Friday 31 July 2015

Serse, Longborough Festival Opera, Young Artists Performance, 30 July 2015

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music

Serse – Jake Arditti
Arsamene – Tai Oney
Amastre – Lucinda Stuart-Grant
Ariodate – Jon Stainsby
Romilda – Alice Privett
Atalanta – Abbi Temple
Elviro – Matthew Durkan
Chorus – Chiara Vinci, Laurence Painter

Jenny Miller (director)
Faye Bradley (designs)
Dan Saggars, Andy Bird (lighting)
Rebecca Hanbury (assistant director)
Michael Spenceley (choreography)

Longborough Young Artists Orchestra
Jeremy Silver (conductor)

What an excellent idea for the Longborough Festival to bring its Young Artist Production to London for a performance at the Royal College of Music! Yes, I know, a Londoner would say that, but like it or not, and I am sure we can all agree that centralisation in a not-remotely-central city is a curse upon all manner of activity in this country, London is the centre of English operatic life and metropolitan exposure can only help all concerned. (No one believes more strongly than I that the Royal Opera and ENO should tour, and to hell with the Arts Council’s absurd geographical demarcations! After its behaviour with respect to ENO alone, disbandment would, frankly, be too kind a fate for that organisation, presently headed by a friend of Jeremy ‘Hunt’, Peter Bazalgette, of Big Brother fame.) London performances are perhaps especially important in the case of young singers, all of whom performed creditably, and in most cases, considerably more than that. A taste of Longborough, especially for those of us without cars, is of course more than welcome at this end too. Perhaps we might even hope for more in the future? Would it not be wonderful, if the Proms were to invite the Festival next year, perhaps for Tannhäuser or Jenůfa?

A Handel opera, in any case, made for an eminently sensible choice in the present situation. Focused on singers, with a small (too small?) orchestra, Serse fared well in musical terms, save for the somewhat scrawny playing of the strings. I think they were modern instruments, but it was not easy to tell, testament to the near-total victory of ‘period’ imperialism. Apart from that, Jeremy Silver directed (from the harpsichord) a mostly sensitive performance, tempi appropriate, with little of the absurd rushing (with occasional, equally absurd grinding to a halt) that characterises the Handelian exhibitionism of our allegedly ‘authenticke’ times. For a full, noble orchestral sound, we must return to first-choice Rafael Kubelík in Munich (in German, with a tenor Xerxes, no less than Fritz Wunderlich!) or, in an Italian-language performance, Brian Priestman (with Maureen Forrester) in Vienna.

But as I said, the singing was really the thing. Jake Arditti offered a bravura yet eminently sensitive assumption of the title role: as well acted, with proud petulance and wounded humanity, as it was heroically sung. For those sceptics who (still) doubt the ability of the counter-tenor voice to portray the requisite range of emotions, the performances of Arditti and Tai Oney as Arsamene would surely have proved a useful corrective. Oney’s beautifully-sung performance pulled off without any difficulty the task of sufficient difference in timbre and character, without a hint of the hootiness which, in days gone by, infected far too many such performances. Alice Privett threw herself into the role of Romilda, passing with flying colours: a properly high dramatic performance. If they were my pick of the cast, that is probably as much a reflection of the opportunities their roles offer as anything else. I should certainly not be able to offer you a weak link, nor should I wish to. Longborough’s programme clearly engenders a real sense of company, something that cannot be feigned.

My principal reservation concerned Jenny Miller’s production. It was very pink, which may or may not be one’s taste. I learned afterwards, upon reading the programme, that it had been set in a ‘contemporary setting, more immediately familiar and neutral – a nightclub or hotel bar’. I could then see that it had been, but if I am honest, whether through stupidity or inattention on my part, or a lack of clarity on the director’s, I had not realised at the time. Initially, my thought was that we were amongst Mafiosi, but then it all turned surprisingly camp – and not a little silly. Anyway, we were supposed to have asked whether it was ‘Xerxes’s bar … [whether] he owns a string of them, planning global expansion,’ and so on. By ‘shedding many of the specifically period references, we can concentrate on the comedy of the lessons in love being handed out’. Perhaps; I certainly hold no brief for confining a work to its period, although some of the satire here might have worked better, had we experienced more of a dialogue between ‘period’ and ‘contemporary’. (Or perhaps I am too content with Nicholas Hytner’s seemingly evergreen ENO production, which can be caught on DVD with Charles Mackerras and Ann Murray.) I think Miller is probably right to say, with respect to the work itself, that ‘satire about the exercise of unlimited power … is not the main theme of the power’. However, I cannot help but wonder whether a more absorbing theatrical experience might be the outcome of a production that treated it as if it were. The cast did its best to make us care about the characters, but there is a limit to what can be done in that respect within the confines of a Handel opera seria. Besides, if the ‘period references’ can be rejected, cannot a too rigid conception of ‘intention’? Much of the audience seemed, however, greatly to enjoy the sometimes outlandish costumes and antics of the entertainment, and what I say immediately above should be considered as musing rather than prescription. I look forward to Longborough’s next visit to the capital.


Prom 15 - Complete Prokofiev Piano Concertos, Trifonov/Babayan/Volodin/LSO/Gergiev, 28 July 2015

Royal Albert Hall

Piano Concertos nos 1-5

Daniil Trifonov, Sergei Babayan, Alexei Volodin (pianos)
London Symphony Orchestra
Valery Gergiev (conductor)

Yes, in case you had not heard about this much-hyped extravaganza, this concert offered all five of Prokofiev’s piano concertos. Much nonsense was spoken beforehand concerning the length of the concert. Excluding the two intervals – just the one would surely have been preferable – it barely lasted longer than the first act of Parsifal. However, as Richard Bratby remarked to me, overlap between concert attendance and opera attendance is less than one might expect. That is perhaps especially the case in this country, and is to the detriment of both camps. Germany, as ever, shows a far healthier cultural life; for one thing, many of its greatest orchestras play as a matter of course in both opera houses and concert halls. Although one could hardly award this programme marks for imagination – one might, I suppose, as Devil’s Advocate, on the basis that it can rarely, if ever, have been attempted before – I was certainly willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. After all, one can often learn a great deal by hearing a composer’s development, even if the ‘CD bargain box treatment’ – fine for a CD bargain box – is hardly something to be welcomed in principle for concert life.
Daniil Trifonov playing the First Piano Concerto
Images: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The playing of the LSO was generally excellent, although I cannot believe it was the most eagerly awaited of the season’s engagements by the orchestra itself. Valery Gergiev is, to put it mildly, a controversial figure, both politically and musically, but he has generally been in his element in Prokofiev’s music, and so he was here too, even if there were a few cases of carelessness, which greater rehearsal or, perhaps, care on his part during rehearsal might have averted. And so, the First Piano Concerto opened and, indeed, continued with just the ‘right’ orchestral sound. That is not to say that there is only one, but the trick is to make one think, or at least feel, that there is. It was certainly a forthright opening, preparing to ‘do business’, as it were. (I shall try to avoid an undue number of comments on the conductor’s friendship with Vladimir Putin, but the reader should feel free to draw whatever conclusions he or she wishes.) Daniil Trifonov, for me by some way the most interesting of the evening’s three pianists – to be fair, he had the two greatest of the concertos at his disposal – presented perhaps the most motoric performance I have heard, at least to start with. That that was an interpretative strategy became clear when, later on, especially during the slower sections, he pulled around the score to great, fantastical effect, perhaps hinting at, whilst also keeping its distance from, Scriabin. Whatever he did convinced, and that was the crucial thing, and the degrees of dynamic variegation never ceased to amaze. The work’s Lisztian inheritance was clear, both virtuosically and structurally. So, perhaps more surprisingly, were the roots of much of Prokofiev’s later style – and by ‘later’, I mean some time after his final piano concerto, at least as far as Cinderella and its evocation of moonlight. There was some beautifully hushed orchestral playing, not least from the warm cushion of LSO strings, and the truly outstanding wind soloists made every line their own. (This was, I believe, the first engagement of the new principal oboist, Olivier Stankiewicz.) If Scriabin sometimes came to mind, so did Rachmaninov, especially in certain elements of the piano figuration. And yes, that was partly, I am sure, a matter of a very, if not exclusively, ‘Russian’ brand of piano virtuosity.
Sergei Babayan in the Second

The Second Piano Concerto is heard less often: partly, I suspect, on account of its extreme technical difficulties, but also surely testament to its unusual structure. Here, I did not find that remotely a problem. If it receives a good performance, which it did, then such a problem, if indeed problem it be, seems suspended during playing. Sergei Babayan and the orchestra again offered sound that seemed ‘right’, without that necessarily precluding alternatives. Acerbic Romanticism, almost a very Russian Brahms sound, emerged at times, more so at the keyboard. The music is more discursive, of course, and the performance seemed content, in my view quite rightly, not to curb that tendency unduly. I very much liked the Babousha-like playing in the first movement, akin to half-speed Sarcasms, heading toward the grotesquerie of The Love for Three Oranges. A keen rhythmic sense was crucially maintained throughout. After the huge cadenza, the LSO brass entry still managed to sound awe-inspiring, before the music subsided into nothingness. The second movement proved a surprisingly light-footed moto perpetuo: Mendelssohn for the age of the internal combustion engine. Its successor then seemed to hark back to the age of Mussorgsky’s ‘Bydlo’, brass and drums infallibly setting the scene for some more flat-footed (knowingly so) piano grotesquerie. Dances emerged from one another, slightly deformed. Contrast was thus to be discerned in the more balletic material of the fourth movement: on speed, as well as at speed? Also, alas, in one of the more extended of the evening’s passages for mobile telephone. The ‘side-stepping’ quality of Prokofiev’s melodies was clearly relished but, commendably, not exaggerated. Formal oddities, then, were neither camouflaged nor played up. This was, perhaps, surrealism avant la lettre, or avant L’Ange du feu.

The Third Piano Concerto, surely everyone’s candidate for the greatest, is the most Classically proportioned: three movements of more or less equal length. However, in this performance, it sounded considerably less Classical in spirit than it often does (for instance, in my favourite set of the concertos, from Michel Béroff, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and Kurt Masur). It was none the worse for that; Trifonov and Gergiev for the most part convinced on their own, often imaginative terms. The opening of the first movement was sinuous, with perhaps the most athletic piano entry I have heard here. It was probably the fastest tempo I have heard for the movement too, although that proved highly flexible; Classical, I should reiterate, this was not. The weight of chords where necessary offered a masterclass in modern piano touch. Again,in spirit we seemed close to the fantastical world of The Love for Three Oranges. The slow movement offered similar virtues, albeit with different (for the most part) character. Its lithe passages were lithe indeed (and threatening); its ruminative passages were ruminative indeed (and enchanting); and so on. Trifonov’s leaning into syncopations truly made them tell musically; they were no mere ‘effect’. The finale, however, I found a little puzzling, curiously deliberate. Again, the fantastical elements came off very well, as did the LSO’s moonlit Romanticism. I was left feeling that a little more coherence and depth might have been achieved. As piano playing, however, and as rather more than that, there was a great deal to admire.

Alexei Volodin joins the orchestra for the Fourth Piano Concerto


The left-hand Fourth Piano Concerto, surprisingly receiving its first Proms performance, proved, for me at least, something of a trial. I think that was more a matter of the ‘programming’ than the performance, although the LSO sometimes seemed a little tired by now. With the best will in the world, it is hardly the equal of what had gone before. Alexei Volodin’s despatch of the piano part, especially in the first movement, offered intriguing parallels with the motorism Trifonov had brought to the First Concerto. Voicing within his single hand – or rather, the single hand he was using – was impressive. Soon, however, and certainly by the second movement, it was difficult to avoid the impression that what we heard was mostly to be understood at surface level, and I think that is a reflection of the piece itself. It really is not clear here, or at least was not on this occasion, how ideas follow on, or indeed how movements follow on, the third movement seemingly appearing from nowhere. I know this is not Ravel, and is not trying to be, but even so… The blandness of the gestures and material here and in the finale’s reheating of the first movement did nothing to dispel notions of fatigue all around.

The Fifth also received its first outing at the Proms. I was unable on this occasion to renounce my long-held view that it and its predecessor are considerably weaker works than their predecessors. I suspect, though, that they could make more of an impact if more sensitively – it would hardly be difficult – programmed. Again, it was the first movement that emerged strongest, feeling somewhat haunted by Stravinsky, without ever sounding ‘like’ him. Neo-Classical tendencies threatened to invade without ever quite succeeding in doing so. There was no doubting Babayan’s technical command, although again, how the music fits together remained an open question (not, I think, his fault). The tick-tocking of the orchestra in the second movement was accomplished very well by the LSO; I find little else to say about the material. The following Toccata was certainly Allegro but, at least at its opening, might have been a little more con fuoco. That came soon enough, though, and I was won round by Babayan’s initial more-is-less strategy as the more modernistic Prokofiev briefly asserted himself. The different moods of the fourth movement were well characterised; there was more than a hint of the Soviet future to be heard. Again, quite how this all coheres remains questionable. The finale did little to dispel notions of re-heating, despite occasional hints of originality, such as the duet for two bassoons. And then, suddenly, it stopped; not, I am afraid to say, in the spirit of Wozzeck. Goodness knows what Furtwängler, who conducted the first performance, must have thought.

Soloists and conductor take a bow

Sunday 26 July 2015

Proms Satuday Matinée 1 - BCMG/Ollu - Boulez, Usui, Jolas, and Lee, 25 July 2015

Cadogan Hall

Boulez, arr. Johannes Schöllhorn – Notations II, XI, X (1945, arr. 2011, United Kingdom premiere)
Schöllhorn – La Treizième (2011, United Kingdom premiere)
Shiori Usui – Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. (2015, world premiere)
Betsy Jolas – Wanderlied (2003, United Kingdom premiere)
Joanna Lee – Hammer of Solitude (2015, BBC commission, world premiere)
Boulez – Dérive 2 (1988-2006, rev.2009)

Ulrich Heinen (cello)
Hilary Summers (contralto)
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Franck Ollu (conductor)

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around – although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.) Yet I cannot help but wish that someone had shown the imagination and necessary determination to programme Boulez’s electronic masterpiece, Répons: for once, surely a work that might have been revealed to good advantage in the Royal Albert Hall. For that, one alas – as so often – has not only to go elsewhere, but abroad: be it to Paris, Amsterdam, Salzburg… (I have opted for Salzburg next month, and look forward to the Ensemble Intercontemporain under Matthias Pintscher revealing the work in the flesh to me for the first time.)

Anyway, missed opportunities aside – by the way, how about some Stockhausen? I’ve never heard a better-suited ‘RAH work’ than Cosmic Pulses – we heard a well-, often very well-performed Proms Matinée at Cadogan Hall, with no shortage of music that was either new to the country or new to the world. First up were three of Johannes Schöllhorn’s arrangements for ensemble of Notations (the piano originals, not Boulez’s extraordinary orchestral expansions). The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group under Franck Ollu sounded slightly unfocused to start with, but Notation X had a very keen rhythmic sense. La Treizième was a nice surprise: one bar from each of the twelve added together, to form another, intriguingly unified twelve-bar piece. It actually put me a little in mind of the revisiting of earlier waltzes in Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales, though perhaps I am just being a little sentimental there. I liked Schöllhorn’s sous-bois very much when I heard it at the Wigmore Hall last year; we need to hear more of him in this country. A Proms performance of a larger-scale work would be greatly appreciated another season.

Shiori Usui’s Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. will surely face little competition for the foreseeable future in the world of nomenclature. We learned from a brief conversation between the composer and Tom Service that the piece is named after an infectious fungus which works its negative magic upon ants. (Whilst I remember, the printed programmes for the Saturday Matinées are, quite simply, a disgrace: not a single word on either the works or the non-Boulez composers. Can something equivalent to the evening concerts, or at least something better than that not be managed?) In five very short movements – ‘Camponotus leonarci’, ‘Spores’, ‘Pathology’, ‘The Grip’, and ‘Hyphae’ – we heard a considerable array of ensemble colour, very different in each case. There was perhaps a sense of Boulezian éclat, albeit more overtly, or at least conventionally, thematic, and also sometimes more tonal in language. It was elevating to see one newspaper critic rise from his seat and leave after that performance; it will be interesting to see whether his review covers the rest of the concert.

Betsy Jolas is but a year younger than Boulez. We seem to hear her music very little in this country; the United Kingdom premiere of Wanderlied was therefore especially welcome. Wanderlied was inspired by the idea of an old woman (the cello) travelling from town to town as storyteller, the tile borrowed from a 1943 poem by Jolas’s father. Crowds gather around the woman and comment, but two people in the crowd do not like her, yet continue to follow. What emerged was a long-breathed, humorous piece, assure both of craft and emotional expression, timbre not surprisingly an important connecting force between the two, insofar – a big ‘insofar’ – as they may be separated. I thought of it as, in a way, a song without words, or perhaps better a cantata without words. Jolas looked, by the way, almost incredibly sprightly on stage, so we have every reason to hear a good deal more from her, programming permitting.

I wish I could be so enthusiastic, or indeed at all enthusiastic, about Joanna Lee’s Hammer of Solitude. The idea fits, clearly a reference to Le Marteau sans maître – and the participation of Hilary Summers fitted too. Summers proved her usual self, that most individual of voices as communicative with words and notes as one could ask for. Alas, the three movements – ‘The hammer alone in the house’, ‘A presentiment’, and ‘A suicide’ – seem strangely childish, which is not to say childlike, in construction and expression. Word-painting is obsessive, yet basic, almost as if following a guide in a compositional exercise. The (very) sub-Berberian noises at the opening hint at a greater ambition, which yet remains unrealised. The final line: ‘Release complete, relief’. Quite.

Finally, Dérive 2. It is the Boulez work I still find the most difficult to come to grips with; I cannot claim to ‘understand’ it and indeed find it almost disconcertingly ‘pleasant’ in its progress. Boulez’s constructivism, albeit a flowing constructivism, came across clearly and, crucially, with structural as well as expressive meaning. The ghost of Messiaen seemed intriguingly to hover, or rather to fly, at times, not least in some of those gloriously splashy piano chords. The ‘lead’ taken by different instruments at different times was, perhaps, more than usually apparent, suggesting almost an updated sinfonia concertante, whereas, for instance, Daniel Barenboim’s performances (see here and here; number three will come in Salzburg next month) have emerged, at least to my ears, as more orchestrally conceived. As is the way with even half-decent performances of such music, I noticed things I had never heard before. Something that especially struck me on this occasion was the timbral similarity – surely testament to Boulez’s work as conductor – to a passage in The Rite of Spring. I shall have to look at the scores to find where and when, or perhaps I shall never re-discover what my ears were telling me on that occasion. Such is a good part of the mystery and the magic of live performance.

Happy St Anne's Day!

Annuciation to Anne.jpg
"Annuciation to Anne" by © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / . Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday 24 July 2015

Prom 9 - MCO/Andsnes - Beethoven and Stravinsky, 23 July 2015

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.1 in C major, op.15
Stravinsky – Apollo
Beethoven – Piano Concerto no.4 in G major, op.58

Leif Ove Andsnes (piano, director)
Mahler Chamber Orchestra 

Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou


With this concert, Leif Ove Andsnes and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra opened a three-concert survey of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos (plus the Choral Fantasy) and works by Stravinsky. The First Piano Concerto opened in highly promising fashion, the tutti offering variegated sound and an already-clear sense of goal-orientation. Andsnes’s tempo was probably fast ‘objectively’ but sounded ‘right’. This was a smallish orchestra, but there was no smallness of ambition. The turn to the minor mode gave a transformation of character, not just of tonality. I could have done without rasping ‘natural’ trumpets and hard kettledrum sticks, although what seems to be an increasingly popular post-modernist melange of instruments could by the same token have been worse. Upon the pianist’s entry, we heard clear kinship with the early piano sonatas. Transitional passages brought commendable flexibility; indeed, throughout, it was the liminal passages, rightly, which most intrigued, harmonies both telling and questioning. Bubbly woodwind solos were, quite simply, a joy.

In the Largo, I missed a larger body of strings; the sublimity of a Beethoven slow movement seems to demand greater cushioning. Woodwind and piano, however, sounded as gorgeous as ever. Line was securely, meaningfully maintained throughout, in  movement we heard as if in one breath. For better and for worse, mostly but not entirely for better, this was definitely a post-Abbado performance of Beethoven. Now if only one could somehow combine the virtues of this with the best of Daniel Barenboim… The finale truly sounded as a finale, its post-Mozartian inheritance explored to great advantage. Yes, it was fast, but it breathed. Episodes, moreover, seemed to breathe yet more life into the movement, just as they should.

Stravinsky at his ‘whitest’ followed. I cannot quite follow the logic of the particular Beethoven and Stravinsky pairings, but no matter. Led from the violin by Matthew Truscott (his ever-stylish solos truly excellent), the MCO adopted an unusual seating-and-standing arrangement: cellos seated in a semi-circle, other strings standing around them. Apollo is not my least favourite Stravinsky work; I do not actively dislike it, as I do Orpheus. Yet, the work’s manifest virtues notwithstanding, I cannot dissent from Boulez’s observation about the neo-Classical Stravinsky (at least at his most extreme) having fallen into the intellectual quicksands of others. At any rate, this was a fine performance, with, at times, more than a hint of similarly ‘white’ balletic Prokofiev. (Now there is a ‘difficult’ relationship between composers.) There was a keen sense of narrative from the Prologue onwards, the return to the initial tempo in the ‘Birth of Apollo’ bringing transformation to the opening material in the light of what had passed in the Allegro section.

The Muses joined Apollo’s violin as if truly compelled. This was not a cold performance, far from it, but Stravinsky’s polemical froideur remaind, as did the ‘unreality’ of the almost bizarrely – and surely deliberately so – tonal music: Boulezian quicksand maybe, but interesting quicksand. The Muses’ variations were well characterised without excess. Polyrhymnia sounded vividly balletic; Terpsichore seemed almost to ‘split the difference’ between her two sisters. Apollo’s Variation benefited from splendidly rich string sound – more of that in Beethoven too, please! – with the god’s emphatic alterity there for all to hear. It was in the Apotheosis that we heard the strongest real echoes of the (French) Baroque, although difference was nevertheless maintained. I may ultimately find the Webernised Rameau of Agon (or is it vice versa?) more to my taste, but this still made its point. Beautifully sensitive playing proved just as variegated as had been the case in Beethoven.

It was to Beethoven we now returned, with perhaps the very greatest, and certainly the most lovable, of all his piano concertos: the Fourth. Andsnes’s opening phrase seemed to offer a piano ‘without hammers’. The orchestral response was subtle, full of life. I do not think this was a larger string section – I did not count the players – but it sounded fuller of tone. There was certainly a strong sense, again unexaggerated, of the Beethovenian sublime, and the MCO’s woodwind section proved as remarkable as ever. The piano’s second entry reminded us that this was, in every sense, a concerto, not a symphony. It may have been in many respects an intimate performance, but it did not feel scaled down. As for Andsnes’s trills, his passagework: they were truly to die for! The exultant moment of return was again subtle but no less powerful for that.

The strings in the Andante con moto seemed very much to have taken to heart the oft-repeated comparison to the Furies. But need they have been so brusque? Gluck’s Furies are not, or at least should not be. There was, however, an undoubtedly heightened contrast with the piano’s melting tone as Orpheus. Again, those trills! The finale seemed especially alert to its subdominant provenance and to the continuing tension between tonal centres. Others will again doubtless have been keener on the trumpets and hard sticks than I was. Rhythms were spruce. Above all, harmonic motion was understood and communicated, syncopations working their magic in tandem. And yes, once again, those trills! A couple of Bagatelles as encores (op.119 no.8 and op.33 no.7) had us longing for more.


Wednesday 22 July 2015

Levit - Cardew and Rzewski, 20 July 2015

Wigmore Hall

Cardew – Thälmann Variations
Rzewski – Dreams: Part Two
Rzewski – The People United will Never be Defeated!

Igor Levit (piano)
Cornelius Cardew: now perhaps most celebrated, notorious even, for the Scratch Orchestra, his polemical Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, and the still unexplained circumstances of his death at the hands of a hit-and-run driver. We do not have so many opportunities to hear his music. The previous occasion I had, I am afraid I emerged nonplussed. Much depends, I suspect, upon which music. Whilst I struggle to find Cardew’s Thälmann Variations a masterpiece – and was that what he was trying to accomplish in any case – I found it a far more interesting work than the pieces I had heard in 2011. The Variations were written in 1974 to remember Ernst Thälmann, the Communist leader imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis and incorporate Hanns Eisler’s Heimliche Aufmarsch and the protest song set by Charles Koechlin, Libérons Thaelmann!  

What of the music, in a performance from Igor Levit that left none who heard it that the work was receiving as convincing advocacy as it could ever hope for? The theme is odd, sounding more like Auld Lang Syne as it progresses, yet starting with a slightly unfortunate post hoc hint of the Dynasty theme tune. (Confessions of a strangly misspent youth!) Levit played it as beautifully as he would have done Liszt, and indeed the harmonies sound a little like a strange mix of earlyish, straightforward Liszt and early-twentieth-century English music. Moreover, the first variation calls for a technique not so far removed from the Lisztian, which Levit possesses in spades, before Auld Lang Syne comes closer in its successor. The seriousness with which Levit approached and accomplished his task was admirable. Connections with other music, whether through the score itself or the beauty and warmth of his touch, manifested themselves throughout: Debussyan open fifths and Liszt again in the slow section, which might almost have been the core of a nineteenth-century sonata. (How I should love to hear Levit in the B minor Sonata, or the Dante!) If it were there that I thought, reactionary bourgeois, empire-serving modernist that I am, that the Variations veered dangerously close to sentimentality, that was certainly not true of the performance. I cannot say that I found the closing march ‘a complex “march of events”,’ (Cardew) but that doubtless depends on what one understands by ‘complex’; it was certainly not without incident. This emerged as the most interesting Cardew piece and performance I have heard.

Frederic Rzewski’s 2014 second part of Dreams, after Akiro Kurosawa’s film, received its British premiere, Levit having given the first performance three months earlier in Heidelberg. It is a co-commission by Heidelberger Frühling, Carnegie Hall, and the Wigmore Hall, with the support of André Hoffmann. The first movement, ‘Bells’, I am afraid I found over-extended, but again, I am as sure as I can be that that was not to be attributed to Levit’s performance. Performance, perhaps more than the music ‘itself’, brought Debussy again to mind; this was tintinnabulation more compelling, at least, than the ‘holy minimalist’ – may God preserve our souls! – variety. There were intriguing Schoenbergian harmonies to be heard too, and, if I am not being unduly fanciful, also renewed Lisztian associations, suggesting that a performer’s touch (almost) alone can create such resonances. (I am reminded of Sir Donald Tovey’s remark that Liszt’s piano music told us that here was a pianist who could not help but draw a beautiful sound from the instrument.) ‘Fireflies’ (no.6 out of 8) is, as one might expect, vividly pictorial, Levit superseding what sounded like formidable technical challenges. ‘Ruins’, for me the most interesting of the four movements heard, announces a theme as if for variations of some sort – thoughtful programming, as one might expect – but which is immediately developed contrapuntally. As Paul Griffiths noted in the programme, this ‘could be the bass for a chaconne, but one broken or unfinished’. It guides progress, at times almost Bach-like, then seems, if this makes any sense, to desist from doing so for a while. The performer’s task in such music is often to import at least some sense of continuity to (apparent or otherwise) discontinuity; Levit certainly did. Just as he navigated tremolando touch, voicing, harmonic motion, and so on, surely knowingly pointing up likenesses to Liszt’s Bach – and not just BACH – variations. The movement even occasionally sounded neo-Lisztian in form at some times. Apart, that is, from an intervention by mobile telephone. The fourth movement, ‘Wake Up’, states simple early material, apparently from a melody by the singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie, and then progresses toccata-like. An initial comparison I made mentally to the finale of Prokofiev’s Seventh Piano Sonata failed, when a less single-minded – or, to put it another way, more varied – trajectory emerged. Perhaps this is the broken landscape of post-modernity. Was that a BACH reference I heard, or perhaps a little later, a DSCH one? I am really not sure; my ears might have been playing tricks. Perhaps that is part of the point.

After a highly impressive first half, Levit truly surpassed himself in an all-encompassing performance of Rzewski’s classic The People will Never be Defeated, which takes, as many readers will know, its theme from Sergio Ortega’s  ¡El pueblo unido, jamás será vencido!, initially intended as an anthem for Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity coalition, gaining further revolutionary currency as a symbol of resistance both within Chile and without, following the overthrow and murder of Allende. That theme here sounded forthright, catchy, even slinky: just the inspiring thing. The Webern-like treatment of the first variation had us believing in every note (just as a great performance of Webern will, despite his rather more sparing manner!), whilst its successor seemed somehow to fill in some of the gaps left by such pointillism. It was the extraordinary, human variety of treatments, both in work and performance, that most of all struck – just as it surely should. This stands, one might say and despite the difference in form and genre, closer to Mahler’s conception of the symphony than to Sibelius’s. And so, in the third variation, ‘Slightly slower, with expressive nuances,’ an experience not so far removed from shellshock in the face of repression could be felt.

Voicing, again, was cared for as if Levit were playing Chopin – and it was interesting to hear how much the music could be made to sound like Chopin’s, or indeed Rachmaninov’s. (At one stage, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini came to my mind.) ‘Care’ should not here be taken to imply something pedantic; rather, it was exercised within a dynamic, goal-oriented framework of impetus and integration, bringing us closer than we might expect to the work’s original companion piece, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Repeated notes – the twenty-third variation, I think – sounded worthy of Gaspard de la nuit. As for the ‘big twenty-eight variation … an essay in boogie-woogie minimalism’ (Griffiths), well quite: it still seemed to me as banal as the real, minimalistic thing. But the revolution is supposed to be for everyone, I reminded myself, slightly grudgingly. The improvisation following the final variation started with a welcome hint of extended Webern and went on its own path compellingly – though my memory does not permit me to retrace it now. (Is that not perhaps part of the point of an improvisation anyway?) And yes, at the end, the tune did emerge having ‘manifested a resilience it was designed to express and encourage’ (Griffiths), intriguingly not unlike the return of the ‘Aria’ in the Goldberg Variations (a work I hear Levit is due soon to record). This was virtuosity in the very best sense, indeed the Lisztian sense: at a musical and technical level that would defeat any ‘mere’ virtuoso.

Meanwhile, well: look at the neo-liberal world in which we live, the neo-liberal progeny of Pinochet’s chums - step forward, Milton Friedman! - apparently triumphant, a Labour Party under Harriet Harman supporting Conservative attacks upon the poor which even the Liberal Democrats opposed. That was not the least of the reasons why I found this performance so moving; it gave a glimmer of hope, experientially, that the heirs of Allende rather than those of Pinochet might yet reunite, might yet even win.


Monday 20 July 2015

Schoenberg, Freud, and Psychoanalysis: Lecture at the Freud Museum

Self-portrait, signed and dated May 1918, courtesy of the Arnold Schoenberg Center

Last month, I gave a lecture at the Freud Museum on 'Schoenberg, Freud, and Psychoanalysis'. It is now available to be downloaded (for free) as a podcast here or listened to online here. (In the case of the latter 'here': on the right hand of the page, no.4.) There are  three other lectures available from the museum's day of events on Music and Psychoanalysis: on Don Giovanni, Thomas Mann, and Tippett.

And here are two recordings of the first work I discuss, Erwartung. I find the second preferably recorded and, in many respects, performed. However the, first not only has Jessye Norman but subtitles too.

Prom 4 - CBSO/Nelsons: Beethoven and Woolrich, 19 July 2015

Royal Albert Hall

Beethoven –The Creatures of Prometheus, op.43: Overture
Woolrich – Falling Down (London premiere)
Beethoven – Symphony no.9 in D minor, op.125

Margaret Cookhorn (contrabassoon)

Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano)
Pavel Černoch (tenor)
Kostas Smoriginas (bass-baritone)

CBSO Chorus (chorus master: Simon Halsey)
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Andris Nelsons (conductor)

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert. I could really find nothing about which to cavil at the orchestral performance. Andris Nelsons’s conducting, however, remained distinctly mixed in quality. He eschewed fashionable ideas concerning tempo and offered a refreshingly slow introduction. The main body of the Overture started intriguingly post-Mozartian fashion, seeming – surprisingly – to hint at The Marriage of Figaro. However, Rossini soon, bizarrely, seemed to supplant Mozart, and we found ourselves in the world of Toscanini. The Beethovenian weight of Klemperer was nowhere to be heard. If ‘Italianate’ Beethoven were your thing, you would probably have liked it more than I did.

John Woolrich’s Falling Down, ‘a capricho for double bassoon and orchestra’, followed. The solo part was taken by Margaret Cookhorn, the dedicatee of this piece, first performed by the same forces in 2009 as a CBSO commission. They all seemed to play it very well indeed; I wish I could have thought more of the work itself. A colourful, spiky, somewhat Stravinskian opening augured well, its material reappearing throughout the quarter of an hour or so. Some harmonies put me in mind a little of Prokofiev, and there was indeed, something of a balletic quality. Antiphonally placed timpani had an important role, well taken. But once one is past the interesting ‘experience’ of a concertante piece for contrabassoon, Falling Down seems, at best, over-extended. There is only so much it can do as a solo instrument but, more to the point, what soloist and orchestra do soon seems repetitive. I have responded much more readily to the composer’s Monteverdi reworkings.

The performance of the Ninth Symphony grew in stature, but I am afraid this was not – for me, although the audience in general seemed wildly enthusiastic – that elusive, compelling modern performance we all crave. Daniel Barenboim’s Proms performance in 2012 was nowhere challenged – not least since there was no doubt whatsoever in Barenboim’s performance that the work meant something, and something of crucial, undying importance at that. There was good news in the first movement. First, it was not taken absurdly fast; nor was it metronomic in its progress. And yet, despite the undoubted excellence of the CBSO’s playing, I found myself at a loss as to what the music in performance might actually mean. Too often, extreme dynamic contrasts – somewhat smoothed over by the notorious Albert Hall acoustic – seemed just that; why was a phrase played quite so softly? There was wonderful clarity, enabling woodwind lines not just to be heard, but to sing. What, however, were they singing about? There was real menace, though, in the coda, even if it seemed somewhat to have come from nowhere. Applause: really?!

The Scherzo was taken fast, very fast: nothing wrong with that. My chief reservation remained, however, and ultimately this was a smoothly ‘reliable’ performance rather than a revelation. Where were the anger, the vehemence, the human obstreperousness of Beethoven? Applause proves still less welcome here. The slow movement was taken at a convincing tempo, its hushed nobility, with especial thanks to euphonious woodwind, greatly welcome. I was less convinced that the metaphysical dots were joined up, or even, sometimes, noticed. Whatever my doubts, though, there was no denying the beauty of the playing (an intervention from an audience glass towards the close notwithstanding).

Nelsons forestalled applause, thank goodness, by moving immediately to the finale. He and the orchestra fairly sprung into and through its opening: very impressive on its own terms, although it would surely have hit home harder, had it been properly prepared by what had gone before. The cellos really dug into their strings too. Nelsons had them and the double basses paly deliciously softly for their recitative; now, a true sense of drama announced itself, expectant rather than merely soft. Bass-baritone Kostas Smoriginas delivered his ‘proper’ recitative, ‘O Freunde …’, with almost Sarastro-like sincerity and deliberation. I liked the way the rejection of such ‘Töne’ was no easy decision. The soloists as a whole did a good job; that there remains a multiplicity of options, and dare, I suggest, a residual insufficiency to any one quartet, says more about Beethoven’s strenuousness of vision and humility before his God than performance as such. The CBSO Chorus, singing from memory, was quite simply outstanding. Weight and clarity reinforced each other rather than proving, as so often, contradictory imperatives. Nelsons imparted an unusual sense of narrative propulsion, almost as if this were an opera, or at least an oratorio: I am not sure what I think of such a conception, but it was interesting to hear it, and there was no doubting now the conviction with which it was instantiated. The almost superhuman clarity of the chorus’s words – ‘Und der Cherub steht vor Gott!’ a fitting climax to that first section – certainly helped. It was fun, moreover, to be reminded of the contrabassoon immediately afterwards. (Was that the tenuous connection with the Woolrich piece?) The infectious quality to the ‘Turkish March’ brought with it welcome reminiscences of Die Entführung aus dem Serail. And the return to ‘Freude, schöner Götterfunken’ proved exultant in that deeply moving way that is Beethoven’s own. (If only the abuse of this work by the European Union had not had me think of the poor Greeks at this point – but, on second thoughts, that was probably a good thing too.) If only Nelsons could have started again, and reworked the meaning he seemed to find here into the earlier movements, especially the first two, we might have had a great performance. As it stood, there remained a good deal later on to have us think.

Saturday 11 July 2015

Munich Opera Festival (4) - Tristan und Isolde, Bavarian State Opera, 8 July 2015


Tristan – Robert Dean Smith
King Marke – René Pape
Isolde – Waltraud Meier
Kurwenal – Alan Held
Melot – Francesco Petrozzi
Brangäne – Michelle Breedt
Shepherd – Kevin Conners
Steersman – Christian Rieger
Young Sailor – Dean Power

Peter Konwitschny (director)
Johannes Leiacker (designs)
Michael Bauer (lighting)
Werner Hintze (dramaturgy)

Bavarian State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Philippe Jordan (conductor)


What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem – though do they only seem? – to recognise, of that celebrated ‘und’. Yes, Tristan is just a shortened title, so we should not necessarily read anything into the disappearance of Isolde, but, whilst we clearly value both lovers and both singers portraying those lovers more or less equally – great Tristans perhaps more so, given their ridiculous rarity – it struck me as perhaps particularly perverse to have been referring to my seeing Tristan at the Munich Opera Festival, when, like so many in the theatre, I had been going especially to hear and, yes, to see Waltraud Meier. For these two performances in Munich, of which the one I heard was the first, have been announced as her farewell to the role. ‘Waltrauds Abschied’, then, I sentimentally called my visit, in dubious Mahlerian homage to a last performance that was actually to be a penultimate performance. I could, after all, hardly say I was off to hear Isolde – or maybe I could, even should, have done.


Of course, when I asked, ‘what do we call Tristan und Isolde’, I was not necessarily just referring to the title. There is no need to frown upon those calling it an opera; I am sure we have all done so at some point, or ought to have done so. But, as with all of Wagner’s dramas, it distances itself from the norms of opera and, perhaps still more so, the opera house. I am perhaps over fond of deploying this quotation from Boulez, but it so often seems to hit the nail upon the head. Whilst at work on the Ring at Bayreuth, Wagner’s great conductor-composer successor observed: ‘Opera houses are often rather like cafés where, if you sit near enough to the counter, you can hear waiters calling out their orders: “One Carmen! And one Walküre! And one Rigoletto!’ What was needed, Boulez noted approvingly, ‘was an entirely new musical and theatrical structure, and it was this that he [Wagner] gradually created’. It might then, not be entirely wrong to suggest that Wagner’s works deserve shielding form the opera house, at least as it currently exists. (Let us leave Bayreuth and its never-ending travails to one side for the moment.) However, by the same token, Wagner’s Handlung –his own term, ‘action’, a Teuton’s rendering of ‘drama’, admirably supersedes debates concerning nomenclature – is surely at home in Munich, if anywhere at all. For ‘Waltrauds Abschied’, then, and what I calculated must be at least my twentieth ‘live’ Tristan – sorry, I cannot yet bring myself to call it Isolde – there was something fitting to experiencing it for the first time in the house in which it had received its premiere, 150 years previously (10 June 1865).


Moving on a little from what we call Tristan und Isolde, what do we think it is ‘about’? Wagner was pretty clear, and I have tended to take him at his word, or at least some of his words. In 1859, summarising the work’s concerns for Mathilde Wesendonck, he omitted not only King Marke’s forgiveness, but also Tristan’s agonies at Kareol. True action, Handlung, had been irreversibly transferred to the noumenal world: ‘redemption: death, dying, destruction, never more to waken!’ But as Peter Konwitschny, in a brilliant programme note, argues, quoting Heiner Müller, himself director of a renowned Tristan, ‘Ein Werk ist immer klüger als sein Autor.’ (‘A work is always cleverer than its author.’) Such, one might have thought, was a truism, and for many of us it is, although not for those strange people who seem to think it not only no cleverer but actually more limited, referring to the tedious mantra of a ‘composer’s intentions’ , whilst actually having no more interest in them than their most wild-eyed caricature of so-called Regietheater would. For them, the questionable taste of a questionable memory of their first exposure to a work seems to suffice. Handlung? Madame Tussauds, more like. (‘Museum’ would be too generous, given its connotations of learning, culture, and stewardship.)


Back, however, to Konwitschny. He makes the somewhat startling claim – at least to me – that Tristan is ‘ein sehr hoffnungsvolles Stück’ (‘a very hopeful piece’). As ever, it depends what one means – and it depends what one means by love, death, and so many other things. But Konwitschny, arguably taking his cue from the score, from Isoldes Verklärung, declines to see desolation, although, certainly not taking his cue from Wagner, he seems to tend more to Liszt’s conception of a Liebestod. And so, following our heroic couple’s shuffling off their mortal coils, sombrely dressed in black at the foot of the stage, below the other Handlung – if indeed that qualifies as such – we return to the raised level of that other Handlung, and see Marke and Brangäne visiting their graves. Love, ‘whatever that means’ – and we may understand that as part of Wagner’s ongoing internal battle between Feuerbach and Schopenhauer – may partly have won out, which sounds pat, but does not feel so. Perhaps we have experienced Wagner’s Gefühlswerdung des Verstandes (‘emotionalisation of the intellect’). More optimistically still – and it is surely a useful corrective at least to consider the non-pessimistic aspects or possibilities of the work – we might consider the words of Wagner’s fellow radical 48er, Arnold Ruge, writing of an envisaged religion of freedom, ‘the entire world of humanistic ideals, the entire Spirit of our times, must enter the crucible of feeling, out of which it must again come forth as a glowing stream and build a new world.’


Perhaps the most striking thing about Konwitschny’s production, first seen in 1998, is how it creeps up upon one; indeed, how its owl of Minerva truly only seems to take flight at dusk. The first act takes place, relatively conventionally, on a ship, doing pretty much what Wagner asks, and doing it rather well, although the colourful curtain, presaging aspects of the second act, has perhaps called into question our preconceptions before we are aware of their status as preconceptions . The realms of light and day, phenomenon and noumenon, make their presence felt after the taking of the potion through Michael Bauer’s excellent lighting: a distinction that continues, greatly to the enhancement of the drama. One certainly feels the tragedy in Tristan’s death upon Melot’s sword, but equally, one feels, knows that that is not the only story. The world of Tristan’s past, played to him on old video reels, complements what he tells us, without – this is crucial – overpowering it, as too many overtly psychological, even psychoanalytical readings do. Tristan is not ultimately about the hero’s childhood; it remains concerned with metaphysics, in one way or another. And the release provided by Isolde’s last song is married, not in an easy way but certainly in a fruitful way, to those final scenic aspects mentioned.


We came, of course, at least most of us did, above all for Meier. It is a tribute to the performance and production alike that she did not overshadow but indeed flourished. It would be unduly perverse, though, to overlook her contribution. Over the years in which she has sung Isolde, she has offered many, developing virtues, whether related to production, musical performance, or even the stage of her career. Here, everything seemed in more or less perfect balance – or, better, fruitful dialectic. Attention to words was second to none, likewise stage presence. Sustaining of a vocal line, however, was equally impressive. Suffice it to say, she did not play Isolde; she was Isolde.


Robert Dean Smith also gave the finest performance I can recall from him, and not just as Tristan. It was as tireless a performance as I can recall from anyone, without the disadvantages that often entails of sheer persistence trumping vocalism. The sheer refulgence of René Pape’s King Marke had to be heard to be believed; Markes rarely disappoint, but Pape achieved far more than not disappointing. Alan Held was a thoughtful, dramatic, even at times impetuous Kurwenal: all in character, impressive indeed. Michelle Breedt’s Brangäne was just the right foil for Meier’s Isolde; this was a confidant, beautifully sung, in whom one could – confide. Dean Power’s Young Seaman at the start was as sensitively sung as any I can recall. Kevin Conners offered a powerful embodiment of the Shepherd – Konwitschny’s two English horn players on stage an unforgettable image – and even the Steersman, Christian Rieger, made a fine impression with his all-too-brief line. Francesco Petrozzi presented ultimately inconsequential malevolence, as he should, in the role of Melot.


As Wagner wrote to Eduard Devrient of his ‘most musical score,’ Tristan has, and in performance should have, ‘the most vivid dramatic allusions totally at one with the dynamic of its musical texture’. That is asking a great deal of any conductor, orchestra, and cast. (And that is before we even consider that this is emphatically not a concert work, whatever dark hopes we might entertain upon seeing an unsatisfactory staging.) Philippe Jordan presented Wagner far more impressively than I have heard from him before, whether in Bayreuth or in Paris. The Handlung was as much in the orchestra as on stage, arguably more so, which is just as it should be. Pacing rarely, if ever, faltered, and details were presented without overwhelming (crucial woodwind lines in particular). The splendid Bavarian State Orchestra, whose praises I have been singing all week, excelled itself here. Dark of tone, yet clear and transparent where necessary, it was, in the pit that so much of Tristan und Isolde was truly brought to that life which its director argued so forcefully was of its essence.


Munich Opera Festival (3) - Pelléas et Mélisande, Bavarian State Opera, 7 July 2015

Arkel – Alastair Miles
Geneviève – Okka von der Damerau
Pelléas – Elliot Madore
Golaud – Markus Eiche
Mélisande – Elena Tsallagova
Yniold – Hanno Eilers
Doctor – Peter Lobert
Shepherd – Evgeny Kachurovsky
Christiane Pohle (director)
Maria-Alice Bahra (set designs)
Sara Kittelmann (costumes)
Malte Ubenauf (assistant director)
Benedikt Zehm (lighting)
Bavarian State Opera Chorus (chorus master: Sören Eckhoff)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Constantinos Carydis (conductor)
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive – and still have yet to do so. I could not for the life of me understand what the problem might have been. What I saw was a thoughtful, highly accomplished, post-Beckettian staging of, well, perhaps the most Beckettian of operas. I could certainly understand that some people might not have liked it, but not only did the terms in which it had apparently been criticised seem almost incredibly extravagant; I could not help but think that those who would not have liked it would in any case not much have liked Pelléas et Mélisande itself. (And besides, there is a world of difference between not ‘liking’ something and thinking it worthless – or at least there should be; it took me two or three years to ‘like’ Elektra, something for which I hold the Solti recording largely responsible, but it never occurred to me that the work was not a masterpiece.)
Christiane Pohle’s provocative – in the best sense – new staging takes place, like the opera, in what we might call, with slight trepidation, lest we be consigned to Pseud’s Corner, a liminal zone, located at the intersection of the meaningful and meaningless. (For anyone interested in vaguely modern drama, which seems, sadly, to exclude vast swathes of opera audiences, the claim should not seem too outlandish.) What could be more instantly evocative of contemporary – to us, at least – anomie and ennui than a ‘stylish’, soulless hotel reception? Staff and guests continue their work, or whatever it is they do, sometimes stepping into ‘character’, sometimes remaining ‘background’. Just as they might in a royal household, one might add. Much is absurd, or so it seems to onlookers, yet it absorbs, even if it does not fulfil. Sometimes it seems to intersect more obviously with the drama, Debussy’s drama, than others, but even when it appears to be dissociated, it somehow focuses one’s attention upon what is ‘happening’, or as so often in this opera, what is not. Spectators on the one hand remain just that, yet on the other are drawn in. We cannot quite say how or why, just as the characters cannot, when indeed they can say anything at all. Questions are posed, occasionally answered, more often provoking another, seemingly unrelated question, or stillness and silence. I have not seen a staging that more closely corresponds to the singularity of Debussy’s drama, and yet which also retains its distance, seemingly – wisely – saying, if this is not for you, then Pelléas, the score and libretto, the memories you might have: they remain intact. This is, or could be understood to be, metatheatricality in a sense both old and intriguingly new; Pohl’s production allows one to take what one will, if only one is prepared to think or even just to experience. Sadly, some, perhaps influenced by what ‘opinion-formers’ had told them, elected to laugh (derisively, at least so it seemed) or even noisily to walk out. If they wished to leave, they might at least have had the decency to wait until the interval.
For some reason, or none, I had it in my head that Philippe Jordan was conducting. I mention that, since I initially assumed that Jordan’s Wagnerian experience might be the reason for the orchestra sounding more than usually Wagnerian. It transpired that Constantinos Carydis was in fact the conductor, yet the echt-Wagnerian sound of the Bavarian State Orchestra persisted. It was, moreover, not just the sound, but the motivic texture that so strongly recalled Parsifal, Tristan, and, to a lesser extent, even the later Ring operas. What often sounds closer to vague similarity here edged closer at times even to plagiarism. But, as Stravinsky noted, lesser artists borrow, whilst great artists steal. There are, of course, all manner of ways to play Pelléas, and doubtless this was shaped in good part by the orchestra’s heritage, but this was fruitful and, again, in the best sense provocative. It could not have been much further distant from Esa-Pekka Salonen’s recent, magnificent Philharmonia concert performance, but had its own, different validity. Carydis judged well the ebb and flow and at times brought the score closer to conventional operatic drama than one often hears. Hearing the orchestra given its head thrilled as it disconcerted, not least in combination with what one saw. There is of course more Wagner in Debussy than Debussy allowed, just as there is more Wagner in Beckett than Beckett allowed. Escape is not an option – or rather it is doomed to fail, if sometimes to fail better.
Vocal performances were generally excellent, as were the singers’ responses to Pohl’s often difficult demands. (At least I assume they were hers: this did not seem improvised.) Elliot Madore and Elena Tsallagova offered a truly disconcerting – that word again – pair of lovers, their childishness (weird smiles) married to, indeed productive of, erotic frissons, almost as much as their command of the vocal lines. Madore’s relatively dark tone contrasted intriguingly with Tsallagova’s bright, almost doll-like delivery; both performances contributed to, rather than merely reflecting, our understanding. Markus Eiche’s Golaud seemed initially a little too gruff, and his French was not always quite what it might have been, but his portrayal grew in stature, truly moving by the end. Perhaps that had always been the plan; it certainly made me think. Alastair Miles’s Arkel properly bewildered. (Is that not what more or less everything in this opera should?) Was he victim or in some sense initiator? He refused the either/or, and delivered his text with an understanding that seemed at times almost to pass all understanding. Okka von der Damerau’s Geneviève commanded the stage in a similar yet different way – again, as befits the character. Her vocal shading was not the least of the performance’s pleasures, even if we did not hear so much from her as we might have wished. Young Hanno Eilers was quite the best boy Yniold I have heard; one could often have taken dictation from him, verbally or musically. Still more to the point, his fear made perhaps the most powerful dramatic impression of all. A pointless question, arguably like any relating to this ‘pointless’ opera, but it was difficult not to ask: what does Fate hold in store for him?
Was I perhaps more receptive than I might have been, on account of prior reception? I do not, cannot know; perhaps I was, but that, like so many questions in this opera, is really one for a psychoanalyst. But I do not think I was entirely guilty of finding things that were not there; or, if I was, I was guilty in the productive spirit in which work, production, and performances were also guilty. For this, in the well worn cliché, was more than the sum of its parts, ‘intentionally’ or otherwise, so long as one agreed to be one of those parts. I have not stopped thinking about what I saw and heard; sadly, many seem never to have started.