Friday 30 December 2011

Webern: Dormi, Jesu!

The second of Webern's Five Canons, op.16:

This lullaby text, from a sixteenth-century engraving by Hieronymus Wierix, was copied by Coleridge during his visit to Germany with Wordsworth and published two years later, in 1801. Coleridge would publish an English translation, also below, in 1810.

Dormi, Jesu! Mater ridet
quae tam dulcem somnum videt,
dormi, Jesu! blandule!
Si non dormis, Mater plorat,
inter fila cantans orat,
blande, veni, somnule.

Sleep, sweet babe! my cares beguiling:
Mother sits beside thee smiling;
sleep, my darling, tenderly!
If thou sleep not, mother mourneth,
singing as her wheel she turneth:
come, soft slumber, balmily!

Thursday 29 December 2011

Christmas Music from Liszt and Schoenberg

We rightly tend to think of choral music at Christmas time, but there are instrumental gems, often little known, to be heard too. In a late studio recording, Vladimir Horowitz plays 'Ehemals' from Liszt's Weihnachtsbaum:

And here is Schoenberg's adorable Weihnachtsmusik, from the Arnold Schoenberg Center in Vienna. When I hear it, I fancy that it tells us as much about the composer as the Variations for Orchestra. The contrapuntal mastery cannot be gainsaid, not least that wondrous interpolation of Stille Nacht, nor the command of tonal relations, here most obviously between the tonic C major and its subdominant, F major. Nor, of course, should one or could one ignore the mastery of textural balance: think also of the Johann Strauss arrangements. What nevertheless comes across every bit as strongly is Schoenberg's profound humanity. Is this his Siegfried-Idyll?

Wednesday 28 December 2011

At the End of (another) Mahler Year...

... I find myself on a reasonably lengthy railway journey. Having foolishly packed books and my iPod in an inaccesible suitcase, more or less the only amusement - relatively speaking - available is my laptop. Or, of course, whatever I still can muster in my head. Any regular readers may recall a distinct lack of enthusiasm for this year's - and last year's - Mahler anniversaries. I shall not rehearse the arguments now, other than to say that a greater tribute would have been a period of silence; Mahler is a composer I love dearly, perhaps too dearly, but the last thing he needed was a further run of unnecessary performances. (Lorin Maazel... No, I shall stop myself there.) I decided a little earlier en route to set myself a logical puzzle. Not to recommend a favourite recorded version of each symphony, but something a little different: to select a favoured set, with no more than one performance per conductor. Trying to do the same with respect to orchestras proved too much. Doubtless I should change my mind tomorrow, but here are the results, with Amazon links for any who might be interested.

1: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Rafael Kubelík

2: Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra/Otto Klemperer

3: London Symphony Orchestra/Jascha Horenstein

4: London Philharmonic Orchestra/Klaus Tennstedt

5: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein

6: WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne/Dmitri Mitropoulos

7: Staatskapelle Berlin/Daniel Barenboim

8: Staatskapelle Berlin/Pierre Boulez

Das Lied von der Erde: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Bruno Walter

9: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli

10: Berlin Symphony Orchestra/Kurt Sanderling

Please feel free to comment/to tear apart, and/or to suggest alternative lists.

May next year bring fewer and superior Mahler performances...

Friday 23 December 2011

OSJ/Lubbock - Handel, Messiah, 22 December 2011

Hall One, Kings Place

Hannah Davey (soprano)
Roderick Morris (counter-tenor)
John Pierce (tenor)
David Pike (baritone)

OSJ Voices (chorus master: Jeremy Jackman)
Orchestra of St John’s
John Lubbock (conductor)

This was a delight: very much a tonic to December blues. Time was when Hall One of Kings Place would have been considered risibly small for a performance of the Messiah – though time was when anywhere smaller than the Royal Albert Hall or even the Crystal Palace would have been. Monster Victorian performances from the likes of Sir Michael Costa are long gone, though we should do well to recall not only the popular enthusiasm they engendered but also their musical influence: Haydn, in London, heard a performance, which, if not Victorian, employed forces inconceivable today. It set him on the road to writing The Creation.

Back to Kings Place. This was a chamber performance, at least in terms of the orchestra, strings fewer than I have ever previously encountered: 3, 2, 2, 2, 1. That presents a few problems, not so much in terms of volume – even my knowledge of acoustics informs me that thirty first violins are not ten times as loud as three – but blend and tonal quality. (Indeed, one to a part, true chamber music, will lose the rough edges.) So there were occasions, especially when playing softly, when ensemble could prove a little rough. They should not, however, be exaggerated in importance, and should be balanced against considerable cultivation at other times. Vibrato was not eschewed, even if there were passages, more so in the First Part than later on, when more would have been welcome. Leader Richard Milone’s solo work was especially finely turned. And if there were occasions when John Lubbock indulged the contemporary fashion for abrupt endings to phrases – believe me, I have heard much, much worse – much of his characterisation of individual numbers proved both apt and refreshing. For instance, I do not recall hearing ‘He trusted in God that He would deliver Him’ performed with such anger, malice even: the great turba choruses of Bach’s St John Passion came to mind. Given that the words are those of the vicious mob, they who ‘laugh Him to scorn’, such a performance made excellent sense, imparting a greater narrative drive to a section of the oratorio that is not entirely without longueurs, whichever version is employed. (The present version did not, off the top of my head, correspond to any particular Handel performance, but worked well enough.)

Choral singing, from OSJ Voices, was excellent throughout. Forty-eight strong, according to the programme, this was by contemporary standards a fair-sized chorus, but it lacked little in agility, responding with alacrity to Lubbock’s keenness in numbers such as ‘And the glory of the Lord’. Weight was present where necessary too: indeed, the wholeheartedness to the closing choruses of the second and third parts was quite moving. (Almost everyone stood for the ‘Hallelujah’ Chorus. Two notable refuseniks were those who had chattered and disrupted with sweet-wrappers throughout. I shall remember their faces…) This, then, was a choral performance that would put many professional choirs to shame, for which considerable credit must also be ascribed to chorus master, Jeremy Jackman.

Vocal soloists impressed too. If John Pierce’s recitatives sometimes passed uncomfortably into bluster, his arias were generally well phrased. David Pike’s rich tone did not preclude intelligent response to the words. I am not sure that anyone can redeem the dull ‘B’ section of ‘The trumpet shall sound’, but the principal material was especially pleasing, not least thanks to Paul Archibald’s excellent trumpet solo. Hannah Davey’s diction and phrasing often made one consider anew arias one might have thought one knew all too well. Perhaps the most welcome discovery of all was counter-tenor, Roderick Morris. Holding a prejudice here for a contralto, I was delighted to discover that I did not miss the female voice in the slightest. Morris’s voice brought a splendid sense of Baroque theatre to the occasion: despite his Oxford and Cambridge background, this was a supple, dramatic performance more in the mould of David Daniels than Alfred Deller (not that there is anything wrong with the latter). Ornamentation was tasteful and meaningful, less restrained than once would have been heard, but lending new life to Handel’s da capo arias, which can otherwise sometimes become a bit of a trial. There is plenty of life in Messiah yet.

For the greatest panache, utterly irresistible, save to those Beecham dubbed 'drowsy armchair purists':

For what remains to my mind the most recommendable 'straight' Messiah, full of life and supremely musical:

For Mozart's version:

An underrated digital account:

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Royal Opera, 19 December 2011

Pogner (Sir John Tomlinson)
Images: Clive Barda/Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Hans Sachs – Wolfgang Koch
Walther von Stolzing – Simon O’Neill
Eva – Emma Bell
Sixtus Beckmesser – Peter Coleman-Wright
Veit Pogner – Sir John Tomlinson
David – Toby Spence
Magdalene – Heather Shipp
Kunz Vogelsang – Colin Judson
Konrad Nachtigall – Nicholas Folwell
Fritz Kothner – Donald Maxwell
Hermann Ortel – Jihoon Kim
Balthazar Zorn – Martyn Hill
Augustin Moser – Pablo Bemsch
Ulrich Eisslinger – Andrew Rees
Hans Foltz – Jeremy White
Hans Schwarz – Richard Wiegold
Nightwatchman – Robert Lloyd

Graham Vick (director)
Elaine Kidd (revival director)
Richard Hudson (designs)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Ron Howell (movement)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Hans Sachs would be the first to counsel us of the dangers of extolling past achievements at the expense of the present. It is an apt warning in the case of Wagner, for whom great performances, whether recorded or in the theatre, sear themselves with into the memory with perhaps unusual tenacity, acting as Mastersinger-guardians of the imagination. That said, whilst we should all beware the tendency to act as Beckmesser or worse, not every newcomer proves to be a Stolzing. At a time of year when some midsummer warmth, even magic, could hardly be more welcome, glad tidings were, sadly, thin onstage or in the pit.

Walther (Simon O'Neill), Eva (Emma Bell), congregation
This Marker has fond memories of Graham Vick’s production. It was the first he saw in the theatre, in 2000 and again in 2002; it seemed so full of joy and good humour; above all, it provided a seemingly perfect backdrop for the unforgettable greatness of Bernard Haitink’s conducting. (Mark Wigglesworth was far from put to shame in 2002.) Now, alas, it looks tired: there are few cases of production styles failing to date; in this, as in so much else, Patrice Chéreau’s Ring offers a near-miraculous exception. The evocation of Nuremberg in Richard Hudson’s sets seems as much of its time as John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ (not that David Cameron seems to have noticed). Where once one saw Breugel, now one registers the lack of darkness in a work every bit as Schopenhauerian as Tristan und Isolde. What once was joyous now seems evasive. The ‘amusing’ antics of the apprentices now merely irritate. Time has passed, yes, but a good part of the problem seems to be the revival direction. Perhaps matters would have been different had Vick himself returned, but there seems to be precious little to Elaine Kidd’s direction beyond having singers don their costumes and sing: it resembles a repertory production in a provincial house rather than a performance on one of the world’s great stages. Oddly, the chorus often seems better directed than the singers. As for the codpieces, it would be an act of charity for all concerned to consign them to the dustbin of history.

Beckmesser (Peter Coleman-Wright) attempting to sing the Prize Song
The contrast becomes all the more glaring, however, when one turns to the Old Master, Haitink. Though Tristan was his final production as Music Director of the Royal Opera, he chose the final scenes of Die Meistersinger as the culmination of his gala farewell to Covent Garden. Indeed, there is perhaps no opera more strongly associated with him. It was a great privilege to receive one’s theatrical baptism from him, though Christian Thielemann at Bayreuth, just a few months later in 2000, also lingers in the memory. Where, under Haitink, the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounded every inch a rival to Bayreuth, Vienna, or Dresden, here too much was lacklustre. The horns too often found themselves all over the place; woodwind were untidy; strings and brass lacked bloom. More seriously, Antonio Pappano’s direction failed to probe. Where every line should not only glow but take its place in vital counterpoint with every other, the work emerging almost as if an enormous Bach fugue, this reading remained very much on surface. The Prelude to the first act lacked any distinguishing feature beyond a strangely prominent tuba line: that extraordinary moment of recapitulatory arrival, heralded by adorable triangle, went for nothing. It is not a matter of speed as such, for the act managed both to sound hard-driven and well-nigh interminable. To follow and to guide the Wagnerian melos is no easy task, but when one has heard Haitink, or Thielemann for that matter, Wagner as soft-focus Verdi will not pass muster. There were better passages: the music following ‘Merkwürd’ger Fall!’ was nicely characterised, though it did not arise as it should from what had gone before, nor did it lead where it must. Even the third act, better in a good few respects, suffered from a Prelude that was merely slow: again, speed, or lack thereof, does not equal profundity. The strings now played beautifully, but it was the wrong kind of beauty, the shimmering more akin to the third act of La traviata. The closing bars were not, admittedly, helped by premature applause – surely the music is loud enough to enable one to hear when it has finished – but Pappano harried them so as to sound inconsequential; I have never heard the final chord register in so perfunctory a fashion.

Apprentices, David (Toby Spence), Walther
Save for a generally strong performance from the chorus – as usual, Renato Balsadonna had both learned and conveyed his lessons well – and from Toby Spence as David, there was little vocally to lift the spirits. Even Spence had the occasional moment of crooning, but his was otherwise an alert, carefully shaded reading, which married tone and word as his character outlines. The contrast with Simon O’Neill’s Walther was, to put it mildly, stark, nowhere more so than in the Quintet, where O’Neill stood out like a pneumatic drill. The unpleasant, metallic sound of his voice rendered the Prize Song more of a trial song – and for the first time made me think the naysayers might have it right: do we simply hear that music too often? You do not have to be Sándor Kónya, but it undeniably helps. Where Spence used, indeed relished, Wagner’s language, O’Neill seemed uncertain as to what it meant; maybe the words were not learned by rote, but that was how it sounded. Emma Bell’s intonation was variable as Eva: again, the beginning of the quintet was a glaring casualty. Too often, her delivery was blowsy; the best one could say was that she looked good in a white dress. Peter Coleman-Wright’s Beckmesser sounded and often looked over the hill: a comparison with Sir Thomas Allen for Haitink goes beyond unfortunate. Even Sir John Tomlinson, who sang Sachs in 2000, was out of sorts, loud and yet threadbare as Pogner. This was an instance too far of all-purpose raving and bluster: it was as if Bluebeard, or at a pinch, Wotan, had wandered in from another performance entirely. Wolfgang Koch was a musical, verbally attentive Sachs, but his voice sounded at least one degree too small for the theatre. Midsummer, as so often in this country, was postponed until another year. 

Sunday 18 December 2011

Performances of the Year, 2011

If fate be tempted by the presentation of such a reckoning prior to the year's end, all the better: I should be delighted, verging upon astonished, if another performance this year came close to those below. The past couple of years, I have presented a list of twelve: an arbitrary number, of course, but akin to one per month, which did not seem unreasonable. This year, I have decided, in doubtless equally arbitrary fashion, to present four performances in each of six categories: instrumental, chamber, orchestral, vocal/choral, opera, and contemporary.  The categories seemed a reasonable reflection of my listening: I am certainly not claiming that one could not come up with others, but it would be rather silly for me to have, say, a 'period performance' or an 'operatic recitals' category - though who knows what 2012 may bring? Part of the reason for this experiment was to give opera more of a chance, since almost any operatic performance is likely, given the large number of variables, to have something that might persuade one to eliminate it from consideration. It is not easy in any sense, of course, to give an outstanding performance of chamber music, but it almost seems so by comparison. I was in two minds concerning 'contemporary', since I do not wish to ghettoise new music from any other. However, on balance, I thought it a good way of drawing attention to excellent performances of excellent music that is truly of our time. (Not that Beethoven is not of our time, but that is another matter...) In the hope that such a preamble has not dissuaded readers from venturing further, here are my choices:


Performance of the Year

This is doubtless grossly, even obscenely, unfair to any other instrumentalist this year, since what could possible compare with the Southbank Centre's 'Pollini Project'? Five recitals, opening with the first book of Bach's Forty-Eight Preludes and Fugues, and culminating in Boulez's Second Piano Sonata. It might be thought cheating to select a whole series, rather than a single concert; if so, so much the better for cheating. Any one of Pollini's recitals could and would have made this list - save for the unfortunate matter of having chosen four performances per category - but the whole was even more than the sum of the parts, and those parts include an astounding account of the three final Beethoven sonatas.

Other contenders

Konstantin Lifschitz's Art of Fugue led one from Bergian chromaticism to Birtwistle's labyrinth, or rather Bach did. This, I wrote at the time, 'was music both for and beyond the piano, shimmering Romanticism and old-fashioned organ-reed registration dissolving or sublating themselves seamlessly into abstraction that yet reached beyond abstraction.' I also wrote that I should be astonished if it did not prove to be one of my performances of the year: no need for further astonishment.

Pollini again, I am afraid: this time in Salzburg, with four more Beethoven sonatas, nos 21-24. The tragic inevitability of the Appassionata and the coruscating chiaroscuro of the Waldstein simply had to be heard to be believed, but equally estimable was the emergence of the scandalously-overlooked F-sharp major sonata as Romantic character-piece.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard's two-concert 'Liszt Project' - might we perhaps rid ourselves of the modish 'project' next year? - placed a little of the still grossly misunderstood composer's finest piano music in the context of followers from Wagner to Marco Stroppa. Context may mean a great deal, but not all, for Aimard's B minor sonata could hold its own in any company whatsoever.


Performance of the Year

The Quatuor Ebène's visits to the Wigmore Hall are eagerly awaited; I have yet to be disappointed. Prokofiev, Debussy, and Brahms all received exquisite, profoundly musical treatment from this fine group of musicians. Unanimity of ensemble never sounded slick; it simply arose out of the excellence of their playing - and listening. Prokofiev's first quartet emerged as far more than a concatenation of melodies; Debussy's quartet formed a perfect cyclical whole; Brahms's second essay in the genre glowed, captivated, and profoundly satisfied.

Other Contenders

Sir Simon Rattle's Berlin Philharmonic account of Mahler's Third Symphony was roaringly acclaimed, though in truth it was a dreadfully mannered affair. The opening concert of the BPO's four-night London residency was an immeasurably superior experience, offering the musicians in chamber mode for works by Schubert, Mahler, and Schoenberg. The Schoenberg performances will perhaps linger longest in the memory. For the Second String Quartet, Anna Prohaska joined the ensemble, violence and melodic profusion proving two sides of the Schoenbergian coin. Rattle directed his players in the First Chamber Symphony, an exhilirating ride with none of the infuriating mannerisms of his Mahler, whose early piano quartet can rarely have received such persuasive advocacy.

Schoenberg again, for the Jerusalem Quartet and friends. Verklärte Nacht was performed as true chamber music, not an aspirant orchestral work, though with no loss to its glittering 'pictorial' elements, quite the contrary. Climaxes sent shivers down the spince. Brahms's string sextet offered ghosts from the Classical past, battling and yet affirming them.

It sounds like madness, and it probably is, to perform Schubert's C major String Quintet in the Royal Albert Hall. Yet somehow, the Belcea Quartet and Valentin Erben managed to draw one in. Ambivalence and regret were certainly present; so was quiet determination. Heavenly lengths seemed all too short, all too mortal.


Performance of the Year

The Staatskapelle Berlin and Pierre Boulez provided, along with Aimard's 'project' (see above), the highlight of this year's Liszt anniversary. Despite an erratic performance of the second piano concerto from Daniel Barenboim, the first concerto emerged very much in the line of Beethoven: a musicianly riposte to any idea of Liszt as mere showman. Finer still, though, were Boulez's Wagner performances, both revelatory: a questing Faust Overture and a truly magical, properly symphonic Siegfried-Idyll, outstripping any I have ever heard, live or on record. For that alone, this concert would surely deserve top billing. If only the Wagner pieces had been recorded along with the concertos by Deutsche Grammophon .

Other contenders

Bernard Haitink's Ravel and Mendelssohn with the LSO presented the Mother Goose Suite with an unforced nobility that hinted at Elgar, with no cost to orchestral bite. Solos were as excellent as one would expect from this orchestra. The Midsummer Night's Dream music offered almost Wagnerian musico-dramatic flow through which gossamer delight was spun.

The hype surrounding a visit to London from Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra - would The Guardian kindly calm down, at least until after a few notes have been played? - inclines one to react adversely, but these performances were outstanding. Abbado's latter-day way with Mozart has won ecstatic plaudits, though I have remained sceptical; not so here, for this was a Haffner Symphony of surpassing elegance. Bruckner's Fifth Symphony remains something of an enigma to me, but Abbado's reading probed, without offering easy answers. What a collection of musicians, moreover, is to be heard in this orchestra!

Throughout the year, the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen have been celebrating Bartók, in a series named 'Infernal Dance'. An October concert brought Contrasts, the Wooden Prince suite, the Dance Suite, and the second piano concerto (Yefim Bronfman). An utterly gorgeous account of the Wooden Prince suite left one longing for the entire ballet, rhythmic exactitude and sheer fantasy united.


Performance of the Year

No question whatsoever here: Sir Colin Davis's Proms performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. If you think no one has come close to Klemperer, listen to Davis. With the LSO and London Symphony Chorus on superlative form, we were taken to the abyss, and never quite drew back. Perfection is not a word this work recognises, but greatness and impossibility both are; the same goes for this performance. LSO Live only issues recordings from the Barbican, but might it make an exception, or might someone else issue a recording? It is not only desirable but absolutely necessary to do so.

Other Contenders

The same orchestra and chorus offered a scintillating performance, this time under the baton of Sir Mark Elder, of Elgar's resolutely unfashionable oratorio, The Kingdom. Urgency, dramatic tension, and again, that trademark Elgar word, 'nobility, were there in abundance. I doubt that the work has ever received more glorious choral singing than it did from the LSC.

Bach's St John Passion suffers none of the difficulties concerning taste that The Kingdom does, though I am not sure why that ought to be the case. Many of those who sing its praises would surely be distressed by its message, were they to heed it. For the rest of us, it remains, of course, a towering masterpiece, though present-day performances often fall horrendously short of registering its shattering impact. This Good Friday performance from the Thomaskirche came closer than many, in part because its unassuming quality simply permitted the extraordinary narrative to emerge for itself. Johannes Chum was an excellent Evangelist, Stephan Loges a richly toned, dignified Christ.

Another masterpiece only a madman would deny, though perhaps it renders one more than a little mad to experience it, is Schubert's Winterreise. Movingly, indeed terrifyingly, performed by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (again, I know) and Simon Keenlyside, Schubert in Salzburg offered no Mozartkugeln consolations: instead we looked forward to Wozzeck, even beyond. (Audience behaviour, alas, was nothing short of unforgivable.)


Performance of the Year

Monteverdi brought musical drama to a level that has been surpassed, perhaps, only by Mozart and Wagner, and equalled by very few. The English National Opera's Return of Ulysses, was, quite simply, essential theatre. Benedict Andrews's production at the Young Vic grabbed one from the outset, the Prologue's Abu Ghraib-style abuse of Human Frailty gloatingly captured on camera, and never let one go. Minerva emerged more a trickster than Ulysses? Was she even a goddess at all? Jonathan Cohen led members of the ENO orchestra with great dramatic flair, Pamela Helen Stephen and Tom Randle heading an outstanding cast.

Other Contenders

Christoph Marthaler's Katya Kabanova received its final outing in Paris, at the Palais Garnier. Thank goodness I caught up with it in time. A drab apartment block and its closed moral world provided the setting for searing musical drama, courtesy of Angela Denoke, Jane Henschel, et al. Katya's goodness shone through with almost unbearably moving effect; the Kabanicha horrified as only she can.

Back to the Coliseum, for ENO's brilliant Midsummer Night's Dream. Leo Hussain, making his ENO debut, conducted a magical account of the score, that magic questioned and deepened at every turn by Christopher Alden's tremendous production. Anathema to loyalists to an Aldeburgh that never was, this was a world of twisted abuse, tormented memory, and troubled defiance. The school entrance said it all, in brazen capital letters: 'BOYS'.

Stefan Herheim's Bayreuth production of Parsifal is, not to beat about the bush, one of the great Wagner stagings of all time. It remains electrifying; it remains faithful; it remains questioning; it remains far more than anyone could possibly take in on a single viewing, which is why I felt properly blessed to be granted a second helping. The tightrope remains precarious: can he really simultaneously tell the story of Parsifal both in Wagner's terms and those of its reception? Yes he can. Daniele Gatti's masterly pacing upset some impatient souls, but the score unfolded as if in a single breath: the only true measure of Wagner performance. If only the roles of Gurnemanz and Parsifal himself had been better filled, this would have been my opera, and not just my Bühnenweihfestspiel, of the year.


Performance of the Year

As with the 'Pollini Project', the Southbank Centre did not permit anything else a chance with its unforgettable weekend, 'Exquisite Labyrinth: the Music of Pierre Boulez'. Pierre-Laurent Aimard  - what a year for him! - and Tamara Stepanovich offered the almost-complete piano works, replete with second-to-none analytical commentary from Aimard. The London Sinfonietta provided the mesmerising moment when I fell head over heals in love with ...explosante-fixe. Above all, Barbara Hannigan, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and Boulez himself put one in no doubt whatsoever that Pli selon pli is not just a modern masterpiece, but a masterpiece tout court. This was as seductive as Mozart.

Other Contenders

The Arditti Quartet performed four contemporary quartets, two world premieres, two mere London premieres. James Clarke's second quartet proved an intense musico-dramatic experience, Bryan Ferneyhough's sixth less fragmentary, more melodic, than one might have expected, though certainly no less challenging. Hilda Parades’s Canciones lunáticas, with Jake Arditti as counter-tenor soloist, delightfully enjoined us to dance with the moon.

Bruno Mantovani's Akhmatova received its world premiere at the Bastille earlier this year. From the opening viola solo, there was no doubt that musical considerations were to the fore of this new opera. (What a contrast with Anna Nicole, which I had heard just the month before, in London!) Akhmatova is almost a concerto for orchestra, with voices. Yet not quite; for, even if Christophe Ghristi's libretto is far from avant-garde, a burning question remains with one, the question that is Anna Akhmatova's own: should a poetess have children?

There is certainly a French theme in this contemporary selection, my final choice being an outstanding performance from the Neuevocalsolisten Stuttgart and the Ensemble Intercontemporain of works by Mantovani, Ivan Fedele, and Johannes Maria Staud. Fedele's Animus anima II exulted and beguiled; Staud's Par ici! emerged almost as a Lisztian tone-poem for the twenty-first-century; Mantovani's Cantata no.1 proved fully worthy of Rilke's verse, Bach refracted through the ages.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Chapelle du Roi/Dixon: Byrd, Fayrfax, Sheppard, Tallis, and Victoria, 17 December 2011

St John’s, Smith Square

Sarum chant: A solis ortus cardine
Byrd – Rorate cœli
Fayrfax – Magnificat, ‘Regale’
Sheppard: Verbum caro
Tallis – Beati Immaculati
Tallis – Suscipe quæso Domine
Tallis – If ye love me
Sheppard – I give you a new commandment
Byrd – Hodie Christus natus est
Tallis – Videte miraculum
Tallis – Te Deum
Victoria – Alma Redemptoris Mater

Chapelle du Roi
Alistair Dixon (director)

The ‘Christmas Festival’ at St John’s, Smith Square is now well under way, despite there being a week to go of Advent, a peculiarity of nomenclature rendered all the more peculiar given that sacred music provides the staple diet. But the name chosen for the present concert was also a little odd: ‘Meet the Tudors’. There was nothing especially regal about the works performed, no more or no less than one might expect from a programme of late-fifteenth-, sixteenth- and early-seventeenth-century English sacred music. Byrd’s Gradualia, from which both the motets performed here are taken, was published two years after the death of Elizabeth I. Victoria’s presence, whilst welcome, also seemed odd, given the vague ‘concept’: a nod to Philip II perhaps? Chapelle du Roi, or rather its director, Alistair Dixon, would have been better advised either to let the music speak for itself, or to provide more of a guiding thematic link.

For the music is perfectly capable of speaking for itself, especially in capable performances such as these generally proved to be. The opening, processional Sarum hymn provided more ‘historical’ perspective than much of the rest of the programme, reminding us of the richness of English mediæval tradition, liturgical and musical, much of it wantonly destroyed by the Reformers’ zeal. Byrd’s introit, Rorate cœeli, flowed yet yielded, the eight voices of Chapelle du Roi, showing the advantages of a small choir even to those of us who might be inclined to hanker after the likes of King’s College, Cambridge, in such repertoire. Robert Fayrfax’s Magnificat was the sole representative of the Eton Choirbook. It unfolded as ‘naturally’ as one had any right to expect, a fine centrepiece to the first half. Not for the last time, however, there was a degree of dryness to the lower voices, the tenors especially, and there were a few intonational difficulties. More seriously, the ‘Esurientes’ section had to be restarted following a serious lapse of ensemble, though Dixon carried that difficult task off with a minimum of fuss.

John Sheppard’s Christmas Day Verbum caro suffered from occasional shortness of breath, leading phrases to fall away a little more than they should, though there were some properly plangent contributions to enjoy from the two counter-tenors. It was a pity, then, that they lapsed somewhat into hooting at the opening of Tallis’s Beati Immaculati. That, otherwise, was an interesting as well as musically satisfying performance, given that it was presented in a Latin version, on the supposition that the composer’s Blessed are those that be undefiled was itself a contrafactum version of a Latin original. Tallis’s Suscipe quæso Domine received a disarmingly heartfelt, expressive reading, its unusual qualities – not least the seven-part texture – observed and communicated, without undue exaggeration.

Tallis returned after the interval. If ye love me – most collegiate choirs love this anthem very much – was sung by four solo men’s voices, likewise Sheppard’s I give you a new commandment, albeit four different voices: now two tenors and two basses. (Neither piece was conducted.) Byrd’s Hodie Christus natus est was beset by a degree of fuzziness from the tenors, though it received a lively, if perhaps unduly hard-driven, performance. Videte miraculum, by Tallis, formed the counterpart to Fayrfax’s work in the first half. Written for the First Vespers of Candlemas, its Marian dissonances – it being impressed upon us how Mary is laden with a noble burden, ‘Stans onerata nobili onere Maria’ – were expressively handled and projected. ‘Knowing that she is not a wife, she rejoices to be a mother’ (‘Et matrem se lætam cognosci, quæ se nescit uxorem’), the two sopranos in particular emphasising the imploring nature of Tallis’s word-setting here.

We remained with Tallis for his English Te Deum. The initial cantorial intonation was not blessed with the strongest intonation in another sense. There was, moreover, something oddly chamber-like to the performance, the only occasion when I truly missed the forces of a larger choir. Somehow, the style seemed more appropriate to a recusant Byrd motet than to the grandeur of words and music. Nevertheless, antiphonal placing of the singers – essentially, one-to-a-part double choir – offered compensatory keenness of response, almost madrigalian in relatively-restrained English fashion. No ‘Gloria’ was given. Victoria’s Alma Redemptoris Mater sounded as if from another world, the warmth of its opening immediately felt: this was clearly music from Mediterranean, albeit Counter-Reformatory, climes.

Thursday 15 December 2011

When Valery Abisalovich called Vladimir Vladimirovich...

According to The Guardian, Valery Gergiev has called the Russian Prime Minister on his annual 'phone-in'. Luke Harding reports:

Gergiev likens Putin to the composer Sergei Prokoviev "who came up with a lot of different productions". (Is this a way of saying Putin should go on and on?) Russia isn't just an oil and gas country but a country rich in poets and writers, Gergiev says. A classic piece of quality toadying, if you ask me.

Putin is clearly delighted by the question. He says he loves St Petersberg [sic], where Gergiev is general and artistic director of the celebrated Mariinsky Theatre. Putin says he will do his best to support Russian culture.

Gergiev is now praising Putin, comparing him to Peter the Great, and Catherine the Great. Putin chides Gergiev for stealing artists for his theatre from Moscow's famous Bolshoi. This is all very pally.
(I wonder what the original Russian for 'different productions' was; there is always the possibility, doubtless, that something might have been lost in translation.) Click here for a fuller report from The Guardian on the Russian people's audience with its present Tsar.  For a time when Russian rulers - and just maybe, even top-ranking musicians - had a few more scruples, see below:

Valery Gergiev, lest anyone need reminding, is Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. It is difficult to conceive of his predecessor, Sir Colin Davis, having behaved similarly. Imagine Sir Colin, when Music Director of the Royal Opera, calling Margaret Thatcher and likening her to Gloriana...

Monday 12 December 2011

Quatuor Ebène: Prokofiev, Debussy, and Brahms, 12 December 2011

Wigmore Hall

Prokofiev – String Quartet no.1 in B minor, op.50
Debussy – String Quartet in G minor, op.10
Brahms – String Quartet in A minor, op.51 no.2

Pierre Colombet, Gabriel Le Magadure (violins),
Mathieu Herzog (viola)
Raphaël Merlin (violoncello)

The Quatuor Ebène’s visits to the Wigmore Hall have proved chamber music highlights of their respective seasons for some time now; the present concert did nothing to buck that trend. This was an evening of superlative quartet playing, even by the players’ own exalted standards, a welcome respite from but also challenge to the vile weather currently sweeping the streets of London.

First on was Prokofiev. There is some fine music to his two quartets, especially in this, his first, though it would be difficult to argue that he was the most natural of string quartet composers. Even the key, B minor, is somewhat perverse, as any cellist will tell you. Not that one would have guessed the problems from this performance, in which, the Ebène quite rightly acted as counsel for the defence. The first movement witnessed the identity of the themes and greater structure clearly and keenly delineated. Intriguingly, here and throughout, this was a more highly-strung – if the pun may be forgiven – Prokofiev who emerged than one often hears in his chamber music, partly a matter in this first movement of a fastish tempo but also, crucially, truly dramatic tension. There was excellent, productive contrast between the players acting as soloists and as part of an ensemble, voices emerging therefrom where called upon, and seamlessly blending back into the texture thereafter. Last but not least was a recognition that, in this music as in so much of the rest of his output, Prokofiev’s greatest gift was as a melodist. Then there came as powerful a contrast, without undue exaggeration, as one might wish for between the slow, vaguely Beethovenian introduction to the slow movement and the ‘Vivace’ proper, its thrills as visceral as they were musical. Rhythmic command and ensemble were outstanding, the quartet rightly playing Prokofiev with the abandon and the coherence one would expect in Bartók. This was Prokofiev the modernist with a vengeance, all the more striking since one expects to find him more readily elsewhere. The final ‘Andante’ permitted each player to present – ‘display’ would give entirely the wrong impression – his particular quality to the turning of a melodic phrase, and equally his own individuality of tone. In the broadest of generalisations, one therefore heard the suavity of cellist Raphaël Merlin, the richness of Mathieu Herzog’s viola, the burning intensity of Gabriel Le Magadure on second violin, and a sweet-toned, Cinderella-like lyricism, tinged with Grumiaux-like elegance from Pierre Colombet’s first violin. At least that was the impression at one point, for the changing demands of the music at its more hysterical would at least partially transform those qualities, to highly dramatic effect. Yet above all, this movement was lyrical, in a fashion out of which its form could emerge as naturally as I have yet to hear.

Debussy’s quartet completed the first half. Its first movement opened in a different yet recognisable manner: suavely graceful, the tone more obviously Gallic, though that certainly did not preclude intensity at climaxes. Indeed this could, where appropriate, be Debussy as impassioned as one might hope for – though never more so. Cyclic concision was a hallmark of the entire reading, not least in the transmission of the crucial triplet figure from the first to the second movement, and also of course beyond. That second movement burned with concentrated intensity, albeit with plenty of opportunity, never overlooked, for refreshment in contrast. Unanimity of ensemble never sounded clinical or slick – one can think of a few well-known quartets for whom that would not have been the case – but arose out of straightforwardly excellent, ever-alert quartet-playing. The ‘Andantino’ was given an elegant, sweetly melodic reading, exhibiting a degree of repose, though only relatively so, for it was no less attentive than any other movement to the relationship between detail and the whole. An urgent but satisfying cyclic unification marked the finale, movement and work becoming much more than the sum of their parts. Everything fell into place, though not bureaucratically; it was more a matter of ultimate victory for an Apollonian imperative.

Brahms’s second quartet was heard after the interval. Again, the sonority one heard could be characterised as different and yet the same. (I thought of Hans Sachs advising Walther that a song cannot always be for spring.) The general sound was more deeply Germanic, as one would expect, yet remained blessed by the elegance and clarity the best Franco-Flemish players have often brought to this repertoire. There was more than a hint of Schubert’s ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet, perhaps especially to the first movement’s second subject, though the motivic working unsurprisingly emerged more tightly-knit. Throughout, the players showed themselves heedful of Brahms’s melodic impulse, which engenders its own passions; there is no need to apply anything from without. Again, the Classical and Romantic were held in well-judged balance and tension during the second movement: not in some abstract equilibrium, but according to the particular needs of the material. The relative minor’s intervention was impassioned and not without influential, but the intermezzo-like mood ultimately if uneasily prevailed. Brahms’s Beethovenian inheritance was readily felt in the alternating, conflicting material of the third movement, vividly dramatised. There was even a hint of Haydn in the faster scherzo music, though Schubert again proved the principal ghost in its more wistful counterpart. The finale made clear that, as ever with Brahms, any ‘Hungarian’ colouring is just that: colouring. The real battle to be fought is ‘German’, through and through, its contrapuntal travails here evoking Beethoven and Bach, whilst inevitably looking forward also to Schoenberg. There was charm too, of an undeniably Viennese variety, though tragedy would out.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Bavouzet/Philharmonia/Ashkenazy - Dukas, Ravel, Falla, and Debussy, 11 December 2011

Royal Festival Hall

Dukas – L’apprenti sorcier
Ravel – Piano Concerto in G major
Falla – Noches en los jardines de España
Debussy – La mer

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Vladimir Ashkenazy

All too often, one witnesses a thoughtless reflex reaction directed toward pianists-turned-conductors. Maurizio Pollini suffered considerable hostility on beginning to conduct; the experience appears to have put him off for good, save for directing Mozart concertos from the piano. One sometimes still hears people say they wish that Daniel Barenboim would concentrate upon the piano, apparently oblivious to how much his conducting has enriched his performances at the keyboard, and vice versa. Vladimir Ashkenazy presents a more difficult case: clearly he is not a bad conductor, as some instrumentalists or singers have proved, but it would be difficult to argue that he has enjoyed similar success in that role as he did as a pianist. One can imagine, though, how much a pianist might value having him as a concerto ‘accompanist’, knowing so many works as a pianist himself. Ashkenazy presents such a genial, collegiate personality on the stage that one cannot help but wish him well; however, my experience on this occasion, as in the past, turned out to be mixed.

Dukas’s scherzo, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, received a disappointing performance. Following slight rhythmic hesitancy at the opening – on Ashkenazy’s part, rather than the Philharmonia’s – the conductor seemed to over-compensate, imparting thereafter a frankly brutal drive, which never relented. The mechanical entirely supplanted the fantastical; a smile was nowhere to be heard.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet then joined the orchestra for two works, the first being Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto. The elegant ease with which Bavouzet despatched the opening piano flourishes was something to savour. Throughout the first movement, he remained alert to Ravel’s twists and turns – and, crucially, to their motivations. Ashkenazy’s handling of the orchestral music was less sure: there were a few minor imprecisions. More seriously, he was often too much the mere ‘accompanist’, following but never really leading. There was nevertheless a great deal to enjoy in the bluesy solos so evidently relished by various Philharmonia principals. The lengthy opening piano solo to the slow movement was not just exquisitely shaped but intriguingly alert to darker undercurrents, Bavouzet bringing the mood a little closer to that of the Left Hand Piano Concerto than s generally the case. Here and later on, his playing was full of subtle shading and phrasing. Again, there was some very fine woodwind playing, not least from Jill Crowther on English horn. The finale I found more problematic. It received a brisk, no-nonsense reading that rather lacked charm: Bavouzet’s delivery, followed by Ashkenazy’s, seemed at times closer to Prokofiev than to Ravel in its muscular approach. There were no such problems, however, with his encore, a darkly atmospheric account of Debussy’s ‘La puerta del Vino’ from the second book of Préludes. Rhythmic insistence was somehow combined with subtle and supple variation.

That ‘Spanish’ piece also offered a good link to the two pieces in the second half: Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Debussy’s own La mer. Ashkenazy’s conducting seemed much sharper in the Falla: full of energy and with a considerably broader colouristic range, those two facets well integrated. Indeed, both he and Bavouzet moved convincingly between languor and biting precision in the first movement, ‘En el Generalife’. The Philharmonia’s cello section was on especially fine form, but all the strings, indeed all the orchestra, contributed to a tremendous climax. The second movement, ‘Danza lejana’, was equally well judged: atmospheric, yet not at the cost of melodic and rhythmic definition. There was a true sense of dialogue now between piano and orchestra, similarly in the final movement, ‘En los jardines de la Sierra de Córdoba’, though occasionally I wondered whether it was a touch on the driven side. I am not sure that the movement presents Falla at his most distinguished, but it received a fine performance nonetheless.

La mer had much to offer too. The outer movements received for the most part eminently musicianly readings, though I have heard saltier accounts. No matter: there were some beautifully hushed moments and Ashkenazy conveyed an impressive degree of quasi-symphonic logic throughout, which, if anything became more pronounced during the course of the first movement. I do not recall a performance in which the presence of Franck has been so pronounced. Ashkenazy reinstated the brass fanfares at the conclusion of ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’. (I approve, though some do not.) ‘Jeux de vagues’ offered glitter but purpose too, precision but not too much, its mystery retained. What I missed, and this registered most strongly in the final movement, was a sense of Debussy’s modernity. This was, broadly speaking, Debussy emerging from the nineteenth century – Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Borodin all sprang to mind – rather than the progenitor of Messiaen and Boulez. There is room for both approaches, of course, and doubtless for others too, though the final climax proved surprisingly brash. A little more refinement there would not have gone amiss.

Saturday 10 December 2011

For Advent: Karl Richter conducts Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61

It is almost a fortnight late, I know, given that this cantata was intended for the first Sunday in Advent, yet we are still very much in the right season, despite the best efforts of marketing interests to persuade us that this time is somehow 'Christmas' or 'festive'. Besides, Leipzig observed the tempus clausum during both Lent and Advent (the second Lent, certainly not a time for 'Christmas parties'), so no concerted music would be performed at St Thomas's on Sundays following the first. We can perhaps afford to be a little less abstemious, especially in the face of so overwhelming a performance as this, responsive almost without effort to words, to theology, and to Bach's astounding musical invention. The chorale is, of course, Martin Luther's.

Richter's Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra perform; the soloists, as many listeners will doubtless recognise from their voices alone, are Edith Mathis, Peter Schreier, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

St John's Choir/Nethsingha - Purcell et al., 9 December 2011

Cadogan Hall

Purcell – O sing unto the Lord
Remember not, Lord our offences
My beloved spake
Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei
Behold now, praise the Lord
John Rutter – What sweeter music?
Trad., arr William Whitehead – The seven joys of Mary
Trad., arr Praetorius and Donald Cashmore – Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen
Franz Grüber, arr. Sir Philip Ledger – Silent Night
Trad., arr Ledger – Sussex Carol
Handel – Violin Sonata in D major, HWV 374: first and second movements
Carl Rütti – I wonder as I wander
Harold Darke – In the bleak midwinter
Allan Bullard – Glory to the Christ Child
William Kirkpatrick, arr. Sir David Willcocks – Away in a manger
Trad., arr. Mack Willberg – Ding, dong! Merrily on high

Leo Comita (countertenor)
Bradley Smith (tenor)
Tristan Hambleton (bass)
Julian Gregory (violin)
John Challenger (organ, piano)
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge
St John’s Sinfonia
Andrew Nethsingha (conductor)

Over almost a decade-and-a-half in Cambridge, I attended a good few services of Choral Evensong at St John’s: more devotional, less of a tourist trap, than its equivalent at King’s. The Chapel of my undergraduate college, Jesus, the oldest college building in Oxford or Cambridge, dating back to the twelfth century, will always retain a special place in my affections. Yet, personal and collegiate associations aside, I should almost always have chosen a service or concert from the Choir of St John’s over that of any other collegiate choir, King’s included. There has long been a stylistic distinction between King’s and John’s – the only other choir retaining trebles is Jesus, which alternates between boys and women – which may broadly be described as white purity versus a more Continental full-throated sound, or Sir David Willcocks versus George Guest, and later, Stephen Cleobury versus Christopher Robinson. That may all seem unnecessary preamble, but I mention it to try to explain why I was more than a little surprised to hear the present choir of St John’s under its Director of Music, Andrew Nethsingha, sound surprisingly similar to what I might have expected from King’s, albeit without quite the æthereal quality one would hear from that choir at its best. Everything was of a high standard; there was nothing, at least in terms of performance, really to complain about, but the individual sound of the choir was much less apparent, rather as the Berlin Philharmonic so often nowadays no longer sounds like a German orchestra. The concert hall environment may have been a contributory element, but I find it difficult to believe that it was the only factor.

Another difference from the Guest and Robinson years – there was also a brief period under David Hill – was the use of period instruments. Nethsingha has co-founded with Margaret Faultless a period ensemble, named St John’s Sinfonia. On this occasion it was made up of two violins, viola, bass violin, and violone. Modern strings would certainly have sounded sweeter and proved more capable of remaining in tune, but the lightness of tone, intonational issues apart, possessed a certain likeness to the relative lightness of choral tone. Vibrato was not eschewed: indeed, the strings in many respects sounded preferable to those of the well-nigh vibrato-less Britten Sinfonia in Berlioz the previous evening. That said, it was quite a relief when, in the second half, one heard a modern violin in the oddly-programmed two movements from a Handel sonata. Julian Gregory’s performance was warm, stylish, naturally phrased, though one might have wished for stronger presence from the somewhat reticent pianist, John Challenger. (It was odd to have the piano for the rest of the second half, given that an organ had employed earlier on.)

Back to the choir, and to Purcell. There was a judicious mix of full and verse anthems to be heard. Jubilant moments might have come across more resoundingly, but there remained, for instance, a fine sense of presaging Handel to the final lines of O sing unto the Lord. Tristan Hambleton handled the bass melismata with considerable flair too. Nethsingha had a tendency to underplay the truly searing moments: I have heard the dissonances of Remember not, Lord our offences, sound more wrenching. More worryingly, Jehova, quam multi sunt hostes mei seemed at times quite oblivious to the words of the Third Psalm; indeed, it veered dangerously close to the jaunty. ‘Lord, how are they increased that trouble me: many are they that rise against me…’ The plangency of the opening sinfonia to Behold now, praise the Lord sounded quite right, though. Nethsingha’s direction rose properly to the occasion: ideally paced, rhythms nicely sprung.

The problem with the second half – apart from a poorly-behaved audience – lay more with the programme. It was very odd that the director of one of the country’s, indeed the world’s, greatest choral foundations was seemingly unable, or at least unwilling, to distinguish between Advent and Christmas. We could have heard some Monteverdi, some Bach, etc., etc., but instead we had a generally trivial sequence of Christmas carols and similar pieces. Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen came as balm to the soul: beautifully, intelligently arranged, even with a nice line in canonical writing from Donald Cashmore. German pronunciation was good too. It came as balm, though, partly because of the two horrors that had preceded it: John Rutter’s What sweeter music? is a piece of similar quality to the wedding gift the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had visited upon them by Westminster Abbey; Robert Herrick’s words deserve much, much better. As for William Whitehead’s arrangement of The seven joys of Mary, it has nothing to recommend it beyond – or including – that all-purpose jauntiness and syncopation (a 7/8 time signature) which passes for ‘modernity’ in quarters that somehow have failed to register Schoenberg’s emancipation of the dissonance. Alan Bullard’s Glory to the Christ Child, were it a painting, would probably find itself ascribed to the ‘workshop of John Rutter’. Frankly, I should rather hear the music of Sir Charles Stanford, and that is saying something. Carl Rütti’s I wonder as I wander was similarly pointless. More ‘traditional’ settings emerged with greater credit, for instance Harold Darke’s In the bleak midwinter and the two arrangements by Sir Philip Ledger. At least Mack Wilberg’s Ding, dong! Merrily on high wears its campness on its sleeve – but that is all one can really say in its favour. John Gardner’s Tomorrow shall be my dancing day was the encore too far. The choir of St John’s has sounded stronger, and it might well have done here, had it been featured in a programme whose second half had matched its first in musical interest.

Friday 9 December 2011

Britten Sinfonia/Elder: Berlioz, L'Enfance du Christ, 8 December 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall

L’Enfance du Christ, op.25

Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano)
Allan Clayton (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Neal Davies (bass)

Britten Sinfonia Voices (chorus master: Eamonn Dougan)
Britten Sinfonia
Sir Mark Elder (conductor)

I have somehow managed to miss Sir Colin Davis’s London performances of L’Enfance du Christ, making it one of the final major Berlioz works I have heard in the flesh. (I hope to rectify the understandable omission of the Messe solenelle when Riccardo Muti conducts it in Salzburg next summer, a performance of the Symphonie funèbre et triomphale remaining.) There was much to enjoy in this performance from Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia, though my impression was that much of an often badly-behaved audience enjoyed it more than I did. (The second half was considerably delayed whilst the rest of us were compelled to wait for a gang of braying corporate hospitality beneficiaries from Mills and Reeves solicitors. I should like to think that it was from that group that a friend overheard some people announcing that the work had been composed by Benjamin Britten…)

For me, the problem lay in Elder’s conducting, certainly not in the ever-immediate response of the Britten Sinfonia. On the positive side, Elder imparted drive to the narrative, almost as if this were an opera rather than a dramatic choral work. (Berlioz never termed it an oratorio, though it is commonly and harmlessly thus described today.) I especially liked the ominous orchestral tread from Herod’s Palace, forshadowing the ‘Libera me’ from Fauré’s Requiem. Berlioz’s inimitable nervous energy was present throughout, to considerable effect. And the Ishmaelite trio for two flutes and harp was an utter delight, charmant to a degree, though it seemed quite unnecessary for the conductor to traverse the stage to conduct it. The bassoon timbre, echoing, consciously or otherwise, the music for the Witch of Endor in Handel’s Saul, was spot on for the appearance of Herod’s soothsayers. But the near-absence, certain orchestral rebellions notwithstanding, of string vibrato was a serious problem. The Vibratoverbot was not universally applied, or at least not universally adhered to: I both saw and heard valiant musicians tempt the wrath of the Norringtonian gods. There are so many objections to this practice that it is difficult to know where to start. It is utterly unhistorical, despite the pseudo-historical pleas routinely made for it. At any rate, the contrast between lively, colourful, plausibly ‘French’ woodwind and frankly unpleasant string sound was jarring. Indeed, the poor violins were forced to play for the scene in the Bethlehem stable in a fashion more reminiscent of a scratchy school orchestra than the fine ensemble we all know this to be. It could have been worse for them, I suppose: they might have been members of Norrington’s demoralised Stuttgart orchestra. Afterwards, I noticed a quotation from Elder in the programme: ‘Each particular scene has its own timbre. It is not a rich, twentieth-century sound but rather more restrained with little vibrato in the voices and instruments.’ No justification is made for the claim, let alone the results, but I cannot help wondering why, if every scene has its own timbre, a more-or-less blanket prohibition on vibrato is considered appropriate.

Choral singing was first-rate throughout, the Britten Sinfonia Voices clearly well trained by Eamonn Dougan. The choir’s keenness in the fugue, ‘Que de leurs pieds meurtris on lave les blessures!’ was exemplary, likewise the fine blend of the final a cappella chorus (with narrator), a barrage of coughs notwithstanding. Offstage, the invisible angels impressed equally, though there was something distinctly odd about the sound of the organ; I assume it must have been electronic. That the Shepherds’ Farewell was a little hasty was no fault of the singers.

The vocal soloists all had their strengths too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sarah Connolly and Roderick Williams proved the strongest: what a joy it was to hear such a melting duet from them in the stable scene, their voices happily uniting deeply-felt expressiveness with Gallic elegance. The French language heard elsewhere was often more of a trial; though Allan Clayton often sang beautifully, especially at the close, the meaning of the words was not always quite so apparent. Whilst Neal Davies had his moments, the power of his projection of Herod’s turmoil – at times, this presages both musically and temperamentally close to Boris Godunov – was often compromised by a tendency to emote excessively. The dryness at the bottom of his range was cruelly exposed from time to time.

In a sense, I have saved the worst until last: a half-baked attempt – Elder’s initiative, I am told – to evoke a sense of ‘community’ prior to the performance. Even some time after the solicitors and their important clients had deigned to join proceedings, we were made to wait a good few minutes whilst Elder and various members of the orchestra walked around on stage, conversing inaudibly in a fashion that would have shamed the most homespun of amateur dramatic societies. A concert scheduled for 7.30 thus began at 7.45. Alas, the only ‘community’ evoked was that of Deborah Warner’s ludicrous ENO staging of the Messiah. There was so much that was good in this performance that it was a real pity for a few aspects to have detracted from it so significantly. Let us hope, then, that London will not have to wait too long for another performance from Sir Colin.

Thursday 8 December 2011

Pierre-Laurent Aimard: Liszt, Wagner, Berg, and Scriabin, 7 December 2011

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Liszt – La lugubre gondola I, S 200
Wagner – Piano Sonata in A-flat major, ‘Für das Album von Frau MW’
Liszt – Nuages gris, S 199
Berg – Piano Sonata, op.1
Liszt – Unstern! sinister, disastro, S 208
Scriabin – Piano Sonata no.9 in F major, op.68, ‘Black Mass’
Liszt – Piano Sonata in B minor, S 178

The second of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s International Piano Series recitals continued his focus on Liszt. Whereas the first had arguably offered more varied fare, relatively earlier works combined with music by Bartók, Marco Stroppa, Ravel, and Messiaen, here, at least in the first half, was late Liszt with a vengeance. An uncompromising programme paired three of his extraordinary late elegies with Wagner, Berg, and Scriabin. Even the B minor sonata, the single work performed in the second half, took on a later tinge than one might have expected, partly by dint of Aimard’s programming, and partly on account of his performance.

The recital opened with the first version of La lugubre gondola. (Not the second version, as stated in Harriet Smith’s often bizarre programme notes, which veered between Woman’s Own – ‘We cannot be sure how far their relationship went, but Wagner was clearly out to impress Mathilde’ – and Blue Peter: ‘Listen to the opening of this sonata, forgetting about the rhythm for a moment. Does that melodic shape recall anything?’) Liszt’s barcarolle rhythm was clear and profoundly generative in Aimard’s performance: if the Venetian equivalent of sea-sickness is river-sickness, than that is what one felt, the Nietzschean décadence of the Wagners’ Palazzo Vendramin oppressively apparent. Thomas Mann – more so than Visconti – was never far away. Aimard conveyed a fine sense of the forcibly subdued, or even subjugated: something was trying to break free from whatever was stifling it – and us. Wagner’s ‘Album’ Sonata for Mathilde Wesendonck followed. It is a grossly underrated work: just because it is not Liszt’s sonata does not mean that it is not worth performing. Aimard offered as fine a performance as I have heard: tempi well-nigh ideal and fluid as required. Even if the piano-writing is not Liszt’s, some of the sonorities are – and the same might be said of Beethoven, both in placing of chords and even some melodic characteristics. Aimard brought these to our attention without exaggeration, and wisely pointed also to the kinship with aspects of Lohengrin. His performance was never over-heated: this is not the Treibhaus of Tristan. It was, however, utterly involving.

Nuages gris received a subtle performance, subtle in terms of intervallic relationships, pointing the way to Webern, and also with respect to dynamic shading. The vertical and the horizontal stood in perfect balance – or fruitful dialectic. Berg’s early sonata emerged intriguingly from the aftermath, both works sharing the importance of the augmented fourth, and Berg’s work also of course pointing the way towards the B minor tonality of Liszt’s own sonata in the second half. Luxuriant Straussian and Schoenbergian textures were held in fruitful tension with the need for concision. More than once, one could hear the Schoenberg of, say, the First Chamber Symphony in what I am tempted to call the ‘hectic clarity’ of developmental counterpoint. Schoenberg’s songs also seemed close in the harmony and placing of chords. If Schoenberg and Debussy were perhaps the most surprising omissions from Aimard’s two recitals – one cannot include everything – then neither composer would be entirely absent in spirit.

Unstern! is as uncompromising as Liszt gets. It received a duly uncompromising performance, starkly persistent in its noble yet desolate emphasis upon – yet again – the tritone. I have not heard a more diabolical performance, the fabled diabolus in musica dramatically as well as theoretically apparent. And the anger: what anger lay in those chords preceding the final, faint hope of redemption! Figuration then took us back to the world of La lugubre gondola, the desperation of Liszt’s late music often lying in its denial of development, whilst all the more strongly implying its necessity. (That is very different from, say, Messiaen, for whom development is often not even an issue.) Scriabin’s ‘Black Mass’ sonata persisted with and yet also transformed the darkness of Unstern! Those hopeless would-be fanfares, still more a hallmark of R.W. – Venezia – not performed here – found their identity as echoes of Liszt, albeit perfumed echoes. There was devilry too, though: for the first time, though certainly not the last, in this recital, Aimard was called upon to deliver the music with true virtuosity, and he did. Debussy on acid, I thought, not least upon hearing those trippy bells of death.

Anyone interested in piano music will have a favourite performance of the Liszt sonata against which to measure others. (Mine is Sviatoslav Richter’s.) It is a state of affairs as inevitable as it is sometimes unfortunate, the danger being that one closes one’s ears to alternative standpoints. Such was the strength of Aimard’s reading that one was soon utterly convinced, a few surprisingly muddy textures at the opening of the exposition proper notwithstanding. Moreover, one certainly heard the introduction with new ears, given the context of the recital as a whole, the radicalism of Liszt’s scales all the more clear, even the best part of three decades earlier than the mysteries of his late works. Throughout there was a fine sense of purpose, if without – at least earlier on – the abandon of some. Motivic working was lain bare with exemplary clarity: an especially important consideration in this of all works, Liszt’s transformative technique crucial to even the most basic analytical understanding. The second subject was exquisitely shaped, as ravishing as any operatic melody, yet all the more meaningful given the motivic transformation that had brought us to that stage. Any of the slight textural doubts I had entertained earlier on were banished by the development. Ugly, or at least dark, sounds were not banished, but incorporated, above all into truly thumping chords: it is worth reiterating that this was a sonata definitely heard through the ears of what was to come. And yet, the line so magically spun in the slow movement – itself part of the one-movement development in Liszt’s daring formal scheme – could not have been more delicately voiced. The fugato/scherzo/false recapitulation was Mephistophelian rather than darkly diabolical: contrapuntal clarity negated rather than terrified, Faust chosen over theology in Aimard’s reading. That said, there was an overwhelming sense of arrival at the true dawn of the recapitulation, during which any slight earlier inhibition was quite forgotten, the obsessive nature of Liszt’s motivic working intensified in Aimard’s grand yet detailed sweep. This time around, the second subject was truly heart-stopping, not least since the moment of rare – in every sense – beauty was so hard-won. One feared, as one ought to, for the pianist’s safe passage through the horrendous double octaves, but he emerged, if not quite unscathed, then with great credit. The final peace was a little uneasy, most likely not passing understanding: very much of a piece with the spirit of Aimard’s performance throughout. At last, a noisy audience fell silent.

Monday 5 December 2011

Bernstein conducts Haydn's Missa in tempore belli

Can any composer, save perhaps Bach, express such utter, unmediated joy? With Mozart, there will always be sadness, smiling through the tears; with Beethoven, there will be strenuous effort; somehow, partly a matter of historical positioning, but also of ontology, that is not necessarily so for Haydn..

Louis Lortie: Liszt, 4 December 2011

Wigmore Hall

Années de pèlerinage: Deuxième Année, ‘Italie’, S 161
La lugubre gondola II, S 200
R.W. – Venezia, S 201
Venezia e Napoli, S 162

As Liszt year draws to a close, there has been much to savour, though there have been a good few disappointments too, not least the continued absence of works such as Christus and The Legend of St Elisabeth from London. Yet, if performances of the two piano concertos from Daniel Barenboim, the Staatskapelle Berlin, and Pierre Boulez have provided my absolute highlight, shortly followed by a revelatory recital of music by Liszt and twentieth-century composers from Pierre-Laurent Aimard, then I can think of nothing else to rank above this Wigmore Hall recital from Louis Lortie. He certainly put to shame Evgeny Kissin, let alone Leslie Howard.

The first half was given over to the second, Italian book of the Années de pèlerinage, performed by Lortie on his Fazioli as a single work, permitting – let us give thanks – neither pauses for applause nor for further bronchial discharge. (There was enough of the latter as it was, in addition to the curious and aggravating case of a man seated on the back row loudly turning pages throughout. I assumed that he was following a score, but it turned out that he was reading a tatty paperback.) ‘Sposalizio’ displayed kinship to Debussy – the inevitable thought is always of the E major Arabesque – which once again went to show quite how far back Liszt’s ‘Impressionism’ may be dated. That did not mean, however, that there was any stinting on muscular pianism where required, likewise rapt sublimity in contemplation of Raphael’s inspirational painting. ‘Il Penseroso’ was powerfully sculpted, with proper weight accorded to Liszt’s premonitions of old age, whilst the Canzonetta provided a nicely jaunty interlude, prior to the Petrarch Sonnets. Lortie captured perfectly the essence of song transformed into piano music. Melody was given its due, but so was the fantastical instrumental alchemy of Liszt the master pianist, never more so than in the filigree decoration of no.104. If I were to be hyper-critical, there was a slight hardening of tone in no.123, but it was not a serious problem. Throughout, one could not but admire the command of line and quasi-vocal modulation. Lortie’s delicacy of pianissimo touch in no.123 truly permitted the final bars to melt away. The Dante Sonata was marked as much by quiet desolation (relatively speaking) and signs of hope as hell fire. Not that Lortie’s rendition lacked virtuosity, but it was never permitted, quite rightly, to become an end in itself. Lohengrin-like shimmering and indeed glimpses of that typically Lisztian paradox, beatific yearning familiar from the Sonnets, were almost equally apparent. Crucially, narrative became structure rather than standing in opposition. (For the most part, the ‘problem’ with programme music lies solely in the heads of those who do not understand what it is.)

The second half moved us to Venice. First off were two of Liszt’s late, dark jewels: the second version of La lugubre gondola and R.W. – Venezia. La lugubre gondola opened in somewhat disappointing fashion, not just unrelievedly stark, but prosaic. Lortie’s performance, however, was transformed with the coming of the lapping waves: not for the first time, I was put in mind of Luigi Nono’s Venice, his Prometeo especially. Unease was powerfully conveyed and the final upward whole-tone line duly chilled. Wagner’s fate was surely sealed, one felt, after this Lisztian premonition of death in 1882. R.W. – Venezia was dark, weighty, desolate without relief. There was an excellent sense of would-be exultancy that simply could not climax. After that, there was ambiguous relief to be heard in ‘Gondoliera’, the first number in Liszt’s Venetian and Neapolitan supplement to the Italian book. Melodic delights found themselves, in a wonderfully dramatic touch of programming, overshadowed by the disconsolate tragedy of the Wagner elegies. Following a fine reading of ‘Canzone,’ the Tarantella was slightly less successful, losing its way a little towards the beginning, and too matter of the fact in conclusion. That said, there was much to satisfy in between. Some might prefer musical exhibitionism here, but Lortie’s solid musical virtues, above all once more an unbroken line from which to spin, are ultimately far more durable qualities. A sparkling, Ravel-like performance of ‘Les Jeux d’eau à la Villa d’Este,’ from the Third Book, provided a fine encore. On the evidence of this recital, Lortie’s recently released set for Chandos of the complete Années de pèlerinage will be very well worth hearing.