Tuesday 31 December 2013

Ten most viewed postings of 2013

This exercise would at least verge upon the pointless without my readers. Thank you so much for your eager attention over the past year. Herewith a list of the ten pieces that most frequently caught your attention, the most viewed first and so on downward. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the anniversary year and the general level of interest shown by his followers, Wagner looms large:

1. R.I.P. Sir Colin Davis. The passing of one of the greatest English conductors of any age. It is a bleak Mozartian world without Sir Colin, but what memories we have. The first time I heard him conduct Così fan tutte was the first time I had truly heard what depth Mozart in the opera house might actually attain.

2. Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein. I was a little surprised to see this commentary (not a review, since I, like most people who wrote about it, never saw the performance) receive so many viewings; but then the strange media frenzy elicited by what sounded as if it were a far from atypical production was always rather mystifying. The loud-mouthed quasi-fascism of a few self-proclaimed ‘protectors’ of Wagner, and opera in general, managed to silence a Wagner production for all of the wrong reasons.

3. R.I.P. Patrice Chéreau. Though the great director’s achievements were far from confined to opera – indeed, he directed opera relatively rarely – he will always retain a special place in our hearts for the legendary ‘Centenary Ring’. Not only Wagner, but opera staging in general, would never be the same again.

4. Ariadne auf Naxos from Glyndebourne. The first night of the Sussex house’s season, in what at best might be described as a ‘controversial’ new production by Katharina Thoma. Not, alas, Glyndebourne’s finest hour.

5. Götterdämmerung at the Proms. The climax of Daniel Barenboim’s Proms Ring. Superlative playing, superlative singing (many English listeners hearing Andreas Schager’s Siegfried for the first time), and of course superlative conducting. A worthy successor to Barenboim’s 2012 Beethoven.

6. Chelsea Opera Group’s concert performance of Die Feen. It was not the greatest of orchestral performances; it would certainly have benefited from more rehearsals and a more sympathetic conductor. But there was some good singing and, whatever my considerable qualms, this performance undoubtedly introduced a good number of people to Wagner’s wonderful first opera. I was fortunate enough to hear and to see it not long afterwards in a wonderful production by Oper Leipzig.

7. Redemption to the Redeemer! Some thoughts on Parsifal, religion, and what its enigmatic final line might mean. Originally published as an essay for the Royal Opera House’s new production of the work.

8. Die Walküre at the Proms. The second instalment of Barenboim’s aforementioned Ring. The point at which we truly realised that this was as close as we should ever come to hearing Furtwängler. Blessed also by the finest performance I have ever heard from Bryn Terfel.

9. Stefan Herheim’s new Meistersinger. Staged at the Salzburg Festival, this was undoubtedly the greatest production of the work I have seen. Musical performances were not always at that exalted level, though Michael Volle’s Hans Sachs certainly was, but Herheim’s typically thoughtful and musical staging will linger long in the memory.

10. The Royal Opera’s unfortunate new Parsifal. Stephen Langridge’s staging emerged bafflingly as a cross between Jim’ll Fix It and Sex Box. There was wonderful singing, however, from René Pape and Gerald Finley: the first time I have heard the latter in Wagner.

Friday 27 December 2013

Performances of the Year, 2013

As ever, it has proved both a joy and a challenge to select performances of the year; there are certainly a good few others which demanded inclusion. I have decided to stick with the format to which I reverted last year: twelve, so as to average one per month. (In 2011, I decided to split performances into categories, partly to help out opera, which, so many variables being involved, seemed to have had something of a bad deal; yet, this year and last, it has proved itself in more need of restraint than assistance.) In any case, I have been tremendously fortunate to hear so many splendid performances, and am delighted to share this end-of-year selection with you, in chronological order. Full reviews may be read by clicking on the links:

1. The Minotaur. Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s latest – final? – operatic masterpiece was if granted its Covent Garden revival. More tightly conducted than the first time around, Ryan Wigglesworth replacing Antonio Pappano, it already seemed a ‘classic’, yet without any sense of the routine. There is room for a more probing staging, but if a new production is not presented somewhere soon, then there truly is no justice in the world. (And yes, of course we still await a new production of The Mask of Orpheus. Is anyone listening?)

2. Written on Skin. Yes, another twenty-first-century English opera: George Benjamin’s masterpiece received its first English performance, conducted by the composer. Performances could hardly have been bettered; and for once a near-unanimous positive reception was perfectly justified.

3. Die Feen. Wagner year experienced in the city where it all began, and with the opera with which it all began. Oper Leipzig’s magical production revealed to a larger audience the true stature of a work far superior to many that hold places in the repertoire – and in which so many of the seeds of Wagner’s subsequent development may be discerned.

4. Wozzeck. And still more opera! The greatest twentieth-century opera of all received a shattering production from ENO, which reminded me quite why this, the first opera I ever saw in the theatre, remains an experience unlike any other. Carrie Cracknell’s brilliant ‘Hamlet in Hull’ staging concentrated upon the experience of military trauma and the hero’s ensuing crime – often overlooked. Keith Warner’s Royal Opera production, revived later in the year, would prove the ideal complement.

5. Rite of Spring centenary concert. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia achieved what one might have thought well-nigh impossible, at least this side of Pierre Boulez: in its centenary year, the Rite once again shocked. Drama was to the fore, enhanced by brilliant programming, the first half devoted to exemplary performances of Debussy and Varèse.

6. Mahler and Lachenmann. Mahler has long faced a similar fate to that of Stravinsky’s ballet, reduction to the level of mere ‘orchestral showpiece’. If Mahler’s music receives far too many unnecessary performances, Jonathan Nott and the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra showed in their Proms performance of the Fifth Symphony just how necessary this music remains. Equally necessary, of course, is the equally uncompromising music of Helmut Lachenmann, his Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied here receiving its first (!!) British performance with the help of the indefatigable Arditti Quartet.

7. Götterdämmerung. I should probably have chosen every performance of Daniel Barenboim’s Proms Ring, but have forced myself to opt for just the one, which therefore had to be the grand finale. Barenboim, conducting his beloved Staatskapelle Berlin, has done nothing greater – and that is truly saying something. We shall come no closer than this to the spirit of Furtwängler reincarnated, even developed, for our own age. And what singing from Nina Stemme and Andreas Schager! If anything, the astonishing Schager proved even better than when I heard him sing the same role (Siegfried) in Berlin with Barenboim, earlier in the year.

8. Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. An experience at least as shattering as that of Wozzeck. Michael Gielen is perhaps the most scandalously underrated of all living conductors. This Salzburg Festival performance with the SWR SO Baden-Baden and Freiburg took one to Hell, and barred the doors. My hands were literally shaking when the time came to applaud.

9. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. No, not every aspect of the performances was perfect by any means. But in this of all works, let us not play Beckmesser. Stefan Herheim’s characteristically superlative Salzburg production has one never wishing to see anything else. Michael Volle put his status as the Sachs of this generation quite beyond doubt.

10. Thomas Zehetmair’s Mozart. With the Royal Northern Sinfonia, Zehetmair offered quite the most invigorating concert of Mozart orchestral music I have heard in years. From serenade through sinfonia concertante to symphony, every note sounded both fresh and considered: a superlative achievement.

11. Bernard Haitink’s Brahms. With the Capuçon brothers and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe in Amsterdam, Haitink showed once again why not only his musicianship now stands at its greatest, but why there is no greater conductor alive. No wonder the COE so clearly adores him.

12. Michael Volle and Helmut Deutsch. In this Wigmore Hall Liederabend, Volle’s performance proved every inch the equal of that already mentioned in Salzburg. Deutsch may be an ‘accompanist’, but he did not sound like one; the pianism just as distinguished, just as considered as the vocal performance. Schubert, both Schumanns, Mahler, and Strauss could not have been served better; I even found myself thinking of Fischer-Dieskau.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

A Merry, Handelian Christmas!

And, in remembrance of one of the greatest musicians I have had the privilege to hear:

Tally of performances attended in 2013

I am not sure what, if anything, this shows, but it was quite interesting to work out. Obviously the following figures do not in any sense represent a reflection of the balance of what is programmed, whether in London or elsewhere. For the most part, I tend to go to performances that interest me, at least in principle, and that can partly be a matter of performers as well as composers. Yet, by the same token, I cannot attend performances that do not exist. Almost all of those performances counted here appear on my blog; the exceptions would be the Seattle Ring, which, having enjoyed the kind hospitality of the Seattle Opera, I did not feel it would be proper to review, and a second performance of the Royal Opera's Wozzeck, which I had intended to write up as a coda to the first, but then never found time to do so. There are all sorts of objections that could be raised to the method of counting - assuming that I have even counted correctly! I have counted each composer once in a performance, so that a few minutes of Webern counts for as much as a Mahler symphony, but I certainly had no intention of estimating the number of minutes heard.   Nevertheless, Wagner, in his anniversary year, does rather well. Series such as the Southbank Centre's 'Rest is Noise' and 'Bach Unwrapped' at Kings Place make their mark too. Some composers fare surprisingly poorly; I should have expected to have heard more than one Chopin performance this year, but apparently not. Transcriptions, recompositions, and the like have been credited to the composer  I decided most responsible or relevant; for instance Olga Neuwirth rather than Berg is credited for American Lulu. The figures are broken down into concerts, operas (including operas in concert), and overall. It has been quite a year!

Beethoven 15
Brahms, Mozart 11
Bach 10
Schoenberg, Schubert 7
Mahler 6
Berg, Liszt, Strauss, Wolf 4
Birtwistle, Debussy, Haydn, Ravel, Schumann, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Webern 3
Bartók, Boulez, Britten, Cage, Eisler, Elgar, Georg Friedrich Haas, Handel, Messiaen, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stockhausen, Szymanowski 2
Mark Andre, Francesco Antonioni, Vykintas Baltakas, Martin Butler, Berlioz, Busoni, Byrd, Francesca Caccini, Chopin, James Clarke, Couperin, Joe Cutler, Enescu, David Fulmer, Gerhard, Francisco Guerrero, Eloise Nancy Gynn, Fauré, Ferneyhough, Benedetto Ferrari, Dai Fujikura, Michael Jarrell, Giovanni Kapsberger, David Knotts, Korngold, Lachenmann, Mauro Lanza, Alma Mahler, Bruno Mantovani, Martinů, David Matthews, Alex Mincek, Monteverdi, Thomas Morley, Olga Neuwith, Akira Nishimura, Nono, Pavel Zemek Novák, Hilda Parades, Michael Pelzel, Alessandro Piccinini, Matthias Pintscher, Robert HP Platz, Rachmaninov, Roberto David Rusconi, Edward Rushton, Saint-Saëns, Satie, David Sawer, Schreker, Clara Schumann, Jay Schwartz, Nina Šenk, John Sheppard, Smetana, Johannes Maria Staud, Stenhammar, Marco Stroppa, Barbara Strozzi, Tallis, Adrian Thomas, Varèse, Huw Watkins, Robert White, Wolpe, John Woolrich, Ysaÿe, Zemlinsky, Vito Žuraj 1


Wagner 17
Mozart 7
Puccini 6
Berg, Strauss 3
Benjamin, Birtwistle, Britten, Ravel 2
Gerald Barry, Beethoven, Bizet, Cavalli, Charpenter, Peter Maxwell Davies, Monteverdi, Olga Neuwirth, Offenbach, Purcell, Rossini, Johann Strauss, Turnage, Weber 1


Wagner 20
Mozart 18
Beethoven 16
Brahms 11
Bach 10
Schoenberg, Schubert, Strauss 7
Berg, Mahler, Puccini 6
Birtwistle, Ravel 5
Britten, Liszt, Wolf 4
Debussy, Haydn, Schumann, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Webern 3
Bartók, Benjamin, Boulez, Cage, Eisler, Elgar, Georg Friedrich Haas, Handel, Messiaen, Monteverdi, Olga Neuwirth, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stockhausen, Szymanowski 2
Mark Andre, Francesco Antonioni, Vykintas Baltakas, Gerald Barry, Martin Butler, Berlioz, Bizet, Busoni, Byrd, Francesca Caccini, Cavalli, Charpentier, Chopin, James Clarke, Couperin, Joe Cutler, Peter Maxwell Davies, Enescu, David Fulmer, Gerhard, Francisco Guerrero, Eloise Nancy Gynn, Fauré, Ferneyhough, Benedetto Ferrari, Dai Fujikura, Michael Jarrell, Giovanni Kapsberger, David Knotts, Korngold, Lachenmann, Mauro Lanza, Alma Mahler, Bruno Mantovani, Martinů, David Matthews, Alex Mincek, Thomas Morley, Akira Nishimura, Nono, Pavel Zemek Novák, Offenbach, Hilda Parades, Michael Pelzel, Alessandro Piccinini, Matthias Pintscher, Robert HP Platz, Purcell, Rachmaninov, Rossini, Roberto David Rusconi, Edward Rushton, Saint-Saëns, Satie, David Sawer, Schreker, Clara Schumann, Jay Schwartz, Nina Šenk, John Sheppard, Smetana, Johannes Maria Staud, Stenhammar, Johann Strauss, Marco Stroppa, Barbara Strozzi, Tallis, Adrian Thomas, Turnage, Varèse, Huw Watkins, Weber, Robert White, Wolpe, John Woolrich, Ysaÿe, Zemlinsky, Vito Žuraj 1

Monday 23 December 2013

Clare/Aurora/Collon - Bach, Mass in B minor, 21 December 2013

Hall One, Kings Place

Mass in B minor, BWV 232

Malin Christensson (soprano)
Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano)
William Towers (counter-tenor)
Joshua Ellicott (tenor)
Benedict Nelson (baritone)

Aurora Orchestra
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge (director of music: Graham Ross)
Nicholas Collon (conductor)
And so, Kings Place’s year-long series, ‘Bach Unwrapped’, came to a close with one of the towering masterpieces of Western civilisation, the B minor Mass. The St Matthew Passion may – somehow – be greater still, at least for some of us, but choosing between them is akin to choosing between Tristan and Parsifal. It was a salutary experience to be reminded that this was the first performance of Bach’s mass I had attended since starting to review. I am not sure that they are very thick on the ground in any case, but for those of us not swayed by the claims of ‘authenticity’, opportunities are few indeed. It is difficult not to feel at least a little angry about the monopolisation of the repertoire by those whom Adorno described as saying Bach but meaning Telemann. (The cynical marketing practices of the recording industry are more guilty still.) We still have the great recordings of the past, of course: those of musicians such as Klemperer, Jochum, Karl Richter, and – albeit all too few in number – Furtwängler. Yet other musicians have been frozen out, the late Sir Colin Davis having spoken with great regret that the fulminations of ‘specialists’ had made it all but impossible for him to conduct Bach any longer. (Imagine a B minor Mass from him!) Pierre Boulez foresaw and experienced what would come to pass a good few years earlier, saying:
There are six performable [orchestral] works by Bach: the Brandenburg Concertos! And I’ve done them, the Brandenburgs, in my career as a conductor. But even as I was making my way forward, until about 1978, the specialists were simultaneously taking over. They were starting to say, ‘If they’re not played in the true baroque manner, with baroque instruments, it’s useless to play them any other way.’ Then one isn’t going to play them at all. 
Boulez also conducted a fair number of the cantatas, not that one would know from the airbrushed histories of Bach performance one encounters. Now we are subjected to competitions for the hairiest of hair shirts, the most meagre of forces (utterly disregarding Bach’s own 1730 memorandum to the Leipzig city authorities), and so on, with Bach’s music standing perilously close to the status Adorno also foretold of becoming unperformable.

It was, then, a particular joy to welcome a performance from the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon, with soloists and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge. Not that Collon’s reading was untouched by ‘period’ influences; indeed, his tempi were often decidedly upon the brisk side. More importantly, there was real musicianship here on display both from singers and the ever-impressive orchestra, which appeared far more concerned with performance, with communication, with the message of text and music, than with bogus concerns of ‘correctness’. The Clare Choir’s contribution stood pretty much beyond reproach. Of course, there remained something of an ‘English’ sound, which perhaps is not quite the best of matches, but there was more than enough compensation in the commitment and precision heard here. Bach’s counterpoint was throughout both audible and meaningful. There were times when greater weight might in principle have been desirable, but given that the performance took place in a small hall, those occasions were relatively few.

There was much to relish from the vocal soloists too. Malin Christensson’s delivery of her soprano arias was flawless, even when taken at breakneck speed the ‘Laudamus te’ being the only case to my mind where the tempo moved from quick to absurd. (I felt equally for the leader and solo violin, Alexandra Wood; requisite grace was simply not possible when taken so quickly.) Jennifer Johnston proved a rich-toned mezzo: most welcome indeed. I was a little puzzled as to why we had a counter-tenor as well. To my ears, the voice sounds more appropriate to Handel than to Bach, but that, I think, is simply a matter of taste; however, it was not clear why we needed both. That said, William Towers did an excellent job, eminently flexible and with considerably greater vibrato than many would have expected. Joshua Ellicott was just as impressive, his account of the ‘Benedictus’ plangently moving, whilst never confusing that plangency with the abrasive. Benedict Nelson was somewhat dry of tone, but sang his arias with intelligence. (It is perhaps here that an additional soloist would have been better employed, given the difference in tessitura between the ‘Quoniam’ and ‘Et in Spiritum Santum.’)

Though the violins, presumably acting upon instruction, were somewhat parsimonious with their vibrato – a problem not experienced from the rich-toned violas and cellos – the orchestra’s contribution was just as impressive. Woodwind and brass (for some reason, a modern horn but natural trumpets) were excellent; I cannot recall a single solo that did not impress. Both chamber organ and harpsichord were employed as continuo instruments. Collon seemed for the most part quite happy to let the music speak ‘for itself’, if, as I said before, somewhat quickly, rather than making points about it. When more personal intervention was made, it could sometimes be a little fussy – for instance, slightly laboured articulation in the ‘Kyrie’ – but could also prove telling, as in the cumulative power of the ‘Crucifixus’. It may not have been Klemperer, but it had its own integrity.

Crucially, we were never left in any doubt as to the stature of work – whatever the truth of its assemblage – and composer. As Furtwängler once wrote in an essay upon Bach, ‘historians sometimes wish to tell us that even a giant such as Bach, viewed in the context of his age … loses the superhuman quality we attach to him.’ However, the truth, as Furtwängler proceeded to argue, once again turned out to be quite the reverse, for never is the ‘astonishing superiority of Bach’s music clearer … than when one compares him with other composers of his time and environment,’ such as Vivaldi or Handel. If Furtwängler is perhaps a little harsh upon the latter, one nevertheless knows what he means when he describes Handel’s brilliance as seeming ‘strangely arbitrary, strangely capricious next to the quiet, unerring organisation consistent throughout Bach’s musical thought’. Let us be thankful that Bach is not yet quite lost to us.


Saturday 21 December 2013

For the Fourth Sunday in Advent

Wagner has received his fair share of attention this year, but even he, even Mozart, even Beethoven, must ultimately take second place to the greatest composer of all. This evening, I shall be hearing the B minor Mass from the Aurora Orchestra and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, at Kings Place. That should be my final concert of the year: not a bad way to bow out. And I realise it will be the first performance of Bach's great mass that I shall have heard since starting to write here. In the meantime, here is Bach's Cantata  for the final Sunday in Advent, Bereitet die Wege, bereitet die Bahn, BWV 132. Karl Richter conducts the Munich Bach Choir and Orchestra, with soloists Edith Mathis, Anna Reynolds, Peter Schreier, and Theo Adam. Those really were the days...

Thursday 19 December 2013

Bayreuth, Parsifal, and the Artwork of the Future

(I was delighted to be invited to speak in late November at the Internationaal Wagner Congres Amsterdam 2013. Below is the text of my paper. A considerably longer, fully-referenced version will be published as an essay in a 2014 issue of the German journal, wagnerspectrum. However, it will not have the pretty pictures...)


In the beginning was Bayreuth. Except, of course, for Wagner, it was not the beginning: it was the end, at least an end, and in many respects a misleading one. Bayreuth, or perhaps better, the idea and ideal which have come down to us, mostly from the period following Wagner’s death, presents a gathered congregation as opposed to the freer assembly apparently envisaged by the younger Wagner. That leads us to ask: can one, should one, do more than smile at the utopian idea of a wooden theatre to be torn down at the same time as the score of Siegfried went up in flames, after but three performances – ‘Entrée: gratis!’ – given within the course of a week? Was the ‘artwork of the future’, outward looking, ‘universal’ as opposed to merely ‘national’, just as much a progressive pipe-dream, then, as the ‘springtime of peoples’ of the 1848-9 revolutions? As AJP Taylor’s ‘turning point’ whose ‘fateful essence’ was that Germany ‘failed to turn,’ or, still worse, Sir Lewis Namier’s sneering epitaph, the ‘revolution of the intellectuals’? Wagner’s part in the Dresden uprising is well known. It is nevertheless worth reiterating that, whatever the disillusionment of the 1850s and beyond, revolutionary hopes found themselves instantiated both in the subsequent course of much of European politics – liberals and sometimes even socialists found that they could accomplish a great deal by cooperation with a reinstated old order, whose reaction was in any case more military than aristocratic – and in Wagner’s later musico-dramatic deeds. The ‘artwork of the future’ remained, endured, even strengthened itself, for all the transformations, both pragmatic and principled, required by what we might call, in dubious homage to the former people’s democracies, the ‘actually existing Bayreuth Festival’.

Anniversary years naturally prompt us to look back, to take stock, yet also to look to the present and indeed to the future. After all, we find ourselves celebrating and considering ‘Wagner in 2013’ as much as we do ‘Wagner in 1813’. I shall consider Wagner principally through the lens of performance, through a lens focused upon a Bayreuth that looks forward and back. It is to one particular production that I shall specifically turn, to Stefan Herheim’s well-nigh ‘classic’ 2008-12 staging of the Bayreuth work par excellence, Parsifal, a production that explicitly engages with the work’s reception history, in order to turn in informed fashion to the twenty-first-century present and future of Wagner’s artwork. But before that, and with Herheim’s staging in mind, a broader consideration of the relationship between staging of a work from the operatic or at least musico-dramatic ‘museum’, and the historical process, may be in order.

Herheim opens with Parsifal at the time of its first, Bayreuth staging, in 1882. He proceeds to tell a history that leads to somewhere approaching the present day, even turning a mirror upon the audience at one point, a moment with considerably greater theatrical power than a mere retelling might suggest. The audience is not simply accused, deservedly or otherwise; it is also reminded that it belongs to a drama that remains unfinished, whatever Wagner’s Hegelian aspirations towards totality, and that it, the audience, interprets, shapes, even writes the history suggested. Far from having reached a Fukuyama-like ‘end of history’, we might all have become historians: a challenge already to the ‘gathered congregation’ of Bayreuth orthodoxy, whether that be Wagner’s own or not. Wagner, though he might sometimes come close to positing a false immediacy of audience response, was no proponent of art as non-reflective, non-reflexive entertainment – purveyor of the diversions opponents of interpretative stage direction more often than not wish to see enacted. ‘Our theatrical public,’ he complained in Oper und Drama, ‘has no need for the artwork; it desires diversion from the stage, … well-crafted details, rather than the necessity of artistic unity.’

Herheim, it should be added, began his career as a cellist, and is a more unusual example than one might expect, or at least desire, of a director who reads the score. (We should be surprised if a director of Æschylus in the original did not read Greek, yet treat non-musical directors of Wagner with equanimity.) The issue of staging the Prelude to the first act was resolved more amicably, more fruitfully, than it would be with Barenboim in Lohengrin. Initially, the conductor, Daniele Gatti was sceptical, concerned that the audience might be distracted from the music. But Herheim made the excellent point in an interview that would suggest that, once, the curtain rose, the audience need no longer concern itself with the music, continuing, ‘I'm not saying that in principle the Prelude should always be staged. But if you have good reasons to portray the music in the prelude, it's just the way that it’s done that you can argue against. Gatti acknowledged this and was excited about the symbiosis the staging entered into with the music.’ That, in a sense, is a perfect restatement of the echt-Wagnerian dialectic of music drama; the various elements – if indeed they may be considered separate elements at all, Wagner having taken great pains to stress, in Hegelian fashion, their initial unity in the ancient world – gain in intensity by mutual interaction. Greater emphasis upon the staging heightens rather than lessens the effect of the orchestra, and so forth.

Crucially, that symbiosis enabled, even provoked, the emergence of an idea of the score as redeemer. It was subtle rather than thrust in one’s face, unlike the provocative second-act Nazi imagery, which I shall address later. Yet, for that reason, and it might well take more than one encounter fully to appreciate this, Herheim’s candidate for an answer to Wagner’s riddle of ‘Erlösung dem Erlöser’ emerged all the more convincingly. Again, that was a possibility rather than a definitive ‘solution’, but successful dramas, like successful performances, do not trade in the latter. The tale of German history, of Parsifal as a work developing through that history, could thereby be seen and heard as requiring and receiving some form of transcendental, or at least beneficial, intervention, not so much ‘grace’, but something more immanent, arising from within, the attempted negation of the litany of negative dialectics to which history and work have been subjected. There was no false mediated unity in which to rejoice or rather to wallow.

For the conservative caricature of modern Regietheater, which in certain cases has an element of truth to it, a caricature in which, for the sake of argument, Monsalvat is arbitrarily relocated to a multi-storey car-park in Essen, and references to the automobile industry become determining features, bears no relation to the exploration of music, words, reception, and so much more offered by Herheim and other probing directors. Still less does it respond to Wagner’s strenuous challenge. Interestingly, Peter Konwitschny has, for very similar reasons, avowedly dissociated himself from the Regietheater label, it perhaps being no coincidence that Konwitschny, the son of a celebrated conductor, Felix, is himself a musician: 
I do not consider myself a representative of the Regietheater. Often, these directors present one single idea, such as for example staging Rigoletto in an empty swimming pool or in a slaughterhouse. These ideas are not consequentially followed through and explored, and in most cases, the singers stand next to each other on stage just as unconnected as in conventional productions.

My stagings, on the other hand, aim to return to the roots: to get to the core of the pieces, through the jungle of interpretative traditions, which, in most cases, have distorted the pieces. The accusation that this is ‘too intellectual for the average viewer’ is absurd and exposes the enemies of such theatre as opposing new insights.

Indeed, the pernicious anti-intellectualism of such attacks as such, as opposed to perfectly justified criticisms of particular productions, reveals itself to be a strange sort of intellectual condescension. No one reading Hegel or listening to Wagner for the first time expects to ‘understand’ everything; nor does he mind when he ‘fails’ to do so. Were there a final, achievable, destination, we should then give up, having ‘mastered’ Parsifal or the Phänomenologie des Geistes, and then move on to something else. Re-enactment of the sort envisaged by the decriers of interpretation makes no more sense here than it does in performance. Ritual is in Parsifal and through Parsifal dynamically, dialectically challenged from within as well as from without; that indeed is the very stuff of Wagner’s drama.

For Parsifal was intended to be and remains different. Wagner’s various attempts to avoid the pejorative – to him – ‘opera’ as a description of his later works may nowadays elicit as much scepticism as blind adoration, though in simply calling Tristan und Isolde ‘drama’ (Handlung), he certainly captured a quality of that singular work. However, it would take a Wagnerian of extreme, unhealthy devotion not to raise at least a hint of a smile at the cumbersome Bühnenweihfestspiel, or ‘stage-festival-consecration-play’, employed for Parsifal. And what that term might mean has brought all manner of consequences for the work’s reception, even indeed, given the determination of Cosima and other Bayreuth loyalists that it should remain confined to the stage it allegedly consecrated, for the possibility of staging it at all. The surrounding aura of sanctity may seem to many repellent (‘an unseemly and sacrilegious conception of art as religion and the theatre as a temple’ – Stravinsky), ridiculous (Debussy, albeit continuing to honour the score alone as ‘one of the loveliest monuments ever raised to the serene glory of music’), or both, as in Nietzsche’s case. Moreover, the claim that Parsifal is in any straightforward sense a ‘Christian work’, as opposed to a work that treats with, amongst other things, Christianity, would find few takers today. Even if the end of the first act were an invitation to receive Holy Communion, the Grail Knights’ words ‘Partake of the bread, valiantly transform it into corporeal strength and power’ – suggest a church or theology whose heterodoxy extended beyond the merely gnostic.

That said, this tale of a ‘pure fool’, so ignorant that he knows neither whence he has come, nor even his name, who, through the offices of divine grace rather than by his own deeds, enlightened through compassion (Schopenhauer’s Mitleid, ‘suffering with’), rejuvenates a dying community, remains quite different from the operatic essays of any of Wagner’s contemporaries and many of his successors. Parsifal resists assimilation to the opera house; it is out of place amongst champagne, canapés, and diva-worshippers. Wagner wrote to Ludwig II that he wished to protect it from ‘a common operatic career’. Pierre Boulez, a highly distinguished interpreter and critic as well as compositional successor, understood this very well when he approvingly wrote of Wagner loathing a system in which ‘opera houses are … like cafés where … you can hear waiters calling out their orders: ‘One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!’ Wagner’s works declare their incompatibility with existing theatrical conventions and norms – even today, arguably still more so. And of those works, Parsifal remains the ne plus ultra.

The signal strength of Herheim’s production is that it engages with these problems: with the fraught associations, both with Bayreuth – which, for better and for worse, is also quite different from anywhere else – and with broader historical themes, associations the work has gathered from at least the time of its premiere in 1882. So intensely dialectical and multi-layered is Herheim’s direction that we tread successfully a tightrope between presentation of his guiding Konzept – the history of Parsifal as a work and the world in which it has developed from the time of its first performance to that of its most recent – and recounting of the immanent story of Parsifal. Two stories run not so much in parallel as with mutual influence, yet without inflicting harm upon each other and with no sense of contrivance.

In the first act, we therefore witness the early days of post-Wagner Wahnfried, the sickly, incestuous goings-on of an impeccably haut bourgeois family and its nursery (Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks comes to mind), in the era of an oft-present Imperial Eagle. As Christianity enters an especially peculiar phase, dreams and childhood come to the fore, likewise the psychopathology of religious experience (which both Nietzsche and Mann saw as fundamental to the work). A priest, incense – Nietzsche’s accusation of Wagner sinking to his knees before the Cross re-examined – and, most shockingly, circumcision of the infant who may or may not ‘be’ a young Parsifal, offer almost as much food for thought as Wagner’s own inversion, echoing the philosophy of Feuerbach, of the elements. The violence of the deed could hardly have been more topical during the 2012 legal controversy over infant genital mutilation in Germany; and yet, it also points to something older, deep-seated, and of course very much part of the work’s reception history: the question of whether anti-Semitism might be expressed in Wagner’s drama. (It notably does not propose answers.) Amfortas now seems far more central to the drama. His cry of pain jolts us from complacent ‘knowledge’ of the work, and also points forward – or backward! – to Kundry’s scream of laughter at Christ, who, whatever Wagner may have hoped, must also have undergone the procedure, on the road to Calvary.

The second act opens in a field hospital. For once, and this is typical of Herheim’s attention to Wagner’s detail, we actually see the renegade Knights, Sir Ferris and all. Klingsor is Cabaret Master of Ceremonies; for now, we behold Weimar Germany, our Moorish castle’s owner suggestive in white tie and fishnets. The delicious representation of the Flowermaidens as orderlies and flappers – is that not just what they are? – gains dramatic attention, as well as firmly placing us in the inter-war period. (I say, ‘firmly’, but historical time passes as its performative cousin does.) And yet, a reminder that various levels of interpretation are anything but distinct is offered by a greater keenness of manipulation when it comes to Kundry’s acts: above all, what she tells Parsifal. She is in turn being manipulated by Klingsor; yet perhaps so many of us are understandably now influenced by feminist readings that we feel uncomplicatedly sympathetic. It is salutary to be reminded that this Rose of Hell – the rose very much part of Herheim’s imagery, ‘new’ video technology included – has, despite her plight, agency of her own. That is more properly feminist than to consider her purely as victim. And the similarity of costume between her and Klingsor, both in Weimar cross-dressing travesty, reinforces the need both have for each other, an Hegelian master-slave dialectic re-imagined. Wagner’s artwork is permitting of answers, or better, further questions, which he may or may not have been able to conceive himself. Historical understanding enables it to become of the present, even of the future.

The final scene of the second act is electric, the coming of Bayreuth’s and Germany’s darkest years truly shocking. Indeed, the phrase coup de théâtre might have been invented for this advent of the Third Reich, signalled by the ‘Weimar’ castle’s destruction, the arrival of stormtroopers and a brown-shirted, tomorrow-belonging-to-him, little boy, and the unfurling of swastikas. Overdue yet nevertheless courageous, the Festival seemed at last ready to begin to come to terms with its history. Judging by the disgruntled noises from some members of the audience – it should hardly surprise that ‘conservative’ critics of searching productions would feel discomfited by a reminder of their ideological kinship – it remains an absolute necessity too.

Then, the final act opens in the garden of a bombed Wahnfried. Parsifal’s coming and Good Friday offer the possibility – illusory? – of rejuvenation. In a tribute to the Bayreuth Tannhäuser of Götz Friedrich, with whom Herheim studied, a procession of the starved post-war population crosses the stage, victims of what has gone before and, prospectively at least, of the mendacious ideology of the Wirtschaftswunder and its culture industry. The point of ultimate hope comes when a star briefly appears in the sky: wonderfully touching, yet what does it signify? A (false) messiah’s advent? A simple, childlike pleasure? It certainly rings truer than the gaudy coloured lights signalling Parsifal’s descent into the realm of the (lifestyle?) guru. Another brave coup de théâtre – Herheim never forgets that Parsifal, amongst other things, is theatre; nor should we – comes with a projection during the Verwandlungsmusik. A request is displayed from the young Wagner brothers, Wieland and Wolfgang, at the 1951 (re-)opening of ‘New Bayreuth’, that political discussion be banished from the Green Hill. An image of Wagner is bricked up behind Parsifal’s childhood wall, the composer remaining too hot to handle. Might we also recall that Wahnfried wall built by Wolfgang, on whose other side Winifred remained until her death, a standing, tenacious reminder that politics could not so easily be banished?

If anything, politics stand still more starkly at the heart of the final scene. Amfortas’s trial – in every sense – takes us from post-war Nuremberg to the present-day Bundestag. The problematical nature of charismatic leadership is here for all to see. Parsifal is not one of the trio seen at the close, presumably hastening us to an uncertain future; instead, we find ourselves in the hands of Gurnemanz, Kundry – she does not expire – and a young boy. Or is he Parsifal, and has the whole drama been a dream or, rather, the ultimate nightmare? Friedrich Meinecke’s ‘German catastrophe’, the purported Sonderweg of German history? There is certainly no solace to be had from the bickering politicians of the Bundestag, the flag of the Federal Republic draping Titurel’s coffin, yet Parsifal seems to have offered at best a dead-end, a touch of snake oil: a modern politician? Amfortas, like Siegfried, seems to have gained in dignity through death. Nihilism, as Nietzsche would doubtless have had it? Or Wagner’s lifelong anarchism? Again, questions are dramatically suggested rather than dogmatically answered.

What of Herheim’s aforementioned turning the mirror upon the audience?  It comes across as an invitation, indeed an incitement, to question everything we have thought. ‘Educating Parsifal’, the character, is also ‘educating Parsifal’, the work, is also ‘educating us’ – not in merely didactic but dramatic fashion. As Horace put it many years earlier, ‘Change but the name, and the tale is told of you’. It is perhaps only what Wagner had been doing all along, although, in the emotional context both Wagner and Herheim have developed, as opposed to the abstraction of a mere act of reporting, it would be an unimaginative soul indeed who did not relish the mirror’s ambiguous invitation. For, in the words of Carl Dahlhaus, ‘It is precisely in order to radicalise conflicts – so that “resolutions” are ruled out – that dramas are written; if not, they would be treatises.’ It is for precisely that reason that we perform rather than re-enact, that we study as well as perform, that we think rather than wallow, that history enlivens rather than deadens, that the artwork is of past, present, and future. Indeed, it is also for those reasons that music, as Daniel Barenboim has pointed out in his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, has the potential, the extraordinary power, if not to resolve political conflicts, then to bring people together, to have them work together – and that includes the audience. The communal, religious, and political role of Attic tragedy Wagner wished to recreate is just as relevant, to a revolutionary artwork of our future as to one of his.

I have suggested, then, some ways in which Wagner, viewed in performative terms, might use the past, often highly controversial, to look to the future. The idea of an ‘artwork of the future’ remains in many respects as burningly relevant as it did during the years of Wagner’s Zurich exile. An artwork that engages critically with the concerns of humanity and yet strenuously declares the (transcendental?) value of art as extending beyond mere pamphleteering, and which in form and content dramatises, problematises that tension is not simply saying something about art and its reception. As Ludwig Hevesi’s words, inscribed upon the Vienna Secession Building, have it, ‘To every age its art, to art its freedom’. That need not, indeed cannot, be accomplished by all-too-easy evasion, by distancing oneself from the musical works. Herheim’s dramaturgy, as discussed, enabled the music – not in a now discredited sense of ‘absolute music’, with the reactionary, neo-Romantic connotations that has acquired, but in a critical sense more suited to our time, which will doubtless thereafter be subject to criticism – to emerge as its own redeemer, the immanent theology of Parsifal thereby renewing and reinvigorating itself

Bayreuth and Wagner’s artwork of the future might yet, then, prove further beginnings, in a sense that both honours, in Meistersinger-fashion, the claims of art as time-honoured tradition and, as Wagner always insisted, reaches beyond the restricting limits of art merely for its own sake. Moreover, a Franconian festival theatre and its surroundings might prove just the place, out of season, for the first intégrale of Stockhausen’s neo-Wagnerian Licht cycle, indeed for a host of new works. Without falling prey to the ‘operatic’ danger we saw Boulez sketch above, custodians of the Wagnerian repertory would have nothing to fear – and everything to gain.

Keenlyside/Martineau - Schoenberg, Eisler, Britten, Wolf, Schubert, and Brahms, 18 December 2013

Barbican Hall

Schoenberg – Erwartung, op.2 no.1
Eisler – Spruch 1939; Unter den grünen Pfefferbäumen, In den Hügeln wird Gold gefunden, Diese Stadt hat mich belehrt, Zwei Lieder nach Worten von Pascal, Erinnerung an Eichendorff und Schumann, Verfehlte Liebe, Spruch
Britten – Songs and Proverbs of William Blake
Wolf – Denk’ es, o Seele!, Um Mitternacht, Wie sollte ich heiter bleiben, Auf eine Christblume II, Blumengruss, Lied eines Verliebten
Schubert – Alinde, D 904, Der Wanderer, D 649, Herbstlied, D 502, Verklärung, D 59
Brahms – Verzogen, op.72 no.4, Über die Heide, op.86 no.4, Nachtigallen schwingen, op.6 no.6

Simon Keenlyside (baritone)
Malcolm Martineau (piano)

An excellent recital from Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau. A few, occasional technical fallibilities aside – fallibilities which, in the greater scheme of things, counted for very little – Keenlyside’s intelligence, musicality, and sincerity offered a wonderful partnership with Martineau’s unfailing mixture of the same. There was no question of the pianist merely ‘supporting’ the singer; this was, as any Lieder-recital must be, a true partnership.

Schoenberg’s ‘other’ Erwartung opened the recital. Its heady harmonic fantasy and already sophisticated version of developing variation marked it out unmistakeably as the composer’s work, hints of Zemlinsky notwithstanding. (The Dehmel text is another thing Schoenberg and Zemlinsky have in common.) It was a pity not to hear more from this most woefully neglected of Lieder composers – and composers more generally – but at least it was something. Schoenberg’s presence also offered a little context to Eisler, whose songs emerged as standing somewhere between the music of his teacher and that of Hindemith. That is not to say that they are derivative, for they are certainly not, but it is the sort of connection one’s mind tends to play when ‘placing’ music. The first and last songs were sung in English, the rest in German. Hearing Brecht’s Spruch 1939 in English brought home not only the impending conflict between Britain and Germany, but also the plight of German exiles, be their exile for racial or political reasons – or both. The piano postlude in Martineau’s hands evoked the persistent if now-distant world of Schoenberg’s op.11 Piano Pieces, whilst Unter den grünen Pfefferbäumen sounded more Berg-like. The hell of Hollywood in Diese Stadt hat mich belehrt was vividly conveyed by darker vocal and piano tone: ‘Paradies und Hölle können eine Stadt sein.’ If the two Pascal songs might sound closer to the world of Neue Sachlichkeit, then Eisler’s deep humanity soon seeped through. Erinnerung an Eichendorff und Schumann offered a suitably backward glance to German Romanticism, whilst continuing to look forward; there could be no retreat. The final Brecht proverb, again in English, provided a moving climax, which refused to conflate sentiment and sentimentality.

Clever programming led into another proverb, this time the first of Blake’s as set by Britten. Martineau revelled in the piano virtuosity. Throughout – and perhaps especially in ‘The Fly’ – one heard Britten’s delight as a great pianist in his instrument. The pity was that sometimes that display masked, on the composer’s part, a relative lack of formal sophistication; or rather, that it did not entirely mask such shortcomings. The devices to which Britten so easily – too easily? – succumbs, be they explicitly pictorial or more abstract, sounded too obvious following the underrated, understated example of Eisler. Blake’s anger and vision of course remained. And even when Keenlyside ran into a little difficulty, in A Poison Tree, his final stanza more than made up for the lapse with convincing vehemence, the composer’s dissonances sounding especially plangent in the following fourth proverb. Britten and Blake make rather odd bedfellows, but this was a committed performance, with Martineau’s piano wanderings splendidly creepy.

With Wolf, following the interval, we stood again on more elevated ground. The care taken with shading in the opening Denk’ es, o Seele! was exemplary, almost akin to a pattern of versicle and response. Um Mitternacht was imbued with the darkness of its titular midnight, but also perhaps with its hope, its opening up of possibilities. The second Auf eine Christblume song reminded us that Wolf’s harmonies are often but a stone’s throw from Schoenberg, whilst Schubertian echoes – impetuosity, forlorn hope, many aspects of harmony and rhythm – haunted the Lied eines Verliebten, providing a telling bridge to Schubert proper.

Alinde benefited from perfectly judged rhythm and disarming delivery: a textbook performance, as it were, followed by a rapt account of Der Wanderer. (Yes, I know, ‘rapt’ is overused, perhaps beyond the point of cliché, but it really seems the mot juste here.) Verklärung possessed due gravity – and yet, it moved. An echt-Brahmsian piano sound was immediately conjured up for Verzogen, Martineau offering just the right degree of harmonic and rhythmic turbulence, which carried over, albeit in different fashion, into Über die Heide, its darkness finely observed by both artists, yet never laboured. The ambiguity of Nachtigallen schwingen was just the ticket for what was anything but a crowd-pleasing conclusion. ‘Eine Blume seh ich, die nicht blühen will.’


Tuesday 17 December 2013

Carmen, Royal Opera, 16 December 2013

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Moralès – Ashley Riches
Micaëla – Verónica Cangemi
Don José – Roberto Alagna
Zuniga – Nicolas Courjal
Carmen – Anita Rachvelishvili
Frasquita – Simona Mihai
Mercédès – Rachel Kelly
Lillas Pastia – Caroline Lena Olsson
Escamillo – Vito Priante
Le Dancaïre – Adrian Clarke
Le Remendado – Stuart Patterson
Guide – Jean-Baptiste Fillon

Francesca Zambello (director)
Duncan Macfarland (revival director)
Tanya McCallin (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Arthur Pita, Sirena Tocco (choreography)
Mike Loades, Natalie Dakin (fight director)

Actors, Dancers
Royal Opera Chorus and extra chorus (chorus director: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House

Alas, a depressing evening, of which the worst culprit was for once perhaps not Francesca Zambello’s West End musical ‘approach’ to Bizet’s opéra comique. Zambello’s production does its job, I suppose, in as non-intellectual a way as you could imagine: something for those for whom Miss Saigon is a little too challenging. But, except for the inappropriate scale – which, to be fair, is a problem large houses will always struggle to overcome – it does not really get in the way. The donkey – ‘Polyanne the donkey, supplied by John McLaren and Linda Chilton of Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary – still walks on for no discernible reason, yet it had, or seemed to have, the intelligence and grace to look as bewildered by its appearance as we were. As for the absurd Madonna – this is no probing of Spanish religious practice, but, as with Zambello’s Don Giovanni, an appearance that remains at the level of mere religious tat – it continues to be wheeled on too, remaining stationary whilst a priest blesses Escamillo and Carmen. And why does the fourth act’s opening chorus continue to be omitted? (It surely ought to offer the director plenty more dubious opportunities for display.)

I shall not go on, for that, as I said, was not really the greatest problem. Daniel Oren, I am afraid to say, offered what must be a serious contender for the title of worst conducting I have endured in a major house. (I am tempted to delete the word ‘major’, so atrocious were the results.) The first act came off worst of all. After a blithe and bouncy opening – one could see him, blithely bouncing, too – the rest of the Prelude ground to a halt. Yet that was nothing compared to the disjunctures between pit and stage, the inability to maintain any tempo whatsoever – and certainly not on account of judicious rubato – and the apparent lack of rehearsal throughout. Indeed, it sounded as though Oren had never seen the score before, let alone rehearsed it. The orchestra occasionally sounded good on its own terms, but one could hardly blame it for times when it seemed less than wholly committed. I should be tempted to describe Oren’s contribution as hack work, were that not a gross libel to hacks across the world. If anything, his conducting was even worse than it had been in Robert le diable. I cannot imagine why the Royal Opera continues to engage him; it is not as if there is a shortage of conductors for a work such as Carmen.  Constantinos Carydis did a fine job last time around, in 2010, but it would be difficult to know where to start with a list of possibilities.

In that context, it is, I think, wise to be charitable to the singers as well as to the orchestra. That said, and all allowances made, it was anything but a vintage evening in that respect. Nicolas Courjal was the sole surviving cast member from 2010. What I wrote then applies with at least equal force now: he ‘made a more virile impression as the lieutenant, Zuniga, than either of the two principal men’. For Roberto Alagna, as Don José, was sometimes wildly out of tune and proved in general, especially before the interval, coarse in his delivery. At best, he sounded as if he were singing Puccini in French. Vito Priante was better as Escamillo, though there was nothing especially memorable to his assumption, which might well have fared better in a smaller theatre. (The horse, of course, does not help.) Anita Rachvelishvili has an attractive voice, but it was difficult to feel that it was right for the role. Not only was her French unidiomatic, but vocal strength was very much tied to the lower end of her range; I could not help but wonder whether she would have been happier singing Tatiana, or even Olga. It did not help, moreover, that she looked more like Escamillo’s mother than lover; the moment when she awkwardly sat upon Don José was unfortunate in every respect. Verónica Cangemi had her moments as Micaëla; indeed, her third-act aria was the only time at which I was remotely moved. Nevertheless, there were too many moments of vocal harshness. Two Jette Parker Young Artists  made excellent impressions in smaller roles, however: the Moralès of Ashley Riches and Rachel Kelly’s Mercédès both had one looking forward to hearing more from them. Next time, all being well, in a more involving production and with a conductor who at least approaches a level of basic competence…


Sunday 15 December 2013

Schiff - Bach English Suites, 14 December 2013

Wigmore Hall

English Suites, BWV 806-11

András Schiff (piano)
András Schiff is certainly not one to give himself an easy life. This concert is part of a series at the Wigmore Hall in which much of Bach’s piano music will be performed, culminating in a performance of both the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations. Unfortunately, Schiff’s completist zeal does not necessarily transfer so well into satisfying programming. I encountered a more extreme case a few years ago, in which far too much Schubert – and not the most complementary Schubert – meant that often excellent performances were reduced to less than the sum of their parts. What works for a CD boxed set is rarely the best plan for a concert. Here, however, whilst a performance of the six English Suites made for a longer than usual performance, that was in itself less the problem, than the alarming unevenness of the performances as such; had they all been at the level of that of the F major Suite, the length would have justified itself.  

I was surprised at the piano tone as Schiff opened the A major Suite. Though I do not know enough about such matters to be able to say what had been done, there sounded to be something unusual about the regulation of the instrument. It seemed to marry well with Schiff’s performance, but alas I found it very difficult to warm to the latter. A strongly detaché approach soon became wearisome; perhaps more alarming was the frequent heavy-handedness with which certain entries were hammered out, and the pianist’s lack of sensitivity towards phrasing. This all sounded very different indeed from Schiff’s splendid old Decca recordings. In the Prelude, there was a degree of flexibility, but it sounded arbitrary. The Allemande offered greater involvement, but phrasing continued to be a problem, here as elsewhere offering little sense of refinement, of tapering, of shape. However, the Courantes marked a definite improvement: more animated, and not just in terms of tempo. Ornaments sounded winningly ‘French’, and the doubles actually drew me in to the performance as a performance, nicely intimate, for the first time. Alas, the ensuing Sarabande tended towards the pedantic, with little sense of meaning conveyed; fussy articulation of ornaments was the abiding impression. Sewing-machine Bach, like a parody of 1950s German chamber orchestras, came unwelcomely to the fore in the Bourrées: one might say Gould-like, but quite without eccentricity, and far heavier of tone. The playing had nothing of the Canadian pianist’s perverse brilliance; this was just remorseless, likewise the grimacing Gigue.

The Second, A minor, Suite, offered similarly mixed results. The Prelude was taken very fast : not in itself a problem, but again in the context of non legato playing, very soon became wearisome. Schiff’s unyielding approach there contrasted with the relief of, say, the Sarabande, in which weight emerged without ponderousness. Alas sewing machines once again came to the fore in the Bourrées. There was at least a far stronger sense (than in the First Suite) of gigue rhythm in the final movement, though again it proved too unyielding.

Greater light and shade were on offer from the opening of the G minor Suite, though it remained an excessively vertically-minded performance, a longer sense of line frustratingly absent. (It is, after all, just as crucial here as in Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner or Mahler.) Detaché mannerisms continued to irritate. The Allemande, however, was beautifully shaded and often, though not always, more yielding. A lively Courante gave way to what, in context, sounded as a Romantically-conceived Sarabande – though Schiff’s perverse, latter-day refusal to use the pedal was especially unfortunate here. (Why play this music on the piano if you are unwilling to use the capabilities of the modern instrument?) The Musette was splendidly characterful, without idiosyncrasy, and the Gigue benefited from a degress of involvement only sporadically present in its predecessors. It was a pity, then, that a very odd, matter-of-fact ending robbed the dance of much of its impetus.

The opening of the Fourth Suite, in F major, was not without heavy-handedness, especially in the left hand, but at least there was a sure sense of line. Its Allemande offered a good degree of chiaroscuro, whilst following dances were equally well characterised: a courtly Courante was followed by a stately, if at times slightly static, Sarabande. The closing Gigue was boisterous and would have benefited from greater flexibility; however, Bach’s thematic invention and working were commendably clear and meaningful within the sense of a greater whole.

There was a proper sense of direction to the E minor Suite, yet phrasing (especially at the close of phrases) was sometimes alarmingly crude, particularly when playing at forte. The Allemande offered a rare and very welcome sense of charm in its delicacy, likewise the Passepields. However, the two intervening movements both curiously lost their way roughly half-way through; maybe the marathon approach was taking its toll. Sadly, the Gigue, which ought surely to offer an invitation to a well-nigh Bergian labyrinth, instead served as incitement to further un-phrased heavy-handedness.

It was welcome, then, to experience a sense of direction in the final Prelude similar to that of its predecessor; here there really seemed to be something at stake, though again line was far from unbroken, Schiff’s approach ultimately proving too sectional. Alas the following two movements were disappointingly prosaic, throwing into greater contrast a lovely account of the Sarabande, given proper time to breathe and to develop, despite the odd awkward corner. A fleet first Gavotte prepared the way for a successor imbued with a radiance I could only wish I had encountered more often. The loud Gigue, sadly, seemed petulant rather than vehement. Bar lines were far too audible, again a poor substitute for telling phrasing. All was not, however, over, for Schiff elected to give an encore: a rambling account of the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, whose effect was to have me longing for Edwin Fischer.