Tuesday 31 March 2015

Berlin Festtage (2) - Parsifal, Staatsoper Berlin, 28 March 2015


Images: Ruth Walz


Amfortas – Wolfgang Koch
Gurnemanz – René Pape
Parsifal – Andreas Schager
Klingsor – Tómas Tómasson
Kundry – Anja Kampe
Titurel – Matthias Hölle
Squires – Sónia Grané, Annika Schlicht, Stephen Chambers, Jonathan Winell
First Knight of the Grail – Paul O’Neill
Second Knight of the Grail – Grigory Shkarupa
Flowermaidens – Julia Novikova, Adriane Queiroz, Sónia Gráne, Narine Yeghiyan, Annika Schicht, Anja Schlosser
Voice from Above – Annika Schlicht

Dmitri Tcherniakov (director, set designs)
Elena Zaysteva (costumes)
Gleb Filshtinsky (lighting)
Jens Schroth (dramaturgy)

Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright)
Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

The Berlin State Opera’s new production of Parsifal could hardly have been burdened by greater expectations with respect to conductor, orchestra, cast, and director, let alone their combination, yet reality did not disappoint. Parsifal-stagings must now be considered post-Stefan Herheim, just as much as an earlier era thought of pre- and post-Wieland Wagner. (We still do too, of course, even those who never saw Wieland’s legendary Bayreuth staging.) Dmitri Tcherniakov proves, unsurprisingly, very much his own man; it would be as absurd to imitate Herheim as it would his predecessor. But perhaps, consciously or otherwise, he may be understood to continue some of the psychological explorations which seemed increasingly to come to the fore in the final two years of Herheim’s production.


The outer acts, in their different but similar ways, suggest a Russian thinker approaching Wagner. Crowds, their detailed yet certainly never pedantic direction long a Tcherniakov speciality, offer ample possibility for comparison. (That word ‘possibility’ is crucial here; like Herheim and indeed many of the most interesting contemporary opera directors, Tcherniakov seems more concerned to open up possibilities than to present definitive verdicts.) Modern, relatively indistinct dress does not distract, but suggests sameness and indeed an ossified dedication to something that no longer pertains: a lesson for ‘traditional’ staging fetishists, among others. (Kinder, macht neues!) But Tcherniakov does not disregard religion as religion; it is not a proxy for political or æsthetic concerns. As in Wagner, the relationship is complex, indeed provocative.

There is here a (once) Christian theology gone wrong, as Wagner’s conception of Monsalvat demands. Just as in the second act of Götterdämmerung, when increasingly desperate pleas are made to gods who have already departed the stage, so in Parsifal, the crowd continues to believe and to act out of desperation from that belief, or at least to act as if it still believed. A world of Russian holy men, perhaps allied to the mendicants of Boris Godunov, or indeed to the anti-Wagnerian challenges of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, reacts with that of Wagner’s still-live (and later, Tcherniakov’s still-life) contest between Feuerbach and Schopenhauer. These are old believers and, perhaps, Old Believers; certainly the final outward turn of the community on stage, magnificently presented as if a revivification of an Old Master painting, suggests Khovanschina with a Goya-like twist. Will the new rule, political or monastic, of Parsifal bring more of the same – Gurnemanz, after his shocking stabbing in the back of Kundry, seems effortlessly to have transferred his loyalty to the new regime – or something different? We do not know; nor do they. Who or what, if anything, has been redeemed? What we do know is that Gurnemanz has swiftly put paid to the 'purely human' - as the younger, Feuerbachian Wagner would have had it - rekindling of sexual relations between Kundry, or Woman, and Amfortas, or Christ, or at least Jesus of Nazareth.


There are certainly clues. Amfortas is identified more with Christ than I can previously recall. He is carried by the knights so as to make him, however unhappily and unwillingly, a visual if perhaps not spiritual reincarnation. More disturbingly still, we see during the final scene of the first act, a re-enactment not only of Amfortas’s wounding but also of some form of transubstantiation, or perhaps mere vampirism, of his own blood. The sustenance drawn may well be nothing – a negative reading of Feuerbach – or it may even be primarily vengeful. There is no doubt, however, that this sick community requires it, and, most intriguingly of all, it is commanded by Titurel, whom we see walk on stage and enter his coffin. Is he a fraud or a thaumaturge? The knights are desperate for him to touch them. He certainly appears to be pulling the theological strings of a cult that has become nasty indeed.

The sameness of the first act – the scene does not shift during the Transformation Music, and indeed the production here burns as slowly and yet as brightly as the work – receives its response in what to begin with seems the unconnected action of the second. Here, Tcherniakov offers a brave, challenging exploration of sexuality, above all of those paedophiliac tendencies our society would desperately wish away as aberration, as the misdeeds of individual ‘monsters’. Klingsor, the very image of a tabloid newspaper’s ‘paedophile monster’, has built a home with his daughters, the Flowermaidens. Some are young; some are older; all are dressed as ‘pretty girls’. Such is clearly what has proved the undoing of Monsalvat’s knights. He clearly repels Kundry, not least when he paws her, but she of course remains in his power. (Perhaps because he has put himself beyond the ‘moral’ pale? Very Nietzschean. Or perhaps we might think of Crime and Punishment.)


When in Klingsor’s power, she is certainly willing to learn from his example, or from what it might suggest. Her kissing him already suggests an inconvenient truth concerning the complexity of abuse. Wagner’s proto-Freudian path of realisation is given shocking realisation in Kundry’s education of Parsifal, partly visualised in the staging of his memories. He and Herzeleide were close, perhaps too close. She is furious when she sees his adolescent first exploration with a girl-next-door, or perhaps even his sister. The emotional fall-out kills her, just as Kundry tells him – and us. Kundry, however, attempts to play upon those complex feelings, to reignite them, reintroducing him to the miniature rocking horse with which once, under Herzeleide’s spell, he had played. Quite what happens remains unclear, since the moment of the ‘kiss’ – is it perhaps more than that? – takes place off stage. The transformation it effects, when undressed, Parsifal, followed by Kundry, runs back on stage, is, however, never in doubt. The would-be sign of the Cross in this dark world is Parsifal’s piercing of Klingsor with the spear.

A crucial feature of the production that has tied both acts together is the circular seating and action of the respective crowds: knights and Flowermaidens. Sickness pervades both; they may well be more closely connected. The third act continues the work of drawing the two together, though again, suggestively rather than didactically. Ritual to drama – to ritual aufgehoben by drama. But was it the wrong drama? When, in the third act, Amfortas opens his father’s tomb and has the body fall to the ground, is that simply revenge for the inhuman treatment – the abuse – our Christ-like, yet ultimately not-so-very-Christ-like, victim has suffered? Or is it also perhaps a hint at the death of God, Titurel being his father? Nietzsche as well as those Russian writers seems hinted at, or at least available. Nihilism or theological rescue mission? As when one reads Nietzsche, perspectivism demands and yet obscures the answers.

Tcherniakov has staged a number of operas in Berlin with Daniel Barenboim, but this is the first Wagner drama, and indeed Tcherniakov’s first Wagner outside Russia. Barenboim has, of course, considerably longer experience, and put it to great use. The expected long line both complemented and, in its dialectic with tonal and timbral variegation below and/or above, questioned the ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ of what we saw on stage. The extraordinary world-weariness, which must yet go on, of the Prelude to the third act would have been worth the price of admission alone, not least on account of the superlative playing of the Staatskapelle Berlin, for whose dark-hued contribution throughout, occasionally disrupted by woodwind screams so vivid that they seemed the timbral instantiation of Kundry’s chromaticism, no praise could be high enough. Indeed, the road to Schoenberg, Webern, and to Boulez – his ninetieth birthday honoured in these Staatsoper Festtage – became apparently clear, in all its Boulezian complexity. Stage action may not have been subject to serial procedures, but in some sense its interlocking with the score through such close musico-dramatic collaboration, suggested such an analogy. Certainly, Boulez's proliferative technique is worth considering not just as having roots in Wagner, but as one potential tool in our quest to understand him.


Much the same might be said of the work of this excellent cast. Andreas Schager cemented his reputation as the finest Heldentenor alive, indeed the finest I have heard in the flesh. His tone beguiled yet remained at the service of the text. Moreover, his movements on stage offered a well-nigh perfect portrayal of the awkwardness of an adolescent discovering his sexuality. His reluctance to show himself, hiding himself under his hood, pulled down by Herzeleide and Kundry alike, finds its counterpart in his persistent changing of clothes: seemingly a desire to be clean that can never be fulfilled. Anja Kampe triumphantly overcame illness so as fully to inhabit her role. She seemed less to play Kundry than simply to be Kundry, tireless in fulfilling the demands placed upon her by Wagner and Tcherniakov alike. René Pape’s sonorous Gurnemanz, perhaps more beautifully sung than any I have heard, was chillingly brought into question by that final act of slaughter. Tómas Tómasson’s Klingsor and Matthias Hölle’s Titurel both impressed greatly too, like Kampe loyal servants to composer, to director, and most crucially of all, to the fusion of the two. Wolfgang Koch's Amfortas entered into that musico-dramatic realm with exemplary marriage of Wort und Ton: Sachs turned (very) sour. Choral singing and acting were likewise of the highest standard throughout, a credit to Tcherniakov, to Barenboim, and to chorus master, Martin Wright.

Why, then, was there such appalling booing to be heard at the end, including, incomprehensibly, some apparently levelled at Barenboim? The answer, alas, is all too readily apparent. If there is anything an unthinking audience cannot stand it is to be made to think; if there is anything an abusive society cannot stand it is to be shown that it is abusive. Such fascistic behaviour of course confirms the need for the very productions it so threateningly excoriates.


Monday 30 March 2015

Berlin Festtage (1) - Schütz/VPO/Barenboim - Boulez and Schubert


Boulez – Livre pour cordes
Schubert – Symphony no.9 in C major, ‘Great’, D 944

Karl-Heinz Schütz (flute)
Christina Bauer, Noid Haberl (electronics)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim (conductor)

No encore, although the audience would clearly have liked one; more to the point, there was a non-advertised late addition to the programme at the beginning. Daniel Barenboim came to the podium and announced that the concert would begin with the Air from Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D major, BWV 1068. Beautiful without affectation, it was a more eloquent mark of respect to those who had lost their lives in the German Wings aeroplane crash than any words. It was not a performance to be ‘reviewed’, but it should be noted.

The Vienna Philharmonic strings then launched more or less immediately – though not without unwanted applause, dealt with admirably by Barenboim – into Boulez’s Livre pour cordes. Barenboim’s reading proved, like his Wagner and much else, both spacious and keenly dramatic. I was struck how close the music sounded at times to Bartók. The players, coaxed into playing ‘New Music’, offered crucial subtlety in dynamic gradation and transition; to give an example, the eight double basses’ pizzicato playing was not only admirable in its unanimity but in its acceleration of impetus, driving the music forward just as it might in Beethoven. The piece emerged almost as if a tone poem (of ‘absolute music’).

Mémoriale benefited from another performance of what one might call warm precision: very much akin with much of Boulez’s own later conducting work. Perfect coordination between the magnificent flautist, Karl-Heinz Schütz, and the Vienna strings – interplay and counterpoint, echoes and collision – led us into a beguiling labyrinth indeed. The subtle yet crucial contribution of the horns should also be noted, not least at the end, fading exquisitely into nothingness. Those horns – and their players, or their instruments, according to one’s understanding! – then moved to the other side of the stage, quickly joined by other wind instruments. Two more flautists stood on either side, awaiting the return of Schütz and Barenboim for Originel. But first, Barenboim said a few words, explaining that we should now hear the same material in another Besetzung, referring to Boulez’s love for complexity and kinship both with Mahler and the orchestral Notations. (Difficult to argue with any of that!) The pairing proved genuinely rewarding, both for the mind and the senses. From the presence of clarinets at the opening, soon joined by electronics (Christina Bauer and Noid Haberl, developed and realised at IRCAM), and then the first of the two additional flute Kinder (Barenboim’s term), similarity and difference not only presented themselves but ravished. I wished I could have heard it all again, and that we might have heard any number of other potential versions.

Whilst the connection with Schubert was not overt, the care that Barenboim took to make ‘New’ Music classical and ‘old’ music new was once again clear; so was the superlative playing of the VPO. The introduction to the first movement sounded simply glorious, but more than that, it proved in spirit quite the most Furtwänglerian account I have heard in concert. There was, needless to say, none of that absurd ‘same tempo as the exposition’ nonsense. This was an experience that was mystical in the best sense. The Vienna horns, the oboe, pretty much everything – all sounded to die for. Even the depth of the violas’ sound could not help but strike, could not help but draw one in to the incipient, inexorable drama. But there was no more wallowing in beauty for its own sake than there had been in Boulez. Dark menace was a hallmark of the strings throughout the movement, always in alliance with harmonic motion; indeed, as time went on, the ghost of Klemperer sounded almost as present as that of Furtwängler, just as in much of Barenboim’s recent Beethoven. And indeed there was an almost Beethovenian purpose to the course of the movement, tension between and beneath the notes inescapable. What struck me at the end of the coda was not ‘heavenly length’ but apparent concision.

The Andante con moto was perfectly judged, both parts of the tempo marking honoured. If the oboe solo was undoubtedly exquisite, so were contributions from all of the woodwind. So too was the string playing, sounding new in the light of the Boulez works. Barenboim’s build up to the great climax was both Brucknerian and not, never uncharacteristic. I was left feeling bereft and yet, in the light of the cellos’ song in aftershock, also (potentially) reconciled. The Scherzo’s opening material was played with rustic swagger: more than the odd reminiscence of Haydn. Line, orchestral balance, and, not least, grace were equal partners in crime here. Grace certainly suffused the lovely, yet never too lovely, Trio. It relaxed – out of symphonic necessity. And yet, the harmony ever pushed us forward. There could be no arguing with the heft of the finale, nor, more importantly, with its tension and release. This was a finale truly worthy of the name. It was not only that its thrills were both visceral and intellectual; the performance showed that the two could not be separated. Likewise motivic life in inner parts and the grinding harmonic motion in the bass. If there has been a greater performance of this symphony since Colin Davis in Dresden, maybe even since Karl Böhm, I have not heard it.


Thursday 26 March 2015

Happy Birthday, Pierre!

I do not intend to say very much, if only on account of time, but I thought it would be remiss to offer an unduly Cagean tribute to Pierre Boulez on his ninetieth birthday. I shall shortly be reporting back from Daniel Barenboim's latest homage in Berlin; the rest of the year will bring performances in London, Salzburg, and maybe elsewhere, from which I hope to say something. Let me just say now that, of any living musician, this is the one who has most inspired me. Hearing his music for the first time (Pollini's recording of the Second Sonata), hearing him conduct for the first time, whether on CD (Mahler's Sixth Symphony), or 'live' (Notations, Bartók, Ravel, and, perhaps inevitably, The Rite of Spring): those and so many subsequent encounters are not only experiences I shall never forget, but also experiences that remain with me, experiences that continue to shape me.

I am certainly not the first to call him the conscience of what I still - quaintly? - call New Music; I doubt that I shall be the last. This, however, was the man, and still is, who, by his example, whether as composer, conductor, thinker, or polemicist, showed me why we desperately needed such a conscience - and why we still do. Our Conservative Secretary State of Culture (not that a Labour politician would be any better) tweeted last night about his sadness concerning the departure of someone from the pop group, One Direction; what are the odds of his giving some thoughts upon Pli selon pli today?  As Augusta Read Thomas reminded us in a Barbican programme tribute at the weekend, Boulez has been 'a true ambassador in the belief that the history of civilisation is written in art'. Resistance to barbarous late capitalism will not be found in Mr Javid's latest alleged enthusiasm; let us remember that he considers ticket touts to be worthy 'entrepreneurs'. It may just, however, be discerned in the bloody-minded refusal to bend to what is easy, to what is commercially advantageous, to what might offer false reconciliation, which brought us IRCAM and Le Marteau sans maître.  That is one of the many reasons why we need Pierre Boulez and his example more than ever.

The following, however, remain just a few of the numerous more compelling reasons for that need and, more to the point. for our gratitude. We need a realm for the free proliferation of artistic fantasy, because we are human.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Berlin calls...

I have often made a Holy Week pilgrimage to one of the most atheistic cities in Europe: not out of religious perversity, indeed I have sometimes caught the odd Passion and/or Parsifal in Leipzig too, but on account of the Berlin State Opera's Festtage. It was with an account of the Barenboim/Boulez Mahler cycle that I began this blog. Both Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez will feature strongly in this year's events, the latter as part of his ninetieth birthday celebrations. Tomorrow, I shall leave for Berlin, musical performances beginning on Friday. I shall, God or whoever it is one should evoke in Berlin willing, report back on the following:

27 March - VPO/Barenboim: Boulez Livre pour cordes, Mémoriale, Originel, and Schubert 'Great' C major Symphony
28 March - first night of new Parsifal production: directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov; conducted by Barenboim; cast including René Pape, Wolfgang Koch, Andreas Schager, Anja Kampe.
29 March a.m. - Erdmann/Lapkovskaya/Michael Barenboim/Women from the NDR and MDR Radio Choirs/Staatskapelle Berlin/Barenboim: Boulez - Le Visage nuptial, Anthèmes 2, Notations (piano and orchestral)
29 March p.m. - Deutsche Oper: Madama Butterfly
30 March - Michael Wendeberg: Boulez piano works
1 April - Kremer/Argerich: works by Weinberg, Beethoven, and Franck
2 April - Staatsoper Tannhäuser (as also seen last year)
3 April - NDR Choir/Konzerthaus Orchestra/Spering: Bach Trauerode and Schubert Mass in A-flat major
4 April - West-Eastern Divan Orchestra/Barenboim: Debussy, Boulez (Dérive 2), Ravel
5 April - Komische Oper: double-bill of Gianni Schicchi and Bluebeard's Castle, dir. Calixto Bieito

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Boulez Total Immersion, 21 March 2015

Barbican Hall

Piano Sonata no.2

Notations I, VII, IV, III, and II
Pli selon pli
Jean-Frédéric Neuburger (piano)
Yeree She (soprano)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Pablo Rus Broseta, Thierry Fischer (conductors)

The BBC’s Total Immersion series has recently seemed to be running out of steam, offering distinctly underwhelming, and in some cases downright bizarre, repertoire choices. At least it did the right thing here, and honoured in the year of his ninetieth birthday the man who remains not only the single most important Chief Conductor in the history of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, but the abiding presence in post-war music (as I suppose we may still, just about, call it). Alas, I was unable to attend the whole day’s events, which included a pair of films and a lecture by Paul Griffiths, but I managed to hear two out of the three concerts, having to forego an LSO St Luke’s performance from the Guildhall New Music Ensemble and David Corkhill (une page d’éphéméride, Anthèmes 1, Mémoriale (‘…expolsante-fixe…’ Originel), Dérive 1, the Sonatine for flute and piano, and the piano Notations).

The first, lunchtime concert gave decent enough but slightly disappointing performances of two works: the Second Piano Sonata and Eclat/Multiples. When it comes to the former work, I have doubtless been spoilt both by Maurizio Pollini’s legendary recording and the experience of thrice having heard him perform it in concert (in Salzburg, Berlin, and London). This was, however, unless I have forgotten something (unlikely in this case, I think), the first time I had heard Eclat/Multiples ‘live’. The Sonata remains of course a monumental challenge to all who approach it, which is not to say that it is ‘unapproachable’, whatever that might mean. I stand in admiration for any pianist who can so much as play the notes and play them relatively convincingly. Those days Boulez long lamented, when new music suffered so greatly from well-meaning yet, in the pejorative sense, amateurish performances – a situation that led directly to his taking up conducting – are long since passed. Jean-Frédéric Neuburger gave a sense of the piece’s concerns, even, though perhaps only if one knew this already, of its celebrated ‘destruction’ of the idea of the sonata. But the white heat of Pollini’s ultra-commitment, his unerring sense and projection of musical drama, above all his ability not only to maintain a musical line even as the work does its damnedest to obliterate it: I struggled to discern them. Range of expression was ultimately somewhat narrow; undoubted virtuosity astonished less than it should. Above all, Such, perhaps, is the danger attendant to the work’s transformation from New Music rallying cry into ‘classic’. (Boulez’s persistent warnings concerning museum culture remain as urgent as ever.) Beethoven, after all, is destroyed far more by insufficient performances than by Boulez’s apocalyptic reckoning with the example of the Hammerklavier Sonata.

Eclat/Multiples was conducted by Pablo Rus Broseta, who had replaced François-Xavier Roth at short notice. Gratitude is in order, then, and again, to conduct the piece well enough is no mean achievement. However, of the scintillation that Boulez himself has brought to the work – this was the orchestra that gave its first performance, conducted by the composer, in 1970 –was not altogether present, the BBC SO at times sounding less razor-sharp than ideal. Opposition between ‘striated’ and smooth time was present, yet seemed less urgently generative than one might have hoped for. That said, the sense of losing oneself in time remained quite remarkable: a presentiment, perhaps, of Dérive 2? Moreover, hearing the opening piano cascade after the sonata brought to life both what the works have in common and where they differ. Technique and implications of proliferation are very different in nature, even though but a single section of Multiples having been completed, we must still wait to hear the ‘finished’ work. I say ‘even though’, but the near-endless sense of possibility in serial proliferation is something to which Boulez has often drawn attention. Tantalisingly, we read in a 2010 interview for Universal Edition: ‘I would especially like to finish Éclat/Multiples. That’s one of the works which is almost finished, and, you know, I have practically twice the length of the work as I play it now, and therefore I would like to finish because the concept of the end is already there.’ There is much for us to occupy ourselves with in the meantime, though, not least in the composer’s post-Debussyan liberation – perhaps in this case, even exaltation – of timbre. (Those violas, that basset horn! They are emphatically not ‘mere colour’. Klangfarbenmelodie has continued to develop, to expand its realm of possibilities.) Moreover, as Jonathan Goldman has written, ‘Form, once thought by serial composers such as the young Boulez to be equivalent to the exhaustion of the possibilities of the series (a characteristic of none but a single Boulezian creation, the often-analysed Structures Ia), reveals itself in Boulez’s later works to be an open-ended affair.’

For the evening concert, Thierry Fischer was Roth’s replacement. I assume that he must have conducted Notations and Pli selon pli before; they are hardly the sort of works one conducts for the first time at the drop of a hat. Whatever the truth of that, these were assured performances. I doubt that anything will ever eclipse the memory of Boulez’s extraordinary, Bergian performance of Pli selon pli in London four years ago. But one thing that has struck me recently is the greater willingness of other conductors to perform his work. Daniel Barenboim has, of course, long been a champion; I shall soon be reporting from performances in Berlin. Nor is he alone. However, I wonder whether a perverse consequence of Boulez’s pre-eminence as a conductor has been either reluctance or inability – Why would an orchestra hire X to conduct Boulez, when it might enlist the composer himself? – on the part of other musicians to lead performances of his orchestral music. Fischer’s performances proved assured, a worthy tribute, and the BBC SO was on much better form too.

For those who carp about Boulez’s conducting activities allegedly having taken his attention away from composition – they generally seem not to like his music very much, so it is not immediately clear why they should care – the Notations should stand as a rebuke. Boulez himself has owned that he would have been unable to compose the pieces without the experience of conducting Wagner and Mahler. With every listening, that claim becomes more and more unarguable. The virtuosity in orchestral writing is staggering, in its way as much so as that of Ravel, or indeed Mahler. Such was revealed here in performance; it is remarkable what a difference inclusion of the Seventh Notation now makes to the previous first four. As much as Eclat/Multiples, one hears Boulez as, amongst many other things, a true heir to the Viennese purveyors of Klangfarbenmelodie, Schoenberg as much as Webern. This was perhaps the most ‘Romantic’ reading, not only of that movement, but of the work-in-progress as a whole, I have yet to hear. Mahler, perhaps reimagined by the Schoenberg of op.19 no.6, continued as foundational processional, whilst Boulezian fantasy ignited and – that word again – proliferated above. In retrospect, the Boulez of Pli selon pli, especially some of its later revisions, seemed increasingly his own progenitor here. A somewhat deliberate reading of no.4 had me wondering for a while, but won me round; no more than in the music of the ‘museum’ is there one ‘correct’ way to perform this music. Its openness to interpretation is, and should be, at least as great as its openness to further compositional development. The extraordinary Notation II – everyone’s favourite, so far? – brought the house down, as, in my experience, it always has. It threatens to veer out of control, testing the limits of even the most expert orchestra, yet never quite does so. Again, Mahler reimagined. To quote from that 2010 interview for a second time, ‘There’s the Mahler quotation again, “the material composes for you.”’

Pli selon pli proved, as one would have hoped, a fitting climax. If ever there were a Boulez work that seemed to cry out for the word ‘masterpiece’ it must surely be this. Or Le Marteau sans maître, or Répons, or … But, however, over-used that word, here, once again, it seemed fitting. Arnold Whittall’s description of Boulez’s ‘modern classicism’ seemed once more very much the thing; and yet, this work is not so ‘closed’ as it may seem, emphatic though the closing of the circle at the end of ‘Tombeau’ remains. A quality I am almost tempted to call ‘symphonic’ has always been present in the work, but it seems more and more overwhelming, almost ‘tragically’ so. (Perhaps I remain very much – too much? – under Mahler’s spell? Certainly Boulez’s Mahler has been the revelation in the last generation or so of Mahler performance.) Performance, just as much as study of the score, reveals other possibilities – which may never now be taken up; or which may indeed some day by others, just as Boulez has responded to some of those by his predecesssors. Mallarmé, nevertheless, remains; or as Boulez might have put it, Mallarmé demeure. (Boulez’s analysis of the Rite of Spring, ‘Stravinsky demeure’, is surely as essential to a cellular reading as ever it was.) The transformation of verse into poetry is not the least important process at work here; who knows, were the material to continue to develop, might the ravishing vocal line disappear entirely? That is not to denigrate the excellent contribution of Yeree Suh to the performance. Perhaps less overtly sensual, even erotic, than Boulez’s 2011 Barbara Hannigan, Suh offered a straightforward integrity that was very much her own, and which sounded very much at ease with Fischer’s own approach. There will be further penetrations into the Boulezian labyrinth, into Mallarmé’s sirens, shipwrecks, lava, tombs, and all; in the meantime, this ‘classical’ performance did very well indeed. The dizzying yet now (relatively) stabilised interplay between different formal levels continues to challenge, to beguile, to point to an open future. Serialism demeure.

Friday 20 March 2015

Pollini - Schumann and Chopin, 17 March 2015

Royal Festival Hall

Schumann – Arabeske, op.18
Schumann – Kreisleriana, op.16
Chopin – Preludes, op.28

Maurizio Pollini (piano)

Pollini joining the protests against Berlusconi

Apologies for having taken so long to write something about this, the most recent visit of the world’s – and thus, presumably the universe’s – greatest living pianist to London. I must also apologise for the generalised nature and, most likely, the superficiality of the following remarks. Not having had chance to write something earlier, much detail has now escaped my memory. ‘Never apologise, never explain’: I know, but anyway…

Schumann and Chopin have always been central to Pollini’s repertoire, and have almost unfailingly showed him at his greatest. This recital was no exception. I have never been clear why we do not hear the C major Arabeske more often in concert. Pollini showed why we should. Its ‘poetic’ form – somehow, Schumann at his best always manages to inform his music with ‘literary’ sensibility, without in any sense forsaking its ‘musical’ nature – was revealed both as straightforward, readily comprehensible, and yet as rewarding of the most careful of playing and listening. Counterpoint was clear, yet not too clear: the pianistic depth of Schumann’s re-reading of Bach was understood on its own terms, not those of ‘authenticity’, and of course on our terms too; we have heard Schoenberg and Stockhausen, not least from Pollini. Subtle rubato drew one in, and held one there. This is a musician as incapable of self-regard as, say, Sviatoslav Richter; whether one agrees with an interpretation or not, or indeed whether one finds fault with a performance or not, there can be no case of denying the pianist’s commitment to the music. Here, what, in lesser hands – it was one of the relatively few Schumann solo works I hubristically dared to play in public – might sound sectional, proved cumulative and, above all, poetically and structurally satisfying. ‘Satisfaction’ might sound a faint compliment; it is not. The conclusion, ‘Zum Schluss’, was rapt as only the non-narcissistic can be. It seemed over in a trice, yet its infinitely touching musical poetry remained.

Kreisleriana followed. Florestan and Eusebius inevitably came to mind, indeed came into well-nigh physical reality. Not the least of Pollini’s skill here was to ensure that we never forgot that they were two characters, or complexes of character, but of one mind and body. ‘Hoffmannesque’ may be all to easy a term for Schumann’s reimagination of E.T.A.’s novel, or perhaps better, Hoffmann’s spirit, for this is no ‘setting’ as such; nevertheless, the proximity and indeed extension of temperament were striking. Soulful, innig slow movements were no mere oases; they were necessitated by, for instance, the furious tonal alternations of the work as a whole or the kinetic energy of the fifth movement. Romantic tonality and its structural implications sounded as if they were being thoroughly explored for the first time; they were not, of course, but the unfolding of the tonal drama brought the shock of the new to music that for some has become too comfortable.

The Chopin Preludes are a Pollini speciality, of course. I have reviewed several performances on here since I began writing. In a sense, I have little to add to what I have written before, especially at this distance. But this performance was every bit the equal, and in no sense a routine reproduction. The ability to hear the work, irrespective of the composer’s ‘intention’, as an entirety, as an exploration of a tonal universe both informed by Bach and yet going beyond him, is in my rare experience rarer than one might expect. Pollini showed how that is no mere conceptual framing, but a living, animating musico-dramatic imperative. The dignity of the ‘smaller’ pieces was just as apparent as the world-conquering larger pieces. (It is all relative, of course.) Everything had its place, yet was never confined to it; this is no bureaucratic mind. Yet, in the exploratory, almost experimental temperament Pollini has always divined in his – and our – beloved Chopin, one sensed, even dared perhaps to understand, the affinity with the post-war avant garde, with those successors to the Romantics, who wished to push musical parameters still further, indeed once again to establish quite how far they might be pushed. Boulez seemed as close as Bach. And yes, the melting beauty of the ‘Raindrop’ Prelude, not remotely sentimental, its sentiment intact and yet reaching outward, had to be heard to be believed. The three encores – the ‘Revolutionary’ Study, the D-flat major Nocturne, op.27 no.2, and a decidedly Lisztian-sounding C-sharp minor Scherzo – deserve essays in themselves, not least in context. Next time…

The Rake's Progress, Royal Academy of Music, 16 March 2015

Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy of Music

Tom Rakewell – Bradley Smith
Anne Trulove – Rhiannon Llewellyn
Nick Shadow – Božidar Smiljanić
Baba the Turk – Claire Barnett-Jones
Sellem – Gwilym Bowen
Trulove – Lancelot Nomura
Mother Goose – Katherine Aitken
Keeper of the Madhouse – Ed Ballard 

John Ramster (director)
Adrian Linford (designs)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)

Royal Academy Opera Chorus
Royal Academy Sinfonia
Jane Glover (conductor)

The apogee of neo-Classicism, an opera surely intended to incite debate upon debate about it and its form, whatever Stravinsky’s typically disingenuous, eye-twinkling denials, The Rake’s Progress is, unless one is Pierre Boulez, very difficult not to admire, almost as difficult not in some sense to disapprove of or at least to suspect, perhaps almost as difficult to love. I think this Royal Academy staging might just have proved me wrong on the final point.

For what struck me about John Ramster’s production and, of course, the performances onstage it inspired, was that they treated this first and foremost as an opera. They  certainly were neither deaf nor blind to the debates – ‘The Rake’s Progress seemed to have been created for journalistic debates concerning: a) the historical validity of the approach; and, b) the question whether I am guilty of imitation and pastiche. If the Rake contains imitations, however – of Mozart, as has been said – I will gladly allow the charge (given the breadth of the Aristotelian word), if I may thereby release people from the argument and bring them to the music.’ (Stravinsky) – but they did not become ensnared by them. Still less did they mistake them for questions of æsthetic quality. Ramster’s production frames the work well, the first scene indicating a mid-twentieth-century filming of an eighteenth-century drama, and there are occasional reminders, not least the appearance in various guises of indications as to how many days Tom Rakewell will have left before his reckoning with Nick Shadow. But for the most part, that framing falls away, and a somewhat yet not excessively stylised set of designs (all handsomely done by Adrian Linford) is not mistaken for human hearts beating beneath the framing and the ‘debates’.

For that, the cast, well prepared by Jane Glover, naturally deserves the lion’s share of the credit. Bradley Smith presented a weak, human, yet impossible-not-to-like Tom: just as he should be. His sappy tenor proved appealing throughout, but moving too, especially towards the end: all very much in character. Rhiannon Llewellyn’s Anne combined grace and beauty to a properly euphonious degree; her first act aria was very fine indeed. Božidar Smiljanić’s Nick stole the show on a number of occasions: protean, dark, and humorous. One could hardly have asked for more. Claire Barnett-Jones revealed a richly expressive voice as well as a finely-judged sense of humour as Baba. As Sellem, Gwilym Bowen offered a very different sense of humour, utterly captivating, never outstaying its welcome, and likewise never at the expense of excellent musical values, line and attention to the words exemplary. Indeed, there was hardly a moment in the entire performance on which one could not readily discern Auden’s libretto. Lancelot Nomura’s deep-voiced Trulove, Katherine Aitken’s haughtily naughty Mother Goose, and Ed Ballard’s Keeper of the Madhouse rounded off, but certainly did not merely round off, an excellent cast.

Choral singing was mightily impressive, as was Ramster’s direction of the chorus. After a slightly, though only slightly, shaky start, in which Glover’s conducting lacked the bite one (not unreasonably) expects, the orchestra passed with flying colours too. Again, a heart was revealed, without any loss to the intellectual, time-travelling revels, in which now more than ever one can understand why Stravinsky would make his next (apparent) about turn. Schoenberg est mort, or rather he may, to a post-war generation, have seemed to be; serialism, however, was already in Stravinsky’s personal way under preparation. Richard Leach's harpsichord playing, not least in that extraordinary graveyard solo, was dazzling.

I am not yet entirely won over by Henze’s typically anti-Boulezian – and not just anti-him – words from an interview in 1967:

Soon the ‘clusters’, the serial recitatives and the ‘happenings’ will have exhausted themselves, and the young composer will look around in vain in this wasteland for something to nourish his hungry soul. I believe, in contrast to Boulez for whom the neo-Classical Stravinsky is 'very weak' (there they go, forty years of musical history, brushed aside in a couple of words!), that in the next few years he will be seen properly for the first time, and understood in all his greatness and significance. The history of music knows plenty of examples where a reorientation has been necessary. This will be the case in the near future too.

In any case, that debate is surely dead and buried; no one thinks about ‘Darmstadt’ like that any more, nr indeed even speaks of ‘Darmstadt’ as such a thing-in-itself; I doubt, moreover, that anyone thinks about Henze and Stravinsky quite in Boulez-of-1960s vein either. For me, neo-Classical Stravinsky’s achievements nevertheless remain very mixed; Orpheus, for instance, I dislike as much as ever, though ‘dislike’ is not to be confused with ‘denigrate’. Perhaps, though, I was edged a little closer to Henze on this occasion. If so, it was by virtue of this fine staging and performance.


Monday 16 March 2015

La bohème, English Touring Opera, 14 March 2015

Images: Richard Hubert Smith

Hackney Empire

Rodolfo – David Butt Philip
Mimì – Ilona Domnich
Marcello – Grant Doyle
Musetta – Sky Ingram
Schaunard – Njabo Madlala
Colline – Matthew Stiff
Benoît – Adam Player
Alcindoro – Andrew Glover
Pa’Guignol – Dominic J. Walsh
Soldier – Gareth Brynmor John

James Conway (director)
Florence de Maré (designs)
Mark Howland (lighting)

Children from St Mary’s and St John’s Church of England Schools, Hackney
Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

I am not sure that I have seen and heard so well-integrated a production of La bohème in the theatre. Yes, it is over-exposed, but one cannot accuse English Touring Opera of conservative repertoire choices in general, and much of the country in any case has far less variety than London is. (For what it is worth, it is quite a relief to see some opera in East London: in this case, at the splendid Hackney Empire.) There is no translation: Puccini in any language other than Italian starts at a grave disadvantage. One might have thought the same about a small orchestra, but no. I was astonished quite how full a sound Michael Rosewell drew from his forces, not least from the strings: doubtless partly a matter of a helpful acoustic, but only partly. Rosewell’s conception began in relatively Classical style, but that that was an interpretative decision rather than a response to necessity became ever clearer following the interval. This was not, of course, the Vienna Philharmonic under Daniele Gatti, but no one would expect it to have been; such a performance would in any case hardly have been conceived for smaller theatres. And if the presence of Wagner were less than one often hears, Wagner – and Puccini – can cope with that.  

David Butt Philip proved himself an ardent, Italianate Rodolfo, so communicative with the text that the surtitles would almost have been superfluous, even for a newcomer to the work. That point regarding delivery of the words held for pretty much the entire cast, which worked very well indeed as an ensemble, as if its members had already been performing together for weeks. Ilona Domnich was a properly engaging Mimì, feminine yet never sentimentalising, her vocal performance increasingly encompassing tragic proportions. Sky Ingram’s characterful Musetta duly stole the second-act show, Grant Doyle’s Marcello giving very much as good as he got in their sparring. Matthew Stiff and Njabulo Madlala offered fine support as the other Bohemians, the nonchalance of their student existence more powerfully conveyed than I can recall. Adam Player and Andrew Glover put in notable turns as Benoît and Alcindoro: neither weak nor merely passable links here. Choral singing and acting, both from adults and children, impresses throughout.

James Conway’s production seems well set up to withstand the ordeals of touring, but is far more than that. It liberates the imagination and yet at the same time informs it. The ludicrous extravaganzas of luxury outsize garrets have no place here. Instead, Florence de Maré’s designs and the interactions of the characters within them have us think about memories – of the work, of the nineteenth century, of our lives, of those we have known – and respond to them. As the designer put it, ‘Bohème is certainly influenced by the quality and style of photography during the late 19th century; there’s a real sense of playfulness and performance amongst those experimenting with a new artistic medium. … We wanted this opera to look and feel like a memory; some areas of the stage have the vivid surrealism of a dream whereas others are hazily devoid of detail.’ Crucially, that comes across without having read the interview (which I only did later). The Paris of Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) comes to life but also to death, Schaunard's demise apparently impending; the perils as well as the 'progress' of art in an age of reproduction inform the trajectory of the drama. As Conway observes, ‘we have not tried … to join the dots between these four brief scenes of shared youth’. The music, to an extent, does that, but the scenic quality, not entirely unlike that of Eugene Onegin, remains an important aspect of the construction. Touches such as the puppet show of ‘Pa’Guignol’ add to the anti-Romantic menace without overwhelming. Stefan Herheim’s brilliant production (available on DVD), easily the greatest I have seen, has one entirely rethink the work; Conway’s ambition is lesser in scope, yet finds itself just as readily fulfilled.

Sunday 15 March 2015

BBC SO/Karabits - Schnelzer, Ravel, and Bartók, 13 March 2015

Barbican Hall

Albert Schnelzer – Tales from Suburbia (world premiere)
Ravel – Suite: Ma mère l’Oye
Bartok – Bluebeard’s Castle

Judit – Michelle DeYoung
Bluebeard – Gábor Bretz

João Henriques (director, narrator)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Kirill Karabits (conductor).

Albert Schnelzer’s Tales of Suburbia, written in 2012 as a co-commission from the BBC and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, here received its first performance. Lasting about a quarter of an hour, it seemed to me akin more to a vaguely, generically ‘atmospheric’ television score – doubtless fine in its place – than a concert work. Written for a large orchestra in a language at least a century out of date, it sounded like a diluted version of early-twentieth-century conservatism. The composer wrote, ‘… this is where I live. Mahler once said that he wanted his symphonies to encompass the whole world. I would settle for just suburbia.’ The seemingly aimless meandering that ensued suggested his commentary had not been intended ironically. My previous encounter with Schnelzer’s work had been a performance, the first in this country, of his Emperor Akbar. If that had left me nonplussed, this left me less than that. Mention, though, should be made of the solos from leader, Natalie Chee; if only she had been playing Szymanowski…

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was played charmingly, if not necessarily with quite the enchantment or precision that the greatest performances bring. Still, there was much to admire in this account from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Kirill Karabits. A stately opening ‘Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant’ seemed perfectly poised – as, of course, the movement is – between the Pavane pour une infante défunte and the later Ravel of Le Tombeau de Couperin. It did not lack a little luxuriance either. I wondered whether ‘Laidoronnette’ was taken too quickly; its treatment verged upon the harrying. However, there remained a sense of the parts contributing to a greater whole, never more so than in the concluding ‘Le Jardin féerique,’ which pretty much lived up to its name.

Bluebeard’s Castle was given a fine performance: unquestionably the highlight of the evening for me. I look forward next month to reporting back from Calixto Bieito’s new staging, in a double-bill with Gianni Schicchi, but here, a spare concert staging, imaginatively conceived by João Henriques, kept the work where it arguably belongs, in the theatre of the imagination. Henriques acted as Narrator too, offering (in English translation) an inviting, probing reading of that crucial Prologue. It seemed to offer choices; yet, at the same time, we knew that Fate would win. We certainly did once Bartók’s score began its work. (If only a good few other operas could say as much as it does, in the time it takes to do so!) Arriving with seven suitcases upon a trolley, one for each door, this pairing of Bluebeard and Judit increasingly suggested both that there were things better left packed up, and that the Forbidden Question – those inevitable shades of Lohengrin – would be asked.

Michelle DeYoung was strong yet imploring, totally assured in her delivery of Bartók’s lines, bringing them, quite rightly, close to a Hungarian Pelléas. She shuddered with the orchestra, if not necessarily at the same time (if that makes any sense!) This Judit was transformed before our very ears, De Young expertly tracing Bartók’s – and Béla Balázs’s – arc from triumph to tragedy. Gábor Bretz sounded more youthful and, indeed, more aristocratic than one often hears, exercising a dark, mysterious allure; one could understand why she had fallen for him. One sensed that there was not only more to him than we knew; there was probably more than Bluebeard himself consciously knew. For this is a sadistic drama of the mind (perfectly suited, one might say, to next month’s pairing with that master-sadist, Puccini).

All the while, the orchestra under Karabits shaped and commented upon the drama – unlike but also unlike Debussy in his sole completed opera. (There are surely few more singular operatic masterpieces than Pelléas and Bluebeard’s Castle.) Maybe this was because Ravel had been heard before the interval, though I think not entirely so; in any case, I felt there were a few occasions upon which colour and ‘atmosphere’ were perhaps exalted at the expense of more ‘Teutonic’ structural concerns. (I am doubtless, however, consciously or otherwise, making odious comparisons, having heard Boulez conduct the work twice. What I should give to have that opportunity just once again!) The opening of that fifth door overwhelmed as it must, the disappointing electronic organ notwithstanding. (Another cause for Sir Simon Rattle to address?) And yet, Karabits seemed to impress upon us that this was not to be, that there was something unreal to what our ears led us to ‘see’. That was an exaltation of colour that was worth hearing.