in itself a touching journey from life to death, the latter of course encompassing a multitude of sins – and pleasures. I was reminded of Raymond Leppard’s wonderful description of Dido and Aeneas as ‘Tristan und Isolde in a pint pot’. This was a smaller receptacle still, yet in its way as exquisite. Monteverdi’s later dramatic madrigals, though on a much larger scale than this, have a great deal more to say than most operas that succeed them. The struggle between love and ‘death’ also featured strongly in madrigals such as ‘A che tormi il ben mio’. ‘Baci soavi e cari’ received a delicate reading, whose clarity was such that one could readily have taken dictation of each line. Phyllis, the bane of madrigal singers and listeners worldwide, put in a couple of appearances, though the Highbury police sirens that followed quickly upon ‘Filli cara ed amata’ suggested she might be a little more interesting than previously suspected. The poignancy of ‘Poiché del mio dolore’ was touching indeed, likewise that of the heart-rending ‘Se nel partir da voi’, whose chromaticism almost tends to the Purcellian. I was also much taken with the freedom with which ‘Questa ordì il laccio’ was despatched. When the final three madrigals came around again, they sounded both familiar and changed. It was a pity that the very last, ‘Arsi ed alsi a mia voglia’ sounded somewhat hectic, impetuous even, almost throwaway. But on the whole, there had been a great deal to enjoy – and to learn. In that context, it is also worth welcoming such an intelligently written, informative booklet note from Andrew Stewart, his words taking in judiciously-selected historical and intellectual context as well as the work of Susan McClary. (One London hall recently hit rock bottom with a programme that said not a single word about the music of Mozart’s Haffner Symphony but nevertheless found the space to thank the Savoy Hotel for Claudio Abbado’s biography, artist representation clearly having moved on from the traditional agency model.)

Thursday 13 October 2011

Chamber version of Schoenberg's 'Lied der Waldtaube': Norman/EIC/Boulez

Performances of Gurrelieder are, for obvious reasons, infrequent. It remains one of the great 'special occasion' works, more so even than Mahler's Eighth Symphony. (Oddly, I have never heard a bad performance of Schoenberg's early masterwork, whereas I have heard far too many pointless accounts of the so-called 'Symphony of a Thousand', one very recently indeed.) It is not forbidding in the way that Moses und Aron is (or at least people who do not listen to it fear that it might be); it is simply a huge undertaking. Yet I have never knowingly met a listener who did not fall in love with Gurrelieder. Sincerity is never enough, of course, but the greatness of Schoenberg as a human being as well as a musician shines through the pages of his vast cantata. It is, then,  all the more bewildering that the chamber version of the 'Song of the Wood-dove' is not performed every other night by ensemble and soprano. Nothing will ever replace the luxurious full orchestral version, but if Schoenberg's ideas on instrumentation progressed throughout his work on the original - one of the many fascinating voyages one takes in a performance - they had done all the more so by 1922, the time of that unaccountably neglected masterpiece, the Serenade, op.24. Here are Jessye Norman, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and Pierre Boulez, in a recording I have loved since I first heard it.

Those who know the full work will be aware of the context for subtly increasing terror; those who do not should rectify that state of affairs as a matter of urgency... And soloists, ensembles, conductors, please permit us to hear in the flesh this and many other of the composer's works. Gurrelieder may never be performed every day, but Schoenberg should be.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Lucerne Festival Orchestra/Abbado - Mozart and Bruckner, 11 October 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Mozart – Symphony no.35 in D major, KV 385, ‘Haffner’
Bruckner – Symphony no.5 in B-flat major

Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Claudio Abbado (conductor)

I had opted for the second of the two Lucerne Festival Orchestra concerts largely on account of the soloist announced for the first, having no desire to hear Hélène Grimaud mangle Schumann’s Piano Concerto. When Grimaud pulled out, ‘artistic differences’ with Claudio Abbado cited, her place was taken by Dame Mitsuko Uchida, but it was too late. Bruckner’s Fifth Symphony was common to both programmes; yet, on the basis of the Mozart I have heard most recently from Abbado, I was not entirely sure of my enthusiasm for a Haffner Symphony under his baton. How wrong I was, for this turned out to be one of the most dashing and surpassingly graceful performances of a Mozart symphony I have heard.

The orchestra was neither large nor small, but more or less what one would expect today for a symphony orchestra in Mozart. Its – and Abbado’s – famed transparency was much in evidence, yet weight was not absent: if the first movement fizzed like vintage champagne, it had the body of at least a young claret too. Chiaroscuro was breathtaking, likewise the fine yet never fussy articulation of the strings. Only occasionally was there a hint of ‘period’ astringency, hard drumsticks notwithstanding. Orchestral transparency permitted contrapuntal clarity as marked as that in Klemperer’s decidedly non-chamber approach. I do not think I have ever heard the slow movement taken so quickly: it sounded to my ears more akin to a relatively swift Allegretto rather than an Andante. Yet it worked. Even if Abbado’s tempo did not remotely equate to what I hear in my mind’s ear, I was won over by his unfailing command of line. Furtwängler would never have sounded remotely like this in Mozart, but I suspect that he would have admired the conductor’s Fernhören (long-distance hearing): I can hardly speak more highly than that. Beautiful dynamic shading, for instance pianissimo string echoes, beguiled the ear just as much as the Harmoniemusik so evocative of outdoor serenading (and reminiscent of Abbado’s splendid Berlin recordings of both the Posthorn and Haffner Serenades). It has been recounted ad nauseam how the Lucerne players are encouraged by Abbado to listen to one another as if they were making chamber music. There could be no doubt, both visually and aurally, that that was just what they were doing here; the presence of some of the world’s finest chamber musicians as part of the ensemble assured a responsiveness that truly is second to none, indeed arguably surpasses any other.

Though my inclination for the minuet and trio is very much towards three beats in a bar, Abbado, taking the movement one-to-a-bar, proved utterly convincing. There was an infectious swing to the music that never so much as threatened to turn into mere swagger. Violins provided elegant ornamentation too: a dangerous path in all but the finest hands, but these hands were fine indeed. The trio breathed the air of a magical Salzburg summer evening. Though it was taken at the same tempo as the minuet, phrasing and general spirit nevertheless ensured relative relaxation. If I were truly to cast around for criticism, I might hazard that the finale was on occasion a little on the driven side, yet Abbado imparted such grace and light that I really did not mind in the slightest. The whole movement flew through the aural sky like a Mannheim rocket. Interplay between first and second violins showed that it is not, as some dogmatists would claim absolutely crucial to separate them. (Abbado placed them together, with violas on his right.) This was then, a wonderful performance. I should expect to be convinced by, say, Sir Colin Davis in this music. That I was quite transported by a performance that stands further from my general inclination speaks of the distinction of musicianship on offer here.

If I was a little less bowled over by the Bruckner symphony, that is more a matter of ambivalence towards the work. Abbado proved for the most part a sure guide, though there were occasions when I wondered whether something a little more granitic might have helped. Still, that is not his way, and there was much to be gained from his approach too: for instance, the magical – I make no apology for repeating that word – softness of the opening to the first movement. Not so far from the limits of audibility, perhaps the music of Abbado’s great friend, Luigi Nono, had come to his mind. Coughing, alas, proved disruptive here. The ensuing measured tread managed nevertheless to presage Elgar (not, so far as I am aware, a composer with whom Abbado has ever been associated). Then the great Bruckner unisons resounded, as hieratic as Messiaen. And finally, the full strings: a resplendent yet still transparent sound. The lack of traditionally Teutonic weight made me think of Karajan’s late Bruckner from Vienna, though in many other respects, the conductors’ approaches are quite different. Chamber spirit remained, for instance in the dialogue between woodwind and lower strings. The woodwind’s way with the chorales was special too: innig, yet also somehow suggestive of the piety of mediæval pilgrimage. Rather oddly, though, there were a few instances when the brass blared in a fashion one might have expected more from Solti in Chicago than Abbado with the Lucerne Orchestra.

Woodwind again excelled in the slow movement, the opening oboe solo of Lucas Macías Navarro later matched by the equally fine musicianship of Jacques Zoon on flute and Matthias Racz on bassoon. Abbado conducted the work with an unforced nobility that came close to concealing, or perhaps to effacing, Bruckner’s block-like construction (more of a problem for me than for many other listeners, it would seem). The brass section was mellower now: indeed, its tonal quality made me keen to hear the orchestra in Wagner. I still suspect that interventionist editing might help this symphony – heretically, I am quite happy to hear Knappertsbusch conduct the butchered Schalk edition – but the Lucerne orchestral sound kept me captivated. Moreover, there remains, even for doubting Thomases such as myself, something undeniably compelling about the sheer scale and seriousness of this music, which sounded, in Abbado’s hands, grave, beautiful, full of sentiment without the slightest hint of sentimentality. I wondered, however, whether a slightly faster tempo – nothing, I hasten to add, akin to that adopted in Mozart – might have helped the slightly agnostic among us.

Schubertian grace vied with peasant clomping at the beginning of the scherzo, much of which emerged, thanks to superlative rhythmic control, more dance-like than is often the case. Not, however, you will probably be grateful to hear, when the brass threatened – or heralded, according to taste – the Apocalypse. String articulation proved as crucial to the success of this movement as it had to that of the Mozart symphony. Again, I wish that Bruckner did not go on quite so much, but that is doubtless my problem.

The revelation of themes from earlier movements in the Adagio introduction to the finale was handled beautifully, it being a special pleasure to revisit Navarro’s oboe solo from the slow movement. String unisons then conspired to instil the fear of God into this mere mortal in the audience: for this orchestra, Bruckner’s power and Abbado’s translucency are far from mutually exclusive. For me, the double fugue starts off a little obviously as The Moment When The Composer Writes A Fugue And Demonstrates Contrapuntal Writing: not even Abbado could convince me that it is necessary, as it is, where it is. Nevertheless, so much excited and gripped in the best sense: the music never artificially whipped up, but the product of impeccable musicianship from all concerned, and again the consequence of a command of line and harmonic rhythm that might have impressed Furtwängler. The hard-won final exultation proved worthy, for once, of the clichéd ‘cathedral in sound’.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Philharmonia/Maazel - Mahler, Symphony no.8, 9 October 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Mahler - Symphony no.8 in E-flat major

Sally Matthews (soprano, Magna Peccatrix)
Ailish Tynan (soprano, Una pœnitentium)
Sarah Tynan (soprano, Mater Gloriosa)
Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano, Mulier Samaritana)
Anne-Marie Owens (mezzo-soprano, Maria Ægyptiaca)
Stefan Vinke (tenor, Doctor Marianus)
Mark Stone (baritone, Pater Ecstaticus)
Stephen Gadd (baritone, Pater Profundus)

The Choirs of Eton College (precentor and director of music: Tim Johnson)
Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan Oliver)
Philharmonia Chorus (chorus master: Stefan Bevier)
BBC Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Stephen Jackson)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Lorin Maazel (conductor)

Following Lorin Maazel’s lifeless first movement from Mahler’s Tenth Symphony (reviewed here, with Das Lied von der Erde), I could not believe that the Eighth would prove worse. It did – considerably so.

The ‘Veni, creator spiritus’ opened in strong, muscular fashion, yet ominously, not only was it metronomic but one could hear every beat, just as in the previous concert. Then there came an extraordinary slowing down, or rather grinding to a halt and staying there, for the entry of the soloists, who, cushioned by a Philharmonia Orchestra reduced for some time to the level of mere accompaniment, sounded more like a Verdi ensemble than voices in the heavenly firmament. The solo voices, moreover, were weirdly positioned: not just in the sense of being behind the orchestra (though raised), but also placed antiphonally at the uppermost two corners of the stage, as if the conductor or management were worried where co-educational singing might lead. The soloists coped variably: Stefan Vinke’s voice stood out, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, amongst the men, whilst Sarah Connolly proved strongest from the opposing camp. Sally Matthews often sounded strained – though who would not at such a tempo? – whilst Ailish Tynan occasionally contributed an unpleasant edge to proceedings. Even when the pace sped up dramatically, only rapidly and arbitrarily to slow a little later, there was no sense of what any of the words, let alone the music, might mean. It all sounded very hard work, certainly not ecstatic, or even joyful. Whilst the Philharmonia played well in purely technical terms, the orchestra had forced upon it, especially during the development section, an inappropriately fierce attack, a fair aural reflection of Maazel’s stabbing beat. Even string pizzicato sounded as though it might slice one’s hand off. A painful horn fluff in the lead up to the double fugue can be readily forgiven, but the vulgarity with which Maazel directed the brass thereafter cannot: even Solti would surely have blanched at such a loud, brash, artificially ‘exciting’, indeed deafening, noise. And so it went on and on, recapitulation without end.

The Introduction to the second part took us back to the painful audible micromanagement of the Tenth’s ‘Adagio’: every subdivision of every beat bludgeoned into the collective consciousness, every note a thing-in-itself, apparently unconnected to any other, everything taken very, very slowly. There was no sense of line, let alone of landscape – and that in this most extraordinary of aural canvases. It felt like an unpleasant visit to the dentist rather than a view of the forest, let alone a voyage into a world of metaphysics. Though the strings sounded resplendent here, one could only regret the sad waste of their talents. Later on, it became increasingly apparent that, the skill of the players notwithstanding, both orchestra and hall were simply too small. In a decent performance, that might have mattered more.

Back, then, to the slow progress of the second part. The chorus – and there was little or no fault to find in any of the choral singing, always impressive in tone and heft – entered to the most rigid of conducting, as if at rehearsal speed. When Pater Ecstaticus responded, at something akin to a reasonable tempo, that inevitably sounded disconnected from what had gone before. Stephen Gadd, a late replacement for Brindley Sherratt, sounded somewhat threadbare as Pater Profundus: whatever his vocal type (he was listed as a baritone), ‘profundus’ was not the first description to come to mind. Tempi continued to veer arbitrarily, though more often than not they continued to be eked out, sub-division of beat to next sub-division, a test of endurance that did not quite correspond with my understanding of the work. The Mater Gloriosa seemed less to ‘float’ into view than to crawl. He-si-tant-ly.

Again, the soloists proved a mixed bunch. Vinke’s intonation wavered, which is perhaps putting it mildly. (His voice seems to have deteriorated markedly since the first occasions I heard him in Leipzig, where he truly seemed a new Heldentenor hope.) Connolly again proved the most interesting and vocally refulgent of the women, assisted by baleful trombones, which, in a rare moment of musical insight, seemed to transport us back to the Second Symphony. Anne-Marie Owens, however, was tremulous, and blurry of diction. Ailish Tynan proved bizarrely lacking in purity of tone: an impetuous Gretchen is as bad an idea as it sounds. The first syllable of ‘Hülle’ (as in ‘der alten Hülle sich entrafft’) varied between at least three, probably more, different pitches. As for her closing attempt to present Gretchen as diva, one can only respond wearily that that is not quite what Mahler, let alone Goethe, had in mind. Sarah Tynan, however, delivered her lines with palpable, winning sincerity from one of the boxes.

Immediately after those words from the Mater Gloriosa’s, there came, sadly, the only moment with true power to disconcert, to trouble. An unfortunate double bass player fell from her chair and apparently knocked over her instrument, having to be helped from the stage by other members of her section. It was a highly unnerving accident, but the show, alas, went on. Whatever redemption might be, Maazel’s performance lay beyond it. The conclusion to the 'Chorus Mysticus', it will not surprise anyone to learn, was dragged out mercilessly, quite negating occasional signs of life at its opening.

I am not someone who usually notes, or indeed notices, durations of performances, but there was something of a discrepancy between the programme’s anticipated timing (eighty minutes) and a 7.30 p.m. concert, which, whilst admittedly starting six or seven minutes late, came to an end slightly after 9.15. The first movement alone must have lasted half an hour. Slow tempi can often be revelatory: consider Klemperer. And then try not to consider Maazel. Nevertheless, the moment Mahler was finally put out of his misery, some members of the audience began to holler loudly and rose to their feet. It was time to catch the bus home.

Liszt Discovery Day, Wigmore Hall, 8 October 2011

Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth, S 382
La lugubre gondola, S 134
Die drei Zigeuner, S 383
La notte, S 377a
Tristia - Vallée d’Obermann, S 723
Hungarian Rhapsody no.9, ‘Le carnaval de Pesth,’ S 379

Pax vobiscum! S 64
Cinq Chœurs, S 18
Salve Regina, S 66
Psalm 116, S 11/33
Das deutsche Vaterland II, S 74b
Es war einmal ein König, S 73
Weimars Volkslied, S 87/2b
Magyar királyi-dal, S 93b

Six Hungarian Rhapsodies for piano duet, S 621
Zwei Episoden aus Lenaus ’Faust’, S 599
Hungarian Rhapsodies S622/2, S623a
Rákócsi-Marsch, S 608

As many of us have lamented (for instance, here and here), Liszt still cries out for advocacy. There are still anti-Wagnerians, anti-Brahmsians even, yet no one takes such people seriously. Many who should know better nevertheless continue to denigrate Liszt, recycling puritanical platitudes about showmanship, even womanising, doubtless incredulous that someone who, despite the lack of recordings, is almost universally considered to be the greatest pianist of all time could also be a great composer – all the more bewilderingly when one considers the testimony of composers from Wagner through Schoenberg, Bartók, Debussy, even Stravinsky, to Boulez and beyond. When Liszt’s works are performed, choices tend to be drawn from a narrow repertoire. This anniversary year should surely have brought forth London performances of his two completed oratorios (ideally St Stanislaus too), yet the silence has been deafening. Some musicians and venues have done their bit. We heard the two concertos from the dream team of Boulez, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and Barenboim (now recorded). Amongst other offerings, the Wigmore Hall’s programming of Liszt song has been especially welcome. One can understand, however, why Lisztians would wish to point to unsung aspects of the composer’s œuvre, and Leslie Howard, curating this Liszt Discovery Day, certainly took full advantage, in programming recitals of chamber music, small-scale choral music, and music for piano duet. Alas, the results, especially following the excellent chamber recital, were mixed, and seem unlikely to have won Liszt many converts. He would benefit from a more nuanced approach, which both advocates the neglected and yet also recognises that not everything is of equal interest, for Liszt, more inclined to create another version or another piece than to destroy something that perhaps does not work, is certainly not a cruel self-critic in the mode of Brahms. Moreover, entirely to omit solo piano music was arguably self-defeating: a top-flight pianist (and musician) is surely what one needs to dispel doubts.

Let us start with the best: two works apiece for cello and piano, violin and piano, and piano trio. Rarely if ever does one hear Liszt’s chamber music, doubtless partly a consequence of general hostility, but also, I suspect, a matter of unfounded suspicion concerning its provenance. None of the chamber works is ‘original’ in the sense that they all existed in earlier versions for other forces. Yet that need not matter at all, especially when dealing with an inveterate arranger and transformer, and in most cases, it does not here. Die Zelle in Nonnenwerth, despite its origins in a song of 1841, at times, especially in the piano introduction, sounds very much of the date of its rewriting: c.1883. Tristan Lee provided a rapt account of the piano part. Joris van den Berg captured the right note of ecstasy, though his tone could be a little wiry and was not always ideally centred in terms of intonation. That may, however, have been a matter of nerves, for La lugubre gondola emerged as stronger in performance. La lugubre gondola, one of Liszt’s many Wagner tributes, sounds more vocal in this version than in either of its piano incarnations, the opening in particular sounding still closer to recitative. Had I to choose, I should unhesitatingly opt for the darker solo piano, but I do not. The cellist’s fast vibrato will not have been to all tastes, yet I think it is a matter of taste rather than hard and fast judgement. Eva Thorarinsdottir proved an excellent violinist, one of whom I should like to hear much more. Both she and Lee exhibited impressive virtuosity in Die drei Zigeuner, another recomposition of a song (this time by Nikolaus Lenau). There was a fine display of rhythmic freedom, especially from the violinist, who throughout beguiled with rich, generous tone. This, rightly, was treated as ‘concert’ music but nevertheless laid idiomatic claim to a helping of ‘gypsy’ charisma. Lee’s piano tone was splendidly full for La notte, derived from the second of the Trois Odes funèbres, and ultimately from ‘Il penseroso,’ from the second book of the Années de pèlerinage. We heard here a fine account of the latter work, dignified and moving, with the violin ‘accompaniment’ adding menace, as well as splendid advocacy for the new and transformed material Liszt subsequently provided. If the central section is more conventional, a little too littered with ‘Hungarianisms’ (whatever Bartók et al. might have said of them), it is attractive enough and was attractively performed. Tristia – La Vallée d’Obermann also, as one might expect, has its birth in the Années de pèlerinage, though the first, Swiss book. It received a heartfelt, warmly Romantic performance from all three musicians, a winning vocal quality imparted to both violin and cello parts: songful and soulful. I should be keen to hear the piece again in this unexpected guise. Le carnival de Pesth was a little disappointing, plodding at times: as if, understandably, it were slowed in order to fit in the multitude of piano notes. It is a much less interesting piece than La Vallée d’Obermann, whose memory lingered welcomely.

The BBC Singers and David Hill, joined by Coady Green on piano, presented a true programme of rarities, to be broadcast across Europe on 23 October as part of the EBU Liszt Day. I could not help but think that it was too much of a not very good thing: larger choral pieces, other works by Liszt, or indeed by contemporaries, predecessors, or successors, might have leavened the load. The opening Pax vobiscum! would probably make a reasonable grace for a College feast or some such occasion, but is not the most interesting of pieces. At least it does not outstay its welcome, however, unlike the following Cinq Chœurs. The first of the choruses has some mildly Berlioz-like writing – reminiscent of, or rather foretelling, L’Enfance du Christ – but the monotony of much of the subsequent strophic writing was unfortunate. I suspect the music is more interesting to sing than to listen to; the BBC Singers certainly made a good job of it, with an impressive standard of French diction. Entered for a competition in 1845, I am not entirely surprised, however, that the pieces did not win Liszt a prize. The 1885 Salve Regina, S 66, would make a good addition to a cappella repertoires: generally simple, but with some intriguing chromaticism, not least in the bass line, and some moments in which tonality veers towards the suspended. That and Es war einmal ein König, a setting for baritone, four-part male voice choir and piano of the ‘Flea Song’ from Faust, were the musical highlights, the latter’s baritone solo well taken, if a little on the camp side. It was a relief, though, to hear proper Lisztian piano writing after the orchestral reduction – the full orchestra part no longer exists – of the vocal score version of Liszt’s setting of a text by the nationalist writer, Ernst Moritz Arndt, is barely more distinguished than the frankly appalling verse, which goes on and on and on in a vein that ought to have been intolerable in 1848 but certainly is now. Here is the first stanza (of nine, each set in essentially strophic form):

Was ist des deutschen Vaterland?
Ist’s Preußenland, ist’s Schwabenland?
Ist’s, wo am Rhein die Rebe blüht?
Ist’s, wo am Belt die Möwe zieht?
O nein! nein! nein!
Sein Vaterland muß größer sein.
It does not get any better. The BBC Singers sounded little more engaged than I felt, their performance sometimes veering towards unmusical shouting, and some of the solo lines sounding under strain, a tenor towards the end especially prominent in that respect. Desperately casting around for something of interest, I wondered whether there might be a little hint of Lohengrin in the seventh stanza, but it would surely have been better for Liszt’s reputation had vocal and orchestral score been lost. The two closing anthems were well sung, and less dull. Weimars Volkslied actually proved quite catchy, helped by a lively performance, whilst the Magyar Király-dal offered a more varied response to its text.

Sadly, the three talks of the day were still less likely to help the Lisztian cause. Howard’s own introductory address was an exception: generalised, but well delivered, with a palpable enthusiasm for the composer. Meirion Hughes on ‘Liszt the politician’ did not really address the subject, but gave a naïve sketch of nineteenth-century nationalism, into which Liszt was awkwardly shoehorned; the talk would not have passed muster from an undergraduate, let alone an alleged expert in the field. It was, moreover, disingenuous to omit without comment an anti-Semitic remark from a Liszt quotation. Imagine if someone had done the same with Wagner! Nevertheless, there remained a gulf between mere incompetence and the standard attained by the final talk, Michael Short’s ‘Liszt as conductor’. Having heard a considerable number of lectures, papers, presentations, seminars, etc., in a variety of contexts and venues, I can say that this was unquestionably the most hapless of my experience. If delivery were not the speaker’s strength, nor were ideas and argument. An audience, visibly restless, was treated to a mere listing, apparently read out word for word from a laptop screen, of programmes Liszt had conducted, along with monotonous readings, most of the material entirely irrelevant, from a few letters. Given the plethora of interesting, animated, and well-informed scholars and performers who could have contributed productively to such an event, the selection of speakers mystified.

Sadly, the programme of music for piano duet would have been unlikely to win over any Liszt-sceptics. It seems a funny way to persuade people to take Liszt seriously to programme six Hungarian Rhapsodies in a row (plus a couple more in the second half). This must be some of the least interesting, most meretricious, music he ever wrote. What might dazzle as a solo piece in isolation merely numbs the mind when performed in succession as here. Had Liszt himself been at the piano, one can imagine wishing to hear still more, but Howard’s pianism turned out to be still more ploddingly heavy-handed than his performance at a solo recital from the beginning of the year. There were a few glaring slips too, one repeatedly so in the first, F minor piece. At best, Howard’s performance was reliably mechanical, at worst bludgeoning. His partner, Bobby Chen, was in a different league, lighter of touch, though certainly not without power, and effortlessly superior in his shaping of phrases. The Two Episodes from Lenau’s ‘Faust’ were much better, largely because the music is so much better, though the difference between Chen and Howard was still highly audible. I am afraid I had to miss the final Rákócsi-Marsch, a transcription from the orchestral version, but could not help but notice the earlier departure of a good few non-coughing members of the audience, the bronchially challenged seemingly determined to stay until the bitter end. Results, then, were mixed, but I was delighted to have heard both the chamber recital and the musicians who performed in it. I also hope to hear Chen on another occasion, as a soloist.