Tuesday 31 January 2012

Jonathan Harvey, Wagner Dream, BBC SO/Brabbins, 29 January 2012

Barbican Hall

Prakriti – Claire Booth
Vairochana – Simon Bailey
Mother – Hilary Summers
Ananda – Andrew Staples
Old Brahmin – Richard Angas
Buddha – Roderick Williams

Richard Wagner – Nicholas Le Prevost
Cosima Wagner – Ruth Lass
Carrie Pringle – Julia Innocenti
Dr Keppler – Richard Jackson
Betty/Vajrayogni – Sally Brooks

Orpha Phelan (director)
Charlie Cridlan (designs)

Gilbert Nouno (IRCAM computer music designer)
Franck Rossi (IRCAM sound engineer)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins (conductor)

The Barbican’s biennial Present Voices series performs an invaluable service in bringing new opera to London; Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream is one of three works presented this season, the others being Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest and Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. Sadly, I had been unable to attend the previous day’s Total Immersion events, but here at least was the British premiere of Wagner Dream. This came as the climax of a peculiarly concentrated and indeed varied bout of opera-going, following, on consecutive nights: Il prigioniero, courtesy of the Philharmonia, Così fan tutte at Covent Garden, and Der Rosenkavalier from ENO. I was not entirely convinced that Harvey’s third opera, despite an interesting premise, stood up so very well in such daunting company.

Briefly, it presents Wagner and Cosima in Venice, on the day of the former’s death, joined by Carrie Pringle, the Flowermaiden whose advances, such as they were, Cosima in reality saw off. Here, by contrast, they actually receive a visit from the Scottish-Hungarian soprano (though, it must be said, it would not necessarily be very clear who she was, did one not know already). This part of the cast, played by actors, is completed by a housemaid, Betty, and a physician, Dr Keppler. Wagner in his study, meanwhile, reflects upon Die Sieger, the Buddhist opera he once planned to write, and whose more productive concerns were subsumed into Parsifal, though in Harvey’s opera, it is clearly more a matter of regret to Wagner that he has failed to write the work. He – and Harvey – therefore imagine Die Sieger, which is dreamed alongside the events in Venice. Prakriti – which means ‘Nature’ in Sanskrit – is an Untouchable, who falls in love with Ananda, a young monk, cousin and disciple of Prince Siddharta, the Buddha. The attraction is mutual, and deepens as Ananda eats with Prakriti and her mother; the Buddha therefore appears, unbeknown to Ananda, and creates a Tantric vision of the young monk’s beloved as the goddess Vajrayogini, thereby persuading him to leave. Prakriti goes to the Buddha and tells him she wishes to share her life with Ananda. Sympathetic, partly on account of a story from their past lives, the Buddha tells her that there is a way: she may join the order as its first woman member (echoes of The Magic Flute perhaps?)

Sad to say, the opera is severely, I should say fatally, compromised by the banality of Jean-Claude Carrière’s libretto. Even in its less embarrassing moments, it fails to progress beyond a beginner’s guide to Buddhism; moreover, it evinces little understanding of, or even sympathy for, the Wagners (whether historically or simply as potential ‘characters’). The actors’ part of the action seems like a bad soap opera, whilst the Buddhist dream has more in common, as presented, with a school assembly story than serious, let alone Wagnerian, drama. The only mildly arresting aspect is the vision of Vajrayogini, whose scarlet hue at least provides relief from the otherwise drab production. Indeed, it was difficult to detect any greater insight from director Orla Pherlan than from Carrière, though perhaps she was hamstrung by the ritualistic element to a work that is hardly Parsifal. At least the three levels of action were clear: the Wagners at the top, the Buddhist world next down, and the orchestra beneath. (Vairochana, Wagner’s Buddhist dream guide, capably sung by Simon Bailey, is the only one to move between the two staged levels.)

Harvey’s music is, unsurprisingly, more interesting, though ears more attuned to quasi-Eastern ritualism – at its best, perhaps evoking Stockhausen, though sometimes – than mine might have responded more readily. Much, though by no means all, of the language is surprisingly tonal, and the electronics offer spectralist as well, I think, as aleatory variation. (Amplification of the singers, however, becomes wearing, at least to me.) In many ways, the most intriguing, as well as dramatic, music was that of one of the interludes, in which we were mercifully free from Carrière’s contribution. As a whole, though, I found a concert work such as Speakings, performed at the 2008 Proms, more dramatically satisfying. Moreover, I remained unconvinced that the occasional hints of Wagner – I suppose there had to be a Tristan-chord; certain sonorities and timbres suggest Parsifal – add very much other than perhaps the slight joy of recognition. For better, or worse, the Buddha tends to be surrounded by pentatonic, or at least pentatonic-inspired, harmonies.

So far as I could tell, the musical performances were excellent (despite that caveat relating to amplification). Martyn Brabbins’s leadership of the BBC Symphony Orchestra convinced, combining ritualism and a more involving labyrinthine quality to what I presume to have been the composer’s intended effect. Hilary Summers seemed a little wasted as the Mother, but Claire Booth, allotted the more obviously dramatic music, shone as brightly as one might have expected. Andrew Staples proved a sincere Ananda, his bearing and vocal delivery as involving as Carrière’s banalities would permit, and Roderick Williams a properly dignified, musically attentive Buddha. There was a nice turn from Richard Angas as the Old Brahmin, horrified at the prospect of a woman joining the order, even if ‘caricature’ would seem too generous a description for the words he was offered. Such were the ‘drama’ and direction that it is perhaps unfair to say very much of the actors, other than that they failed to draw one in. For all its faults, Tony Palmer’s Wagner film presents a Richard and Cosima of considerably greater credibility. Carrie Pringle, anything but a siren, is merely annoying. Perhaps others will have gained more than I did from the experience, but I cannot imagine hurrying to a subsequent performance. The Welsh National Opera has scheduled a staging.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Der Rosenkavalier, English National Opera, 28 January 2012

Sarah Connolly as Octavian
Images: Clive Barda/Arena PAL
(sung in English)

The Coliseum

The Marschallin – Amanda Roocroft
Octavian – Sarah Connolly
Mohammed – Ericson Mitchell
Footmen – David Dyer, Anton Rich, Christopher Speight, Michael Burke
Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau – Sir John Tomlinson
Major-domo to the Marschallin – Geraint Hylton
Widow – Susan Rann
Orphans – Claire Mitcher, Lydia Marchione, Deborah Davison
Milliner – Fiona Canfield
Animal Seller – Graeme Lauren
Hairdresser – Allan Adams
Notary – Paul Napier-Burrows
Valzacchi – Adrian Thompson
Annina – Madeleine Shaw
Singer – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Flautist – Brian Dean
Leopold – Harry Ward
Faninal – Andrew Shore
Sophie – Sophie Bevan
Marianne – Jennifer Rhys-Davies
Major-domo to Faninal – Philip Daggett
Doctor – Christopher Speight
Landlord – David Newman
Waiters – Allan Adames, Graeme Lauren, Christopher Speight, Roger Begley
Police Commissar – Mark Richardson

David McVicar (director, set designs)
Michael Vale (associate set designer)
Tanya McCallin (costumes)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Andrew George (movement)

Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Sophie (Sophie Bevan) and Octavian

This was a delightful evening at the Coliseum. I can understand why, in certain moods or even phases of one’s life, one might not like Der Rosenkavalier – it is, for one thing, a far nastier opera than many suppose – but I cannot understand how one could fail to love it. There was no such chance of failure here, for a fine company performance proved to be considerably more than the sum of its parts, themselves far from negligible. David McVicar’s production, originally for Scottish Opera, ought not to scare off even the most hidebound self-proclaimed ‘traditionalists’. Designs are pretty much what one would expect from a reading of the libretto, though there is less extravagant opulence for its own sake than, say, in Munich: no bad thing, in my book. Yet, quite rightly, McVicar does not rely merely upon the ‘beautiful’ designs. (That tends to be what ‘traditionalists’ are really concerned with when they bleat about ‘modern’ productions.) Every character, including the trademark highlighted ‘minor’ roles, has clearly been considered, and is directed – and portrayed – with conviction. I am not quite so sure about the wig allotted to the Marschallin, though; perhaps her Hairdresser (Allan Adams) should have had a word. Nor do I understand why Mohammed is no longer a boy: a point of ‘minor’ detail perhaps, yet, in this work, detail stands out. Nevertheless, a well-conceived, well-executed staging, including movement and lighting, makes a necessary and generous contribution to the musico-dramatic whole.

Edward Gardner’s conducting impressed, as did the often tremendous playing of the ENO Orchestra. If there were times when Gardner perhaps pressed forward a little too hard, for instance the whooping horns of the opening, he nevertheless maintained for the most part a real semblance of line, and at times drew a fuller sound from the orchestra than I have heard for a very long time. The opening of the third act had a few problems: there was one false start during the Pantomime, and coordination between orchestra and off-stage band was sometimes lost. Even those shortcomings, however, did little to detract from the performance as a whole, for which three cheers should certainly be offered to the players in the pit.

The Marschallin (Amanda Roocroft)
Amanda Roocroft’s Marschallin suffered from the vocal flaws that have often beset this artist. There were a good few times when she failed to maintain her vocal line, and tuning was less than perfect. Nevertheless, I found, especially during the latter half of the first act, that there was something quite moving to her portrayal. In a sense, it was ‘wrong’: there was very much a sense of an older woman than the Marschallin is supposed to be. Yet, I do not think that mattered. What we gained was an interesting sense – for which McVicar’s direction should most likely also be credited – of how wronged a woman she is, and indeed how wronged womankind is or at least has been. Ochs will continue on his merry way, but a woman of her age, whatever that may be, could not. More vocally refulgent performances perhaps cause us so much to fall in love with the character that we overlook that important, quasi-feminist aspect. Another, presumably unintended, consequence was that one was led to listen more acutely to the other voices in the tale, to try to understand what was entailed for Ochs, for Octavian, for Sophie, rather than simply to swoon whenever the Marschallin opened her mouth or batted her eyelids.

Ochs (Sir John Tomlinson) and
Sarah Connolly’s Octavian for the most part impressed. She is a seasoned pro when it comes to trouser roles, and her voice sounded just right for the role, though there was necessitated a perhaps surprising suspension of belief in terms of the young count’s age, Connolly looking more a Giulio Cesare than a seventeen-year-old ‘boy’. As Rosenkavalier, that seemed less of an issue; as with several members of the cast, though, diction was sometimes a problem. (I realise that is an especially problematical issue with respect to female Strauss roles, but in that case, might we not at least hear them in German? There were certainly a few oddities in Alfred Kalisch’s translation: why ‘Her Majesty the Queen’, especially when we heard later of the ‘Imperial Court’? And really, nothing other than ‘Ja, ja,’ will do at the end – especially for anyone who has heard Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.) As Mariandel, though, Connolly was a delight from beginning to end, her comic timing and delivery genuinely amusing – and touching. The all-purpose ‘Northern’ accent that now seems de rigueur for comic roles in English is a dubious concept, but Connolly carried it off with aplomb.

Annina (Madeleine Shaw)
Indeed, it was impossible not to smile, at the very least, when her Coronation Street-style pronunciation of ‘weepy’ was repeated with bemusement by Sir John Tomlinson. His Ochs was a joy: less boorish, I think, than I have seen on occasion before. The voice is sometimes in relative disrepair, but the stage presence more than compensates. It is undoubtedly a role that suits him to a tee. Sophie Bevan’s Sophie was a triumph: in a role which usually does not fail to irritate – how could Octavian, or anyone else, prefer her to the Marschallin? – we had a real, flesh-and-blood character, a young woman making her way in the world, and successfully too. Not that she was insensitive to the Marschallin’s position, far from it, but a beautifully-sung, as well as finely-acted, portrayal plausibly handed her the equivocal victory. (Again, we were reminded that men were the real victors.) Andrew Shore’s Faninal was convincingly acted, though often a little woolly in vocal terms. Most of the lesser roles were, however, taken well: the Italians (Adrian Thompson and Madeleine Shaw) convinced as their usual stock commedia dell'arte selves – which is how it should be – and even the Police Commissar, Mark Richardson, was noteworthy for his attention to textual detail.

There are some who complain about the work’s length: hardly excessive, indeed considerably shorter than that of many operas. But then, there are some who complain to others’ bewilderment also about the length of Elektra, accusing Strauss of longueurs in a music drama of extraordinary, single-minded concision. It seems to me that such ‘well-meaning’ critics would be better off not listening to Strauss at all, or perhaps contenting themselves with discs of ‘highlights’. I, for one, should have been happy to hear it all again – and may well try to do so.

Valzacchi (Adrian Thompson), Ochs, and Annina

Operatic characters we should meet

In an idle moment, I set to thinking about a few 'characters' we hear mentioned but whom it would be interesting to encounter properly, perhaps in 'spin-off' prequels or sequels. Here are ten priorities, though others will doubtless soon spring to mind:

Herzeleide (though I suppose we did see her in Stefan Herheim's production...)
The parents of Fiordiligi and Dorabella (negligent or unavoidably detained?)
The Queen of the Night's deceased husband (King of the Night?)
The Feldmarschall
Berenice (La clemenza di Tito)
Grimhilde (she must have quite a story to tell)
Agamemnon (Elektra)
Parsifal (Lohengrin, to ascertain once and for all whether he is the Parsifal)
Pelléas's father

Saturday 28 January 2012

Così fan tutte, Royal Opera, 27 January 2012

Royal Opera House

Ferrando – Charles Castronovo
Guglielmo – Nikolai Borchev
Don Alfonso – Sir Thomas Allen
Fiordiligi – Malin Byström
Dorabella – Michèle Losier
Despina – Rosemary Joshua

Jonathan Miller (director)
Harry Fehr (revival director)
Jonathan Miller, Tim Blazdell, Andrew Jameson, Colin Maxwell, Catherine Smith, and Anthony Waterman (set designs)
Jonathan Miller and John Charlton (lighting)

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

Ferrando (Charles Castronovo), Don Alfonso (Sir Thomas Allen), Guglielmo (Nikolai Borchev)
Image: Royal Opera/Johan Persson

In principle, there could be no better way of celebrating Mozart’s birthday than hearing Sir Colin Davis conduct Così fan tutte. It was certainly advisable to think of this performance from the standpoint of hearing two well-loved knights from British musical life: Davis, of course the world’s greatest living Mozartian, and Sir Thomas Allen, marking his fortieth year with the Royal Opera.

For Jonathan Miller’s production, always a tawdry slight upon this most ravishing and sophisticated of operatic masterpieces, has not improved with age. The ludicrous slapstick – in this of all works! – continues at best to irritate, not least given its effect upon sections of an extremely poorly-behaved audience. When not coughing, chattering, dropping items, reading the subtitles out aloud, or making strange oinking noises (the row behind me), far too many people seemed to find the appearance of mobile telephones intrinsically, indeed overpoweringly, hilarious, their selfishly prolongued guffaws well-night obliterating the magical strains of Mozart’s – and Sir Colin’s – orchestra. Designs for the most part now simply look dull, outlandish costumes representing an attempt to breathe life into a corpse that should be put out of our misery. (It is extraordinary to think that no fewer than six people, Miller included, are credited for the set designs. What could they all have been doing?) To take the most brazen example: why ever would the girls be interested in the hideous biker transformations to which Ferrando and Guglielmo are subjected? They are certainly unrecognisable, so the disguise at least has worked; yet, however fickle Fiordiligi and Dorabella may be, they would be in need of psychiatric attention to forget two handsome young men in favour of what is put in front of them. The only glimmer of a real idea – and it is, to be fair, an interesting one, partly to be attributed to Rosemary Joshua’s fine acting skills – is the final outcome for Despina, who appears genuinely troubled by what she has seen. Was this, though, the doing of revival director, Harry Fehr? I do not remember it from before, though that may simply be a matter of fallible memory. Enough of the production: I have probably dwelled too much on it in the past and have granted it far too great a benefit of the doubt. Let us proceed to the more congenial matter of the music.

Davis remains a master of this score. If he did not perhaps quite scale the heights of greatness I heard in 2007 – probably the best conducted Mozart opera I have ever heard – then it is difficult to conceive of anyone nearing, let alone matching, him. As so often, the overture gave a clue, its opening bars somehow both sensuous and magisterial, the unbearable lightness of being that followed a true and poignant opening to the work as a whole. There is often more than one answer to a puzzle of tempo, but Sir Colin’s wisdom ensured that we never realised there was a puzzle in the first place, every number so seemingly ‘natural’ both in pacing and progress that one could not imagine it being performed otherwise, and every number of course integrated into a greater whole. That is the key to this opera, both in music and drama: the highest artifice, expressed with the greatest ease. (Would that Miller had been listening.) The wind ravished, as they must, witnesses to the unspeakable pain that Mozart as musical dramatist inflicts upon us, more so, should we listen, than anything even in Wagner. There were a few occasions, however, when, in a house of this size, the excellent strings would have sounded even better had they been augmented. Paul Wynne Griffith’s witty, ever-musical harpsichord continuo proved a joy throughout, attesting as did Davis’s conducting to some of the truths voiced in David Syrus’s splendid programme note, ‘Interpreting Mozart Operas’. As Syrus, writes, ‘Directors don’t always welcome discussion of music when rehearsing recitative, and some prefer to treat the text as if it was as free for interpretation as a spoken play.’ How many times have we all suffered, as again here, from un-musical directors? And how greatly do we value directors such as Peter Konwitschny, and Stefan Herheim, who are musicians?

There was, quite rightly, an extended curtain call for our other musical knight, at which he was presented with a cake in honour of those forty years. The humanity of Sir Thomas Allen shone through both in his brief, typically modest response, and of course in his portrayal of Don Alfonso. (From my encounters, including an interview at Covent Garden, I can attest that every personal compliment paid him is if anything an understatement.) Allen held the stage as much through his visual as his musical assumption of the role: indeed, the two were quite properly indivisible. However many times he may have played Don Alfonso, the freshness is such that it might have been the first. He was, it must be said, equally fine in Salzburg, where he was blessed with a far superior production. Joshua’s Despina was a pleasure too: far removed from the frequent portrayal of a servant several years past her best. (One only has to read the libretto to be disabused of that strange notion.) As agile of voice as on stage, hers is a Despina to be savoured. Of Charles Castronovo, I am afraid I can only repeat, word for word, what I said of Matthew Polenzani last year in Paris: ‘… he sounded strangely miscast. “Un aura amoroso” received great applause, but this was an emoting delivery, vibrato disconcertingly wide, the all-too noticeable ‘effect’ of his mezza voce more appropriate to Puccini than to Mozart. It was almost Pavarotti-lite ...’ Così simply does not work – thank goodness – as La bohème. The contrast with the superlatively sensitive Egyptian cotton spun by the orchestra was stark, similarly with Malin Byström’s Fiordiligi. There were a few too many times when she failed to maintain her vocal line, and as for the attempt a crude sexual humour upon a trill… Whether her idea or the director’s, it has no place in Mozart. Nikolai Borchev’s Guglielmo and Michèle Losier’s Dorabella occasionally lacked the proper degree of Mozartian chiaroscuro, yet nevertheless had much to offer in musical sensitivity.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Philharmonia/Salonen - Beethoven and Dallapiccola, Il prigioniero, 26 January 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Beethoven – Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67
Dallapiccola – Il prigioniero

The Prisoner – Lauri Vasar
The Mother – Paoletta Marrocu
Gaoler/Grand Inquisitor – Peter Hoare
First Priest – Brian Galliford
Second Priest, Fra Redemptor – Francisco Javier Borda

David Edwards (stage director)
David Holmes (lighting)

Philharmonia Voices (chorus master: Aidan Oliver)
Philharmonia Orchestra
Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)

Luigi Dallapiccola

There are Beethoven cycles and there are Beethoven cycles. Arguably eclipsed in recent years by Mahler, le grand sourd (Ravel) has never gone away, but he has been at least as unlucky in the quality as well as the quantity of the attention devoted to him. Many conductors – less so, it would seem, pianists and quartets – simply do not know what to do with Beethoven’s music. Daniel Barenboim does, and will bring the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to the Proms this summer: it almost makes it worth enduring London’s Olympic Hell to hear that. A few years ago, Bernard Haitink conducted a memorable cycle – at least those concerts I heard were memorable – with the London Symphony Orchestra, though the results on disc perhaps shine less brightly. (Sometimes one has to be there.) Others I shall pass over in silence, except to suggest avoiding like the plague one recent, heavily-promoted CD set. Esa-Pekka Salonen, however, is offering something quite different, potentially more interesting: Beethoven’s symphonies in intelligent, provocative couplings. I do not know whether anyone before has presented the Fifth Symphony with Dallapiccola’s one-act masterpiece, Il prigioniero; someone certainly should have done and will, I hope, do so again. The archetypal Romantic journey of hope from darkness to light receives its tragic twentieth-century response.

And yet, despite a truly shattering performance of Dallapiccola’s opera, there was a problem. Salonen, at least on the basis of this performance, would seem to have no feeling for Beethoven. Even the change of orchestral clothes from evening tails to open-necked black shirts, doubtless intended for dramatic reasons, served only to underline the apparent, tragic remoteness of Beethoven to our concerns. We were not treated to the indignities of the perverse, alla Rattle or Norrington. Nevertheless, the Fifth Symphony was rendered dull; stripped of meaning, it emerged not in intriguing modernistic abstraction, but rather as if it were ballet. Beethoven as Delibes? It just about approaches the status of a point of view, I suppose, but it is not one I wish to hear voiced again. Perhaps surprisingly, the first movement exposition did not come off too badly, rhythmically and motivically insistent. Salonen’s reading showed musicianship at least, and Beethoven’s concision came through clearly. (There was some splendid kettledrum playing too, from Andrew Smith.) But of course, that was not enough. We had to wait until the coda for anything approaching vehemence, first from the cellos and then from the other strings, though even here, the final bars were on the light side. The slow movement emerged as an accomplished set of variations, which certainly did not dawdle and yet which nevertheless suffered at times from rhythmic slackness. There was no sense of striving: at best, this was an intermezzo. The scherzo was impressive enough in its own way, but one cannot start here; alas, the trio simply sounded too fast. Perhaps worst of all, the transition to the finale, one of the greatest passages in all music, entirely lacked mystery, even sounding dull. It pains me to say that the finale less evoked the opening of the portals of Heaven than the opening of a swish private health club. Enough: to hear the Philharmonia in this symphony, turn to Thielemann, to Boulez, or best of all, to Klemperer.

If our world, with a few heroic exceptions, simply does not know what to do with symphonic Beethoven, it desperately needs to hear from Dallapiccola, just as much as his own world of fascism and apparent liberation did. Were there any justice, Il prigioniero would long have been a staple of every opera house. There is no such justice, of course, whether in the operatic or the wider world; instead, we discover that L’enfer, c’est les autres opéras, more often than not the latest rerun of La traviata. However, a performance such as this can still offer us that hope so utterly denied in the story enacted (though not, perhaps, in the musical form?)

The bite and conviction absent from Salonen’s Beethoven could scarcely have registered more powerfully; the Philharmonia sounded reinvigorated, the prologue’s opening chords screaming less as twelve-note Puccini than in startlingly Stravinskian fashion. They were matched, moreover, even surpassed, by the anguished Mother of Paoletta Marrocu. Her delivery was unabashedly emotional, and all the better for it, those terrible final cries of ‘Figlio’ (son) haunting us, angering us, inciting us. Lauri Vasar’s Prisoner was equally fine. The occasional sob in his voice early on could readily be forgiven, for this proved not only a scrupulous but a searing portrayal, all-engrossing with a truly hallucinatory power when it came to the poor soul’s own hallucinations. For that, of course, Salonen and the Philharmonia must also be credited. A wealth of orchestral detail was revealed, not with cold, clinical clarity, but with dramatic direction founded upon evident understanding and communication of Dallapiccola’s motivic and serial working. This was most certainly a post-Bergian labyrinth – at times, I even fancied that I heard foreshadowing of Boulez in the woodwind – but for a purpose. We, like the Prisoner, were tempted by the possibility of escape, only to have it all the more cruelly denied by the sweetness of orchestral phantasmagoria. (Zsolt-Tihámer’s first violin solos were especially noteworthy in that respect.)

The Gaoler and Inquisitor of Peter Hoare and the First Priest of Brian Galliford were more ‘character’ portrayals than anything else, but in context that mattered not at all. Any verdict upon the former’s use of head voice would be largely a matter of taste: there was certainly an apt sense of wheedling casuistry. The invitation ‘Fratello …. andiamo…’ sickened as it must. Francisco Javier Borda’s Second Priest impressed vocally as well as dramatically. No one, though, not even the orchestra, could overshadow the stunning contribution of the Philharmonia Voices. Absolute vocal security combined with surprising weight for a choir of under fifty, to assault both conscience and consciousness. Quasi-liturgical repetition of responsorial words our modern predicament would deny straightforwardly terrified, the precedent for a work such as Nono’s Intolleranza 1960 starkly apparent. In such a context, the Prisoner’s standing seemed ambiguously to evoke celebrant and crucifixion; however, Fate – such as we ought to have heard in the Fifth Symphony – was to be the sole victor. Hope was indeed the final torture: ‘La speranza … l’ultima tortura’. We all knew the answer to that final, faltering, ironic question: ‘La libertà?’ In a world of prisons such as Guantánamo and Gaza, we know it all too well.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Furtwängler's Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, 1943

Today marks Wilhelm Furtwängler's one hundred-and-twenty-sixth birthday. Who knows whether Mahler or Wagner were 'greater' conductors? Here is unquestionably the greatest of whom we have recorded evidence, offering a flickering candle of hope during Germany's darkest night of the soul. 'Shattering' does not even come close to describing so magisterial a rebuke to Toscanini-like bandmasters and murderous politicians alike:

Max Reinhardt: 'People like Furtwängler must stay, if Germany is to survive.'

From Furtwängler's notebook in 1935: 'Art is truthfulness; what we have now is the opposite.'

Yehudi Menuhin: 'In listening to him, it is the impression of vast, pulsating space which is most overwhelming.'

Sunday 22 January 2012

Belcea Quartet - Beethoven, 21 January 2012

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet no.2 in G major, op.18 no.2
String Quartet no.8 in E minor, op.59 no.2, ‘Razumovsky’
String Quartet no.14 in C-sharp minor, op.131

Corina Belcea-Fisher, Axel Schacher (violins)
Krzysztof Chorzelski (viola)
Antoine Lederlin (cello)

I have almost nothing but praise for this concert, but perhaps no praise would be higher than to say that these performances from the Belcea Quartet had me wondering anew at Beethoven’s achievement as a composer of string quartets. Of course, no one who was not certifiably insane would doubt that achievement; yet, in a sense that is the point, for to elicit such wonder, rather than mere confirmation, testifies to the quality of the performances heard.

The op.18 quartets can seem – and certainly have seemed, in my experience – relatively uninteresting in lesser hands, but there was no opportunity to entertain such an impression on the present occasion. There was a splendidly Haydnesque opening: nothing wrong with that, indeed everything right with it, though it was soon answered by someone who was indisputably Beethoven, the Beethoven of relatively early piano sonatas, such as his op.13 and op.14 works, which I long found more interesting than the first set of quartets. No longer. The first movement exuded intensity, not to be confused with excessive Romanticism in the manner of, say, the Borodin Quartet, yet benefited equally from a fine command of line: the Belcea players knew where the music was heading, and enabled it to arrive. There were times when I wondered whether the reading was a little scaled down – I have certainly heard greater drama – but the intimacy drew one in, just as these players had in Schubert in the absurdly cavernous space of the Royal Albert Hall last summer. The muted - not in a technical sense – passages of the development were a case in point, until the triumphant cello pedal reminded us of another Beethoven, the incipient symphonist. Even then, the performance quickly subsided, insisting that we as listeners did our fair share of the work. There was a lovely throwaway ending too, throwaway not equating to inconsequential. The Adagio cantabile was rapt, lyrical, benefiting greatly from Corina Belcea’s sweet-toned first violin. Though the line faltered slightly before the astonishing scherzo intervention, apparently straight out of a much later Beethoven, there was little else about which to cavil. The third movement was graceful: a scherzo, but a scherzo with definite roots in the minuet, not unlike that to the op.2 no.2 piano sonata. In both works, and in good performances of both works, the anacrusis will – and here did – perform a crucial structural role. The trio, meanwhile, offered delightful hints of the serenade. Beethoven’s finale proved more vigorous, underlining the exploratory radicalism of his key relationships – as well, more briefly, as his hints at Elysium. And yet, this remained emphatically a conversation between instrumentalists such as Haydn would have understood. Moreover, the reinstatement of the tonic came, quite properly, as a Haydn-like surprise, timing and humour finely judged.

Greater terseness and an almost Sturm und Drang Romanticism immediately announced the world of the Razumovsky quartets, in this case the second. Silences too were given their due, especially in the first movement. Moreover, the players were not afraid to employ a less than beautiful sound where necessary, or at least justifiable. The slow movement was exquisitely presented: what in lesser hands can border upon the banal, for instance the scale passages, here sounded every inch as ecstatic – and musically necessary – as the more obviously ‘sublime’ passages. Climaxes were insistent without the all-too-common short-circuit of driving too hard. Above all, here was to be heard Beethoven’s noble simplicity, its roots in Gluck and Winckelmann’s Classical ideal. If the febrile, concentrated scherzo always makes me think of Boris Godunov, that is my problem of hindsight: Beethoven’s counterpoint has its own Classical, and at times modernist, tale to tell, and very well was it told here. The finale evinced an excellent balance between intensity and insouciance, which is to say that it was not quite a balance, but nevertheless gave the latter its due.

How does one speak about the late quartets? They travel so far beyond language, even beyond music as conventionally understood, that one hardly dare try. Fortunately my brief on this occasion is merely to write about a performance, though again the holy ground of op.131 renders one at the very least wary. At any rate, the first movement plunged us immediately into another world again: this time, somewhere between, or perhaps rather beyond, Schoenberg and Bartók. The Belcea’s sound was rarefied, or perhaps better rare, more than once putting me in mind of Mozart in a related key, the F-sharp minor of his twenty-third piano concerto. Passion was not excluded, far from it, but rather was sublated – I can hardly avoid the Hegelian ‘aufgehoben’ with respect to late Beethoven – into something that both negated and incorporated its relatively narrow standpoint. Bach and Palestrina were ghosts at the feast, as again was that Gluckian noble simplicity: I could not help but think that the three conventional ‘periods’ of Beethoven’s career were made for Hegelian, dialectical treatment. This movement, in any case, stood as a portal to integration and disintegration such as Adorno would have understood. As Boulez has remarked, Beethoven’s late quartets will always remain an intellectual challenge; and if they will for him, they surely will for us.

Negation, then, came with the second movement, and what a negation: somewhere between Mozart and Haydn, yet again somehow beyond them. Yes, this was of course Beethoven’s doing, but the performers play a role too. No sooner was this said, then further negation must be done, in the transition to the fourth movement: not just dialectics, but a definite instantiation of the post-Burkean sublime, akin to that of the late piano sonatas. Karl Barth famously remarked that, if the angels played Bach in front of God, they must perform Mozart en famille; the fourth movement presents a case for inclusion of Beethoven in their familial repertoire. For this is – and, in performance, was – Mozartian in Magic Flute fashion, or Haydn-like in the sense of his late, wondrous F minor/major piano variations. Just the right note of restrained yet ecstatic sublimity was sounded, yet that sublimity can take radically different, even diametrically opposed, forms: Beethoven the composer of variations has only Bach as a precursor. The transition to the fifth movement was impeccably judged; it is, of course, not quite a transition, merely the concluding variation, yet it sounded as such nevertheless. Beethoven’s kinetic energy in this ensuing scherzo movement could not help but put me in mind of the Ninth Symphony, yet the players reminded one that he is perhaps more elusive, and allusive, here. Execution, with one exception that merely reminded one that the performers were human, was well-nigh perfect, but not in a remote sense. I can say little of the sixth movement, other than that we stood on holy ground, clearly related to that of the ‘Praeludium’ from the Missa Solemnis. The finale intensified, contradicted, transformed, reinstated: the quintessence of late Beethovenian fugue. Bartók seemed almost faint-hearted by comparison.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Barbican Centre 2012-13 season announced

It took me a while to find the page from which one could explore further than a few selected highlights. To save you the trouble, click here. The LSO's plethora of conductors' anniversaries ought to offer something for everyone.

Monday 16 January 2012

Müller-Brachmann/Heilmann - Heine settings by Schubert, Brahms, and Schumann, 16 January 2012

Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Schwanengesang, D 957: songs by Heine
Brahms – Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht, op.96 no.1
Es schauen die Blumen, op.96 no.3
Meerfahrt, op.96 no.4
Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze, op.71 no.1
Schumann – Liederkreis, op.24

Hanno Müller-Brachmann (bass-baritone)
Hendrik Heilmann (piano)

Having only given a cursory glance at the programme beforehand, it was a welcome surprise upon arriving at this lunchtime concert to realise that the verse would all be Heine’s. First off were the Heine settings from Schubert’s Schwanengesang. The immediate impressions from the opening bars of Der Atlas were of excellent diction, Hanno Müller-Brachmann truly drawing one into the poet’s words, a reminder that Müller-Brachmann’s instrument is truly a bass-baritone, darker than one often hears in this repertoire, and of alert musicianship from Hendrik Heilmann on the piano. Those would be impressions that would endure, indeed deepen, throughout the recital. Müller-Brachmann quite rightly made no distinction between performance of words and music, the two coming together as Lied: the words ‘Du stolzes Herz!’ (‘You proud heart!’) received emphasis without the slightest disruption to the musical line. Ihr Bild was hallucinogenic, voice and piano as one, Müller-Brachmann and Heilmann offering an uncanny (unheimlich, one is almost bound to translate) synergy, not just unanimity, of the vocal line and the piano bass. There was, moreover, true rage, to be heard upon the final line: ‘daß ich verloren hab’!’ (‘that I have lost you!’). Heilmann showed himself fully adept at handling Schubert’s modulations and their meaning in Das Fischermädchen, the interlude between second and third stanza fairly taking one’s breath away, whilst his una corda playing in Die Stadt proved evocative in both pictorial and, crucially, metaphysical senses. Müller-Brachmann’s voice here and in Am Meer sounded properly Wagnerian in its musico-dramatic response, a reminder of his Amfortas and his Rheingold Wotan. A slight roughness of tone on the final line may have been deliberate: the woman has poisoned him with her tears. It was, if anything, a slight blemish in the face of such manifest sincerity. Finally, Der Doppelgänger: Müller-Brachmann’s initial tone and manner took us into his confidence as a teller of ghost-stories, proceeding truly to shake us at the great climaxes – Amfortas again – as the protagonist found himself, the wraith, revealed in the moonlight.

Brahms’s settings, though of course from a later date (1877-c.1885), are less Wagnerian, arguably more song-like in a ‘conventional’ sense. Within its more modest bounds, Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht emerged as a heartfelt gem, intimate but not withdrawn. Heilmann’s account of the piano part to Es schauen die Blumen emphasised its inward tumult, decidedly upon the verge of ‘late’ Brahms. The pianist’s way with the rocking water music of Meerfahrt and the glistening waves of Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze likewise hit the spot, the latter almost suggesting Debussy, the former’s syncopations telling musically just as they would in Brahms’s solo piano works. I was surprised and intrigued by how close the piano writing sounded to contemporaneous Liszt.

Schumann’s Liederkreis, op.24, received equally distinguished performances, expectancy present from the very opening of Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage. When Müller-Brachmann told us that he wandered through the day dreaming, as if half asleep, that was precisely how it sounded, the delicacy of Heilmann’s postlude both underscoring and unsettling. The mad hopelessness of Es treibt mich hin was searingly conveyed, whilst the echt-Romanticism of Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen sounded painfully beautiful. If Heine’s irony is lost here, that is Schumann’s doing, and what we gain as well as lose! For there was to be no sacrifice of tonal beauty, the third stanza of Schöne Wiege meiner Lieden (‘Hätt’ ich dich doch nie gesehen, Schöne Herzenskönigin!…’ / ‘Would that I had never seen you, though, fair queen of my heart!...’) as ardent as it was bitter. One could have said much the same of Schumann’s wondrous postlude. Beauty and danger – and beauty in danger – were equally apparent in Berg’ und Burgen schau’n herunter, Heine’s Rhine Journey. (Heine was himself of course a Rhinelander by birth, born in Düsseldorf; indeed, its university would eventually rename itself after him.) Poet’s and composer’s ambivalence were conveyed, as they must be, but again without hardening or lessening of tone. (Were I truly to scramble to criticise, I might note that Müller-Brachmann opened the second line with ‘auf’ instead of ‘in’, but I can think of nothing more negative to say.) Bitter beauty was also the hallmark of the final Mit Myrten und Rosen, its piano interludes almost unbearable, not just in themselves but as a consequence of what had gone before: evidence, were it needed, of a true collaboration between two fine musicians. Love’s spirit (‘Der Liebe Geist’) was both rendered ravishing and yet lain bare as a pernicious delusion: the Wahn of Schopenhauer and Hans Sachs. For an encore, we were treated to a rapt, painfully seductive, further Schumann setting, Die Lotosblume.

Müller-Brachmann’s artistry is by now well known, certainly in Germany but also in this country. Heilmann’s was new to me, but I hope to hear more; it seems that he is an active chamber musician too. (It sounded like it.) The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 2 p.m. on Saturday 21 January.

Sunday 15 January 2012

A new Brahms piano piece to be performed by András Schiff

A Brahms album leaf (Albumblatt) discovered by Christopher Hogwood when looking through a music collection in the USA, is to be given its first performance on BBC Radio 3 by András Schiff. Both Schiff and Hogwood will be interviewed for the 21 January broadcast of Music Matters (12.15 p.m.). I suspect - though who knows? - that the piece is unlikely to prove a lost masterwork, coming as it does from 1853, when Brahms was but twenty years old; by the same token, however, it is equally unlikely to be without interest, especially for those of us who consider ourselves to have an especial interest in and love for Brahms's music. Intriguingly, the theme is said to be a forerunner of that to the Trio to the second movement of the Horn Trio, op.40, composed twelve years later. Following the broadcast, a 'behind-the-scenes video' of the recording will be available on the Radio 3 website. In the meantime, here are the Scherzo and Trio from Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim, and Dale Clevenger:

Friday 13 January 2012

Ishizaka/LPO/Vedernikov - Prokofiev, 13 January 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Lieutenant Kijé: Suite
Cello Concerto in E minor, op.58
Symphony no.7 in C-sharp minor, op.131

Danjulo Ishizaka (cello)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Alexander Vedernikov (conductor)

‘Prokofiev: Man of the People?’ asks the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s Prokofiev festival, curated by Vladimir Jurowski. For whatever reason – lack of availability, or professional generosity? – Jurowski did not conduct the opening concert, handing over the baton to Alexander Vedernikov. I could not help but wish that Jurowski had been at the helm, for Vedernikov’s inspiration seemed fitful, his approach less probing than that opening question might have suggested. Indeed, at times, I instead began to wonder whether I had over-estimated a composer of whom I have long been fond. There was little that was wrong with Vedernikov’s approach, but it was not difficult to imagine that Jurowski might have galvanised the troops more effectively.

The Lieutenant Kijé Suite opened and for the most part continued with disconcerting briskness. A revisionist view? Perhaps, but the impression was more of impatience, a lack of irony. Even the off-stage cornet seemed rushed. There was some splendid woodwind playing, though, in that first number (‘Kijé’s Birth’). The ‘Romance’ offers a relatively rare opportunity for a lyrical double bass solo, here well taken by Kevin Rundell, before the still rarer opportunity for a double bass-viola duet was presented (Ida Bryhn the guest principal). Prokofiev is often at his best when quirky. The LPO sounded in properly colourful form. ‘Kijé’s Wedding’ and the ‘Troika’ were nicely catchy; rhythms were sharply pointed, if again on the fast side – at times uncomfortably so. In the ‘Troika’, the two bassoonists (Gareth Newman and Laurence O’Donnell) were excellent and there was a splendid piccolo screech (Stewart McIlwham) at the end. Those burying the imaginary lieutenant did not hang around, but there was something of an edge to the final movement, suggestive of an irony elsewhere lacking; it was certainly a relief not to have the music sentimentalised.

The Cello Concerto, op.58, is a decidedly odd work. Though the performance was impressive, especially on the part of soloist Danjulo Ishizaka, time and time again I found myself asking ‘why is Prokofiev writing what he did here?’, ‘what is the motivation for the peculiar form?’ Ishizaka’s technique was well-nigh impeccable – the cello part is ferociously difficult – but equally noteworthy was the impassioned nature of his performance. Even if I found it difficult to believe in every note of the score, the impression was that the soloist did. Vedernikov was probably at his best here too, the opening to the first movement especially fine, with darkly imposing tone from the LPO and rock-solid rhythmic command. Lyricism was very much to the fore in Ishizaka’s account of the second movement. Prokofiev’s twists and turns were ably navigated; if only I could have appreciated the reasons for those twists and turns… The finale showed that Prokofiev had no difficulty in varying a melody, or indeed in constructing one, yet for the most part, the variations remained stubbornly arbitrary. Ishizaka performed the cadenza – and indeed the rest of the movement – with sensitivity and considerable personality. Alas, the final impression was that the composer did not seem to know where, or how, to end an unusual movement and an unusual concerto. (Alexander Ivashkin, a writer – and cellist – who strongly believes in the music, both in the present incarnation and as the Symphony-Concerto, makes an interesting case here.)

The final work on the programme was the Seventh Symphony. Its first movement once again revealed Vedernikov’s fondness for swift tempi: it was certainly on the fast side of Moderato, though for the most part, it flowed as opposed to being harried. Themes were well characterised, yet there was little audible attempt to conceal the seams; I have heard more symphonic accounts of an admittedly controversial work. The second movement’s rhythms were well sprung, in a winningly balletic account. It might have been a (slightly over-extended?) number from Cinderella. Melody was paramount in the third movement, not least that first employed in the incidental music to Eugene Onegin, though it was a pity about the sour brass intonation at the end. The finale: childish or childlike? It remained an open question, although (relatively) sterner moments made their own suggestion. I fancied, however, that a conductor such as Jurowski would most likely have delved deeper beneath the surface. Vedernikov’s was an attractive enough poster paint approach, but little more. At least he employed Prokofiev’s original ending, whose lack of spirit tells its own sad tale of the composer’s plight by 1952.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

What is so difficult to understand?

Many readers will doubtless already have heard about the latest mobile telephone incident at a concert: a New York Philharmonic performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony - the Adagio, yes the Adagio! - eventually brought to a halt by a member of the audience who would not answer or stop the infernal noise. (Unpredictable Inevitability was my original source; here is a fuller account from an audience member.) Would that one could say that audiences behaved better in this country. Telephones are a regular blight, likewise other electronic devices - which seems often to mean hearing aids. I once saw Pierre Boulez have to wait a good minute or two whilst someone's Four Seasons ring-tone made its presence felt at the beginning of a concert: not just once, but twice. A moment of silence just before the final chord of Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites was no longer silence, when some selfish member of the audience at the Coliseum received a call. Then there are the shufflers, the chatterers, the openers of sweets, the snorers (yes, the snorers!), the heavy breathers - try sitting next to one of them during Parsifal - and of course the coughers. (Entartete Musik wrote interestingly on them the other day.) I am struggling to recall the last performance I attended which was not disrupted by the bronchially challenged; indeed, the last time I heard the sadly-retired Thomas Quasthoff, his Winterreise with Daniel Barenboim was well-nigh obliterated by them, so much so that Quasthoff had to make an announcement, duly ignored. (That was in Berlin, and some of the worst offenders of all I have heard in Paris, so there is no nationalism, inverse or otherwise, involved here.) Why, o why, are any of the following, utterly innocous, points of common decency routinely ignored?

1. All telephones should, without exception, be turned off during performances. If you may need to take a call, then you have no business attending such a performance. (I am so paranoid that I end up checking mine several times, generally wishing that I had left it at home.)
2. If at all possible, halls should block telephone signals during performances. (If, as some suggest, this would be against the law, then the law needs to be changed forthwith.)
3. If you have a cough, kindly make a decision whether you should either stay at home or take lozenges to stifle it. (The Royal Opera House admirably provides free lozenges.) Halls could and should help in this respect by making it easier to swap tickets for subsequent performances. Everyone understands that there will be the occasional case of someone who simply cannot stifle a cough, but these instances may readily be minimised.
4. If you do not have a cough, kindly resist the incomprehensible temptation to manufacture one.
5. Do not talk, fall asleep, engage in conversation, or do anything else that might distract or irritate fellow members of the audience. That includes the strange people who decide they need to act as if they were seated on the back row of a darkened cinema. (The pieces to which they 'erotically' respond often seem eccentrically chosen: Stockhausen's PUNKTE at the Proms?!) This is not some mysterious 'concert etiquette'; it is simply the sort of consideration that decent, and generally even indecent (see above) human beings show to one another.

Finally, should someone prove to be a telephone offender, the instrument itself doubles up usefully - and doubtless unforgettably - as a rectal thermometer.

Thomas Quasthoff retires...

... as noted by the excellent Von heute auf morgen blog: click here. The last time I heard him was in a Berlin Winterreise with Daniel Barenboim (review here) in 2009.

Richter/Prégardien/Drake - Wolf, 10 January 2012

Wigmore Hall


- Der Knabe und das Immlein
- Nixe Binsefuss
- Elfenlied
- Begegnung
- Der Gärtner
- An die Geliebte
- Der Feuerreiter


- Ganymed
- Die Spröde
- Die Bekehrte
- Gleich und gleich
- Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt
- Der neue Amadis
- Genialisch Treiben
- St Nepomuks Vorabend

Mörike, Geistliche Lieder

- Neue Liebe
- Schlafendes Jesuskind
- Karwoche
- Wo find ich Trost?
- Auf ein altes Bild
- Gebet
- Seufzer
- Denk’ es, o Seele!
- Zum neuen Jahr

Anna Lucia Richter (soprano)
Christoph Prégardien (tenor)
Julius Drake (piano)

This first in a series of concerts in which the Wigmore Hall will present the songbooks of Hugo Wolf offered much to savour, despite the late replacement of the indisposed Julia Kleiter by Anna Lucia Richter. For a singer so young – I cannot imagine there have been many vocalists who made their Wigmore debut at the age of twenty-one – Richter performed more than creditably. However, there were times when not only her lack of experience but also the youth of her voice showed. Problematic intonation at the beginning of her first song, ‘Der Knabe und das Immlein’ was doubtless a matter of nerves, yet her overly playful delivery of the rest of the song suggested an excessive if understandable desire to sound – and to look – ‘characterful’. There were times when the winsomeness became a little wearing. Enunciation was generally excellent: a necessity in Wolf’s songs, though still worthy of proper acknowledgement. However, it was not always clear that she knew what to do with the words; in this recital, she was, after all, dealing with Mörike and Goethe. ‘Intensity’ was a little too effortful in 'Die Bekehrte', the overall impression – at least vocally – anything but erotic. ‘Neue Liebe’ was simply too operatic for a fine specimen of the Lied, whilst ‘Wo find ich Trost?’ simply needed a more fully developed voice, a Kundry even, for its extraordinary text properly to register. I was tempted to say that Richter would have been off leaving ‘Ganymed’ to Christoph Prégardien, then recalled that, rightly or wrongly, Wolf considered it to be a woman’s song.

Nevertheless, with Prégardien, we stood on much surer ground. Highlights included a heartfelt ‘An die Geliebete’, with a powerful climax upon ‘ewiger Genüge’ and wonderful use of the head voice upon the poet’s smiling of the stars, and truly Bergian expressionism in ‘Die Feuerreiter’: ‘Hinterm Berg, hinterm Berg rast er in der Mühle!’ The cold ride to the grave in the latter reminded one, moreover, that expressionism looks back to Schubert as well as forward to the Second Viennese School. Likewise the changing moods – ‘Frühlingstraum’ from Winterreise came to mind – of ‘Denk es, o Seele!’ and the haunted rendition of ‘Seufzer’. Another aspect of the tenor’s artistry was displayed in the ballad delivery of ‘Ritter Kurts Brautfahrt’: here narrative thrust issued forth both purposeful and meaningful.

To stop there, however, would leave us with an unsung as well as non-singing hero, for Julius Drake’s performance was perhaps the finest of all. Whilst his companion struggled somewhat in ‘Der Knabe und das Immlein,’ Drake’s piano part left us in no doubt from the very first bars that Wolf was knocking upon the door of early Schoenberg: the kinship to the op.2 songs is remarkable. The chimes of ‘Elfenlied’ struck both terror and wonder into the heart, whilst the difficult progression from darkness to light in its successor song, ‘Begegnung’, was judged well-nigh perfectly. Wolf’s piano writing in ‘Der Feuerreiter’ is positively Wagnerian, and so it sounded here, yet it also sounded thoroughly pianistic. Echoes of Schubert’s ‘Der Leiermann’ in ‘Die Bekehrte’ were powerfully yet subtly conveyed. If the odd stitch were missed in the interlude before the final stanza of ‘Ritter Kurt Brauutfahrt’, that is more or less the only criticism I can muster, and it is a minor one at that. ‘Karwoche’ benefited from a keen awareness of the piano part’s proximity to Strauss. Moreover, I could not help but wonder whether ‘Zum neuen Jahr’ – the only vocal duet – was performed with full awareness of Liszt’s delightful solo piano suite, Weihnachtsbaum. It certainly sounded as if it were, and it came as no surprise to read afterwards that Drake is recording the complete songs of Liszt for Hyperion. On this evidence, it should prove an invaluable collection.

Monday 9 January 2012

Sacconi Quartet - Haydn, Bartók, and Schubert, 8 January 2012

Hall One, Kings Place

Haydn – String Quartet in G major, op.77 no.1
Bartók – String Quartet no.3
Schubert – String Quartet in D minor, D810, ‘Death and the Maiden’

Ben Hancox, Hannah Dawson (violins)
Robin Ashwell (viola)
Cara Berridge (cello)

Founded at the Royal College of Music in 2001, the Sacconi Quartet here celebrated its tenth anniversary: astonishing to register, given how youthful its members look. Quartet in Association at the RCM and Quartet in Residence at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre, on this occasion, the Sacconi Quartet renewed its association with both Kings Place and the London Chamber Music Series, which holds its concerts there on Sunday evenings.

Haydn seems an obvious quartet composer to include for a celebratory concert, but there was nothing routine or dutiful about this performance of his op.77 no.1, ‘Lobkowitz’ quartet. The first movement was alert, vivacious, characterful in its treatment of the different themes, and clearly the product – audibly as well as visually – of careful listening to each other from every member of the quartet. Its cultivated sound never drew attention to itself, for joy and the communication of formal concision were very much the order of the day, though never didactically so. The Adagio flowed nicely: if the tempo were perhaps closer to Andante, or at least what I should consider to be an Andante, far more important was an excellent understanding of harmonic rhythm. Haydn’s harmonic surprises registered fully – and with wonder. If the minuet – a scherzo in all but name – sounded close to Beethoven, that is only because it is. The hiccoughing syncopations of the first violin part were wittily despatched without exaggeration by Ben Hancox. Turbulence and remnants of rusticity were well balanced in the trio. The finale captured splendidly Haydn’s quality of ‘learned popular’ style, just as in the finale, say, to the ‘London’ Symphony. This was a thrilling and delightful Presto, but through communication of the musical material, as opposed to mere speed.

Bartók’s Third Quartet received a fine performance too. All the ‘effects’ were there: the frozen opening, glassy interjections, col legno playing, and so on. Yet one realised from the outset that these were not really ‘effects’ at all, but musical necessities in an integrated performance. Concentration, both inner and formal, was to the fore. And what lyricism Bartók reveals: tender and exultant. Refraction and sublimation of folk material in the opening to the ‘Seconda parte’ were vigorous, yet always as alert to melody as to rhythm. Perhaps the Sacconi Quartet’s performance lacked the last degree of abandon, but there is nothing wrong with a relatively Classical approach. Contrapuntal clarity was certainly a beneficiary.

A far from inflexible vehemence marked the opening of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet. My only cavil was that I occasionally missed that painful Viennese sweetness some ensembles – the Amadeus Quartet, for example – have imparted to the more lyrical passages. Instead, the Sacconis tended towards Mendelssohn-like feather-lightness here: a contrast of its own, of course. The restrained opening of the slow movement variations sounded as if a stately dance from another time: a hint of the viol consort, prior to blooming – though never with the tonal refulgence that more Romantically-inclined ensembles might bring to the music. Again, a Mendelssohnian lightness was to be heard, especially during the first variation, though it was certainly not without its more passionate moments. The variations were all well characterised, with apparently increasing freedom, culminating in a quietly serene final variation, with intriguing hints of Dvořák. A vehement scherzo underlined the return to D minor, its trio duly graceful. The finale proved a tense, rhythmically insistent saltarello, troubled even in its more lyrical passages. Here the players brought a renewed intensity to the music, a heightened sense of tragedy. As an encore, we were treated to a beautiful, committed performance of Josef Suk’s Meditation on an Old Bohemian Chorale, op.35.

Friday 6 January 2012

Christian Blackshaw - Mozart, 6 January 2011

Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata no.1 in C major, KV 279/189d
Piano Sonata no.2 in F major, KV 280/189e
Piano Sonata no.8 in D major, KV 311/284c
Piano Sonata no.17 in B-flat major, KV 570
Piano Sonata no.9 in A minor, KV 310/300d

Twelfth Night last year brought the opening concert of Kings Place’s year-long Mozart Unwrapped series. This year saw the first in a series of four Wigmore Hall recitals, in which Christian Blackshaw will perform the complete piano sonatas. Whatever the instrument(s), whatever the size of the work, there is nothing more elusive than a fine performance of Mozart, the difficulty compounded by the fact that nothing less than perfection will suffice. Nowhere is one more exposed; there is nowhere to hide; everything is a balancing act – whether between the placing of every single note and longer line, between dramatic and allegedly ‘absolute’ musical ends, between harmony and counterpoint, between comedy and tragedy, between simplicity and complexity. In every case, of course, the Mozartian dialectic requires that the one entail the other; indeed, the one simply cannot exist without the other. Mozart smiles through tears; the Angel of Death passes by even as the world rejoices. His drama is shaped, indeed formed, by form, and his form is shaped by drama. I could go on, but shall resist the temptation to extend the panegyric, since ultimately, only Mozart’s music can speak for Mozart. But there is, I hope, some degree of method in this preamble. What might seem to be nitpicking may well be such; but even performances with estimable characteristics will not just fall short, but alas, noticeably fall short, should they not achieve greatness. Blackshaw’s recital thus had much to recommend it; I doubt that anyone would have failed to enjoy some of what he heard, and indeed learned from it. (That is more than can be said for a good number of Mozart performances, especially, though not exclusively, those purveyed by the ‘authenticke’ brigade.) Nevertheless, odious comparisons presented themselves, a number of shortcomings cruelly apparent.

The first sonata, KV 279/189d, received what was in many ways a successful performance (despite a number of bronchial interventions, the woman immediately in front of me unable to restrain herself even in the very first bar). Mozart’s opening Allegro was presented very much on the cusp of the Baroque and the Classical, Blackshaw employing touch, articulation, and even ornamentation, which more than once put me in mind of Scarlatti. Dynamic contrasts and shading were sensitive and relatively circumscribed: the recital as a whole was marked by reticence when it came to the capabilities of a modern concert grand. An especially pleasing and telling characteristic was Blackshaw’s slight leaning into significant, ‘surprising’, notes: never overdone, and always with good melodic and/or harmonic reason. His slow movement captured the CPE Bach-like quirkiness of Mozart’s melodic construction, without damage to the echt-Mozartian cantabile. It was ‘flowing’, to use the modern euphemism, but not unduly so, though there were times here and elsewhere when I wished the pianist would yield a little. The finale was granted a helter-skelter, almost impish, Haydnesque quality. Quasi-orchestral passages might have been presented more vigorously, but that was clearly not Blackshaw’s way. One cannot always hear Daniel Barenboim in such repertoire.

KV 280/189e, the successor sonata in F major, again benefited from clean articulation. Its first movement was elegant and resolutely un-Romantic, yet it did not lack mystery and magic. Mozart in the slow movement’s minor mode was given his chromatic day, the opening siciliano rhythm sensitively handled. The finale, by contrast, was accorded a lightly quirky reading, Haydn and Emanuel Bach joining forces.

The D major sonata, KV 311/284c, benefited from a first movement in which occasional early tentativeness had been vanquished. It was less stylised, with a more dynamic sense of sonata form – and good humour. Even here, however, there remained a sense of being slightly underplayed. The Andante con espressivo was resolutely unsentimental, but expressive within relatively circumscribed – ‘absolute musical’? – limits. It suffered from a bizarre spoken intervention from a member of the audience (though it was unclear what she was announcing, let alone why.) What was missing, though, was a sense of what was at stake; there was no prospect of being ravished, as one must. The drama was strictly observed rather than experienced. Fussiness in the phrasing detracted from the third movement’s greater line. It was not without incident, but needed greater formal dynamism – and less dramatic reticence. Here, too often, phrase merely followed phrase, rather than followed on from it; this was Meissen Mozart.Pianists such as Barenboim, András Schiff, Dame Mitsuko Uchida all present more convincing solutions – and they, for better or worse, remain in one’s memory.

The second half opened with the late B-flat major sonata, KV 570. It began well, with a definite ‘late’ simplicity: asecondary simplicity, of course. Clarity of line could hardly be faulted, especially in the Bachian (this time, JS) counterpoint. As expected, this was not big-boned Mozart, alla Barenboim, but within its confines, there was much to delight, not least Mozart’s extraordinary contrapuntal spareness (not quite the same thing as clarity, though dependent upon it). Unfortunately, the slow movement was less successful, the balance between individual placing of notes and the longer line tilted too obviously in favour of the former. (It must be reiterated that to achieve a perfect balance is both necessary and well-nigh impossible.) More serious, however, was the lack of dramatic dynamism; the performance veered, especially during the minor key material, dangerously close to plodding. Though not especially slow, it felt so. The closing Allegretto is every bit as difficult to bring off, as fragile as Così fan tutte or La clemenza di Tito. Nevertheless, competing demands were brought together far more convincingly, largely on account of superior communication of phrasing and larger-scale structure, permitting detail to speak for itself rather than to stand out.

Finally came the great A minor sonata. Its opening Allegro maestoso received more in the way of marked dynamic contrast, as is surely necessary, though an element of restraint remained. (Restraint, mind, rather than inhibition, though I longed for the gloves to come off.) Martial rhythms were nicely turned, if hardly Romantically vehement. And there were times when the music sounded unduly foursquare: a stronger sense, or at least communication, of long-distance hearing (Furtwängler’s Fernhören) would have helped here. As often before, the music stopped rather than concluded or climaxed. The slow movement was finely articulated but static; if there was much to savour, this glorious aria lacked a sense of unity and thus sounded over-extended. (Listen to Dinu Lipatti: one longs for more.) Blackshaw’s performance of the finale, however, was first-class. How well the pianist captured the elusive mixture of will-o’-the-wisp and inexorable fat: a premonition of Schubert, albeit with astonishing brevity.

(Subsequent recitals will take place on 23 May, 25 September, and 5 January (2013). This concert was recorded for Wigmore Hall Live.)

Thursday 5 January 2012

Wishing Maurizio Pollini a very happy 70th birthday

To read about an unforgettable series of five concerts last year, ranging from Bach to Boulez and Stockhausen, click here. And for a more or less contemporaneous (to the Lucerne recording) performance of the Appassionata and three other Beethoven sonatas, click here.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

More Gabrieli: Canzon septimi toni a 8

Also from the 1597 collection Sacrae symphoniae. Boston Brass performs. Gabrieli on this occasion employs the polychoral style for purely instrumental music:

Sunday 1 January 2012

Giovanni Gabrieli (?1554-7 - 1612)

The four-hundredth anniversary of Gabrieli's death will fall on 12 August of this year. Let us hope - in vain, I fear - that a year neither blessed nor cursed by a host of auspicious anniversaries will bring a good number of performancesThe motet In ecclesiis has a good claim to be Gabrieli's most celebrated composition; at any rate, it offers a fine introduction to or reminder of his polychoral writing: this is the Stockhausen Gruppen of its day. It is thought that the piece's origins - though sacred, the text is not liturgical - may lie in a ceremony, held annually on the third Sunday in July, in which the Doge and other Venetian dignitaries would attend Mass in the votive Church of the Redentore: building, ceremony, and music giving thanks for deliverance from the plague. Nevertheless, one can hardly help but think also of the galleries of St Mark's Basilica; nor can one help but sense that Monteverdi and Schütz lie just around the corner. Here are the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble, and Sir David Willcocks:

In ecclesiis benedicite Domino. Alleluia.

In omni loco Dominationis benedic anima mea, Dominum. Alleluia.
In Deo salutari meo et Gloria mea.
Dominus auxilium meum et spes mea in Deo est. Alleluia.
Deus noster, te invocamus, te adoramus,
Libera nos, vivifica nos, Alleluia.
Deus, adiutor noster in aeternum. Alleluia.

Happy New Year and Happy Anniversary to Claude Debussy (1862-1918)

Debussy will be 150 this year. Little of his music qualifies as obscure; his cause hardly needs pleading as did Liszt's in 2011 - and 2012. Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune is well-nigh universally accepted, however worthy the other claimants and however many questions this phrase might beg, as the first work of 'modern music'. Yet, worship though we might at the ever-ambiguous shrine of Pelléas et Mélisande, the music for Debussy's second, incomplete Edgar Allen Poe opera, La Chute de la maison Usher understandably remains much less well-known. Here is the realisation of the Prelude and first two scenes by Juan Allende Blin. Georges Prêtre conducts the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra; the singers are Christine Barbaux (Lady Madeline), François Le Roux (Doctor), Pierre-Yves Le Maigat (Friend), and Jean-Philippe Lafont (Roderick). A house of horrors very different from, and yet clearly akin to, that of Allemonde: