Monday 29 October 2012

Holzmair/Cooper - Mahler, 28 October 2012

Wigmore Hall

Des Knaben Wunderhorn (selection of nine songs)
Hans und Grethe
Serenade aus Don Juan
Phantasie aus Don Juan
Three Rückert-Lieder

Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone)
Imogen Cooper (piano)

I can imagine that this would have been a recital, as the cliché has it, to divide opinion. Though I found it an enriching, enthralling experience, I could well imagine that some, many even, would have responded less warmly to Wolfgang Holzmair’s voice, which has become drier, than once it was, relatively lacking in tonal variety. For my part, I relished not only his keen verbal attention, not only his undeniably ‘acted’ approach, but also that inimitably Austrian way he has with the language, which simply seems so right here, leaving many peddlers – or should that be pedlars? – of Hochdeutsch standing. I doubt that anyone, however, could have entertained doubts concerning Imogen Cooper’s contribution. Rarely if ever have I heard Mahler’s piano parts sound so convincingly orchestral: not straining towards an unattainable ideal – well, not very much – as taking on the very hues not just of any orchestra, but Mahler’s. Such was certainly apparent from the very first of the Wunderhorn settings, ‘Ablösung im Sommer’.

Holzmair’s ‘Revelge’ revelled in almost cabaret-like fashion; Weill came to mind, performance somehow encompassing both Berlin and Vienna. A certain dryness of tone was more than offset by sheer communicative ability, poised somewhere between bitterness and sweetness, or rather combining the two. Cooper’s communication of Mahler’s underlying rhythms was every bit as impressive. Neither was afraid to make an ugly sound where necessary, the piano quite tumultuous before ‘Er schlägt die Trommel’.  By contrast Schubertian lineage sounded very much to the fire from both artists in ‘Zu Straßburg auf der Schanz’. The piano proved as sardonic as the voice in ‘Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt'. One actually relished the relative awkwardness in pianistic terms, especially some of the right-hand passages. Holzmair told the tale with an almost childish truculence, though of course, with Mahler, there is always an alienated sophistication to reassert itself too. Nothing is unmediated: the blessing and curse of modernity. Irony pertained too in ‘Trost im Unglück’, another vista opening up with the second character of the girl (Mädchen), but was it for real? The piano sounded almost Schoenberg-like in ‘Der Tambourg’sell’, but that is how Mahler’s writing should come across, perhaps especially in its piano version. Vocal defiance provoked resonances once more of Brecht-Weill, Wozzeck too. If ‘Das irdische Leben’ does not chill to the bone, something has gone terribly wrong; no fear of that here, though there were of course all sorts of other fears to experience. Detail both verbally and from the piano was exemplary. ‘Rheinlegendchen’ was suffused with melancholy, nostalgia for a typically Mahlerian golden age that never was – and we knew it. Its loss is of course none the less painful for that. ‘Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen’ evoked similar feelings. Here I admit that I did feel the loss of a more beautiful voice – Fritz Wunderlich would have been ideal – or indeed the deeper tones of a more conventional baritone. (Holzmair often sounds closer to a tenor.)

The second half opened with echoes of Schubert and Schumann in Winterlied; both artists’ experience in the music of those composers really told. Cooper’s tone sounded close to Debussy in Frühlingsmorgen, which preceded a pervasive yet detailed (words and music) sadness in Erinnerung. Beautifully judged rubato helped the apparently naïve progress of Hans und Grethe. Serenade aus Don Juan was sweetly seductive through sheer vocal – and pianistic – intelligence; the following Phantasie proved similar in tone to Erinnerung. Urlicht was taken faster than one would be likely to hear it performed with an orchestra, but that makes sense. Crucially, it retained its quiet dignity, but sounded perhaps more Romantic, less Nietzschean. (I could not help but long for the rest of the Second Symphony.) Three Rückert songs completed the programme. ‘Liebst du um Schönheit’ displayed an admirable refusal to confound sentiment with sentimentality. ‘Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder!’ offered itself as a companion to ‘Das irdische Leben’, Holzmair’s detailed verbal response suggestive of Wolf. ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ was performed with straightforward, clear-eyed dignity. I was put in mind of Peter Schreier in Wolf. Yes, hand on heart, I should prefer the darker tones of, say, Hanno Müller-Brachmann here, but this moved and provoked nonetheless.

Saturday 27 October 2012

R.I.P. Hans Werner Henze, 1926-2012

 Hans Werner Henze has died, aged 86. It is with particular sadness that I write this, given that I am presently at work in completing a chapter on his work. When writing a book concerned with politics and post-Wagnerian music drama, it never occurred to me that Henze would not receive a chapter. Indeed, there has been a particular fascination in drawing implicit, sometimes explicit, comparisons with his near-contemporary, Luigi Nono. Both men were avowedly committed to ‘politically engaged’ music; both drew fire in almost equal measure from critics, generally of the armchair variety, for permitting ‘political’ considerations to supplant æsthetic concerns and for permitting the latter to gain the upper hand over the class struggle. Neither accusation had much merit; the work of both composers showed how, in at least the greater part of cases, the distinction was supremely irrelevant. Indeed, the dialectical relationship between compositional modernism, even in Henze’s more heterodox, eclectic sense, and Marxist politics proved extraordinarily fruitful in artistic terms for both. Henze would, despite serious illness, remain active until the last, two of his most recent three operas having been claimed to be his last; it was only Gisela, first performed in 2010, that would ultimately be accorded that honour. 

With Ingeborg Bachmann
As someone especially interested in German history and culture, I was always likely to be drawn to Henze, as a composer with such a fraught relationship to his homeland. (How could one not, growing up during the Third Reich?) Even his move to Italy, provoked by disgust at the extent to which post-war West Germany was still ruled over by so many of the same institutions, attitudes, even people, stood in a classical German tradition of longing for warm Mediterranean climes. And yet, he could never really escape. Henze provocatively claimed that Der Prinz von Homburg, dedicated to Stravinsky – Nono’s Intolleranza 1960 was dedicated, by contrast, to Schoenberg – was modelled upon nineteenth-century Italian opera. (Boulez scathingly likened Henze’s opera to Don Carlos.) Yet the conflict between freedom and organisation, the attempt by Henze and his librettist, Ingeborg Bachmann, to render a classic nationalist text as something universal, could hardly have been more German. Nor could Henze’s description of the drama, which, he said, ‘very much cried out for this contrast between dodecaphony, and what – with a pinch of salt – might be termed traditional harmony: the dialectics of the law and its violation, of dreams and reality, of mendaciousness and truth.’

For Henze was as indelibly marked by Schoenberg, despite his constant Stravinskian protestations, as he was by the horrors of an adolescence in which his schoolmaster father became a Nazi enthusiast and excoriated his homosexual son. Henze wrote of growing up, in ‘the bourgeois world of Bielefeld, to which I had been admitted thanks to my being musical. Here the Nazis were considered unseemly; people tacitly rejected them, and found that Hitler fellow more and more of a nuisance, especially now that he was losing us the war and had landed us with air-raids.’ What he called ‘this “I was always against the Nazis” represents,’ he would write, ‘a banal and frivolous stance (created on the stage by Auden in the last scene of The Bassarids)’. And also, of course, by Henze, in what many of us consider to be his greatest opera. Even when proscribed composers, at first Hindemith, only later the Second Viennese School, were once again performed, there was to him – at least in retrospect – something suspect about the enterprise. When, in its first post-war concert, the Bielefeld orchestra played Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler symphony, ‘it went down with a discreet cultural frisson of “We’re permitted to, we’re able to, we have the freedom to play Hindemith … even if we hadn’t actually missed this music.’” However, there was also, more ominously, ‘an undertone of “Now that Hindemith can be played again, our guilt is removed, everything is right with the world again, isn’t it?’” Fascism, it could be claimed, ‘had been no more than a bad dream’. Henze, like Nono, felt he had no choice but to bear witness; like Nono, he most certainly did bear that witness.

For anyone seeking a taste of Henze as man and composer, I heartily recommend the DVD to which I provide a link below. It contains fascinating interviews (with Henze in his Roman villa, as well as others) extracts, and a fine, complete performance of his instrumental, avowedly post-Holocaust Requiem; if it does not have you seeking to learn and to hear more, then nothing well. Here is one of his most delightful works, Nachtstücke und Arien, characteristic in its suffusion of the post-Bergian labyrinth with Mediterranean warmth. (Bachmann again wrote the texts).

Henze wrote in his memoirs (also linked to below) in typically entertaining – and angry – fashion of the premiere:

… at its first performance at Donaueschingen, on 20 October 1957, under Hans Rosbaud’s ouststanding direction, three representatives of the other wing – Boulez, my friend Gigi Nono and Stockhausen – leapt to their feet after only the first few bars and pointedly left the hall, eschewing the beauties of my latest endeavours. Throughout the evening, heads continued to be shaken at my cultural faux pas, and Ingeborg [Bachmann] and I suddenly found ourselves cold-shouldered by people who actually knew us, foremost among whom was Herr Dr Heinrich Strobel [chairman of the International Society for Contemporary Music and initiator of the Donaueschingen Festival]. There was a sense of indignation throughout the building, no doubt made worse by the fact that the audience had acclaimed our piece in the liveliest manner… The impression arose that the whole of the world of music had turned against me, a situation that was really quite comical, but also somewhat disturbing from an ethical point of view: for what had become of artistic freedom? Who had the right to confuse moral and æsthetic criteria? Teddy Adorno?

 Yet again, we are returned to questions of freedom and authority. Doubtless part of Henze’s positioning there is designed to present the ‘other wing’ in less than a flattering light, but his concerns, understandable now, would have been doubly so in a post-war climate in which Henze stood deeply troubled by even the slightest hint of ‘totalitarianism’. We can stand grateful that we no more have to choose between Boulez and Henze than we do between Schoenberg and Stravinsky. However, we should also express our sadness at the loss of one of the greatest composers of an outstanding generation, and salute his memory.

Click here for an obituary from Schott.

Monday 22 October 2012

The EXAUDI Italian Madrigal Book – A Tenth Birthday Celebration, 21 October 2012

Wigmore Hall

Andrea Gabrieli – Vieni, vieni Himeneo
Sciarrino – Tre madrigal
Monteverdi – Sovra tenere erbette
Io mi son giovinetta
Larry Goves – Sherpa Tensing stands up from the piano, says something quiet, and walks outside (world premiere)
Christian Wolff – Ashbery Madrigals (world premiere)
Monteverdi - Vattene pur crudel
Gesualdo – ‘Mercè!’, grido piangendo
Asciugate i begli occhi
Morgan Hayes – E Vesuvio monte
Gesualdo – Ardita Zanzaretta
Languisce al fin
Evan Johnson – Three in, ad abundantiam (world premiere)
Michael Finnissy – Sesto Libro di Carlo Gesualdo I (world premiere)
Monteverdi – Rimanti in pace

James Weeks (conductor)

This tenth birthday celebration for the EXAUDI consort, founded in 2002 by James Weeks and Juliet Fraser, commendably looked forward rather than back, by presenting the first performances of four new commissioned works, ‘the first tranche,’ to quote Weeks’s programme note, ‘of what we hope will become a long-term enterprise: the creation of a book of (mainly) Italian madrigals, each by a different composer. Our aim is to discover what the idea of “the madrigal” might offer the present day, either as a concrete historical phenomenon or as a set of more general principles: principles perhaps to do with the relationships between individual voices or the singers themselves, or to do with the idea of vocal expression, or simply to do with the humanist, secular impulses underlying the genre.’

The door is thus left pretty much open for composers to do as they will; whether something a little more prescriptive might have been in order, only time will tell. I perhaps responded more readily to those works more recognisably ‘madrigalian’, but that is doubtless a different, personal matter. (One should recall that the form had died out before and been reinvented more or less from scratch, fourteenth- and sixteenth-century madrigals possessing little in common beyond the name.) Michael Finnissy’s Sesto Libro di Carlo Gesualdo I is in a sense a transcription of Gesualdo’s Se la mia morte, dividing the six voices into two competing trios, one amplified. The dark, at times almost neo-expressionist, harmonies (or should that, in Gesualdo’s case, be palaeo-expressionist, since our terms of reference are certainly not his?) proved attractive for singers and audience alike. Evan Johnson’s Three in, ad abundantiam, sets fragments from Petrarch, apparently aiming to express difficulty or reluctance to communicate. I found it muted, fragmentary, for want of a better word, but ultimately perhaps not very interesting. Initially, I was unsure whether the intervention of a mobile telephone and ensuing conversation between one singer and the offending member of the audience, was part of the work or not; perhaps it ought to be incorporated.

Larry Goves’s Sherpa Tensing stands up from the piano, says something quiet, and walks outside sets a lengthy, repetitive text by Matthew Welton, to which the musical response seems deliberately sectional. Though in English, it retains another characteristic of the Italian madrigal: the privileged position of words. Christian Wolff’s Ashbery Madrigals seem concerned with quotidian experience in setting as well as text, though they are not without attractive enough harmonies; performance certainly lent them fine chiaroscuro.

Salvatore Sciarrino and Morgan Hayes offered examples of recently written works, which were not yet part of the EXAUDI project as such. Sciarrino’s Tre madrigal set Japanese haiku (Matsuo Bashō) in the composer’s own translation, itself apparently preparative of the Mediterranean sensibility with which the notes are imbued. Waves murmur, a cicada, bells, red sun, and winds appear. In performance – and presumably to a certain extent in score – we heard a post-Berio marriage of roughness and sophistication, intensifying the impression of Italian Renaissance roots. This for me sounded the finest or at least the most inviting of the ‘new’ works, but I am speaking from but a single hearing. Morgan Hayes’s E Vesuvio monte opts, as the title suggests, for Latin rather than Italian, setting Pliny the Younger’s description of the eruption of Vesuvius. A brace of countertenors comes to the fore, lending the narration a sense both of old and of new. The violence of antiquity is felt; whilst never sounding ‘like’ Birtwistle, that spirit, so inherent in the older composer’s work, sounded almost reimagined here – though that of course may well be a matter of me finding bearings rather than intent or indeed practice.

Andrea Gabrieli’s Vieni, vieni Himeneo had offered a well-chosen introduction, a welcome to performers and performance. The rest of the programme was devoted to Gesualdo and Monteverdi, avant-gardists both. Monteverdi’s Third and Fourth Books were raided, his voice unmistakeable in Sovra tenere erbette, redolent of both opera and choral music, and yet differently tender in the progress of its melodic lines and the harmonies created. Io mi son giovinetta was florid yet neither smudged nor merely ‘ornamental’, benefiting from a fine sense of harmonic direction. Vattene pur, crudel certainly marked itself out at the end of the first half as the masterpiece that it is. It seemed informed, or at least its opening did, by a more modernistic style of performance than had hitherto been heard in the Monteverdi works, though that did not preclude warmth. If here, as in the closing Rimanti in pace, I should sometimes have preferred performances a little more Italianate in spirit, the plangency of the latter arguably making it sound disconcertingly close to Couperin at times, then the chromaticism of the former remained searingly apparent, especially in those descending lines throughout the ensemble.

Extremity was embraced from the opening exclamation of Gesualdo’s ‘Mercè!’, grido piangendo, the sheer weirdness of the composer’s writing apparent, in no sense tonally explicable and yet sounding with necessity rather than in merely arbitrary fashion. Whereas Monteverdi in retrospect came to sound almost Mozartian, or at least classicistic, in his perfection, Gesualdo sounded more experimental, whether for better or for worse. If Ardita zanzanetta is almost skittish by his standards, the sense of split personality was still powerfully conveyed. The refusal to milk the ending of Languisce al fin was admirable.

Many happy returns, then, to an enterprising and highly accomplished ensemble!

Thursday 18 October 2012

Trpčeski/LSO/Petrenko - Beethoven and Elgar, 18 October 2012

Barbican Hall
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.5 in E-flat major, op.73, ‘Emperor’
Elgar – Symphony no.1 in A-flat major, op.55

Simon Trpčeski (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko (conductor)

Sir Colin Davis remains in recovery from a recent illness, so Vasily Petrenko stepped in to conduct this concert, the programme unchanged. Petrenko’s way with Beethoven and Elgar was certainly very different from what one would have expected – and doubtless heard – from Davis, but there was much to intrigue, especially in Elgar.

From the outset of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto, there was no doubt that Petrenko intended to make full use of the capabilities of the LSO – no fashionable scaling down here – just as Simon Trpčeski would employ the full resources of his Steinway. The tempo was fast, faster than my general preference, but that is neither here nor there; it suited the performance, which was very much of the here and now rather than a probing of Wagnerian metaphysics. A muscular exposition tutti did not detract from characterful woodwind playing. Petrenko’s reading was rhythmically insistent, very different from the more flexible and harmonically-grounded Beethoven one hears from, say, Daniel Barenboim, or would have done from Furtwängler. It was highly martial, perhaps too much so at times, but I was intrigued to hear Beethoven’s score here more as a successor to Mozart at his most public (the 25th Piano Concerto, rather than the 22nd, despite the key), albeit with greater menace, or indeed to the military brass interventions in Haydn’s late masses, inevitably putting one in mind ultimately of precedents for the Missa solemnis. Trpčeski’s performance was finely shaded, always clear, notably in the cruel left-hand passagework, unfailingly even in tone. The moment of return was a high point, piano and orchestra together veritably blazing. A songful, intermezzo-like character was granted the slow movement, clearly informed by experience in Romantic (post-Beethoven) piano concertos: Schumann, even, more controversially, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. I was not entirely convinced, but it made me think, and it was a welcome luxury to hear such warmth from the deep-pile LSO string section. The finale was taken at a fast tempo too, but was carried off well. Trpčeski voiced those extremely difficult chords in the opening bars to perfection, though there were occasional examples later on when heavy-handedness intervened. There were a couple of odd instances of slowing down, pianist later echoed by conductor, so they would seem to have been the products of conscious decisions. That bassoon solo emerged unscathed from the preceding orchestral onslaught.

After the interval, Elgar’s First Symphony opened arrestingly with deliberate tread, almost as if the glorious celebration of a hero passed (a successor, perhaps, to Siegfried, or even to the hero of the Eroica?), sad yet defiant. The main Allegro, by contrast, opened in fast and furious fashion, quite un-Boult-like, though its fragility would soon be exposed. The score often sounded closer to Tchaikovsky than Brahms, especially at its most frenetic, the LSO brass ablaze. This was an unabashedly Romantic reading, which yet did not preclude uncertainty, above all at the close. The second movement – I suppose one ought not to call it a scherzo, since Elgar did not – also opened furiously, by turn thereafter balletic and martial. (I could almost imagine it danced.) It was quite different from any performance I could recall, yet clearly from conviction rather than a desire to ‘say something new’ for the sake of it. I found it exhilarating. The slow movement emerged with almost Mahlerian intensity from the strings, the warmth and generosity of their vibrato throughout a standing rebuke to the Norringtonian tendency. Echoes of Wagner – sighing phrases, choice harmonic shifts, baleful English horn (Christine Pendrill) – were sung freely. Instability was never far from the surface, despite the often ravishing beauty of the performance. Though the opening of the finale was well-nigh obliterated by a barrage of coughing, it emerged from bronchial envelopment with a nice sense of fantastical revisiting: a tribute to Strauss? The Allegro recaptured earlier fury, yet quite rightly seemed to struggle; ‘hard-won’ would be misleading, since it was never clear that victory had been attained. Astonishingly, even today, Elgar sometimes needs to be rescued from provincial devotees, who would confine him to the ranks of merely ‘English composers’. In this fine performance, he was triumphantly, which is in another sense also to say equivocally, rescued.    

Don Giovanni, English National Opera, 17 October 2012

The Coliseum
Don Giovanni – Iain Paterson
Leporello – Darren Jeffery
Donna Anna – Katherine Broderick
Don Ottavio – Ben Johnson
Donna Elvira – Sarah Redgwick
Commendatore – Matthew Best
Zerlina – Sarah Tynan
Masetto – John Molloy

Rufus Norris (director)
Ian MacNeil (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Paul Andreson (lighting)
Jonathan Lunn (movement)
Finn Ross (projections)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Martin Fitzpatrick)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Edward Gardner (conductor)

Zerlina (Sarah Tynan), Don Giovanni (Iain Paterson), Donna Elvira (Sarah Redgwick)
Images: Richard Hubert Smith
Some especially puerile, needlessly irritating, marketing, involving pictures of condom packets – oddly chosen in so many ways, since few people find contraceptives especially erotic, and Don Giovanni would seem an unlikely candidate to have employed  them – had attended the run-up to this revival of Rufus Norris’s production of Don Giovanni. In 2010, it registered as the worst staging I had ever seen: a fiercely contested category, when one considers that it includes Francesca Zambello’s mindless farrago across Covent Garden at the Royal Opera – now, may the Commendatore be thanked, consigned to the flames of Hell. (Kasper Holten, Director of Opera, is said to have insisted, having viewed it in horror, that the sets be destroyed, lest it never return.) There were grounds for the odd glimmer of hope; Norris was said to have revised the production in the face of its well-nigh universal mauling from critics and other audience members alike. Yet the marketing did little to allay one’s fears, especially when reading the bizarre description on ENO’s website of a ‘riveting romp [that] follows the last twenty-four hours in the life of the legendary Lothario’. Something really ought to be done about whomever is involved in publicising productions; for, irrespective of the quality of what we see on stage, they  more often than not end up sounding merely ludicrous: in this case, more Carry On Seville than one of the greatest musical dramas in the repertory. Even if one were willing thus to disparage Da Ponte – and I am certainly not – does Mozart’s re-telling of the Fall in any sense characterised by the phrase ‘riveting romp’?

How, then, had Norris’s revisions turned out? Early on, I felt there was a degree of improvement. The weird obsession with electricity – certainly not of the musical variety – had gone, but not to be replaced by anything else. Certain but only certain of the most bizarre impositions had gone, or been weeded out, yet not always thoroughly enough. For instance, there was a strange remnant of the already strange moment when, towards the end of the Act Two sextet, people began to strip off, when Don Ottavio – an ‘uptight fiancé’, according to the company website – carefully removed his shoes and socks. No one reacted, and a few minutes later – I think, during Donna Anna’a ‘Non mi dir’ – he put them back on again. Otherwise, the hideous sets and other designs remain as they were, though one might claim a degree of contemporary ‘relevance’ in that Don Giovanni’s dated ‘leisure wear’ now brings with it unfortunate resonances of the late Jimmy Savile. Alas, nothing is made of the similarity. The flat designed as if by a teenage girl, full of hearts and pink balloons, remains; as does the building that resembles a community centre. Leporello still appears to be a tramp. There are no discernible attempts to reflect Da Ponte’s, let alone Mozart’s, careful societal distinctions and there is no sign whatsoever that anyone has understood that Don Giovanni is a religious drama or it is nothing. Norris has clearly opted for ‘nothing’.

There is, believe it or not, a villain perhaps more pernicious still. Jeremy Sams’s dreadful, attention-seeking English translation does its best to live up to the ‘riveting romp’ description. A few, very loud, members of the audience did their best to disrupt what little ‘action’ there was by laughing uproariously after every single line: the very instance of a rhyme is intrinsically hilarious to some, it would seem. A catalogue of Sams’s sins – sin has gone by the board in the drama itself – would take far longer than Leporello’s aria. But I no more understand why the countries in that aria should be transformed into months – ‘ma in Ispagna’ becomes ‘March and April’ – than I do why Zerlina was singing about owning a pharmacy in ‘Vedrai carino,’ or whatever it became in this ‘version’. It is barely a translation, but nor is it any sense a reimagination along the brilliant lines of the recent gay Don Giovanni at Heaven; it merely caters towards those with no more elevated thoughts than Zerlina going down on her knees, about which we are informed time and time again, lest anyone should have missed such ‘humour’. The lack of respect accorded to Da Ponte borders upon the sickening.

Edward Gardner led a watered-down Harnoncourt-style performance. At first it might even have seemed exciting, but it soon became wearing, mistaking the aggressively loud for the dramatically potent. Where was the repose, let alone the well-nigh unbearable beauty, in Mozart’s score? A peculiar ‘version’ was employed, in that Elvira retained both her arias, whereas Ottavio only had his in the first act. On stage, Prague remains preferable every time, despite the painful musical losses its adoption entails; sadly, few conductors seem to bother.

Donna Anna (Katherine Broderick), Zerlina, Leporello (Darren Jeffery),
Masetto (John Molloy), Don Ottavio (Ben Johnson)
Iain Paterson remains bizarrely miscast in the title role, entirely bereft of charisma. Darren Jeffery’s Leporello was bluff and dull in tone. (How one longed for Erwin Schrott – in either role, or both!) Katherine Broderick was too often shrill and squally as Donna Anna, and her stage presence was less then convincing, shuffling on and off, without so much as a hint of seria imperiousness. Her ‘uptight fiancé’ was sung well enough, by Ben Johnson, though to my ears, his instrument is too much of an ‘English tenor’ to sound at home in Mozart.  Sarah Redgwick’s Elvira was probably the best of the bunch, perhaps alongside Matthew Best’s Commendatore, but anyone would have struggled in this production, with these words. Elvira more or less managed to seem a credible character, thanks to Redgwick’s impressive acting skills, quite an achievement in the circumstances. Sarah Tynan made little impression either way as Zerlina, though she had far more of a voice than the dry-, even feeble-toned Masetto of John Molloy: surely another instance of miscasting.

ENO had a viscerally exciting production, genuinely daring, almost worthy of Giovanni’s kinetic energy. It seems quite incomprehensible why anyone should have elected to ditch the coke-fuelled orgiastic extravagance of Calixto Bieito – now there is a properly Catholic sensibility – for Rufus Norris. whose lukewarm response at the curtain calls was more genuinely amusing than anything we had seen or heard on stage. Maybe the contraceptive imagery was judicious after all.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

BBC Radio 3 Opera Guides: Das Rheingold

Whilst pitched at an introductory level - actually a far more difficult task than many would suspect - these may be of interest, offering commentary and musical excerpts. From what the website says (click here), they may only be downloaded within the United Kingdom. The latest is for Das Rheingold; contributors are Antonio Pappano, Kasper Holten, John Deathridge, Sarah Lenton, and yours truly. Guides to the remaining instalments of the Ring will accompany the live broadcasts from Covent Garden over the coming few days and will then appear online too.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Das Rheingold, Royal Opera, 16 October 2012

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Woglinde – Nadine Livingston
Wellgunde – Kai Rüütel
Flosshilde – Harriet Williams
Alberich – Wolfgang Koch
Wotan – Bryn Terfel
Fricka – Sarah Connolly
Freia – Ann Petersen
Donner – Peter Coleman-Wright
Froh – Andrew Rees
Fasolt – Iain Paterson
Fafner – Eric Halfvarson
Loge – Stig Andersen
Mime – Gerhard Siegel
Erda – Maria Radner

Keith Warner (director)
Walter Sutcliffe (associate director)
Justin Way, Michael Csar (first assistant directors)
Stefanos Lazaridis, Matthew Deely (set designs)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Mic Pool, Dick Straker (video designs)
Claire Gaskin, Michael Barry (movement)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, Rheingold, little likelihood of Die Walküre: not necessarily the most obvious, nor indeed recommendable, way of experiencing the Ring, though Wagner’s method and form in any case leave us with all manner of questions and experiences concerning history, memory, the past, the present, and the future. No matter: though one can never know the Ring too well, I have seen the production twice before and flatter myself that I have not entirely forgotten the works themselves either. After the dismal experience of Götterdämmerung, I was in any case feeling distinctly unenthused about the prospect of standing through Das Rheingold. Low expectations were probably no bad thing. Would they be fulfilled, exceeded, or somehow prove nevertheless too elevated?

Fulfilled really – though, on the whole, it was probably a bit better than Götterdämmerung. Keith Warner’s production is for the most part on safer ground here. The opening scene works well: I like the idea of having the initially nude Rhinemaidens clothe themselves as their behaviour becomes nastier; there never was a Golden Age in the Ring-cosmos but things only get worse. The gods’ realm benefits from richly-upholstered designs, though I think the portrayal of Froh is overdone; he is pretty much a cipher, a deliberately uninteresting aristocrat, in any case, but silliness was pushed too far. Wolfgang Göbbel’s lighting works wonders, especially in Nibelheim – Alberich’s transformations are probably the best I have seen – and during the storm of the final scene. I still do not understand why Nibelheim is a place of scientific experimentation, though. One could make all sorts of points about instrumental reason, but they need to be made. Here it rather appeared as if the setting of Warner’s Royal Opera Wozzeck had been modified a bit, and capital had bizarrely gone out of the window. Surely this must in some sense be a factory.

Antonio Pappano’s conducting remained disappointing. There were moments that impressed, but Wagner, whatever Nietzsche’s barbs, is anything but a miniaturist. The point is the composer’s art of transition, of which he was justly proud; Pappano simply seems unable to make the score work as a whole, quasi-symphonically. The Prelude was depressing, seemingly presented bar by bar; if ever forward momentum needs to be achieved in the most ‘natural’ fashion it is surely here. Without any intelligible sense of life, of momentum, the second and fourth scenes in particular dragged almost interminably. The orchestra for the most part played well enough, despite a few too many brass fluffs, but the anvils were both risibly underpowered and, on more than one occasion, disturbingly out of time. They almost might have been cowbells, albeit without Mahler’s sense of foreboding.

The Rhinemaidens, once past their opening bars, sang impressively – and acted with convincing coquetry throughout.  Wolfgang Koch’s Alberich lacks the blackness one might expect, but is always intelligently portrayed, with more or less equal attention to words, music, and gesture. His Mime, Gerhard Siegel is similarly good in those respects. (Why, though does Warner have Loge stay behind in Nibelheim to tie him up?! It only serves to confuse, especially when he seems about to immolate his captive and then does not.) Sarah Connolly sings beautifully for most of the time as Fricka, though I missed something more formidable in Wagner’s Hera equivalent. Ann Petersen made a lovely Freia though, and the love felt by Iain Paterson’s Fasolt seemed utterly genuine. He and Eric Halfvarson both acted their parts well, though the latter’s Fafner was a bit bluff. Andrew Rees was an attractively-voiced Froh; doubtless the over-acting had been pressed upon him. Alas, Peter Coleman-Wright proved at least as dreadful a Donner as he had a Gunther, his weakness of voice an embarrassment for one who should resound as the incarnation of brute force. He really ought to have been replaced. Stig Andersen lacked much sense of the sardonic as Loge; his stage portrayal – Warner’s idea of Loge as a magician intrigues – was stronger than his delivery of the vocal line. Maria Radner seems miscast as Erda; her voice is simply not deep enough to register the earth mother’s tones. That leaves Bryn Terfel as Wotan. He seems to garner plaudits from all and sundry, but to my ears he too often alternated between coarseness, even shouting during the final act, and  something perilously close to crooning. The words were delivered intelligibly, but there was little philosophical depth to his portrayal; again, stage presence was generally more impressive than vocal delivery. It was nevertheless probably a better stab at the role than his Wanderer in Siegfried.

Oh well: probably no reason to feel dispirited about missing Die Walküre then...


On the centenary of Pierrot lunaire...

... or rather of its first public performance, on 16 October 1912. Is there any work that stands so proudly before the music of the twentieth century and pushes the Romanticism of the previous century to its extreme and beyond? Not even The Rite of Spring, whatever its musical greatness and the quasi-legendary nature of its premiere the following year. If too often today performances of Stravinsky's masterpiece have been neutralised, the Rite degraded into an orchestral showpiece, then Pierrot seems, like so much of Schoenberg's œuvre, still, in an almost Adornian sense, to resist. The very notion of adequacy in performance seems misplaced. It seems impossible even to agree upon how its Sprechstimme should be 'voiced'. The very make-up of its instrumental ensemble is prophetic of so much 'New Music' to come. Can one imagine Le marteau sans maître without Pierrot? More to the point, could Boulez have done? Peter Maxwell Davies's Pierrot Players, later the Fires of London, took Schoenberg's quintet as its core. Hans Werner Henze's Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer took the same ensemble as its emobdiment of sickly, bourgeois expressionism - and, almost despite itself, despite the composer's intentions, ended up offering to the Pierrot-ensemble the most compelling music. Stravinsky, who could in equal measure hit musical nails squarely on the head and prove himself grotesquely wrong-headed, came perhaps closer to the truth than anyone else when he celebratedly described Pierrot as  'the solar plexus as well as the mind of early-twentieth-century music'. We might simply delete the 'early'. And so, in tribute to that performance in Berlin's Choralian-Saal from Albertine Zehme as reciter, Eduard Steuermann, Jakob Masiniak, Hans Kindler, Hans de Vries, and Karl Eßberger, here are the score and one of the great recorded performances of the Dreimal sieben Gedichte, from Boulez, the Ensemble Intercontemporain, and Christine Schäfer:

Thursday 11 October 2012

The Lighthouse, English Touring Opera, 11 October 2012

Linbury Studio Theatre

Sandy – Adam Tunnicliffe
Blazes – Nicholas Merryweather
Arthur – Richard Mosley-Evans 

Ted Huffman (director)
Neil Irish (designs)
Guy Hoare (lighting)
Oliver Townsend (costumes)

Aurora Orchestra
Richard Baker (conductor)

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s chamber opera, The Lighthouse, received a splendid performance from English Touring Opera, just as Viktor Ullmann’s Der Kaiser von Atlantis did last week. At little more than an hour and a half, including an interval, this proved a far more satisfactory dramatic experience than the Royal Opera’s Götterdammerung on the main Covent Garden stage. (To be fair, that would not be difficult, and ETO’s performance was far better than merely preferable.)

The opera has the gripping quality of a superior detective – and ghost – story. Its Prologue sets up the situation as three naval officers answer questions concerning the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers, questions posed by a solo horn. As time goes on, their interrogation metamorphoses into something approaching reconstruction, the point we reach in the opera proper, in which the singers who have played the officers turn to play the lighthouse keepers – and, at the end, return to the guise of the officers, who may or may not bear guilt. Davies wrote the libretto as well as the score, composed for an expanded Fires of London ensemble, out-of-tune piano, banjo, and flexatone included.

Misunderstandings and the weird ways in which makes sense out of disparate, perhaps even mutually exclusive, ‘truths’ are finely portrayed musically and verbally as well as scenically. Words from the three characters come together to present something that may or may not be more or less truthful than what it is they think they are saying individually: a verbal magic square perhaps? Webern’s shadow is cast longer and more widely than one might expect. The instability of the three men’s relationship – they have been together for a good few months now – is menacingly conveyed, though not without affection either. Arthur is a different matter, or at least he seems to be, but there is certainly at least a hint of homoeroticism, especially in Ted Huffman’s excellent production, between Sandy and Blazes. Parody is present, of course, most evidently in the reimagination of the ballads – a street variety from Blazes and Sandy’s sickly drawing-room version – and the hymn tunes. (Arthur is clearly the kind of Protestant fundamentalist who has long drawn Davies’s ire.) The rhythm of the closing automation – ‘The lighthouse is now automatic,’ we hear at the end of the Prologue – is as stubbornly memorable as the New York traffic-jam sounds at the beginning of Stravinsky’s Agon, another work owing a great debt and repaying it handsomely, to the jewels of Webern. All of the way home and for some time afterwards I found it impossible to rid my head of its repetitions.

Both Huffman’s staging and Richard Baker’s conducting are excellent, equal in precision; so, unsurprisingly, is the expert witness of the Aurora Orchestra, as fine an ensemble of young soloists as one is likely to encounter. The simple set, faithful to the work, provides a suitably claustrophobic backdrop and indeed participant – who are the ghosts and where are they are? In the characters and/or our minds, or are they something more? – for the keenly directed drama to unfold. Guy Hoare’s lighting did its job very well indeed, especially when it came to showing the automated signals in the deserted, desolate house. Tenor Adam Tunnicliffe offered a sensitively sung performance of Sandy, both contrasting and blending well with baritone Nicholas Merryweather as Blazes. Richard Mosley-Evans presented a powerful portrayal of Arthur, alive to his daemons, and to the illusory and real strengths and weaknesses arising therefrom.

It is not merely that there was no weak length in the cast; these were performances that would have graced any stage. The excellent news is that they will grace a good few more stages, for after the Linbury performances, this production will be seen in Cambridge, Exeter, Harrogate, Bath, and Aldeburgh. For further details from ETO’s website, click here.

Book Review - Martin Geck, Robert Schumann: The Life and Work of a Romantic Composer

(This review was first published in Times Higher Education, 11 October 2012 (2071), p.50.)

Martin Geck has written a good few composer biographies: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Wagner. In his most recent, first published in German in 2010, Geck turns his attention to Robert Schumann.

The author draws out some important biographical themes, not least the extent to which, from an early age, Schumann’s twin literary and musical careers informed one another. In the most impressive section, Schumann’s role as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, in its heyday one of the most influential music periodicals of all time, is brought to vividly Romantic life. Schumann’s ‘friends’, fiery Florestan and introverted Eusebius, and the Zeitschrift’s ‘League of David’, dedicated to the defeat of the ‘Philistines’, played games of identity with readers not unlike those of German Romantic poets such as Schumann’s beloved Jean Paul.

The composer’s marriage is treated more sensibly than often, though Clara Schumann is treated with kid gloves. No mention is made of the Schumanns’ rank ingratitude towards Liszt; nor does Geck deal critically with Clara’s music – perhaps because, sadly, it is not intrinsically very interesting. The final years of Schumann’s life and career receive surprisingly short shrift. It is almost as if Geck stands reluctant to tell the harrowing tale of psychosis and the Endenich asylum. Moreover, the sheer strangeness of Schumann’s highly disturbing late works goes unexplored.

In general, a deeper understanding of Schumann remains elusive. One particular problem lies in the lack of any sense of place. We learn some facts about, for instance, Schumann’s time as a student in Leipzig; yet without a keener sense of what Leipzig, or indeed Saxony, c.1830, was like, they amount to little more than the sum of their parts. An historian of nineteenth-century Germany, alert to the differences between, say, Saxony and Prussia, might have had something revealing to say here. Alan Walker’s compelling Liszt biography presents a model too little followed in writing on composers’ lives.

Discussion of Schumann’s music – which is surely why we are most interested in him – is mixed in quality. Following a striking, if brief, discussion of the piano piece, Papillons, and citation of Schumann’s contention that he had learned more about counterpoint from Jean Paul than anyone else, comes the bizarre claim that the Marseillaise quotation in Faschingsschwank aus Wien is ‘almost unrecognisable’. I recall it leaping out from the page at me in a childhood piano lesson – and certainly not on account of any particular acuity. Analysis and even description tend to be approached and veered away from, an odd state of affairs for a treatment of ‘life and work’. Attempts at theoretical engagement, for instance, citation of Roland Barthes, seem somewhat forced and sit oddly with a generally belletrist approach. There is nothing wrong with the latter; sadly, however, Geck’s lettres prove more often grises than belles.

Historical situation of Schumann amongst his peers is dubious, largely consisting in his relative elevation through swiping at others. Quite why an irrelevant and, in the worst sense, merely subjective contrast with Schoenberg, whose music ‘is less popular than Schumann’s ... [because] it is more difficult to understand,’ is thought necessary but four pages in, I cannot imagine. Inevitably, though no less wearisomely, there comes a host of digs at Wagner. Even Beethoven has his middle-period works portrayed as one-dimensional when compared with Schumann’s music. As for Geck’s wildly unhistorical claims that ‘until Beethoven’s day composition was primarily a craft that required an adherence to traditional rules,’ and that ‘Mendelssohn and Schumann were the first musicians,’ not even the first composers, ‘to receive a proper formal education,’ hands must be thrown up in the air.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Götterdämmerung, Royal Opera, 9 October 2012

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

First Norn – Maria Radner
Second Norn – Karen Cargill
Third Norn – Elisabeth Meister
Brünnnhilde – Susan Bullock
Siegfried – Stefan Vinke
Gunther – Peter Coleman-Wright
Gutrune – Rachel Willis-Sørensen
Hagen – Sir John Tomlinson
Waltraute – Mihoko Fujimura
Alberich – Wolfgang Koch
Wellgunde – Kai Rüütel
Woglinde – Nadine Livingston
Flosshilde – Harriet Williams

Keith Warner (director)
Walter Sutcliffe (associate director)
Amy Lane (first assistant director)
Stefanos Lazaridis, Matthew Deely (set designs)
Marie-Jeanne Lecca (costumes)
Wolfgang Göbbel (lighting)
Mic Pool, Dick Straker (video designs)
Claire Gaskin, Michael Barry (movement)                        

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

I am not at all sure what is meant by the claim on the Royal Opera House’s website that ‘Keith Warner presents a bravura production of the fourth opera in the Ring cycle’. Anyway, ‘bravura’ or otherwise, here came Götterdämmerung, or should it have been Wagner-Dämmerung? If this is the level of Wagner performance to which we can look forward in 2013, his bicentenary, then it would be better to shut up shop now. Siegfried had had a good few virtues, as well as failings; I had blithely assumed that Götterdämmerung would have been vaguely comparable. Pride, as Wotan discovers, comes before a fall.

Little had changed in terms of Keith Warner’s production, problematical in a number of ways in 2007, though the production was far from the weakest link in the performance as a whole. Warner’s staging lays claim to a number of positive features. The role allotted to the gods, whose twilight we are supposed to be enacting, is a particular strength. They appear, as they ought yet seldom do, during the second act, as statues, vain objects of sacrifice. This was recognisable as  the decaying Gibichung society Patrice Chéreau so rightly characterised as ageing, pointing to the increasing desperation of its rituals — rituals which would seek some sort of moral code in a post-religious society that knows no morality, indeed finds it impossible, as Chéreau put it, to ‘know’. (See  Pierre, Boulez and P. Chéreau, ‘Commentaires sur “Mythologie et Idéologie”,’ in Programmhefte der Bayreuther Festspiele, 1977, VI, p. 81.) Wotan, I think, reappears from afar to view Siegfried’s death ; Loge summons and is consumed by fire at the end ; the statues are burned. There is also a nice – well, provocative – suggestion of incest between Gunther and Gutrune.

Alas, a great deal of incoherence remains. Why Grane is represented by a mere skull I cannot imagine. The ultimate indignity is suffered when Brünnhilde’s trusty steed is passed around as if the characters are worried that, when the music stops – one is tempted to add: ‘if only...’ – one of them will suffer a forfeit. It would be perfectly possible to have an off-stage horse, but a dead one seems pointless. Why does Waltraute appear in ‘civilian’ guise, dressed as Brünnhilde is now ? Is not the whole point of the scene the contrast between inhuman Valkyrie and Brünnhilde as human being ?

Perhaps the most glaring sequence of confusion is seen in the final scene to the first act. What I wrote in 2007 still holds word for word, so I shall save time by repeating myself: ‘Hagen’s continued presence on stage, following the move from the Hall of the Gibichungs to Brünnhilde’s rock, did not augur well. We all know that in a sense he is “still there”: his dramatic shadow hangs over the rest of the act, and the music could hardly make this clearer. Actually to have him on stage added little, except confusion as to where the action was taking place. But this was as nothing to the final scene (in which, needless to say, he remained on stage). Anyone who did not know what was supposed to be going on would have been utterly confused, since we had Siegfried as himself, wearing the Tarnhelm, and Siegfried transformed by the Tarnhelm into Gunther, on stage at the same time. All of the singing came from – audibly and visually – from the former Siegfried. This was logically incoherent, and the whole mess could easily have been avoided by following Wagner’s directions.’ The end is marred not only by having Hagen, Brünnhilde, and the vassals run around like children in the playground. Quite why the Rhinemaidens strip part way through, as opposed to being nude throughout, is anyone’s guess. Conflagration, such as it is, cannot come soon enough. What we are to make of the girl standing in a ring – a belated advertisement for the Olympic Games? – I do not know. The ‘watchers’ are an athletic bunch, though they are not called upon to put that athleticism to use; a rather more mixed sample of humanity might have been more to Wagner’s point. (Chéreau’s conclusion remains an object lesson here.)

There were some good solo performances. Mihoko Fujimura, arguably the world’s reigning Waltraute, injected as much passion as Antonio Pappano’s lethargic conducting would permit into her scene. Rachel Willis-Sørensen surprised me as an uncommonly womanly Gutrune, an eminently creditable object of Siegfried’s diverted affections. John Tomlinson’s Hagen had strength where it counted, even if he sounded a little genial to begin with. The scene with Wolfgang Koch’s once-again excellent Alberich was a rare highlight.  And Stefan Vinke’s Siegfried, if hardly perfect, and a little flat of tone to begin with, was far better than one generally hears. The young Siegfried seems more suited to his voice, for whatever reason, or perhaps he was simply on better form a couple of nights before. Nevertheless, there was much to admire in a performance of stamina and considerable strength. The Norns and Rhinemaidens impressed, as did Renato Balsadonna’s splendid chorus.

Susan Bullock’s Brünnhilde was by and large a disappointment. Indeed, I am sure that this is the first time I have heard a Brünnhilde who was not considerably superior to her Siegfried. Bullock’s voice, as in Siegfried, sounds strained by the role. The contrast between her struggling and Fujimura’s proud performance was unfortunate, to say the least. Peter Coleman-Wright’s Gunther was worse, however, quite the worst Gunther I have heard. Persistently out of tone, vocally insecure, he sounded at least 103 – and not in a good way.

Pappano’s conducting was the gravest problem, reflected in a frequent tiredness sounding from the orchestra. The opening of the Prologue actually began rather well, at least in retrospect. If Wagner’s metaphysical depths remained unplumbed, then at least there was fluency, which one cannot always say with respect to Pappano’s Wagner. From the departure of the Norns, it was, alas, to be mostly downhill. Listlessness, born of an apparent lack of understanding of harmonic motion, made much of the performance seem interminable. Whether the Waltraute scene was the longest I have ever heard I have no idea, but it certainly sounded like it. The Vassals Scene was conducted with rigidity, as if it were a march from Aida. By the end of the second act, so little seemed to be at stake, so little was the score’s richness penetrated, that we might have been listening to an episode of Crossroads, an impression heightened by the shaky platform – was this deliberate? – on which the characters were walking. Lethargy was accompanied by a sound-world somewhat akin to the opaque meaningless people who do not like Debussy ascribe to Debussy. And so it went on and on and on. By the time the final theme – the glorification of Brünnhilde, redemption through/of love, whatever one wishes to call it – sounded, initial near-occlusion of the strings by a bizarrely prominent kettledrum roll seemed neither here nor there.

There are several Wagner conductors with connections to the Royal Opera who could have made not just a better job of this, but most likely produced great or at least very good performances. It may well now be impossible, but heaven and earth should have been moved to persuade Bernard Haitink to return to conduct, if not the Ring, then at least some Wagner following his 2007 Parsifal. Whatever happened to Christian Thielemann? Whatever it was ought to have been put right. Daniele Gatti and Semyon Bychkov might have been called upon. Simon Rattle and Mark Elder have both impressed in Wagner, if at a slightly less exalted level. At the Berlin State Opera, it is quite understandable that Daniel Barenboim tends to conduct many of the Wagner performances from Das Rheingold onwards; there are few, after all, to match him in this repertoire. It is less understandable that a conductor whose strengths lie elsewhere should monopolise performances of the music dramas in London. Parsifal awaits in 2013.