Saturday 31 January 2015

Hagen Quartet - Mozart, 28 January 2015

Wigmore Hall

String Quartet no.20 in D major, KV 499, ‘Hoffmeister’
String Quartet no.21 in D major, KV 575
String Quartet no.22 in B-flat major, KV 589

Lukas Hagen, Rainer Schmidt (violins)
Veronika Hagen (viola)
Clemens Hagen (cello)

The first movement of the Hoffmeister Quartet immediately had one aware of Haydn’s influence, though never at the expense of Mozart’s personality. In a commendably flexible reading, the Hagen Quartet made one listen – and such listening would be richly rewarded. Greater intensity was always musically grounded. The development section did what it should: developed – which is far from always the case. Its brevity could be fully respected. Twin imperatives of proportion and goal-orientation were well balanced throughout. The Menuet immediately announced itself as such in its tempo and more broadly in its style. (One knows a minuet when one hears it, and should never trouble oneself with Beckmesser-ish queries about what is ‘correct’.) Discreet portamenti were most welcome, as was the sinuous line of Lukas Hagen’s first violin. A splendidly conversational Allegretto might have sounded fast in isolation, but made perfect sense in relation to what had gone before and what would come after. The slow movement was poised, well shaped, intelligently played; what I missed was greater warmth. Here, the Hagens’ sensibility seemed closer to Haydn, even to early Beethoven, at least at times. Nevetherless, the stature and seriousness of Mozart’s music came across. The developmental quality of the finale was well conveyed. Again, Haydn – here again, in welcome fashion – loomed large but not overwhelmingly. Crucially, we continued to be compelled to listen.

Another D major work ensued, the first of Mozart’s ‘Prussian’ quartets, KV 575. From its opening, we were enabled to appreciate its very different character: more ‘operatic’, for want of a better word, the instruments sounding not just as soloists but as characters. Early on, solos from Veronika Hagen’s viola and Clemens Hagen’s cello – this was, after all, written with the cello-playing Frederick William II in mind – proved aurally arresting, but everyone would have his or her say. This is decidedly ‘late’ Mozart, but it was decidedly warm too. There is not a spare note; nor did it sounds as if there were. The Andante likewise proved as tightly-knit as anything in Beethoven, yet such concision proved in no sense at odds with expansive tendencies. The Menuetto similarly combined concision and flow. Its Allegretto rightly relaxing just a little, the cello solo an especial joy. In the finale, we heard again a heightened sense of operatic ‘character’ and conversation, whether à 4, or in almost any combination.

The B-flat Quartet, KV 589, offered melodic delight from the outset: above all, of course, from the cello, but far from exclusively so. The many virtues of the two earlier performances were to be heard once again, yet there was equal sensitivity to the particular ‘voice’ of this work. This was certainly no ‘one size fits all’ approach to Mozart. His perfect – I was about to add ‘well-nigh’, and realised there was no need – balance of harmony and counterpoint was again something in which to rejoice; so were the particularities of melody and indeed harmony. A poised, cultivated slow movement followed. Perhaps it was on the cool side when compared with, say, the Amadeus Quartet, but this remained a variegated reading which, crucially, imparted a sense of refined reflection upon the earlier world of Salzburg serenades. There was certainly little to be rued with respect to warmth or sweetness in the Menuetto: pretty much ideal, not just in terms of tone, but also harmonic understanding. A nicely busy trio, with a particularly noteworthy second violin solo from Rainer Schmidt, helped fully realise the Beethovenian scale of this extraordinary movement as a whole. Performance of the finale was learned yet insouciant – like the score itself. It was loved, but not too much.


From Wagner's Ring to Moses und Aron and Stockhausen

I was asked by Brian Wise of WQXR to contribute to a series in which the station took pieces from its Classical Countdown, its year-end listener survey, and gave recommendations for 'next step' pieces. I took on Wagner's Ring - surprisingly enough! - here, with excerpts. A slightly longer version of what I wrote, which had to be cut for reasons of space, is reproduced below:

Wagner’s Ring, a tetralogy – strictly speaking, three ‘days’ and a ‘preliminary evening’ – containing, as he wrote to Liszt, ‘the beginning of the world and its destruction!’ remains perhaps the greatest challenge, and the greatest reward, for our opera houses to stage.  It may not be perfect; if any work by Wagner merits that epithet, it would surely be Tristan und Isolde. But its monumentality sums up the aspirations and the conflicts of the nineteenth century as no other artwork can. The need for a new theatre – and a new, post-revolutionary audience – is not the least of its demands, and the Bayreuth Festival has, over its history, set new standards and, latterly, theatrical challenges to an operatic world always prone to treat musical drama as a collection of museum pieces. No serious composer of opera, and indeed few serious composers of any description, was unaffected by Wagner’s legacy, even if some, such as Ferruccio Busoni, came to regard him as the end of a line rather than a new dawn; Stravinsky’s anti-Wagnerism was just as much a consequence as Schoenberg’s devotion.

Schoenberg’s own unfinished operatic masterpiece, Moses und Aron has as strong a claim as any to follow in Wagner’s footsteps. It even employs compositional technique directly descended from Wagner’s own motivic writing, albeit with more than a little Brahms mixed in. Moses, as befits Schoenberg’s post-Wagnerian vision of the composer as prophet, challenges the audience, the performers, and indeed the very conventions of what might actually be represented on stage. It asks difficult questions about the easy idolatry of art and mass communication, symbolised by the contrast between Moses, who may be right but whom his people cannot understand, and his brother, Aron, whose twelve-note bel canto leads them astray. The Orgy around the Golden Calf is a musical riot to rival that of The Rite of Spring; it has even been described, in knowing reference to one of Wagner’s greatest bêtes noires, as ‘twelve-note Meyerbeer’. And yet, when it subsides, Moses having descended from Mount Sinai, the message seems bleak: Moses lacks the ability to communicate. Does modernist opera too?  Growing acceptance, even idolatrous following, of Schoenberg’s work answers with a resounding ‘no’.

The same answer echoes perhaps more resoundingly still with an heroic 2012 opera production in Birmingham: the first complete performance of Stockhausen’s MITTWOCH (Wednesday) from his vast LICHT cycle. That series of seven operas stretched still further the bounds of the operatic – and with unabashedly neo-Wagnerian ambition. Each of the seven works treats with one of the days of Creation, though not as mere earthlings might know it. (Stockhausen came to believe that he was of extra-terrestrial provenance.) Lasting twice as long as the Ring, Licht’s equivalent to Wagner’s Nibelungenlied was the mysterious Urantia Book. Some find it difficult to take the composer’s cosmogony seriously. However, the imagination that brought extraordinary scenes such as ‘World-Parliament’, in which delegates from across the universe debate in invented languages the meaning of love, and the celebrated ‘Helicopter String Quartet’, the theatricality of the players’ four helicopters perhaps obscuring the typically tight-knit musical ‘superformula’ organisation, let alone the appearance of Lucicamel, the dromedary ‘emanation’ of Lucifer elected as focus of cosmological solidarity…: that is an imagination that demands our attention. Like most performances of the Ring, the premiere performances of MITTWOCH  sold out immediately, some Stockhausen disciples travelling across the world to attend, in homage, conscious or otherwise, to the first, 1876 Bayreuth Festival, to attend all four. 

At any rate, I was delighted to be able to get some Schoenberg on air!

Saturday 24 January 2015

London Sinfonietta/Volkov: James Dillon, Stabat mater dolorosa, 21 January 2015

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Stabat mater dolorosa (London premiere)

BBC Singers
London Sinfonietta
Sound Intermedia
Ilan Volkov (conductor)

James Dillon’s ‘cantata’ – his own description – Stabat mater dolorosa had its first performance at last November’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival; this was its London premiere. Co-commissioned by the HCMF, BBC Radio 3, and Casa da Musica, Porto, it is quite unlike any ‘setting’ of the poem I have heard, despite the surprising direct quotation from Pergolesi that surfaces some way through its hour-and-a-quarter duration. Why the inverted commas? Only some of the poem is set; apparently, Dillon went so far as he felt able and then stopped. Perhaps more importantly, the text is not always readily audible; more than once, I thought of Nono’s Il canto sospeso, and indeed of Stockhausen’s (misplaced?) criticism of it in Die Reihe: the effect seemed somewhere between Nono’s intention and Stockhausen’s reception, albeit with a far greater sense of restraint. However, there were times when the text was readily audible, for which considerable praise should be offered to the BBC Singers.

The background ‘chatter’ of ancillary texts is deliberately not perceptible in its detail, presenting an interesting comparison and indeed synergy with the relatively sparing use of electronics. Picasso’s idea of the ‘weeping woman’ melds with the philosopher Julia Kristeva’s Héretique de l’amour, a text in which she considers the Stabat mater in relation to her experience of child birth and her thoughts upon the Virgin Birth. (I am relying on Dillon for that information, since I have yet to read any Kristeva.) Rilke’s Visions of Christ and Donne’s A Valediction of Weeping are also present. We only know that because we are told. Does that matter? I am instinctively suspicious (reactionary that I am?) of conceptual art, but in this case, I really could see no harm, nor could I hear it, in a little background – in more than one sense. The idea of a ‘canonical’ text, a term Dillon used more than once in a brief post-concert discussion, being mediated by later writing is after all difficult to avoid in any non-fundamentalist consideration of texts as developing works.

The score really does, rather to my surprise, come across as a reimagining of a Baroque cantata. One senses something akin to ritornello form and sub-divisions not entirely dissimilar to those of the old ‘cantata mass’. (Perhaps incongruously, perhaps not, it was Haydn’s post-Baroque Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae that sprang to my mind both during and after the event.) Picasso’s ‘weeping machine’ and what one might think of its predecessors in earlier Spanish painters such as Murillo also featured strongly in my initial response. To quote the composer, whom I read afterwards, ‘Picasso’s strange but fascinating metaphor of a “weeping machine” becomes a central image in the work, whereby I cast the mechanics of mourning as a slow machine, a music which unfolds in slow motion.’ That ‘slow motion’ might take some getting used to, but actually one’s ears adjust – or at least mine did – reasonably quickly. There are moments, passages of considerable beauty, not entirely unlike Baroque obbligati. Various instrumentalists from the splendid London Sinfonietta took their opportunities to shine, without any hint of standing out too boldly. Alastair Mackie’s trumpet lingered especially in the memory. The caesuras challenged too, but productively: there still seemed to be an overarching modernist structure, rather than a mere post-modernist assemblage for us to make of what we would.

The work clearly requires more than a single listening, so I am reluctant to say much more, but I have little doubt that such listening would be well rewarded. Insofar as I could tell, Ilan Volkov directed his forces with remarkable sympathy and understanding. The London Sinfonietta has long excelled in such repertoire; long may that excellence continue.


Wednesday 14 January 2015

L'Orfeo, Royal Opera, 13 January 2015


Orfeo – Gyula Orendt
Euridice – Mary Bevan
Silvia (Messenger) – Susan Bickley
First Pastor – Anthony Gregory
Second Pastor (Apollo) – Alexander Sprague
Third Pastor – Christopher Lowrey
Charon – James Platt
Pluto – Callum Thorpe
Proserpina – Rachel Kelly
Nymph – Susanna Hurrell

Michael Boyd (director)
Tom Piper (designs)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Sound Intermedia (sound design)
Liz Ranken (movement)
Lina Johansson (circus director)
Vocal Ensemble from Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Dancers from East London Dance
Orchestra of Early Opera Company
Christopher Moulds (conductor)

I am all in favour of our London opera companies moving outside of their West End homes – perhaps preferably a little further afield than Camden, but even that change of scenery can act as a liberating agent. For that, the Royal Opera is fully deserving of praise, and it certainly feels ‘different’ taking the Tube to Chalk Farm and arriving at the Round House, venue for a good number of Pierre Boulez’s BBC Symphony Orchestra concerts, given when he similarly wished to break free of some of the stultifying conventions of bourgeois concert life and to seek new, more receptive audiences. It is a lovely touch to have children from local schools compose and perform fanfares – audibly related to Monteverdi’s celebrated opening Toccata – in the bar beforehand. As with Boulez’s innovation, one cannot but praise the broadening of repertoire too, Monteverdi, one of the very greatest of all opera composers, being conspicuous only by his absence from Covent Garden’s endeavours.

However, in this case, it is not entirely clear what remains of the Royal Opera, beyond its name as an umbrella organisation and presumably some degree of financial support. To bring in a ‘period’ orchestra at the same time as relocating gave the impression of Monteverdi being compartmentalised, surrendered to those whom Boulez so aptly summed up as ‘specialists in nullity’; moreover, what does it say about the worth the company attributes to its own, very fine orchestra, perfectly capable of performing repertoire from Monteverdi to Birtwistle? The world is full of ‘period’ performances of ‘early music’; is it really too much to ask that someone, somewhere might actually show the courage to stand up to ‘authenticke’ fatwas and use rich, modern forces? Or perhaps, even, to use one of the several ‘reimagined’ versions of Monteverdi’s score for our own or other times? Berio’s would perhaps have been the most obvious in this case, but there are many others; indeed, the task would have made a wonderful commission for an imaginative young (or old) composer.


The situation seems odder still in the light of a staging that is certainly not attempting some form of historical recreation. Nothing wrong with that, at all, of course; indeed, the idea is as silly onstage as in the pit – or here, onstage again, given that there was no pit. The post-modernism, in the worst sense, of mainstream ‘authenticity’, however is shown up for what it was, given the incoherence of approach. As Boulez once again put it with respect to the kindred movement of twentieth-century neo-Classicism, ‘People gather up all manner of bits and pieces and say, “O.K., I’ll put a Corinthian column on a metal base and it will look post-modern.” Obviously, this is all quite superficial.’

Alas, a greater problem with Michael Boyd’s staging lies in its incoherence even on its own terms. Rarely have I been so unclear as to what an opera staging was seeking to achieve. A host of theatrical clichés listlessly compete to amount to considerably less than the sum of their parts. We have a play within a play, vaguely nodding both to the work’s courtly origins (a royal couple, later revealed to be Pluto and Proserpina, seated above, under a crest) and some sort of modern-ish fascism-lite (hints of a prison, which soon vanish, security forces (?) all in black, and so on). The ‘look’ comes across as a mixture of student production and 1990s RSC, whilst the addition – I hesitate to say ‘incorporation’ – of dancers, a laudable community initiative in itself, is less than fully integrated, giving the impression of a school talent show. The choreography itself is embarrassing enough to make one think of David McVicar’s West End-musical assault on The Trojans. Piling more art forms upon each other – a ‘circus director’ is credited, though I am not quite sure for what – seems a grave misunderstanding of the Gesamtkunstwerk, itself a concept unduly emphasised by those who have most likely never read Wagner in the first place. Above all, given the overall incoherence, there is little sense of who these people actually are, let alone, most crucially, of how they relate to one another. Had I not known the opera, I suspect I should have found myself utterly at a loss, instead of only partly so.

Related to that is the most baffling aspect of all: what seems to be a Christianising concept, signalled not only by the transformation of shepherds into robed priests with crucifixes (‘pastors’, a play on words or at least upon origins only likely to register, let alone to be appreciated, for those with a cast list and who have checked it) and the English translation furnished by Don Paterson. Orfeo – why not ‘Orpheus’, if we are in English? – is presented in Christ-like imagery to start with, prefiguring his death; but it is far from clear that death is in itself a Christian concept, and little is done to explain why or even how we should plausibly consider the action in this sense. The final act in particular now takes upon itself an oddly Christian, or perhaps better, anti-Christian tinge, with words such as 'grace' in context accorded unsettlingly prominent emphasis. Quite apart from the question of why the work is being performed in translation – there are surtitles, which should surely be enough – the appearance of concepts such as ‘grace’ sit as awkwardly as the Christian elements in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia. Orfeo is not Parsifal, nor did it become so on this occasion. Given the choice, I should unhesitatingly stick with Alessandro Striggio – not, I hasten to add, on account of a nasty bout of Werktreue, but because transformations, should they be attempted, need to be considerably more coherent than these. I am not sure what the cuts are supposed to achieve, either; Orfeo is certainly not a lengthy work.

There was, however, much to admire in the singing; indeed, it was as a showcase for (mostly) younger voices that this performance really found its raison d’être. The undoubted star of the show – something would have gone wrong, had this been otherwise! – was Gyula Orendt, as Orfeo. A member of the Berlin State Opera, the Hungarian-Romanian baritone offered as powerfully-acted a performance on stage as I have seen for a long time. His facial expressions: tearful, hopeful, joyous, and, towards the close, benumbed, drew one in to his character as happens all too rarely on the operatic stage. (That may, of course, be partly a matter of the relative intimacy of the venue, at least for those of us fortunate enough to have been in the Stalls.) Although his vocal performance was not entirely flawless – he was not the only cast member to experience occasional difficulty with the hemiolas – to say more would be to nit-pick in the face of so committedly dramatic a performance. Mary Bevan offered a lovely Euridice, words and music as one – insofar as they could be in translation. Susan Bickley made the most of the Messenger’s pivotal appearances: one saw as well as heard the import of her news. Callum Thorpe and Rachel Kelly were equally impressive as the ‘royal’ (?) couple, Pluto and Proserpina. My only regret was that they did not have more to sing, but their acting was to be enjoyed more or less throughout. All members of the cast, though, impressed. Their ensemble, together with the splendid postgraduate singers from the Guildhall, offered a true instance of what opera should be: more, rather than less, than the sum of its part. (Mostly) subtle amplification dealt pretty well with the problematical acoustics, although certain oddities were unavoidable in a non-static staging.

Christopher Moulds might, however, have presented a more bracing account. Rhythms too often were on the soggy side; Ivor Bolton, in Munich last summer, had offered much more in the way of dance and, indeed, more general dramatic contrast. (He also had the benefit of an excellent production, one which it would be well worth the Royal Opera, ENO, or someone else considering bringing to London.) The continuo group proved far more impressive than the rest of the orchestra, its brass and, less but still too frequently, its strings sometimes excruciatingly out of tune. I can scarcely imagine the reaction, were such flawed playing to be served up by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; quite why audiences and critics are willing to put up with this in the name of ‘period performance’ remains an utter mystery to me. But then, so does the ideology as a whole; whatever it might be, it is certainly not ‘historically informed’.


Tuesday 13 January 2015

LSO/Rattle - Schumann, Das Paradies und die Peri, 11 January 2015

Barbican Hall

Peri – Sally Matthews
Narrator – Mark Padmore
Kate Royal (soprano)
Bernarda Fink (contralto)
Andrew Staples (tenor)
Florian Boesch (bass)
Francesca Chiejina, Eliszabeth Skinner, Bianca Andrew, Emily Kyte (vocal quartet: Peris)

London Symphony Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle (conductor)

Simon Rattle clearly has a soft spot for Das Paradies und die Peri, having conducted it with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Berlin Philharmonic, as well as having chosen it as a Desert Island Disc. Each to his own, I suppose. There is some wonderful music here and the work has clearly been treated unfairly; there is certainly no reason to feel anything but gratitude for this rare outing and fine performance. However, I cannot imagine any conceivable circumstances in which I might prefer it over the St Matthew Passion, Tristan, or a host of other works. Thank goodness, though, that Schumann set a text in German some way ‘after’ Thomas Moore, rather than Moore’s own ghastly Lalla Rookh. To describe the latter as ‘flowery’ would be so much of an understatement as to mislead; indeed, when, on occasion, my eye wandered across the programme booklet page to see the English version of the text, it swiftly turned back to the German, far more readily comprehensible, let alone palatable. Even in the German, moreover, it is difficult to bring oneself to care about the rather trite moralism. This is no Tannhäuser, let alone Parsifal, although, to be fair, the poem never sinks to the level of poor Weber’s Euryanthe, let alone Oberon. Fortunately, however, I soon found myself (more or less) able to enjoy the musical setting without troubling oneself too much about the words either way.

Rattle’s direction of his forces was generally astute, the reservations I felt pertaining to points of detail – this conductor’s over-emphasis upon certain ‘interesting’ details so often his Achilles heel – rather than to anything more fundamental. The LSO, as so often, was on excellent form, the dramatic tension of the performance so clearly founded here, just as it should have been. For instance, the orchestral throbbing heard, cellos surely echoing Der Freischütz, in the Angel’s ‘Dir, Kind des Stamms’ proved both attractive and dramatically telling in itself, but also an incitement for what was to come. Flexibility in the Peri’s following ‘Wo find’ich sie?’ was highly commendable too. Echoes of Berlioz were to be heard in the chorus, ‘Doch seine Ströme sind jetzt tot’, reminding us of the orchestra’s second-to-none pedigree in that composer’s music under Colin Davis. (Indeed, I could not help but wonder what Davis might have made of this oratorio; Rattle’s occasional fussiness would surely have been avoided.) I wish that Rattle had not driven so hard in the final number of Part One, especially when the chorus was singing; he proved far more considerate, as has often been his way, as an ‘accompanist’ to the solo singers. But the orchestral playing and the singing of the London Symphony Chorus was outstanding, putting me in mind of the close to the first part of The Creation, another work these forces performed with such distinction under Sir Colin. Brahms, too, seemed to beckon.

A point of ‘detail’ in which Rattle’s approach was most welcome was the darkness of the orchestral interlude in the Narration, no.12, following ‘Kein sterblich Aug’ hat je/Ein Land gesehn voll höh’rer Pracht!’ The darkness of the words to come, so strongly in contrast, was tellingly foretold. There was great charm to the chorus with which the third part opens; it came across in a similar vein to spinning choruses such as those in Haydn, Weber, and Wagner. Wagner again, this time Das Rheingold, sounded clearly prefigured following the bass solo, ‘Mit ihrer Schwestern Worten’. It is a sad commentary upon our ‘authenticke’ times that the extraordinary neo-Bachian solo at the opening of Peris’ ‘Es fällt ein Tropfen aus Land’ was met with what was surely Rattle’s conception of minimising, though thankfully not eliminating vibrato; as if what mattered about Bach, let alone about Schumann’s response to him, were some alien form of puritanism. But that did not last long, strings warming as the number progressed. The sharpness of the general ‘dramatic’ trajectory, insofar as the poem permits there to be one, certainly seemed greater as the work progressed, although Rattle again, in the final ‘Chorus of the Blessed Spirits’, seemed to confuse driving hard with ‘drama’ as such. Speeding up throughout the number sounded a little too much like having misunderstood Furtwängler’s lessons. Still, the LSO and Chorus remained on scintillating form.

Most of the solo singing was excellent too. The only real exception was Kate Royal, her Maiden as dull and featureless as her disengaged countenance. Many of the words were quite incomprehensible, and her tone proved surprisingly squally. The orchestra, however, remained full of Romantic wonder. Otherwise, there were few grounds for complaint. If, at times earlier on, Mark Padmore’s Narrator sounded a little ‘old’, there was no gainsaying the intelligence of his way with the words. And by the time we had come to his solo just before the end of the second part, ‘Sie wankt – sie sinkt,’ his style seemed to have adjusted, sounding spot on for Schumann. His contributions in the third part were ‘narration’ in the best sense: emphatic, but certainly not overly so. I heard some people complain about Sally Matthews’s diction, but have to say that was not a problem for me. (These things can often be partly a matter of where one is seated.) The sincerity of her contribution and the musicality of her response to the words were for me quite enchanting: certainly the best performance I have heard from her. Bernarda Fink’s Angel solo in the Third Part was almost worth the price of admission on its own, her opening ‘Noch nicht!’ poised and pivotal: putting me in mind a little of the crucial turning-point, albeit given to soprano, in Mendelssohn’s Second Symphony. (That was far from the only point at which Mendelssohn sprang to mind, both that work and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the second part’s opening number.) Andrew Staples was on fine form, his tenor wonderfully sappy, every inch a Tamino. Florian Boesch, if sometimes a little dry of tone, offered undoubted intelligence in his response to words and music alike. The mixed vocal quartet of the first part brought welcome echoes of The Magic Flute. Last but certainly not least, the female quartet from the Guildhall revealed four singers – Francesca Chiejina, Eliszabeth Skinner, Bianca Andrew, Emily Kyte – full of character, every one of them vastly superior to the bafflingly ubiquitous Royal. I should not be surprised to hear more in the coming years from all of them.

Monday 12 January 2015

Garrick Ohlsson - Scriabin, 6 January 2015

Wigmore Hall

Prelude in A minor, op.11 no.2
Piano Sonata no.2 in G-sharp minor, op.19
Etude in B-flat minor, op.8 no.11
Etude in D-flat major, op.8 no.10
Piano Sonata no.4 in F-sharp major, op.30
Piano Sonata no.7 in F-sharp major, op.64, ‘White Mass’
Désir, op.57 no.1
Piano Sonata no.6 in G major, op.62
Etude in D-flat major, op.42 no.1
Etude in C-sharp major, op.42 no.5
Fragilité, op.51 no.1
Piano Sonata no.5 in F-sharp major, op.53

2015 is the centenary of Scriabin’s death; Twelfth Night, on which this Wigmore Hall recital took place, was also his birthday. There could be little gainsaying Garrick Ohlsson’s achievement in the performance of these piano works, but I am afraid I was less than convinced of their stature as a whole, the White Mass Sonata for me certainly the highlight. It is perhaps a cheap point to say that Scriabin’s downright ludicrous ambitions were never achieved; how could they be? Take the never-finished – how could it have been? – Mysterium, which in the words of Geoffrey Norris’s programme note, ‘was to start with bells hung from clouds over the Himalayas and to end with the dawn of humanity on a higher plane of enlightenment’. I am not sure, however, that many of the piano pieces even successfully fulfil more modest expectations. That surprised me, givn a remark I recalled from Pierre Boulez, who said, when conducting some of Scriabin’s music, that he found the piano music more interesting. I suppose it depends which piano music; at its best, I should agree, but otherwise, I should unhesitatingly prefer to hear The Poem of Ecstasy.

The opening Prelude in A minor was promising enough, Chopin’s example strong in both work and Ohlsson’s performance. (Throughout, I was reminded of his experience as a Chopin pianist.) The Second Sonata – I find it difficult to understand in what sense any of the pieces called ‘sonata’ have anything much to do with sonata principles – offered admirably delicate playing, but proved one of the works at which I found myself most at a loss as to what it amounted to in compositional terms. I wondered whether Ohlsson might have made more of the contrast between the two movements, but am perfectly willing to allow that any fault may have lain with the work itself. Of the two following Etudes, the D-flat major work offered welcome brightness of contrast, amidst the minor-ish mode meandering previously heard. But it was with the F-sharp major Sonata (no.4), that we encountered what was, at least to my ears, a more interesting work, much more interesting. Salon aspects seemed to have disappeared from Scriabin’s writings, and the melodic material sounded far more appropriate to the harmonies. It would be difficult, though, to argue that, even as a short ‘sonata’, it lacked longueurs. The White Mass Sonata, which concluded the first half, offered a more succinct example of Scriabin’s ‘ecstatic’ style, the weird would-be apotheosis of its conclusion a challenge both in work and in performance.

Désir, with which the second half opened, offered attractive, post-Tristan harmonies, seeming to hint at the Poem of Ecstasy, whilst retaining the welcome virtue of smaller form and genre. The impression Ohlsson gave was of something not wholly unlike late Liszt. His programming here made a great deal of sense, the Sixth Sonata seeming to grow out of its melodies and harmonies, although the sonata undoubtedly voiced darker moods. Ohlsson retained the somewhat paradoxical improvisatory quality the music appears to demand, or at least to encourage. That said, I found the piece again rather outstayed its welcome. The D-flat major Etude sounded more like an Etude than its predecessors. Once again, the point of departure in Chopin was readily discernible. Likewise the C-sharp minor Etude which followed, the twist of tonality a welcome feature. Fragilité rehashes the harmonies of Désir a little too obviously for my liking, but Ohlsson certainly rehashed them well. Finally, there came the Fifth Sonata (and three Scriabin encores!) Perhaps I was just too tired of Scriabin by then, but I struggled to discern the work’s form, and I have no reason to think that was owed to the performance. Might the composer perhaps have benefited from an editor?  

Monday 5 January 2015

Kaufmann/Deutsch - Schumann, Wagner, and Liszt, 4 January 2015

Wigmore Hall

Schumann – Kerner Lieder, op.35: no.1, ‘Lust der Sturmnacht’, no.4, ‘Erster Grün’, no.7, ‘Wanderung’, no.9, ‘Frage’, no.10, ‘Stille Tranen’
Dichterliebe, op.48
Wagner – Wesendonck Lieder
Liszt – Three Petrarch Sonnets, S 270

Jonas Kaufmann (tenor)
Helmut Deutsch (piano)

Although 2015 has only just begun, it is difficult to imagine that there will prove a more difficult musical ticket to acquire than one for Jonas Kaufmann’s Wigmore Hall recital. Having abandoned all hope, I was extremely fortunate to snap up a return the day beforehand. (Many thanks, far from incidentally, to the ever-helpful Wigmore Hall in that respect!) It is equally difficult to imagine that anyone will have attended the recital and been disappointed – unless, that is, he or she, went along with that intent, and even then I think it would have been difficult to follow through that intent. Whilst I found the second half still more impressive than the first, any reservations I might have held were far from earth-shattering.


One might have been the programming of the first half itself. It seemed a pity only to have five of Schumann’s Kerner Lieder, and I wondered whether some more Liszt, or perhaps even some Schubert or Strauss, might have complemented the other songs better. But I was probably just being ungrateful and/or greedy, since there was much to enjoy on the programme’s own terms. Kaufmann crooned a little too often for my taste here, especially in no.9, ‘Frage’. Even there, however, his imploring rendition exploited most of what is best about a more ‘operatic’ approach to Lieder-singing. (A great deal of nonsense is spoken about the relationship between song and opera, largely by self-appointed guardians of the purity of the ‘Lied’. The relationship is in fact, complex, concerning both work and performance, and different artists will quite rightly bring different strengths to their interpretations.) The dark, impetuous opening ‘Lust der Sturmnacht’ set up welcome, necessary contrast in a properly innig ‘Erstes Grün’, leaving this listener at least with a lump in his throat fit to recall first or at least early love. ‘Wanderung’ seemed to unite both tendencies, suggesting cannier programming than I had first allowed. And the final ‘Stille Tränen’ proved ‘operatic’ in the best, blazing sense, Helmut Deutsch’s well-nigh orchestral ‘accompaniment’ equally crucial here. Indeed, throughout I was often just as impressed by Deutsch’s contribution, especially in this first half, in which he proved himself, as if proof were needed, a Schumann player of true distinction. Moreover, the two players not only complemented each other but supported and incited each other in a way that only the greatest partnerships can.


Dichterliebe followed. ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ was euphoniously expectant to a degree. Here, and indeed throughout the cycle, Deutsch’s piano voicing was what one might expect from a solo pianist tuned one-night collaborator; works such as the Arabeske, Faschingsschwank aus Wien, and so on often coming to mind. (It would, I suspect, be wonderful to hear him in some of the solo works.) The quickness, in more than one sense, of the implied heartbeat in ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube’ was something no listener could ignore. Subtle artistry such as Kaufmann’s lingering, enough but not too much, on ‘Ich liebe dich’ in the following ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’’ emphasised a Romantic longing that seemed precisely Schumann’s own. There was not so much in the way of irony, but that is a characteristic of Schumann’s response to Heine’s far more ironic verse, and a climax such as that to ‘Ich grolle nicht’ brought its own rewards, such as cannot be found in ‘straight’ Heine. (One small(-ish) gripe whilst speaking of the verse: Richard Stokes’s programme notes, whilst interesting and informative upon Heine, had little to say concerning Schumann’s setting of Heine’s verse; moreover, they had almost nothing at all to say on Wagner’s or Liszt’s music.) Under Deutsch’s fingers, one truly heard the wedding band in ‘Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen’; Mahler seemed briefly to beckon. ‘Aus alten Märchen’ offered a perfect instance of the two musicians on stage collaborating to provide something greater than the sum of its parts, the sense of German fairytale delight, its roots perhaps in Weber as much as in the Brothers Grimm, quite a relief for one song at least. Of course, ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’ was still to come. Resolute to begin with, the music seemed to sink in performance with the coffin of Heine’s text. Schumann’s – and Deutsch’s – Bachian postlude, however, offered magic that somehow went ‘beyond’, in any number of ways.


It is an unusual thing indeed to hear a man sing the Wesendonck Lieder, though I am not entirely sure why, especially in the case of the original, piano version. Not once during this performance, following the interval, did it seem odd, or did I even reflect that this was not as it ‘should’ or at least would usually be. Kaufmann indeed seemed just right for Wagner’s style, the line of the opening ‘Der Engel’ immediately announcing its kinship with the composer’s operas (and, if one must draw the distinction, his music-dramas too). Deutsch too, and I do not mean this as a faint compliment, captured Wagner’s piano style very well, wittingly or otherwise offering connections with, for instance, the Sonata in A-flat major, also, far from coincidentally, written with Mathilde Wesendonck in mind. (It is a far better piece than its allegedly cultured despisers would have you believe.) ‘Stehe still!’ intensified the impression of a singer every inch a Siegmund. The clarity and purpose of ‘Im Treibhaus’, Deutsch’s achievement at least as much as Kaufmann’s, could not but put to shame the aimless meanderings of Antonio Pappano’s latest attempt at Wagner conducting at Covent Garden, and heightened both the regret that we never hear Kaufmann there in German repertoire and also the longing we should feel to hear him as Tristan. The words ‘Schweigens Dunkel’ suggested a darkness, again without undue exaggeration, that was truly musical – which is to say, according to Wagner’s world-view of the time, truly metaphysical. Deutsch’s piano part towards the song’s close rightly hinted at Schoenberg. ‘Schmerzen’ offered another experience ‘after “Winterstürme”’, preparing the way for a ‘Träume’ full of erotic expectation and fulfilment.


Finally, perhaps the greatest performance of the evening: Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets, Kaufmann’s mix of the Germanic and the Italianate perfectly complimenting Liszt’s own. Occasionally, I might have liked something a little more assertive here from Deutsch, but perhaps he was ensuring that the greatest of all pianist-composers did not unduly favour his own instrument. Kaufmann’s long ‘operatic’ line was superlatively fitted to Liszt’s writing. No.47, ‘Benedetto sia ‘l giorno’ benefited not only from that, but also from such splendid attention to detail as Kaufmann’s crescendo on the second syllable of ‘Benedette [le voci tante]’, itself echoed in the general crescendo of that third stanza so far as the end of its third line: the calling of Laura’s name vividly portrayed, re-enacted, memorialised. The final stanza simply sent shivers down the spine. ‘Pace non trovo’ amply justified a relatively swift tempo – probably more suited to vocal than solo piano performance. When Kaufmann sang of embracing the whole world (‘tutto ’l mondo abbraccio’) one genuinely believed it to be a possibility. The range of colours employed, even on a single word, such as ‘impaccio’, had almost to be heard to be believed. Deutsch again had one relish the extraordinary piano writing, which for all the unrecognised virtues of Wagner’s, effortlessly surpasses his. ‘I’ vidi in terra angelici costumi’ proved, fittingly, the most seductive of all, the sweetness of the final stanza – ‘Tanta dolcezza avea pien l’aer e ’l vento’ and all – an object lesson in Romantic style and aptness of conclusion. There remained a rapt Schumann ‘Mondnacht’. Too beautiful? I wondered at the time, but such puritanism was readily banished when I found it lingering in my mind’s ear the following morning.



Saturday 3 January 2015

Tally of performances, 2014

As before, I am not sure what, if anything, this indicates, but it is of interest to me at least. Clearly the figures reflect a mixture of personal inclination and what has been available both in London and the other cities I have visited. I have counted each composer once per performance, so an all-Mozart concert counts for one, just as the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro would. Wagner probably does worse than anyone else in terms of minutes per point, but I am sure he will cope. In the case of transcriptions, I have counted both composers. Concert performances have been counted under opera, but operatic excerpts (the only case being a suite from Hänsel und Gretel) have been included under concerts.

What of the results? Well, Mozart is a clear winner overall, rather to my surprise. Birtwistle clearly – and deservedly – did well in his anniversary year. It is perhaps alarming to see so few composers listed as receiving more than one operatic performance, but perhaps not; there are, after all, quite a few receiving one, suggesting broadening of the repertoire at a minimal level at least.


Mozart 13

Wagner 10

Puccini 9

Strauss 8

Britten, Gluck, Birtwistle 2

Julian Anderson, Ferdinando Bertoni, Bizet, Borodin, Elspeth Brooke, Hunter Coblentz, Francisco Coll, Debussy, Dvořák, Søren Nils Eichberg, Luca Francesconi, Handel, Henze, Edwin Hillier, Janáček, Algirdas Kraunaitis, Frank Martin, Monteverdi, Lewis Murphy, Poulenc, Rachmaninov, Rossini, Schoenberg, Schubert, Josephine Stephenson, Tippett, Weber 1


Beethoven 12

Mozart 11

Birtwistle, Brahms, Schubert 7

Mahler 6

Bach, Schoenberg, Stravinsky 5

Debussy, Strauss 4

Chopin, Messiaen, Ravel, Schumann 3

C.P.E. Bach, Bartók, Berg, Berlioz, Bruckner, Busoni, Peter Maxwell Davies, Haydn, Henze, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Zemlinsky 2

John Adams, Ayal Adler, Georg Anton Benda, Berio, Carter, Cerha, Dallapiccola, Brett Dean, Dvořák, Dusapin, Elgar, Ferneyhough, Roberto Gerhard, Helen Grime, Handel, Humperdinck, Honegger, Toshio Hosokawa, Thomas Larcher, Kurtág, John McLeod, Medtner, Mendelssohn, Nono, Jānis Petraškevičs, Rachmaninov, Reger, Rihm, Kareem Rouston, Saint-Saëns, Johannes Schöllhorn, Scriabin, Sibelius, Takemitsu, Telemann, Tchaikovsky, Xenakis, Wagner, Huw Watkins, Jörg Widmann 1


Mozart 24

Beethoven, Strauss 12

Wagner 11

Birtwistle, Puccini 9

Schubert 8

Brahms 7

Mahler, Schoenberg 6

Debussy, Stravinsky 5

Chopin, Henze, Messiaen, Ravel, Schumann 3

C.P.E. Bach, Bartók, Berg, Berlioz, Britten, Bruckner, Busoni, Peter Maxwell Davies, Dvořak, Gluck, Handel, Haydn, Henze, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Zemlinsky 2

John Adams, Ayal Adler, Julian Anderson, Georg Anton Benda, Berio, Ferdinando Bertoni, Bizet, Borodin, Elspeth Brooke, Carter, Cerha, Hunter Coblentz, Francisco Coll, Dallapiccola, Brett Dean, Dvořák, Dusapin, Søren Nils Eichberg, Elgar, Ferneyhough, Luca Francesconi, Roberto Gerhard, Helen Grime, Handel, Edwin Hillier, Humperdinck, Honegger, Toshio Hosokawa, Janáček, Algirdas Kraunaitis, Kurtág, Thomas Larcher, Frank Martin, John McLeod, Medtner, Mendelssohn, Monteverdi, Lewis Murphy, Nono, Jānis Petraškevičs, Poulenc, Reger, Rihm, Rossini, Kareem Rouston, Saint-Saëns, Johannes Schöllhorn, Scriabin, Sibelius, Josephine Stephenson, Takemitsu, Telemann, Tchaikovsky, Tippett, Xenakis, Wagner, Huw Watkins, Weber, Jörg Widmann 1


Performances of the Year, 2014

Again, I have limited myself to twelve: an arbitrary number, with a number of exclusions very difficult or impossible to justify, though I suppose there is a Schoenbergian satisfaction in such limitation. (I am tempted to cheat, by mentioning other performances in passing here, but shall resist!) The ordering is purely chronological.

My first selection comes from the Wigmore Hall, home to many a happy evening in 2014 and indeed in other years. Renaud Capuçon and Khatia Buniatishvili offered a scintillating programme of Bartók, Beethoven, and Brahms. Looking back, I see that I was so carried away as to conclude by writing: ‘It was difficult not to think that a great Beethovenian such as Daniel Barenboim, even Furtwängler, would have approved.

English National Opera offered a Peter Grimes that definitively rid the work – far from my favourite opera, but that perhaps enhances the significance of its selection – of any ‘Campaign for Real Barnacles’ taints. David Alden’s staging, poised dramatically rather than distractingly, between the time of composition and episodes of heightened expressionism, perfectly complimented the finest musical performance I have heard at ENO for some time: the best I have heard from Edward Gardner, and, from Stuart Skelton, the best assumption I have ever heard in the title role.

A few yards away, the Royal Opera not so long after gave anniversary-boy Strauss his full due in a terrific Frau ohne Schatten. Semyon Bychkov showed not only what a great Straussian he is, but what a great orchestra the Covent Garden players can be under the right conductor. Comparisons with the very finest Continental orchestras were not remotely amiss on this occasion. My first act upon returning home from the first night was to buy myself a ticket for a subsequent performance.

Maurizio Pollini continues to astonish with his depth of insight. His Royal Festival Hall performance of Beethoven sonatas offered tension and excitement that would have been incredible in a pianist half his age. Not least of the virtues of this recital – largely misunderstood, I fear, by critics who believe there is only ‘one way’ to perform a masterpiece – was the rethinking so characteristic of ‘late’ or rather ‘latest’ Pollini. In theory, I, especially as one not generally inclined to swift tempi, should have been shocked by the speed of the Hammerklavier’s slow movement; in context, it made perfect sense, indeed recreated the piece anew.

Another of the greatest pianists of our time, Radu Lupu, performed Schumann and Schubert at the Semperoper in Dresden. My first hearing of Lupu in the flesh – when will he again play in London?! – was a truly memorable experience. Again, the depth of insight and the individuality, though never for its own sake, of interpretation marked this out as a very special evening.

The Barbican’s ‘Birtwistle at 80’ season provided riches aplenty. My choice of its opening concert (if I remember correctly) is perhaps arbitrary, since all the performances I attended were greatly to be valued, but this concert performance of Gawain packed an unforgettable punch, taking me back to my first ‘live’ experience of the composer’s music, the same opera at Covent Garden (only my second visit to the Royal Opera House). I now never want to hear the work without the reinstated full version of the Turning of the Seasons again.

As greatness in twentieth-century opera goes, things do not get much greater, of course, than Moses und Aron. Welsh National Opera bravely mounted Schoenberg’s unfinished, unfinishable masterpiece and deserved every plaudit thus gained. The choral singing simply had to be heard to be believed.

Back to Strauss – and back to Bychkov. His Proms Elektra once again offered Londoners the very finest of Straussian understanding. This was a musico-dramatic reading that needed no elaborate staging for the work to make its shattering impact. Christine Goerke excelled in the title role.

One is unlikely ever to experience a poor performance from Bernard Haitink and Mitsuko Uchida. I certainly did not in a ravishing LSO account of Mozart’s twenty-second piano concerto: one in which the still greatly lamented Colin Davis would surely have delighted. Brahms’s Fourth Symphony and perhaps the best performance I have ever heard of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune made for a truly splendid, wonderfully ‘old-school’ symphonic concert.

Debussy also did extremely well in a superlative concert staging of Pelléas et Mélisande, the Philharmonia and Esa-Pekka Salonen playing this miraculous score to the manner born. Stéphane Degout and Sandrine Piau headed a remarkable cast.

Salonen has, of course, worked with Patrice Chéreau, but it was Simon Rattle I heard in the pit of the Berlin Staatsoper for Chéreau’s From the House of the Dead. Everything you have heard about this great staging is true. London, for reasons I simply cannot imagine, continues to ignore Janáček; Berlin did him, and Chéreau, proud. The cast had not a single weak link and the orchestra, the great Staatskapelle Berlin provided the most richly post-Romantic Janáček I have heard, without any loss of bite.

And finally, a third Strauss opera. Back to the theatre, for the Semperoper’s Rosenkavalier. Conducted by Christian Thielemann, the ‘other’ Staatskapelle – and yes, I know that there are many more – played Strauss with a familiarity that spoke not of contempt but of the greatest fluency and understanding. Anja Harteros’s portrayal of the Marschallin was for the ages.

Thursday 1 January 2015

Kam/Kiefer - Berg, Reger, Debussy, and Brahms, 29 December 2014

Wigmore Hall 

Berg – Four Pieces for clarinet and piano, op.5
Reger – Clarinet Sonata in B-flat major, op.1-7
Debussy – Première rapsodie
Brahms – Clarinet Sonata in F minor, op.120 no.1

Sharon Kam (clarinet)
Stephan Kiefer (piano)

This proved an excellent final concert of 2014: an interesting programme, well performed, with the bonus of my first – and last – Max Reger of the year. First, however, came Berg’s Four Pieces: the composer at his most aphoristic, and sounding very much so in a musical as well as merely temporal sense. I wondered to start with whether the opening of the first piece were a little diffident. It blossomed, however, and soon realised that what I had taken for diffidence had been an interpretative strategy, impressively realised on its own terms – Sharon Kam’s clarinet pianissimi in particular. The movement’s final chord lingered magically. The second piece sounded wonderfully Romantic, languid yet forceful too, phrasing very well handled throughout. A scurrying, will-o’-the-wisp-like third movement found its heart with contrasting central material, which here sounded as if the gateway to later Bergian labyrinths. Likewise the piano’s rocking rhythms in the final piece seemed to look forward to Wozzeck. This movement offered the requisite sense of quasi-symphonic unity to the work as a whole, but its own specific character too: violence powerfully communicated by both Kam and Stephan Kiefer, prior to moving, eloquent subsiding.

Reger’s Clarinet Sonata opened in palpably post-Brahmsian style, as it should. The performance of the first movement developed so as not to lose sight of Reger’s still more greatly ‘involved’ method, but crucially traced a clear path through what the composer’s detractors might consider the ‘thickets’ of his music. Kam and Kiefer both offered a degree of chiaroscuro that would surely have astonished such sceptics. (Reger surely suffers more than many composers from poor performances – when indeed he is performed at all.) Kiefer drew a mellow sound from the Wigmore Hall Steinway, to the extent that I might almost have guessed it to be a Bösendorfer. A lively, always harmonically-aware, scherzo followed, revealing rapt, innig trio material at its centre and close. The melancholy of that music prefigured the slow movement proper, which received a powerful performance, again with a very strong sense of greater line (albeit interrupted, sadly, by a lengthy telephonic interruption, the second of the evening). The ‘Idea’, if not the ‘style’, to employ Schoenberg’s distinction, made clear why that composer so admired Reger’s music. As with the Berg Pieces, the fourth movement gave a true impression of uniting differing tendencies in earlier material. Themes were characterised with admirable, even dramatic, clarity, but connections whether of a more ‘developmental’ (let us say, Brahmsian) or ‘transitional’ (Wagnerian?) tendency were conveyed equally well. The essence of the sonata principle was, even at this late stage, served well. A composer still more neglected than Busoni – save, perhaps, by organists – and more unfashionable still than Hindemith gained committed advocacy, and will surely have gained some new converts, or at least adherents.

Kam’s breath control, impressive throughout, seemed perhaps even more so in Debussy’s Première rapsodie, given the languid results. That is not to imply the more negative connotations of ‘rhapsody’, for form was perfectly clear. So, again, were the pianissimi. Softer playing from Kiefer was equally apparent – and equally welcome. Contrasts proved just as important as continuity in a fine performance.

Brahms’s F minor Sonata might perhaps have benefited from a heightened sense of drama at times, but there was no doubting the musicality of the artists’ response. The Janus-like quality of composer and music seemed almost a metaphor for the opening of the first movement – or should that be the other way around? It emerged both as an opening and, seemingly, as the continuation of an older tale. Again, musical line was seamless, without exclusion of contrast. Perhaps a little more of the latter might have dramatised the second movement, but again line was impressively present. The third movement touched one as if the light of a beautifully autumnal sun – not as the consequence of a self-consciously ‘autumnal’ reading, but as a faithful, imaginative communication of the material. The piano’s chains of intervals seemed to point towards Webern, which of course they do. Tonal variegation and structure were well communicated in the finale, which again ‘came off’ in the integrative fashion demanded both by the material and by its placing.