Thursday 31 May 2012

Book Review: Charles Rosen, Freedom and the Arts

(This review originally appeared here, Charles Rosen's latest volume of collected essays being named Book of the Week in Times Higher Education.)

 I regularly recommend Charles Rosen's various writings to undergraduates reading music and have often done so to history undergraduates too. They certainly seem to appreciate him, even to the extent that an essay I recently marked furnished a fabricated Rosen citation to confirm a startling thesis of Mozart having time-travelled to crib some of his sacred arias from operas by Donizetti. Books such as The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Sonata Forms and Rosen's pregnant, slim volume on Schoenberg are staples not just of reading lists but, perhaps more importantly, of encounters by that elusive species, the educated general reader, with the fruits of musicology.

Rosen's breadth of interest and sympathy is one factor; another is that he is a writer who can write. This collection of essays, most but not all originating in The New York Review of Books, underlines and furthers appreciation of those and other virtues. Moreover, one is reminded that Rosen is more than a musicologist. Not only is he a pianist, having recorded works from Bach to Boulez, but he also surveys with enthusiastic erudition a number of literary topics.

One might expect a musicologist to be interested in writers with close relationships to music, such as Stephane Mallarme, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and even W. H. Auden, but Rosen's literary interests venture further. Thus we encounter Michel de Montaigne, Jean de La Fontaine, Bettina von Arnim and Robert Burton, whose The Anatomy of Melancholy is a reminder of a time, and not just that of its writing, for 48 editions were published during the 19th century, when "reading a lengthy, serious, and technical book was considered an agreeable and even entertaining way of passing the time". Rosen reminds us that Samuel Taylor Coleridge commented specifically upon its value as entertainment.

Bookishness, in the best sense, rears its head, Rosen evidently admiring Burton's ambition "to present everything that had ever been thought or written about melancholy". This short essay ranges from Horace and Seneca, via theologians Thomas Adams and Richard Hooker, to Alfred de Musset and Geoffrey Hill, finally pointing us to Jean Starobinski and his account of the theoretical foundations of psychosomatic medicine. It whets rather than sates the appetite as, not so incidentally, does a discussion of a new Pleiade volume devoted to the Marquis de Sade's Justine: "Lack of literary talent is largely irrelevant. I think it would be out of place to demand a stylistically engaging description of the joys of raping a small child or of pulling out all the teeth of a beautiful woman...Sade's work proposes urgently...the delight of naked cruelty independent of any aesthetic cover or charm."

However, it is with music, not merely "as music" but as one of the arts, that Rosen's concerns most often lie. The distinction between text and performance lies at the heart of many essays. This may be historical, in terms of changing images of Mozart, an old-fashioned 1920s editor worrying that an article by Hermann Abert darkened the composer's image, making him sound closer to Michelangelo than to Raphael. All the better, we Post-Expressionists might say; at any rate, a picture, or in this case an artist, is often worth a thousand analytical words. Or it may be a distinction more performative in emphasis, Rosen citing Richard Strauss' telling admonition to Arturo Toscanini: "My music has bad notes and good notes, and when I conduct it one hears only the good notes, but when you conduct it, I hear all the notes." That is a relationship between the book title's "freedom and the arts" worth pondering.

We may enjoy good-humoured puncturing of many of the more absurd claims of the "historically informed performance" school. I could not help but smile knowingly at the likening of revival of interest in opera seria to "that new conservative movement that hopes to revive French nineteenth-century academic painting", the former revival attributed to a "strange alliance of two comic figures, the antiquarian" more interested in "ancient instruments and obsolete styles of performance" than in music, and the "opera buff...more interested in sopranos". There is a good deal more to it than that and, as ever, Rosen gravely underestimates Mozart's almost Neo-Classical La Clemenza di Tito, yet he provokes in the best sense. Even when comparisons, intentionally defying simplistic historical categorisation, verge upon the tenuous - "Rousseau's subordination of everything in the simplest form of melody was an interesting early version of dogmatic reaction to modernist complexity displayed by recent proponents of minimalism" - they stubbornly lodge themselves in the memory. What might we do on a rainy day with Rousseau and minimalism?

It is, moreover, surely exaggerated to claim that no one ever writes for posterity, even in the strong sense Rosen outlines. Liszt, for instance, did just that, not only in declaring his intention to "hurl a lance into the boundless realms of the future" - one might conceivably, if misguidedly, argue here for hyperbole and/or ideological avant-gardism - but in actively discouraging his pupils from performing his late, sometimes well-nigh atonal, piano works, lest their careers be harmed. Past readers of Rosen will recall that he does not much care for "interesting" but "minor" late Liszt, preferring the earlier works for their expansion of the frontiers of piano technique. It is no failing, however, if one ends up arguing with an essayist; Rosen's learning and generosity are signalled by the generally friendly nature of such argument.

Rosen's extended 2006 review of Richard Taruskin's The Oxford History of Western Music stands among others as a necessary, indeed model, supplement to Taruskin's monumental, pugnacious, highly polemical six volumes. He expounds and criticises Taruskin's purpose, not so that one would recoil from reading him, but so that one feels compelled to do so. Moreover, Rosen hits the nail squarely on the head when he writes, "Taruskin writes much better about music he likes than about music to which he is indifferent", let alone, one might add, that to which he is hostile. Indeed, "you cannot make sense of music without advocacy, and not to make sense of it is to condemn". One may, of course, wish to condemn; one may even have good reason to do so. "Taruskin's claim neither to advocate nor to denigrate the music he discusses" remains, however, "a hollow one". Part of his project, rightly or wrongly, is to de-centre, indeed actively to undermine European and above all Germanic tradition, whether by discerning (some might say obsessively) alleged anti-Semitism, by presenting an avowedly American "outsider" - neo-conservative? - perspective on 20th-century music, or by replacing Schoenberg with Shostakovich as an object of veneration. Rosen, not at all hostile to Beethoven, Schoenberg and European culture in general, gently furthers the innocent reader's awareness concerning Taruskin's ideological premises.

There are a few oddities in Harvard University Press' production values, none more glaring than "Richard Burton" for the aforementioned Robert. The musicologist Arnold Whittall loses his final "l"; we encounter "Karl-Heinz" rather than "Karlheinz" Stockhausen. Sir Harrison Birtwistle, as so often, becomes "Birtwhistle"; England's greatest composer since Purcell is surely the most frequently misspelled of all. If, however, I must resort to such pedantry to voice the obligatory cavil, the reader may rest assured of recommendation. If you know Rosen's work, you will doubtless require no urging; if not, then this is a good place to start. Thereafter, and whatever your feelings, if any, concerning the composer in question, you may proceed surely to Rosen's advocacy in Arnold Schoenberg.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Caligula, English National Opera, 25 May 2012

The Coliseum 

Caligula – Peter Coleman-Wright
Caesonia – Yvonne Howard
Helicon – Christopher Ainslie
Cherea – Pavlo Hunka
Scipio – Carolyn Dobbin
Mucius – Brian Galliford
Mereia, Lepidus – Eddie Wade
Livia – Julia Sporsén
Four Poets – Greg Winter, Philip Daggett, Gary Coward, and Geraint Hylton

Benedict Andrews (director)
Ralph Myers (set designs)
Alice Babidge (costume designs)
Jon Clark (lighting)
Dennis Sayers (choreography)

Orchestra of the English National Opera
Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Francine Merry)
Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor)

Images: Johan Persson
Whatever qualifications I might go on to voice – not, I admit a promising start to a review – I am in no doubt that ENO deserves applause for its commitment to staging contemporary, or at least recent, Continental European opera. The idea that any house, even one styling itself ‘English National’, should restrict its repertoire on a basis anything other than quality, should be anathema to anyone who cares about the art form, and it is heartening to note that the present management agrees. For a German house to stage both Wolfgang Rihm’s Jakob Lenz and Detlev Glanert’s Caligula in the same season would be noteworthy; for an English company, it is cause for rejoicing. It was good, moreover, to see both present and past music directors, Edward Gardner and Sir Mark Elder, in the audience.

And yet… If only I could feel greater enthusiasm for the work itself. I suspect that Amanda Holden’s translation does not help, its flatness often evoking the language of the cereal packet as opposed to French existentialism. (The source is the play by Albert Camus.) There are a couple of amusing incidental moments, such as the line ‘crap nail varnish’ – presumably an operatic first – and, more tellingly, the line ‘We’re all in this together.’ Non-British readers may need enlightening, if that be the word, that the phrase is associated with the Chancellor of Exchequer, George Osborne, as a fig-leaf of social solidarity in the face of Government policies involving massive redistribution of wealth towards the rich, in the name of ‘austerity’.

But even putting language aside, and even if one can take an existentialist as opposed to a more seriously political take upon dictatorship - it seems fundamentally to be about bad or troubled personality, brought on by bereavement, with social and economic structures languishing unexplored – Glanert’s score is not up to much. There is a certain skill with respect to orchestration, but the harmony signals little more than threadbare neo-Romanticism, apparently without irony. If one might plot a scale running from knowingly allusive through derivative to, well, what my myriad of lawyer-friends would doubtless counsel me against writing, I doubt that one would put very much of the score on the allusive side of derivative. The most compelling music was that which sounded as if it had been lifted almost wholesale from Wozzeck. There was some catchy enough dance music after the interval, but Henze did that sort of thing far more powerfully in The Bassarids. (Now there is a work we need to see on a London stage!) Britten and Wagner – a reference seemed to be made to Tristan, though I could not for the life of me understand why – were other ‘closely related’ composers; it does not seem worth the effort to trace such relationships further. Perhaps worst, the opera goes on far too long, seemingly in need of a good editor. It sounds more like a piece presented at a first workshop session than a finished article.

Helicon (Christopher Ainslie)
All of which is a pity, given that the performers and production team approached it with evident enthusiasm and skill. Perhaps the drama might have been stronger had Caligula been awarded a more prepossessing voice than that of Peter Coleman-Wright – a Matthias Goerne, for instance – but Coleman-Wright acted well, and seemed to relish his drag turn after the interval. Christopher Ainslie was perhaps the star of the show, his counter-tenor Helicon, Caligula’s slave, making one keen to hear him in Britten and other florid roles, ancient and modern. He also, not unreasonably, seemed to enjoy the opportunity to look good in a toga. Carolyn Dobbin presented an undoubtedly sincere Scipio, who might genuinely have moved, had the work permitted. The rest of the cast all impressed, both musically and in terms of acting. So did Ryan Wigglesworth’s incisive, indeed passionate, conducting, the ENO Orchestra once again on excellent form. I wish I could have shared the performers’ belief, though I am glad for their sake that they possessed it.

I have seen better work from Benedict Andrews, not least his unforgettable Return of Ulysses for ENO last season, but there of course he was dealing with a towering masterpiece, and there is certainly much to applaud in his stadium-based staging. The socio-political dimension missing from the work itself has greater prominence here. Caligula’s madness may indeed start off partly a game of capitalism, its tawdry wares of entertainment gathering a momentum of their own. Livia’s Rebekah Brooks hair-do raised a smile on my part, though that may have been coincidence rather than intent. The emptiness of fascism, the emergency strategy of monopoly capitalism as some of us are still old-fashioned enough to believe, shone through in a more meaningful way than a merely empty score. Some members of the audience clearly relished the return of the once statutory ENO nude – I recall her running onstage like a streaker in the middle of the Wolf’s Glen Scene from Der Freischütz and running back off again – since applause for her seemed more vociferous than for many who had actually sung.

Thursday 24 May 2012

London Sinfonietta/Atherton - 'In Portrait: Harrison Birtwistle', 24 May 2012

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Five Distances
Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum
In Broken Images, after Gabrieli (British premiere)

London Sinfonietta
David Atherton (conductor)

From his remarks in conversation with Tom Service, it would seem that Sir Harrison Birtwistle was given free rein, presumably within reason, to select the pieces to be performed in this 'In Portrait' concert. He elected to programme two pieces requiring a conductor in the second half, but two without in the first. Indeed, he had recalled, when composing Ritual Fragment, in memory of Michael Vyner, the London Sinfonietta's artistic director, that he had thought conductors overrated, and had therefore set out to write a piece that would not require one. That 1989 work formed the basis for the 2007 Cortege, the first piece performed this evening. (It is also dedicated to Vyner's memory.) Ritual is fundamental to so much of Birtwistle's music, but it is perhaps especially overt here. One has the sense of an offering, in which all but four of the fourteen players come to the front as soloists, sometimes overlapping, to make their own, personal remembrance or tribute, 'like giving flowers'. The opening trumpet solo put me in mind of the opening of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, and not just, at least I think not, because I had, but a week ago, heard Alistair Mackie, also principal trumpet for the Philharmonia, open that work with equal commitment. Thoughts of Mahler's Fifth recurred to me throughout: maybe just coincidence, but no less real a personal experience for that. Written whilst Birtwistle was at work on Gawain, and thus immersed in the Ring, the presence of bass trumpet brought, as the composer himself remarked, Götterdämmerung to mind. Perhaps inevitably in such a context, bass drum thwacks also suggested Mahler's Tenth Symphony, though here the structural function, if perhaps not entirely dissimilar, is by the same token not the same. The drum strokes provide solo cues, anchoring the piece together, 'decorated upbeat' and downbeat assuming something of the conductor's role. As ever in Birtwistle's work, different perspectives are very much part of the concept. And as so often, there is a sense, a raw, violent sense, of the antique. Loss, melancholy, defiant tribute came together in a deeply moving work and performance. Moreover, the final flute solo (Michael Cox) provided a true sense of summation, not just in itself, but on account of the flautist's walk around the semicircle, to invite, as it were, his soloist colleagues to remember, briefly, their remembrances.

Five Distances, for five instruments (1992) was next up. Birtwistle recalled having played a good number of French wind quintets when young, but it is difficult to find much common ground between boutique neo-Classicism and this spatial reimagining of the ensemble. Placed as far apart as they could be - well, almost - around the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the players, or perhaps rather their music, celebrate and dramatise difference rather than similarity. After all, as Birtwistle pointed out, the only truly related instruments in the ensemble are oboe and bassoon, and even in that case, the difference in register is striking. Michael Thompson's resplendent horn performed a role similar in a sense to the previous piece's bass drum, setting the tempo and setting up the vertical music, whereas the horizontal music is different whenever it is played. The score's thorny beauties were expertly conveyed, the effect at times perhaps not entirely unlike a harsh Northern landscape.

After the interval, we were treated to a fine performance, under David Atherton's direction, of the 1977 work, Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum. Just as illuminating, both in general terms and with more specific reference to this work, was what Birtwistle had to say beforehand. Strikingly, he announced, 'I consider myself to be a sort of 1910 modernist. ... Cubism is my thing.' Citing Picasso – ‘everything he did was radical’ – and Braque, he noted that more theory came out of Cubism than necessarily went into it at the time. Nevertheless, this ‘Perpetual Song of a Mechanical Arcadia’ was, he thought, a work quite without concessions, without compromise, and indeed it sets out in almost textbook fashion so many typical Birtwistle techniques or concepts: verse forms and refrains, clockwork determinism – I thought more than once of the more recent Harrison’s Clocks, for piano solo – layering of material, in which one has an independent layer of dynamics, another of registers, and so on: all of these and indeed a good few others are present and correct. So very correct, in a work in which Birtwistle, at work on his incidental music for Tony Harrison’s National Theatre translation of the Oresteia, wished to evoke the effect of a Roman title inscription, foursquare, without punctuation, upon the wall.
Reading at the time Paul Klee’s pedagogical works, especially interested in Klee’s understanding of the nature of material, he was inspired also by Klee’s concept of the ‘dividual’ – as opposed to the ‘individual’ – in which, like a frieze or wallpaper, a part could be taken away and yet the thing itself would remain. And so, one could imagine the larger frieze Birtwistle had created, from which part had randomly – perhaps – been cut. From the independent layers, tightly controlled, random things could still arise; another preoccupation at the time was random number theory. And the riveting drama of the fermatas was unmistakeably Birtwistle’s, again both in work and in performance.

Finally came the United Kingdom premiere of the 2011 work, In Broken Images, first performed by the London Sinfonietta at the MiTo Settembre Musica Festival. Its title derives from a Robert Graves poem; it was intriguing to hear Birtwistle speak in this reference of how he no longer needs to create a greater whole from which to cut; he can now, in his own words, ‘fake it’. The four sections of the orchestra, strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion are seated separately in blocks, clearly a reference to Gabrieli’s polychoral writing. Moreover, in another sign of tribute, it is with brass that the work opens, Stravinskian fanfares coming to mind as another reference point. Once again, a mechanistic quality of layering was brought powerfully to the fore in another, unmistakeably hieratic composition. I wondered a little, despite the undoubted accomplishment, whether there was slightly a sense of retreading old ground, but this was but a first hearing, and I should not be remotely surprised to discern new paths upon further listening.


Tuesday 22 May 2012

Volodos - Schubert, Brahms, and Liszt, 22 May 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Schubert – Sonata in A minor, D 784
Brahms – Three Intermezzi, op.117
Liszt – Sonata in B minor, S 178

Arcadi Volodos (piano)

Though I have long been aware of his reputation, this was the first time, whether on disc or in the concert hall, that I had heard Arcadi Volodos. I suspect that it will turn out also to be the last. There were peculiarities, which is arguably to put it mildly, to the first half, but I had assumed that Liszt would play more to Volodos’s strengths; as it turned out, I should have been better advised to have left at the interval.

The first movement of Schubert’s A minor sonata, D 784, added up to considerably less than the sum of its parts, even when the parts were often distinctly odd. There were fine moments, such as a beautifully quiet opening, though the sonority seemed more suited to Tchaikovsky than to Schubert. Moreover, Volodos showed himself alert to, or at least suggestive of, those weird foreshadowings of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. However, one often, for instance at the opening of the second group, had a sense of him holding back, afraid – doubtless not without reason – of unleashing his firepower upon a composer whose temperament might seem somewhat less than an ideal match. That said, there was certainly little holding back in the development section, which sounded, if hardly idiomatic, at least impressive. Volodos, from his outward appearance, was clearly committed to what he was doing, apparently lost in his own reveries. But as for what Schubert’s music might mean, let alone how it might add up… The slow movement had ultra-Romantic tone lavished upon it, and I can imagine that many would think it drawn out. Yet at least – and certainly by comparison with its predecessor – it had purpose and coherence. It sounded rather like a Liszt transcription of a Schubert song: not quite right, perhaps, but not so bad either. The finale had a surprisingly Brahmsian tone to its opening, not at all unfitting. Melodic oases were exquisitely voiced, moving in their way, though it was really too late by now.

The Brahms Intermezzi, op.117, received an individual reading by any standards, yet arguably provided the highlight of the evening. Each of the three pieces followed a similar trajectory: voicing as exquisite as that mentioned in the final movement of the Schubert sonata, with half-lighting – or perhaps rather less than half – wondrously evoked. I am not sure that I have ever heard the opening of the E-flat intermezzo so meltingly beautiful. Were the performances distended? Almost certainly, yet they intrigued rather than infuriated. Brahms sounded closer to Chopin, and in the central section of the third, to Liszt, than to Schoenberg; however, there was at the end a sense of loss, of aching longing, that stood not entirely unrelated to Brahms.

The Liszt B minor sonata opened with great promise, the piano sound apparently just right. Unfortunately, even that soon descended into bludgeoning, the delicate passages coming off much better. Why, however, I soon asked myself, all the agogic accents? Why the inserted pauses? Why was everything pulled around to no apparent purpose? This of all works, certainly the most extraordinary piano sonata in formal conception between Schubert and Boulez, requires a musician who will project both its overall structure and its motivic cohesion. Volodos turned the work into something resembling an over-extended operatic paraphrase. He did not deserve the minute or so when an audience member declined to answer the telephone, just as he had not deserved the barrage of coughing here and in the first half, but this was as uncomprehending a performance of Liszt’s towering masterpiece as I have ever heard. That many members of the audience could greet it with a standing ovation for me simply beggared belief. Whatever would they do, were they, to cite two recent outstanding performances on the South Bank, to hear Maurizio Pollini or Pierre-Laurent Aimard perform the work? Here, alas, there was not the slightest sense of an Idea. Most of the recapitulation was simply brutalised. Oddly, the first encore, Liszt’s En rêve sounded, if a little sugary, at least conceived of in a single breath. As for the other encores, I think I have said enough already.

Monday 21 May 2012

Loriot Hustensymphonie

Contemporary performance practice, as sent to me by a kind reader...

Kožená/Uchida - Mahler, Debussy, and Messiaen, 20 May 2012

Wigmore Hall

Mahler – Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Debussy – Chansons de Bilitis
Mahler – Rückert-Lieder
Debussy – Ariettes oubliées
Messiaen – Poèmes pour Mi: Book II (selection)

Magdalena Kožená (mezzo-soprano)
Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Though an announcement was made to the effect that Magdalena Kožená was suffering from a sore throat, for the most part one would barely have known, for this was a fine recital, intriguingly programmed and committed in performance. It did no harm, of course, having a pianist of the stature of Dame Mitsuko Uchida, the individuality of her artistry apparent from the introduction to ‘Rheinlegendchen,’ the first of the two Wunderhorn sonds. Uchida’s shaping of phrases, her voicing of harmonies, and the sheer weight of tone made it abundantly clear that this was no ‘accompanist’. The individuality of Kožená’s voice, a deep mezzo that sometimes borders upon the rare realm of the contralto, was an equal joy to experience. Searing drama was to be heard in ‘Das irdische Leben,’ its tale of a child’s starvation peering forward towards the Rückert-Lieder heard later in the programme and indeed to Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The final line, starkly delivered, ‘Lag das Kind auf der Totenbahr’ (‘The child lay on the funeral bier’), chilled to the bone.

The Rückert-Lieder were equally distinguished. ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ brought an almost straightforward sunniness, whilst the will-o’-the-wisp quality imparted to ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ inevitably reminded one of Schubert’s ‘Irrlicht’. Uchida’s leaning into accented notes was judged to dramatic perfection. A chilling stillness pervaded the piano introduction to ‘Um Mitternacht’, its first interlude well-nigh orchestral in its colour – and drama. The blissful repose both artists conveyed in the final stanza of ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ provided a spellbinding conclusion to the first half.

In between the two Mahler sets we had heard the contrasting erotics of Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis. Uchida’s experience in Debussy really told, the opening to ‘La flute de Pan’ sounding as if a newly-discovered Prélude, its conclusion simply exquisite in its touch. Kožená’s quasi-spoken vocal style drew inevitable parallels with Pelléas et Mélisande, whose latter role she has sung with her husband, Sir Simon Rattle. ‘La chevelure’ could also not help but bring to mind that most subtly ravishing of operas (with the perennial exception of Così), the deepness of Kožená’s voice an especial boon here. The climax, ‘ou que tu entrais en moi comme mon songe’ (‘where you enter into me, as in my dream’) left one in need of a cold shower afterwards. Ecstasy was finely counterbalanced in ‘Le tombeau des Naïades’ by the fine sense of storytelling Kožená brought to proceedings.

Ariettes oubliées opened the second half. ‘C’est l’extase langoureuse, c’est la fatigue amoureuse,’ are Verlaine’s opening lines – and so it was: languorous rapture, amorous fatigue. Attention to detail without the slightest hint of exaggeration is crucial to these songs, a splendid example of which was the expectant pause, beautifully judged, after ‘C’est’, before ‘vers les ramures grises’. An unfortunate broken note upon the final word, ‘bas’ was a rare sign of Kožená’s indisposition. The dramatically, musically alert playing Uchida contributed to ‘Il pleure dans mon cœur,’ once again had one fancy this was a piano Prélude – with obbligato voice. Uchida’s virtuosity and Kožená’s vocal impetuosity proved a fine match in ‘Chevaux de bois’, its final stanza bringing an apt sense of sickness, following the whirling of the merry-go-round. ‘Spleen’ was operatic, but never too much – just like Pelléas itself, of course.

Messiaen’s Poèms pour Mi, or rather a selection from the second book, made one long to hear these artists in both books. Uchida brought an unsurpassable feeling for harmony and its progression. ‘L’épouse,’ the first song programmed, benefited from startling muscular performances from her and from Kožená: one was left in no doubt of the imperative to go where the Spirit leads. Rhythmic command is equally crucial, as displayed in an ecstatic ‘Ta voix’ (second) and the difficult metrics of the final ‘Prière exaucée’, whose melismatic solos terrified and mesmerised. In between, we heard an intensely dramatic, both weird and orthodox ‘Les deux guerriers,’ which penetrated to the very heart of Messiaen’s unique French mysticism, and a duly heated ‘Le collier’, two arms entwined around the neck.

Concertgebouw/Haitink - Bruckner, 20 May 2012

Barbican Hall

Symphony no.5 in B-flat major (revised version, 1877-8)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Bernard Haitink (conductor)

I rarely find myself in the realm of the juste milieu, ever aware of Schoenberg’s dictum that only the middle road does not lead to Rome. Nevertheless, when it comes to Bruckner, I seem to be somewhere along that road, slightly fearful of where its non-Roman destination might turn out to be. I admire the later symphonies greatly; indeed, the final two I find truly awe-inspiring. The earlier works I continue, however, to find problematical, and cannot help but contrast their formal difficulties – devotees will doubtless respond that the difficulties are mine, not Bruckner’s, and perhaps they are – with the unanswerable ‘rightness’ and satisfaction afforded by Brahms. Nor can I bring myself to become hopelessly absorbed in the business of interminable numbers of ‘versions’, though I cannot help but think that some judicious editorial work would not necessarily be a bad thing.

It is testament, then, to the excellence of this performance from the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and Bernard Haitink – ‘in the presence’ of a Dutch princess of whom I had never heard, but who required a welcoming committee and police guard – that there were times when I was almost convinced. Not all of the time, I admit, but I do not recall hearing a better sense of the work as a whole, not even from Claudio Abbado and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra last year. From the opening pizzicati, orchestra and conductor were utterly at home. The excellence of playing was such that a split horn note registered more strongly than otherwise it would have done. The weight, both sonorous and historical, of the Concertgebouw’s bass line contrasted strongly with the lighter approach adopted by Abbado. This was Bruckner with a reassuringly traditional, almost mediævalist, character to our pilgrim’s progress. There was, moreover, the inestimable advantage of having a great Wagnerian at the helm, even down to the level of the handling, the resounding, of string tremolos. Haitink’s way with – I am tempted to say, ‘creation of’ – the melos, the guiding thread, almost convinced me that Bruckner could develop here, rather than juxtapose. The splendid peals of rejoicing at the end proved a fitting culmination to a journey led by the surest of guides.

Command of line was equally supreme in the slow movement, likewise Haitink’s ability to conjure so gloriously full an orchestral sound – and, of course, the orchestra’s ability to provide it. Lucas Macías Navarro’s oboe solos were an especial melancholy joy. Indeed, the oases of woodwind stillness had me spellbound. I truly felt that the pathways, thickets even, mattered, as well as beguiled; Haitink again proved a magisterial guide. The abruptness of transition between material in the scherzo I continued to find bewildering, perhaps bizarre, but everything was wonderfully characterised and the menace imparted to peasant dances proved properly terrifying.
Apparent reassurance in the return of earlier material at the opening of the finale, after the model of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, was immediately questioned by the majesty of the Concertgebouw’s brass section in voicing the chorale. One could not doubt the conviction in all the contrapuntal working out that followed, riveting in its way, and yet, does it not actually go on a bit? Does the writing of a fugue not continue to feel like an externally-imposed decision rather than an organic dictate of the material? In a lesser performance, I might have started gazing at my watch, but not here. Nevertheless, longing for a spot, or more than a spot, of Brahmsian developing variation was still felt on my doubtless heretical part. That said, the magnificence of the playing at the conclusion sent shivers down the spine. It was a pity, then, that someone who sounded suspiciously similar to the idiotic purveyor of multiple Bravos at the previous Barbican Concertgebouw appearance(under Mariss Jansons) again contrived to make his presence felt immediately.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Arensky CO/Kunhardt - Mozart, 19 May 2012

Cadogan Hall

Sinfonia concertante, for violin and viola, KV 364
Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551, ‘Jupiter’

Andrew Haveron (violin)
Andriy Viytovych (viola)
Arensky Chamber Orchestra
William Kunhardt (conductor).

This was the final instalment of a three-concert series, Revolutionaries of Vienna, from the Arensky Chamber Orchestra. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the previous two concerts, devoted to Beethoven and Haydn, but was keen to hear whether Mozart would receive his due, which in large part he did. Regular readers, should I have any, will be aware that there is no composer about whom I am touchier or more exacting – delete according to taste – than Mozart, so that is no mean praise, especially for so young an orchestra.

Or perhaps not, for I was encouraged to think that maybe what used to be called the 'green shoots of recovery '– none of us today even thinks those exist economically – might be seen in the battle against the monstrous regiments of authenticity. Maybe it is actually the case that the absurd zealotry of the Leonhardts, Hogwoods, Norringtons, et al., will die with them. Certainly this performance of the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola suggested that there were still musicians who were willing to treat Mozart as music, rather than as some preposterous parody of a pseudo-archaeological exercise. Conductor William Kunhardt’s tempi were well chosen, seemingly dictated, or rather suggested, by the music, instead of imposed upon it. There will always be different options one might follow, or let us at least hope so, but even if the slow movement were less ‘slow’ than one once might have expected, it flowed rather than being harried – and the closing bars displayed an alert ear for Mozart’s ineffable sense of tragedy. (The relationship between E-flat major and C minor in Mozart is always powerful; consider, for instance, the ninth piano concerto or the twenty-third.) From the opening bars of the first movement, the orchestra showed itself alert, sprightly, and yet always, crucially, warm in timbre. Soloists Andrew Haveron and Andriy Viytovych complemented each other and the orchestra with excellence. The richness of Viytovych’s tone and the sweetness of that of Haveron again took one back to an age that respected Mozart enough never to make him sound remotely unpleasant. (However is it the case that we have reached a situation in which it has become almost de rigueur?) And there was a fine sense of fun, not at least in the finale, whose progress was shaped by an excellent command of line from all concerned. As a welcome encore, we were treated to the slow movement of the second duo for violin and viola, KV 424, deceptive in its apparent simplicity.

I was a little less enamoured with the performance of the Jupiter Symphony, though my reservations were principally restricted to the first movement. Here I wondered, despite undoubtedly committed playing from the ACO, whether there remained a few spectres of ‘authenticity’ to be banished. It seemed unsmiling, driven, unwilling to relax even for the second subject. Moreover, there was a certain astringency to violin tone such as had never surfaced in the first half. Here, and not only here, the kettledrums were more prominent than they might have been, very much in the fashion nowadays favoured. Nevertheless, the slow movement flowed in a good sense. Again, one might have wished for a more relaxed approach – though I can imagine that many, by the same token, would not – but there were splendid details revealed along the way, especially from a fine woodwind section. Though taken one-to-a-bar, there was nevertheless plenty of welcome give-and-take in the minuet, orchestral musicians clearly listening to each other as estimable chamber musicians. The miracles of the finale will never pall; repeats were taken, for which one felt not the slightest regret.

Saturday 19 May 2012

R.I.P Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012)

Philharmonia/Gatti - Wagner and Mahler, 17 May 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Wagner – Parsifal: Prelude to Act I and ‘Good Friday Music’
Mahler – Symphony no.5

Philharmonia Orchestra
Daniele Gatti (conductor)

Let there be no beating about the bush: this was a great concert. Taking time off from conducting Falstaff at Covent Garden – why can we not hear him there in Wagner, Strauss, Schoenberg, Berg…? – Daniele Gatti led the Philharmonia Orchestra in excerpts from Parsifal and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Parsifal was instantly recognisable as ‘his’ Parsifal from Bayreuth. Not only was the Prelude ‘lit from behind’, in Debussy’s doubtless over-used and yet essential phrase; it emerged in its opening free-floating, transcendent, though that quality would be dialectically opposed by increasing striving. (One might point here to the dramatic conflict between Hegelian and Schopenhauerian tendencies and influences in Wagner’s thought.) The sound Gatti drew from the Philharmonia might have been that of a great Continental orchestra. String depth and sonority, woodwind purity, quasi-liturgical brass certainty: all not sounded wonderful but played a dramatic role born of lengthy experience in the theatre. I was compelled to want to tell Nietzsche that I was proud to be a Wagnerian – and then remembered how, following years of a priori abuse, it was hearing this Prelude that utterly bowled over the apostate philosopher. The ‘Good Friday Music’ rarely seems to me a well-advised ‘bleeding chunk’, though I suppose that it is inevitable conductors and orchestras will wish to play it in the concert hall from time to time. Insofar as it makes sense by itself, it sounded both questing and consoling, quite mesmerising. Gatti shaped its contours meaningfully – again, insofar as he could – in both motivic and harmonic terms. However, I could not help missing everything that should have gone in between.

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, like the Parsifal excerpts, was conducted without a score. The excellence of Alastair Mackie’s opening trumpet solo – I suspect he will have played it a good few times, but am sure it will always remain a challenge – offered a good sign of things to come. Tempo, which is so much more than speed, seemed just right, the dialectic Gatti traced and brought to life between onward tread and Weltschmerz suggestive of the first movement of the Sixth. Slight pulling back on the beat ensured that progress sounded hard work, as it should; and then, he pressed on, blending fury and defiance. This was a highly dramatic reading, utterly gripping, as much so even as Leonard Bernstein’s celebrated Vienna account. The closing bars exhibited a true sense of the apocalyptic, looking forward to late works such as the Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Symphonies. A furious attack led us straight into the second movement, another hallmark of this performance being the keen characterisation of the symphony’s three parts (movements one and two/three/four and five). The Philharmonia’s strings really dug into the music, cellos especially noteworthy in that respect. Mahler’s mood here sounded akin to the bitter drunkenness of the first movement of Das Lied von der Erde, that mood coming to contrast with an almost Wagnerian eroticism (Tristan). Violin solos from leader Andrew Haveron impinged upon our consciousness as if fleeting ghosts from the Fourth Symphony. And, in this of all movements, there were plenty of false dawns, to confound – or perhaps even to fulfil? – our hopes. Above all, Gatti’s dramatic sweep, his sense of the whole, made this a special reading. A hint of Lisztian bombast at the emergence of the chorale, soon of course to be denied, made perfect sense in this context, the Philharmonia, and not just its brass, sounding magnificent here.

The scherzo’s opening brought another great contrast with its Alpine bucolics, though they would soon be questioned by nagging disintegrative counterpoint, a properly Adornian dialectic. In a sense, Mahler’s celebrated desire for a symphony to encompass a world was taken further: this movement appeared to do so in itself – though, of course, there is no ‘in itself’, its pivotal function making it what it is. Would-be carefree charm and an echt-Viennese lilt made themselves felt. Counterpoint seemed to be attempting to become something less Mephistophelean, more constructive: could Mahler yet become Bach? No answers, quite rightly, were forthcoming, for this is such a radically inconclusive movement, as captured to perfection in the strivings to life of that extraordinary pizzicato dance of death – or should that be strivings to death of a dance of live? And those final bars: the movement in microcosm, almost in absurdum. They terrified and elated. Mahler is not a drug, as I occasionally feared during my teenage years; he is a thousand times more powerful.

Forget silly arguments about the Adagietto. It can work – or not – in various ways, according to the context of the performance. Here, it was a warm, erotic, though anything but decadent, love-song. Beautifully shaped, poignantly sincere, one could not separate ‘work’ and ‘performance’. Bright sounds from the woodwind emerged from its conclusion, the third part of the symphony taken, like the first, without a break. Bachian lessons seemed well learned – or were they parodied, a dubious praise of ‘hohen Verstandes’? An either/or approach is to miss the point, which Gatti certainly did not. Mahler’s contrapuntal ingenuity and drive was certainly enjoyed. Radical discontinuities were voiced – this is such a tricky movement, in such a tricky symphony – but in dialectic with a sense of the whole. Battle was not nearly so easily won as it is in many performances, a Beethovenian journey from darkness to light no longer possible. This was a distinguished conclusion to a distinguished performance. After so many disappointments during unnecessary ‘anniversary’ performances, Mahler in his second century truly became special once again.


Tuesday 15 May 2012

Belcea Quartet - Beethoven, 14 May 2012

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet no.4 in C minor, op.18 no.4
String Quartet no.16 in F major, op.135
String Quartet no.7 in F major, op.59 no.1, ‘Razumovsky’

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

In the light of the high standards of previous instalments of the Belcea Quartet’s Beethoven cycle (enabled by a bequest from long-standing Wigmore Hall audience member, Mrs Kate Goetz), this concert somewhat disappointed. There were good things in it, but it was perhaps only the performance of the early op.18 no.4 quartet that really convinced as a whole. Its first movement benefited from a splendid contrast between the first subject’s febrile – I was almost tempted to say ‘highly strung’ – tension and the second group’s cultivated, Haydnesque give and take. Tension was maintained throughout, Beethoven really taken by the scruff of his neck. And the surprise, echt-Beethovenian, of the coda fully registered. The second movement was nicely turned, perhaps surprisingly delicate, but winningly so, even though I did not quite feel that the players succeeded in preventing it from outstaying its welcome. At any rate, the renewal of tension in the tightly-knit minuet, both in terms of work and performance, was palpable. The principal theme of the finale was frenetic, but not inappropriately so, rather akin to Mendelssohn with added grit. A beautiful, almost Mozartian contrast in terms of major-mode material provided relief, albeit briefly so.

Beethoven’s final quartet, op.135, opened as it should, as if the argument had been going on for some time. One certainly felt that this was an entirely different world from that of op.18 no.4 The dialectic was well managed, indeed dramatically handled; fragmentation was often threatened yet line was maintained, with difficulty (as it should be). Harmonic strangeness still registered, as did radical concision of form. Much the same could be said of the second movement. Though I felt the opening was slightly under-played, a whirling vortex of potential disintegration was soon apparent, dance threatening to extend out of control, rather along the lines of Don Giovanni. The slow movement, however, disappointed. Its opening, and not just the opening, proved fuzzy. Much of the movement’s course seemed observed rather than immanent, sublimity missing or at least intermittent. This is hardly grand, public music, but nevertheless communication of its soul seemed lacking. It also seemed a little rushed. Strangeness and tension again registered in the finale. And yet, despite a battle between the angry and the playful, I missed a sense of the metaphysical such as would be conveyed in outstanding performances of this work, or indeed of late Beethoven in general.

The first ‘Razumovsky’ quartet again opened intriguingly, in medias res. Its first movement was on the swift side, though not unreasonably so. It might, however, have relaxed a little for the second subject. Antoine Lederlin’s cello playing was an especial pleasure: suave and well-rounded. Dramatic projection of the development’s counterpoint was especially noteworthy from all concerned. The second movement progressed fluently, yet only intermittently did the performance dig beneath the surface. When let off the leash, the players permitted themselves some splendidly abandoned playing; one longed for more of that. The opening couple of bars of the slow movement harked back to their counterparts in op.135, suggesting haziness to be an interpretative strategy rather than a mishap. At any rate, I remained unconvinced, though the music soon came into focus. Nevertheless, this really lacked the feeling of breadth a Beethoven slow movement demands, whether it be part of a quartet, a piano sonata, or a symphony. It simply felt hasty, which is not solely, or even primarily, a matter of tempo. There was also something of a wiry edge to string tone at times. The finale was frenetic. Though not inflexible, it might have breathed more easily. It benefited, however, from a good sense of harmonic exploration.

Monday 14 May 2012

Philharmonia/Benjamin - Benjamin and Ligeti, 13 May 2012

Royal Festival Hall

Benjamin – Jubilation
Ligeti – Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe
Benjamin – Palimpsests
Ligeti – Lontano
Benjamin – Ringed by the Flat Horizon

Samuel Coles (flute)
Gordon Hunt (oboe)
Kent County Junior Choir
Kent Girls Choir
Musicians from St Elphege’s RC Junior School, Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School, Centre for Young Musicians, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, St Michael’s Catholic Grammar School, Bromley Youth Music Trust, and Chestnut Grove School
Whitstable Recorder Ensemble
Kent Youth Recorders
Philharmonia Orchestra
George Benjamin (conductor)

‘Jubilation’, the Southbank Centre’s weekend celebration of the music of George Benjamin concluded with a Philharmonia Orchestra concert conducted by the composer, opening with the work from which the celebration took its name. A nod, perhaps to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee? We certainly saw and heard plenty about the accursed Olympic Games, as if this and all manner of other cultural events had any connection with that extravaganza of profligacy, which will turn London into a living Hell during the summer. Jubilation, for orchestra and mixed children’s group (1985), is probably best off considered as a work of inclusion, an opportunity for participation in a work of contemporary music for massed ranks of children, some of whom need not read music to take part. Commissioned by the defunct Inner London Education Authority, abolished by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1990, it thus harked back to an era in which music education outside of the independent sector still struggled on, with often remarkable results, in the face of official hostility and indifference. Benjamin utilises a large symphony orchestra, a host of recorders, extra brass, percussion, a steel drum ensemble, synthesiser, and children’s chorus. Not for the first time in the concert, I was put in mind of his teacher Messiaen, not that the music ever quite sounded ‘like’ Messiaen’s, though it did not necessarily sound unlike it either; however, the sense of a processional could readily have been conceived as a secularised reflection of Messiaen’s world. Even the synthesiser sounded a little similar to the French composer’s beloved ondes martenot. And the recorder decorations put me in mind, perhaps fancifully, of the piper who would spirit away the children in Benjamin’s opera, Into the Little Hill.

Ligeti, one of Benjamin’s favourite composers – he conducted the 2001 premiere of the Hamburg Concerto – wrote his Double Concerto for Flute and Oboe in 1972. The first of its two movements opened in beguiling fashion, shifting clouds revealing wonderful ears for texture on the part of both composer and conductor. The richness of Samuel Coles’s alto flute – he played upon three different instruments – contrasted piquantly with the refined oboe tone of Gordon Hunt. A sense of fun was imparted to the livelier second movement, in which clocks increasingly displace clouds. The antiphonal dialogues between soloists, different members of the orchestra – for instance, clarinet and bassoon – and between soloists and members of the orchestra displayed an impeccable level of technique and musicianship from all involved. There was an almost Stravinskian, balletic quality at times, teeming with life as if this were testimony from rejuvenated survivors of the Rite of Spring.

Benjamin’s 2002 Palimpsests also seemed, in its woodwind opening, to inherit something of the Rite. Pierre Boulez, its dedicatee and first conductor, would doubtless have relished the kinship. Those woodwind fluttering, however, were soon overwritten, though never exclusively, by violent brass interjections, the battle, distinction, and combination of the two texts to the palimpsests the story of the work as a whole. Messiaen again sprang to mind, perhaps surprisingly so in the awestruck quality of some of Benjamin’s chorale-like writing. Harps again suggested Stravinsky and perhaps Boulez too: sur Incises?

Ligeti’s Lontano, surely one of the greatest musical works of the 1960s, opened the second half, the Philharmonia and Benjamin sure guides to the revelation of its treasures. Here we were of course again in the world of the large orchestra, its shifting soundscapes a textbook example of polyphonic Klangfarbenmelodie. Atmosphere, landscape even, emerges as if this were a tone poem, which in a sense it is. The magical subsiding into silence was splendidly handled by Benjamin and the orchestra.

Ringed by the Flat Horizon was Benjamin’s first work (1980) for orchestra, again a large symphony orchestra. The eeriness to which he drew attention in his programme note sounded as if a continuation, or perhaps better a tribute to, Lontano, though the landscape here is perhaps more readily identifiable, the composer having taken his inspiration from a photograph of a thunderstorm over the desert in New Mexico and an extract from The Waste Land. Its opening bells and that sense of landscape again seemed to evoke Messiaen, as would many of the subsequent orchestral colours, rhythms, and even harmonies. Timothy Walden’s cello solos proved quietly ecstatic. There was, as in Jubilation, a secularised, materialist sense of Messiaen’s awe, in this case with respect to natural phenomena. If only this country would accept that such ‘jubilation’ were worthwhile for its own sake rather than as an appendage to sporting events, a boost to tourism, or any other such nonsense.

Saturday 12 May 2012

Concertgebouw/Jansons - Strauss, 12 May 2012

Barbican Hall

Also sprach Zarathustra, op.30
Der Rosenkavalier – Suite (1945)

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
Mariss Jansons (conductor)

I fear that I am about to be grossly unfair, so shall at least try to explain why I am being unfair, or at least grumpy. By all but the most exalted standards, and I suspect that many would say even by exalted standards, this was a fine concert, featuring one of the world’s greatest orchestras and one of the world’s most esteemed living conductors in music which they performed very well indeed. Had this been a run-of-the-mill orchestra, directed by a Kapellmeister-ish sort, I should doubtless have rushed for superlatives. However, that was not who was performing, and I felt just a little disappointed, at least for two of the three items.

Also sprach Zarathustra does not seem to be performed as often as one might expect. I am not entirely sure why. Though I am far from considering it to be Strauss’s finest symphonic poem – if pushed, I should probably opt for Tod und Verklärung – I should have expected it, for a variety of reasons, some good, some less so, to be popular with audiences. Maybe it is, and is less popular with conductors; it is certainly a very difficult work to bring off convincingly. There was nothing really for which I could fault the Concertgebouw Orchestra; its cultivated yet sumptuous sound suits Strauss very well, even if I might long for something a little more closer to Dresden or Vienna. And the feeble organ is a general Barbican curse. (Even for musical obsessives, there would surely be many more pressing cases concerning which one might wish to purloin funds-cum-compensation from the Corporation of London. But it would be a nice gesture all the same, were the hall to be granted a decent example of the King of Instruments instead of having to rely upon a terrible little electronic thing.) However, I did not feel that Mariss Jansons really succeeding in welding the sections into a convincing whole, symphonic or otherwise. Rudolf Kempe, as so often, is a splendid model in that respect. There was little sense either of belief or of irony; one can opt for one or the other, perhaps even both, but I am not sure that ‘neither’ is a compelling option. There was, of course, much to enjoy, and I appreciated the subtlety of programming, the music for solo strings cleverly anticipating the second half’s Metamorphosen. Leader Vesko Eschkenazy’s rendition of the solo violin part was exemplary. And yet, as I tend to do in all but the best performances, I found that the work somewhat outstayed its welcome.

The problem, or rather reservation, I had with Metamorphosen, was rather different. Jansons opted not to conduct it at all. The Concertgebouw strings are wonderful musicians, of course, and do not need someone to beat time. It is, moreover, an interesting idea to assess this work in chamber music terms. There were certainly gains. No one could doubt that they were listening to each other; nor could anyone surely have missed the clarity with which Strauss’s counterpoint was projected. However, the performance ultimately fell between two stools. At times, it was directed from the first violin by Eschkenazy. The passages he directed tended, almost but not quite paradoxically, to sound more ‘conducted’, slightly squarer of rhythm, than if there had been an expert conductor on the podium. On the other hand, there were times when the chamber approach led rise to a slight interpretative anonymity, when I at least longed for more of an ‘idea’ to the performance. Perhaps the idea was to treat this as ‘absolute’ music, to steer clear of difficult wartime associations. I am sure it was not intentionally evasive, but by the same token, I am unsure that it is the best idea for a performance of Metamorphosen. It felt a little like a typical performance of the ‘Indian summer’ Duo concertante, which needs an inspired performance to avert suspicion of note-spinning. Anger and other passion were somewhat lacking, and the Eroica quotation went for surprisingly little. It was nevertheless a pity to have a respectable performance besmirched by some attention-seeking idiot shouting ‘Bravo’ as the final chord still resonated. (He had done the same at the end of Also sprach Zarathustra too, presumably desperate to have his voice heard before applause began.)

The Rosenkavalier suite is a dreadful thing, of course, whoever concocted it. (So, incidentally, is Strauss’s own Symphonic Fantasy on ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’; one desperately wants it to work, but it never does.) Still, I am sure if I were a conductor I should not be able to resist programming it, and as an audience member I certainly cannot bring myself to avoid listening to it. Here Jansons and the Concertgebouw truly struck gold, or perhaps better, silver. No one plays this music quite like the Viennese, but this was a perfectly valid different tone, cultivated, precise, and warm yet never indulgent. The woodwind section was utterly outstanding, its fluttering in the Overture perhaps the best I have ever heard, whether in terms of the suite or the opera. Alexei Ogrintchouk may have been first amongst equals when it came to his oboe solos, but first he certainly was. Jansons loved the music without smothering it, not only alert to its changing temperament but almost convincing in some of the (non-)transitions. Christian Thielemann doubtless seduces more in this music, but Jansons has its measure as well as anyone else. Even this curmudgeon came away from the Barbican joyfully singing to himself those gorgeous waltz tunes.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Znaider/LSO/Eötvös - Bartók and Szymanowski, 8 May 2012

Barbican Hall

Bartók – Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta
Bartók – Violin Concerto no.2
Szymanowski – Symphony no.3, ‘Song of the Night’

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)
Steve Davilsim (tenor)
London Symphony Chorus
London Symphony Orchestra
Péter Eötvös (conductor)

In this, the second of two LSO concerts in which Péter Eötvös replaced Pierre Boulez, one continued to feel the loss of the latter in his repertoire, yet one equally continued to value his replacement, very much his own man. Where the first concert had inserted Szymanowski’s Second Violin Concerto between Debussy’s Images and Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy, here Szymanowski’s Third Symphony, the ‘Song of the Night’ was preceded by two Bartók works.The Szymanowski symphony provided a fitting climax, and made for an interesting contrast with another recent London performance, from Vladimir Jurowski and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In almost every respect, Eötvös’s performance proved superior. Eötvös’s, or rather Boulez’s, programme made a great deal more sense too. (There will, extraordinarily, be a third London performance later in the year, or rather two performances on 11 and 18 December, again from the LSO, conducted by Valery Gergiev.)

In the opening bars, Eötvös imparted a fine sense of purpose, of onward tread, which had often been lacking in Jurowski’s somewhat meandering account. Yet there was no loss of delight in sonority, nor of fantasy from an LSO very much on top form. Steve Davislim in his opening line, ‘O nie śpij, druhu, nocy tej,’ (‘O! Sleep not, my dearest friend, this night’) immediately announced himself more commandingly than Jurowski’s tenor, more fervent, even possessed, for there was here and elsewhere a fine sense of mysticism to the performances of all concerned. Where Jurowski had often skated over the surface and had misplaced one particular climax, here one truly felt that Eötvös knew where he was going, climaxes expertly prepared and executed. Orchestrally and chorally – for the London Symphony Chorus was on equally wonderful form – this was not just a magic carpet of sound; it was a carpet that took us somewhere. Eötvös was, in that typically Wagnerian dialectic, both more ‘symphonic’ and more ‘musico-dramatic,’ the one quality contributing to the other. Not only did he exhibit a fine command of rhythm, including harmonic rhythm; he also communicated musical ‘character’, whether or no Szymanowski’s ‘song’ embodies an actual ‘story’. The opening of the second stanza was again noteworthy for Davislim’s mystical yet commanding performance: ‘Jak cicho. Inni śpia.’ (‘How peaceful it is. All the world is sleeping.’) However, it was equally remarkable for the Nietzschean stillness (hints of Also sprach Zarathustra, both in Nietzsche’s and Strauss’s versions, perhaps of Mahler’s Third Symphony too) from the orchestra and a duly awestruck chorus. Orchestral memories of Tristan und Isolde soon verged upon the overwhelming: this is Night, after all. And the chorus sounded explosions in the heavens. Yes, contra Nietzsche, one can, indeed must, transcend, even if only momentarily. And was that an echo of another transfiguration, Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, in the orchestral conclusion?

Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta had found the LSO’s strings and percussion on fine form too. I very much liked the questing opening, violas going so far as to evoke the stirrings of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony. There was a true darkness to Eötvös’s performance, almost Romantic, but avowedly of the twentieth century, a darkness that characterised both mood and trajectory, ‘fearful symmetry’ indeed. And how splendid it was to benefit from a full orchestral string section, with no half-way house of a chamber compromise. That certainly enabled a highly dramatic performance of the fugue to emerge, as enveloping, as arresting a drama, so it seemed, as Bluebeard’s Castle itself. The second movement benefited from the placing of the violins – crucial in this of all works – to the extent that one had a sense of versicle and response, properly ‘antiphonal’ (a word seemingly often employed by people not entirely sure what it means). Rhythms were sharp without a hint of showiness. The contrapuntal delights of both work and performance seemed to evoke Bachian ‘invention’ in more than one sense. (One could hardly fail to think of Mikrokosmos.) The slow movement was wonderfully eerie, ‘night music’ that suggested as much a menacing toy kingdom, a Nutcracker turned sour, as ‘mere’ Nature. And there was a Bluebeard-like sadness underlying the violence, a vale of tears that had no need of staging. The finale was taken at quite a lick, though there were a few tempo adjustments later on that did not entirely convince. For the most part, however, this was a performance secure in direction. Again, Bachian antecedents were to the fore: a Transylvanian Brandenburg Concerto perhaps?

Of the three performances, it was that of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto that slightly disappointed, mostly on account of the first movement, in which soloist Nikolaj Znaider seemed curiously disconnected from the orchestra. Znaider is a musician I admire greatly, but here his approach seemed somewhat sectional, and lacked a real sense of interplay with the LSO, whose musicians could hardly be faulted. Perhaps it was telling that it was only really in the cadenza that Znaider’s first-movement performance ignited. What came thereafter, including the conclusion to that movement, seemed far more responsive, far better integrated, giving a sense of what might have been. The slow movement continued in that vein; the violin sang soulfully, nobly, but now sounded infinitely better ‘connected’. Its central scherzando material was sharply etched. The finale, though it had occasional reminders of earlier disengagement, proved highly successful in voicing the sheer range of Bartók’s thematic expression, in both solo and orchestral parts. Znaider’s tone was seductive, but never for its own sake. Here was a foretaste of the emotional commitment we should fully experience in Szymanowski.

Monday 7 May 2012

CD review: Daniel Barenboim - Complete Wagner Operas

Daniel Barenboim: Complete Wagner Operas

Warner Classics 2564 66683-4, 34 compact discs, 36 hours 35 minutes

They are not, of course, ‘complete’ in an absolute sense, for the three earliest operas, Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi are not present, but here are the complete Teldec recordings of Wagner’s operas and music dramas, as recorded by Daniel Barenboim. Knowing where to start with such an undertaking threatens to seem almost as daunting as undertaking it oneself, so I hope that the reader will forgive what is by necessity a cursory and partial examination of what seem to me to be some of the more notable features of this set.

To my surprise, Der fliegende Holländer somewhat disappoints. Barenboim’s conducting has its moments, and sometimes rather more than that; moreover, he has his own Staatskapelle Berlin on excellent form, its dark, ‘old German’ sound an increasingly rare pleasure in an age of international homogenisation. It is certainly a welcome aspect of Barenboim’s interpretation that he takes the opera in forward-looking fashion, more interested in highlighting musico-dramatic presentiments than trying to belittle it as so many do, as if this were merely a more ambitious type of Italianate number opera. However, that feeling for musical ‘line’, which is so often one of the most remarkable aspects of Barenboim’s conducting, is not always entirely with him. One might argue that that reflects the score’s ambivalence, but turn, say, to Klemperer and one does not feel the same. Yet it is really the singing that lets down the set. Falk Struckmann’s Dutchman might well be coming into greater focus as a dramatic strategy, but it is difficult to feel that Struckmann is at his best here. Far more serious a problem is Jane Eaglen’s Senta. This is a difficult role, but her tuning is, especially for a studio recording, often alarmingly awry, and I defy anyone truthfully to warm to her general tone, let alone to find hers a sympathetic, involving portrayal. Fans of Rolando Villazón may wish to capture his cameo as the Steersman, but I doubt that even the most fanatical would purchase a set such as this for that alone.

The Dutchman is given in its non-redemptive Dresden version; Tannhäuser largely follows Dresden, save for its use of Paris in the second scene of the first act. (Experienced Wagnerites will know that the situation is rather more complicated than ‘Dresden’ v ‘Paris’, but let us leave that on one side for the moment.) Eaglen again proves a millstone – why was she engaged? – but if you can somehow take a Tannhäuser with its Elisabeth filtered out, you might find more to enjoy. That said, it would be difficult to consider this recording as a vocal triumph. René Pape’s Landgrave and Hanno Müller-Brachmann’s Biterolf are probably the best sung roles, but no one is going to buy a Tannhäuser for its Biterolf, nor even for Waltraud Meier’s dramatically committed Venus. I might also add Dorothea Röschmann as the Young Shepherd, but that depends how one feels about a female voice in the role. (It is often preferable, at least in practical terms, in the theatre, given the potential for a treble to go awry, but a recording should be another matter.) Peter Seiffert, Erik in the Dutchman, does a reasonable job in both, but little more than that: he can sing the notes, but is not the most illuminating of interpreters. As in the previously considered recording, however, Barenboim, his orchestra, and his chorus, expertly trained by Eberhard Friedrich, prove intelligent and purposeful guides. Weighting and balance are often superbly judged, and Barenboim’s command of line rarely deserts him on this occasion.

Seiffert fares much the same as Lohengrin. One hears far worse, but nor does one hear anything approaching a revelation. He is certainly no Sándor Kónya. The rest of the cast largely impresses, however: Pape again, as Henry the Fowler, his rich darkness of tone a pleasure that is not remotely guilty, Emily Magee a silvery-toned Elsa, Struckmann on more focused form as Telramund, and Deborah Polaski a fine singing actress of an Ortrud. I prefer Meier (for Abbado) here, perhaps partly on account of having experienced her extraordinary portrayal in the theatre, but Polaski’s is a fine alternative of that ilk. A particular reason to acquire this set is the completeness of the score: the second part of the Grail narration is restored. In performance, and certainly in the theatre, I think that Wagner’s own cut – as suggested to Liszt, for the first, Weimar performance – has great merit, but a committed Wagnerite will surely want at least one ‘full’ Lohengrin. Barenboim again conducts the Staatskapelle Berlin with great insight, never resorting to cheap thrills, preferring to respond to the score’s requirements in terms of harmonic rhythm. Again, weighting and balance are for the most part impeccable. The chorus on this occasion is not that of the Staatsoper, but that of the Deutsche Oper.

It may seem perverse in a review of this kind to say less proportionately about the Ring, surely the centrepiece of any Wagner survey. It is certainly not for a want of interest on my part. However, many readers will know this Ring or at least be likely to acquire it for the sake of Harry Kupfer’s Bayreuth production, to my mind the most recommendable overall since Patrice Chéreau’s ‘Centenary’ Ring with Boulez. A few pointers then will suffice. The ‘Bayreuth’ sound is present and correct; this is, after all, a ‘live’ recording (from 1991). Those who thrill – as I am sure we all do, in the right mood – to Karl Böhm’s live Bayreuth performances will experience something rather different here. There is a sense of grandeur, of spaciousness, to Barenboim’s conducting that avoids the excesses of Böhm’s white heat: swept along one might be during Die Walküre, but Siegfried often just feels rushed. Barenboim, as in his Lohengrin, creates a fine sense of the sound welling up from the subterranean depths, Wagner’s orchestral Greek Chorus apparently – and this, for the most part, is surely illusion – taking the lead. That is not to say that the readings are lacking in direction, far from it, but it seems less imposed than more driven performances can. Solti’s celebrated Decca set is not only driven but for the most part quite devoid of a greater line; some still swear by it, but I find it verges upon the unlistenable, despite some superlative singing and orchestral playing.

Moreover, Barenboim, for all his worship of Furtwängler, shows himself alert to other tendencies and possibilities. A characteristic of much of Barenboim’s Wagner is an awareness of the ‘French’ sonorous possibilities, perhaps on account of a good deal of experience in conducting works from Berlioz to Boulez. Woodwind in particular benefit from an approach that is not so stereotypically ‘Germanic’ as lazy generalisations would have one believe; it is not the only way, and no one would ever wish to be without Furtwängler, Keilberth, et al., but Barenboim offers something illuminating and perhaps surprising. Take, for instance, the echoes of Auber in Gutrune’s music, an aspect to which – again, the reader may be surprised to read – Boulez is also keenly attuned. As Wagner wrote in Oper und Drama, French opera is unmasked as a coquette; so it is here in musico-dramatic terms, too.

I do not have time to dwell upon the singers, but anyone who has experienced Sir John Tomlinson’s Wotan in the theatre will surely want to hear it here; his voice has latterly lost its bloom whilst retaining, even intensifying, its stentorian authority. Here those intent on preferring the ‘vocal’ to the ‘dramatic’ will feel less imperative to make the analytical choice. Siegfried Jerusalem may well have been still more suited to the role of Siegmund than to Siegfried, but he is surely the finest of ‘modern’ Siegfrieds, a rare instance of someone one can enjoy rather than endure. Dame Anne Evans is an honest, intelligent, if perhaps not ultimately thrilling Brünnhilde, but Waltraud Meier’s Waltraute is almost enough in itself for one to acquire the set. That extraordinary cantata-like scene in Götterdämmerung is the real thing; Evans certainly sounds incited to her best.

Tristan und Isolde benefits from a fine pairing in the title roles: Jerusalem and Meier. Again, many of us will have favourites from the past, but these two are unlikely to be bettered in the present or the foreseeable future. One may prefer, say, Nina Stemme, but Meier’s approach is not that of a Lieder-singer; it is that of a wholehearted dramatic participant. Perhaps it really needs to be seen, but one can see a great deal in one’s head, so vivid is this account. If you want perfection, venture elsewhere, but is this not a work that goes far beyond, painfully beyond, ‘mere’ perfection? The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is of early Abbado vintage (1994), sounding more traditionally German than it tends to do so nowadays. (Though I should add that if you listen to the orchestra playing for Christian Thielemann, it still can sound as of old.) Barenboim knows the score intimately, and handles it with evident loving care. However, I miss here a sense either of the Furtwänglerian transcendent or, say, the sheer drama of Böhm or, better still, Carlos Kleiber. It is a fine performance, nevertheless, and is unlikely to disappoint.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, by contrast, and rather like a performance I heard Barenboim conduct at the Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, has a slight tendency towards the marmoreal, Karajan on a not-so-good day. (Unlike many, I greatly admire much of Karajan’s Wagner.) Sometimes the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra, for all its virtues, sounds a little dull. When more variegated in tone, recalling those ‘French’ tendencies mentioned with respect to the Ring, it springs into life, but the golden tone of, say, Kubelík with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, or indeed, Karajan in Dresden or Bayreuth, brings us closer, and more consistently closer, to the heart of this joyous work. (That goes for its many darker moments too: the dialectic is thereby felt all the more keenly, especially with Kubelík.) The Bayreuth chorus is as splendid as one would expect – many thanks to Norbert Balatsch – but this is not a Meistersinger that is distinguished vocally. Seiffert as Walther again sings the part, but does not really go beyond that. (There are, moreover, far more beautiful assumptions.) Robert Holl and Andreas Schmidt are rather matter of fact as Sachs and Beckmesser; on a recording, one wants more than that. And Magee’s Eva is adequate rather than inspiring. (Who will ever forget Gundula Janowitz for Kubelík?)

Finally, Parsifal, perhaps the finest of the bunch. The Berlin Philharmonic sounds resplendent in 1989-90 guise, and even the recording location, the Jesus-Christus-Kirche, seems to play its part in permitting the score to bloom, not least in the choral scenes. Barenboim guides these and indeed the rest not only with a sure hand but with a dramatic sense which must, at the very least, approach second-to-none amongst present-day interpreters. The searing drama of, say, Boulez in the second act is not quite Barenboim’s way, but then nor is the extraordinary Zen-like ritual of Karajan in the first and third. There are always viable alternatives to whatever approach one might happen to favour, and Barenboim’s account renders one aware not only of the drama, but also of the more ‘purely’ musical virtues of Wagner’s scoring. (Not that others do not, but that seems to me a particular virtue of Barenboim’s performance.) Again his ear for orchestral sonority works wonders here, but so does his experience of pacing. Jerusalem and Meier again make as fine a modern pair in the two central roles as one could hope for. Again, anyone who has experienced Meier’s Kundry in the theatre will certainly want to hear this. I have heard greater agony in Amfortases than I do with José van Dam, but his is an intelligent portrayal throughout, unlikely to disappoint. Matthias Hölle might do, as Gurnemanz, but there is nothing especially wrong with what he does; he just does not bring to life the narrations as a Hotter, or indeed a Tomlinson, is wont to accomplish.

There is, then, a great deal to recommend in this set. None of the recordings would quite be my first recommendation, but then the whole concept of a ‘first recommendation’ is perhaps the problem in works that admit of, indeed require, a multiplicity of approaches and auditions even to begin to reveal their true wealth of riches. In any case, amongst ‘modern’ recordings, many of these would rank highly indeed. As a set, however, this proves more than the sum of its parts. Not only does one acquire all of the dramas from the Dutchman onwards at what must be an unbeatable price; not only is Barenboim’s conducting manifestly superior to the stopping and starting of Solti, whose ‘complete’ set is really the only comparable endeavour; one also becomes a companion to one of the greatest musicians of our time, in his continuing engagement with some of the supreme achievements of musical drama.

(This review first appeared here, on