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.